Fears over short, sharp Ofsted audit

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
What a difference a month makes. In August, headteachers were relaxing on holiday. Now they are opening piles of summer mail and fretting about whether the building work will be finished before school restarts. Many English heads are also turning their attention to a key development that was overlooked last term because of the workforce reform brouhaha - the new Ofsted framework (page 33).

The shorter, sharper inspections launched this month have been generally welcomed (admittedly by schools confident enough to volunteer for pilot inspections). Most heads like the idea of three-yearly, two-day inspections based on the school's self-evaluation. Giving schools less notice of an inspection should reduce the stress toll. It should also mean that inspectors get a more realistic picture of a school - there will be no time to draft in expert teachers or practise "party piece" lessons.

But chief inspector David Bell's talk of "raising the bar" is a disturbing echo of the "satisfactory is no longer good enough" debate. As the Secondary Heads' Association has said, the new inspections may be "light touch" but they will not be "soft touch". The inspectors' focus on schools'

"central nervous system" may also mean that there is intense scrutiny of leadership issues but relatively little classroom observation. But perhaps the abiding worry is that the Ofsted process could become even more of an accountancy exercise. It's true that inspectors will now try to gauge how well schools are catering for children's physical and mental health and their emotional well-being, but there will also be more emphasis on data, and one acronym, CVA (contextualised value added) will be on many lips.

Such performance measures are vital, but inspection reports should also convey the character of a school. Fifty years ago Her Majesty's Inspectors produced vivid pen pictures that commented on the watery stew served at lunchtime, the shrillness of children's voices and the smell in the classrooms. These reports are still a pleasure to read. How many will say that about the reports written in 2005?

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