Dr Kate Chaatwal

Peer review can’t replace inspection - but it can inform it

The power of peer review depends on its being kept separate from the incentives and disincentives of formalised accountability, writes Challenge Partners CEO, Dr Kate Chhatwal OBE

This week's announcement by Ofsted (information taken from the Schools Week website) of reform to inspections following the tragic death of Ruth Perry has done little to quell a re-energised debate about the future of accountability. 

Headteachers and sector groups have taken the lead and, as a practitioner-led charity guided by the school and trust leaders in our partnership, Challenge Partners applauds their efforts. We also welcome their enthusiasm for the mutual accountability enabled by rigorous peer review. However, we don’t see it as an alternative to inspection.

Inspection and peer review perform fundamentally different functions; inspection is about public accountability and peer review focuses on development. Blurring the line between the two risks diminishing both.

What makes peer review so powerful is that it is a safe space where school leaders can talk candidly about what they find difficult. They invite honest and constructive feedback from trained peer reviewers whose job is to celebrate what is working well and provide robust challenge where provision isn’t up to scratch – always empathetically and with a willingness to collaborate to leave the school in a better place.

As soon as peer review is tied to formal accountability, it loses this developmental power. Hosts are more likely to lift the curtain on a performance than to lift the carpet on their realities.

When regional school commissioners got wind of the trust peer reviews we piloted in 2018, we were asked to share the reports written by our expert lead reviewers. Regional teams thought these might help with decisions about supporting a trust’s growth. Our response was an immediate and firm no. Peer reviews are solely for the trust or school being evaluated; not even the peer reviewers get to see it. The only thing we expect to be shared from a review is any excellent practice others may benefit from.

Nevertheless, there are some features of the way we approach peer review that could be used to improve inspection. First among these is ensuring that the process is consistently done with, not done to. Headteachers who report the most positive experience of inspection often describe good dialogue with the team throughout, but this isn’t uniformly the case.

Our ethos is ‘one team, two parts’. It is fundamental to our review methodology. Every evaluation activity is conducted jointly by senior leaders from the host school and a peer reviewer. Time and evaluation tools facilitate rich professional dialogue, enabling the internal and external senior leaders to reach agreement on the strengths and weaknesses of what they have seen. This is triangulated with similar activities undertaken by other pairs across the school, building a rich picture of what is systemic and embedded and what is the quirk of a particular member of staff.

If Ofsted were to systematically adopt this approach – openly discussing their observations with leaders throughout the inspection, rather than behind closed doors – it could yield some of the benefits inherent in peer review, usefully building capacity for school improvement.

Our ‘50:50 model’ balances the need for robust evaluation on behalf of pupils with professional development for senior leaders. What incredible CPD Ofsted could be if inspectors brought school leaders fully into the process, sharing their insights and narrating how they were applying the framework as they went.

As for one-word judgements, schools in Challenge Partners are given the choice before their review whether they would find it helpful to have evaluation of each element – and performance overall – summed up in ‘peer evaluation estimates’. Around three-quarters do so, but the stakes are nowhere near as high as with Ofsted. Besides, it is the rigour and inclusiveness of the process, not the estimates nor the report’s narrative that really catalyse improvement.

Finally, the accountability framework could usefully consider evidence of how schools and trusts seek and use external quality assurance like peer review to demonstrate their commitment to continuous improvement.

However, having delivered over 4,000 school and trust peer reviews since 2011, we urge would-be reformers to focus on the ‘how’ of peer review rather than the ‘what’. Peer review must remain distinct from inspection.

Contact partnershipsteam@challengepartners.org to discuss our peer reviews and school improvement programmes.