A tale of two inspection regimes


Who has it tougher when it comes to inspections – state or private schools? Marion Gibbs reflects on a recent debate with state school colleagues.

In spite of various eminent people’s conviction that the state and independent sectors have very little to do with one another, I, as do many of my fellow independent school heads, frequently meet with colleagues from the state sector.

Recently, when I was attending a borough-wide training update for safeguarding contacts, our conversation turned to school inspections. Our trainer had just announced that under the new Ofsted arrangements for state-maintained schools, any shortcomings in the area of safeguarding, such as regulatory checks or central staff registers, would no longer mean a “limiting judgement” across the whole inspection.

I explained to colleagues on my table that we in the independent sector had never received a single overall grade as state schools have, but we remain in possession of “limiting judgements” across governance, leadership and management for shortcomings of this kind. 

More comparisons were made. In the independent sector a relatively large school such as ours would have a team of 12 or more inspectors and the inspection lasts for four days; Ofsted inspections involve fewer inspectors and last for two days. However, independent schools get five days’ notice (as all their data are not held centrally as state school data are) whereas state schools only receive half a day’s notice. Strangely, we all agreed that if inspectors were just to “turn up” we would find the whole thing a lot less stressful!

More differences emerged, we are judged on slightly different criteria, and even if an independent school is excellent in every category it will be re-inspected at least every six years – outstanding schools in the maintained sector may be left alone. 

We have a 91-page regulatory handbook to digest, and other guidance which suggests, for example, the need to have governors with specific responsibility for able, gifted and talented. Some maintained schools struggle to recruit governors at all, and doubt that they could persuade their governors to take on such responsibilities. 

As the discussion continued over a break, and subsequently with partner state schools, it dawned on my colleagues from the other sector that perhaps the inspection regime in the independent sector is not a light touch. They were also surprised at the lack of sharing between the senior management team and inspectors in the independent sector. Ofsted inspections involve joint observations between the leadership team and inspectors and a great deal of sharing of information about judgements, and heads can suggest who the talented teachers are who really must be seen. This does not happen in independent inspections.

Accountability has become the mantra across both sectors. Politicians often speak of introducing more freedoms to quasi-independent schools such as academies, but in many ways this is illusory. Yes, we all have the freedom to take IGCSE examinations now, but many of them will lead to 0 per cent in the five A* to C category of the league tables. This summer 73 per cent of all our GCSE/IGCSE entries were graded A* and 94 per cent were A* or A, but we won’t be credited with the 100 per cent five A* to C tag which we have met.

Politicians can also “move the goal posts” with no notice. A few years ago we were all judged against EBacc, before it had even had time to be introduced; last year it was AAB in “facilitating subjects” at A level. Next summer only a pupil’s first entry result at GCSE will count.

We don’t do early entries, so our school will not be affected – but many of the local state schools will be. Is it fair to keep changing the rules? Should the bar be the same for state and independent schools? How much more accountability can we bear? There is certainly more to worry about as a head than the education and wellbeing of one’s pupils and staff.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.



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