- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI)


  1.  The Independent Schools Inspectorate welcomes the opportunity to submit written evidence to this inquiry. ISI believes that a strong accountability structure supports schools improvement. Robust inspections based on objective measures and direct observations which result in published reports are essential in helping schools to provide high quality education and care and in securing public confidence.


  2.  The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is a body approved by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families for the inspection of independent schools in membership of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). ISI inspections report on the extent to which regulatory requirements are met, support school development and improvement and provide independent and frank reports to inform parents, schools and other interested parties. ISI inspects over 1,200 schools, educating over 500,000 pupils—80% of the independent sector in England. ISI also inspects a number of schools overseas each year.


  3.  ISI agrees with the principle that schools should be held publicly accountable for their performance. This accountability arises from two sources. Firstly, schools are, in addition to parents and carers, significant contributors to a child's development. This care for children at a crucial stage of their lives requires full accountability for key outcomes. Secondly, maintained schools are in receipt of public funds and therefore should be accountable for the way in which this money is spent and the outcomes achieved.

4.  Schools are, and should be, accountable to pupils, parents and funding sources. They should be accountable for what they claim to provide, for example academic education, pastoral care and welfare etc., and for their compliance with legal obligations. The outcomes should be effectively assessed through objective external review with full public reporting. Where such external review indicates failings then a range of measures, proportionate to risk but including closure, should be available to an appropriate body.

  5.  Internationally the range of accountability structures for schools varies greatly from undeveloped and superficial to detailed and specific, with requirements backed by external review (as in the UK). It is notable that many countries are investing considerable resources in developing UK type inspection systems.

  6.  In general terms, the current accountability system of inspection and reporting is fit for purpose. Parents and the public hold published reports in high regard. However, many associated areas on which inspection rests are complex and burdensome. In particular the variety of organisations and requirements both statutory and non-statutory involved in school accountability (eg SIPs, Ofsted, LAs, National Strategies), leads to duplication of effort and cost, and confusion for schools, parents and other stakeholders. Changes in the maintained school inspection framework in recent years have led to greater reliance on self evaluation and test and examination results. We would question whether the current inspection tariff for maintained schools provides sufficient opportunity for inspectors to directly observe practice in schools in order to test the validity of self-evaluation and to make a reliable assessment of the outcomes for pupils beyond test and examination results. The sheer number of regulatory requirements that should be checked for compliance cannot be reliably covered in the time available, relying instead on focusing on specific areas or where concerns may be evident.

  7.  Where education provision is increasingly collaborative with partner organisations, it becomes progressively more difficult to hold individual schools accountable for their performance. Clear reporting on the effectiveness of joint projects, including the management arrangements, should inform stakeholders appropriately.


  8.  The inspection of maintained schools by Ofsted and its contractors has been effective in increasing accountability of schools through public reporting. In particular Ofsted indicate that the measures for "failing schools" have raised standards and increased the rate of improvement. Independent inspection is the appropriate way of holding schools accountable, and of assessing the impact of government policy as well practice. To do this effectively the inspectorate must be well funded and resourced. Where funding is limited, inspection models may by foreshortened to the detriment of all.

9.  The inspection process should drive improvement, and give schools confidence that pupils are achieving standards consistent with reliable external benchmarks. However, where inspection prescribes methods or practices rather than focusing on outcomes, creativity can be stifled and innovation detered. This can slow improvement or even reduce standards. Parallels can be drawn with the practice of "teaching to the test."

  10.  Inspectors, as with any workforce, have a wide range of qualifications and experience. We would suggest that it is important that inspectors are well "matched" to the schools they are inspecting in terms of prior experience. Where care of pupils in residential settings is being inspected, inspectors from both education and care backgrounds should be included in the team so as to ensure that both areas of expertise are appropriately covered.

  11.  Inspections should be scheduled at an interval so as to ensure that typically a child cannot complete their time at the school without an inspection having taken place. Inspections must be sufficiently detailed so that they can provide a secure evidence base as to the outcomes for pupils and should result in a published report which is useful to parents and the public. The appropriate notice period for inspections depends on what is viewed as the purpose of the visit. If schools are to be "caught out" then there should be little or no notice. If schools are trusted, then some notice can be given for meetings to be scheduled (especially with governors, who are often not available at very short notice) and documents collated. An increased notice period also allows for a greater number of parents and pupils to confidentially express their views through questionnaires or other means.

  12.  Self assessment/self evaluation provides a useful indication of a school's ability to be self critical in identifying strengths and weaknesses. It can also be a helpful starting point for the inspection process particularly in terms of influencing judgements on leadership and management. However, self evaluation should be a starting point for rigorous inspection and not accepted without challenge. The results of national tests act as one of many sources for inspectors. Contextual Value Added scores act as a framework for schools performance but must be treated with some caution. In particular, CVA must not exclude the setting of high expectations for individuals or groups of pupils, nor mask differential attainment of different groups of pupils within the school.

  13.  We believe that attainment and ECM outcomes should not be viewed as in competition. However, attainment is objective and measurable, whereas qualitative "soft" evidence on wellbeing is less amenable to quantitative objective measures. Inspectors must balance these different types of indicators using their professional judgement.

  14.  Performance based inspections should be based on reliable and measurable indicators, and transparent guidelines should be available. The current "light touch" regime for some schools relies heavily on self evaluation and does not, we feel, sufficiently probe the judgements of the school, particularly in relation to care and welfare.

  15.  Indicators of underperforming schools include attainment, regulatory compliance and inspection outcomes. These are appropriate indicators but may conflict, for example, pupil attainment may be below target levels, but, in an improving school, the quality of teaching and pupil welfare much higher. Different indicators are "enforced" by different agencies, for example schools falling below the key government target of 30% of pupils achieving five good GCSE grades, may still be judged satisfactory or good on inspection because of positive indicators in other areas.

  16.  We feel that the current procedure for complaints about inspection is adequate, including the arrangements for review by an independent adjudicator. It is not clear though what influence data from the complaints process has on the development of future inspection models


  17.  Performance can only be usefully measured on objective indicators, including attainment. Qualitative indicators are best expressed in the context of an inspection report or similar document.

18.  The publication of league tables is unhelpful in many respects and evidence suggests that it has led to increased "teaching to the test" and narrowing of the curriculum. These tables create the illusion of reliability and comprehensiveness, especially to parents, that is not warranted.


  19.  The DCSF proposals for a school report card causes us some concern. In particular, there is significant potential for duplication and conflict with other published information. The proposed inclusion of qualitative judgements in numeric form is alarming as it could have a significant negative impact on a school yet be based on relatively "thin" evidence. In particular, it is not clear how the views of parents and pupils will be appropriately reported.

20.  If an inspection report is thorough and sufficiently detailed, with inspections occurring at suitable intervals, we see little need for this additional level of reporting.

February 2009

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 7 January 2010