The Government has failed to meet targets for school inspections for the second year running, despite a big budget increase and the recruitment of 300 headteachers last year as "additional inspectors".
One in five primary schools targeted for inspection by the Office for Standards in Education has been omitted this year.
In a written reply to a parliamentary question from Labour education spokesman David Blunkett, the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, admitted that there had again been a substantial shortfall in primary inspections, and that inspections of secondary and special schools had also fallen behind.
OFSTED had aimed at completing 5,050 primary inspections in 1995-96, but only 4,089 had been done by the end of last term. This is an increase on last year, when 2,356 primary inspections were completed (against a target of 3,369). In the secondary sector, 852 schools were inspected, against a target of 950, and 358 special schools, compared with a target of 420.
The news will embarrass the Government and OFSTED because it reveals that the emergency measures introduced last year to cope with the inspection backlog have not worked. It also follows criticism of the chief inspector's controversial decision last month to "revisit" up to half of the teacher training courses that have already been inspected at an estimated cost of Pounds 1m.
Mr Woodhead said that the primary and special school targets were over-ambitious, and also that he was disappointed that local authorities were not bidding for more contracts. The apparent shortfall in secondary inspections was misleading, he said, because some schools had arranged to defer their inspection until the autumn.
A spokeswoman for OFSTED said that the inspectorate was confident that the secondary target would be met easily next year, but was less sure about primary.
In May, OFSTED announced that the four-year inspection cycle would become six-yearly, though this was presented as an attempt to save energy by concentrating on schools at risk of failure, rather than an admission that OFSTED could not cope with the workload.
David Blunkett said that OFSTED should now explain why it had failed to meet the targets: "Just as the inspectorate expects schools to meet targets for improvement, it must improve its own targets."
OFSTED's budget has been climbing dramatically since 1993-94, when it stood at Pounds 46.7 million. The estimated budget for next year is Pounds 116m, and Pounds 122m for 1997-98.
Rouie Shaw, the director of professional services for the National Association of Headteachers, which mainly represents primary school heads, said that the NAHT had been perplexed to hear that many primary schools had received notice of their second inspection while others had still not had their first.
"We have several concerns about the shortage of inspectors. Heads are hearing of their inspections at very short notice, or having their inspections postponed at the last minute. Another problem is that heads are finding it difficult to get hold of the CVs of the inspection team in order to assess their suitability."
She said the NAHT would be publishing a survey of headteachers' complaints about inspections in the autumn.