Top schools inspections system under attack

Serious flaws in the inspection systems used by Britain's most prestigious public schools have been exposed by the Office for Standards in Education, calling into question the reliability of reports about standards.

OFSTED - invited by the private schools to review their two inspection systems - found that: * the inspectors' gathering of evidence is unreliable; * they are not rigorously monitored and often lack experience; * inspections are infrequent and too short to substantiate inspectors' judgments; * criticism of schools is tentative; l external comparisons are not used enough; and * there is insufficient attention to pupils' innate ability when judgments are made about standards.

However, there was evidence that the two systems are improving and successful on their own terms. The inspectors appeared conscientious and impartial, says OFSTED.

One system of inspection is run by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents the most academically prestigious public schools; the second is the Accreditation, Review and Consultancy Service (ARCS), used by the Girls' Schools Association, the Prep Schools Association and others accredited by the Independent Schools Joint Council.

In both systems, many reports were "insecure" if parents used them to make comparisons with schools nationally. Of the second system, OFSTED says: "In few inspections does the team leader check rigorously the quality of the evidence base provided by the team, many of whom are new to inspection or inspect rarely."

On the HMC system, it reports "the reliability of some of the judgements made cannot be guaranteed because the collection of evidence and the use of inspection criteria are not adequately monitored".

The ARCS system does not do enough to determine what pupils' abilities are, and therefore cannot establish whether a school is helping them to achieve their potential, says OFSTED. Observation of lessons is often too short, and the schools have a tendency to compare themselves with maintained schools, rather than similar independents, a comparison "which will tend to flatter these schools, many of which are selective".

Unlike state schools, independents are not obliged by law to publish inspection reports for parents. OFSTED does not say explicitly that this should change, but suggests that the "transparency of the system" could be improved.

Schools inspected by the ARCS are visited every 10 years only, and there is evidence that the cycle is not rigorously maintained, says OFSTED. Worse, ARCS does not have up-to-date lists of schools with the dates of the most recent visits, so the Independent Schools Information Service does "not have all the information it needs to know whether it is safe to include any given school in their handbook".

David Jamieson, the Labour MP who has long been campaigning for better regulation of independent schools, said that Labour would be "looking urgently" at whether independents should be brought under the same arrangements as maintained schools, particularly where they receive public money from the Assisted Places Scheme (Pounds 110million), the Ministry of Defence boarding scheme (more than Pounds 100 million) and grants from the Foreign Office and other government departments.

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