The Office for Standards in Education is considering abolishing the statutory four-year cycle of school inspection because it cannot cope with the rising number of schools that are either failing or have serious weaknesses.
Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, is considering a system under which the weakest schools would be inspected every two years and the remaining on a six-year cycle. With 10 per cent of schools now estimated to have serious weaknesses and nearly 100 failing, OFSTED is having difficulties coping with follow-up visits.
Parliamentary statistics reveal that it was 1,000 schools short of its 3,369 target for primary schools inspections last year, and that it only visited 188 special schools instead of the 305 it targeted.
The statutory four-year inspection cycle was introduced when OFSTED was set up three years ago. Secondary inspections began in 1993 and primary inspections last year. Changes will not be made until after the general election and will require legislation, which is certain to trigger discontent in the House of Commons.
Moves to abolish the four-year cycle would almost certainly be met with hostility by MPs who already believe inspection every four years is not enough.
Following an inquiry into performance in inner-city schools, the all-party Commons education committee said: "The four-year cycle . . . will not provide an early enough warning that action is required. Nor, where it does uncover need, will the inspection system itself provide the intervention necessary to ensure the ground is recovered."
It will also be deeply unpopular with local education authorities. The disclosure that OFSTED was considering focusing resources on weaker schools was made by Mr Woodhead to members of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities last month. A spokesman for OFSTED confirmed this was in a range of options being considered. Andy Howell, education chair of Birmingham, who was at the AMA meeting, said: "It was quite clear that OFSTED was in difficulties. The amount of bureaucracy and money that's being pumped into keeping this structure going is making it very inefficient."
It is understood that Mr Woodhead has been calling in groups of chief education officers to discuss how OFSTED could meet its targets. The quango has been dogged by inspector recruitment problems and the six-monthly follow-up visits to schools with serious weaknesses and those that are failing have slipped back to around a year in some cases.
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, who along with Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, has called for OFSTED to be abolished, said the timings of a two-yearsix-year cycle were arbitrary and would not address schools' problems.