Should we be worried about the frequency of school inspections? – Keir Bloomer

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Earlier in the week, the Press carried a number of stories with headlines such as “No inspections carried out at 33 Glasgow primary schools in last decade”; not exactly snappy but the implication is clear.  Readers are obviously expected to deplore this failing on the part of the government or the Inspectorate.  The reason for this reaction reflects a view of the purpose of school inspection which is not, however, made explicit.

It assumes the existence of a consensus about the purpose of inspection, which does not exist.   Instead, there is merely an  unconsidered view that it must be a good thing.  If random members of the public were to be asked their opinion about why schools are inspected, the most common answer would certainly be about information for parents.  Parents with children at a particular school will be reassured to know that inspectors think it is doing a good job.  Those who take a more market-oriented view will believe that inspection reports provide information that is useful in choosing a school.

The current inspection regime does little to meet either of these expectations.  Schools can change quite quickly.  The arrival of a new headteacher, for example, can make a significant difference, for good or ill, over a short period.  In the case of a small primary school, the impact will be almost immediate.  Even in large schools, differences will become visible quite quickly.  A report that is even five years old is likely to say nothing of value from a parent’s perspective.  In many cases, even a two-year-old report will be seriously out of date.

In other words, if the purpose of inspection is to provide information for parents, all schools would need to be inspected at intervals of not greater than three years.  At the present time, there is no target for the frequency of inspections.  Traditionally, however, there has been a loose target of inspection on a ‘generational’ basis; that is within the period that a pupil would be likely to remain in the school – seven years in primary and six in secondary.  This target has never been achieved in recent times.  To meet a three-year target, the rate of inspection would have to be roughly trebled.  Even disregarding the disruptive effect, how many parents would see taking some two hundred and fifty more excellent teachers out of school as a sound way of improving the system?

Improvement is, of course, the other often-cited reason for inspection.  Apparently, a fair number of parents and members of the public think that the process of inspection automatically brings about improvement.  From the frequency with which politicians react to criticism of school education by promising more frequent and more rigorous inspection, many of them must believe this too.  The idea that the act of examination will of itself do good is, of course, very much like the idea that it is possible to fatten a pig by weighing it.

The notion that inspection brings improvement is eminently testable.  Schools that have been recently inspected will show faster improvement than those which have not.  Is there evidence to that effect?  Has research been conducted which would support this hypothesis (or not)?  Many years ago, the Society of Education Officers in England conducted surveys which suggested that the evidence of inspection having a positive effect on the school was lacking.  So far as I am aware, no research has taken place in Scotland.  Given the cost of inspection and the impact that it has – similar in many ways to the downsides of ‘high stakes’ testing – that is perhaps surprising.

This is not to deny that schools can profit from inspection.  Teachers can undoubtedly benefit from constructive criticism and access to external knowledge and expertise.  However, improvement is not automatic.  It is the result of the efforts the school makes on the basis of the feedback it has received.

Inspection is a perfectly legitimate part of a quality assurance strategy.  That, however, does not require that every school be inspected within a given time frame.  An approach based on sampling will work just as well as one based on supposedly universal coverage – and at much lower cost.  If the aim is to monitor performance of the system as a whole, it is of not the slightest importance whether a particular Glasgow primary school was last inspected 15 years ago.

The notion that inspection diagnoses the health of the system has been interpreted and put into practice in a way that deserves closer scrutiny than it generally receives.  Schools are now subject to greater pressures for change than was the case in the past.  The system is more policy-driven than before.  The thematic inspections that are periodically carried out are a reflection of this.  However, the Inspectorate’s main effort is not devoted to such activities.  The greatest part of inspectors’ time is used in the inspection of schools.  In other words, there is an oversight of how policy is implemented at classroom level but very much less examination of the effects or merits of the policies themselves.  An unconscious corollary is that shortcomings are seen as failures of implementation rather than failures of policy.  This is a dangerous assumption.

In conclusion, it might be reasonable to deplore the infrequency of school inspections if there were a common understanding of what the process is for.  However, there is not.  Currently, it is merely part of a top-down system of quality assurance which too easily falls into the assumption that centrally-generated policy is wisely conceived while implementation by schools can often be flawed.  Inspectors usually have considerable expertise.  It could be better used.

Keir Bloomer is chair of the Commission on School Reform