Some lay inspectors are earning up to Pounds 25,000 a year, but hundreds of others have waited two years without being asked to carry out a single inspection.
The gulf between the "haves" and "have nots" became clear this week when it was revealed that at least half of the 1,500 lay inspectors that the Office for Standards in Education has trained have not yet set foot in a school while others have been paid up to Pounds 600 for inspecting primaries and as much as Pounds 1,000 for a secondary inspection.
Some of the unemployed inspectors paid Pounds 150 for their training and have since spent up to Pounds 400 in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade registered inspectors to take them on to their teams. Colin Burgess, secretary of the National Association of Lay Inspectors, said that some members had not had a single offer of work despite sending out hundreds of letters, CVs and faxes.
"A few have gone to the length of finding out where a Regi (registered inspector) would be and have then 'accidentally bumped into them on purpose', " he said. "Others have even gone into schools where inspections were being carried out to introduce themselves to the Regi."
Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations, is one of the lay inspectors who has not had to resort to such tactics. She has been in demand, but has had to limit the number of inspections she does because of her other commitments. "I do know people who have been on at least 50 inspections and they must be earning about Pounds 25,000 a year. It isn't easy money, however, and any travel and accommodation costs have to come out of that sum."
Mr Burgess's association, which began complaining about the unequal distribution of work almost 18 months ago, had hoped that the problem would disappear when the four-yearly cycle of primary school inspections began last September.
OFSTED has, however, now admitted that nearly 500 of the 1,000 lay inspectors who responded to a questionnaire survey it carried out this summer were still waiting for their first inspection. It is offering refresher courses to those still without work and is aiming to pair them off with the "additional inspectors" - mostly seconded primary headteachers - who are to begin taking teams into primary schools next month.
The new "market" approach to inspection, however, means that OFSTED has had to ask the novice lay inspectors to tender for the work. Jonathan Lawson, OFSTED's spokesman, said: "We can't just give them work. We can't, for example, force registered inspectors to accept people they don't want on their teams. But we're hoping we will be able to involve a lot of those who haven't worked in the 2,000 inspections that are due to be carried out by the additional inspectors during the coming academic year."
Mr Lawson made it clear, however, that OFSTED did not believe that the jobless lay inspectors had been unfairly treated. "We never promised them any work and certainly never told them to expect to make a living out of it. It was only going to be pocket money - something that they would find worthwhile. A true lay inspector has other jobs."
Mr Burgess, a retired police sergeant who has himself only carried out one one-day inspection in two years, said his association was pleased that refresher courses were being offered. But he pointed out that they would involve the unemployed lay inspectors in more expense without offering any guarantee of work. "Two of the courses have been held in Manchester - the other two are being staged in Corby and Arundel - so obviously people from the North-east, Cornwall and even London who want to attend them will incur travel and accommodation costs that they won't be reimbursed for.
"That's nothing new for lay inspectors though. Two of our Southern members were recently asked by OFSTED if they would go up to the North-west to help with some HMI-led inspections that have been arranged to clear the backlog in that region. They agreed to go but eventually ended up having to pay a large hotel bill because OFSTED booked them into a place that charged Pounds 65-a-night. If they had known what it would cost they would have chosen something much less expensive."