A recent YouGov survey found that the majority of parents surveyed supported the idea of no-notice inspections of schools. It’s not a surprising statistic. What was more surprising was that HMCI Amanda Spielman told the Tes that this was “definitely something we would like to try out.”
One downside of no-notice inspections is that a team of inspectors could arrive at a school when the headteacher is away, or a significant event is impacting on the normal school day. In which case, it could make it difficult for an inspection team to judge validly the effectiveness of the school or undertake the necessary conversations with those in charge. In such instances, the inspection team may have to beat a hasty retreat and come back another day – but these instances would surely be rather rare.
The upside, so the argument goes, is that no-notice inspections remove the opportunity for schools to tip the scales in their favour. It seems that some parents surveyed felt that there was a disconnect between the usual running of the school and the version that was served up to Ofsted. At its worst, some schools have been accused of removing particular children who they are concerned could undermine the inspection. I suspect this practice is nothing like as widespread as people might think – and it wouldn’t make any difference to the outcome in any case.
When I speak to school leaders about the things that really concern them about inspections, they will often say similar things: a problem in the data, concerns over what inspectors might make of the work in students’ books or what they see in the classrooms, or the doomsday scenario that sees some unforeseen and unavoidable safeguarding issue erupt forth and burn the whole inspection down.
When I talk to school leaders about what they can do to try and ensure they are judged to be a "good" school, my most important and most clichéd advice is the same – be a good school. Changes to the Ofsted framework over recent years mean that there just aren’t any handy shortcuts.
Problems with inspection
And we know that Progress 8 outcomes were very heavily linked to inspection judgements last year. Consequently, whether the school has notice or not, one big marker for the inspection outcome is already in place – sometimes months beforehand.
The real downside of no-notice inspection is that it misses the more important point. It starts from a supposition that the validity of inspection is at risk as a result of inspectors being duped – but the far greater risk to the accuracy of inspection reports is the process of inspection itself.
Some inspection practices are subjective at best. What of lesson observation and work scrutiny? What is the validity and reliability of these methods of inspection? How accurate are the judgements which are based on them? Surely this is why Ofsted has chosen to make validity and reliability of inspection practices a priority for the research it has outlined in its strategic plan.
Removing the current less-than-24-hour notice period does nothing to make the process of inspection any more reliable or informed.
A more useful approach might be to work with parents to help them to better understand what can be validly inspected about a school. If parents feel that inspections do not fully reflect the full character of schools, I am sure there are school leaders out there who would say they share this concern.
Removing the notice period is only likely to create a new set of inspection problems, but it won’t solve the problem of inspection reliability and validity.
Stephen Rollett is the inspections specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders