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ISI LogoThe Independent Schools Inspectorate is an independent inspectorate appointed by the Department for Education to inspect schools that are members of the associations that make up the Independent Schools Council.

We think ISI reports give a good overview of a school for interested parents.

Does ISI inspect all independent schools?

The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspects all independent schools whose heads are members of one of ISC’s member associations in England. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) associations are The Heads’ Conference, Girls' Schools AssociationIndependent Associate of Prep Schools, The Society of Heads and Independent Schools Association. These associations represent the vast majority of the UK's mainstream private schools.

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.

Both Ofsted and ISI inspect all schools against the Independent School Standards, which are set by parliament.

Is ISI answerable to Ofsted?

Since 2019, ISI has not been monitored by Ofsted. ISI is appointed and accountable directly to the DfE – the regulator for independent schools in England.

Under ministerial direction, ISI and Ofsted have a joint working arrangement based around the mutual exchange of knowledge and understanding, with a view to informing best practice in each organisation. This results in an annual report by Ofsted to the Secretary of State for Education, which provides a summary of collaborative activities undertaken.

How do ISI inspections differ from Ofsted’s?

Both ISI and Ofsted report on the extent to which independent schools meet 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. For example, ISI’s new framework does not use single word judgements or grades; instead, inspectors report on whether standards are met or unmet with a reference to each section of the framework. Further information can be found on the inspections explained part of the ISI website or within our inspection report template and writing guidance.

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. 

ISI reports are also less data driven than with Ofsted, although Ofsted has ditched exam results as criteria for success.

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.

What is in an ISI inspection report?

Unlike with Ofsted, ISI reports do not give schools a single term grade. 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, split across the following sections:

  • Section 1: Leadership and management, and governance
  • Section 2: Pupils' education, training and recreation
  • Section 3: Pupils' physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing
  • Section 4: Pupils' social and economic wellbeing and contribution to society
  • Safeguarding

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. 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.

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 less critical than Ofsted?

This is a common perception but it’s worth noting that the percentage of schools that fail to meet one or more of the Independent Schools Standards is very similar for ISI inspected association schools and Ofsted inspected non-association schools. ISI publishes this information in its annual report and Ofsted publishes on the GOV.UK website.

How often are schools inspected by ISI?

Schools undergo an inspection on average every three years. Decisions to undertake a non-routine inspection are taken by DfE – the regulator for independent schools (not ISI or Ofsted)

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 when they fail an inspection?

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 fails to meet one or more standards, the school has to create a development plan with tight timescales to address the issues and this is monitored. 

A clear / high-level overview of what happens if a school fails to meet one or more of the standards can be found in ISI’s inspection handbook.

Who inspects boarding schools?

Boarding schools and days schools are routinely inspected at the same frequency, but the inspection teams for boarding schools tend to be larger and inspection activities differ in some respects. These inspections look at boarding welfare and inspect against the National Minimum Standards for boarding schools – a very long list!

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