Inspectors say schools will suffer in price war puts school standards at risk

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The Independent Online
FRAN ABRAMS

and JUDTH JUDD

A price war has broken out between rival groups of private- and public- sector secondary school inspectors, forcing down fees to a point where both sides say quality is being threatened.

Private firms which bid for contracts against local authorities and universities say they may be forced to pull out because they can no longer make a profit and maintain standards.

Local authorities claim they have anecdotal evidence that some private inspectors have failed to spot bad schools. The average cost of a secondary school inspection is down from between pounds 22,000 and pounds 25,000 two years ago to between pounds 16,500 and pounds 17,500 today.

The Government introduced four-yearly privatised inspections three years ago under the supervision of the Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted. While officials are struggling to find enough inspectors for the 21,000 primary schools, the market for secondary school inspections is buoyant, with as many as 14 operators competing to inspect some schools.

Local authority teams now account for about 45 per cent of all secondary inspections compared with 78 per cent in 1993, with the rest being covered by private operators.

However, some private operators say they may have to pull out of inspections if the price war continues. Others are happy to make a loss on inspections because they raise their credibility in the education world. Groups with retired members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of schools, now abolished, are able to charge lower prices than their rivals.

A few university departments which have lost teacher training work because of the Government's introduction of school-based training schemes are also entering the market.

Some local authority teams are using part of the money they make on primary inspection to subsidise secondary work.

Private operators are becoming increasingly frustrated because they cannot win contracts to inspect secondary schools at a price which allows them to do the job properly.

Neil McIntosh, chief executive of CfBT Education Services of Reading, said its policy of maintaining proper training and quality control programmes cost money."I don't believe that it is possible for organisations to make a reasonable margin on conducting secondary inspections at the current prices."

But Ofsted dismissed the idea that the rigour of inspections was threatened. "We monitor quality very carefully so teams have to maintain it if they are to continue getting work."

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