More than a decade ago, Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector and teachers' bete noire, stopped his inspectors taking account of pupils' backgrounds. Labour ministers weighed in to announce that "poverty was no excuse" for poor exam results.
Then Woodhead resigned and everybody, except a few MPs and right-wing journalists, signed up to the idea that you couldn't expect a comprehensive in inner-city Birmingham to notch up the same GCSE score as a grammar school in Surrey. Ofsted and ministers subscribed to new value-added measures: poverty, they said, did make a difference. Until this week.
Tucked away in the proposals for a new inspection regime is the suggestion from Christine Gilbert, the present chief inspector, that schools could be barred from a good inspection grade if their raw test or exam results fail to reach a prescribed target.
Schools with the most difficult pupils already have a tough time persuading Ofsted they are doing a good job. Now they will find it even harder. The inspectorate's own data shows good schools sometimes get poor exam results. Recent research by The TES showed inspectors rate many schools with low exam scores good or outstanding. The Association of School and College Leaders reported last autumn that 8 per cent of heads judged outstanding by Ofsted were in challenging schools.
It is unfair to stack the odds even further against those who are battling against problems that are social rather than educational. The Government is right to demand a decent education for the poorest pupils, but Ofsted cannot ignore realities of inner-city life. What counts in these schools is progress. And what about pupils from difficult backgrounds in schools where the average exam score is higher? Will Ofsted also step in if they fail to meet government targets? The present value-added measures used may be erratic, but they are fairer.
Many of the chief inspector's other proposals are welcome: it makes sense to inspect good schools less often. But they amount to little more than tweaks to the system. The present regime is too punitive and contributes little to improving schools. An OECD report next week will say that Ofsted is disruptive and that ministers should rely more on schools' judgements about themselves. Chris Woodhead may have gone, but his spirit lives on.