As Ofsted celebrated its first decade, the Education Secretary annoyed some of its officials by demanding a lighter regime that puts more trust in teachers' professional skills. Michael Shaw reports
EDUCATION Secretary Charles Clarke this week called for a lighter touch to inspections after suggesting they undermine teachers' professionalism.
His comments came at an Office for Standards in Education conference to mark its first 10 years amid criticism that the watchdog has expanded too fast without being inspected itself.
Mr Clarke praised the "pivotal" work of the watchdog, which now employs more than 2,200 people and has an annual budget of more than pound;195 million.
But he was concerned that teachers were now doing things "in case Ofsted comes" rather than freely exercising their professional judgment. Ofsted needed to change its approach if it wanted teachers to be valued as professionals.
"The process of inspection itself must move towards a regime which encourages, rather than discourages, professionalism in a school," he said.
Mr Clarke praised Ofsted's "light touch" inspections where good schools get shorter visits but said he wanted "to look at whether this light-touch regime is light-touch enough". He also re-opened the possibility of inspections every decade rather than every six years.
Ofsted should be more focused on outcomes and less on process, he said. It should also cut bureaucracy, and value innovation.
An irritated Ofsted official afterwards said she was baffled by some of the Education Secretary's ideas. She could not see how they could be implemented. Ofsted was already working to cut bureaucracy, she said, and last month told heads it wanted to see greater innovation and risk-taking.
The conference was the first time David Bell, the chief inspector, had met Mr Clarke. In his speech, Mr Bell outlined changes he wanted to see: a greater role for self-evaluation ; inspections across wider areas; and more teachers ranked "good" instead of "satisfactory".
"I believe the next great challenge is to ratchet up the performance of teachers even more," he said. "Inspectors don't improve schools, teachers do. But the fact is that the inspection system has had a strong influence on the way that schools manage and improve themselves."
He also revealed he wanted to make more Ofsted data available to the public, after criticism from MPs and academics that the watchdog had expanded without scrutiny.
However, his comments failed to satisfy a group of 42 professors who are calling for a Royal Commission inquiry into Ofsted. Leading critic Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon of Durham University, said: "Ofsted does not have an MOT, so it should not be on the road."
Ofsted held the conference to highlight the work of schools that had improved dramatically since their failings were exposed by inspectors. Heads from a range of former failing schools were invited to attend and many spoke of how special measures status had helped them re-evaluate their work and make radical changes.
Speaking outside the event, Mr Bell said he had agonised the first time he had put a school in special measures and recognised there was a "grieving process". But he said that speedy improvements made by schools justified the label.
However, some senior school staff remained unconvinced that special measures were necessary. These included Sherry Macliver, deputy head at Westminster City school which David Bell visited this week.
"It was a very depressing experience," she said. "I am not sure those positives couldn't come from other mechanisms."
And John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Teachers have spent much of the past 10 years feeling steam-rollered by the Ofsted juggernaut. The thrust of inspections must now be to boost the confidence of the profession."
DID YOU KNOW?
Five things you may not know about Ofsted:
* In the past two years it has advised representatives of more than 30 countries including China, Russia, the US, Vietnam and Bangladesh
* Its website ofsted.gov.uk, which has just been revamped, is one of the most visited Government sites with around 500,000 page impressions a week
* It has carried out more than 46,000 primary, secondary and special school inspections, more than 200 local education authority inspections and inspected 40,400 nurseries
* Before Ofsted, the average primary could expect to be inspected once every 200 years because of the small number of inspectors
* Ofsted says 90 per cent of schools believe their inspection has been conducted properly and the findings are fair and accurate