Is a new inspection regime in prospect?

Anyone who hopes a change of government will bring dramatic changes to the system of school inspection in England is going to be disappointed.

If Labour forms the next government, it is expected to carry on much as the Conservatives have done with the cycle of regular - now six-yearly inspections - of schools, carried out by teams of private inspectors and with the emphasis firmly on raising standards by the setting and checking of targets.

Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector, will stay for the time being because Tony Blair said he would. But few observers think he will have his contract renewed when it runs out in 1999.

What is expected to change is the rhetoric. Mr Woodhead has already been observed to have become a little less warlike in his manner in recent months, and that is likely to continue.

Labour is understood to be keen to highlight success as well as failure. "In government it will want to create a new tone," said a source close to the Labour leadership.

In the longer term there are other issues to which Labour is expected to be sympathetic, such as self-evaluation by schools tied in to some form of external assessment. That kind of model is being introduced for further education colleges.

It is also being pioneered by chief education officers such as Tim Brighouse in Birmingham and academics such as John MacBeath, of the University of Strathclyde, who produced the report Schools Speak for Themselves for the National Union of Teachers.

Professor MacBeath works for local education authorities around the country and has been appointed British representative of a Brussels-based 17-country project on self-evaluation.

"Self-evaluation is the way of the future," he said. "Schools need to feel they can get something out of quality review.

"If they're having to operate to someone else's agenda, they won't do that. They'll put on a good show but won't put much energy into it. But if they evaluate themselves, they are in charge of improving themselves."

Many experts agree with that sentiment, although most believe there must be some form of external control of the self-evaluation. Estelle Morris, a Labour education spokesperson on standards, thinks self-evalu ation is "really important".

She adds: "It's about changing the culture in schools, making schools positively critical of their own performance. But we need an external review as well. There is a need for a body like the Office for Standards in Education to make sure that the targets being set are sufficiently rigorous."

Self-evaluation of schools would have to be introduced over Mr Woodhead's dead body because he thinks it is a soggy, cosy option - certainly if it is in any way seen as a replacement for OFSTED.

That must be one reason why it could not be introduced in a hurry. But it would have the merit of being cheaper than the inspection system and is seen by many organisations, including the Department for Education and Employment, as the essence of good management.

The big question is how a system of self-evaluation would be monitored - whether there would be OFSTED-type external inspection, albeit less frequently, or a light-touch accreditation, checking that schools have covered all the headings required.

Labour also sees a greater role for LEAs in the inspection process, particularly when it comes to supporting struggling or failing schools.

It is thought a Labour government would be keen to expand the Department for Education and Employment's school-effectiveness unit created by the former Education Secretary John Patten. But the party has made very few decisions because it is worried about being outmanoeuvred in the macho stakes by Gillian Shephard.

The assumption must be that any future Labour government would be closer to the LEAs than the Tories, but would not want to get too close.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which was reborn on April 1 in a new alliance with the county councils, produced proposals for reforming inspections that would devolve responsibility to the LEAs for organising the inspection teams.

It envisages OFSTED having a moderating quality control role. "That would cut out a lot of the centralised bureaucracy and the uncertainty of the bidding process, " said Alan Parker, AMA education officer who will soon become director of education in Ealing.

It would also enable the LEAs to build up a better picture of the quality of the private inspectors.

Whether Labour would go along with the AMA idea is doubtful. There is, however, widespread concern about some of the inspection processes.

"The OFSTED process remains rather threatening, stressful and bureaucratic, and doesn't assist schools in carrying forward the consequences of inspections," said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

While rejecting blanket criticism, Mr Woodhead concedes there is room for improvement in some areas. He is prepared, for example, to review the complaints procedure so that it contains an independent element. At present, OFSTED is considered to be judge and jury in its own cause.

He also concedes the quality of inspectors is not all it might be. "I am never going to be satisfied by the quality of all our inspectors," he said.

Labour is bound to examine the issue of whether inspections should continue to be carried out by private teams of inspectors that tender for contracts or whether inspectors should be part of a public service.

The advantage of using private teams is that it is cheaper than the alternative, says Mr Woodhead. The inspection market has already led to the cost of a secondary inspection coming down from more than #163;20,000 to #163;17,000. And the market for primary inspections, which had a troubled start, is now "alive and vibrant", he says.

Former inspector Bill Laar, who acts as an educational consultant, thinks secondary inspections should be made more rigorous.

"I suspect too many teams are outflanked and marginalised by powerful heads and imposing senior management teams," he said. "OFSTED teams often led by subject experts lack the large-scale administrative experience and the first-hand knowledge of complex managerial systems and the esoteric development of the secondary curriculum."

He also believes the inspection of primary schools needs reviewing because it is unreasonable to inspect 10 subjects in primary schools on the same basis as secondary schools. OFSTED and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority must agree on that, he says.

"We have to accept that in the present circumstances primary schools cannot, because of particular constraints, deliver the full national curriculum," he said.

Other critics, such as Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon of Durham University, believe OFSTED must develop a reliable methodology for inspection to ensure there is consistency in the judgments being made by inspectors.

"In the US they would be in prison by now, " she said - to which Mr Woodhead replies that work is going on to ensure consistency of judgments between inspectors. The sample is not big enough yet, which is why such work has not been published. "So far the message is very good, but we can't be complacent," he said.

Whoever is in power after May 1 is unlikely to slack off in the national crusade to raise standards in schools through inspections. It is widely accepted that external inspection of schools is a good thing. A Labour government would change the way it sells such policies and there would be refinements to the current system.

Mr Laar, for example, expects a strong move towards the grouping of schools into families, based on the notion of a convoy.

Schools would be encouraged, or driven, to keep in touch with the "fastest" in the family; the strong would support the weak. Such a process would lead, inevitably, to extensive LEA involvement.

There will also be more emphasis on collecting data to show the value added by individual schools. Data - exam and test results - will loom large in self-evaluation. No one will get an easy ride.

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