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Could do better, by David Bell

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09 September 2005

Schools are improving, but some are still performing well below their best. Ofsted chief David Bell explains how a lean, mean, new inspection regime will sweep up these laggards – and help them to help themselves

As the summer break comes to an end and pupils, parents and teachers begin the new term, I would like to reflect on the main issues that are going to occupy Ofsted over the next year.

The evidence of the past year leads me to be cautiously optimistic about the capacity of our schools and colleges to improve further. However, the challenge of dealing with persistent weaknesses, such as the underperformance of our most vulnerable youngsters and the variation in standards between schools, must not be underestimated. There is little doubt that this year the spotlight will again fall on the progress of pupils and on what schools are doing to maximise this.

Improvement is what Ofsted is all about. We are constantly seeking to improve the quality of our inspections and, above all, we are committed to improvement in the childcare and education sectors. Over the next 12 months, inspectors will therefore be embedding the new early years and school inspections and the joint inspections of local authority children's services, which start this month.

We have reformed the structure of all our inspections this year. The changes came into effect for early years in April and for schools and colleges this month. School inspections have been radically changed. For a start, we will be inspecting institutions more regularly. This will give parents and prospective parents more up-to-date information about schools.

We will give very little notice of the inspection, so there should be no preparation or disruption beforehand. We believe we will serve children and parents much better if we see schools as they really are. Inspections will also be much shorter. They will focus on what really matters – the extent to which a school knows its own weaknesses and its capacity to improve. Our reports will be shorter, clearly written, jargon free and very accessible to parents. A typical report will be around six pages long and accompanied by a one-page letter written directly to the pupils in the school.

We want to share our impressive knowledge base with parents so that they can make informed choices about the quality of education and care their child receives. School inspection reports have always been published but now they will be available on the Ofsted website within three weeks of the completion of the inspection. Reports for childminders inspected from April 2005 onwards are also now on the website.

Ofsted has been encouraging schools to carry out more self-evaluations and the new inspection arrangements should help to increase this. We already know that the rigour and use of self-evaluation vary sharply with the quality of leadership and management. The capacity of schools to improve depends strongly on how well they know themselves, whether they recognise what they are doing well and what contributes to this, and how frank they are about their weaknesses. We have strengthened the use of self-evaluation in the school inspections and introduced an element of it in our early years inspections.

Self-evaluation is not a substitute for school inspection, but the two processes should be complementary. Schools can use inspections to validate their own evaluations while inspectors can rely more on the evidence schools produce about their effectiveness and how they have improved since the last inspection. An evaluation is not a one-off event, unlike an inspection. It is also not a fixed event, although there may be times in the year – such as when test and examination results come through – when it receives greater attention.

The best self-evaluation is part of the normal pattern of review and development adopted by the school. It should involve all those with a role in school improvement, including parents, pupils and other stakeholders.

Another innovation in school inspections is an annual profile, to be issued by the governing body of the school. This will keep parents informed about the outcome of inspections and provide the school's own account of what it offers its pupils and the community. It will include standardised data, provided by the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted. The profile will replace the governors' annual report to parents.

Reference to the use of data brings me to another aspect of our work, which has helped schools improve over the years. Ofsted issues a pre-inspection data analysis pack, which schools use to identify priorities for improvement and inspectors use to evaluate how well schools are doing. This increasingly utilises value-added data, which enable schools to measure pupils' progress against their earlier levels of attainment. But data should not stop with attainment measures. Ofsted will be increasingly collecting evidence from the users of the education system, including pupils, students and parents. This is particularly important as we inspect a range of services that can impinge on the lives of children and young people.

One of Ofsted's main priorities this year is the launch of the first integrated inspections of local authority children's services. These new joint inspections – 'joint area reviews' – mark the culmination of almost two years of work by nine inspectorates and commissions. I believe they will lead to real improvements in services.

By working collaboratively with other inspectorates, we will increase our ability to judge how well local authorities and agencies are working together to provide services to children. There is an increased emphasis on self-evaluation in these reviews, which I believe will encourage local authorities and their partners to be more rigorous and objective.

Inspections will cover all education and social services for children and young people that are managed directly by the council, as well as health and youth justice services provided by other bodies. Inspectors will report on whether children and young people are safe, healthy, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and attain economic wellbeing. They will draw on our institutional inspection evidence in making these judgements, and, for the first time, parents and the local community will receive a coherent picture of the full range of provision for children and young people in their area.

In each of the reviews, more than 500 children and young people will be asked their views on the services. Inspectors will track the experiences of individual children and carry out neighbourhood studies, speaking to young people and their parents. A child-friendly version of the final report will be published to explain the findings of the review. As with our institutional inspections, I hope that children, young people and their parents will feel they have a greater opportunity to bring about the improvements they want in their local services.

I began by saying that the main driver for the year ahead was underperformance. I believe that involving parents will allow them to play a powerful role in challenging poor services. Ofsted has been particularly successful in identifying institutions failing to provide acceptable standards for those in their care. Fortunately, poor childcare, schools and services make up only a small proportion of the education and care sector. Where we have not been as effective has been in challenging institutions that are simply mediocre.

I am determined that Ofsted should make a greater contribution to identifying the key issues for underperforming or 'coasting' services, whether it be in schools, day care, colleges or local authority services. Our new inspection arrangements deal with this. We will be inspecting all institutions more regularly and we will be focusing our inspections intensively on improvement: what needs to improve and whether there are sufficient resources to carry this out.

Future developments could include a more proportionate, risk-related approach to inspection. This would enhance our relentless focus on underperforming institutions. In addition, it would enable the most successful schools, colleges and local authorities to carry out their work with the minimum of regulation.

We live in a fast-moving world and Ofsted has to keep up with the pace. These changes demonstrate that inspection is as relevant today as it was when Ofsted was created in 1992.

< i>David Bell is the chief inspector of schools

PFsep2005

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