Warwick Mansell reports on plans to cut the bureaucracy of inspections.
IT sounds like every headteacher's nightmare: another set of government-imposed targets, complete with rigorous timetable.
But this particular list of goals is less likely to produce staffroom jeers. For ministers and the Office for Standards in Education have come together to publish a detailed plan, complete with a checklist of pledges, which aims to cut dramatically the bureaucracy associated with school inspections.
The proposals are set out in a 12-page paper released earlier this month by OFSTED and the Government's Standards and Effectiveness Unit. The paper says that one in five primary school heads and one in 10 of their secondary counterparts report that the demands on them for information are too high.
The proposals were drawn up quickly after the Government announced in its February Green Paper that it wanted to work with OFSTED in this area. They respond to four key weaknesses in the current system.
First, the plan is to stop schools having to provide OFSTED with information that the inspectorate either does not strictly need, or can find out from central records. Currently, before each visit, heads have to fill in forms that demand detailed information on pupil achievement and staffing. This information is to be reduced from the autumn, with the detail required on staff qualifications and the subjects they teach being "streamlined". Guidance will also be provided with the implicit aim of reducing the length and scope of heads' statements on a school's strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, the forms will in future come partly filled in by OFSTED. The watchdog will work with the Department for Education and Employment to extract as much information as it can on, for example, pupils' test results. Schools could then just check these forms.
A broader proposal is for schools to have the chance via the Internet to see the data that OFSTED holds on them. And, from September, the forms schools have to fill out prior to inspection are to be made available via OFSTED's website.
In another move to cut unnecessary paperwork and speed communication, most of OFSTED's dealings with schools prior to an inspection should be via email, says the report. The inspectorate is also proposing to cut by 80 per cent the amount of data it sends heads every year setting out a school's characteristics. This background information is taken into account when inspectors make judgments on schools.
The paper also proposes that the number of documents OFSTED asks schools to provide during an inspection visit - for example, staff handbooks and the minutes of governing body meetings - be reduced.
The second anti-bureaucracy strategy concerns a proposed reduction in the number of different types of inspections to which schools are subjected. OFSTED's inspections of local authorities, education action zones and Excellence in Cities programmes all involve school visits, and can currently leave those in disadvantaged areas facing multiple checks.
The paper proposes that OFSTED works with the DFEE to merge visits where possible. It recommends that a primary school should be off-limits to inspectors in the nine months after a full OFSTED inspection.
Third, the report acknowledges that OFSTED can use its inspectors' own expertise to help schools reduce paperwork. One intriguing suggestion is for OFSTED to inspect schools' anti-bureaucracy drives - a concept that might be thought to add to, not reduce, administrative burdens.
Perhaps wisely, the paper shies away from this move, saying only that during inspections, inspectors should talk with heads about bureaucracy, and raise in reports evidence of where needless paperwork could have been avoided.
Finally, the paper addresses the fact that many schools still have an exaggerated perception of the information required before an inspection. It plans by the autumn to put out new guidance setting out exactly what is required under the new system.
Copies of the report, Reducing the Burden of Inspection, are available at www.ofsted.gov.uk
* The amount of information required for inspection will be reduced from autumn 2001.
* All forms sent to schools prior to inspection should be part filled-in, by autumn 2003.
* From autumn 2001, school inspection forms to be available on the Internet. Email to be used wherever possible.
* Improved guidance will be developed for schools preparing for inspection.
* OFSTED and DFEE to work together to limit the number of visits to a school in an education action zone or Excellence in Cities programme.
* DFEE and OFSTED to extend the period during which schools that have had full inspections are barred from any other inspection visits.
* OFSTED and DFEE to consult closely over data requests made of schools other than at inspections, to ensure that only the minimum information necessary is requested.