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No-Notice Inspections: Some Initial Thoughts

This week we have had an announcement from Education Scotland that they are carrying out a review of their inspection processes. Part of this review would seem to be to consider whether the introduction of no notice inspections will improve the current model, which gives secondary schools three weeks notice and primary schools two weeks notice. For a number of years I have been one that has made the case that if inspectors, or anyone else, wants to know what a school is really like, they should just walk in off the street. I have always qualified this with the thought that there would have to be changes to the requirements and expectations from schools, should inspections take place in this way. In this post I would like to consider how this process might work, and whether it might be desirable, or not.

It has long been argued by many that the period when schools have been notified of an upcoming inspection, and when the inspection actually takes place, can be one of the most stressful for school staff. In response, the timeframe for notice of inspection and the inspection taking place has been reduced over a number of years. This period has been characterised by rising stress levels as the inspection date nears, leading to exhaustion and burnout, and some accusations of 'coasting' for staff after it has happened. I have experience of inspections where staff have worked so hard before and during the inspection, that afterwards there has been a sense of deflation and a dip in staff motivation and work as a consequence. My argument would centre on whose fault is that? Whilst we all know any inspection contains levels of stress for all involved, I lay the blame for such scenarios that I have just described with headteachers, school management and local authority staff. For me, the first role of management once an inspection has been announced is to manage and keep a lid on levels of stress for all, not add to them. I still hear of schools being notified of inspections and then almost going into meltdown as everyone starts to try and put at least one year's development into a few weeks. I used to joke that, like the queen, inspectors must think that all schools smell of paint, because all those decorating jobs that hadn't been addressed yet were suddenly moved up the 'must-do' list! Displays were all taken down and new ones put up. Plans, assessments, policies, programmes, records were all re-written, checked and re-done all driven by headteachers or others. At one time it felt that the priority was paperwork and not learning. Is it any wonder staff were frazzled even before the inspectors descended? Is it also any wonder that people started to ask questions about the picture they were getting of where schools were in their development? Changes were required, and the changes needed to be made by schools and the inspectorate. In Scotland, and elsewhere, there had been too many high profile cases of school leaders and staff being ill, or worse, because of the stresses associated with inspections. The inspection process was stressful for all involved, both during the process and after a report was published. But it was particularly so for headteachers, as the focus fell squarely on them following the publication of any report, and especially so if the findings were not particularly positive. The fact that results were published and poured over in the local media only added to stresses for the headteacher, who was the only one identifiable individually in any report.

Previous concerns about the inspection process led to a review of these by Education Scotland in 2010 and new processes put in place at the start of August 2011. These included the reduction in time given of a notification of inspection to three weeks for secondary schools and two for primary. No notice inspections were also considered at this time but were dismissed because of the logistical problems they would cause, and not least because of the impact they would have on the engagement with the parent body of any school by the inspectorate. The tone of inspections was to change and they were to be seen as part of a continuous process of engagement and support for headteachers and schools. They were no longer to be seen as one-off events. The tone was to be much more collaborative, with the active participation of all, supportive and to be seen as part of the school's own self evaluation processes. The school would provide its own self evaluation and this would form the basis of the inspection, which also aimed to take congnicence of its characteristics and context. All of this was seen as very positive by those of us in schools who had been getting more and more anxious about the impact and the validity of the whole inspection process. I had been involved in an inspection early in 2010 and already we were starting to see and feel a difference in the whole process. It felt different and more of a dialogue about where the school was at and where we were heading. The experience was a lot more positive for staff and not as stressful, but I did feel the inspectors wanted more of my time, as headteacher, even though I was leading two schools. But I was able to manage my interactions, to a certain extent, so that I was still available and visible at the other school, whilst still being reachable each day for the inspection team. 

