INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE RYAN, FORMER CHIEF INSPECTOR, INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS’ INSPECTORATE
By Saxton Bampfylde
Christine Ryan who, until April 2017, was the Chief Inspector and CEO of the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), the largest independent inspectorate in the UK and the agency responsible for the inspection of more than 1250 independent primary and secondary schools, educating more than half a million children. We talk to Christine in depth about her time at the ISI and how she believes the sector has, will and must evolve.
Is the UK independent schools’ sector becoming too focused on regulation and compliance and too little on learning and developing young people?
I don’t believe that schools are becoming too focused on regulation and compliance. What has been happening in the past decade or so, is a more conscious engagement with the subject, but this has most definitely not replaced or reduced a focus on teaching and the development of young people.
For some schools within the independent sector, and for that matter some maintained or state schools, a greater focus on regulation and compliance meant a more considerable shift in thinking and approach than for others.
These days it is very much part of the school fabric with all processes and protocols in place. It really is now one cog (an important one of course) within the larger school machine. For the majority of schools, regulation has become part of the general housekeeping and is one element of the approach towards the overall goal of educating and developing children.
Nobody would deny that safeguarding pupils and teachers is paramount. Which areas of compliance do you believe are the most effective to achieve a safe learning environment?
This is a much broader topic than it might first appear. Traditional safeguarding, as we might have called it, has developed so much, particularly in the world of increased digital access. The more ‘typical’ bullying and social exclusion now exists alongside issues such as sexting or cyber bullying, for example.
With any type of safeguarding it really does depend on the school’s starting point and what the overall approach is from each organisation. I do believe, as a fundamental starting point, that regulation is the critical first step in raising awareness to the most effective ways of safeguarding pupils.
The most successful examples are where it is applied on a risk-assessed basis. Defining a fixed set of guidelines, which is great for getting people and organisations up to a minimum level, doesn’t take into account the complexity of certain schools and so makes the flexible risk-based approach even more important.
Safeguarding checks on staff and volunteers are an absolute must, alongside a suite of policies and processes in each school. However, it is how this regulation is applied that can be key. There is not really a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Each school is different. What might work best in a day school in an urban area, may be less effective in a boarding school in a remote location.
I would however stress, that too heavy a reliance on regulation alone can create too much of a reassurance or illusion that nothing can go wrong. Compliance with a regulation is only as good as the moment it is looked at. What we need to remember is that we are all dealing with human beings, who cannot be completely regulated or guaranteed compliant all of the time.
The best protection of all is an active approach to compliance issues. Assessing risk according to context and circumstance and maintaining high levels of awareness from staff, pupils and parents is the optimum way to ensure safeguarding.
“TOO HEAVY A RELIANCE ON REGULATION ALONE CAN CREATE TOO MUCH OF A REASSURANCE OR ILLUSION THAT NOTHING CAN GO WRONG.”
Will there be greater responsibility placed on senior leadership in the future to ensure that governance is appropriately managed and delivered within schools?
I think so. I think it has always been there but not always been front and centre, but the world has moved on. People do expect compliance with law and regulation in all walks of life.
It is, as ever, with the leaders where the buck stops. Implementation of good governance arrangements is happening right across the sector. School leaders are doing what is required of them, not just in policy, but in practice. They absolutely recognise the importance of good governance within their schools and most have put the right systems and processes in place to ensure this and keep a keen oversight in this area.
Do we need to be thinking more creatively about the candidate pool for governors, trustees or senior leadership as the reality of greater challenges and expectations for the role increases?
I definitely believe we need to think more creatively. I know from my interaction with governors over the years that they were much less aware of what was required of them within regulation and compliance. It might not always have been so obvious the level of responsibility and authority that they held. This was an historical issue and a reflection of the fact that the pivotal role of governance hasn’t always been as prominent as it is now.
