On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service

Evaluating schools based on test scores satisfies few people. There’s another way, writes Ed Sector’s Craig Jerald in On Her Majesty’s School Inspection Service. In England, school inspectors visit each school.

The process is thorough and rigorous: “[I]nspectors observe classroom lessons, analyze student work, speak with students and staff members, examine school records, and scrutinize the results of surveys administered to parents and students,” he notes.

A school inspectorate could work in the U.S., Jerald argues.

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    Color me skeptical. Based on information provided by the school and the several days visit, the inspectorate ranks schools as outstanding, good, satisfactory, or poor on 27 (!) measures. These include “the extent to which pupils feel safe,” “pupils’ behavior,” “the extent to which pupils contribute to the school and wider community,” “the extent to which the curriculum meets pupils’ needs, including, where relevant, through partnerships,” “the effectiveness of partnerships in promoting learning and well-being,” and so on.

    Does anyone seriously think they can do this? Could an entire school’s worth of inspectors do it if they stayed in the school all year? We simply do not know how to accomplish most of the things we haven’t been able to accomplish. To expect a group of inspectors to know and to be able to judge is to believe in magic.

    Many schools already do something like this with the regional accreditation agencies. The agencies require schools to gather data, write reports, and do a self-study. A group from the agency then comes to the school where they “observe classroom lessons, analyze student work, speak with students and staff members, examine school records, and scrutinize the results of surveys administered to parents and students.” The result is underwhelming. The agency makes lots of recommendations. Alas, many of them are silly, like requiring the school to have a mission statement and mission statement expectations. Others are fairly mechanical applications of rules that have no demonstrated effect on student learning, like minimum square footage for the school library.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Right. I’ve been through the process and it sucks up huge amounts of time to pull all the documentation together. There’s some benefit to taking a lot at yourself in this process, but even my principal, who is VERY competitive, admits that we only really do it because we’ve been accredited for over a 100 years and why quit now.

      How stellar are the British schools due to this process?

  2. North of 49th says:

    We also do this in Ontario, Canada. The inspection process is part of the School Effectiveness Framework and is heavily influenced by the work of Richard Elmore on “instructional rounds.” The inspection team does all the things mentioned in the UK article — examines stoudent work, observes lessons, talks to students about their learning, examines the quality of resources available, the consistency of instruction, communication, teamwork, technology integration, use of data to guide instruction, and assessment. It’s pretty comprehensive. They give detailed descriptive feedback in a number of different categories, with an emphasis on constructive suggestions.

    It’s nerve-wracking but has definitely led to a lot more consistency and emphasis on effective strategies and working together not only within a school but within a district or group of schools. A really weak school I was in has improved incredibly through this process.

    They don’t do every school every year though, they do it on a rotating basis, about every 5 years I think. My district has about 450 elementary schools and they do about 60-70 each year.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      It’s interesting that Lightly Seasoned and I both think that the accreditiation procedure–similar to Jerald’s School Inspection Service–has been pretty much useless in our schools, while North of 49th says the inspection process in his Canadian district has been useful. Why the difference?

      Perhaps the length of time the process has been in effect. His school and mine have gone through the process every ten years for decades. Any useful suggestions have already been made, and what’s left is educational faddishness and foolishness. It sounds like this is the first time for North of 49th (else how did the “really weak school” escape five years previous?).

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        Well, one factor is we have 5 elementary schools in our district as opposed to 450.

      • North of 49th says:

        Until 10 or so years ago, they didn’t *have* any coherent, organized plan or process to improve really poor schools, nor to move average ones into a higher level of achievement. Fads came and went, administrators were moved around, special projects of limited duration (reminded me of the old Soviet “Three Year Plans” that never accomplished anything) were brought in here and there, but there was no co-ordination, systematic addressing of problems nor any emphasis on learning from effective practices elsewhere. It was a hodge podge. And that was just my district! Others were similar.

        The inspection process is only part of the whole picture, but it is an important one in reducing variation in the system.. There has been quite a culture change, away from the “Lone Ranger” ethos and more towards a lot of professional collaboration and working together on all aspects of programming, assessment, teaching, etc. Not only within a school, but in groups of schools and across districts. Like I said, it has incorporated a great deal of support for teachers at least at the k-8 level; I can’t speak for 9-12 but the overarching strategy affects high schoos too albeit with different emphases.Elmore’s work has been a big influence.

