Easing up on the school inspection regime may seem an odd thing to do just as there appears to be a surge in failing schools. But what is actually happening is that the difficulties faced by the small and falling number of schools causing concern seem to be getting worse. More are classed as failing though the number of schools with serious weaknesses is falling.
The decision announced by schools minister David Miliband last week to move towards an inspection system which encourages schools' own systematic assessments of their aims and progress is very welcome. It recognises that real and sustained improvement can only take place when schools accept responsibility for their pupils' learning or lack of it.
It may also mean greater efficiency if the small number of cases, where reasonable expectations are not being met, are identified more rapidly and given more intensive support.
A more ominous note in the "intelligent accountability" David Miliband endorsed in his Belfast speech was the proposal to provide all secondaries with what he called a "critical friend": a government minder experienced in school development and the person solely authorised to agree schools'
targets on behalf of local authorities and the Government.
Ministerial rhetoric often strays beyond their statutory powers. As things stand, agreeing school targets is the responsibility of governing bodies, who until now were supposed to be schools' critical friends. Taken at face value the new standards commissars Mr Miliband proposes would represent a further ratcheting up of government control over schools and their social, academic and spending priorities.
This seems to have the encouragement of headteachers' leaders who also support moves to centralise school funding. The result is likely to be a further sidelining of governing bodies and the local stakeholders who appoint them.