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Third of primary lessons below par

Fears for standards are coupled with criticism of the quality of inspections, reports Judith Judd
Standards are still too low in nearly one third of primary school lessons, the Chief Inspector of Schools' annual survey is expected to reveal next week.

The report will almost certainly repeat the charge made in a series of inspectors' reports that the worst classes are those for 8-to-11-year-olds, with teachers failing to demand enough of their pupils. About one fifth of secondary school lessons fails to come up to scratch. More than six years after the Government introduced its education reforms and 18 months since privatised inspection teams began, the proportion of weak lessons remains stubbornly the same.

The survey, from Chris Woodhead, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, comes as his Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which has an annual budget of £76.9m, faces criticism over the quality of inspection.

The principle of more regular inspection and the more open nature of the process have been widely welcomed. A new framework for inspection tells schools exactly what the inspectors are looking for.

But some question whetherthe new four-yearly inspections are the right way to raise standards, and if the money spent - £20,000 for the average secondary and £10,000 for the average primary inspection - is justified. Critics also cast doubt on the consistency of teams of privatised inspectors who have taken over most school inspections from the respected Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMI).

In three of the 13 secondary schools to "fail" inspections, HMI overturned the judgement of the independent contractor who carried out the first inspection. Ofsted admits there have been teething troubles with a minority of the new teams. Five team leaders, or Registered Inspectors, have resigned after criticism of the way they conducted inspections and 13 per cent of inspection reports have been rejected by HMI because they were badly written.

But a spokesman for Ofsted said that HMI monitoring teams had seen 700 inspections and read 400 reports and found only a small minority unacceptable.

"There is unmistakable evidence that things are getting better and we are only four terms into the new system. I would not deny that there could have been blips but the picture now is one of quite remarkable consistency."

Others are less happy. Dr John Marks, a government adviser and chair of the Centre for Policy Studies' education committee, believes inspectors are too subjective. "They may only be in the classroom for a relatively short space of time before they grade a lesson."

There is a problem finding inspectors for primary schools. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, is insisting a primary inspection programme goes ahead although one third of this year's has had to be cancelled. Ofsted is having difficulty persuading local authority teams to do more inspecting. Chris Tipple, Northumberland's Chief Education Officer, says his authority believes it is already spending enough time on inspections and there are better ways to help schools improve.

"Schools are extremely apprehensive. They spend a long time preparing but they do very little in the way of follow-up.

"Many of us would like schools to set their own targets which would be monitored by outsiders. A few schools are bad but hundreds of these reports read almost identically in Dalek-type language."