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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2006, 18:29 GMT
Inspection role in school changes
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Unity City Academy
New academies are not immune from negative inspection reports

Given all the fuss about trust schools and admissions in the government's education proposals for England, the title of its bill is perhaps a surprise.

It is the Education and Inspections Bill.

The focus has been on the role of the proposed trust schools.

But let's look first at the part dealing with the inspection regime.

The title in large part reflects some legislative changes that bring together existing inspectorates under the umbrella of Ofsted, which now covers all services for children and learners, including adults.

But the bill also deals with what happens to schools that receive negative judgements.

Those aspects may turn out to be important in what becomes of the more controversial headline plans, if they get through Parliament.

Judgements

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announced last September that failing schools in England which did not improve within a year could face closure.

Previously, they had been given two years (often more) to turn themselves around.

Ms Kelly said schools which failed in future could be turned into new city academies or be taken under the control of a successful school in their area.

The move was a bit of a surprise, given that the Ofsted inspection arrangements had only just been changed, introducing more frequent inspections and new judgements: "outstanding", "good", "satisfactory" or "inadequate".

The White Paper made it clear it was not just the obviously failing schools that were in the frame. It put a deadline on inadequacy, too:

"A school issued with an improvement notice will have one year to demonstrate progress. If it has not done so, it will be placed in special measures."

Being in special measures means intervention and support with another year to improve or be shut - or taken over.

Less failure

Taken over by whom?

Ms Kelly said: "City academies at the moment are brand new builds, which is why they are unlikely to be the first choice for tackling failure.

"If it can be achieved through a federation with a neighbouring school which is performing really well, I think that would be a very attractive option."

This probably gives a clue to where the government is heading.

Under the banner "Fewer failing schools", it expects councils "to drive up standards in weaker schools".

How? - "With a strong focus on federations between schools that are struggling and those that are excelling."

This is where the controversial "trust school" proposals come in.

New schools

Ministers have gone to great lengths to explain what trusts are not about: not getting more money, not outside the rules on admissions and selection, the curriculum, teachers' pay ...

What they are is: a way "to bring the energy and experience of external partners to support the school's leadership and direction".

"No-one will be forced to become a trust," the Department for Education and Skills stresses, but adds in the same breath: "Although if a school is underperforming, becoming a trust is one option for the local authority to consider."

There has been much concern about the role of local authorities in relation to new schools.

Despite saying no-one would be forced to become a trust ministers had wanted any new schools to be trusts or academies.

One of their concessions has been to say councils could still propose opening an ordinary community school.

But they have still insisted on retaining a veto.

There is some way to go before the government can get its plans implemented.

If it does, it is likely to be several years before it is clear whether there is widespread enthusiasm for trusts, or whether most will be really just another way of giving schools a "fresh start".




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