The Government's schools watchdog has cut the number of primary schools it plans to inspect by up to half for the next three terms. The move casts further doubt on the privatised inspection system's ability to inspect all 18,000 primary schools within the four-year cycle required by law.
The Office for Standards in Education expects to inspect about 750 schools this spring, out of its target of 1,230. In the summer, the target has been cut from 1,380 to about 820 and the autumn 1995 target has been reduced from 1,770 to 850. If there are successful bidders for all these, more schools may be added later. The Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, is expected to decide in the spring whether to move to a longer cycle, a change which would require Parliamentary approval.
The problem was first highlighted in July when it became clear that OFSTED would not meet its first primary target of 1,200 schools in the autumn term. Some 300 schools which had been scheduled for inspection this term were thrown into confusion when OFSTED told them it could not find a team to inspect them.
The Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, says schools must not be put in that position again. He is also considering ways to slim the inspection process for primary schools, to save stress and time for teachers and inspectors.
Mr Woodhead has appointed an independent think-tank to advise him which includes academics, local government officers, heads and inspectors, and is also consulting widely. It looks likely that any change to the framework will be implemented in September 1996.
Mr Woodhead said the framework has been broadly welcomed by secondary schools, but has had mixed reactions from primaries, where the four-year inspection cycle began this term. One primary head in Wiltshire described it as "a secondary sledgehammer to crack a primary nut". There are also worries that the framework for primary inspections could be cut too much. The National Association of Head Teachers opposes a system which inspects only core subjects, and wants the broader curriculum and management issues to be covered. It says it should be possible to get a picture of a school's history teaching, for example, through lesson plans and children's work, without having to see a history lesson.
It is not just schools which are put under pressure by inspection. The local authority inspection service in Norfolk has found that registered inspectors (the inspection team leaders) need more than a third more time for pre-inspection work than was originally scheduled, and nearly half again as much time as planned for follow-up work. Even schools receiving good reports are exhausted by the process.
The Norfolk inspectors suggest a staged review system for schools, beginning with a day's assessment to determine what sort of inspection each school needs. Those giving cause for concern would need a full inspection as soon as possible.
OFSTED is also feeling the strain. It is not just the shortage of inspectors that is behind the decision to reduce the targets. The bureaucratic burden is also highly time-consuming, said a spokes-man. "Every school is different. Every inspection is tailored and every team selected on the basis of whether it has the right skills."