An inspector calls

  • 4th April 2024

Durell Barnes discusses the implementation of the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s new inspection framework and highlights what to watch out for


It is important to remember the function of an inspection framework. It is there to provide assurance to government, to parents and other stakeholders that schools are complying with requirements and providing high-quality education (in terms of teaching and learning, pupil achievement and wellbeing). It is also there to provide assurance to schools that they are being inspected against consistent standards and that the outcome of inspections – reports – provide a proper endorsement and recognition of the work undertaken by school governors, leaders, managers and support staff.

And at this particular moment, after Ofsted and ISI inspections were put ‘on pause’ for special training relating to mental health awareness, we should remind ourselves that inspection is not supposed to be about fear and that in an ideal world, inspection is something which is undertaken with schools and not done to them.

But inevitably, schools will want to put their best face forward and so I’m going to suggest some things which they might want to watch out for. And I’d argue that the inspectorate will want to put its best face forward as it implements the new framework – and there are some things the inspectorate might want to watch out for.

Wellbeing to the fore

It’s worth pausing to remember the context of the new framework which comes in the wake of growing Department for Education emphasis on wellbeing arising from significant societal trends including the issues arising from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Everyone’s Invited and Black Lives Matter.

Successive chief inspectors have worked with the sector towards the improvement of the inspection of wellbeing with the emphasis they have chosen to prioritise during their tenure: Dame Christine Ryan ensuring the rigorous inspection of safeguarding in schools, Kate Richards focusing on the voice of the child, and Vanessa Ward putting the 2004 Children’s Act definition of wellbeing at the heart of this framework.

There was an extensive consultation on the framework, as there is about to be on the complaints procedure, and during this the ISI outlined the values and principles which underpin the framework. These are not all new, but it’s good to have them clearly articulated. Where schools are most likely to feel the changes on the ground is in terms of manageability – they are required to produce much less before an inspection than they used to be (indeed the old ISI portal has been closed) – and in terms of collaboration – they are likely to find that school leaders can accompany inspectors on health and safety walks, or to lesson observations, or to be involved in work scrutiny. Anecdotal evidence (we rely on anecdote because the delay in publication of reports means that orthodox QA procedures are not yet in process) indicates that where teams are confident, the inspection experience is not dissimilar to previous frameworks, and inspectors are interacting extensively with teaching and support staff and pupils and engaging with a considerable range of documentation to ensure compliance both in terms of policy and implementation.

Where schools will see a significant difference is in reports. Definitive conclusion cannot yet be drawn as (at the time of writing) only a couple of dozen reports have been published. The structure of reports was amended in light of the consultation with the sector. And we know that there are no ‘aspect’ judgements. So, no use of ‘excellent’ or ‘outstanding’ under the old headings of pupil achievement and personal development. However, published reports indicate that the word term ‘good’ is still prevalent, featuring on average nine times per report (usually in relation to achievement and progress). ‘Effective’ has become a common adjective, featuring on average 13 times per report – but no criteria exist for the use of these qualitative adjectives.

Getting it right

Compliance with the regulations is reported under each of the sections, rather than separately. Approximately one-fifth of reports published so far have regulatory failings, but it is evident that inspectors have exercised ‘proportionality’, that is, exercised leeway when minor matters have arisen which were easily rectified. However, such ‘near misses’ are recorded in reports and governors will want to continue to reassure themselves that leaders meet the requirements of Part 8 of the Independent School Standards Regulations (ISSR).

Strengths of schools are implicit in reporting, but the coveted ‘significant strength’ has been identified in only a few reports so far. This is causing some alarm in schools within a sector widely recognised as among the beat in the world, and an impressive export for UK plc.

The right order

In terms of the priorities of inspectors, when schools are seeking to put their best face forward, there are certain things they should watch out for.

