Inspection revisited

Back in February 2010 I wrote a blog post entitled the purpose of school inspection. It can be found via the link to February 2010 posts below. On the first day of this term we received the call from the Independent School Inspectorate and they duly visited the School. Later this week our final report will be published. I am delighted to report that it is so very positive but the purpose of this post is to reflect back on the value of the process.
As I wrote in February the early stages of inspection planning are all about the paperwork. We were pleased that this hard work paid off but the report merely has the one line on this – “The school met all the regulations of the Independent Schools Regulations 2010”. Thus, some 400 regulations have been met, many hours spent over the paperwork and in the end just one line. However, the consequences of getting this wrong are huge, a regulatory fail in any area limits the judgements you can gain for things such as leadership and management or for welfare, health and safety and thus it is important that all regulations are met. Many of them are clearly very important, particularly those around the safeguarding of children but I do wish that following this exhaustive check of all of the paperwork we could lodge it all with the inspectorate as compliant and then only need to produce it again for checking if the regulations change or if we wish to alter our policies and procedures. In this way we could have the documents returned to us for updating if any alterations were made and this would make the whole task much simpler.
Of all the paperwork we did, by far the most valuable was the school self-evaluation. As a school, we place great store on this sort of reflective practice and this was a very helpful part of our preparations. We have always undertaken parental questionnaires so were pleased when the inspection questionnaire backed up the findings of our own over many years. In fact, our own version is much more searching in its scope and with the impressive response rates these become an important part of our development planning.
Then, the inspection visits themselves. As an inspector myself, I always feel for them – so much to cover in a relatively short time. Their friendliness and professionalism was very much appreciated and at the end of the whole process we received a report which was both fair and extremely positive. In an ideal world, as I said in February, more time would be spent on lesson observation. By no means all of our staff were observed and this is a pity after all the work that they put in. However, all can take real pride in the report which will be published this week as excellence is reported in so many areas.
One final frustration though. Why is it that independent schools do not use the same judgements as Ofsted? All of the local state schools I know have huge banners outside their buildings quoting from their Ofsted reports, ‘outstanding’ is oft-quoted. And yet, the descriptors for independent schools are different, we are not being compared with state-provision but with other independent schools. The argument for this seems to be that parents want to be able to compare independent schools with each other. However, whilst there is clearly value in this, many parents choose between us and local state schools, even more so at primary school level and it becomes incredibly difficult to do this if the inspection reports are not comparable.
In conclusion, our excellent report makes all the work that has gone into preparing the School for this worthwhile. It is clearly encouraging for fellow professionals to recognise all the excellent work which goes on in the School. It is pleasing that so many of the things which we have worked on in the past four years are mentioned as strengths of the School now. I do though still feel that there should be a far greater focus on the classroom. In the School’s inspection towards the end of the 1990s over 300 lessons were observed and most staff would have been seen about three or four times. This time not every member of staff was observed and not many more than 50 lessons will have been seen. The focus has shifted to the paperwork much more. Academic departments are no longer reported on directly, again this is a retrograde step in my view.
For the future, I think that it is almost inevitable that inspections will become solely about the regulations. The advantage of this though will be that schools should be able to call in teams of fellow professionals to report on areas for school improvement in a supportive way but with no published report beyond the regulatory compliance. This will enable schools to keep inspection of key areas focused and useful.
For those interested in our final report it will be put on our school website this Friday and shortly afterwards will be displayed on the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate website. It is well worth a read!