Two-day warning of laser inspections

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Mixed reception to Ofsted's plan for shorter, sharper school visits.

Jon Slater reports

Schools will get as little as 48 hours' notice that they are to be inspected as part of a radicial overhaul of the inspection regime announced this week.

There will be shorter, sharper, more frequent visits from inspectors who will pay more attention to schools' own views of their strengths and weaknesses.

David Bell, the chief inspector, said schools would be notified of an inspection on the Thursday or Friday before inspectors arrived on the Monday instead of being given the present two months' notice.

"We're exchanging a searchlight for a laser," he said. "We want to check whether a school's central nervous system is working well, not map out its genomes."

Mr Bell's comments came as the Office for Standards in Education launched a consultation paper outlining the changes, described as the most far-reaching review of inspection in the watchdog's history.

The reforms, which would require legislation, aim to give inspectors a "warts and all" view of schools while reducing the bureaucratic burden placed on teachers by heads awaiting inspection.

Ofsted estimates it could free up time equivalent to at least 1,000 extra teachers nationwide.

The decision to reduce the notice period is a U-turn by Mr Bell, who told The TES last February that courtesy demanded schools were given a six-week warning.

It follows fast on the heels of figures published last Friday showing that the number of schools in special measures increased by 10 per cent during the autumn term.

Unions said the rise was the result of Ofsted "moving the goalposts" and demanding higher standards from schools.

Announcing the changes, Mr Bell said that schools would not be allowed greater leeway despite recognising that they had learnt how to prepare themselves to show themselves in the best light.

As The TES revealed last month, inspectors will pay greater attention to schools' self-evaluation and spend less time observing lessons. In the smallest primary schools, inspections could involve just one inspector and last only a day. Even in large secondary schools, no more than 10 inspector days will be needed.

"It is time to trust schools more and to draw on the professionalism of teachers," the consultation document says.

But Mr Bell warned that inspectors would take a dim view of schools who took an unrealistic view of their own success, saying that would reflect badly on their leadership and management.

Inspection teams will more often be led by Ofsted-employed HMIs than at present and will examine all aspects of children's services provided by schools.

Ofsted estimates that the changes will save pound;10 million from its budget.

Mr Bell said: "Ofsted is neither going soft, nor tightening the screw on schools. What can any school have to fear from an inspection system that sees it as it is?

"These changes are about making intelligent accountability a reality."

But teacher unions were divided over the merits of reform.

John Dunford, the Secondary Heads Association's general secretary, praised the move as a long overdue shift to a grown-up inspection system. "This is something I have been calling for for more than 10 years," he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "This scheme may look wonderful in Whitehall but it is a charter for jumpy heads and local authorities to demand that schools remain in an endless state of inspection readiness.

"It will result in time wasted, not time saved, as David Bell so rashly claims."

David Miliband, the school standards minister, said: "This offers more clarity on driving school improvement and for parents it offers more up-to-date and relevant information."

The General Teaching Council for England said a considerable change in culture was needed for schools to take on greater responsibility for self-evaluation. "Training and guidance will be needed to enable all schools to develop the skills and confidence required for placing effective self-evaluation at the heart of improvement," said Carol Adams, its chief executive.

Platform 19; leader 20 The future of inspection: a consultation paper is available at www.ofsted.gov.uk. The deadline for responses is April 8

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