Inspection: are we content with simple compliance or do we want real school improvement?

It is that time of year again when ISI produce a revised handbook and hard-pressed directors of studies and academic deputies are tasked with scrutinising the changes and the possible implications (especially if the next inspection is just around the corner!).   When the coalition government came to power we were promised a ‘bonfire of the regulations’, but a quick glance at the latest handbook reveals that the reality is something closer to a smouldering ember.   Yes, there have been changes, but in true ministerial fashion the thinking is far from joined up; plenty of statutory guidance has been removed but the replacement regulations have yet to pass through parliament until the end of the year!

Will January 2013 at last bring a significant reduction in the regulatory burden, perhaps removing the shackles that have compromised the inspection service for far too many years?   Sadly, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.   The regulations are being tweaked, but the obligation to report on well over a hundred separate requirements will not create the space in inspections to be creative and innovative.   ISI will continue to do its job, and do it very well within these constraints, but many schools will still feel short-changed by a system designed to seek compliance rather than school improvement.   The question now is, do we accept the inevitable and simply grin and bear it, or does the latest regulatory ‘threat’ present a school improvement ‘opportunity’?

The September update from ISI outlines the procedures for the training of new inspectors.   Demand for training is very high and smaller inspection teams and the focus on whole school and regulatory issues mean that very few of our senior staff will find places on training courses.   This is not new, and we are now faced with a generation of recently appointed HMC heads who have not inspected and who will have little chance of doing so in the future.   This might come as a relief to some, but for those keen to develop these skills and insights, is this really the kind of inspecting that most senior staff in our schools really want or need?  

A very high proportion of our schools are now compliant and it would be surprising if this compliance were not maintained over the coming years.   During the consultation period for the current inspection cycle HMC argued strongly for a compliance-only model of inspection, one that would strip regulatory inspection down to the bare minimum.   Such a scheme would leave time and resources for a non-regulatory school improvement process, free from government interference and one where more inspectors could be trained to provide a bespoke service to schools; a service that could offer individual departmental review, review of senior management teams etc. carried out by experienced practising professionals supported by rigorous and accredited training.

This was a bold suggestion and in the end it was perhaps too radical to achieve cross-association agreement.   But should the idea simply be left to ‘wither on the vine’ or does an apparent period of regulatory calm provide the opportunity for HMC to devise its own school improvement service?   Would it really be that difficult to train our top middle and senior managers and organise teams to look at specific departments and aspects within our schools?   What if we re-introduced a modest training levy to fund the training and employed the services of team builders and lead inspectors?   What if we finally accepted minimum compliance as a government ‘evil’ but put our energies and creativity into a bespoke service where inspectors could report frankly and honestly to schools, without the need to adopt the formulaic phraseology essentially designed to pass the Ofsted censors and the aspirant lawyers amongst the parent body?

At a recent inspection forum organised by Peter Hamilton at Haberdashers’ in London the suggestion that bespoke peer review of departments should be re-considered was enthusiastically received.   Such a scheme would enable heads to target resources at specific departments, thereby taking advantage of subject expertise within HMC as a whole.   In the medium term this might be achievable through ISI but the inspectorate faces many obstacles from government and the requirement to achieve cross-association consensus.   Perhaps this is the time for HMC to be bold, to take the initiative and to develop a system of peer review that will take us back to the very start of independent inspection: simply making good schools better.   We have the people and the resources; the question is; do we have the nerve?

Ian Power, Membership Secretary, HMC

  • Joe Nutt

    If “making good schools better” is the aspiration, then I honestly don’t think it is advisable to adopt the “school improvement” tagline, which in research, commercial and international terms, means something very different.

    But there is one recommendation I would make about where to focus efforts, were the kind of peer review you envisage to become a reality. The research picture globally agrees that the quality of teachers is the single most important factor contributing to a child’s experience of high quality schooling. Simultaneously, the research picture on what actually constitutes outstanding teaching also agrees that subject expertise and knowledge, scholarship, are critical.

    Most of the recent school improvement strategies used in the state sector draw upon marketing practice or psychological research to devise techniques that promise to motivate disaffected children. They rely on what Frank Furedi calls a “new psycho-pedagogy – learning styles, brain functioning, thinking skills, emotional intelligence or multiple intelligence” when what the research says is needed in a high quality classroom is at least secure academic knowledge and at best real scholarship.

    Were HMC to develop a peer review, school-to-school model of school development which would set an international benchmark, then I would hope a clear focus on academic scholarship would distinguish it from existing models.

  • Ian Power

    Joe Nutt is right to focus on the importance of teaching and learning in our schools. The model of peer review envisaged in this proposal would concentrate on support for heads of departments charged with the oversight of teaching and learning in their own area of subject expertise. It is these middle managers who deserve the very best support and resources to enable them to monitor and improve learning in the classroom. This can be achieved by making use of the best practitioners, those at the cutting edge of pedagogy and innovation, in a way that is both objective in its assessment of performance but also supportive of those individuals seeking to improve their own skills and in turn the achievements of their students. There is a great deal of excellence out there in schools across all sectors, what we need to do is share the keys to success and enable our best middle managers to promote and develop the leaders of the future. School improvement might mean something else in a wider context but an ‘improved’ school is certainly one where teaching and learning must be better.