*** DEBUG END ***

Church-school inspections: To draw out, not catch out

09 February 2024

Margaret James discusses SIAMS new approach to church-school inspections

Dr Margaret James

Dr Margaret James

IN MY 36 years spent working in the education profession, I have not yet met a school leader who is opposed to accountability. In fact, educationists seem more likely to welcome it — inviting feedback and input in order to improve the experience of education for children of all abilities, needs, gifts, and backgrounds.

Cyclical inspection is a feature of the English school system with which members of the profession are familiar. It has the highest profile of all accountability mechanisms. For most school leaders, favourable inspection outcomes are important, not least because they denote a judgement on work into which many have poured their heart and soul.

The Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS) forms part of the inspection system in England, and conducts inspections of church-school vision, collective worship, and religious education under section 48 of the Education Act (2005).

In September 2023, a new SIAMS framework was implemented, and now more than 300 schools have been inspected under it. To prepare the SIAMS inspectors for the task, all have undergone four days of refresher training, focusing on the meaning of “inspecting in a Christian manner”.

Placing human dignity, respect, shared expertise, rigour, collaboration, professional discussion, and integrity at the centre of inspecting a school in its own specific context were all key factors.

Such an approach is echoed in the Church of England’s 2023 discussion document, Our Hope for a Flourishing School System. Building on the Church of England’s Vision for Education (News, 15 July 2016), it calls for “intelligent and compassionate accountability through the wise re-imagination of inspection processes”, alongside an encouragement to make the courageous systemic changes required to restore teaching to be a vocation in which adults can truly flourish.

The manner and tone with which an inspection is conducted make a world of difference for the school, as well as to the validity and breadth of the evidence collected. It can also have an impact on the reliability of the outcomes.

As human beings, we are far more likely to speak in depth, with a richness of detail underpinned by examples, when we feel at ease. Besides being fundamentally dignifying for fellow professionals, such an approach can help the inspection to maximise value.

For SIAMS, inspecting in a Christian manner starts with the well-being of school leaders, and continues with a robust inspection that is “done with” rather than “done to”, seeking — borrowing the words of Professor Trevor Cooling — to draw out rather than to catch out.

And the feedback received since September 2023 indicates that, on the whole, inspecting in a Christian manner is having the intended effect.

Inspection-generated information about church schools is proving to be rich and deep, providing insights into school strengths and areas for improvement. It is informing the whole eco-system of church schools, enabling appropriate support and training to be provided and successes to be celebrated.

And, crucially, it is enabling school leaders to be part of the process — sometimes even resulting in an inspection that is described as “enjoyable”.

The move away from awarding grades has done nothing to thwart this collation of meaningful and useful information about schools, and about their training and development needs. Rather, it has enriched inspection, improving the quality of evidence gathering, and, in the process, also improving the experience for school leaders.

Feedback received spoke of the “approachable and friendly” but “professional” approach of inspectors; the collaborative nature of the process; and the momentum and enthusiasm that resulted from the inspection — even restoring the faith of some school leaders in inspections overall.

Of course, there have also been instances of schools’ not having as positive an experience as we would expect. When this happens, we review and examine, learning lessons and taking follow-up action where appropriate. And this will continue in a system that is run both by and for humans.

We are committed to continuing to learn and grow together in an education that is meant for the flourishing of all — especially for the children and young people in our schools. After all, every day is a school day, no matter what our age or experience.


Dr Margaret James is head of SIAMS for the National Society.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)