Is the Independent Schools Inspectorate fit for purpose? Can it be trusted to protect children in private schools?

Francis Gilbert's picture
The scandal of the child abuse at St. Benedict's School has highlighted some significant problems with the Independent Schools Inspectorate's methods. As has been widely reported in the press, child abuse was rife at this private Catholic school, which was run by monks, some of whom were abusers. Lord Carlile's recent report into the school, which can be downloaded from the school's website, has hinted at significant failings with the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). The report says:

"The ISI inspected St Benedict’s in November 2009, with follow-up visits in April and May 2010, and further reports. Separate reports were prepared for the senior school and the junior school respectively. The November 2009 inspection was by a team of 10 inspectors with 2 reporting inspectors. They judged the School to be fully compliant with statutory requirements."

However, as has been reported by the Times today and quoted again on this ‘Confessions of a Skeptic’ blog (not behind the paywall and), the report does not point out that the ISI praised the school for its "high quality" welfare provision in November 2009, a deeply worrying assertion considering what had been going on there.

The central problem is this: the ISI is far too cosy with the private schools it inspects, being viewed by many schools as an adjunct to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which relentlessly promotes independent schools in the media and in the highest corridors of power. The ISC's website says: "ISI is a not-for-profit organisation, led by a Board of Directors which includes representatives of the ISC Associations. Day to day management is the responsibility of the Chief Inspector who is also a member of the Board." This indicates that the very organisation which is there to promote independent schools, the ISC, is hand-in-glove with the ISI.

The Confessions of the Skeptic blog urges people to write to their MPs about the poor safeguarding that children at boarding schools enjoy, with these schools having no statutory duty to report abuse. It goes on to say:

“The Education Bill currently going through Parliament includes a clause which would enable the DfE to appoint the ISI to inspect welfare at independent boarding schools (those which are members of the Independent Schools Council). This responsibility is currently held by OFSTED. Baroness Brinton spoke forcefully against this extension of the ISI's powers in the Grand Committee of the House of Lords.”

I think this 'Skeptic' blog has a very good point. If I had a child at a private boarding school, I’d be quite worried.

It’s yet more evidence that the private school system is certainly not what it’s cracked up to be. Gove and Cameron's trust in the private system is deeply troubling in the light of these revelations for all sorts of reasons.
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/11/2011 - 16:38

All schools should be subject to the same inspection regime – there should be no separate system for state schools and independent schools. All should be judged by the same assessment criteria with no exceptions. This would allay fears that independent schools are subject to a lighter inspection regime than state schools. It would also make it more difficult for incidents like those described above to go unnoticed.

This is all the more important for boarding schools where children are particularly vulnerable.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/11/2011 - 16:41

There are three independent inspectorates: the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) highlighted above; the Schools Inspection Service (SIS) and Bridge Schools Inspectorate (BSI). SIS provides independent inspection of schools associated with the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. It inspected the Norfolk Steiner School in March 2011 when a court case against the school following an allegation of bullying was pending. The inspection report made no mention of it even though the chairman of the school’s college of teachers was the one who had been accused of bullying. The court found against the school and the plaintiff’s solicitor asked for Ofsted to repeat the inspection and ensure it was more rigorous than before.

BSI inspects schools throughout England belonging to the Christian Schools’ Trust (CST) and the Associated of Muslim Schools UK (AMSUK). In 2009 BSI inspected the Darul Uloom Islamic High School in Birmingham. The BSI report said: “Provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is good overall. Spiritual and moral education is outstanding. Overall, the school provides its pupils with a satisfactory standard of education.” In early 2011, Channel 4 Despatches revealed that pupils at the school were “being taught a hardline, intolerant and highly anti-social version of Islam.” Following the Despatches programme, Darul Uloom Islamic High School has been re-inspected by Ofsted who found the overall quality of education and the welfare, health and safety of pupils was inadequate.

Of course, these cases may be exceptional. But both show that the inspection of independent schools can be lighter than that for state schools even when Ofsted does the inspecting. This can allow serious problems to go unnoticed and unchallenged.


