The spectre of no-notice school inspections in Wales has been raised as the country's education watchdog unveiled a raft of proposals that will put poorly performing schools under greater pressure to improve.
Estyn has announced plans that could cut the current 20 days' notice of an inspection to nothing and lead to a considerable increase in the frequency of visits at low-achieving schools.
Schools in Wales are inspected once every six years but underperforming schools receive follow-up visits. The proposed overhaul would mean that better-performing schools were inspected less frequently, freeing up inspectors' time to focus on schools that were doing less well - a move that would bring Wales more in line with what happens in England.
Estyn is concerned that under the present system schools can predict when an inspection will occur, tempting them to "over-prepare" and try to improve too many things at once. It also wants to cut the time schools have to produce a post-inspection action plan from the current 80 days. Some of the changes would require new legislation.
"This is an important consultation, which has the potential to change the way we inspect, minimise stress on teachers and reduce the temptation for schools to over-prepare for inspection as there would be less predictability as to when an inspection will take place," chief inspector Ann Keane said.
The consultation on the changes comes just two and a half years after Estyn introduced a new inspection framework, which was designed to work in partnership with schools, placing more emphasis on self-evaluation and using members of staff from other schools as peer inspectors. More follow-up visits were also introduced. "We can already see the positive impact of our inspection process in the improved provision of those schools that received additional support through follow-up inspections," Ms Keane said.
Anna Brychan, director of the NAHT Cymru heads' union, said school leaders would have "no truck with" no-notice inspections. "The point of inspection is that someone comes to see how a school is performing and gives advice on how it can improve," she said. "This proposal goes against the kind of inspection system we thought we were creating in Wales."
Rex Phillips, Wales organiser of the NASUWT teaching union, warned that the new measures would put even more pressure on schools and increase stress among teachers. "This will place schools under the threat of inspection at any time, so they will be on constant alert," he said.
Mr Phillips claimed Estyn has become too politicised and accused the inspectorate of "pandering" to the Welsh government in its drive to improve school standards since the publication of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results in 2010. "This is further evidence of how Estyn has changed post-Pisa and put in place a much harsher, high-stakes accountability regime," he added. "It needs to start inspecting schools more objectively and fairly and become more supportive and developmental in its approach."
Estyn has strongly denied the accusations that the inspectorate has become political. Speaking to TES at the launch of her annual report last month, Ms Keane said the new framework was developed by her predecessor Bill Maxwell, now chief executive of Education Scotland, before the Pisa results and before education minister Leighton Andrews was in post.
"I can't see how we can be seen as being politicised," she said. "We are and always have been independent of ministers."
Mr Andrews said it is "imperative" that the inspection process is as rigorous as possible to help standards improve. "In order for our schools and providers to succeed and deliver for our learners, they need to be of the highest standard and assessed properly and fairly," he said. "This new consultation seeks views on how we and Estyn can make that happen."
The consultation runs until 1 May.
A matter of opinion
Estyn is consulting on six points:
- Whether there should be set intervals between inspections.
- How long those intervals should be. Schools are currently inspected every six years.
- The notice period given to schools, and whether it should be cut from 20 days.
- Whether Estyn should still hold pre-inspection meetings with parents.
- Whether it should still set questionnaires for parents and pupils.
- How long schools should have to prepare a post-inspection action plan.