SCHOOLS will be given as little as six weeks notice of inspections under a new two-tier system intended to reduce anxiety and minimise intervention in successful schools.
The notice period is to be cut from two terms to between six and 10 weeks from January after the Office for Standards in Education admitted the long build-up had caused unnecessary stress in schools.
The key element of the new system is the introduction of a "light-touch" inspection, expected to apply to around 20 per cent of schools. Those with proven records of excellence will qualify for a "health-check" inspection taking as little as a quarter of the time of a full inspection.
Ministers and teaching unions welcomed the proposals though the National Union of Teachers cautioned that light-touch inspections might not be adequate for all formerly successful schools.
To qualify for the light-touch inspection, schools will need a previous inspection report showing high standards of teaching, leadership and pupil progress. They will also need high test or exam results compared with similar schools and to be improving at a faster rate.
However, governors will be able to veto a school's request for a light-touch visit if they felt a full inspection would be more appropriate.
A short inspection will cover the minimum requirements of the 1996 Education Act and assess standards, quality of education, leadership and management. OFSTED officials said schools from all socio-economic groups would qualify and that the number eligible would increase as schools improved.
The shorter notice period is to be introduced to try to reduce anxiety for "heads of a nervous disposition". OFSTED believes the long build-up to inspection has caused unnecessary tension in schools.
Announcing the new system last week, chief inspector Chris Woodhead said he hoped the shorter notice would help to reduce the workload and pressure on teachers.
"By adopting the health check style of inspection, OFSTED can keep its finger on the pulse while concentrating on those schools which may be in need of more intensive care," he said.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the second biggest teachers' union the NASUWT, said: "I support the provision for light touch inspections but wish that it could be more widely applied beyond the current estimate of about 20 per cent of schools."
The proposals will be trialled from September and reviewed after a year.
A National Association of Head Teachers' survey in November found that inspections had a major impact on school morale.
Of the 1,200 heads questioned, 40 per cent reported a post-OFSTED rise in staff sickness. More than 70 per cent said staff were demoralised by the experience and in nine out of 10 cases heads attributed sickness and morale loss to the process.
In January a Mori poll for Ofsted confirmed that inspection generates high levels of stress. Three in 10 heads said inspection was worse than expected while only one in 10 said they were pleasantly surprised.