At The Chalk Face

23rd May 2014

Education Secretary Michael Gove has claimed that Ofsted should be given new powers to directly inspect fee-paying schools for the first time. Lisa Botwright looks beyond the rhetoric to find out what this really represents for schools and parents…

Michael Gove insists that opening independent schools to Ofsted’s all-seeing eye would send a “very powerful signal” to parents that every school in the country is being vetted “without fee or favour”. Addressing a conference at fee-paying Brighton College, Mr Gove claimed that only Ofsted is the “most trusted” judge of school standards.

“There is not one independent school in the country that would not greet Ofsted with open arms,” said Tracy Handford, Head of St Hilda’s, a small, independent prep school in Bushey. “Quite apart from the fact that ISI [Independent Schools Inspectorate] already perform regular, highly rigorous inspections; independent schools are subject to a far greater judge: the parents and the local community. In this area of North London, there is a proliferation of excellent independent schools: parents have a huge amount of choice. If the curriculum is not progressive and challenging enough, if results are not in the ascendance, if teaching is not passionate and inspirational, if the school does not have a caring enough ethos… parents will simply go elsewhere. In the short time I have been Head here, several small schools in the local vicinity have closed or merged. Old-fashioned market forces are a far greater indicator of school standards than any one-off Ofsted inspection could be.”

Parents applying to independent schools do not generally have geographical constraint, unlike those at the mercy of the severity of the culture of the maintained school catchment, where there is often little or no choice as to which school children attend (hence the astronomical prices for property around popular maintained schools) and the eagle eye of Ofsted is a valued and welcome measure of school standards.

Gove was less forthcoming in his speech about the fact that independent schools are, in any case, already subject to Ofsted. Indirectly, but emphatically, ISI inspection criteria must adhere to DfE guidelines, which are Ofsted agreed. Independent schools already defer to Ofsted and Ofsted already have the power to intervene.

A move to direct inspections is the next step, Gove argues, but this would be expensive, with tax payers (the vast majority, of course, parents of maintained school children) footing the bill. ISI inspections, on the other hand, have their costs absorbed by the independent schools themselves, and are carried out by teams of trained volunteers. Richard Cairns, Head of Brighton College, has highlighted “the very different worlds” of the two sectors; while current ISI inspectors are Heads and senior managers of independent schools and understand the very specific pressures inherent in their own world, Ofsted inspectors would need extra training and immersion to bridge this gap. Another cost.

A great many independent primary (prep) schools already forge close links with Ofsted. Schools that choose to enter their pupils for SATs exams, for example, will be regularly inspected by moderators; early years’ teachers are specially trained to meet statutory requirements on assessing how well children meet the DfE early learning goals, and face stringent checks that their judgments are consistent and secure.

Full and open accountability is crucial to any school’s success. But as the squeezed middle google independent schools until late at night, they already have a dazzling range of data to choose from. They will make decisions based not only on the latest ISI inspection report, but on everything from exam results to 11+ destinations, from the marketing department’s back catalogue of impressive news clips to the number of the Head’s Twitter followers; and that’s before they have toured the school and drunk expensive coffee with the Head. Attempts on the school’s part to make grandiose claims would soon be pulled apart by parents in-the-know at the next round of dinner parties.

Independent schools can only survive and thrive by exceeding the high expectations of exacting, ambitious parents, not just at the prospectus stage, but all the way through to 18. An Ofsted inspection might prove helpful, but would it just be another (expensive) document to read alongside the others? A side dish on the menu, not the main course.

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