Teaching is a vocation. It’s a career typified by selflessness. Selfless individuals who strive to do the very best by the young people in their charge, often under very challenging circumstances. As teachers, you find your motivation in making a difference in young people’s lives. You want to see them succeed. But imagine being told you had to shut down your school, despite all your hard work and effort in the trenches. Regardless of how well you were providing for your students. This can happen if your school, as a whole, fails to meet the independent school standards.
Although exaggerated for effect, this is the harsh reality for Independent Schools inspected by Ofsted. Of course, the DfE will give schools opportunities to address un-met standards, and schools will only be shut down as a last resort after persistent non-compliance. What’s important to note is that it can take as little as 1 year to get to this point after a school fails to meet the standards. For this reason, the importance of compliance with the Independent School Standards can not be overstated.
All independent schools must meet all the paragraphs of the Independent School Standards in order to maintain their registration. The DfE is very clear and unambiguous about this requirement. Evident in the way they regulate and enforce this legislation.
As a result, Ofsted, who are commissioned by the DfE to inspect compliance with the standards, has made compliance integral to getting a positive inspection outcome. Under the new inspection framework, failing to meet the standards almost guarantees an “inadequate” inspection judgment.
This can have a significant impact on independent schools reliant on pupil referrals from local authorities. When these particular schools receive a poor Ofsted inspection outcome some commissioners will reduce pupil referrals or begin withdrawing their pupils from those schools.
Independent schools that do not rely on referrals from local authorities also suffer. What parent wants to pay thousands of pounds a year to send their child to a school that is ranked inadequate?
Since independent schools are by definition not funded by central government, losing pupils is the start of a very quick and slippery slope towards school closure.
So what does the current picture look like for Independent Schools inspected by Ofsted? Well, according to statistics published on the 18th of December 2019:
25% of Independent Schools inspected between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2019* failed to meet the requirements of the Independent School Standards;
56% of those that had a progress monitoring inspection during the same period failed to demonstrate that they had addressed previously un-met standards.
*whose reports were published by the 30th of September 2019
It’s plain to see that compliance with the Independent School Standards is an ongoing battle for many schools.
But there’s good news.
It is possible to establish systems that guarantee consistent compliance with the standards.
And this is your starting point.
The Single Most Important Thing You Do
Meeting the requirements of the Independent School Standards is the single most important mandate for all independent schools.
Registering an Independent School with the DfE comes with one condition: compliance with the Independent School Standards. In fact, before an Independent School can even open its doors, the DfE commissions Ofsted to inspect the school to assess if it is likely to satisfy this mandate.
Furthermore, during a school’s first year of operation, Ofsted will return to check if the school continues to comply with the standards. After this, a school’s compliance is checked during all inspections, whether it is a standard inspection (which comes around every 3 years) or any of the following additional inspections:
Material Change – after a school has applied for permission from the DfE to make a change to their existing registration. For example, by taking on additional premises or increasing the maximum number of pupils they can take. Ofsted are commissioned to check if the school will continue to meet the standards relevant to the material change.
Progress Monitoring – after a school has had a standard inspection during which they failed to demonstrate compliance with some of the Independent School Standards. Ofsted may be sent to check if the school has addressed those un-met standards.
Emergency – if the DfE have received a complaint or any intelligence which suggests that the safeguarding and welfare of pupils might be at risk. Ofsted are sent to check compliance with the relevant standards. This type of inspection can also take place when the DfE suspects that a school has closed.
Ultimately, non-compliance with the standards can lead to the loss of an independent school’s registration status. And it’s illegal to continue to operate a school without this registration.
With this in mind, it’s surprising that 25% of Independent Schools inspected between 1 September 2018 and 31 August 2019 failed to meet the requirements of the Independent School Standards.
Then there’s the 56% of those that had a progress monitoring inspection during the same period failed to demonstrate that they had addressed previously un-met standards.
Bearing in mind all of the standards are mandatory and should be met by Independent Schools at all times, why do some schools fail to comply?
In my experience working with Independent Schools, I find that sometimes, even though Proprietors are aware of the importance of complying with the standards, this is not always effectively communicated to Headteachers.
Additionally, if a Headteacher comes from a mainstream background, it’s possible they’re unaware of the existence of this critical regulation.
