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Sending in Ofsted to inspect private schools could level the education playing field

Like many private schools, Brighton College would prefer to keep out of Ofsted’s spotlight. howzey, CC BY-NC-ND

Schools inspectorate Ofsted has once again been in the limelight with the suggestion on May 10 that it could be tasked with the inspection of all independent schools.

The idea of Ofsted inspecting private schools is controversial and would mean exposing the origins of historically deep divisions between private and state education. These divisions extend beyond the school gates and have contributed to enduring inequalities in our society.

The suggestion by secretary of state for education Michael Gove came after a speech at the fee-paying Brighton College. It caused a flurry of activity on social media along with a number of critical postings by heads of independent schools.

The head of St Hida’s Preparatory School for girls in Hertfordshire said: “Whilst current ISI [Independent Schools Inspectorate] inspectors are heads and senior managers of independent schools and understand the very specific pressures inherent within their own world, Ofsted inspectors would need extra training and immersion to bridge this gap. Another cost.”

These largely echoed the concerns of Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, over independent schools being inspected by those coming from “different educational worlds”.

Keeping a watchful eye

At the moment, Ofsted is only tasked with directly inspecting private schools that don’t fall under the umbrella of the Independent Schools Council. But it does monitor the work of the ISI which inspects 1,205 schools at which around half a million children are educated.

The last report by Ofsted on the work of the ISI reflected that it “continues to be of good quality”, with Ofsted head Michael Wilshaw noting 11 separate strengths of current practice.

But the framework for inspection of the private sector is different to that used in state education. This makes any monitoring process prey to the “one rule for one, one rule for another” syndrome.

The prospect of introducing a system that operates across both state and private sector would certainly seem to make sense from a parents’ point of view. At the moment most of the information comes via slick marketing campaigns orchestrated by schools themselves. Although you can look at schools on websites such as Best Schools UK this only compares different private schools.

Parent websites such as constantly debate the difference between private and state education. But they do this without much real evidence about standards of teaching and learning – apart from sets of results which are more likey to reflect selective intake policies rather than excellent teaching practice.

But inspection is far from cheap: since 2004 Ofsted has had to reduce its overheads from an operating budget of £266m in 2004-5 to a mere £143m by 2014-5 – an overall reduction of 46% within a decade.

The current, more proportionate approach to inspection which reduces the frequency of inspections for outstanding schools, has gone some way to cutting costs and reducing its operating budget. But to take on the whole of the private sector would incur more costs to the taxpayer – costs that some would argue would only benefit those that could afford private education anyway.

But the challenges of Ofsted expanding its remit to all private schools are not purely financial – it has recently come in for criticism from a number of agencies and organisations, most recently the Association of School and College Leaders on its use of contract inspectors, indicating that their training is not up to standard.

If Ofsted was to directly inspect all private schools in addition to its extensive existing remit, inspectors would undoubtedly have to come from one of the contractors. The capacity of Ofsted’s own Her Majesty’s Inspectors – who not only lead inspections, but have a considerable remit in the quality control of agency inspectors – is already stretched to the limit.

Ofsted also employs an inspection framework which is largely driven by performance data and league tables – an element that Richard Walden, chairman of the Independent Schools Association said curtailed and compromised any focus on extra curricula activities, leading to considerable pressures on teachers and pupils alike.

In addition, it has also made state schools prey to politically driven innovation overload, which their counterparts in the private sector are able to resist. Far from stimulating creativity, this very often detracts from investment in anything that is not testable or measurable.

A seductive prospect

Despite these tricky questions, a level playing field on school inspection does have a number of deeply seductive elements, however it is implemented. Opening up the Pandora’s Box of independent education provision to the scrutiny of a single inspection system and a uniform inspection framework may well go some way to exposing the origins of the historically deep divisions between private and state education.

These are divisions which extend beyond the school gates and have contributed to enduring inequalities in our society. The coming together of “different worlds” that Cairns describes may well prove a shock to both parties. But the insights that emerge from such a process may be worth overcoming the financial, political and operational challenges that will undoubtedly be engendered.

Given its history and current structure, whether Ofsted is the right organisation for the job is altogether a different matter.

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