I was appointed to the ranks of Her Majesty’s Inspectors in September 2001. A seasonal highlight was the annual national conference which took place in early January. This was a chance for colleagues to catch up, to share their current thinking in terms of subject and survey work and listen to a keynote from the Chief Inspector. It was at one of these events that the concept of risk assessment for schools was covered. I think it would be fair to say it was received with a certain level of scepticism but it was good to see HMI being given the opportunity to engage with the process and try to strengthen it. I thought it was a good idea to consider whether there were a broad range of factors that indicated whether a drop in a school’s performance should trigger an inspection.
During the discussion in my group one HMI posed an interesting question and one that has been at the nub of the regularity of school inspection ever since. ‘How much can you ease the foot off the inspection accelerator pedal before schools do not feel as though Ofsted will inspect them?’ It is worth pointing out that around 60% of provision was judged ‘Good or better’ at the time. This figure according to Ofsted’s latest annual report is 86%.
The HMI discussion was illuminating because it separated those who felt inspection needed to be very regular because outcomes were on the whole not sufficiently embedded in some schools against those who wanted to retreat from regular inspections entirely and be more targeted. One HMI correctly anticipated that it wouldn’t be long before HMI were regularly leading inspections. This didn’t occur in any large scale until September 2005. As it turned out the regular inspection group won the day and have continued to do so despite occasional shifts towards short inspections and the exemption (recently amended) that Outstanding schools should not be included in the usual cycle.
The steady rise in ‘Good’ or better schools commenced in the early years of the Coalition government when Sir Michael Wilshaw was HMCI. To achieve such a strong rate of improvement during the austerity years is remarkable but it has left me wondering how hard should Ofsted be pressing that accelerator pedal now?
In many respects the position teaching staff, leaders and governors take on this will depend on how they view the purpose and impact of inspection. Some believe that standards will only be maintained and/or improved further if inspections take place regularly and often cite it is what parents and carers want, at least that’s what Ofsted tell us. Others feel as though the accountability framework, of which inspection is an important pillar, has got a little out of kilter and want to see a period of less frequent inspection and regulation because it is too costly and places too many burdens on schools and possibly stifles innovation. There are shades of this argument which I am sure take place now and again in staffrooms and homes up and down the country.
So where do I stand on the issue and how has this changed over time? I believe inspection should now be a force for good rather than improvement. Sadly, there are clear risks to a small but important proportion of children and young people when they do not receive the quality provision we would all expect. But we need to acknowledge that, according to Ofsted, the quality of provision has never been better and with this improvement must come a higher level of trust in those delivering the improvement. The regularity of inspection needs to change to accommodate the improvement because if it doesn’t the Chancellor is going to indirectly force some dramatic changes on Ofsted when all government budgets get reviewed in the near future as we emerge from the epidemic.
Ensuring children and young people are safe in their lives is an important consideration for every service provider in the country. Where it is not Ofsted has played a crucial role in highlighting the weaknesses and its statutory powers are crucial in ensuring the highest possible standards. This is what interest parents and carers the most. Sadly, these risks will always be there and as such warrant a fairly regular unannounced one day visit from a trained inspector every two years to review the safeguarding arrangements, including attendance and exclusion. During their visit they would comment on the atmosphere and events that they observed during their visit and would write a short letter summarising their findings. A key element of this letter would be an indication as to whether Ofsted should revisit for what I am calling a ‘Health Check’ review. Bearing in mind the current level of quality nationally I would expect a low proportion requiring the Health Check Review.
The Health Check Review would be led by HMI with the support of another inspector. Their visit would be announced, perhaps giving a couple of days’ notice, and would include a follow up to any concerns raised during the safeguarding visit as well as a more general review of quality including some classroom visits. This visit would last two days and could be converted to a ‘Section 5’ full inspection if there were significant concerns. If all seemed well, then the inspectors would simply publish a short letter indicating why they were satisfied. The next visit would be the bi-annual safeguarding visit.
There will be occasions when Ofsted will need to undertake a programmed full inspection of a range of schools and settings. This could be because of continuing concerns from the safeguarding and Health Check visits that had been undertaken but also because the Chief Inspector needs to report annually to parliament on the quality of education and care nationally. Inspecting across a range of provision and contexts is important in this regard. I am not convinced it is necessary to formally inspect all schools and settings to gain this oversight.
A good example of a new way of working is currently being deployed by HMI as they visit 1000 schools to hear from school leaders on how they have coped during the epidemic. I expect HMI to be in listening mode during these visits unless they observe serious concerns. This is the type of approach the Health Checks I am proposing would adhere to.
Finally, I would like to see a strengthening of the subject and survey visits that were a staple diet of HMI work when I joined the inspectorate. Utilising HMI with appropriate expertise on these visits enables Ofsted to respond quickly and to provide important insights for subject and school leaders across a range of issues.
So, the approach to inspection I am proposing, acknowledges the new reality of improved schools and settings while not losing sight of the important issue of safeguarding. It is a progressive approach that escalates when issues are identified. It doesn’t treat all schools and settings the same but does provide the Chief Inspector with sufficient insights to enable the annual report to parliament to be robust, convincing and current.