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School inspections

An effective way to improve teaching standards?

With the recent announcement that school inspections in Britain are to be slimmed down to improve the current system's efficiency, a number of questions have been raised among teachers and unions.

First and foremost, do school inspections actually give an accurate indication of an institution's overall ability to produce skilled future leaders – or could other means of external assessment be more effective? And will the streamlined system make future inspections more influential in improving education?

Schools in England are set to be judged on just four key areas in a recently-announced shake-up of the British inspection system, according to the government. Education Secretary Michael Gove has said that schools will no longer be rated on "peripheral issues", which are thought to include pupils' wellbeing and their school's contribution to cohesion within its community.  In future, schools will be judged purely on the basis of their quality of teaching, leadership, pupils' behaviour and safety – and their achievements.

A publicly-released letter sent by Mr Gove to Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's Chief Inspector, explains the proposed changes. "As we both agree, we need to refocus inspection on the principal purpose of schools improving teaching and learning and dramatically reduce the time and energy spent on other existing bureaucratic duties," he wrote. Mr Gove said that focusing on just four areas of performance would mean "inspectors no longer spending time monitoring compliance with peripheral issues, but instead concentrating on our shared core mission of improving standards in education".

The current legal requirement is for schools to be inspected on a total of seven separate areas: quality of education; how well it meets pupils' needs; teaching standards; quality of leadership; the spiritual, social and cultural development of children; the school's contribution to pupils' wellbeing; and its contribution to "community cohesion".

Mr Gove also announced that, as part of the government's drive to reduce bureaucracy, schools would not longer be required to complete self-evaluation forms (SEFs), in which they rate themselves in 27 different areas.In his letter to the Ofsted boss, Mr Gove said that the changes would mean schools could "concentrate on what really matters and not be distracted by extensive guidance and form-filling".

The move to focus inspection of just four key areas has been welcomed by a number of teaching associations, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). "As a move towards reducing bureaucracy, we would welcome the demise of the SEF in its current form, which has over the years grown out of all proportion and been written with the needs of Ofsted rather than schools in mind," said General Secretary Brian Lightman.

He added, however: "In terms of strengthening the link between inspection and self-review, the SEF was an important move forward and we do not want that to be lost. Also welcome is the secretary of state's intention to focus inspection on four principal areas and to remove the duty for inspectors to monitor compliance on peripheral areas."

Mr Lightman went on to say that the decision to home in on fewer, more distinct, areas was "hugely sensible", suggesting that it will allow inspectors to focus on issues that will have the greatest impact on the school's improvement. Under the revised scheme, schools will still be expected to evaluate their own performance, but in ways tailored to their individual circumstances and local monitoring arrangements, Mr Gove's letter explained.

An Ofsted spokesperson said: "Ofsted fully supports the principle of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy so that schools are not distracted from their critical role in providing high quality teaching to ensure pupils learn and achieve well. From 2011, with the introduction of the new inspection framework, we will stop providing schools with an Ofsted form to record their self-evaluations."

While some groups will argue that the changes do not go far enough, many are expected to welcome the adjustments as a means of allowing teachers to concentrate on what they are trained and paid to do.

It remains to be seen whether the updated system will improve inspectors' ability to guide schools towards improving their educational offerings. But in the meantime, it is reasonable to assume that teachers will appreciate reduced paperwork.

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