Emergency inspections of schools could soon be triggered by anonymous groups of angry parents under plans to improve standards – enraging headteachers, who fear they would be subjected to vendettas without being given the chance to face their accusers.
Under the new inspection regime, from next month parents will be able to log on to a website and complain about teaching quality, behaviour or anything else they are unhappy about. If the complaints reach a critical mass – the number has not yet been announced – they could force an emergency inspection by the education standards watchdog, Ofsted.
The transfer of power to parents has been condemned by headteachers, who fear that the website could be like the "Rate My Teacher" site, where pupils can say what they like about their teachers. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "We have serious concerns about Ofsted's website to gather parental views.
"Of course parents should be able to raise concerns and comment on schools' performance, but allowing anyone to post comments anonymously leaves the system, and schools, open to all kinds of abuse and puts the website's credibility at risk."
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: "A parent with a vendetta could trigger an inspection through pure maliciousness by using a number of email addresses."
Ofsted said any parent would be able to log on anonymously but they would have to register which schools their children attended.
Miriam Rosen, the Chief Schools Inspector, said Ofsted had no figure in mind for the number of complaints required to prompt action, but that if there was a "surge" of parents complaining about the same school it was likely an inspection would be ordered.
The website is just one of a number of changes to the inspection regime to be introduced in January. The result is that schools will find it harder to be rated as "outstanding", Ms Rosen said.
The inspectors will spend more time observing lessons. They will focus on literacy and numeracy standards – in particular listening to children reading out loud in class. "We have streamlined our inspection process to focus on what matters most – to pupils, parents and schools," Ms Rosen said, adding that inspectors would also scrutinise pupils' behaviour and safety.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has indicated that too many schools have been given "outstanding" ratings – some where their teaching quality was not rated so highly.
Ms Rosen did not rule out a school being declared "outstanding" even if its teachers did not fall into that category. But she said that would happen only if everything else at the school was deemed "outstanding" and if teaching standards had improved considerably.
She also announced that schools rated "satisfactory" would face unannounced monitoring checks – particularly on children's behaviour. Such spot checks would be piloted in about a dozen schools during the second half of this term.
Separate gradings for community cohesion and creating a healthy lifestyle for pupils will go. But schools will be able to demonstrate how well they have helped particular groups of pupils to fulfil their potential. Ofsted says these groups should include boys, girls, gifted pupils, minority ethnic pupils, and lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual pupils. Ms Rosen said schools would have to demonstrate that pupils in these groups were not being bullied or victimised.
She emphasised, though, that the four main areas to be monitored under the new inspection regime would be teaching quality, leadership, behaviour and safety and pupils' attainment.
Free schools and the rise of parent power
Parent power has been the theme of successive governments over the past two decades. It started with the introduction of exam league tables in the early 1990s, which were designed to give parents more information to help them choose a school for their children. It then moved on to provide them with different types of schools to choose from with the introduction of privately sponsored academies just after the turn of the century.
The next step was allowing parents to set up their own schools – the controversial free schools, 24 of which opened this term, including the West London Free School set up by parents and teachers led by the writer Toby Young.
Now they will have the power to trigger a school inspection, after Ofsted set up a website where anonymous complaints can be made. These could lead to a school being declared failing. That, in turn, could result in the school being taken over by an academy and the headteacher sacked.
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