So what has changed that Education Scotland now feels it requires to revisit the inspection process, including considering the introduction of no notice inspections? It makes sense to review inspection processes periodically, but we are talking only four or five years since the last one. We still have the same government but we do have a new first minister in Nicola Sturgeon, and a new secretary for education in Angela Constance. They have already started a process of looking at, and engaging with, the London Challenge from England as a possible vehicle for closing the attainment gap for those in the lowest 20% with regards to deprivation. It would be concerning to myself, and I am sure others, if the consideration of no notice inspections was further evidence that the government in Scotland is looking to features of the system in England as possible models for what we should be doing. 

If you go to the Education Scotland website educationscotland.gov.uk you can find some of their rationale behind the review. This indicates that the changes brought about by Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC), as well as various statutory changes in the Scottish Parliament have meant that the inspection process should be reviewed to see if it is still fit for purpose and supports all the national agendas. They see the review as along term one, which began last year, and from which they anticipate no changes to current practice before 2016. The review is to consider various questions about the current processes, with the last of these being concerned with how they might reduce the stresses 'for some' of the inspection process. ' In some cases it is the pre-inspection activity that can cause issues.' This would tend to indicate that here is where they may consider the introduction of no notice inspections, though this is not referred to specifically. The trouble is, all the concerns that stopped them from introducing no notice inspections in 2011 still pertain. Issues around how you can engage with parents and the wider community in such an arrangement is still an obstacle. The myriad of issues about the availability of pupils, staff and headteachers if inspectors arrived completely unannounced would still have to be overcome. Schools are very busy places with more and more flexibility in time-tabling and learning and it could well be that classes and teachers may be out of school for a whole host of reasons. Headteachers, and senior leaders, are being encouraged more and more to engage at system level and outwith their own immediate schools. This means they can be out of school for lots of reasons and will have very important events, meetings, etc. in their diaries, some of which it would be difficult to change or cancel. In my own case, I am headteacher of two schools, a model that is more and more common, and this can produce twice the difficulty. What do we do about partner schools like this and how we inspect them? Can we still expect schools to provide the same amount of inspection-specific paperwork if there has been no notice of an inspection? Some staff will find the 'threat' of no notice inspections even more stressful. These are all issues and questions that are going to have to be addressed in this review. We already have a model of no notice inspections in primary schools and early learning and childcare centres, through the Care Commission. This works, but does not require the centre manager, usually the headteacher, to be on site at the start of the process. Hopefully, you will be there at some time during this inspection, but it can also be a DHT if the headteacher is away.

There is no doubt that this review will be interesting and I look forward to being engaged in the process. I still feel that the system we have currently in Scotland is a good one and is seen as supportive, collaborative, proportionate and manageable by most school leaders. It still has its stresses  but it is definitely down to headteachers and managers to control this for their staff. The actions of school leaders can either reduce stress during an inspection or increase it. I would hope to achieve the former. If schools are focused on what they should be, have the appropriate systems and structures in place and are providing all their pupils with the conditions to attain, achieve and develop, there should be no fears in an inspection process. I know this is not is not the case in all systems or schools, but it should be the aim of all. If local authorities, in Scotland, support and 'know' their schools really well, they can help them to be in a positive situation when an inspection occurs. We all have a role to play.

If you want to be kept informed about the progress of the review by Education Scotland you can send your email details to inspectionreview@educationscotland.gsi.gov.uk I would encourage all colleagues in Scotland to be actively involved in this process. Otherwise, we can't really complain about outcomes we don't like.

A couple of initial thoughts of mine would be:
Why don't we make all inspectors practitioners currently in schools? We all know that you do not have to be long out of a classroom or school very long before before you lose track of what goes on and what the pressures are. It becomes harder to recognise what is manageable, achieve able and manageable. I think inspections would have more validity and be seen as more collaborative if more practitioners and headteachers were involved in the process.

Every school produces a School Improvement Plan and a Quality and Standards Report each year. Why can't these be used as the self evaluation tools around which the inspection process takes place?This would reduce the burden of paperwork ahead of any inspection and would validate, or otherwise, the schools processes for evaluating and planning its work.

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