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Private school inspections: choose the right cake and you’ll be OK?

Posted on: 24 Feb 2016
Posted by: Elizabeth Thomas

A recent Guardian blog portrays visits from the Independent Schools Inspectorate in a way that few who have been involved in the experience would entirely recognise... Elizabeth Thomas, Headmistress at Abbot's Hill School, gives her response.

The reality of being inspected by ISI is hugely more nuanced than the recent Guardian blog suggests but, crucially, would any school really welcome the apparently charming and benign vision presented?

My experience of ISI inspections, both when being inspected at various points over the last 20 years and when working as part of an inspection team, does resonate with some aspects of the blog but I suspect that few school leaders or governors would embrace the cosy regime suggested in the blog.

Certainly inspection under the ISI framework is something that is done very much with a school rather than to a school but the idea that criteria are vague or difficult for staff to find out about is not only totally incorrect but it flies in the face of the openness and transparency that characterises and gives strength to ISI inspections. At my school staff have used the readily available ISI grade descriptors for teaching to develop their own subject specific criteria for what they expect to see in what we have called (inspired by England hockey player, Alex Danson’s advice at our annual Commemoration Day to adopt a ‘Gold Medal Mentality’) Gold Standard Lessons. Many independent schools take up the support offered by ISI Consultancy’s seminars on effective teaching and learning and effective lesson observations and ISI is keen to encourage all ISC schools to have at least one trained team inspector on the staff.

The writer is correct in identifying the importance of the peer review element of ISI inspections. This means that those who form the team have clear and current insights into what characterises successful independent schools so it is hardly surprising that the team inspecting her school were at ease with the children! However, the inspection team also looks at Leadership and Management in detail so the idea that independent schools are not expected to carry out their own quality assurance in a rigorous and demonstrable manner is inaccurate to say the least. It is true, nevertheless that the sharing of good practice is something that happens naturally as an outcome from many ISI inspections and I am more than happy to credit some of the initiatives I have introduced during my career to the many fantastic ideas I have been privileged to pick up when on inspection.

So no, ISI inspectors are not generally seen as akin to Voldemort but neither are they teddy bears. Most are, as the writer acknowledges, hard-working serving senior managers who have been professionally trained and who give up their time to put in long hours before, during and after an inspection. They do this not just for the sake of their own professional development but, firstly because they value and support the sector and want to make sure that those responsible for forming important judgements about it know and understand it and secondly because they share a genuine interest in school improvement. The good relationships that are evident when team inspectors later encounter the Heads of schools whose inspections they have participated in are a testament to the mutual respect that is required and cultivated in this system.

I would say that many aspects of an imminent ISI inspection are discussed ‘passionately’ as a school awaits the arrival of the team. This is natural as we want the team to have a chance to see our schools and our pupils at their best in the short time available but teachers are naturally a reflective bunch and I have met few who don’t welcome constructive advice on areas that ought to be a focus for on-going improvement.

However, I can confirm that the choice of cake, or even better a wide choice of cakes is something that the inspection team greatly appreciates, especially as the time for drafting the report approaches.

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About Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth is Head of Abbot’s Hill School in Hertfordshire and Vice Chair of the GSA Education Committee. She has worked in both maintained and independent schools for over 30 years.