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Mr Gove, think twice before you trifle with Ofsted

There is a version of Gresham's Law which states that bad ideas will drive out good.

Since the new education team moved in to Whitehall, we have witnessed frenetic weeks of fresh ideas and policy gear changes. It has felt like watching boy racers doing wheelies in a car park late at night. It is as if Michael Gove has taken to heart Mrs Thatcher's advice to his predecessor as Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker. Lord Baker had proposed the idea of a national curriculum. Mrs Thatcher agreed and, despite the fact that no detailed thinking had gone into the plan, she suggested he went public with it. "Kenneth," she said, "never underestimate the power of an announcement."

Barely had the new coalition Government got its knees under the desks than we were treated to a volley of announcements. The bonfire of quangos was lit, the carrot of academy status dangled before every school, whisperings overheard about curriculum change, and talk of new freedoms and trust. It has all been compelling to watch from the sidelines or, as we now proudly call it, the front line.

But there was one early announcement - confirmed in Mr Gove's first official interview as secretary of state - that leads me to write three words I never expected to put in print. Before typing them, I reach hesitantly for a flak jacket and prepare either to go into hiding or admit myself to some obscure private clinic deep in the country. Deep breath. Here goes: schools need Ofsted. There. It's out.

Before I begin my course of therapy, here's why I find myself unexpectedly warning that ministers should think carefully before tinkering too much with the current inspection system.

It began with a superficially enticing announcement from the Department for Education. Schools judged "outstanding" by Ofsted will be exempted from future inspections, an idea that is part of a supposedly hands-off approach designed to show that teachers and leaders can be trusted to make decisions affecting their schools. If a school has been deemed "outstanding" by Ofsted, the thinking goes, it simply needs remote light-touch monitoring from a computer screen in Whitehall. If the results are good, leave them be. It is a "schools as fume cupboard" approach: stand well back.

You can see why so many teachers and school leaders might let out sighs of relief. Except that schools aren't for teachers or school leaders. They aren't ours. They are no longer the secret garden that Jim Callaghan began hacking away in the 1970s. They are for our pupils and their parents. And however stressful Ofsted may sometimes make our lives, schools need some kind of external validation. More importantly, parents require it.

It's a bit like the restaurant classification system. Shouldn't I be wary of choosing where to eat based on the reputation of an establishment, or relying on a dog-eared Michelin guide I was given for Christmas 12 years ago? Because 12 years - or even 12 months - is a long time in the restaurant trade. The head chef may have changed, the proprietors moved on, the service grown surly, and the knowing customers decamped elsewhere. Thus, what I had expected to be a night of fine dining turns out to be an experimental audition by a nervy sous-chef clutching his Antony Worrall Thompson.

Schools, like restaurants, can topple into mediocrity. Leaders change, a staffing crisis breaks out, complacency sets in, the catchment area shifts, an ever-fickle parent perception switches allegiance to the school across town, local confidence drops and things start to fall apart. An annual scan of exam results from a Whitehall desk won't detect a thing.

Mr Gove is right to think that Ofsted needs to be simplified. Reduce the baffling, boring, overcomplicated self-evaluation form to a couple of sides of A4 (something else Lord Baker was fond of). Make judgments focus on things that matter - the quality of teaching, its ethos and leadership. Scrap all the other stuff. And certainly ditch those finger-wagging checks on safeguarding which should be part of an annual audit process and nothing to do with the school's overall performance. He's right too that the best institutions need less inspection: I'd suggest once in every school generation - that is, every five years.

But schools need Ofsted. A small team of inspectors holding up an objective mirror to our work, listening to students and observing lessons (this bit is vital) should continue to be Ofsted's core purpose. Let's not reduce the organisation to some Mafia-like hit squad, sent in only where a school has been branded as failing.

The Gordon Ramsays of this world need accountability as much as the dodgy cafe where the environmental health officers are circling. Schools themselves need the satisfaction - for their pupils, parents and staff - of knowing that the judgment of "outstanding" is based on what is happening in their classrooms, not just on the smoke and mirrors of examination data, nor on a reputation that has long since faded.

Geoff Barton, Head of King Edward VI School, Suffolk.

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