Inspecting non-association independent schools

Information on Ofsted inspections for independent schools that are not members of associations.

Applies to England


Ofsted inspects independent schools that are not members of associations. These are known as non-association independent schools. Independent schools that are members of associations are normally inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

Non-association independent schools can use this guide to help prepare when we notify them about an inspection, including timings, notice that we give, the process and what happens after the inspection.

Routine ‘standard’ inspections

We inspect non-association independent schools at the direction of the Department for Education (DfE), which is the registration authority for all independent schools. The DfE can request that we inspect a non-association independent school at any time. Occasionally, the DfE may commission Ofsted to carry out an inspection of an independent school that is normally inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. In this guidance, an inspection ‘commissioned’ by the DfE means an inspection that HMCI is directed to carry out by the Secretary of State.

A 3-year cycle of ‘standard’ inspections of non-association independent schools (‘schools’) began in January 2023. Standard inspections are carried out under our education inspection framework (EIF) and the Independent School Standards.

We will normally re-inspect schools judged to be requires improvement and inadequate in a standard inspection within 2 years. In addition, these schools may also receive a progress monitoring inspection before their next standard inspection.

We will normally re-inspect a school within 2 years if we were unable to make an overall effectiveness judgement at its most recent standard inspection due to there being no pupils on roll at the time.

When a school transfers from being inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate to being inspected by Ofsted, we will normally inspect it within 3 years of the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s most recent educational quality with focused compliance inspection.

We may bring forward a standard inspection of a school to update the school’s graded judgements following an additional inspection. This may happen when:

  • a requires improvement or inadequate school is judged at a progress monitoring inspection to meet all previously failed independent school standards
  • a good or outstanding school is judged to no longer meet the independent school standards at an emergency or material change inspection

We inspect boarding provision of independent boarding schools every 3 years. There may be an ‘aligned inspection’ if both the standard and boarding inspections are due at the same time.

We usually carry out an aligned inspection of independent residential special schools every 3 years. We also inspect their residential provision annually.

Inspections can take place at any point from 5 school days after the first day that pupils attend in the autumn term. For example, if pupils return to school on a Wednesday, inspection can take place as early as the following Wednesday.

A school can ask to defer or cancel an inspection, but only in exceptional circumstances. If pupils are receiving education in the school, an inspection will usually go ahead.

If a school requests a deferral of its inspection because there are no pupils on roll, and the DfE is already taking regulatory or enforcement action against the school, the inspection will not be deferred. In addition, if the inspection of a school has been deferred previously because there were no pupils on roll, it will not be deferred for a second consecutive time.

We charge schools a fee for each standard inspection that they receive.

Schools requesting an inspection

Unlike other schools inspected under the EIF, independent schools are not able to request an inspection outside of the usual inspection cycle, as set out above.

Who inspects schools?

School inspectors are:

  • His Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) employed directly by Ofsted
  • social care regulatory inspectors employed directly by Ofsted
  • contracted Ofsted Inspectors

Meeting the inspectors

For all types of independent schools inspections, inspectors will expect the proprietor(s) and the person(s) responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school to be present during the inspection.

Without meeting these individuals, inspectors may not be able to gather sufficient evidence in order to judge whether the school meets paragraph 34(1) of the independent school standards, which concerns the quality of leadership and management.

Staff (including leaders at all levels) may always be accompanied by an appropriate person when speaking to inspectors. However, it is important that staff are able to express their views freely to inspectors.

Conduct during Ofsted inspections

Ofsted’s code of conduct outlines our expectations for the conduct of our inspectors and our expectations of providers during inspection. At the start of the inspection (usually during the preparatory conversations), the lead inspector will explain these expectations and will ask schools to read the code.

Inspectors will uphold the highest professional standards in their work. They will treat everyone they meet during inspections fairly and with the respect and sensitivity they deserve. Inspectors will work constructively with leaders and staff, demonstrating professionalism, courtesy, empathy and respect at all times.

Notice of an inspection

For standard inspections, we will normally notify the school around lunchtime on the day before the start of the inspection. The inspection will typically start in the early afternoon of the following day.

We may also carry out standard inspections without notice. In these cases, we will not give the school notice. We carry out all progress monitoring and emergency inspections without notice.

In announced inspections, once we have informed the school of the inspection, the lead inspector will contact the school by telephone or video and ask to speak to the headteacher. This conversation with the headteacher will have 2 elements:

  • a short inspection-planning conversation that focuses on practical and logistical issues

  • a longer, reflective, educationally focused conversation about the school’s progress since the last inspection, including how COVID-19 has affected this

We understand that there is a great deal of information to be discussed at this stage of the inspection. For this reason it may be helpful to discuss these elements in 2 or more separate conversations with a break in between. The lead inspector will discuss what will work best for the headteacher.

