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Weak schools face closer scrutiny

Josephine Gardiner reports on OFSTED's switch of emphasis

The Office for Standards in Education is to concentrate its efforts on identifying schools with "serious weaknesses" from September next year. Schools will then be inspected only every six years instead of four, but those establishments deemed to be at risk of failure but falling outside the legal definition of a failing school will be scrutinised much more frequently - possibly as often as every term.

In addition, inspections will focus more directly on the core subjects of English, maths and science. In primary schools, "work in other subjects will be reported upon only where there is sufficient evidence to justify making judgments", while, in secondaries, reporting will focus on the core subjects and "up to four" additional subjects.

The changes were heralded by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, at the Secondary Heads Association conference last month. They were published by OFSTED in a consultation document last Friday. OFSTED will seek reactions from local authorities, teacher associations and schools before June.

The shift in emphasis is intended to target inspections where they are most needed, not as a cost-cutting exercise, says OFSTED. However, it could heighten the perception in the teaching profession that OFSTED's role is purely punitive.

"It's unfortunate that the whole thing concentrates on describing failure rather than success," commented Kay Driver, deputy general secretary of the SHA, but she thought her members would be relieved that inspections in general would be less frequent. "There are very few failing schools."

The criteria that would put a school on the at-risk register and trigger the arrival of inspectors are still open to discussion, but OFSTED proposes that indicators would include: * Unsatisfactory standards in four or more subjects - across the school as a whole or in particular key stages, especially in the core subjects; * Unsatisfactory or poor teaching in more than 25 per cent of lessons * Bad behaviour by pupils and poor relationships between pupils and staff; * Ineffectual management; * Poor value for money; * Attendance rates below 90 per cent (secondaries); * More than five exclusions in primaries or 25 in secondaries; * Fewer than 20 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A-C.

A school with just one of the problems could be regarded as having serious weaknesses, according to OFSTED, but it is more likely to be a combination of factors.

The new arrangements will affect all secondary schools from September 1997, and primary and special schools from September 1998.

Announcing the changes, OFSTED's director of inspections, Mike Tomlinson, admitted that, from September next year, "we may not inspect all national curriculum subjects in all schools", but he insisted that the narrower focus on the core subjects would not "affect the rigour of inspections".

OFSTED, he said, would have to work out a system whereby enough data was collected across the curriculum to provide a representative picture for the annual report. The question of how the non-core subjects to be scrutinised are chosen in secondary schools is also up for debate.

Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, restated that OFSTED's primary duty is to identify poor schools in order to protect the interests of pupils and parents. Teachers in weak schools may have to endure a period of "pain and uncertainty" waiting for the inspectors to arrive, he said. "Surely it is in the interests of the children, whatever the impact on teachers' morale, to find out what is going on."

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