What is the purpose of school inspection? This has loomed large in my thoughts in recent weeks as we have been busy preparing all of the paperwork for an Independent Schools’ Inspectorate inspection in the weeks or months ahead. We will get five days notice of when this will be.
Inevitably we have had a huge amount of paperwork to check through. This is a useful exercise from time-to-time but it does appear that increasingly school inspection is becoming a check of whether the paperwork ticks all the right boxes rather than looking at what is really going on in schools.
Thus, every document will be checked by the inspectors and the handbook to inspection gives plenty of detail as to what it should include. This takes time to check but in the end I suspect most schools will satisfy these requirements. However, I suspect that many parents will be surprised to hear that during the inspection itself only a relatively small sample of lessons will be watched. It is no longer the case that every teacher will be observed. I suspect many staff will be left short-changed by the inspection process after all their hard-work in preparation. Not every Head of Department will be spoken to by the inspectors and there is only limited time to look at the School’s wider provision.
Surely this is wrong? In my view it is in the classroom that inspection should be concentrated. It would soon become clear if a school did not have adequate procedures but this would emerge from observation rather than hours pouring over paperwork with a tick list. More importantly, more time spent in the classrooms or on looking through the pupils’ work would enable inspectors to write at length about the teaching and learning. This is the most important aspect of any school and surely much more important than if a policy contains a particular word or not! A recent inspection report I saw had just half a page on the teaching in the School yet over two pages reporting back on the various ticklists!
To me the purpose of school inspection is for fellow professionals to come into a school to observe the pupils’ experiences, to check that they are making appropriate progress and to ensure that they are having a suitable range of opportunities made available to them. It is clearly important that schools are compliant with the regulations but this will often be evident from time spent in the classroom. Schools should be trusted more to stay within the regulations – occasional spot-checks outside of the inspection regime would ensure that this is the case. Paperwork checks do not need fellow professionals to visit the school to undertake. Inspectors then could concentrate on using their professional judgement to add value to the whole process.
A useful analogy to use would be a comparison with a retail outlet like John Lewis. How do I know that they are an excellent store? It is not by looking through their company paperwork or their policies for each eventuality but it is because when I visit their store I am met by people keen to help, keen to provide service and this ethos is clearly evident each time I visit. An inspection of a school should concentrate more on whether there is a clear ethos in the school, on whether the pupils’ needs are being well-served and on whether the whole experience for both pupils and their parents is a positive one. The key to John Lewis’ success is not whether an inspector has counted the requisite number of till points, toilets, first-aiders etc. It is that when you are in the store you meet fantastic service from their employees. Why should schools be any different?