Shortage of staff halts 1,000 school inspections

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The Independent Online
Almost 1,000 primary school inspections have had to be cancelled in the past year because too few teams were available to carry them out, it was revealed last night.

New figures released by Labour MPs show that 3,358 primary schools were notified of forthcoming inspections but only 2,395 took place. They confirm fears that plans to inspect all 18,500 primaries in England within four years could prove impossible to fulfil.

Last night David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said the inspection service was in crisis.

Emergency measures are already in place to try to combat the problem. Members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate are visiting schools where no privatised team has bid to carry out an inspection. In the next school year 300 practising teachers and headteachers will help to fill in some of the gaps while on secondments of up to 12 months as "additional inspectors" (AIs). Up to 2,000 of the 5,000 inspections scheduled for the next year will be done by HMIs and AIs.

In the longer term, a new framework produced by the inspection body, Ofsted, will slim down the process allowing inspectors to concentrate on English, mathematics and science.

Inspections of 4,000 secondary schools, which began a year earlier than the primary inspections in 1993, are running relatively smoothly.

In response to parliamentary questions the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, said that all schools notified of an inspection in the summer term of 1995 were in fact visited. But in autumn 1994 and spring 1995 only 1,567 out of a total of 2,556 planned inspections took place.

Stephen Byers, Labour MP for Wallsend, put down the questions. At the current rate some schools would not be inspected until 2002 and the cycle would take eight years to complete, he said. "These figures show that during its first year of operation the system of inspection has been in chaos, with over a quarter of inspections being cancelled. Nearly 1,000 primary schools have been put in the position of taking the time and trouble to prepare for an inspection which never took place," he said.

Mr Blunkett said Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, must act to shore up the system: "The inspection system is in crisis. The system is failing. Inspections should play a vital role in raising standards.

"The original policy sidelining HMI and relying on privatised inspectors is clearly not working. Gillian Shephard must act now and set out a credible plan for rescuing the inspection service and ensuring that standards do not fall," he said.

A spokeswoman for Ofsted said it was confident it could make up the shortfall over the next three years. Annual targets for inspections had been adjusted accordingly.

No extra public expenditure would be incurred in employing practising teachers because they would do work not taken up by privatised inspection teams.

"We are still wedded to a four-year cycle of inspections," she said.