The inspection planning conversation will be short and focused on practical issues. This is an opportunity for the headteacher to provide a fuller context of the school that may not be expressed sufficiently through data alone. It is also an opportunity for the headteacher to discuss the particular circumstances of the school that have had a role in the decisions made by leaders.

As part of this conversation, the lead inspector will also ask the headteacher to inform inspectors about any requests for adaptations to the inspection process because of a protected characteristic, or any reasonable adjustments because of a disability. They will make the school aware of the help and support for headteacher and staff well-being that is available through the charity Education Support.

The educationally focused conversation will normally last around 90 minutes but may be longer. It will help the lead inspector and headteacher to establish a constructive professional relationship for the inspection and give them a shared understanding of the starting point of the inspection.

The lead inspector will encourage the headteacher to have at least one other senior leader present during both calls, to assist and support them. This will usually be staff who typically deputise for them and can understand and discuss the educational content of the calls.

Before the inspection begins

We provide schools with a letter to tell all parents of pupils at the school about the inspection and options for providing their views. We also ask schools to notify other relevant bodies, including those providing alternative provision for pupils, of the inspection.

Information to share with inspectors

Schools are not expected to prepare anything extra for inspectors, but the lead inspector will ask the school to provide certain information as early as possible. Please read and act on the guidance in our Standard inspections of non-association independent schools leaflet. This leaflet sets out the information and documents that inspectors will need to see before and during the inspection.

You will need to submit some of this information through the provider portal.

We will send you your username and password for the portal separately.

Seeking the views of staff, pupils and parents

Parents will give their views about their child’s school on Ofsted Parent View, which they can access at any time. This includes at the point of inspection, when we will provide them with a link to the Ofsted Parent View website.

Staff and pupils will be encouraged to complete a voluntary online survey, available at the point of inspection.

We will ask boarders, and staff working in the boarding/residential provision of boarding or residential special schools, to comment on the boarding provision through an annual online point-in-time survey.

Inspectors will also take into account the results of any past parent surveys, or other surveys, carried out by the school.

During the inspection

The inspection will not normally last longer than 3 days.

Inspectors will spend most of their time gathering evidence to inform judgements and to check the school’s compliance with the independent school standards.

Inspectors will use a range of technology to gather evidence electronically, including mobile devices, tablets and laptops. They may also ask to take photographic evidence, for example of pupils’ work and displays. Inspectors will not take photographs of pupils.

Inspectors will talk to a range of pupils and staff about important aspects of the school’s work. Staff (including leaders at all levels) may always be accompanied by an appropriate person when speaking to inspectors. However, it is important that staff are able to express their views freely to inspectors. 

Any meetings with pupils or parents will take place without the presence of any leaders or staff unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Inspectors should take careful account of the well-being of leaders and staff and adjust their approach or activity as appropriate as they go about their inspection work in the best interests of pupils. If inspectors see or suspect that a staff member (including leaders and the headteacher) is upset or distressed at any point during the inspection, inspectors should respond sensitively. Where appropriate, inspectors will consider suitable adjustments to enable the staff member to continue. Where there are serious concerns, inspectors will contact the duty desk, and will normally inform those responsible for the person’s well-being.

There may be exceptional occasions when we need to consider pausing an inspection. We will consider these on a case-by-case basis according to our published guidance on pausing school inspections and inform the Department for Education (the registration authority for independent schools). Leaders, responsible bodies and others can contact a senior leader in Ofsted directly if they have issues they do not feel they can raise directly with the lead inspector.

Inspectors will make their final judgements when they have collected and considered all the evidence.

At the heart of our inspections is a professional dialogue between inspectors and leaders and so the lead inspector will agree a process for keeping leaders informed of progress throughout the inspection. This will normally mean regular meetings with the headteacher and/or any other previously agreed school leader(s) (at a minimum, at the start, middle and end of each day) to ensure that the headteacher and senior staff:

  • are kept up to date about the inspection

  • understand how the inspection team reaches its judgements

  • have opportunities to clarify how evidence is used to reach judgements

  • have the opportunity to present evidence that they want to draw the inspectors’ attention to

  • can clarify any matters of fact

  • at the end of day 1, can contribute to the construction of the timetable for the rest of the inspection

  • can raise any issues or concerns, or seek clarification, including about the conduct of the inspection or individual inspectors

  • are alert to any serious concerns

Inspectors will invite the school’s headteacher, curriculum leaders and other leaders to take part in joint visits to lessons, as agreed with the lead inspector.

Inspectors will also invite the headteacher to attend the final team meeting at the end of the inspection. The headteacher may also bring colleagues to assist and support them during this meeting.

Inspectors will give oral feedback to teachers and other staff about the work that they see.

