New system put to the test

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The Independent Online
The jury is still out on whether the new, privatised school inspection system has led to better schools. Ofsted began inspecting secondary schools in 1993 and has so far visited just over half of them; primary inspections began a year later and less than a quarter have been covered.

It is still too soon for improvements to be measured, though Ofsted did measure a drop in the number of unsatisfactory lessons between 1993 and 1994 from more than a quarter to less than a fifth.

However, a steady rise in examination results started long before the inspection system was reformed, with the proportion of good grades at GCSE going up by 7 per cent in as many years.

The battle still rages over whether these better results mean higher standards in schools or lower standards among the examining boards, but while some schools may have cleaned up their acts, others certainly have not.

Labour's education spokes-man, David Blunkett, has just revealed that while the top 25 per cent of pupils gain the equivalent of 12 GCSEs at grade C, the bottom 25 per cent get just one. The gap between the best and the worst of our pupils - and our schools - is still far too wide.

Having said all that, inspection has made schools scrutinise every aspect of their lives with a new zeal. Ofsted believes that the very prospect of inspection has increased the motivation of schools which have not been visited.

There are some examples of improvement through inspection. Crook Primary in Co Durham was given a clean bill of health this year, 18 months after being the first mainstream school found to be failing under Ofsted. But its staff say that their experience - traumatic in the extreme and involving the early retirement of the headteacher on health grounds - should not be repeated.

Experts agree that school improvement is down to the efforts of staff, governors and pupils. Here, Ofsted's new framework can only have a moderate effect. Self-evaluation is still not central to the process. Unless schools play a bigger role, there is a danger that staff will simply heave a sigh of relief when the inspectors depart, rather than setting to work on the necessary changes.

Good schools benefit from inspection because they already constantly monitor what they do and are used to making modifications. Failing schools find that a bad report galvanises their local authorities into action on their behalf. But mediocre schools receive little back-up after their inspections and may be left floundering.

Without support, many such schools find it difficult to translate criticism into positive action. Under Ofsted's new regime, inspectors will continue to go into schools, pass judgements and go away. They leave behind staff who feel beleaguered, exhausted, and simply relieved that the whole business is over for another four years.