Leading article: Ofsted reform is welcome

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's plans for a shake-up of the school inspection system by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, should be welcomed in the main. In future, schools will have just two to five days' notice of an inspection. In some circumstances, the inspectors will even arrive on the doorstep unannounced. The advantage of this is it cuts down on the strain that teachers currently suffer when they spend up to 10 weeks preparing for an inspection. It cuts down on the mountain of paperwork piled up by teachers for inspectors. And it allows those teachers to concentrate on teaching pupils.

Yesterday's plans for a shake-up of the school inspection system by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, should be welcomed in the main. In future, schools will have just two to five days' notice of an inspection. In some circumstances, the inspectors will even arrive on the doorstep unannounced. The advantage of this is it cuts down on the strain that teachers currently suffer when they spend up to 10 weeks preparing for an inspection. It cuts down on the mountain of paperwork piled up by teachers for inspectors. And it allows those teachers to concentrate on teaching pupils.

The on-the-spot inspections will allow Ofsted to see schools warts and all. David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, should be wary of triggering unheralded inspections. He should use them only in extreme circumstances, for example in cases such as the infamous Ridings school in Calderdale where discipline appeared to have broken down completely. We do not want to move from a situation where teachers are stressed by waiting for an inspection to happen, to one where they are worried that a team might be arriving at any minute.

However, while the change in the notice system for inspection is the reform most likely to gain headlines, other aspects of the shake-up are likely to be more far-reaching. For instance, under the reforms, parents are to be encouraged to write to inspectors giving their views on standards in the school. This could enable a group of parents to agitate against a teacher or a head they are dissatisfied with and seek their removal. This would not necessarily be a bad thing if there were real concerns about a member of staff, but inspectors would need to sift through this kind of information carefully.

The new system is being tried out in 15 local education authorities before being launched nationwide in September 2005. According to some head teachers taking part in the trial, inspectors are arriving for their short-notice inspections expecting just as much paperwork as they received under the old system. The new system, welcomed by David Miliband, the minister for school standards, at a seminar with head teachers on Tuesday, may potentially be much more beneficial for schools than the old, but inspectors need to be properly trained to deliver it - otherwise it could end up putting even more pressure on schools.

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