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Money talk stifles inspection debate

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, seeks to defend his suggestions that the judgments of school performance by local education authority inspectors are contaminated by their provision of advice and support services paid for by those same schools.

He ignores the concerns coming from schools that private inspection teams are offering consultancy on the back of the inspection process.

Pressure to do this may well be greater for colleagues in the private sector as a result of "competition . . . driving the price down" (Chris Woodhead, TES, October 27). Even consultants have to eat!

However, it would be a pity if counter-accusations of touting for business were to get in the way of serious debate as to the future of the inspection service, because it is a vital component in the drive for school improvement.

Instead, we need to identify the features of a revised system which builds on the strengths of the Office for Standards in Education and of LEA practice while eliminating the weaknesses of commercialism and episodic inspection divorced from support for improvement.

Key features for such a revised system can be identified as follows: * Retention of national criteria for the inspection of schools covering minimum standards and entitlements across all school operations but with teaching and learning at the centre.

* The development of additional local criteria which complement the national criteria and reflect local community values, priorities and aspirations.

* Ongoing monitoring of performance against development targets by local education authorities, giving a constant stream of feedback to those working in and with schools.

* Monitoring and inspection organically linked to local school support systems which can, in extreme circumstances, step in to take corrective measures in situations of severe or continuing difficulty.

* Checks within the system to ensure effectiveness and the maintenance of standards across the country.

With education rising to the top of the political agenda and the main political parties developing radically different policies, it is becoming increasingly urgent that this debate takes place.

Schools, particularly those with serious weaknesses, cannot improve by relying on their own resources.

Chris Woodhead cannot avoid this issue with such cant as "it is headteachers and governors who are responsible for schools" and "a world in which it is heads who call the tune".

CHRISTINE WHATFORD Director of education London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall King Street London W6

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