Five steps to winning the inspection game

Ensuring that education standards are up to par for students is paramount and is a key expectation of all stakeholders. Mike Buchanan, head of Ashford School, Kent and chair of the HMC, shares his five simple steps to beat the newly introduced educational quality inspections (EQI) now underway in independent schools

Step one: Understand the rules

My job as a reporting inspector is to fairly, impartially and objectively make judgements about the achievements and personal development of the pupils in your school by following the inspection framework and to match the primary evidence to the best fit of the grade descriptors. The report I write is primarily for parents and the public.

Your challenge is to make sure the inspection team reflects back to you the evidence you present. It is a game of show and tell. You need to guide them to the conclusions you wish them to draw based on the quality, range, depth and format of the primary evidence you provide.

Step two: Do not assume past performance is a predictor of the future

Forget how schools were inspected in the past; some of the terminology may be familiar but the approach is radically different. Previously, the inspectors would look at what the school provided – such as the curriculum, the teaching, the pastoral care, the leadership, etc. – and try to work out how each made a difference to the pupils in terms of their achievements, their learning, their attitudes and their personal development. In other words, we looked at the inputs and tried to work out how they connected to the outputs.

In the new EQI world the thinking is reversed. Now we look at the primary evidence as shown by what pupils are doing, thinking and saying and try to work out which factors contribute to their doing, thinking and saying.

There are sixteen criteria against which judgements are made. For example, decision-making. As inspectors we look by direct observation at how well-developed pupils’ decision making is and match this to the grade descriptors by the end of the inspection. So, I might see pupils making choices in an art lesson. In conversation with them I discover that they have been exploring Impressionism and have been set the challenge of developing their own style. To do this they have to decide all manner of things such as the subject of their painting, the focus, the colouring, etc. In conversation, and through glancing at their sketchbooks, I can see that these pupils are making well-informed, individual, challenging choices well beyond what I might reasonably anticipate for the average 11-year-old.

We will have found many examples of pupils’ decision-making from choosing GCSE options to work in lessons. This is the primary evidence of what the pupils are doing, thinking and saying – in other words, the ‘outcomes’ in inspection speak.

How do these outcomes arise? What does the school do, if anything, to enable the pupils to make sophisticated choices? What are the ‘contributory factors’ in inspection speak?

Well, if I think of the pupils in that art lesson, some factors are quickly evident:

  • The governors provide the resources to employ a specialist teacher with wide-ranging subject knowledge and highly-developed pedagogical expertise.
  • The teaching is carefully structured to ensure pupils have sufficient knowledge and skill to be successful, and are challenged to exceed previous levels irrespective of their varying starting points.
  • The resources are extensive and high quality, allowing the pupils to make relevant, individual choices.
  • The curriculum is carefully planned to progress through a range of skills and knowledge with a clear focus on developing observational painting.
  • Because the teaching has successfully established routines, the pupils work with focus and persistence showing great pride and passion in their work, and that of others.
  • One of the aims of the school is respect for cultural diversity and this shines through as the pupils talk openly about their cultural backgrounds and the impact their family heritage has on the choice of the objects they are drawing. They happily share this thinking with others because of the established climate in the school.
  • Another aim is ethical decision-making. This contributed to the pupils appreciating and considering ethical decisions when discussing the rights and wrongs of the amassed collections of artefacts in the British Museum.
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Step three: Collect evidence in the form that inspectors will easily recognise

So, your job is to provide the primary evidence in terms of what pupils are doing, thinking and saying, the level of their achievements relative to their ability and starting point and to make the link to the contributing factors.

You might do this in the way I have illustrated by dropping into lessons, activities, concerts, pupil meetings, lunch, breakfast, boarding houses, etc. on a regular basis and filling in one of the new style observation records to amass your own evidence across the 16 criteria. You can carry out your own pupil surveys. You can ask parents. You can conduct pupil interviews; for example, to explore Spiritual Understanding you might discuss this over lunch with a group of selected pupils.

All of this allows you to amass wide-ranging evidence that will enable you to make your own evaluation and judgement of pupils’ achievements and their personal development by comparing what you find against the grade descriptors.

Step four: Use what you collect for multiple purposes.

If you do this well, honestly and objectively then you:

  • Have the perfect self-evaluation that you can send to the inspection team
  • Have a ready-made improvement plan because you will have identified gaps or less well-developed areas and
  • Have evidence which is hard to refute when it comes to helping the inspection team make their own judgements.

Step five: Use your own evidence to guide the inspection

Faced with a well-prepared, honestly reflective school with their own evidence it is hard to reach any different conclusion from that drawn by the school. So, the outcome of an EQI is entirely in your hands.

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