First, the changed focus on leadership and governance. It’s important to acknowledge that the ISI has, after the consultation, confirmed that it fully appreciates the distinctions between the functions of leadership and management on the one hand, and governance on the other. But it’s also important that school governors and leaders appreciate that the whole inspection is undertaken through the lens of Standard 8 (the quality of leadership of and management in schools). If you were in any doubt about that, let me tell you that in the reports published so far ‘governor’ or ‘proprietor’ appear on average 11 times and ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’ appears on average 55 times. The framework is explicit: it “places the responsibility of the school’s leadership and management and governance to actively promote the wellbeing of pupils at the centre of ISI’s evaluation of the school”; and don’t forget that, as under previous regimes, “leadership and management refer to leadership throughout the school and does not refer only to senior leadership”.

Management of risk is a major focus – ‘risk’ appears on average 10 times in each of the reports published so far, but there are some phrases that all schools should note and think on: “Leadership must safeguard and promote the wellbeing of all pupils through effectively identifying risk of harm and take appropriate action to reduce risks which are identified” and “Leadership should have the appropriate skills and knowledge to ensure that they appreciate the prevalence of potentially harmful behaviours and therefore do not consider avoidable harms unavoidable”.

Cultural life

As heralded by the ISI, there is an explicit focus on the culture of the school. In training materials we are steered directly to research emanating from Harvard on “what makes a good school culture” (put simply, it is about the aims and ethos of the school, how they affect decision-making and what the impact is on the ground). By the way, this is not the only ‘set book’ which appears in the framework and schools should familiarise themselves with this and the others –we haven’t had references to anything other than statutory documentation before. They include What makes a good culture? from the University of Harvard, The Good Childhood Index, published annually by The Children’s Society and the Gatsby Foundation’s Gatsby Benchmarks, as well as The Magenta Book, published by HM Treasury – but I have yet to meet anyone who has read this.

Pupil view too

Another subtle change is the explicit promotion of a particular approach: “The inspection framework promotes the active seeking of pupils’ views as part of the day-to-day life of the school”. Schools are getting much better at securing the views of pupils (and other stakeholders, including parents and teachers) and at sharing them with governors, although they are not always as good at evidencing what they do as a result or feeding back to those consulted. It is evident from reports that the ISI commends schools which base action plans on ‘dynamic’ self-evaluation which has included consultation of pupils (and parents and staff).

Schools seeking to put their best face forward will recognise that while outcomes for pupils are the inspectorate’s main focus, reports are written with the inputs into these at the fore, that is, judgements are about whether governors and leaders act effectively to ensure regulatory compliance, including in terms of pupil achievement, and the wellbeing of pupils.

The right look

As I stated earlier, at the outset of a new framework, the inspectorate wants to put its best face forward too. We can see that clearly in the way in which the new chief inspector at Ofsted is operating in his new role. The ISI will want to think about whether it is reasonable to identify only rarely ‘significant strengths’ in such a successful sector. And it will be important to ensure that no additional requirements which go beyond what is necessary to comply with the regulations ‘creep in’, for example, as a result of recreation and health being part of the inspection framework. The ISI will want to preserve the primacy of the judgements of highly qualified and experienced inspectors on the ground (who should in my view be named on reports as they are with Ofsted). It will want to make sure that reports, largely stripped of anecdote and judgement words, are meaningful and helpful, especially to parents.

It is also important that the ISI doesn’t become too distanced from its schools. There is no apostrophe in Independent Schools Inspectorate because the inspectorate does not belong to the schools. And the inspectorate must be independent and able to inspect without fear or favour. But as the wellbeing of pupils is the key priority of the inspectorate and of the schools, they should be working in conjunction. That doesn’t just mean that the inspectorate should be listening, although that’s important and it’s great when it does. But it should, above all now, be approachable and willing to assist schools in ensuring that they are doing what’s required. Much thought about how to do that is required given the withdrawal of the regulatory commentary and the helpline for schools.


Durell Barnes is head of governance and compliance at educational consultant RSAcademics.

Durell Barnes

Keep Updated

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest news.