Judging the quality of education in schools with a specialist curriculum

We recognise that some schools offer a specialist curriculum. For example, some schools offer a specialist faith-based curriculum, while others offer a specialist education in the performing arts. This may be separate or in addition to any provision made for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities.

Alongside any specialist education provided, paragraph 2(2)(a) of the independent school standards requires that pupils study a broad, rich curriculum. Schools should provide inspectors with evidence of how they meet this requirement.

Inspectors will assess a school’s entire provision, including any specialist provision offered, when assessing compliance with the independent school standards and when reaching judgements.

When reaching a judgement under the quality of education judgement area, inspectors will work with school leaders to understand how the curriculum as a whole is structured, and where they can find evidence that the quality of education criteria are met. We expect that, in most schools, much of the evidence in support of the criteria will be drawn from the non-specialist curriculum because most schools structure their curriculum so that the specialist curriculum supplements rather than directly delivers the academic core of subjects.

However, we will judge fairly those schools that take radically different approaches to the curriculum, including, for example, schools that teach a range of academic subjects through a faith-based curriculum.


The on-site inspection ends with a final feedback meeting with the school. Those connected with the school who may attend include:

  • the proprietor or, where there is a proprietorial body, as many members as are available; the clerk to the proprietor body, or their delegate, may also attend to take notes (there can be more than one note-taker if desired)
  • the headteacher and other senior leaders, agreed by the lead inspector and headteacher
  • any person the headteacher or proprietor(s) wants present to assist and support them
  • if the school has a governing body, the chair and as many representatives as possible from the governing body, the clerk to the governing body, or their delegate, may also attend to take notes (there can be more than one note-taker if desired)
  • in an aligned inspection, social care regulatory inspectors and education inspectors, will provide feedback to education and boarding or residential staff

Due to the diverse nature of school governance, in some schools a single individual may have more than one of the above roles.

The lead inspector may agree that other leaders can attend. If the feedback is likely to be challenging or is likely to raise difficult issues, the lead inspector will be sensitive to any implications arising from this feedback, and will therefore discuss with the headteacher which other people may attend to ensure that school leaders have the necessary support.

Attendance at the feedback meeting is voluntary and any attendee may leave at any time, including leaving for a short time and then returning.

Our handbook sets out the feedback and other information that the lead inspector will give the attendees during this meeting.

After the inspection

The lead inspector will write a report setting out the inspection findings. Inspection reports are sent to the school following moderation and quality assurance. We aim to send them as quickly as reasonably possible. In most circumstances, we will send the draft report to the school within 18 working days of the end of the inspection.

The school will have 5 working days to comment on the draft report. It can highlight minor points relating to the clarity and/or factual accuracy of the report, or it can submit a formal complaint seeking a review of the inspection process, including the judgements made or concerns about inspector conduct. If it only submits minor points of clarity or factual accuracy, we will consider and respond to these when we share the final report with the school. This will normally be within 30 working days of the end of the inspection. As set out above, we expect leaders to share the inspection outcome and findings with governors/trustees and whoever they deem appropriate.

If the school wishes to make a formal complaint, we will follow the process set out in our published complaints procedure. We will respond to any complaint before we finalise and send the report to the school. If the school has previously chosen to highlight some minor points of clarity or factual accuracy on the draft inspection report, it will not normally be able to submit a formal complaint or challenge later. We will publish the final report on our reports website 5 working days after sending it to the school.

In most cases, we will publish the report on the Ofsted reports website within 38 working days after the end of the inspection. If the school has submitted a complaint, the publication of the report may be delayed.

The proprietor must ensure that a copy of the inspection report is published and maintained on the school’s website and provide a copy of the report to all parents and carers.

Reporting failings

If a school has failed to meet some standards in its education or welfare inspection, we report this to the DfE.

The DfE is then likely to:

  • ask the school to produce an action plan
  • ask Ofsted to carry out a progress monitoring inspection to monitor the implementation of this action plan

The DfE can close a school if it does not improve.

Inspection judgements

Ofsted’s education inspection framework came into effect in September 2019.

Under the framework, in standard inspections, inspectors will make judgements about independent schools:

  • overall effectiveness
  • quality of education
  • behaviour and attitudes
  • personal development
  • leadership and management

If the school offers early years provision or sixth-form provision, inspectors will also make judgements on these areas.

In reaching these judgements, inspectors take account of any of the independent school standards that are not met and give appropriate consideration to the impact on the quality of each aspect of the school’s work.

Your views on the inspection

Following your inspection, we will invite you to complete an online inspection survey. The online survey asks for your views on the inspection process, including the impact that the inspection is likely to have in bringing about improvement. We value all survey responses. We use the outcomes to help keep us informed about the quality and impact of inspections and to help guide us in reviewing and improving the inspection process.

