Education: Now the inspector calls are less cosy

More rigorous inspections are being introduced to independent schools.
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Independent schools are working hard this autumn putting together new measures for regulating the sector, now that they have taken over the Government's job of inspection.

Ministers have accepted that a hard-pressed Ofsted is unable to make inroads into the job and, in a new spirit of partnership, is content to leave the majority of independent schools to inspect each other. Ofsted will concentrate its efforts on those causing concern outside the main independent school associations.

Of course, that's not how the Department for Education and Employment announced the change in the summer. Estelle Morris, the Schools' Standards Minister, in a fit of full-blooded spin doctoring, pronounced that the Government had introduced tougher new measures for inspecting independent schools, to "boost standards and safeguard pupils' welfare."

"How the Government could sell it as a crackdown on the independent sector, I don't know," said Vivian Anthony, general secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, which represents most of the country's major public schools. "This is a huge move in our direction."

Ofsted will no longer go into schools registered with the Independent Schools Council, which is the large majority. Its role is being reduced to monitoring the inspectors.

This is a responsibility independent schools have been seeking for many years. However, it is true that, as part of the agreement the Government has required them to put in place, there is a much tougher inspection framework.

Ever since 1977, when Shirley Williams, as Labour Education Secretary, withdrew Her Majesty's Inspectorate from the independent sector, the independents have been seeking a kite mark - some official sign of state approval to replace the "recognition as efficient" accolade that that system bestowed. Now they have it.

Independent school heads are largely philosophical about the Government's dressing of events. The gloss, they realise, was for party political reasons. Although the Government has talked about a new era of partnership with the independent sector, it doesn't want to be accused of cosying up too much. Patrick Tobin, chairman of HMC and headmaster of Stewart's Melville College, Edinburgh, said: "I suppose the DFEE has to be able to look its political masters in the eye and say `this is not a cop out'."

The Government is handing over the reins because Ofsted's inspection of the independent sector is extremely costly, and finding the manpower to do it has proved problematic. In effect, Ofsted has not been into the independent sector for the last 18 months. This arrangement will allow it to concentrate on the 20 per cent of schools, many of them small, which are not registered with the Independent Schools' Council (ISC).

Ever since the withdrawal of HMI, independent schools, anxious to retain credibility, have put systems in place to inspect themselves, and in more recent years have developed these to run alongside Ofsted's work in the sector. HMC in particular has sought to ally its own inspections closely to the Ofsted framework. But, in all fairness to the Government, when the new Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) takes over from Ofsted in January, it will be be in charge of a much more rigorous system.

Schools will have to make their reports publicly available, and apply standards of judgement, inspection frameworks, and codes of practice consistent with Her Majesty's Inspectorate. The new body will have to ensure quality control and maintain proper objectivity. More specifically, all schools will be inspected every six years (currently ISC schools are inspected every 10); there will be longer inspections with larger teams; they will be required to set up a system for monitoring lead inspectors; lead inspectors will be required to appraise their own inspection team, and ensure that all judgements have corporate approval of the team; judgments on standards must be linked to pupils' abilities - e.g. a selective school might be achieving high standards because its pupils are bright, not because its teaching is good.

The sector's own inspections have long been accused, by sections of the educational establishment, of being little more than cosy fireside chat. Also, that reports pulled their punches and held back from overt criticism of senior management. The difference between state and independent school inspections, so the joke goes, has been the difference between a shark and a dolphin.

Independent schools would refute this view, and there have been times when the most elite schools have had aspects of their provision called into question. In an HMC inspection report earlier this year, for example, Eton was told that its teachers should use less "talk and chalk".

Teachers, it said, should lecture less, and vary their teaching methods to prevent boys from becoming too reliant on their teachers' guidance, though John Lewis, Eton's head, believes traditional methods are often effective

However, the schools' associations welcome the public opportunity to set up a more robust system under official sanction which they believe can only improve their credibility.

Nevertheless, the sector is not prepared to swallow the Ofsted model hook, line and sinker. There are several aspects of its own systems which it wishes to retain, particularly the element of peer review.

HMC schools will no longer see serving headteachers leading inspections, but practicing subject specialists from similar schools will be retained in teams. "I think there is a big difference in our approach," said Mr Anthony.

"Ofsted is concerned to establish what standards a school achieves. Our first and foremost objective is the assistance we can give to a school to improve its performance. If a school doesn't like what the inspection team is saying, we look at their criticisms and try to do something about it."

Pauline Davies, head of Wycombe Abbey School, and chair of the Girls School Association inspection committee, said there was concern for schools not to feel battered and bruised by inspection (a criticism often levelled at Ofsted's inspections of state schools): "Because that negates the whole process. We want them to feel positive and to see how they can build on good practice."

Visits occur once in a blue moon

CHRIS WOODHEAD, the Chief Inspector of Schools, says there is a "stubborn minority" of independent schools (about 3 per cent) of "serious concern".

There are, in fact, hundreds of schools outside the main independent school associations, and while Ofsted manages many short visits to schools, it has been carrying out full inspections on no more than a handful each year.

The chances of a school being inspected regularly are therefore tiny. The Government is now hoping to concentrate its efforts in this unregulated sector.

Reports on leading schools, such as Roedean and Manchester Grammar, are invariably positive, while those at the opposite end of the spectrum often produce horror stories.

For example, in 1997, Ofsted penned a damning report of Quantock School, near Bridgewater, that the boarding school, which accommodated nearly 100 primary and secondary pupils, largely from Ministry of Defence families, failed to meet legal requirements on health, safety and welfare.

Unlike failing state schools, independent schools are not subject to special measures, and this will not change under the new system. Failing independent schools are issued with a notice of complaint, a legal document which sets out an plan, and time limits for carrying it out. Schools which take no action are struck off the independent schools register. This usually only happens when a criminal investigation is involved and there is little to stop a school opening at the same site, under a different name.