The new Common Inspection Framework – key analysis

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: MA Education

The new Common Inspection Framework has been heralded as introducing a new era for inspection. Is it really a common approach uniting educational settings or more a case of divide and rule? Headteacher Update takes a look

In June 2015, the new inspection framework was launched and brings with it a new acronym – CIF, the Common Inspection Framework. The CIF is intended to enable "greater coherence across different providers that cater for similar age ranges". It is hoped that there will be greater consistency across different remits as a result of its introduction.

The settings included in this unified approach include early years, maintained schools and academies, non-association independent schools and further education and skills providers. They will all follow the same framework although each will have its own handbook.

However, there is an irony in this notion of commonality. There might be more consistency between institutions catering for children, but between schools themselves there has perhaps never been greater disparity.

Different arrangements

This new Section 5 inspection framework only applies automatically to two types of school – those poised to come out of a category and those that "require improvement".

"Good" schools will now be inspected under the Section 8 arrangements and "outstanding" schools continue to be exempt. Both good and outstanding schools can be inspected according to Section 5 arrangements when a concern has been raised or the risk-assessment suggests it is needed. The Section 5 inspection can also apply if a "good" school inspected under Section 8 (short inspections) appears to no longer maintain the standard or is demonstrating the capacity to be judged outstanding.

With these exceptions aside, the framework applies to an increasingly narrow group of schools and is reserved for those less secure in their inspection outcomes. Hardly a "common" inspection framework after all. Not all headteachers are comfortable with this split in arrangements based on previous inspections.

Jeff Brown's school, St Oswald's RC Primary and Nursery in Lancashire, was judged to be outstanding after its latest inspection. However, he still disagrees with the exemption for outstanding schools.

He explained: "Data gained through central health checks only provides part of the story and I consider that outstanding schools should still be re-inspected as regularly as other settings as this would be more consistent with the comparing of settings. Some historic reports on the Ofsted website date back as far as 2007 and consequently do not provide an accurate picture as to how that school is operating eight or so years on."

Although good schools will initially be exempt from the Section 5 inspection arrangements they will still need to keep up-to-date. Mr Brown continued: "Although shorter more regular inspections for schools in the good category are to be welcomed in principle, colleagues should note that Sir Michael Wilshaw (Ofsted's chief inspector) is quick to point out that the rigour will still be the same and the visits can trigger further short notice inspections to either raise or lower overall grades."

Gareth Davies, headteacher of Holy Apostles CE Primary School in Gloucestershire, has his doubts: "I think the new system for good schools might work well," he said. "I say 'might' because it's only seven years or so ago that we had Reduced Tariff inspections only for them to be abolished because they were considered to be insufficiently able to accurately reflect a school's actual performance."

It is perhaps not the short timescale of the good school inspection that will appeal most but the professional manner in which we are told they will be conducted.

Good schools

The inspection process for good schools will involve the school in a dialogue with their HMI, a tier of inspectors that most headteachers respect.

"In my experience of HMIs," explained Mr Brown, "they are incredibly thorough and it is hoped that this will lead to an overall consistency of approach across these inspections."

The inspection lasts a day and school leaders will still need to demonstrate that they are tackling any weaknesses rigorously and are maintaining a no-excuses approach to school improvement.

Inspectors will want to see that school leaders and governors have the capacity to identify areas that need improvement and to tackle them quickly and effectively. The inspection will be tailored to the school and any issues highlighted in the previous inspection report must have been followed up rigorously in the meantime.

No new grade is allocated after the inspection. If the HMI believes that the grade might need to change – either because the school is performing better than before or hasn't maintained the standard, a Section 5 inspection process can be set in motion within 48 hours.

The professional dialogue and approach suggested for good schools resonates positively. Here, perhaps, is an approach to inspection in which all schools might beneficially engage.

Up to expectations?

This framework might have been described as the biggest shake up of Ofsted in 20 years, but any sense of profound change is missing from headteachers' reactions and comments.

"There is a little bit in me that says now is the time for a radical rethink of all things inspection," Colin Harris, headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Hampshire, told Headteacher Update.

School inspection is a huge industry and this concerns some of you as well: "I'm especially interested in those who support schools after failure," Mr Harris added. "It seems we have created a whole new business of personnel going in to support failing schools and making a great deal of money out of it."

Sir Michael has spoken out recently about the intention of limiting the moonlighting work that inspectors do through "mocksteds". However, while the stakes are so high it is likely that schools will continue to spend money on preparation for inspection. Ofsted materials, training courses and consultants are unlikely to disappear just yet.

Most headteachers are not opposed to the concept of inspection, but the implications of falling into a category of concern or requires improvement are a great worry to school leaders. This is a worry that has now been exacerbated by the new "coasting" category, which some heads see as more of a political manoeuvre.

"The concern still remains," said Mr Brown, "that overall judgements may be used to identify 'coasting schools' in turn to force such settings down an academisation route, which to date is not a proven strategy for raised standards over a sustained period of time."

Room to experiment?

The CIF provides good and outstanding schools with the space to experiment and investigate new approaches. A frequent comment made by school leaders who have recently come out of out the requiring improvement category is that they feel they now have opportunity to take risks and innovate.

Those who remain less than good are still caught up in slavishly applying another set of standards and desperately trying to please inspectors. Rather than exploring new ways to improve they will be looking for rapid means of demonstrating the difference in their work.

There is no noticeable euphoria among headteachers discussing the new Common Inspection Framework. Instead there is resignation to one more attempt at getting it right.

"All in all, it will be another new framework, it will be what it is and schools will be no further on at the end of it," added Mr Harris. "Until there is a genuine move both nationally and locally to work with heads and schools on a focused supported movement to change, we will be in the same position as we are now."

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