There is a debate about how much notice is reasonable or necessary for inspection. When inspection first started, schools literally had months of advance warning and they were often spruced up especially for their inspection. Critics argued that this meant inspectors weren't seeing what schools were really like. Added to that, the months of tension in some schools as the inspection week approached laid a heavy burden of stress on staff.
Over the years, the amount of notice has contracted enormously. It is now typically just two days.
Ofsted has reserved the right to turn up unannounced, and that does sometimes occur. Settings that cater for babies and pre-school children are already routinely subject to inspection without notice.
Whether or not this is practicable for all inspections begs a question about the nature of inspection and what level of self evaluation can be demanded of schools. Inspection without notice may be appropriate where the function of inspection is to check on the institution's legal compliance. It may be less so where, as with mainstream school inspection, the focus is on testing out and validating the school's evaluation of its own effectiveness. There is no legal requirement for schools to complete and keep up to date a self evaluation form (SEF). If a school has no SEF, then inspectors arriving unannounced will only have past test results and previous inspection reports to draw on. This would limit opportunities to focus the inspection and tailor it to the school's circumstances.
Unannounced inspections could also mean inspectors turn up to find the pupils all off school because it's a training day, or where the headteacher is away on a course. Though the absence of the head is not considered grounds for deferring an inspection, the short notice currently given does allow the school the opportunity to make appropriate arrangements.
Selwyn Ward has been an inspector for 15 years, working in primary and secondary schools. The views expressed here are his own. To ask him a question, email him at email@example.com.