Ofsted is extending its reach with a new tier of high-powered regional leaders, who will "take charge" of school improvement and assess the work of local authorities and academy chains.
The regional directors, who will be paid at least pound;90,000 a year plus bonuses, could be a step towards the first full inspections of increasingly influential academy chains - a shift that chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw wants and Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would look into.
Revealing the plans in today's TES, the chief inspector writes that the regional directors will "assess whether local authorities, diocesan authorities, academy chains and federations have adequate oversight of (school) performance". He adds that from this year his annual report will have a much greater focus on the relative performance of the regions the directors will cover.
"We will particularly question why parts of our country with similar demographics perform so differently," Sir Michael writes. He has been influenced by improvements in the capital's schools under Labour's London Challenge and wants Ofsted to encourage similar turnarounds in "failing" areas such as Hull.
The watchdog insists its new directors are not a bid for the vacant "middle tier" in English education, created by the departure of hundreds of newly converted academies from town hall control.
But heads' leaders this week said they saw the regional leaders as Ofsted's attempt to provide the growing missing link between central government and individual schools. The gap has already been identified by ministers, as well as Sir Michael.
"Regional directors will be very powerful, influential people," Sir Michael says in a video explaining the new role. "They will take charge of a region . I want them to be inspirational figures who can inspire inspectors, but also others in that area."
Ofsted currently splits England into three large regions: the South, the Midlands and the North. The reorganisation will divide the country into eight smaller regions, creating vacancies for five extra regional directors.
"If you are going to have school improvement, you are going to need people paying quite close attention to what is going on in that area," an Ofsted spokesman said.
Heads were hostile when Sir Michael first floated the idea of a more local, hands-on Ofsted in March, warning that the watchdog was overstepping its remit.
This week Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said the move was a response to the "decline" of the former middle tier provided by local authorities.
"There is something missing from the system: local knowledge and intelligence and the ability to spot a school before it is in trouble," he said. "I think it is part of the Ofsted vision to play a greater role in school improvement; that is what local authorities used to do and that is the role that Ofsted seems to be taking on."
Mr Hobby said there might be benefits to the watchdog becoming more engaged with schools, but added: "If this is just about Ofsted acquiring more power and empire-building, then it is not such a good thing."
Sir Michael warned last November, before joining Ofsted, that "a government cannot monitor or administer 30,000 schools from the centre". He suggested district superintendents or school commissioners as a way of holding an "increasingly autonomous system" to account.
In December he called for intermediaries with "their ear very close to the ground". The following month, schools minister Nick Gibb conceded that there was an issue about the oversight of academies.
Both Sir David Bell and Christine Gilbert - Ofsted's previous two chief inspectors - have opposed the idea of local commissioners floated by Sir Michael, arguing that leadership should come from schools themselves. But Ms Gilbert has called for Ofsted to have the power to inspect academy chains.
Sir Michael said in February that he would also like to see the change, but that new legislation would be needed.
Asked about the issue the following month, the prime minister told MPs: "I am very happy to look at that."
This week the Department for Education said it was waiting for Ofsted to advise on whether powers to inspect academy chains were necessary.
The big players
The regional directors will be Ofsted's first staff to have responsibility for assessing the work of academy chains. The chains with the most academies include:
29 - Academies Enterprise Trust.
19 - United Learning Trust.
18 - Ormiston Trust.
18 - E-Act.
14 - Oasis Community Learning.
13 - Harris Federation.
11 - Ark Schools.
Photo credit: Getty
Original headline: Regional leaders will extend Ofsted's reach into academy chains