Private sector put to the test: The head of Roedean believes new inspection procedures will enhance credibility. Julia Hagedorn reports

The climate is, indeed, changing. On 2 February one of Britain's most prestigious girls' schools, Roedean, will be the subject of the first report to be made public under the new inspection procedures recently introduced by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Private schools have only recently joined their maintained colleagues as part of Ofsted's duty to keep the Secretary of State informed about the quality of education. The framework for the inspection of independent schools will be published around Easter time.

Roedean's exposure does not mean, however, that the public is about to gain inside information on every independent school. The HMI branch of Ofsted responsible for inspecting independent schools will take a fairly arbitrary sample of just 2 per cent each year.

Since 1978, when independent schools no longer had to be 'recognised as efficient' by the then Department of Education and Science, they have relied on their own system of inspection and accreditation set up by the Independent Schools Joint Council (ISJC). Some argued that this was incestuous, since such inspections were an internal matter and there was no public accountability. Reports were submitted only to the association the school belonged to, the only sanction being withdrawal of membership.

Lauretta Harris, head of the Cavendish School in London, who carries out inspections for the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, points out that using heads is effective. 'They have an automatic instinct to check everything as they go through a school, and know what solutions will work.'

Mrs Harris believes that because the reports are not published it is possible to be extremely frank.

The introduction of Ofsted has anyway led to changes in the ways the accreditation systems will work. The ISJC has now set up a working party under the chairmanship of Averil Burgess, formerly head of South Hampstead High School, to look afresh at its system. A member of Ofsted is on the working party and co-operating closely with the ISJC. Its draft report will be out tomorrow and a conference is planned for the spring to spread the message to member associations.

Miss Burgess accepts that the ISJC inspections cannot reproduce the weight of a full HMI inspection but points out that all teams are led by a former or serving HMI who spends around two-and-a-half days in the school. The ISJC is under pressure from schools to allow the reports to be made public. But there could be problems, Miss Burgess says, in balancing the needs of accreditation with those of schools competing with each other in the market place.

The Headmasters' Conference - which represents 238 mainly boys and mixed boarding public schools and has never been part of the ISJC scheme - has also been forced to look afresh at what it is doing.

James Sabben-Clare, who chaired the HMC working party on inspection and is head of Winchester, explains that when HMC decided not to opt into the Secretary of State's proposed scheme - mainly on grounds of cost - it decided to create its own inspection system which would be close enough to the Government's to be both credible and helpful to schools. The new scheme was presented to HMC in September and is slightly less elaborate than Ofsted. It takes four days instead of five and puts less emphasis on subject specialisms. The first training session is about to begin and the preliminary pilot will be running later in the year. It is hoped that all HMC schools will be inspected by the end of the century.

The heads aim to ensure objectivity by including a non-HMC member in the team, whose leader will be Ofsted-trained. The teams will suggest ways schools can improve 'in the context of schools doing extraordinarily well already', says Vivian Anthony, HMC secretary.

The HMC will publish its reports, or a summary of them. Far from creating a league table of schools, Mr Anthony stresses, 'it will correct the abominable misinformation that comes out in tables and will give us a chance to show that some schools include the whole ability range and do well'.

Mr Anthony hopes that eventually Ofsted, which is co-operating with HMC, will be satisfied that the HMC inspections are as rigorous as its own and will accept them for its own purposes.

The Girls' Schools Association has come up with yet another scheme - a quality management audit. Elizabeth Diggory, head of St Albans High School, describes it as a kitemark for GSA schools.

The scheme was piloted last term and about 25 schools will have been looked at by the end of this academic year. Despite the growing number of independent school inspection arrangments, Miss Diggory foresees a time when all will be part of one scheme.

Ann Longley, head of Roedean, bravely agreed that Roedean should be a pilot school for the new Ofsted framework only two days after she had told her staff that they had two years to prepare for their GSA inspection. Although there was some apprehension, she says, staff found it a very positive and constructive exercise and 'one that made you look critically at how you could be more effective'.

While Mrs Langley is fully aware of the dangers of press distortion when reports such as hers are published, she feels: 'It will give greater credibility to the private sector. A poor or slightly poor report could get over-exposure, but then parents should know that.'

A third of schools are still outside ISJC. Some of these, a member of Ofsted's independent inspection team admits, are a cause for considerable worry - both because of the conditions in which they operate and the narrowness of their curriculum. Perhaps some will be highlighted in the next round of HMI inspections to mark the contrast with Roedean.

At least, says Averil Burgess, when schools are accredited by ISJC, parents can be assured the school is well run, has properly qualified staff, a broad curriculum and a good pastoral care system.