Annual checks for schools not improving fast enough

15th February 2008 at 00:00
... but Ofsted will not return for six years to those delivering a 'good' education, says the chief inspector. Dorothy Lepkowska reports on the new regime.

Half the schools in England will receive Ofsted visits every year, even if they show no evidence of failure, the chief inspector has proposed.

In her plans, condemned by headteachers this week, Christine Gilbert said that the "best" schools would be left for up to six years between visits and that parents would have more say in triggering inspections.

Under the proposals, as many as half of all primary, secondary and special schools would face being inspected every year if found to be "satisfactory" or "inadequate". This would also include those judged to be delivering a "good" education but which are showing signs of slipping or "stagnating". The best schools, on the other hand, would be subjected to six-yearly inspections or "health checks".

The new arrangements would also give parents and pupils greater powers to tackle schools offering poor standards of education. Ms Gilbert said complaints made directly to an Ofsted hotline, or through the local council, could initiate an investigation.

Figures released by Ofsted this week show that the overall number of weak schools remained constant during last term.

A total of 245 schools were in special measures at the end of December: 174 primaries, 49 secondaries, 12 special schools and 10 pupil referral units. A further 305 schools need to make significant improvements.

Ms Gilbert told heads at the National Academies conference in London last week: "If you are a satisfactory or a coasting school, a deteriorating school, or a school in difficulties, we will certainly be inspecting every three years, but probably more regularly than that, and probably more intensively than that.

"We are thinking about tailoring inspections much more."

The idea, she said, was to target some schools with more regular visits to drive them to improve.

Ms Gilbert added that primary schools risked being penalised if they failed to make sure that a proportion of pupils left with good literacy and numeracy skills.

Her plans have already created concern among heads. At least two in charge of schools "requiring significant improvement and given a notice to improve" by Ofsted declined to comment on the proposals when contacted by The TES this week.

But Patrick McDowell, head of Davyhulme Infant School in Manchester, said constant inspections put huge pressure on schools. Davyhulme has come out of the "requiring significant improvement" category, but continues to face the risk of regular inspections under the new arrangements.

Mr McDowell said: "Increased frequency of inspections will just put more pressure on schools. What schools need is to work together in partnership, with a strategy for improvement, and not just have inspectors come in and tell you what needs to be done.

"If you ask them, 'How can I make these improvements? How do I do this?' they just say, 'That's not our brief. It's your problem.'

"We are lucky to have had support from our local authority, but not every school is so fortunate. We have had a good improvement programme in place, but we've also had to jump through hoops.

"Some of the aspects that can trigger the notice to improve and more frequent inspections are not conducive to offering a positive education. It's just pressure, pressure, pressure."

Duston School in Northamptonshire was put into special measures more than six years ago and is currently on the list of schools requiring significant improvement.

Jane Merriman, who has been headteacher there for the past two years, said: "An assessment needs to be made of a school's capacity to improve, and if it is found that this is good, then it means the school is on a trajectory to success.

"This school has been in a category for the past six-and-a-half years and it isn't going to improve overnight. Every improvement that is put in place has to be secured and embedded so it isn't just a one-off.

"There must also be an understanding of the context in which the school operates, such as the opening of a new school locally or any other factors that are not in its control.

"Regular monitoring of schools is fine if it is helpful, but too much of what is happening is not."

Lucy Griffiths, head of Greenland Junior School in Durham, is expecting another visit from Ofsted at the end of the year after the school was given to notice to improve last December.

She said the pressure of inspections focused the school on change. "I wouldn't say I find these regular inspections helpful, and I wish there was another way of providing support. However, I find it a good kind of pressure because it makes you look at your school with different eyes and you know things need to change.

"The biggest problem is that a year is not nearly enough time to implement the changes.

"We have to be accountable. While the prospect of inspectors' visits are like a time bomb waiting to go off, in the absence of other means of improving standards, I don't see what else can be done to turn things around."

John Bald, a former Ofsted inspector, said current inspection arrangements meant that some schools were being assessed without a single lesson being observed.

"If you do not look at a school closely enough, you cannot make a proper judgement," he said. "They aren't triangulating the process by seeking out the evidence alongside GCSE and Sats results and the school's self-evaluation.

"I know schools that have been told they are outstanding on the basis of a one-day visit. The way inspections are currently being carried out makes Ofsted not fit for purpose."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he did not understand how increasing the frequency of inspections would lead to school improvement.

"What these schools need is not more inspection but greater support, if they are expected to improve. Currently, there is a complete lack of a strategic approach to doing this.

"The system is too much about pressure and not enough about support," he said.

A process that hinders progress

Pennywell School in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, will be spared any further regular inspections when it closes this summer. The school is due to reopen as an academy in the autumn.

But its head, Kevin McDermid (above), believes the inspections process is directly responsible for the lack of progress it has made in turning itself around in the past five years.

Mr McDermid, an accredited school improvement partner (Sip), was brought in last September to guide Pennywell through its transition year.

He said: "Ever more frequent inspections just deter schools from their agenda, which should be strategic improvement based on teaching and learning, using intervention and structured support.

"Ofsted inspections are about pressure, not support. There is a lot of lip-service paid to the fact that these two should go hand in hand, but this is rarely the case. Instead of planning strategically how to take the school forward, we have been preoccupied with the next inspection."

Mr McDermid said the introduction of improvement partners was an intelligent initiative that should have a role in the school inspection process.

"The route to school improvement is the development of relationships with Sips and greater collaborative support lasting longer than the six months between inspections," he said. "The Government introduced the concept of improvement partners, but they aren't given any credence in the inspections process. As it stands, the current regime militates against improvement, rather than supporting it."

How the new regime will differ

What happens now?

Schools are currently subject to a three-year inspection cycle. Those causing concern are placed in special measures or given notice to improve.

Further monitoring takes place in proportion to the risk and extent of the school's failure. Interim inspections look at whether the school has made outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate progress in specified areas.

Schools in special measures receive a first monitoring visit after four to six months, with regular visits until it is removed from the category or re-inspected after two years.

From the beginning of summer 2006, schools given notice to improve have received a monitoring visit six to eight months after the initial inspection. They are inspected again 12 to 16 months later, the outcome of which can remove the school from the category.

What will happen in the future?

Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools (above right), has indicated that, in future, outstanding schools will be subject merely to a six-yearly inspection, or "health check", to ensure standards are maintained. Schools found to need special measures or deemed to be coasting, in danger of deteriorating, or in difficulties, may receive annual or termly inspections, depending on the perceived need for monitoring.

A consultation paper outlining the plans and the future of inspections is due to be published in April.

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