Headmaster's Blog

School Inspections: a costly missed opportunity?

Just a few weeks ago BGS experienced its latest, whole school, ISI Inspection (equivalent to Ofsted in the state sector). A significant product of that experience is our Inspection Report that has now been published on both the ISI and BGS website. Everyone at BGS is delighted with the findings of our inspection; the report makes for a very pleasing read and is a fitting accolade for the work and achievements of all in our school community. But what to think of the whole inspection process?

The school inspection system we are all familiar with came into existence in the early 1990s, all be it with a steady stream of detailed amendments to the process and the standards that schools are assessed against. Over time, changes to the inspection procedures, as well as changes to the education landscape, have led to the situation where school inspection as we know it today has become a very expensive missed opportunity.
When I first experienced Inspection as a teacher, and in the early days of my work as an Ofsted Inspector back in the late 1990s, school inspection focused on what was happening in classes and how learning and provision could be improved for children. Such activities still form a part of school inspections but these days the process is dominated by the checking of school regulations. There is much less inspector time focused on the quality of provision in classes and much less dialogue between teachers and inspectors about what is, and is not, working in the school. These discussions, where they happened, were always the most valuable part of inspection. Today, as a consequence of the way inspections are required to be conducted, professional dialogue between inspectors and teachers is an increasingly rare event.
Since the 1990s we have seen a dramatic expansion in the number of statutory regulations that schools are obliged to meet. There are now over 400! This extraordinary number comes as a necessary consequence of well-intentioned legislation designed to keep children safe and establish base lines of quality in care and learning. Checking school compliance with all these regulations rightly takes a high priority come inspection time, but this is such a substantial exercise that we no longer have time or capacity in the inspection team to engage in the highly valuable discussions between teachers and inspectors where we shared and explored thoughts on what the school does well and how it could improve.
This is such a shame. Inspection was once about school improvement, today the experience reliably reports on standards of provision but misses out on the valuable opportunity to help individual teachers and school departments understand how they can be even more effective. Frustratingly, while school inspectors are mostly drawn from the ranks of experienced classroom practitioners, their work on inspection under the current regime would more effectively be done by well train financial or legal clerks.
This is increasingly recognised by Ofsted and ISI, we will (thankfully) see significant changes in the inspection process that school’s experience in the near future. The process of inspecting quality of provision and that of checking on regulations should (and will I think) be separated. Inspectors who have a teaching background should not be used to check on regulatory compliance, such is a waste of their expertise and an activity they are largely not suited for. ISI are already considering a move towards this model and we will hopefully see Ofsted bring in more regular checking of regulatory compliance in schools (every two years would be about right) with this done as an administrative exercise by appropriately trained clerks while the ‘teacher type’ of inspector focus on their areas of expertise and spend time with teachers in school, exploring and discussing in a collaborative manner, what teachers are doing well and what would be even better if…

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School