Independent schools face challenges? Sure, I hear you say. Like whether to build a second olympic-size swimming pool or to add dressage to the curriculum? Not quite.
Let me begin by laying to bed a common misconception. Private Schools and Independent Schools are not the same thing. In fact, they couldn’t be further apart. In every conceivable way. Non-association independent schools are a type of specialist educational provision, inspected by Ofsted, but operating outside of mainstream education. They exist to support young people who, for whatever reason, are not catered for by mainstream schools. And as such, non-association independent schools face significant challenges.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Non-Association Independent Schools Are Inspected by Ofsted
That’s right. Non-association independent schools are inspected by Ofsted. Now, as anyone in mainstream education will already be painfully aware, an Ofsted inspection is a pretty big deal. It’s effectively a seal of approval for schools. For many, it’s a badge of honour. It determines and impacts on recruitment, of both staff and students. It influences funding and budgets. But most importantly, it impacts public perception.
A positive Ofsted outcome is a source of great PR.
A poor Ofsted outcome, not so much.
In fact, for non-association independent schools, a poor Ofsted outcome has a more significant impact.
Most of these types of provision admit pupils by referral from local authorities, so when they get a poor Ofsted inspection outcome commissioners are reluctant to send pupils to the school. In extreme cases, they will even withdraw the pupils who are already in the school.
Since schools have individual funding contracts for each pupil, every pupil withdrawn from a school, and likewise each pupil referral that’s blocked by local authorities, represents money taken out of a school’s budget.
So, yes. Ofsted inspections are quite challenging for non-association independent schools, especially when there’s so much riding on the outcome.
Usually, when I start working with an independent school, it's because they have just been inspected and things didn't go so well. To put it in context, about 25% of schools fail to get a ‘Good’ grade during a standard inspection.
They either got a poor inspection grade, or they did not meet the Independent School Standards, or both. And when you look at Ofsted statistics in this area, it is very difficult for schools to bounce back after they've had a poor inspection outcome. Take, for instance, the latest statistics relating to follow-up inspections for schools with a poor initial Ofsted outcome. The data show that about 58% of schools that had a progress monitoring inspection, failed to get a positive outcome.
Effectively, what this means is that it's more difficult to bounce back after getting a poor inspection outcome than it is to get a good outcome in the first place.
Harsh, but true.
Governed by the Independent School Standards
Being subject to the Independent School Standards in addition to all of Ofsted’s criteria, immediately adds that extra layer of challenge for non-association independent schools. Extra considerations and criteria that their mainstream colleagues are not subject to. Lucky them.
Of course, the Independent School Standards are no secret. Proprietors know about them and need to meet them in order to set up and run an independent school. So having to maintain these standards should not come as a shock, really. When people start an independent school, they are given a list of those standards. In order to maintain the school's registration, they need to meet the standards. The standards are presented as a legal document. And, as such, it’s not a fun read, and it's not easy to interpret.
Therefore, it’s easy to misinterpret, making it easy to slip up. And what may seem like a minor issue on paper can actually be a significant problem in reality.
So, the greatest challenge faced by non-association independent schools is maintaining the Independent School Standards. Actually, it’s understanding the expectations and interpreting all the documentation, which is quite dense.
There are a lot of schools that will look at the standards and think they get it, they meet the standards. And then when they're inspected, it turns out they don't, because the requirements are actually not that not clear.
The DFE has put together a guidance document which talks about the standards and tries to give clarity about what the requirements are. It’s a great document and all school leaders should read it.
However, it does not give clarity about all the standards. For some of the standards it signposts additional documents, a selection of which can be seen below.
So, in order for anyone to have a clear understanding of exactly what they need to do to meet all the standards, they need to read the standards, the guidance, the additional guidance, and so on. Of course, this is a fairly unrealistic expectation. It’s certainly not very easy to do because people simply don't have the time.
Which is why schools fail to meet the standards. And why they fail to bounce back when they've had a poor Ofsted outcome.
For this reason, we have developed an audit tool which makes it easier for schools to accurately check their compliance with the standards. It was compiled using all the available guidance and is presented as a checklist of questions that require yes/no responses. You can find it here.
Remember, the challenge isn’t the day job.
It’s reading the instruction manual.
It’s Not Easy Being Independent
Finally, it’s worth remembering that the DfE is responsible for regulating and enforcing the Independent School Standards. And they act swiftly.
When schools continuously fail to meet the standards, the DfE can stop them from recruiting pupils or revoke their registration status and ask them to close.
It is against this backdrop that independent schools operate.
And, in spite of this, continue to succeed in providing the most vulnerable students in society with a valuable education.
If you would like to talk about your independent school you can contact us today.