Sir Humphrey is alive and well…

…in the Department for Education.

Back in 2010 when Michael Gove took over the then Department for Children, Schools and Families and promptly restored it to its original title, he boldly promised to reduce the inspection burden that fell on schools. It was widely reported that schools judged “outstanding” would be subject to a less frequent and less onerous inspection regime. For a few weeks naive Head’s dreamed of an “inspection light” world free of school evaluation forms, Equality Act assessments, and checks on the size of ‘no smoking’ signs. Of course this early euphoria was premature, and reflected the heartfelt instincts of a new Secretary of State before the Whitehall bureaucracy swung into action and tamed ministerial free thinking. I can almost hear Sir Humphrey counselling Mr Gove: “That is a very courageous decision Minister; a brave line to take; but what if something went wrong in a school that hadn’t been inspected? Inspectors keep children safe and well educated. No Minister wants to put children at risk”.

With such ‘words’ enough cold water was poured on the bonfire of the bureaucracies to extinguish the flames and the inspectorates survived. Or rather they didn’t just survive they thrived. Bright civil servants are very skilled at coming up with reasons for their own existence, and the new independent school inspection regime, known as ISI 4, appears even more detailed than the three that went before it. (Inspection regimes have shelf lives of less than five years and are in a state of almost permanent review and renewal which keeps Sir Humphrey gainfully employed. Re-training seminars can also a profitable side line for inspectorates).

One of my first jobs for 2012 will be to wade through the reams of ISI 4 guidance to ensure The Perse is fully compliant with all statutory requirements and best practice advice. We take such matters very seriously, as evidenced in our 2010 ISI 3 inspection when from 3-18 all aspects of The Perse were judged outstanding. However, whilst we approach the bureaucracy of inspection with commendable dedication, I know that Michael Gove’s initial instincts were the right ones. A light touch inspection focussed on educational performance would drive up standards, whereas the current system increases costs as schools resort to employing compliance officers and teams of educational lawyers to meet copious regulations and make sense of conflicting advice.

It is teachers not inspectors that keep children safe and well educated. A well led and managed staff of talented educational vocationalists, committed to the highest standards of schooling, is the best recipe for academic, pastoral and extracurricular success. Good teachers and good schools are inherently self-critical and thus effective self inspectors. Their work is overseen by the scrutiny and governance of dedicated and talented boards of governors, and most schools have more non executive ‘directors’ reviewing all aspects of performance than is the case for FTSE 100 companies. In the independent sector, such detailed self inspection is augmented by daily scrutiny from fee paying parents and discerning pupils and annual review by national newspapers producing league tables of academic performance.

If this were not enough self evaluation and scrutiny many independent schools have developed critical friendships with each other, so that pastoral and subject leaders in one school can share best practice and engage in improvement dialogue with colleagues in comparable institutions.

Michael Gove’s initial instincts were right – inspectors do little for outstanding schools but in preparing reams of documentation outstanding schools do much for the inspectorate.

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