Angry heads force U-turn on school inspections

Michael Gove signals that Ofsted plans for 'no-notice' visits will be dropped

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The Independent Online

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, yesterday signalled a U-turn over plans for "no-notice" inspections of schools after an outcry from headteachers. He gave the clearest indication yet that they would be dropped when Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, announces its reforms to the school inspection system later this summer.

Speaking to the National Association of Head Teachers' (NAHT) annual conference in Harrogate, he acknowledged that the proposal had given rise to serious worries. "The particular concern is not that the majority of headteachers feel they're going to be found out," he said, "but it sends a message that we don't trust the profession, that Ofsted has become an arm of the Spanish Inquisition or Sean Connery's Untouchables, that they have to be ready to storm in when something has gone drastically wrong.

"That was never the intention," he added. He said that, when the chief schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, announced his final package of reforms, "I think it will be clear that we have listened to what people thought".

Heads, he said, "deserve to have the chance to know when an inspection is coming and to be there and to greet the inspectors and present the best face of the school." At present, they have 48 hours' notice of inspections. The new rules would mean that this period was shortened to the previous day.

The apparent U-turn was welcomed by Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, as "better than nothing".

Mr Gove's move was one of a series of olive branches offered to heads over the planned new inspection regime, which they had earlier claimed was leading to a "culture of intimidation" in schools. Heads also complained about the standard of inspections, saying some inspection teams were of poor quality.

Before Mr Gove's speech yesterday, Steve Iredale, president of the NAHT, spoke at the conference, saying he had likened one inspection team to "badly trained monkeys". He added that he had received a complaint from a local zoo-keeper that his monkeys were highly offended.

Mr Gove, who was given a lukewarm reception, with limited applause for his speech from conference delegates, said he was considering whether to increase the pay for inspectors from its present level of £65,000 a year to ensure Ofsted attracted the best talent available.

"There can be no better use of public money than making sure our inspection system is working as effectively as possible," he said.

Earlier Mr Iredale had introduced him by saying: "Morale in the profession is pretty low. In 21 years in headship, I've known tough times but this takes the biscuit."

In his speech, he accused ministers of playing "Russian roulette" with children's lives as a result of the stream of initiatives swamping schools. "Their vision for the future of all children is very often based on their own experience, the myths of a golden past, a very different time," he said.

"Schools and children's learning must be built on the here and now and the future, not on the nostalgia of the Fifties, Sixties or Seventies."

He added: "Is it not time for governments to see the bigger picture and work towards the greater good for all children and the future economic success of our country rather than playing Russian roulette with their lives? You do have to ask, does political meddling really have a place in our children's learning." He said that the one policy he would like his association to pursue was to ban smoking because he was "fed up to the back teeth with policies which are clearly created on the back of a fag packet", adding: "No smoking – no fag packets – no flawed policies. Simple."