The future of the Independent Schools Inspectorate
Big news was broken at the Society of Independent Heads Conference in London on Thursday morning this week. Out of the blue came the revelation that the government wishes to align ISI inspections more closely with those carried out by OFSTED.
As the person responsible in my school for ensuring 'compliance' this news came as a bit of a blow. Much time has been spent creating the right policies, filling in the right forms and making sure that we tick all the inspection boxes. The goalposts are now to be moved completely.
But of course, I can't protest to the change on the basis of personal annoyance. If this is the right thing to do, then the change must go ahead. There is little argument that all schools need to be inspected rigorously and held accountable for the quality of the work that they do. Nonetheless, many in the sector have nagging doubts about the wisdom of adopting the OFSTED model for the inspection of independent schools. The OfSTED framework differs from the ISI one in several respects, including the following:
1. One day’s notice of inspections for schools.2. Judgements to be made on the achievement of pupils at the school; the quality of teaching at the school; the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school; and the quality of leadership in, and management of, the school.3. A judgement to be made on the overall effectiveness of the school.4. A four point scale for all judgements with the descriptors ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’.5. Publication of reports after all inspections including unannounced and progress monitoring visits.
Having looked into the matter, and despite the extra work that will be required in tailoring things at Oswestry to the way OFSTED works, I'm broadly in favour of the proposed changes. It makes perfect sense to have services - public or private - measured against the same, widely understood and nationally agreed, benchmarks. Just as it is sensible for a private hospital to have its work scrutinized in the same way as an NHS one does, so it is with schools.
Now I know there are many Heads who are worried that OFSTED-style inspections will fail to identify the special strengths of their particular institutions. Some independent schools specialize in teaching only the very bright, others in teaching the very weak, still others focus on sport on drama, music or outdoor pursuits. But, reassuringly, the OFSTED (2014) inspection framework does insist that reporting inspectors must 'also consider the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at the school.' True, compared to the very explicit inspection of 'a suitable range of extra-curricular activities and of links with the community' by ISI (2012) this sounds relatively muted, but it's there nonetheless.
The real worry, if there is one, is that the data driven nature of OFSTED inspections will lead to schools gaming the system, forgetting about the needs of the children they are educating and instead obsessing about ways to show year-on-year improvement. Posts like this illustrate the horrors that can result from a target-driven education system. I hope too, that OFSTED proves true to its word in not favouring a particular teaching style. Brilliant - sometimes eccentric - teachers have been able to get on with their craft unhindered by the need to follow the latest educational fad in independent schools. This pragmatic approach has been one of the great strengths of the sector. If this is lost, my enthusiasm for the proposed changes will vanish, but by then of course the cat will be out of the bag.