A partnership approach to inspection and school improvement

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: iStock

Can you make inspection an enriching learning process that is actually good for your school? Colin McLean discusses the concept of peer-review inspections

Inspection. The word strikes fear into the hearts of many school leaders but it can be a process that is less about judgement and more about learning.

In recent years there have been several efforts to give schools an inspection approach that doesn’t feel imposed upon them and is an opportunity for learning and development.

One such approach has been used successfully in a number of London schools – it is a kind of supported peer review.

The aim of this process is to give schools an insight into their provision that informs their self-evaluation and improvement planning. It is all about partnership and involves working with outside partners, which could include peers from other neighbouring or partner schools.

The approach is designed to draw on the knowledge of the school’s leadership team and the perspectives of these “critical friends” outside the school.

Factor in all of these views and you have a broad and balanced view of the school that identifies what practice works best and which areas need improvement. Schools might also gain knowledge and expertise in areas like monitoring and evaluation, and learn about the strengths and challenges of other schools. And of course this learning can be used to prepare for HMI’s next visit.

While this approach still needs to use an inspection framework, which would logically be based on Ofsted’s, there is a fundamental difference: it is not about imposing inspection upon a school – the “done to” approach – because schools not only choose to do it but they formulate the final judgements, drawing their own conclusions from the evidence collected during the review but benefiting from external challenge so that they don’t arrive at an unrealistic judgement.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, but how do you as a school leader know when the time is right to use such an approach in your school? And what do you need to think about to make sure it is a meaningful process that helps your school improve?

Heather Clements, a former director of schools for Harrow local authority and now an education consultant working on CPD, school improvement and self-evaluation with London schools, offers some advice for schools looking at a peer review approach.

Time it carefully

Wait until you are in post for at least six months to a year – any earlier may mean a lack of evidence of impact or an overly critical or optimistic view. When to have a supported peer review will to some extent depend on a school’s last Ofsted judgement. For a school that requires improvement, 18 months after that judgement gives time for that school to bed-in change and will help prepare them for their next inspection. For schools with good judgements, six months before a predicted inspection gives them time to meaningfully address any areas for improvement.

Timing within the year also needs to be considered – autumn is good for some schools as it may provide a baseline and inform improvement planning, particularly if they have several new members of staff. For other schools, settling new staff and pupils is a priority so spring or summer terms are better.


For a review to be effective you need to commit to the process, be willing to allow a fellow headteacher access to in-depth information about your school, be confident that your senior leadership team will get fully involved in the process – and be receptive to feedback. Also give every member of staff plenty of notice – a fortnight is good – and make sure you make it clear what the scope and purpose of the review is.

Have clear protocols

Make sure you have established some firm principles if you are doing your own peer review. Most importantly you need to trust those schools involved in your review and be confident that they will maintain confidentiality. Setting up protocols that everyone can agree to from the outset is a good idea. These could contain “must-haves” for schools involved in your peer review, such as a commitment to completing reviews in full, putting aside any personal preferences for particular styles of teaching or curriculum models, agreeing to apply the review standards rigorously, and treating everyone in the host school with respect.

Build it into your planning cycle

The process has to fit into a cycle of plan-do-review so there is no point writing a detailed school improvement plan and then having a review as there will inevitably be changes in priorities and actions that emerge. If you know well in advance when your review will be or you schedule it to fit into your existing cycle you can make sure the outcomes will be meaningful and useful.

Don’t sweat the data

The probing and questioning of the review process should help schools to present their data in a more meaningful and transparent way. For this reason schools do not need to provide evidence especially for the review – what they present and the way they present it can often be enlightening in itself and an outcome might be that schools realise they need to “do” data differently.

Give pupils a voice

Listen to pupils as part of the formal process as well as more informally around the school. Their willingness and capacity to articulate how the school supports their learning and development often speaks volumes about the degree to which their views are taken into account and acted upon.

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of the Best Practice Network.


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