Traditionally the perceived view was that governors were primarily guardians of finances and resources. The commitment to education, regulation and compliance was often seen as the responsibility of the staff in the school. This was even the view despite the fact that most regulation names trustees and governors as proprietors, and therefore responsible, for the schools.
However, this outlook is shifting considerably. There is much greater awareness of the role than there was in the past. There is also more responsibility in terms of regulation as this area has increased over the years.
Schools are definitely thinking more about those being approached for governor roles. They are looking for a range of expertise, modern skills and an understanding of commercial business practice in many cases. However, what they also need are those who can commit time to the role. New demands on governors can create challenges for the candidate pool. This is an issue which can be magnified even more for schools based in remote or challenged areas where the number of candidates may be small.
I believe that quite simply the governor role is not sold positively enough. It brings huge benefits to individuals as well as schools; the chance to develop children and young people, enhance a local community or area, not to mention the business skills being learned through committee or board experience. Some companies across the UK are starting to directly encourage staff to get involved as governors or trustees in schools as they see the benefits it brings to their businesses. This is also encouraging a greater mix of younger and older representation on governing bodies which I believe works very well.
‘I BELIEVE QUITE SIMPLY THE ROLE OF GOVERNOR IS NOT SOLD POSITIVELY ENOUGH’
What will the new inspection framework mean for the independent sector? How will this benefit pupils, parents and teaching staff? What challenges does it face?
For me, the new framework represents an essential shift. It is the product of extensive consultation, bringing objective inspection squarely into the 21st century.
Since 2000 there has not been a considerable review of the system, and in that time the world has changed radically, and particularly for schools, young people and their parents. With easy access to data and constant communication on an unprecedented scale, it was absolutely necessary to review inspection. We have also gone from having a handful of regulations to over 400 areas of compliance, shifting the balance of inspection activity, so inspections these days are very different from what they were.
Schools in general, but particularly in the independent sector, have a much more mature and sophisticated approach to compliance than they had when routine inspection was first introduced. It was therefore important with the framework that we didn’t just tinker around the edges and paid heed to this change.
We have refocused our thinking to look more squarely at the outcomes for the child. Fundamentally that is what we are all interested in. We have not hugely changed our techniques, but the focus is much more on the impact of the various aspects of school life on the outcomes for their pupils. Providing the evidence to help schools to actively address development areas and build on strengths.
There was a need to highlight that compliance was now part of the housekeeping. Parents, teachers and governing bodies need to be confident and comfortable that housekeeping is being taken care of. It needs to be as simple as ‘yes, you comply’ or ‘no, you don’t’. There isn’t a need for a quality scale for this, it needs to be upfront and explicit. Either you have a licence to operate or you do not.
Beyond the compliance element, there is a much greater focus on areas of school life and how schools are delivering in these areas. This is what parents concentrate on more strongly. The hard data of performance and achievement as well as the softer data on personal development demonstrates how pupils are getting a broad and balanced education.
Educational quality is the key element of the framework. Remembering that the fundamentals of what goes on in schools has not changed so much, it is more about how we evaluate the different aspects of what schools do. We have taken a step back to look at how each of the aspects contributes to the overall outcomes for the pupils.
Within educational quality there are two key areas – achievement and personal development. Achievement is measured in exam and test results; music, sport, and other skills for example. Personal development is much more about how individuals are being educated to make them good members of society, building confidence, able and equipped to progress in life to their areas of interest, and maximise their potential in wider society, making a positive and productive impact to enhance the quality of their lives.
One of the keys to success in the independent sector is that its institutions do not necessarily follow the same methods and structures which are applied in the maintained sector. They are able to have the freedom to teach in the way that works specifically for their students.
We believe that this new framework will recognise this individuality and provide a different, characteristic and tangible picture of each school.
Are secondary and higher education environments working as well together as they could be to support young people as they transition through? Should this be made a priority under the Higher Education and Research bill?
I do think realistically this is less of an issue in the independent sector. However, it does require broader thinking about what the Higher Education sector looks like today. Many pupils, more so even than parents and sometimes teachers, have a greater awareness of alternatives open to them, which might make them think twice about going straight to university from school.
