On being inspected…

My name is David and I’m a school inspector.

There, I’ve said it.  I should add that I inspect for ISI (the Independent Schools Inspectorate), not Ofsted; I should also add that I not only enjoy inspecting schools (I really do think it is the best professional development around) but I also value the process of being inspected. Done well and inspections can be mutually beneficial experiences; done badly and the damage done to those involved can be incalculable.

I used to be a governor in a state school which was long overdue a visit from Ofsted.  When I was there I think it is true to say that ‘being Ofsteded’ featured in so many conversations among staff and the Senior Leadership Team that it bordered on an obsession.  And yet I sympathised with the school: the inspection hung over the staff daily, sometimes distorting perspectives, but ensuring that the school was not only ready, and also able to gain outstanding in each of the grade descriptors, was of fundamental importance to everyone attached to the school.  Even as a governor I spent hours in meetings and going on training to ensure that I was ‘Ofsted ready’.

It’s different in the independent sector.

Schools are inspected, on average, every five years (although there are interim inspections between full inspections) and they are given a little under a week’s notice of the inspectors calling. Because of these timescales staff do not spend much of their working week worrying about inspection; instead, they can focus on teaching.  If it is a ‘full, integrated inspection’ it means that every aspect of the school is inspected.  Imagine how important, and how thorough, preparation has to be when you are not only dealing with rules and regulations governing a school, as well as the quality of teaching and learning, but also the wellbeing of hundreds of young people boarding in the school.

We were recently inspected and we had a team of 12 inspectors here for the best part of a week.  They can, in theory, ask for anything at all, ranging from the minutes of a meeting dating back years, to access to any part of the school site. It can be an exhausting experience. But, driving the whole process, is the desire of each inspector to leave the school in a better place, with a stronger understanding of itself, than it had before the inspection.  Throughout the preparation period, and during the inspection itself, there should be a sense of mutual respect and, importantly, reciprocal learning.  Inspectors (many of whom are serving Heads or members of SLT)  should leave the inspected school with new ideas about how to improve their own schools: if they don’t then they will undoubtedly question why they continue to give up so much valuable time.

When the final inspection report is published the school should recognise itself in its pages: each member of staff, each parent and each student, should be able to say: ‘yes, they understood us’.  There may be disagreements, and frank discussions, but acrimony only really begins to colour judgements when the teachers feel the inspectors did not take the time to understand how the school works.  That requires preparation on the part of the school, and time and patience on the part of the inspectors.  We hear a lot, these days, about what the independent sector can learn from the state sector, and much of that is justified.  But in the key area of inspection I believe that the state sector could learn from the independent sector, thus making the whole process more constructive, and less stressful.

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