‘Exempt’ schools are mainstream providers that we judge to be outstanding. Their inspection is a contentious issue!
Parents often ask us why we have not inspected their child’s school for a long time. Here’s an explanation of why that is and what happens when we do inspect them.
Many parents, teachers, leaders and governors tell us that they like the outstanding grade. They feel that ‘outstanding’ is aspirational, something to work towards and, importantly, recognition of exceptional work. But, equally, many also feel that exemption from regular inspection is not necessarily in the school’s or the children’s best interests. For some parents, the top inspection grade has been devalued.
For Ofsted’s part, we believe that the exemption has had its day and the time is ripe for the Department for Education to revisit the policy.
Schools should be forward looking and constantly seeking to improve. And, indeed, that’s what most schools do – including those graded outstanding.
But our concern is that, in some outstanding schools, standards have stayed the same, or even declined. This means potentially that other schools, with a lower grading, have improved at a faster rate and are offering a better standard of education for their pupils.
No legal basis to inspect
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, sparked interest from the media when she told the education select committee that some schools have not been inspected in 10 years. Some pointed the finger at Ofsted. I can see why. However, many people did not realise that this is exactly how it is set out in law.
Ofsted has no legal basis to include these schools in our cycle of routine inspections. This is difficult for many to understand. Indeed, I have found myself writing to parents to say that, as the law stands, we have no firm plans to inspect their child’s school, ever.
To make sure these schools are doing well for their pupils, we regularly risk assess them. Sean Harford has discussed this previously in his blog. We also take the length of time it has been since a school was last inspected into account as part of our risk assessment.
Then, using this information, the Chief Inspector or the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, can ask us to inspect a school, but only if they have concerns about their performance. This allows us to make sure that the school is performing as it should.
What’s the process?
One of our inspectors will call the headteacher the day before the inspection to let them know that it’s going to start. Often, we will not have inspected these schools in some years and the headteacher may not be the same person who led the school during the previous inspection. I inspected one school where the only remaining member of staff was the bursar!
The inspector will also explain who will be on the inspection team and share the draft timetable. They will ask school leaders to let parents know that the inspection is happening. Staff will encourage parents to give Ofsted their views about the school through our Parent View website.
When the inspectors arrive on site, they will do many things that schools are familiar with, like meeting leaders and governors, and carrying out work scrutiny and observations. They will also ask pupils and staff for their views. The inspection will focus on specific things to give the team an accurate view of the strengths and weaknesses of the school.
If the inspection team gathers evidence that suggests the school is still outstanding, then inspectors will write a letter to the headteacher explaining why the inspection was done and why the school remains outstanding. Often, the inspection will have been as a result of a dip in published standards, which we are satisfied has been addressed, or was due to a change in the school’s context.
If the lead inspector finds evidence to suggest that the school is not outstanding, they will stay in the school longer. They will gather more information about how the school is performing across a range of areas.
At the end of the inspection, our inspectors will invite leaders, including the CEO if the school is an academy, to observe the final team meeting when we make our judgements. As usual, the inspection will result in a published report that sets out our findings in full.
I find the inspection of outstanding schools to be some of the most enjoyable work I do. Often, leaders have been waiting a long time for their inspection. It offers them the chance to show and share the strengths of their school and hold professional, developmental discussions about what areas they need to address.
We will continue to make the case that we’d like to routinely inspect these schools. But, in the meantime, parents can rest assured that, within the restrictions set for us by government, we are doing all that we can to make sure that outstanding schools really are just that.
Her Majesty's Inspector (HMI) Dan Lambert is based in the South East of England.
Follow Dan on Twitter.