Independent Schools like Trent College and The Elms, are digesting the news from Michael Gove (Education Secretary), that they may be inspected by OFSTED in the future rather than by the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate (ISI).
Mr Gove promised to look into the school inspection system to ensure that Independent fee paying schools are inspected by OFSTED, which is currently the inspectorate for the maintained sector.
Many schools in the independent sector are concerned about the ‘consultation’ period being undertaken and the implications for schools in the independent sector. I too have major concerns about Mr Gove’s announcement, and at this point I must confess a vested interest; not only as the Headmaster of an Independent Junior School, but also as an Inspector for ISI, and former OFSTED inspector.
The Independent Schools’ Inspectorate is a non-for-profit organization, which inspects independent schools in England and across the world. The inspectors who work for ISI are very experienced serving or former Heads, many inspectors are drawn from OFSTED or have been former HMIs and all have had and receive constant training in new regulations and best practice. ISI is a truly independent organisation, but it inspects schools on behalf of the Department for Education, which legislates for the Independent Schools Standards Regulations. In other words, ISI inspects on behalf of Mr Gove already, but does so in an independent way. In addition, ISI is subject to constant monitoring and review by OFSTED, and each year receives a report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education (Head of Ofsted) to comment on the quality of the inspection process and reports. These reports are overwhelmingly complimentary about ISI and comment on the high quality of the reports and the inspection process.
Independent schools feel that the inspection process works well, is rigorous and fair and offers advice and critique by highly regarded inspectors who know and understand the independent education system. Unlike OFSTED, independent schools have to pay for their own inspections via an annual subscription to ISI. Schools generally receive 5 day’s notice of inspections, mostly so they gather paperwork and carry out parent and pupils questionnaires, which are sent anonymously. ISI also carries out a number of no-notice inspections. Ask any Head of an independent school about ISI, and they will tell you it is no easy inspection!
Having previously worked as an OFSTED inspector, I have some major concerns about handing over the inspection of independent schools to a government body.
Firstly, one of the huge strengths of ISI is the size and makeup of the inspection team. Led by a Reporting Inspector, the team is made up of inspectors, including serving heads. This aspect of peer review is crucial, both to give credibility to the inspection process, and to keep the inspection process routed in current practice and informed of current trends and pressures in schools. Whilst there is a certain amount of ‘box ticking’ in terms of ensuring schools meet the regulations, particularly regarding child protection and safeguarding, the major focus of the inspection is not to study league tables and SATS (which many independent schools do not participate in) but to gain first hand evidence from talking to staff, pupils and observing a cross section of lessons.
OFSTED, by comparison, sends much smaller teams in to inspect schools, for shorter periods of time. The OFSTED inspectors are rarely serving Heads and many have never been Heads. OFSTED is overwhelmingly concerned with data, rather than observing lessons, and measure all schools by the same yardstick. Independent schools, by their very nature, are diverse in the way they organise learning and adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of pupils in the school.
My fear, is that by inspecting independent schools in the same way as maintained schools, we will lose a great deal of knowledge and experience from serving Heads on inspection teams, and end up with short, bland reports that do little to either inform parents about the strengths and weaknesses of a school, and do even less in helping that school improve.
The National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and other teachers’ organisations have called for an end to the current inspection regime led by OFSTED and called for more serving Heads to work as OFSTED inspectors to ensure peer review is a key focus of the inspection culture. The state sector is concerned by both the quality of inspection teams, the focus of inspection teams and the lack of understanding some inspection teams have with school services.
My other fear is one of political interference. Independent schools in the UK are hugely successful and regarded as world leaders in quality education. One only has to look at the number of international students seeking to attend British schools, or indeed the expansion of British Schools overseas.
So why then, when the independent system is going so well, has weathered the economic downturn and is a world class British success is the education secretary seeking to mend something which isn’t broken?
Why then, would he seek to ask OFSTED to retrain and inspect independent schools, which they may not fully understand the culture, or worst still, be ideologically opposed to?
My fear is that in order to get a good OFSTED report, independent schools would be pressured into becoming more like maintained schools. Re-introduce SATS, narrow the curriculum to focus on maths and English almost exclusively at primary level, dumb down the teaching of non-core subjects, be forced to adopt the national curriculum rather than invent their own.
Why, when maintained schools and unions are calling for OFSTED to become more like ISI, is the Government proposing that ISI becomes more like OFSTED? Surely we should seek to raise the bar and not adopt the lowest common denominator?
Mr Gove’s assertion that OFSTED should inspect all schools, including schools in the independent sector, “without fear or favour” in order to send a strong message to parents is not so much Trojan Horse, as a coach and horses to ride rough shod over the independence of our most successful schools.