Prison spur for OFSTED

15th October 1999 at 01:00
SIR Stephen Tumim, a man best known for inspecting prisons, also played a crucial part in bringing about the inspection regime for schools, it was revealed this week.

The disclosure is contained in John Major's newly-published autobiography, and shows the extent of the former prime minister's determination to push through unpopular education reforms, in the teeth of opposition from civil servants and teachers.

Judge Tumim, the chief inspector of prisons from 1987 to 1995 was invited to Chequers, the prime minister's official country residence, for a top-level seminar in June 1991 to discuss the role of public services. Among those present was Michael Bichard, then head of the Benefits Agency and now the top civil servant at the Department for Education and Employment.

Major had organised the seminar to test support for his ideas on raising public-sector standards through greater accountability and the publication of key data.

The former PM says Tumim's arguments for a fully independent school inspection system were crucial in convincing him to back his own instinct.

"I was determined to see that every school in the land was exposed to external inspection, so as to build up a base of knowledge, measured standards and information for parents on which we could truly build a renaissance of state education," he says.

He was already frustrated by opposition from what he saw as a "complacent and bureaucratic" education department lacking creative drive and which continued to drag its feet over the publication of school performance tables.

In his book, he criticises the old inspectorate run from within the education department and says the Office for Standards in Education has done a superb job.

Judge Tumim gained a reputation for independence during his eight-year stint as chief prisons inspctor with high-profile reports on the Strangeways riot and security lapses at the top security Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight. He eventually resigned following policy differences with the then Home Secretary Michael Howard, in 1995.

Major also sheds interesting light on John Patten's brief tenure as Education Secretary following the 1992 election, claiming he had been worn down by constant battles with his department and with the teacher unions, who were at the time boycotting school tests.

"His health suffered, and in 1994 I decided he needed a sabbatical to recover. If he had maintained his interest he could - and would - have returned to high office."

Major's views on Patten's successor, Gillian Shephard, reveal his fondness for a close political ally. Behind her "chirrupy" exterior she "was more sparrowhawk than sparrow", who battled in government "without fear or favour- even on occasion against me".

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