Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or who inspects the inspectors?

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

School inspections have loomed large in my life recently, as we had a team of inspectors from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) come and visit us for what seemed like an eternity to check our compliance with the independent school standards and all their associated regulations, as well as the quality of the education we provide.

Of course it wasn’t an eternity, with the first contact being early on a Monday morning when a lot of discussion with the lead inspector takes place by phone, and then the team of six inspectors was with us from Tuesday morning until the end of Thursday. Although the days of ultra-heavy-handed inspections leading even to the suicide of headteachers seems thankfully to have passed, visits by inspectors continue to be a source of intense pressure for school leaders. But who are these shadowy figures of the education world who come and conduct school inspections?

To those who don’t work in schools, it might come as a surprise to learn that there are several bodies involved in the regulation of education The best-known is of course Ofsted, but there are other bodies also licensed by the government to undertake school inspections. The Independent Schools Inspectorate, as its name implies, is a body that can undertake inspections of independent schools on behalf of the Department for Education. In broad terms, this is the organisation that conducts inspections of about 1000 of the generally larger and better known independent schools.

ISI was founded in 1999 to provide a parallel service of school inspection to that which was operated for state schools by Ofsted, which had been founded a few years earlier. These days ISI also provides an accreditation scheme for British schools overseas and conducts educational oversight inspections on private further education colleges who sponsor students needing a visa to enter the UK. So much for the institution of ISI, but what about the people who actually pitch up on the doorstep of the schools to conduct inspections?

Inspectors themselves all have substantial experience in schools at a high management level. The lead inspectors (known as Reporting Inspectors in ISI) are often heads who have retired early from schools to become full-time inspectors and a number of them also inspect for Ofsted. The ‘team inspectors’ who work under the guidance of the Reporting Inspectors are usually also experienced heads and deputy heads. This ‘peer review’ element of the inspection process is a particularly valuable part of the ISI model and one that is admired within Ofsted too. The training for those who work as team inspectors is comprehensive and thorough, and that for Reporting Inspectors even more so.

Schools don’t get any notice of impending inspections these days, and an enormous amount of work is done by Reporting Inspectors before any contact is made with the school. My own recent experience demonstrated how thoroughly the Reporting Inspector had prepared before telephoning me, as all of our required policies had been checked by him to make sure they were up-to-date and compliant. This rigour characterised every part of their visit and so it came as a surprise to me to read in the education press that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, was apparently critical of ISI. The article claimed that Ms Spielman thought the ISI to be insufficiently demanding of schools, so I went online to check. I found the letter that Amanda Spielman had written to the Secretary of State for Education and actually her criticism seemed to be reserved for the DfE itself for not commissioning (and presumably paying for) Ofsted to do a greater number of monitoring visits, observing what the ISI inspectors do ‘on the ground’. This was very reassuring to read, as I can promise you that, having been on the receiving end of the process very recently and also been part of inspection teams myself, all ISI inspections are very (very!) thorough.

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