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The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspects schools that are members of the associations that make up the Independent Schools Council (ISC), an organisation whose members include the vast majority of the UK's mainstream private schools.

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 Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, Girls' Schools AssociationIndependent Associate of Prep Schools, The Society of Heads and Independent Schools Association.

Independent schools not overseen by ISC are inspected by Ofsted. These include some non-denominational faith schools and Steiner schools. Currently, around 1,000 non-associated independent schools fall under Ofsted’s remit. After criticism from Ofsted, ISI plans to introduce a new inspection framework in 2023.

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 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.

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 [article in The Guardian]. 

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 is in an ISI inspection report?

Unlike with Ofsted, ISI reports do not give schools a single term grade. However the differect aspects of the school that are inspected 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 still use  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 considered by some to be a better system than Ofsted - 'Private school inspections: there isn't the fear you feel with Ofsted'. However, ISI reports tend to be less critical.

Schools undergo an inspection on average every three 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

Who inspects 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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