June 9, 2014 7:31 pm

Surprise checks on Ofsted agenda since 2007

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Downing Street’s suggestion that Ofsted should inspect schools without giving them advance notice is not a new one.

The inspection body itself first mooted the idea of surprise checks in 2007, but backed down in the face of opposition from school unions, who said it would increase the stress on teachers. The idea was also criticised by parents, who said they would not be able to air their views to assessors if inspections were not flagged in advance.

Two years later, while in opposition, Michael Gove raised the prospect of “no notice” visits again, as part of wider proposals for a tougher inspection regime. Since taking office, Mr Gove and his team have attempted a radical overhaul of Ofsted – whose assessments have been characterised by Dominic Cummings, Mr Gove’s former special adviser, as “Potemkin charades”.

Mr Cummings, who left his post in January, took to Twitter on Monday to reiterate his criticism of the watchdog’s operations, which currently allow heads one to two days notice of an inspection visit. “Nothing in the world that works well works on Ofsted’s model,” he wrote. “It needs mega reform. Shift to [no notice inspections] will spark it”.

Under the current rules, Ofsted already has the power to undertake unannounced inspections if it has particular concerns. In January, Sir Michael (Wilshaw) announced a “rolling programme” of such visits to schools where standards of behaviour were thought to be too low.

The 21 schools accused in connection with the “Trojan Horse” scandal were inspected with only 30 minutes notice, prompting new questions about whether their governance failings might have been discovered earlier by a surprise inspection.

This is not the first time Ofsted has been in the political spotlight. Earlier this year the education secretary – who approves key appointments to the watchdog – was accused of political interference when he refused to extend the tenure of its current chair Sally Morgan, a Labour peer. It was speculated at the time that Mr Gove wanted to replace Lady Morgan with Theodore Agnew, a Tory donor.

The watchdog has also had to fight off criticisms from right-leaning think-tanks such as Policy Exchange, who have put forward suggestions for wide-ranging reforms of the inspectorate including a greater use of data and better training for inspectors of schools.

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