THE Office for Standards in Education has been criticised for failing to tackle racism in schools.
A report by the Commission for Racial Equality says that following the Macpherson report into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, OFSTED was given a leading role in preventing racism in schools. But, say the authors, it has been hindered by inspectors' lack of understanding, expertise and experience of assessing race issues.
In addition, headteachers seem unaware that their schools are being inspected for race equality.
The commission's report is based on an analysis of 30 inspection reports, interviews with members of OFSTED's senior management and a half a dozen contracted inspectors as well as 10 headteachers and three senior local education authority officers.
It claims that OFSTED avoids dealing specifically with race issues, preferring to look at equality for all.
A computer search of more than 10,000 reports submitted by inspectors between 1997 and 1999 found that only 0.25 per cent of them even contained the words "race equality" or "racial equality".
One HM Inspector is quoted as saying that race equality is seen as one of the "baubles on the Christmas tree" of inspections, which could cause the tree to topple over.
The authors of the report, Audrey Osler and Marlene Morrison of the Centre for Citizenship Studies in Education at Leicester University, found that, despite the low prioity being given to race issues, there is optimism among inspectors that the new framework for inspection is more robust and will allow more effective monitoring of equality policies.
However, the research indicates that the personal commitment of the registered inspector is the decisive factor in whether race issues are addressed in reports.
It concludes that "race equality has yet to become a central part of the corporate culture and discourse within OFSTED".
The inspectors themselves have argued that, to carry out effective work in this area, they and schools need training on race equality and ethnic monitoring.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, said the CRE research was flawed. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, he said: "They looked at 30 out of 30,000 inspections. They talked to six inspectors. I'm not pretending that every report gets to every detail of truth in every school, but I don't accept the accusation that we don't take racism seriously."
A government action plan produced in March 1999 in repsonse, to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, referred to OFSTED's responsiblity to "gather evidence and report about the quality of relationships in the school, including the degree of racial harmony" and to take account of "significant levels of racial tension or harassment" when deciding whether a school requires special measures.
"Inspecting Schools for Racial Equality: OFSTED's Strengths and Weaknesses", a report for the Commission for Racial Equality, is published by Trentham Books.