Successful schools may get fewer and less rigorous inspections under plans being considered by the Office for Standards in Education.
OFSTED wants a full review of inspection arrangements this autumn, in consultation with schools, education authorities and teacher associations. Any changes would come into effect in 19992000. Secondary schools are currently inspected on all aspects of their work every six years.
The review was announced by Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, at the CLEA annual conference in Buxton. He also suggested that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, currently consulting on changes to the national curriculum from 2000, should consider relaxing requirements, particularly at key stage 4.
The proposed "lighter touch" inspection regime has been welcomed by the teaching unions, who have long claimed that OFSTED visits lead to additional work and stress for staff.
But Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee, said six years was already too big a gap between inspections - and that authorities would want back the money topsliced from their budgets to pay for OFSTED, if they did not feel they were getting the service needed for their schools.
Responding to a delegate's question, Mr Woodhead said he supported the principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success when it came to inspection and the national curriculum.
"If you believe good schools should be relatively free from external regulation, then there is an issue with regard to the national curriculum, just as they may be freed from inspection.
"I feel as HMCI I ought to be talking to heads and local authorities about future developments in inspection, particularly in regard to schools doing a good job year by year," he said.
Speaking afterwards, he predicted some schools might object to differential treatment. But he said the agency wanted to concentrate its resources on those schools most needing attention. The Government is also putting emphasis on local authority inspections, he said - but denied the schools inspection review was driven by pressure to cut costs.
Mr Woodhead said relaxing the national curriculum at key stage 4 was a matter for the QCA review, but one he supported. He said some heads wanted more flexibility at KS4, to provide not just more vocational courses but also subjects such as Greek and Latin.