The business sector is spending more money on interacting with 18 year olds than at any point in recent history. The desire for graduates is not the sole focus any more.
Pupils are leading the way here. They are very savvy. Schools and the Higher Education sector need to be much more alive to this issue. It does present great opportunities across many sectors, but also challenges the thinking of secondary and higher education institutions to consider what good really looks like and what young people’s expectations of quality are.
Should there be greater interaction between the Independent and State school networks in the UK? If yes, what in your view are the best ways to do this?
In all honesty, I am not sure that anybody really knows what the level of interaction actually is. There is not enough reliable evidence or analysis to know whether there is enough, or whatever enough might be. In many areas schools work together as part of the wider community (independent and maintained schools together). Many voluntary initiatives are underway, with clear signs of benefits to those involved, but as in all communities and organisations, some are more isolationist and less willing to participate together than others.
It is an area that requires careful thought, and a need to tread lightly. It absolutely should not be done without real and proper evidence that regulated intervention is needed and a clear outline of what it wants to achieve.
Are there other countries whose education systems you admire, and why? Should we be borrowing ideas from others, or do we offer a preferable model in how we deliver education?
I have looked at many education systems not just over time, but across the globe. I would say we should always be alert to ideas, no matter where they are coming from. I have had cause to rethink things at times based on what I have seen going on in other countries.
However, what is very clear to me is that you have to be extremely mindful about cultural context, and that includes of course historical background for how and where each country is in its development and expectations of universal education. I have seen some big errors where certain countries have adopted external models that have been seen to work successfully without sufficient consideration of the different environment. It can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort. My thoughts are that we should always look outside of our own boundaries, be mindful of cultural context, do a clear, evidence-based evaluation and be sure about the criticalities of success.
What are the two biggest challenges for the schools’ sector as it moves forward in the next 5-10 years? What are the two biggest opportunities or positive changes set to take place in the next 5-10 years?
To me the challenges and opportunities are not separate; they are two sides of the same coin. What really stands out for me is technological change. This will mean increased globalisation of the currency of education, knowledge in other words. Whilst this is not new, it is the scale of what is available and the ability to access it quickly that is most significant.
Knowledge, whether we like it or not, is now commoditised on the internet. That is the basic currency of schools and educational establishments. We are already seeing the introduction of virtual schools, and I am in the process of designing an inspection model for this type of organisation. That is a phenomenon which is minute at the moment, but is likely to become much more of a feature. Even if not in the UK yet, certainly in other countries.
Technological change and the multi-faceted way it will impact on schools and on education policy brings huge opportunities, but it also brings real challenges. Obvious ones are data protection and preserving intellectual property. The policy and practice of the best schools will be available and visible to anyone who wants it. This will mean that the boundaries between what distinguishes the best schools in UK, for example, will become increasingly blurred as time goes on. Therefore, the pressure on educational policy and the speed at which it changes is going to be something that needs careful thought by our own government and others. The speed of development requires mechanisms of government and educational institutions to keep up.
Governments will need to ensure decision making processes are able to cope with that. Approaches that assume certain types of structures or organisational arrangements, need to be reviewed. In a rapidly changing world, policy making can appear too slow and relate to some elements that may just not apply going forwards.
Virtual reality, for example, is already used effectively in specialist professional training and is going to become a much more obvious feature in everyday life. That presents its own learning challenges and opportunities that the best schools are going to want to embrace.
We will also need to respond to a growing pressure for the role of education and schools in stimulating and supporting social mobility. This is not just a UK phenomenon, but the UK will feel it internally from its own pressures, and externally from the globalisation of education.
By social mobility I am not just talking about the ‘recognised groups’ but also whichever section of the population is disenfranchised from the opportunities presented by education. It can occur for lots of reasons – it can be social; lack of infrastructure; lack of access to good quality education; or for cultural reasons. That whole issue, because of increased internet communication is increasingly difficult both to hide and to control. Pressure will build exponentially in my view. If we are being honest, there has been very little significant improvement in educational outcomes and life opportunities for certain parts of our own population in more than 40 years.
