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The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) www.isi.net inspects schools that belong to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) www.isc.co.uk which has more than 1,200 members, including many prestigious schools such as Eton, Harrow and Cheltenham Ladies' College.

Does ISI inspect all independent schools?

ISI inspects all independent schools whose heads are members of one of ISC’s member associations in England. The ISC associations are HMC www.hmc.org.uk, GSA gsa.uk.com,  IAPS iaps.uk, SoH www.thesocietyofheads.org.uk and ISA www.isaschools.org.uk

Independent schools belonging to member associations that are not overseen by ISC are inspected by other inspection bodies such as the Schools Inspection Service www.schoolinspectionservice.co.uk.

Independent schools that are not members of any umbrella associations (non-associated) are inspected by Ofsted www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ofsted. These include some non-denominational faith schools and Steiner schools. Currently, around 1,000 non-associated independent schools fall under Ofsted’s remit. For information on Ofsted reports, see here

Is ISI answerable to Ofsted?

Yes, ISI is a Government approved inspectorate and the quality of its service is monitored by Ofsted on behalf of the DfE www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education. Every year, Ofsted prepares a report for the education secretary about how the ISI has carried out its work.  Overall Ofsted is satisfied but will normally comment on an area for ISI to consider www.tes.com/news/need-know-independent-school-inspections-under-scrutiny.

How do ISI inspections differ from Ofsted’s?

Both ISI and Ofsted report on independent schools’ compliance with the DfE Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations. These are the statutory rules the DfE imposes on independent schools against which ISI inspects. But ISI and Ofsted use a different framework and criteria for judging school quality – and they use different judgement words too. For example, ISI uses excellent, good, sound and unsatisfactory and Ofsted uses outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate.

Another difference is that ISI inspection teams largely consist of practising senior leaders currently working in ISC schools, whereas Ofsted inspectors have not necessarily run a school. This means ISI inspectors are realistic and knowledgeable about the challenges for individual schools and their reports are more nuanced.  For example, ISI inspectors judge ISC schools against the higher standards of academic achievement and extracurricular activities in the sector as a whole as well as against national norms.

ISI reports are also less data driven than with Ofsted, although Ofsted has announced that it will ditch exam results as criteria for success in September 2019 www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/digital-media/blog/ofsted-and-exam-results.

In addition, ISI reports stand out for the attention they give to whether a school meets its own aims. These tend to be more specific to the school and fuller than in the state sector. In other words, ISI inspections are tailoring their report around what the school says it is doing rather than what the state thinks it should be doing.

What to expect from an ISI report

Schools are deemed excellent, good, sound or unsatisfactory. The exception is the Registered Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) – for this, Ofsted is the registering body, so inspections will receive Ofsted terminology: outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate.

The ISI’s system takes into account the school’s provision and outcomes for pupils, indicating how well the education caters for pupils of different needs and abilities, how broad the education is and the atmosphere of the school – in terms of the ethos, behaviour of pupils and relationships – and how well pupils are cared for.

You can expect quite a bit of detail, starting with background of the school, then moving onto key findings and recommendations and finally padding out of detail on the following areas: pupils’ academic and other achievements and quality of pupils’ personal development.

Remember to read between the lines – as with Ofsted, ‘low-level disruption’ might sound irrelevant, but in fact it can be the most irritating kind, the sort that’s much worse for other pupils than the occasional, spectacular blow-out followed by a quick expulsion.

It is worth looking carefully at the selectivity of the intake.  As with Ofsted, excellent exam results tend to lead to excellent reports but if the school is non-selective, and lots of independent schools are, you need to be aware of this and what it is likely the exam results will be.

Are parents consulted?

Parents are consulted via a confidential pre-inspection questionnaire. Only the statistical results are shared with the school and in the report, though – specifically the percentages of parents responding positively or otherwise to each question.

Are the reports worthwhile?

We think ISI reports give a good overview of a school for interested parents. It is generally considered a better system than Ofsted in most ways www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/feb/18/private-school-inspections-isnt-fear-ofsted.

The current version of ISI inspections involves a compliance inspection every 2/3 years and a full, educational quality, inspection between 3-6 years.  If a school has caused concerns it will be inspected more frequently.

There can also be emergency inspections where inspectors arrive at the school gates with no notice.  These occur if ISI has a sudden, unexpected reason to be concerned about a school and will usually be around a child protection issue.

What happens to schools at each end of the grading spectrum?

As well as Ofsted oversight, ISI inspection reports go to the associations to which a school belongs.  Their inspection committees ensure the school still meets its criteria for membership.  If a school is deemed unsatisfactory, or more likely fails on a compliance issue, the school has to create a development plan with tight timescales to address the issues and this is monitored

There are increasing concerns about independent schools that are not in ISC and received unsatisfactory Ofsted reports still being open and we think the government needs to do more to intervene: schoolsweek.co.uk/private-schools-repeatedly-fail-school-standards-but-stay-open

What about boarding schools?

Nearly all ISC independent boarding schools in England are inspected by the ISI and they are visited more frequently than day schools.  These inspections look at boarding welfare and inspect against the National Minimum Standards for Boarding – a very long list!

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