Standard bearers

  • 12th October 2023

Durell Barnes highlights the key changes for inspection of governance under the Independent School Inspectorate’s F23

Most boards should have benefitted from a briefing on the new inspection framework from their executive; if you haven’t done so, make sure that the clerk ensures one is in place for this autumn’s term. Any sense of security engendered by the school having recently undergone an inspection under the previous framework is misplaced; any school can be subject to an additional inspection – announced or unannounced – at any time and schools will want to be up to date in terms of inspection documentation should such a visit occur.

One of the key changes in the new framework is that there will be no one- word qualitative judgements in reports – ironically something heads and teachers in maintained schools have been calling for in Ofsted inspections, especially since the death of Ruth Perry after the inspection of Caversham Primary School. Long-standing governors will recall that governance itself used to be judged, initially on a seven-point scale, later on a four-point scale, but under the framework now coming to an end, governance only featured in reports if it was deemed to be a contributory factor to pupil outcomes in terms of their achievements or personal development. Under the new framework, although governance will not receive a judgement label as such, it will feature prominently owing to the prime focus of the new regime. In paragraph 16 of the framework, this is clearly set out: “the framework places the responsibility of the school’s leadership and management and governance to actively promote the wellbeing of pupils at the centre of the Independent School Inspectorate’s (ISI) evaluation of the school.”

It is claimed, and probably intended, that as this is already required under Standard 8 of the Independent School Standards Regulations (ISSRs), “this approach does not place any additional responsibility on schools or introduce additional requirements not already contained in the Standards’ (framework paragraph 19).”

This is probably disingenuous as there will be at least an expectation of extensive evidence demonstrating how this is done, as we shall see.

ISI has undertaken an extensive consultation since the publication of the draft framework last year, and this has led to some changes to the final version. The most important for governors is perhaps the confirmation of the understanding of the distinction between the differing roles and functions of governance and leadership/management, which had been ambiguous in the first draft. It remains the case that governors are expected to oversee and monitor the school executive, but not to interfere in day-to-day management of the school. It also remains the case that the ISSRs require the proprietor to ensure the effective implementation of appropriate policies and, as the buck stops with the proprietor (usually the governing body), that oversight and monitoring is expected to be robust and demonstrable.

There have been other amendments in light of the consultation although not all the objections raised were accepted. Reports will begin with summary findings, and the first section will be on “leadership and management, and governance”, the strategically placed comma confirming that these functions are not conflated. Greater prominence has been given to “education, training and recreation”, now forming the second substantive section, one where the lack of a qualitative judgement may be most missed. The proposed separate sections on pupils’ social and economic education and pupils’ contribution to society have been combined into one section on pupils’ social and economic education and contribution to society (including careers). These areas are all usually well established in schools but governors will want to know where responsibility for them lies and how senior leaders will report on outcomes in this area. The final section of the report will be on safeguarding (no longer “protection of pupils from harm and neglect”. The other (third) section remains pupils’ physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing. No references will now be made to “serious causes for concern”, a probably welcome adjustment in light of the issues surrounding the Ofsted report on Caversham Primary School. And none will be made to “exceptional practice”, although we are promised nuanced reporting to include references, where appropriate, to “significant strengths” – I foresee some disagreements where none are identified in ostensibly successful schools.

We have already seen that the framework emphasises the importance of Standard 8 of the ISSRs. Many governors have found it difficult to agree exactly how to approach this one and the advent of a new framework provides a good opportunity to discuss this with the executive. Paragraph 17 of the framework reminds people that: “Part 8 of the ISSRs places a duty on the proprietor to ensure that persons with leadership and management responsibility at the school: demonstrate good skills and knowledge appropriate to their role so the Standards are met consistently; fulfil their responsibilities effectively so that the Standards are met consistently; and actively promote the wellbeing of pupils.”

Evidence of meeting the Standards is generally well developed in schools through reporting to governors, use of templates like the AGBIS regulatory checklist, and governors’ visits to the school (properly logged and recorded, ideally). But the demonstration of good skills and knowledge appropriated to (leadership) roles and effective fulfilment of responsibilities has always been rather more challenging. This can involve governors knowing what leadership job descriptions include, understanding the interview process for such roles, and awareness of the performance management systems, trends they highlight and how appropriate professional development is identified. The new framework emphasises that “leadership and management refer to leadership throughout the school and does not refer only to senior leadership” (paragraph 28) and so the monitoring and oversight involved is extensive and tests governors’ ability to ask questions in this area without interfering in day-to-day management of the school.

When we add into this mix the requirement for “leadership and management to actively promote the wellbeing of pupils at the school” it is clear that the school must have its own view of how wellbeing is actively promoted and how that can be tracked. Increasingly, wellbeing features in agendas for meetings of different groups at different levels of management, not just on the pastoral side (heads of houses and heads of year) but also on the academic (heads of departments) and co-curricular (heads of enrichment areas and others) sides. There are some subtle changes to the requirements of leadership also, for example, the aims and ethos of the school must be known to pupils (framework paragraph 40) and policies must be understood by staff and pupils. This is likely to result in some schools reviewing how their aims and ethos are communicated and in devising more accessible versions of some policies (ISI has not yet specified which this requirement applies to).

