Gavin Williamson urged by HMC to drop school inspection plans

HMC General Secretary Dr Simon Hyde has written to the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to ask him to drop plans to restart school inspections in January. He explains his thinking in more depth in a blog below his letter.

Dear Secretary of State,

In normal times, independent schools are strong advocates of robust and meaningful inspection regimes. We accept the need for accountability and welcome the opportunity to share and celebrate all that is excellent in our schools as well as to reflect on what we can improve.

These are, however, very far from ‘normal times’. School leaders, teaching and support staff as well as pupils and parents are under enormous pressure as we deal with the local consequences of the global pandemic. In these circumstances, your decision to instruct Ofsted and ISI (the Independent Schools’ Inspectorate) to resume school inspections in January is a cause of grave concern. It suggests a frame of mind divorced from the reality of our schools’ present experiences.

Deflecting colleagues’ attention at this time from the day job is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. We believe that there should be a moratorium on routine inspections until September 2021.

Compliance is, of course, important, and exceptions may need to be made, especially where safeguarding concerns come to light. But the broad principle should be to allow all schools to prioritise teaching and learning, pastoral support and well-being and the myriad intricacies of managing positive Covid cases, local lockdowns and the need for some staff and pupils to self-isolate.

We do not believe it is unreasonable in these circumstances for you to heed the call of our colleagues in the state sector and to delay the date on which inspections are resumed.

HMC and other independent schools have been there throughout the pandemic supporting key workers to carry on their core business, and the least we can expect is the same support from our government.

Yours sincerely

Dr Simon Hyde


Dr Simon Hyde writes: “I have to confess to being a fan of school inspection. As a head of department and senior manager, inspection was a useful tool to promote school improvement, as an inspector it was a constant source of fresh (and stealable) ideas, and as a Head, it ensured an uninterrupted few days of calm when everyone apart from me was too preoccupied to pay me much notice.

“There are many reasons why our schools are better places than they were twenty years ago, why teaching is better and why pupils’ experiences are so rich and fulfilling. One of these reasons is certainly school inspection.

“If I am honest, I would have to confess that the role of inspection in school improvement in the independent sector has been declining, although that is partly a reflection of the excellent job that has been done. Schools now invariably have a well established culture of continuous improvement. It is part of HMC school’s DNA, so it does not need to be either spawned or imposed. It is an error, I think, to assume that the inspection regime schools required in the 1990s is right for the 2020s, but that is a topic for another time.

“Amongst colleagues in the state sector, there is understandable reluctance to see the return of inspection teams in January. The DfE’s rationale is reasonable - the need for accountability and reassurance for parents - but schools’ responses are powerful. The pressure on staff, pupils and school leaders is immense. None of us has ever experienced anything like it and none of our schools are functioning normally.

“Independent schools are not, of course, inspected by Ofsted but by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), whose inspection teams are drawn significantly from colleagues either leading or teaching in independent schools. This element of peer review is an enormous source of strength and a great opportunity for professional development. However, in the current circumstances it is also a weakness.

“ISI has been instructed to prepare for a resumption of inspection in January along with the state sector. The problem is twofold. First, the ability and willingness of schools and heads to release colleagues to join inspection teams during a period of unprecedented disruption is doubtful to say the least. And second, how safe will our schools be for retired colleagues who make up a significant proportion of the remaining pool of team inspectors?

“Inspecting schools in the current circumstances is wrong. Exceptionally, there may be a need to verify and check safeguarding and compliance, but as our colleagues at ASCL have written: “Schools must be allowed to focus on managing safety protocols, identifying learning gaps and helping children to catch-up, without the additional burden of the full weight of our excessive accountability system.” This has to be the right approach and one that even Inspector Goole would understand. Let us hope that Mr Williamson will reflect.”