If we're going to have free schools, why not free inspectors as well?

8th October 2010 at 01:00

The London boxer David Haye is a proud and worthy world heavyweight champion. Few of us would be so curmudgeonly as to point otut - certainly not within earshot of "The Hayemaker" - that he merely holds the WBO version of the title and that three other boxing institutions present a different man as their world champion.

There is surely no problem in having two or more people feel that they are at the top. Education has been shadowing boxing for years in this respect. Our equally healthy range of awarding bodies means that more students can be the best each year. Why spoil things? There's nothing to be gained from asking the top A-level English student in Edexcel to go into the ring and slug it out for undisputed supremacy with the finest from AQA, OCR and the WJEC - other than that it might make for dubious, high-ratings TV.

Under the Coalition we find that boxing is still leading us forward. Sometimes this can be in a bad way - and we won't allude to gruesome cuts, the untold damage to heads and of lives similarly haunted by the sound of bells. But there are some important and overlooked positives, too, now that Michael Gove is fully gloved up and looking to spread that boxing principle of choice still further.

As a policy "free schools" may be slightly crazed but more encouraging is that the initiative implies a willingness to free up other areas of education to competition and diversity. Consider one logical implication of such a liberating DIY philosophy: "free schools" surely pave the way for a much more welcome step - "free" inspection teams, free to set up alternatives to Ofsted.

Any teacher or parent keen on inspection reform should at last be able to form their own alternative inspection organisation. My own would merge inspection visits to schools with a simultaneous advisory provision, too. It would save millions but would also mean that inspection is more in line with the formative, "assessment for learning" approach that we employ to get the best from our students.

Market forces would do the rest. Schools would start to use these new inspection teams instead of Ofsted's, not because the new ones would be a soft touch but because they would offer a richer and more productive package - less driven by past data. I suspect the most effective teams would not assess schools numerically at all. They would simply identify and discuss, with leaders, individual teachers and parents, a school's strengths and any suggested areas for improvement.

The most marketable teams would share best practice collated from their other school visits, using a suitable degree of humility and expertise. The best would also create a bank of lesson plans and other resources from their visits, available on a website.

The new competitive inspection market would mean that Ofsted would have to reform the parts of it that we find so unacceptable, keeping its better features and its many excellent inspectors but shedding itself of unhelpful structures and the odd miserable old so-and-so. So come on, Mr Gove. Be remembered as a champion for education. Let's hear more about free inspection teams and less free schools. Introduce more freedom and choice where it is truly needed.

Stephen Petty is head of Humanities, Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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