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New watchdog to quiz Woodhead

Karen Thornton reports on a planned investigation of OFSTED's controversial inspection of Manchester

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, has been invited by a new local government scrutiny committee to account for his organisation's report on Manchester education authority .

The 12-strong committee, set up by the Local Government Association, will discuss the inspection of the city by the Office for Standards in Education at its first meeting on September 16.

The inspection report, criticising the authority's failure to provide for 140 children excluded from city schools, was released by OFSTED in June, before the date agreed with the authority.

The new committee plans hearings on subsequent education authority inspections, and other bodies' reports such as those issued by the Audit Commission.

It will complement the work of the Local Government Management Board, which has been given a troubleshooting role heading off incidents such as the recent fraud scandal involving Doncaster councillors.

"I am sure Chris Woodhead will be delighted in having the chance to present his views to the committee and we look forward to debating with him those views in public and in front of the press," said Graham Lane, the LGA's education chairman.

"Mistakes were made by OFSTED in the procedures over the (Manchester) report's publication and by the education authority in its handling of some of its pupils. We want to make sure these never happen again as it damages the future of our schools and the whole education system."

The LGA is taking parliamentary select committees as the model for its new scrutiny committee. Although it will have no statutory powers to call for people and papers, the expectation is that such high-profile invitations will be politically difficult to refuse.

In addition to Mr Woodhead, the committee hopes to call on Department for Education and Employment officials, MPs, and ministers. Its 12 members will be drawn from LGA councillors, the churches, business, the voluntary sector and parents.

Derbyshire councillor David Wilcox, who will chair the new scrutiny committee, said local government had campaigned hard to be given the statutory duty of raising standards in schools.

Now, it had to make sure education authorities met that requirement by learning lessons from such reports, and offering guidance on good practice and continuous improvement.

"We won't get into a situation of saying everything a local authority does is perfect, because it isn't. The committee is about encouraging continuous improvement," he said. "It's absolutely crucial we assess objectively the performance of our authorities, and that we do it in a robustly critical but supportive way."

But he added: "The Ofsted framework (for inspecting education authorities) is on trial and there will undoubtedly be room for improvement - as we found with the schools process, which changed radically as OFSTED did more and more inspections.

"Any inspection process 'by surprise' is not focused on quality but on another agenda. It's an agenda that's focused on catching people on the back foot, and I don't think that leads to improvement."

An OFSTED spokesman was unable to say if Mr Woodhead, who is on holiday, would be attending the hearing. "We will see, once he's looked at the letter. They have no statutory position, no status like parliamentary select committees, and we will take that into account," he added.

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