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ISI Inspection Framework 2023: A Progressive and Welcome Development

The much-anticipated new framework from the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), known as ‘Framework ‘23’, has at last been released, and schools will no doubt be acquainting themselves with the changes.

Here, Devin Cassidy, an inspector for the ISI with over 13 years of senior leadership experience, explores the new ISI inspection framework 2023, explaining how it improves upon previous inspection frameworks and how schools can prepare for it.

What was wrong with the old framework and why is there a need to change it?

In addition to the current ISI inspection framework coming to the end of its cycle, we’ve just emerged from a pandemic. Unless you’ve experienced living in a war zone, this has quite possibly been the most traumatic event most people have lived through. The younger you are, the more likely it is that this is true.

Children, in particular, did not fare well during what was a time of great uncertainty and disruption, and anxiety and attendance issues have not resolved themselves yet. The brutal murder of George Floyd occurred just two months into lockdown; the emergence of ‘Me Too’ and ‘Everyone’s Invited’ social movements against sexual abuse, sexual harassment and rape culture, in which people publicise their experiences of sexual abuse or sexual harassment, had a great impact on society.

The independent education sector came in for its own share of criticism with the emergence of some high-profile cases in the media; it was also apparent that this was a reflection of a much broader societal issue.

In April 2021, the DfE asked Ofsted to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. The report that followed was a big wake-up call for everyone in education and who have dealings with young people. Add to this anxiety about war in Europe; press speculation about the use of nuclear weapons; the sheer pace of life owing to email and social media, and the rapid development of artificial intelligence, there’s little wonder our young people of today are struggling a little.

A new and more relevant ISI inspection framework

It’s clear that the world we’ve emerged into post-pandemic is different from the one before. Framework ‘23 seems to be a bold development from the ISI inspection framework 2022, which looks at education in its broadest sense and through the lens of wellbeing. It also has an emphasis on the role of leadership and management of schools to actively promote the wellbeing of pupils and to try to understand better what it's like to be a pupil at the school under inspection.

This is being implemented by reporting on wellbeing, as defined in section 10(2) of the Children’s Act 2004, which some may say is a step back to the days of ‘Every Child Matters’, but why not? It seems every bit as relevant today as it was when we used it as a basis for our safeguarding strategies well over a decade ago.

An emphasis on the wellbeing and leadership and management

An added challenge for school leaders, which I hope they will be taking seriously, is that if we are to look after the wellbeing of the pupils, then it follows that the wellbeing of staff is also crucially important. The profession seems to be facing an unprecedented challenge in recruitment and retention, despite the Early Career Framework (ECF) ensuring that new entrants receive high-quality support and mentoring for a longer period.

Therefore, school leaders might be well advised to adopt a holistic approach which addresses the wellbeing of the whole school community. What is certainly clear is that if wellbeing hasn’t been a priority, it needs to be, moving forward. Indeed, there is a requirement for leadership and management to actively promote the wellbeing of pupils under the new framework.

A successful consultation

My view is that the ISI inspection framework 2023 is a progressive and welcome development. Whilst the previous framework was not broken, the new emphasis on wellbeing, together with the inspectorate’s values and principles, demonstrate that they have listened and taken the consultation with school leaders seriously, responding pragmatically.

Indeed, there’s an awareness of the workload of school leaders, a determination to reduce unnecessary workload and to work collaboratively to inspect a school as it typically operates. This involves exercising sound judgement and proportionality to minor errors or omissions, when judging if independent schools standards have been met.

New style ISI inspection reports

It is intended that the new ISI inspection reports will be written in an unambiguous way, enabling the reader to understand what it’s like to be a pupil at the school. I wonder if they will read more like an Ofsted report, shorter and more to the point? There are clear references to leadership and management throughout the framework, and not simply to senior leadership, but leadership throughout the school, including governance.

A greater emphasis on provision, SEND and collaboration with the school

Readers of the new framework will also notice a greater emphasis on provision and less reference to outcomes. There is an unambiguous duty on leadership to ensure that the school identifies those with SEND and meets their needs.

The importance of learning outside the classroom and recreation are also key features of the new framework, and whilst schools have a great amount of autonomy in how they address these aspects, it’s clear that provision impacts pupil wellbeing. It would be wise to assume it will, therefore, be robustly evaluated. In doing so, it’s expected that senior leaders will be invited to accompany inspectors on learning walks to add context to what is being observed in lessons, and inspectors will speak with middle leaders and pupils to better understand the work that has been completed in books.

I anticipate that both inspectors and school leaders will welcome these opportunities. Giving pupils the chance to talk to inspectors about the progress they have made throughout the year and cite examples from their work will add much welcome context to work scrutiny from an inspectors’ viewpoint.

A new inspection cycle

The inspection cycle has been simplified. Gone are regulatory compliance inspections and educational quality with focused compliance. These have been replaced by one type of inspection, where compliance and education quality are inspected at the same time, with a new style of reporting, which integrates the independent schools standards with the quality of education. These will be reported in four sections, with an additional section for safeguarding, and for the first time, evaluative statements will refer to safeguarding, so that schools which are only just meeting the standard and those exceeding the standard will be differentiated. Many schools will welcome this as recognition for the great work they’re doing in this respect.

What are the next steps for schools?

How might schools begin to prepare for the new inspection framework? I would begin by ensuring that:

  • those with responsibilities for areas of compliance fully understand them and know what good practice looks like
  • policies undergo regular review and are implemented
  • recruitment of staff and administration of the SCR receives the attention to detail required
  • leaders have the knowledge and skills to interrogate this area fully
I would also recommend that:

  • middle leaders review their schemes of work, paying particular attention to ensuring that the most able are provided for, whilst those with SEND are well supported
  • the careers programme should be comprehensive, and all pupils of secondary age should have access to high-quality and impartial advice about their futures. To this end, it would be wise to evaluate to what extent you are implementing the Gatsby benchmarks
There are a host of other reports which would be well worth reviewing to help guide you in your strategic thinking. These include:

A strategic approach to CPD is needed to develop teaching and subject-specific pedagogy, as well as ensuring that teachers are teaching to the top, whilst supporting those who need it to ensure that all pupils are able to make progress and fulfil their potential, which plays a significant part in pupils’ wellbeing.

Looking to the future, what might we expect the themes for the coming academic year to be?

We can expect Keeping children safe in education to be updated and republished over the coming months, certainly by September. I think we should expect SEND to become of increasing significance as the framework develops and as the national improvement plan for SEND is rolled out to ensure that the needs of all pupils are being met and they are making progress.

In light of the Shawcross report, we may expect a renewed and updated focus in ISI inspections on the Prevent agenda to improve training for school staff so that they can better understand the causes of radicalisation, as well as a greater consistency in the referral process. We can also expect that, following reports of inappropriate material being taught in some schools, there will be a review of RSE and statutory guidance produced by the end of the year. Schools will want to anticipate this guidance by ensuring that age-appropriate material is being used and that staff are appropriately trained to ensure children are protected.

I expect there will be much training and clarification from the inspectorate over the coming months, and The National College will be producing a series of webinars which will look at the different sections of the new framework in greater detail, exploring possible themes and advising on how best to prepare, given what we currently know.

In summary, my view is that the ISI inspection framework seems to have the right balance, putting the so-called hygiene factors first, from which comes the structure for success, happiness and fulfilment. I very much look forward to seeing how the framework will ‘bed in’ and, after a period of time, how it’s viewed compared to the outgoing framework.

Devin Cassidy

Education Consultant (Former Head)