John Major has decreed that inspectors should now focus on the performance of individual teachers and discuss their impressions with the head. But teachers should not interpret this as a punitive measure, says the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead. One union leader, however, has already warned of industrial action.
Within hours of Mr Major's education speech on Tuesday, Mr Woodhead appeared to be anticipating criticism. The Prime Minister pointed out that until now inspectors' reports had tended to concentrate on whole schools and departments. "In future, they will be able to report direct to the head where they have seen particularly good or bad teaching," he said. "The head has a right to this information."
He was echoed by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, who said: "It is important that good teaching is recognised and appreciated and it is equally important that poor teaching is supported or dealt with."
Mr Woodhead said the Prime Minister was simply "responding to the call for immediate feedback from inspections". It was intended as much as a way of bringing excellent teachers to the head's attention as a device for pinpointing incompetence. But he acknowledged that it was "a sensitive development".
Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the proposals would be a "perfect recipe for industrial disputes" if a teacher suspected that private discussions had triggered disciplinary action, or had affected salary or promotion.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the focus on teaching but said there would need to be safeguards ensuring that the inspectors' reports on individual teachers "did not go straight to the governors, who might not be aware of mitigating facts".
Bill Wright, general secretary of the National Association of Education Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants, warned: "Once you start naming teachers, there is every possibility a teacher union would take up the cudgels."
Mr Major also announced that inspections will focus increasingly on authorities and schools where standards are poor. "Those responsible need not be surprised if 'an inspector calls'," he warned.
He wanted inspectors to examine the role of local authorities in raising standards, the quality of their advice and whether spending is effective. Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett, accused Mr Major of stealing some of his main ideas from Labour.
It was perhaps unfortunate that Mr Major's announcement that OFSTED would be inspecting the teaching of reading in 15 schools in the inner-London boroughs of Islington, Tower Hamlets and Southwark was made in the context of warnings about poor standards. This gave the impression that three of the poorest boroughs had been selected for punitive action.
Education chiefs in these boroughs are exasperated by Mr Major's lack of tact. Anne Sofer, Tower Hamlets' chief education officer, said that the borough had been invited to participate in the survey by a senior inspector. "We jumped at the chance," she said.
"The scheme was never presented to us as part of a party political initiative, and certainly not as part of a get-tough-on-teachers drive.We will now have to reassure the teachers concerned that they are not being picked on because they are failing but because they are doing difficult jobs."
Islington's education department was also anxious to emphasise it been chosen because it had "a long-term involvement in the Reading Recovery scheme and had already committed itself to a new Pounds 250,000 literacy programme" and not because it has poor GCSE results or reading standards.