No-notice school inspections take teachers out of class and into paperwork

Surprise! Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive

Following the Trojan Horse controversy around the infiltration of schools in Birmingham by hardline “Islamist” elements, Ofsted was granted new powers to conduct “no notice” inspections of schools. This means that inspectors can now turn up to schools unannounced.

The chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, has begun deploying this power, and ordered 40 no-notice inspections to take place in September. This is the first time the new powers have been used this widely, and it is seen by many as a test for the feasibility of moving towards no-notice as the new model for Ofsted inspections in most or even all cases.

The problems with preparation

In some ways, the move is understandable. The importance of Ofsted inspections will inevitably lead to schools doing everything possible to obtain a positive result. In the past, when inspection notice periods were longer, some schools engaged in elaborate inspection preparation. This has included suspending unruly children before inspectors arrive, or using supply teachers – who are less likely to be observed – to cover disruptive classes.

Prior to 2005, schools received two months notice to prepare for inspection, but this was seen as providing schools with too many opportunities for various cosmetic improvements. Under the 2005 inspection framework the notice period was shortened to two days, and then further reduced to one day in 2012.

This short notice period notwithstanding, it would appear that some of the Birmingham schools involved in the Trojan Horse scandal were nevertheless able to put on specific activities designed to present a more moderate face to the inspectors. Hence the new move to unannounced inspections.

Why schools need notice

The change to no-notice inspections is a typical example of change following a scandal, as politicians react to pressure to be seen to “do something”. And, as in many such cases, this has led to what appears to be something of an overreaction to the problem.

In general, a one-day notice period is more than short enough to ensure that schools can’t put on elaborate charades for the inspection team. What it does do is allow schools just about enough time to collate the documentation needed for the inspection. And to put together the programme suggested by the inspection team – for example by getting a sufficient number of school governors to attend their interview with the inspection team.

Local knowledge

In reality, the current system allows schools to have some idea of when an inspection is likely to occur. In many cases schools can make a reasonably accurate judgement of when inspection is likely, based on the year they were previously inspected. In practice, some inspection teams also do a number of consecutive inspections in a particular region, meaning that the local presence of such a team is often known to schools.

Inspectors spend two to three days in a school, during which time they have to absorb a great deal of information. It is not hard to imagine that in these circumstances some things may be overlooked. This is especially the case in light of the narrower focus of inspections under 2012 changes, which have seen an ever greater emphasis on pupil attainment as a driver of inspection judgements. So it may make more sense to look at other aspects of the inspection regime, or other parts of the system if we want to improve their reliability.

Unintended consequences

Accountability systems like the English inspection system, which have major consequences for schools that do well or badly, also have a tendency to lead to unintended consequences. Changes to the regime should therefore include analysis of such possible negative outcomes.

In the case of no-notice inspections, three in particular stand out. First, the increased uncertainty about when an inspector may arrive may lead schools to focus even more on the inspection process. This could lead to an emphasis on the collection of evidence and paperwork as opposed to teaching and learning. Second, some schools may be penalised or rewarded based on their ability or failure to be instantly “inspection-ready” in terms of documentation.

Third, routinely using no-notice inspections betrays a lack of trust in schools, which is likely to make the relationship between them and Ofsted more adversarial. This seems rather misplaced based as it is on the Trojan Horse scandal, which involved a very small number of schools relative to the English education system as a whole.

Accountability is key to an effective education system, and there is clear evidence that inspections like those carried out in England can improve schools. But in light of their importance to the system it doesn’t seem sensible to make major changes without properly thinking through the possible implications.