So, I think there will be, quite rightly, building pressure to tackle this effectively and bring about change. Education is only one part of the solution – it can’t take responsibility for the whole issue but it is an important and integral part of improving life chances for those with the least promising start.
“KNOWLEDGE WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT IS NOW COMMODITISED ON THE INTERNET. THAT IS THE BASIC CURRENCY OF SCHOOLS AND EDUCATIONAL ESTABLISHMENTS.”
As you come to the end of 11 years as Chief Inspector with the ISI, what do you believe are the biggest changes that have taken place in the schools’ sector, and more specifically in the role of the inspectorate during your tenure?
Well, I certainly think one of the overriding shifts has been in the awareness of schools of the whole safeguarding agenda and their part and responsibility within this. This has been a national wake up and was very, very apparent to the ISI.
Coupled with that was the need for change in the way schools are governed. This is not complete yet by any measure in the maintained or independent sectors, but governance is now being increasingly recognised as an active process. Leadership is not just about one person, there is a corporate responsibility for delivery in schools. They are not just for education in a narrow academic sense, but also for the welfare and care of children in their charge. Schools are much more alert to this than a decade ago.
Sitting alongside that is the role of the inspectorate. Both Ofsted and ISI have seen our roles and expectations morph considerably in that time. We are not just agents for evaluating and stimulating through challenge on educational improvement, but also very much involved in the care and welfare agenda.
ISI has developed a stronger relationship with the Department for Education, government ministers and regulators and there is a clearer recognition of the contribution to the overall intelligence and evaluation of the independent sector and the contributions it can make across the broad educational agenda. Independent education is still an integral part of Education UK and this is more widely acknowledged today.
Importantly the exchange of ideas between the maintained and independent sector has strengthened quite significantly over the past decade; including in the way teachers move freely between both sectors, which can only be good thing.
My overriding experience in all that time is that it is very rare to find people working in schools whose intention is anything but the best interests of the children. That is why people go into this line of work. Even when things go wrong it is usually not for want of trying. Intentions are good, by and large. Schools are extremely responsive to the opportunity to learn and improve.
“GOVERNANCE IS NOW BEING INCREASINGLY RECOGNISED AS AN ACTIVE PROCESS”
What are the key things that you will take away from this role?
Ultimately, I have seen that systemic change is much harder for governments to orchestrate than it might appear from the outside – I have definitely learned that! You need courage to challenge the orthodox view and there are so many genuine stakeholders or interests, often competing with one another, that getting real and meaningful change is not as easy as it might appear. That is why being prepared to think imaginatively and creatively, and with a sense of urgency, is so important.
What I believe passionately is that evidence-based and informed decision making, as opposed to opinion-based decision making is critical. As a scientist I have very much appreciated my own training in that.
ABOUT CHRISTINE RYAN
Christine Ryan, until April 2017, was the Chief Inspector and CEO of the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), the largest independent inspectorate in the UK and the agency responsible for the inspection of more than 1250 independent primary and secondary schools, educating more than half a million children. ISI also inspects over 450 private further education colleges and English language schools on behalf of the Home Office and provides inspection and support services in many countries worldwide, including those seeking approval under the Department for Education scheme for British Schools Overseas.
A scientist, Christine is an accomplished teacher, inspector and inspector trainer both in the maintained and independent sectors. She has extensive experience with a range of education, commercial and media organisations in the UK and overseas. An experienced leader at board level, with a particular focus on strategy and policy, Christine is Chair of the national education charity TalentEd and is a Board Member for Ofqual, the government regulator for qualifications and examinations in England. She contributes to a number of scientific and educational publications, and has worked as science and education adviser for a variety of successful television series, including the winner of the Japan Prize for Educational Excellence.