‘An inspector calls... giving us only two days’ notice’

1st July 2016 at 00:00
Two heads who were fearful of short-notice inspections explain that the process actually removed a lot of stress

It was a Thursday morning and secondary headteacher Patricia Alexander took a phone call just after 9am to say she was going to be inspected on Monday. “It’s just as well I was sitting down,” said the head of St Maurice’s High in North Lanarkshire.

Ultimately, however, she found that receiving just two working days’ notice ahead of an HMI visit, as opposed to the usual three weeks, was “a fantastic way to inspect”.

This was despite one of her pupils taking up the inspectors’ invitation to comment on the school by sending them a video of the school toilets “not looking at their best”.

Primary headteacher Catherine Cunningham also received just two days’ notice ahead of her school’s inspection, but she was equally enthusiastic about the experience she had. The inspectors saw her school as it was “on a daily basis”, said the head of Kirkton of Largo Primary in Fife.

Short-notice inspections could be introduced across Scotland next year, the inspectorate said last week. The change would mean that sometimes schools will receive just two days’ warning before inspectors call, as opposed to the current notice periods of two weeks for primary, and three weeks for secondary.

Short-notice inspections are just one of a number of models of school inspection that are being planned (see box, “Inspections under review”, right). And they are generally considered to be the most controversial, with some teachers arguing that they need the longer lead-in time to prepare. Others say that less notice means less stress.

Length of inspection

Ultimately, it is not the reduced notice period that has come in for criticism but the length of this type of inspection. Under this model, inspectors visit schools for two-and-a-half days (instead of the usual five) and produce a report at the end that outlines strengths and weaknesses but contains no evaluations.

Parents at St Maurice’s complained that this made it harder to compare their school’s performance with that of other schools in the area, and that they disliked the shorter letter they received following the inspection, said Ms Alexander (pictured, inset).

She continued: “There are no evaluations attached to the inspection – so you don’t get ‘scores on the doors’ – because they are only concentrating on learning and teaching and assessment.”

Some staff, meanwhile, felt they could not showcase their work fully in the time available, she added.

Another complaint from parents was that the shorter timescales made it harder for them to be involved. At St Maurice’s, instead of completing the usual questionnaires, staff, parents and pupils were given an email address where they could send their views.

But from Ms Alexander’s perspective, the shorter visit worked well. “They got my school spot on,” she said.

Focus on the positives

Ms Cunningham – a teaching head leading a small rural school with 35 pupils – also found that inspectors could get the job done in two-and-a-half days.

She told TESS: “They knew what they were looking for, so that enabled them to do it quite quickly. They were very experienced and perceptive and could just hit the ground running.”

Ms Cunningham (pictured, right) has been through two previous inspections. This time the process was far less stressful and there was very little additional preparation, she said.

“When you get notice of an inspection it’s easy to be thinking about what you still have to do instead of about how far you have travelled. This allowed us to focus on what we have achieved.”

Ms Alexander worked the whole weekend ahead of the inspection but that was better than working for three weeks solid in the build-up, she said.

Despite the success of the pilots that we featured, Education Scotland said it had “not yet taken any decisions” on exactly how many days the shorter notice period will be, or if a shorter period applied at all.

A spokesperson said: “We are continuing development work on some of the new models and this includes considering the notice periods that will be applied.​”


How well has it worked south of the border?

“No-notice inspections” – whereby schools receive just 24 hours’ notice before inspectors call – have been the norm in England for a number of years.

“They get a phone call before midday and then the inspectors turn up the following day,” explained Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of English headteachers’ union the Association of School and College Leaders, which is federated with School Leaders Scotland.

There was some nervousness about the model when it was introduced but it has worked well in practice, he said. “What you remove is this period of several weeks when there is a lot of anxiety and everybody is getting cranked up about the whole process and really quite nervous.”

Now inspection is “just something that happens”, he said, and schools take it in their stride. The only time issues arise is when the inspection coincides with significant numbers of staff or pupils being out of school. “Sports day is a difficult one,” he said.

Recently, ASCL vice president Sian Carr was set to meet colleagues in Scotland but had to cancel when she got a call at the airport to say her school would be inspected the next day. “Thankfully her flight was cancelled; otherwise she would have been in the air,” said Mr Trobe.

How to survive short-notice inspections

Carry on running your school as normal; encourage everyone to take inspection in their stride.

Don’t be afraid to go out to meetings or to let other people go out of school in case inspectors call.

Make that sure your data is up-to-date at all times – attainment, absence, tracking of pupil progress – and you have it to hand.

Be candid about your school’s strengths and weaknesses.

​Get some rest so you are on top form.

Inspections under review

School inspection has been under review for two years. The review was sparked by new developments such as Curriculum for Excellence, and the renewed focus on closing the attainment gap.

As of August, Scottish school inspections are expected to take a number of different forms. There will be the traditional five-day inspection with a notice period of several weeks. The shorter inspection of two-and-a-half days – for which schools can receive just two days’ warning – is yet to be confirmed by Education Scotland.

There will also be inspections that home in on particular themes – for instance, a trial in Moray looked at the senior phase in secondary. A special “neighbourhood review” will focus on how a child moves through a secondary school and its associated establishments; such as nurseries, primaries and local colleges.

Alastair Delaney, director of inspection at Education Scotland, said: “It is important that our inspection approaches continue to develop in response to the changing education environment. That is why I wanted to undertake a robust review of the current system.”

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