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David Bell has a conciliatory approach but Ofsted is staying tough, says Rebecca Coombes...
David Bell has a conciliatory approach but Ofsted is staying tough, says Rebecca Coombes

He is not exactly a household name, but David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, can claim to be more popular than Britney Spears - in cyberspace at least. The Ofsted website is attracting more hits than hers in the UK.

'It's nothing to do with me,' protests the mild-mannered Mr Bell, who has headed the inspectorate since May. The Glasgow-born chief is the polar opposite to Chris Woodhead, his larger-than-life predecessor.

You would not catch him, for example, alienating 15,000 teachers - about 2% of the profession - by calling them failures, as Mr Woodhead famously did. The conciliatory Mr Bell would no doubt have celebrated the fact that 98% were not failing.

'He is first rate,' says Graham Lane (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association's education executive. 'He wants change based on a proper analysis of the evidence - he doesn't waste his time chasing headlines.' Another commentator claimed Mr Bell was a great conference speaker to keep delegates awake in the graveyard post-lunch slot.

It helps that Mr Bell is seen as 'one of us' by many in the education sector. A primary school teacher, then head teacher, he made his mark as chief education officer of Newcastle City Council from 1995 to 2000. The city - one of the worse performing councils in England - was soon a testbed for New Labour's emerging education policies.

Unlike Mr Woodhead - who now writes for The Daily Telegraph - there is something unmistakeably Tony Blair-ish about Mr Bell.

It is not an area he is keen to explore, insisting 'categorically' that he has not suffered any kind of political interference. 'I said when I was first appointed that this job is not really worth doing unless you have that independence,' he says.

Mr Bell says his philosophy of 'evolution rather than revolution' does not mean a softer approach.

'We haven't stopped handing out unpalatable messages where it is required. Some of that noise around the system early on was as much as anything to do with the unfamiliarity of inspection. Schools have changed and now understand what it is about.'

Mr Bell joins at a key time. In recent years, Ofsted has radically expanded its responsibilities to include teacher training, education authorities and early years provision - with mixed results. Resistance to testing is still strong at grass roots level. By Mr Bell's own admission, the provision of special needs education remains the biggest unresolved tension between schools and councils. Added to that is the ghost of Mr Woodhead, who persists in carping from the sidelines about inspectors going 'soft'.

An immediate challenge is to oversee a new inspection framework - once every six years for the best schools and every four for the less successful institutions.

However, Mr Bell warns Ofsted will not die a death simply because of 'good teaching and management'. 'In the world of accountability in which we live, inspection is just the name of the game,' he says.

On testing, he warns: 'Do not forget the world we came from. Up until the early 1990s, there wasn't published performance information about schools, or Ofsted reports. Do we really want to go back to a world where that kind of information is not available?

'Would schools have come that far without targets and strategies to aspire to? I don't think so,' he adds.

Mr Bell does not appear to be either a zealot or enemy of that other great bugbear, the onward march of private sector involvement. He acknowledges that intervention has shown the public sector is at least as effective in transforming performance as private companies.

'Look at Liverpool's education department which was given quite a hard time by Ofsted. It wasn't subject to private sector intervention and it has made significant progress,' he says.

He believes council education departments improved dramatically in the wake of the early private sector interventions. 'The fact the government demonstrated it was prepared to intervene had a galvanising effect.'

Mr Bell has an undeniably Blairite 'third way' approach: 'I think we live in a world of fuzzy government. The old days when government told you what was going to happen - a clear line of control - have gone.'

He adds there may be further scope for private sector involvement, for example, in curriculum support.

For education departments hoping for a break from what seems like a constant revolution, he says: 'I don't think you can say 'stop the world I want to get off'. The notion that if they would only give us five years everything would be fine - I don't think it is going to happen.'

But he has a warning shot for the government before they run with any new initiatives: 'We see the positive benefits of lots of initiatives - literacy, numeracy, key stage three - but you need to think carefully about which initiatives give best value and which you don't you do.'

From his eighth floor office in London's Aldwych, Mr Bell looks very much at home. It looks like John Major's invention could be in safe hands for another 10 years.

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