        This short report from OECD is pretty accurate, factually, IMO and describes many of the components to the reform effort here.


        Some schools still need lots of work, but even one that I taught in awhile back that would have made any U.S. urban ghetto school look like Paradise, has improved considerably although the academic outcomes still lag . Perfection will never arrive, but I have to admit many of the changes are very positive. It makes a huge difference to the work environment for staff, not to mention the school climate and learning opportunities for our kids.

        I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this opinion piece by Marc Tucker:
        http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/odss/Standing-on-the-Shoulders-of-Giants.pdf but on pp. 43-44 he summarizes our improvement pretty accurately. There have been hugeachievement gains for low-income and minority students, not so much for students who already were at the top of the curve. That is an issue that will need to be addressed, but I well remember when most of our eighth grade graduates (in a low performing school) were barely able to read, write and do math at a fourth grade level. When I look at the work of the “low” kids now, I have to admit there is *no* comparison. We have moved forward.

  3. If the inspectors come from the k-12 system, the accrediting agencies, the ed bureaucracy at any level (including federal) and/or ed schools – and this tightly-knit constellation is highly effective at inserting itself into any and all educational endeavors – this whole process would be a very expensive waste of time. I can’t envision a scenario where this would not happen.

  4. nyc participates in this kind of system. the inspects are supposed to come from an ed background but we aren’t given any specifics. i think the process is very subjective.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    Are these inspectors from the federal government? federalism, anyone?

    • North of 49th says:

      Our inspection teams are *not* from the federal government — we are fortunate that the government has nothing whatever to do with K-12 education — no funding, no regulations, no mandates, nothing.

      Our student results have certainly improved significantly over the past decade or so, especially for poor kids and minority students, so something about these processes definitely makes a difference. I was a sceptic for a long time but am guardedly optimistic now.

      Here are some links for those who might wish to know more:


      The model is quite opposite to what I understand is the emphasis in the U.S., where it seems to be a blame and punish orientation — here it is focused on improvement, with a great deal of pressure but also support in the form of additional resources, staff and professional development to meet targets.

    • Craig Jerald says:

      Stacy, that’s a great question. Personally, I think a federally-run inspection system would be disasterous and probably unconstitutional. In the report, I say that some states might want to consider inspections as the federal government begins to provide more freedom in designing school accountability policies in the post-NCLB era. I calculated state-by-state cost estimates, which can be found in a table near the end of the report.

  6. Theodore Dalrymple calls the U.K. school inspectorate deeply corrupt.

    • Craig Jerald says:

      LindaS, I must respectfully point out that your characterization of Dalrymple’s op ed is hugely misleading. Dalrymple does not call the inspectorate corrupt. He laments that a few principals try to game the inspection system when they are notified of an impending visit. As Dalrymple points out, the inspectorate has greatly reduced the notification period and is even experimenting with unannounced inspections. It’s unfortunate that the dishonesty of a very few principals necessitates such steps, but let’s be careful not to call the inspectorate itself “corrupt” because of it. Personally, I found the inspectors I spoke with to be deeply committed to Ofsted’s mission to inspect scchools fairly and reliably, “without fear or favor.”

  7. greeneyeshade says:

    Maybe if things were the way they were back when Matthew Arnold was a school inspector …

  8. Craig Jerald says:

    As the author of the report in question, I wanted to chime in to say that this is a great discussion and to clarify a few points:

    1) I agree that American “accreditation” visits are largely a waste of time. As I note in the report, “[Richard] Rothstein has suggested that the venerable regional accreditation associations might be converted into Ofsted-type inspectorates, but there is a huge gap between current American ‘accreditation visits’ and Ofsted-style inspections.” For anyone interested, I summarize the critical differences on p. 3 of the report.

    2) I also looked at the NYC version, called “school quality reviews,” and concluded that something vital had been lost in translation. Again, for anyone interested, see p. 3, where I briefly contrast those SQRs with English inspections.

    I hope this discussion continues. I am learning much from it. (And check out Education Sector’s web site next week for guest blogs by inspection enthusiasts and skeptics. Should be an interesting debate.)