The latest controversy regarding St Benedict’s, Ealing comes as no surprise. I have worked in three private prep schools over the last 12 years and the flagrant disregard for many regulatory and statutory requirements beggars belief. I worked in one very successful and highly regarded school and have no axe to grind with it at all. However, the other two (one of which I currently work at) have been another story completely. A boarding school I worked at for a year had two members of staff dismissed as a result of complaints made to OFSTED. This occurred when a joint ISI/ OFSTED inspection took place. Interestingly ISI found no problems but OFSTED who were investigating the boarding side of things found many problems. How the ISI team could not have found similar problems during their work still amazes me today! Changes to the inspection system now mean that effectively it is ISI who inspect both teaching and boarding standards at boarding schools.

I have been a “team inspector” with the independent schools inspectorate and have been very disappointed with the way that inspections are carried out. I am a parent governor at a state junior school and feel that the standards required by state schools to achieve “outstanding” grades are far higher than those needed by private establishments to achieve “outstanding”. The most worrying aspect of the ISI inspection process is that private schools are judged by their aims as stated to parents, whereas OFSTED criteria are based almost purely on test-based outcomes.

I genuinely feel that ISI should not be doing inspections at all – the term “cosy relationship” is too true. And that all schools should be judged by OFSTED. I have heard of a school which was inspected and was told by the lead inspector that if it had been an OFSTED inspection they would have been failed before she even entered the building because safeguarding requirements had not been met with regard to pre-employment checks being carried out! Other schools have had safeguarding policies found to be non-compliant and being given 7 days to sort them out - a situation that would just not be allowed to arise in the state sector.

The time has now come for for all schools to be inspected under the same arrangements.

JimC's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 06:16

If the argument was that all forms of school inspection is not fit for purpose I could get on board with that. ISI may be terrible but lets not hold OFSTED up as a beacon with which to judge inspectorates - didn't the Baby P scandal happen right under OFTSED's nose? I have no particular problem with OFSTED checking safeguarding olicy in schools and behaviour in schools but when they begin to interfere in lessons they become nothing more than a nuisance.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 16/11/2011 - 11:50

No system is going to be perfect, but the problem with many inspections in the private sector is that the very organisation doing the inspection relies for its funding/existence upon the Independent Schools Council, which is there to promote private schools. It would be a bit like having Ofsted funded by the unions...

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 17/11/2011 - 14:55

The New Schools Network and the Policy Exchange published a joint document before the last election in which they discussed Ofsted inspections. They recommended that schools should not be downgraded if Ofsted found fault with their procedures for safeguarding pupils if the schools were nevertheless providing an excellent education. Safeguarding children, the report says, is one of the "aims [which] are certainly desirable for any fair society, [but] they distract from the main mission of schools, which is to educate children."

So safeguarding children, while desirable, is, according to the NSN and Policy Exchange, a distraction. The document recommends different Ofsted regimes for different schools as follows:

"Ofsted should be required to inspect academies in relation to their legal
and particular contractual (funding agreement) obligations, not its maintained
school framework."

Mr Gove warmly welcomed the NSN/Policy Exchange report when it was published. If the report's recommendation is eventually accepted, it will mean that free schools and academies will not be subjected to the same inspection as local authority maintained schools. This is unacceptable.

Angel Garden's picture
Thu, 17/11/2011 - 19:50

Our experience of private schooling in New Zealand, was that they operate in a total legal vacuum as far as child welfare is concerned; it's absolute. Schools can do whatever they like, it's a High Trust Model. Plus private schools do also get public funding (including a big mistaken payout this year which the Govt (Anne Tolley) isn't going to ask for them to return).

In fact the whole NZ system is a pretty stark warning of potential things to come in UK as state/integrated schools can do largely exactly as they please and still get public funding. Also groups of parents have run state schools for 30 odd years, through Boards of Trustees.

It is certainly cherry picking season all the time in New Zealand and good luck with finding any justice. But such things couldn't happen here, could they?

A local point of view from the Global Village. Here's a humorous look at the subject....

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