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