Self-evaluation will continue to be an important part of the inspection process. This is not new, nor is the stipulation that “inspectors will consider a school’s self-evaluation in any form that schools use for their QA processes” (framework paragraph 14). In the past, schools have tended to find it convenient to use the format for self-evaluation provided by ISI. At the time of writing (beginning of the summer holidays), ISI had indicated that they will provide “a template document for schools to use should they wish to, which we are happy to do in the form of overall guidance and prompt questions”. It might have been helpful for this to have been available in time for schools to work on it over the summer holidays, but ISI has made it clear that whatever mechanism schools use, it shouldn’t be just for inspection purposes, and governors should be actively involved in the self-evaluation process: “Inspection forms part of the wider assurance framework and should not be seen as the only form of QA. Internal school QA, captured in dynamic self-evaluation and review format, can support schools in their pursuit of excellence and provide assurance to governors and relevant external agencies (framework paragraph 12)… ISI believes (inspection self-evaluation) can work alongside schools’ internal processes and that there is a benefit when internal and external systems speak to each other (framework paragraph 14).”

So it’s clear that governors should be interrogating schools’ self-evaluation processes.

ISI is directing schools to heighten their risk assessment approach to all aspects of school life, including wellbeing. Paragraph 45 of the framework states that: “leadership must safeguard and promote the wellbeing of all pupils through effectively identifying risks of harm and take appropriate action to reduce risks that are identified.”

Paragraph 47 expands on this, stating that: “This may include adapting existing risk strategies as necessary to manage the risk to pupils’ wellbeing of pupils experiencing harmful behaviours and attitudes… 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.”

Governors will want to assure themselves that leadership in the school has processes in place to follow this guidance and to evaluate their effectiveness – and that senior leaders understand what is meant by “do not consider avoidable harms unavoidable”.

On a related note, the new framework stresses the importance of school culture: effectively, compliance is a matter of the implementation of appropriate policies within a culture based on wellbeing. The chief inspector, Vanessa Ward, likes to stress that this is not an “add on” to the ISSRs, but that culture runs through them. In ISI training materials there are references to what makes a good culture, citing the Harvard Graduate School of Education report of the same name which gives a framework for assessment based on a school’s aims and ethos, how they inform decision-making and how they are felt on the ground. ISI has always inspected schools in the light of their aims and values, but it is more explicit and clearly emphasised in the framework – and governors will want to see this reflected in schools’ self-evaluation.

The Inspection Handbook gives some indication of how this will feature in inspections. Paragraph 18 states that “ISI’s careful consideration of pupil survey responses gathered on a range of inspections suggests that there are different ‘levels’of school culture.” Essentially, Level 1 is where all indicators are that everything looks and sounds positive, and Level 2 identifies concerns behind the facade, but they are dealt with appropriately. The wording of Level 3 is worth reproducing in full both for its content and its tone: “Some members of the school community (and this may be a small number) are impacted by negative and damaging behaviours such as racism, misogyny and bullying. Experience may be ‘secret and separate’, and evidence may be harder to see. This aspect of school life may be hidden from view and requires very effective mechanisms in place for hearing from pupils and staff. Evidence may be located in the safeguarding, behaviour, bullying and complaints logs… in the small negative percentages in questionnaires and negative comments included among a larger number of positive comments. Deep listening and noticing are required to access this level.”

This approach became evident in many inspections in the latter part of the outgoing regime and governors will want to know how school leaders are satisfying themselves that they are aware, insofar as is possible, of such levels of discontent. This relates closely to the importance placed by the framework on pupil voice: “This inspection framework promotes the active seeking of pupils’ views as part of the day to day life of the school (framework paragraph 20)… Many schools have already developed very effective ways of listening to their pupils, hearing from them and noticing what supports or hinders their flourishing. Inspection reports recognise where this is working well, and the school is actively promoting the wellbeing of pupils (Paragraph 22).”

So governors will want to know how pupil voice is sought, acted on, responded to – and reported to the board.

There’s a great deal for governors to take on board here. But it’s not their role to direct any of this, they need to assure themselves that the school executive is aware of what inspectors are particularly concerned about and interested in, that they are seeking evidence both of their compliance with regulatory requirements and the high-quality outcomes for pupils in terms of achievement, personal development and especially wellbeing, and that they are evaluating their performance in all these areas and reporting on that to the board.

Some schools will feel that their existing committee structures are not appropriate, but I would advocate considering how, where and when different elements are reported under your current structure before you think of reinventing the committee wheel spokes. The box above provides some practical suggestions about what evidence will be needed under each section of the new framework and it may be helpful to ask if you feel these lists are sufficient and appropriate, and where in your structure these might be reported – or if a new structure is needed. It is impossible to be exhaustive about this kind of thing and I would welcome comments on this aspect (and any other aspect) of this article.

All boards can usefully reflect on these suggested reporting areas and whether they seem appropriate to their schools (has anything been forgotten?) and if they can be adapted to your reporting structure. It’s important to remember that such discussions can be held with the school executive with a view to enabling them to ensure that reporting allows the governors to monitor and oversee their work without overburdening either party. And if some, any or all of this seems irksome, remember that even if the new framework, while not seeking to add to your work does add to demands by requiring more evidence of it, it also recognises the importance and impact of governors’ monitoring and oversight role.

Unusually, the framework recommends some reading for school leaders. In addition to the Harvard report above, there are The Good Childhood Report and Gatsby Career Benchmarks and (somewhat obscurely) HM Treasury’s Magenta Book. You may like to ask your executive what they made of these. In discussing this, they may lament ISI’s decision to discontinue the highly informative Commentary on the Regulatory Requirements. Happily, ISI’s former head of legal and compliance is continuing to publish A Practical Guide to the Independent School Standards and an updated version is now available.

Durell Barnes is head of governance and compliance for educational consultancy RSAcademics.

Keep Updated

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