The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI)

1.  The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is a body approved by the Secretary of State for the inspection of schools in membership of the Associations of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). As a body independent of government, ISI aims to provide an informed commentary on education issues as well as providing a high-quality inspection service. It regularly responds to consultations and inquiries, as well as working with all of the main political parties on education issues.

2.  We responded to the Select Committee's previous inquiry into school accountability, and would reiterate our comments to that inquiry. We add the following comments in line with the topics under current consideration.

What the purposes of inspection should be (relating not only to schools but to all organisations, settings and services under Ofsted's remit)

3.  We believe that inspection should have two purposes: (1) to secure conformity with minimum standards, for the benefit of those that organisations are designed to serve and (2) to promote improvement.

4.  Improvement that is secured by dictating the processes or procedures that organisations should follow has only limited success because it stifles creativity and restricts the possible routes to excellence. Inspection should instead focus on identifying areas for improvement within an organisation and recognise the strengths that can be further utilised to secure the desired outcomes.

The impact of the inspection process on school improvement

5.  The impact of inspection varies according to the type of school and other support systems in place. The previous incarnation of the Select Committee, in its report on School Accountability, raised concerns that "the Government's 21st Century School White Paper signals even greater complexity in an already overly complex system of school accountability and improvement initiatives". ISI had already responded in similar terms to Government consultations on the report card proposals, and pupil wellbeing indicators. Inspection to date has led to significant improvements in the education, care and welfare of pupils and the public reporting it provides enables parents and others to make informed choices, enabling a much stronger partnership between schools and parents than existed previously. Inspection is especially effective when inspectors can spend time on direct observation of lessons and other activities, scrutinising work, and in direct discussion with pupils and staff. It is on this first hand evidence that secure judgements can most readily be made. However, the increase in complexity of regulation in recent years has placed increasing demands on inspector time to a level that is now disproportionate to the time spent on helping schools to improve the care and education that they provide.

The performance of Ofsted in carrying out its work

6.  The size of Ofsted, coupled with its budgetary constraints in recent years, has in our view led to a loss of flexibility within its operations which has made joint working more difficult for all involved. We would cite two examples. Firstly, the quality assurance of the inspection of British schools overseas. Ofsted have required in-depth on site monitoring overseas, equivalent to that carried out for its statutory remit. This increases costs to all concerned in a voluntary and non-statutory process. Secondly, the inspection of Association boarding schools which transferred to Ofsted from CSCI in April 2007. This represents a very small piece of work for Ofsted and did not appear to readily fit into its existing processes. Consequently, from the point of view of those being inspected and ourselves working with Ofsted on inspection of the same schools, the work has suffered from organisational difficulties. Certainly, the system works better now than at the start, but that has taken many hours of time and effort by Ofsted staff, schools and ourselves. Even after three years schools receive inconsistent experiences of these inspections. We would stress that Ofsted staff, including HMCI, have sought to resolve difficulties whenever they have been raised but because of interdependence between systems and processes designed for a range of different functions change can be slow to achieve.

The consistency and quality of inspection teams in the Ofsted inspection process

7.  We do not have direct experience of inspection teams but many Ofsted Additional Inspectors (AIs) apply to ISI to work as Reporting Inspectors. Our intensive training includes a number of assessed tasks and we have found that some AIs do not have a secure grasp of the full range of regulatory requirements.

The weight given to different factors within the inspection process

8.  We welcome the Government's recent announcements regarding refocusing inspection on the key features of education. Removing ancillary elements, such as community cohesion, prevents schools being penalised for issues which may be beyond their direct control. The regulatory context is crucial because of its impact on inspector time. We strongly support the need for a clear set of minimum regulatory standards for schools but for these to be effective the requirements should be clear and concise, based on outcomes required rather than processes involved. In particular, all duplication of requirements should be removed. We would reiterate our suggestion that independent schools should be subject to a central core of regulations that apply to all settings and that take account where necessary of any additional requirements for early years and boarding welfare. This should remove the overlapping of different sets of regulations that make it extremely difficult for schools to know precisely what is required of them. Regulations should be easy for all to understand what is needed, not just those who are specialist in the field of regulation. We would also suggest that inspection judgements should be left to the professional discretion of the lead inspector, and not subject to limitation by the inspection framework.

Whether inspection of all organisations, settings and services to support children's learning and welfare is best conducted by a single inspectorate

9.  We recognise that the current practice of collaborative working has advantages but continue to question whether one organisation can deliver excellence across such a wide remit and develop the strength in depth to meet the needs of multiple inspection frameworks applicable to a wide range of very different settings.

The role of Ofsted in providing an accountability mechanism for schools operating with greater autonomy

10.  For maintained schools and similar provision within Ofsted's remit, it is reasonable for the government to insist on accountability through inspection to confirm that public funds are being spent wisely and to good effect. However, for wholly private provision, inspection to safeguard the education and welfare of children against minimum standards should be organised separately through a government approved inspectorate to take account of their different context.

October 2010

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