The purpose of school inspection?

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?

Why do so many independent school pupils make the Olympic team?

There has been a good deal of discussion in the press in recent days about the number of athletes in the British Winter Olympics team who have attended independent schools. An example is this article in the Times from Matthew Syed( )
These articles suggest that success in achieving this level in sport is down to parental income or class.

This is far from true in my opinion. Currently I am reading the book ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. He looks at successful athletes in a wide range of sports and he finds that there are two crucial factors in sporting success. The first of these is one’s date of birth! His thesis is that those players who are born just after an age-group date cut-off are much more likely to be the most successful athletes of the future. So, in football the eligibility date is September 1st and in the year he looked at in the Premier League there were 288 players born between September and November and only 136 born between June and August. This he claims is because the older athletes get more opportunities, hence more chance of success and we write off too many athletes too soon.

His other theory is that it takes 10,000 hours to become world class in any sphere. Thus, the more opportunity one has to get involved the greater the chance there is to be successful.

This brings me back to the fact that so many competing at Olympic level come from independent schools. This is no great surprise given the amount of time and effort independent schools devote to school sport. Most independent schools recognise the value of sport and spend many hours on it. Thus, it is no surprise that the increase in opportunity provided by the sector means that so many world-class athletes emerge. Indeed my own school has two ex-pupils competing at the winter games as well as one who competed in the last summer games.

The way to rectify this situation is to increase the support for sport in all schools. In independent schools fixtures are played every Saturday and for us we ensure depth by putting out up to four sides in each age group. Thus, there is every opportunity for the most able to thrive as well as for all to enjoy their sport. Sadly, there are few maintained schools still offering regular fixtures every single weekend of the school year. Some pupils will go to local sports clubs but others will be lost for good to the X-box and Playstation.

Of course, many independent schools do try to open up their facilities to such clubs. In my school our cricket coaches are involved in a number of inner-city primary schools trying to ensure that there is greater opportunity for all. In this way we hopefully start some more pupils on their way to the 10,000 hours we are told that they will need to be successful. There are maintained schools, I know, where sport is still important but successive governments have sold off playing fields and cut curriculum time for sport and this as much as anything is why so many athletes at the Olympics hail from independent schools.

What is the harm in selection?

For the past week we have been interviewing boys for places at the School. As part of this process, I meet with their parents whilst two colleagues meet each boy. The key decision we have to make is whether the boy is suitable or not to join the School in September. Inevitably some talk of ‘pass’ and ‘fail’ but we do not see it in that way at all. What we are trying to do is to give our professional opinion as to whether boys will be able to thrive in our school and will be able to cope with the pace of work. Thus, in the end those who we say no to have not ‘failed’ – it is just that we cannot meet their needs in our environment.

Selection is very much a ‘taboo’ word in education. No political party is prepared to consider it for our national education system. Yet, British independent schools, which international surveys see as the best in the world, routinely select their pupils. Lord Adonis spoke of wanting state academies to take on the DNA of independent schools yet rejected any notion of selection for maintained schools.

Why is this? The government allows universities to recruit on the basis of talent and indeed recruits into the civil service in a similar way. Every workplace in the country interviews applicants to ensure that they are suitable for their organisation. Yet, maintained schools cannot select those pupils who will fit with their ethos or with the pace of work or indeed for any meaningful reason. The upshot – those parents who can afford to, move near to schools which match their aspirations or their own ethos. Those that cannot do so are left marooned by the system. Private day schools like our own have many boys receiving bursaries and so whilst we select on academic ability there remains a genuine social mix often unseen in maintained schools in leafy suburbs.

Society as a whole has no problem with selection. Indeed, the manager of my favourite football team Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, is lauded for his ability to spot talent and then to develop it. Our philosophy as a school is no different. Our entrance interviews are designed to spot talent and then we work hard to ensure that we develop it over the years. There is no suggestion that Premier League clubs must work with all who want to play football, they just select those they want. Like independent schools they do a great deal of outreach work to ensure that they link with the outside world and help spread their values and the benefits of their coaching. As a school we help in local primary schools with cricket coaching in a very similar way.

In football, with leagues though at all levels, everyone who wants to play football can be accommodated. The experience of the committed amateur with little skill is no less enjoyable, no less worthwhile. Indeed the quality of coaching at many junior football clubs is truly outstanding. Funding is rightly channelled into this important area. Yet would any coach be able to work daily with both the very best and the weakest – would either group prosper if this were the case? If the authorities then set targets to measure performance which meant that the key focus was on getting the weakest up to a certain standard, would the best still thrive?

Last week the Government announced that it is to close the national Gifted and Talented programme. There will always be a place for such children in the independent sector. I hope that the end of this funding does not mean that these children are neglected elsewhere. Yet with the continuing focus on gaining 5 A-C grades for all, it is inevitable that the focus will be on this rather than stretching the brightest in our schools. We intend to raise further funds so that we can take in even more who would reap the benefits of selection. Not all independent schools select – this is the point, our education system needs to cater for pupils of all abilities just as the structure for sport in our country does.

It seems that it is only in education where one size fits all. However, if football ever goes for a comprehensive approach with no selection on the grounds of ability please put me down for a place at the Arsenal academy!