Another significant reason why schools fail to comply is that, even if they are aware of the standards, it is almost impossible to meet the requirements by simply reading them. To clarify, Ofsted and the DfE have produced supplementary documents to help interpret the standards. The fact that these extra documents are necessary just to understand the regulations only serves to highlight how complex the Independent School Standards are. And, by extension, how important it is to get your head around them and put systems in place to ensure they are consistently met.
It would be fair to assume that all Independent School leaders will have read, or at least be familiar with, the Independent School Standards (2014) document. It’s a pretty dense document presented in legal language, so don’t expect to see it on any of the ‘Bestsellers’ lists anytime soon.
That said, some of the requirements are fairly straightforward. However, the majority of the standards need interpretation or more detail, raising more questions than they answer, for example:
“7. The standard in this paragraph is met if the proprietor ensures that—(a) arrangements are made to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils at the school and: (b) such arrangements have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.”
Some immediate questions that arise are: What arrangements? And, which guidance, specifically?
It’s not immediately clear.
Which makes compliance a tricky tightrope walk for school leaders who have the day-to-day running of a school to contend with as well.
And that’s, typically, where I come in — as a school improvement partner.
Clarifying the Independent School Standards
My job is to offer clarity and understanding of Independent School Standards to school leaders and help schools build systems to ensure consistent compliance with them.
With this in mind, I’d like to direct you to some key reading that will provide some essential ‘Standards’ knowledge.
The first is a guidance document, published by Ofsted, titled “Completing the record of inspection evidence and judgments” (January 2014). In it, Ofsted details their interpretation of the standards and their approach to evaluating how well schools comply with them. This is an extremely useful document as it spells out exactly what is required in great detail.
Unfortunately, when the standards were updated in December 2014 Ofsted did not update this guidance. They did however update the Non-association Independent School Handbook to include a section about compliance with the standards. And this is the second item for your reading list. This section in the Handbook includes links to various other documents that give important additional information, for example, advice about school premises and first-aid.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to guide you to the DfE’s recently published final draft of "The Independent School Standards Guidance for Independent Schools". Created to help Proprietors and others understand their obligations under the Independent School Standards, it’s an essential reference tool containing the most up-to-date guidance about SMSC.
So, it’s clear that there is enough guidance available to help school leaders understand the requirements of the standards. Then why are some schools failing to comply with the standards?
Perhaps they are unaware of the additional guidance or have not yet taken the time to read it in detail? Perhaps it’s the fact that the guidance documents above only clarify the requirements for some of the standards, not all of them. For example, the DfE guidance document directs readers to “Advice on standards for school premises” for guidance about standards 23 to 30. This is also the same for standards relating to first-aid, fire safety, safeguarding, and more.
Whatever the reasons, even with all the guidance available it is still challenging to check your school's compliance when you need to make reference to so many documents.
A Simple Solution
You’ll be pleased to know that there are easy ways around this problem of excessive and impenetrable compliance documentation.
The first is a document many school leaders will already be familiar with: Ofsted’s Independent School Standards Compliance Record. In fact, it’s very likely that many of you already use it as a template to check how well your school complies with the standards.
If you’ve attended any of Ofsted’s recent conferences for Independent Schools, you will have been provided with an updated version of this document.
I first encountered this document back in 2015 and thought it was a useful tool. However, since it lists the standards exactly as they appear in the legislation, I found I still needed to refer to the additional guidance to make sense of each entry and whether the evidence I had was appropriate.
That’s when I decided to use the guidance in Ofsted’s “Completing the record of inspection evidence and judgments” (January 2014) to compile a set of questions for each standard that would make the requirement clearer for those of us who are not inspectors.
I completed the first version of this document in May 2015. I have recently updated this document with the DfE’s "The Independent School Standards Guidance for Independent Schools" which was published in April 2019. The current and most up-to-date version titled “Independent School Standards Compliance Audit Tool” is available to purchase and download now.
Many school leaders have now used this tool to great effect.
It simplifies the audit process, pinpoints the evidence required in order to comply with each standard, and outlines it all in a user-friendly, easy-to-read format, taking the stress out of understanding and complying with the Independent School Standards.
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