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Mutineers on an unhappy ship

Do Ofsted's troubles stem from rapid over-expansion and policy changes?

Life at England's schools inspectorate is a stressful, back-watching experience, with staff terrified to challenge the decisions of their bosses.

Employees struggle to keep up with constantly-changing priorities and 35 per cent are considering leaving.

These are the damning implications of an internal survey of more than 2,000 staff at the Office for Standards in Education, revealed by The TES today.

When questionnaires were completed in January, one in five employees claimed to have experienced bullying in the past year - 80 per cent said it was at the hands of management.

Almost seven out of 10 employees disagreed with the statement "it is safe to say what you think in Ofsted", while 63 per cent said that stress was damaging their ability to do their job.

Observers of the workings of Alexandra House, Ofsted's London HQ, might have imagined that the inspectorate had become a less edgy place since former chief inspector Chris Woodhead departed in 2000. They will be staggered by the findings, which are based on forms filled out by three-quarters of its employees. But what lies behind them?

Those with close links to the organisation identify a host of problems, which management is addressing but has so far failed to resolve.

The first can be traced to Ofsted's rapid expansion in 2001, when it was handed responsibility for monitoring childcare and further education.

The survey findings were worst among early-years employees (Ofsted has two other divisions: the strategy and resources directorate and the inspection directorate). Nearly 2,000 of its 2,733 staff work in the early-years division, inspecting or managing the inspection of childminders and day-care providers.

Many work from home, under the management of staff based at eight regional offices.

According to one source, these managers have frequently been asked to implement directives without training and with little guidance as to what is required.

The more centralised, target-driven culture of the civil service may also have been a shock for early-years inspectors, many of whom came from local authority social service departments.

Performance pay may be another reason why staff are unwilling to challenge directives from managers. "If the manager is the person who decides the size of your pay packet, you are not going to challenge them," said the source.

There is also unhappiness about pay levels. Rates range from pound;11,064 for junior administrative staff to, for example, up to pound;63,000 for a senior regional manager or an inspector.

Ofsted staff also appear to have struggled to keep up with rapid policy changes.

A redesigned school inspection regime was introduced last September, but by February it was announced this was to be superseded by a system involving more self-evaluation from next year. Some senior inspectors are reportedly unhappy with this model, believing it to be less rigorous.

David Bell, the chief inspector, has a far less confrontational style than Mr Woodhead and the fact that the survey has taken place at all suggests a willingness to address these problems.

Some findings, such as employees' opinions on the effectiveness of leadership overall, have improved since a previous survey in October 2002.

Another source with close links to Ofsted said: "Under Woodhead, management-staff relations were terrible. He never used to walk around the building much, talking to staff, and effectively there was no briefing system for top managers.

"That style has changed under Mike Tomlinson (Mr Bell's predecessor) and David Bell. But there are still serious issues here. This is not a happy ship."

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