No-notice inspections: a question of trust

“Forty-odd hearts might be heard thumping when at last came the sound of wheels crunching on gravel and two top hats and the top of a whip appeared outside the upper panes of the large end window. … Her Majesty’s Inspector was an elderly clergyman, a little man with an immense paunch and tiny grey eyes like gimlets. He had the reputation of being ‘strict’, but that was a mild way of describing his autocratic demeanour and scathing judgement. … What kind of man the inspector really was it is impossible to say. He may have been a great scholar, a good parish priest, and a good friend and neighbour to people of his own class. One thing, however, is certain: he did not care for or understand children.”

Thus Flora Thompson recalls school inspection in Lark Rise to Candleford. The image came to mind as I read of the intention to consult on moving to no-notice inspections for all maintained schools. (No such discourtesy would ever be visited on independent schools.)

The reason given for this in the Ofsted announcement is that the notice period for inspections has been gradually reducing over time, but that the difficulty of gathering parent views prevented Ofsted moving fully to no-notice inspections in the last consultation. Ofsted states that, with the Parent View website operational, the move can now be made. The small number of parents who have used this website suggests that there is a long way to go before Ofsted can gather as much information from parents as it does currently through the questionnaires that are generally completed in huge numbers by parents on the first day of an inspection under the current regime and which give a good sample of parent views about the school.

Another, parallel trend is not mentioned in the Ofsted announcement. At the same time as notice has been reducing, Ofsted inspections have also been inching towards becoming more of an integral part of a school’s improvement process, with the main focus being on the validity and accuracy of the school’s own self-evaluation. The starting point for an inspection has increasingly become the school’s own view of itself and the job of the inspector is to investigate the extent to which this is an accurate view, notably by doing joint lesson observations with senior staff in order to validate internal judgements.

Inspection is still tough and stressful but it has become a process done with the school’s leaders, not done to them.  Only in schools that are doing badly is the inspection not carried out in this way.

It will be much more difficult to carry out inspection as a collaborative quality assurance process. Instead the system will return to being quality control, rather than quality assurance, in a way that was long ago rejected by industry.

In her 2002 Reith Lectures, entitled A Question of Trust, Baroness Onora O’Neill drew the parallel between the type of accountability prevalent in the public sector and the lack of trust in public servants. Her notion of intelligent accountability, applied to education in schools and colleges, certainly embraces a rigorous inspection system, but it is one that takes place in an atmosphere of trust between inspector and inspected. All too often, however, the lack of consistency between inspection teams and the use of data driving grades to the exclusion of human judgement and good sense have made for some very unintelligent accountability, resented by the inspected and leaving few, if any, traces of improvement in the schools visited.

It was a mistake to exempt schools judged outstanding (40 per cent of which are not outstanding at their next inspection) from future inspections and it is a further mistake to move entirely to no-notice inspections.

A sensible inspection system works with the grain of a school’s self-evaluation, building in knowledge of the school from a local HMI (as used to be the case with HMIs who were District Inspectors) and exploring with the school’s leaders areas in which the school is doing particularly well – and how these could be shared with other schools – and areas that need improvement, what the school should be doing about them and where it might find excellent practice to assist the process.

Tough – yes; rigorous – yes; but done with the school and clearly marking out areas for improvement and ways in which that improvement might be achieved. Only in schools that do not have this capacity to improve would the inspection be done differently.

Rather like the head in the film Clockwise, I had a clear view of the school gate from my office when I was a head teacher. In the distant past, it was called a study, but there isn’t much time for studying in head’s offices now, unless it would be to study who is entering the school car park and whether they might be an inspector – in a top hat and carrying a whip, of course.