The decision to send inspection squads into Lambeth and Waltham Forest is uncomfortably reminiscent of one of those Metropolitan Police purges that are given reassuringly silly names like Operation Bumblebee. Whether it is a politically motivated move is open to question. Perhaps we shall discover the truth in a 21st-century autobiography. It is more productive now, however, to consider whether the Office for Standards in Education has embarked on a wise course of action or on Operation Bumble.
Chris Woodhead, the senior chief inspector, may have the distinction of being more unpopular than any education minister, but that should not obscure the fact that he was right to contend that "children in inner-city schools have the same right to a decent education as those who live in the leafier suburbs. If they are not getting it then we must know." A second comment from Mr Woodhead - "We should not accept failure. It's down to the competence of teachers and the quality of leadership" - will, however, have lodged in the gullets of teachers and education officers in the two London boroughs.
They are convinced that the problems that have caused 10 of their schools to be classified as "failing" or displaying "serious weaknesses" stem from socio-economic factors, exacerbated by rising class sizes, underfunding and Government education policies. Mr Woodhead would counter that many schools serving disadvantaged areas still manage to provide children with an excellent education. But there is no doubt that Lambeth and Waltham Forest and the three other London boroughs where an OFSTED reading inquiry is about to get under way -Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Islington - rate among the poorest of the poor in all the socio-economic indices.
Lambeth's problems have been chronicled ad nauseam, but Waltham Forest's predicament is less well-known. Not only does it have very little forest, parts of Leyton and Leytonstone are post-industrial deserts. No less than 37 per cent of its children qualify for free meals, and 48 per cent of pupils do not have English as a first language. The borough has tried to protect the education budget but its teachers have lost much of their non-contact time. They are also struggling with larger classes and are braced for cuts next year.
Lambeth has had to slash its 1995-96 education budget by Pounds 12 million and is anticipating a further Pounds 10m cut next year. The south London borough has also suffered badly from the Government's open-enrolment policy. The Inner London Education Authority used to try to retain some social balance in its comprehensives but now Lambeth's middle-class parents mimic the Labour leader and send their children into Wandsworth, Croydon and Merton schools. Unsurprisingly, a high proportion of the children that are left in Lambeth's schools have educational and emotional problems, and too many of their parents are unsupportive. Life has consequently got very much harder for the borough's teachers over the past five years. Morale is low and staff turnover is high.
So are OFSTED's attentions warranted? If the inspectors can act as "critical friends" the scrutiny will be useful, particularly if the local authorities are able to help meet any shortcomings. But the portents do not look good. Morale has dropped further since the inspections blitz was announced and the atmosphere in the staffrooms is deeply apprehensive. Andrew Lockhart, Waltham Forest's chief education officer, believes that his schools are being "set up to fail", and who is to say that his gloomy prediction is wrong? It does look as if Lambeth and Waltham Forest are regarded as guilty until proved innocent.