Lately I’ve been thinking about the inspection system, which I have seen change radically in the time I have been working. I’ve seen the swing from support to wholehearted accountability; and with the premise that I do believe that standards need to be high and we are absolutely accountable, for me this means to children and their families, rather than to a framework or lists of expectations.
As both a head teacher and a practitioner, I know the greatest test is keeping things good, i.e. maintenance. The challenge of balancing competing elements such as variable staffing, changing curriculums and the unexpected (such as dropping budgets) with constant quality is no small thing. Improvement comes from systemic change and this takes time, depends on the experience of you and your team and how much money you have in the bank. Continuous improvement is vital, but I worry that the accountability stakes push too many schools and settings into just using the inspection framework to judge their performance.
If a nursery or a school receives an Inadequate or Requires Improvement grade, the anxiety felt by parents and families can be devastating and it will send shockwaves through the whole community. The threat of a poor judgement can become an overwhelming pressure to focus on pleasing the inspectors.
As inspections are short, and in schools often paper-driven, this results in a shift away from the myriad of other factors that determine quality, such as well-being. Fear of the unknown can stop us making our curriculum exciting and fresh as we prioritise paperwork and policy over practice.
With an inspection system that can be ridden with anxiety at best and punitive at worst, a lack of breadth because some areas aren’t inspected so the message is they are not important, and a reluctance to take risks (we want children to take risks in learning) – we are in a bleak place. I would like to see inspections widen their focus and deliver support, not a feeling of uncertainty and endless inspection readiness.