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On the spot can be good

Nurseries' experience suggests schools may learn to like no-nonsense inspections. Helen Ward reports.

Pauline Thomas describes the timing of her unannounced Office for Standards in Education spot check as a little bit unfortunate.

Mrs Thomas, manager of the Lloyd Park under-fives centre in Walthamstow, north-east London, had been on holiday in the United States the fortnight before and had spent part of the time in hospital.

She arrived back in England to get a message that the inspectors would be coming the following week, but could not say when.

Mrs Thomas said: "I had been to see my GP because of breathing difficulties and told the staff I would not be in. Then my deputy rang on Monday to say Ofsted had arrived."

When Mrs Thomas got in, she found five of her 15 staff off sick and parents preparing to lobby the local council that night over the nursery's new building.

She said: "The inspector just went round on her own. I was really apologetic, but the emphasis was very much 'you just do what you have to do'."

The inspector's report concluded Lloyd Park, run by the voluntary sector, was "an extremely caring and stimulating environment" and provided very good education in all areas of the foundation stage curriculum.

Unannounced spot checks were introduced to childcare settings when Ofsted took over responsibility for inspected them from local authorities in 2001.

Last week, David Bell, chief inspector, published proposals to extend the system to schools. He wants schools to be inspected at short notice every three years. Inspections would last one day in the smallest primaries up to 10 days in the largest secondary schools.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is broadly in favour of the changes.

Nurseries get about a month's notice of a spot check, but no date. At first nurseries were not happy, but now the National Day Nursery Association says it works well.

Rosemary Murphy, chief executive of the 3,000-member NDNA, said: "When the idea was mooted for day nurseries, everybody was contacting us saying it was terrible and that it was not fair. But once you have been through it, people find it is not as difficult as they thought it was going to be. No one seems to be bothered by it anymore.

"I think it will take some time for schools to get used to that way of working, because they have got into the rut of preparing for months before an inspection. It is a culture change."

Mrs Thomas said: "It is better than having several weeks' notice of a particular date because that makes the team uneasy.

"In the week before the staff were all prepared. But this is something we do all the time anyway, not just when there is an inspection."

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