Complaints about an inspection

Any concerns or complaints about the inspection should be raised immediately with the lead inspector during the inspection.

If there are any concerns that it is not possible to resolve with the lead inspector during the inspection, the headteacher, another senior leader, the chair of governors or the proprietor(s) can contact a senior Ofsted leader using the telephone number that was provided during the notification process. In exceptional circumstances, this might lead to the inspection being paused.

If an issue remains unresolved, the school can contact Ofsted on the working day after the end of the inspection. This will be an opportunity for the school to raise informal concerns about the inspection process or outcomes, ask about next steps or highlight information that they feel was not fully considered during the inspection. This will be directed to a senior inspector who is independent of the inspection to discuss and to resolve, where appropriate, at the earliest opportunity.

If it is not possible to resolve concerns during the inspection, or through a telephone call the day after the inspection, the school may wish to lodge a formal complaint on receipt of the final report. The lead inspector will ensure that the school is informed that it is able to make a formal complaint and that information about how to complain is available on GOV.UK.

Additional inspections

We carry out additional inspections of independent schools if the DfE asks us to.

These types of inspections may also include independent schools that are members of associations and are normally inspected by other approved independent inspectorates.

Proposed new schools and pre-registration inspections

Proprietors who want to open a new independent school must apply to the DfE for registration. They are asked to supply certain information as part of their application. For example:

  • a statement that the school is an independent school
  • a plan showing the layout of the premises and any accommodation provided
  • detailed curriculum plans and schemes of work for all subjects and year groups student assessment procedures
  • the written behaviour policy, setting out, among other matters, the sanctions to be implemented in the event of pupil misbehaviour
  • particulars of the school’s arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of pupils at the school and how those arrangements have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State
  • particulars of the school’s anti-bullying strategy
  • the school’s complaints procedure

When the DfE has checked that the application from a proposed new school contains the required information, it will commission us to carry out a pre-registration inspection.

The purpose of this inspection is to check whether the school is likely to meet the independent school standards if the DfE decides to register it. The DfE must be satisfied that a proposed school is likely to meet the independent school standards if it is to be registered as an independent school. Registered schools must comply with the standards to continue to be registered.

Pre-registration inspections may take place any time during or outside of term time.

We charge proposed new schools a fee for each pre-registration inspection that they receive.

Once registered, we inspect new schools in their first year of operation.

Any provider of alternative provision must be registered as an independent school if it caters for 5 or more pupils of compulsory school age full time, or 1 pupil who is looked after or has an education, health and care (EHC) plan. The application process and arrangements for pre-registration inspection are the same as set out above. If the DfE decides to register the provider, it will be registered as an independent school: the DfE does not maintain a separate register of alternative providers.

You can find more information on pre-registration inspections, including what information to make available to inspectors at the formal start of the inspection, in the leaflet Pre-registration and material change inspections leaflet (PDF, 181 KB, 9 pages).

Material change inspections

Registered independent schools wishing to make one of the following changes to their registration must seek permission to do so from the DfE. These are known as material changes:

  • change of proprietor
  • change of school premises
  • change to the age range of pupils
  • change to the maximum number of pupils
  • if the school proposes to change from single-sex to co-educational or vice versa, or change in admitting boys instead of girls, or girls instead of boys
  • if the school intends to provide boarding accommodation, or cease to provide it
  • if the school intends to admit pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities, or cease to admit them

The DfE may commission Ofsted to carry out an inspection to consider the implications of the material change. Inspectors will report to the DfE whether or not the school is likely to meet the relevant independent school standards if the material change is implemented.

Schools cannot implement the proposed change until the DfE grants permission.

Material change inspections normally take place any time during term time. Depending on the nature of the change, they may be scheduled outside of term time at the DfE’s request.

You can find more information on material change inspections, including what information to make available to inspectors at the formal start of the inspection, in the leaflet Pre-registration and material change inspections leaflet (PDF, 181 KB, 9 pages).

Emergency inspections

The DfE may ask Ofsted to carry out an emergency inspection of an independent school for any reason.

Normally, this will be as a result of a complaint or other intelligence received by the DfE that appears to raise a concern about safeguarding pupils or putting their safety at risk. The DfE may also commission an emergency inspection if it suspects that a school may have closed.

We will use the issue that triggered the inspection as the main line of enquiry for the inspection. The purpose of the inspection is for us to report to the DfE on whether the school meets the independent school standards relevant to the issue.

Emergency inspections normally take place any time during term time. Depending on the nature of the DfE’s concern about a school, emergency inspections may take place outside of term time, at the DfE’s request.

Progress monitoring inspections

The DfE may ask Ofsted to carry out a progress monitoring inspection to check the progress made by an independent school to address weaknesses and to meet unmet standards identified at its previous inspection.

The previous standard or additional inspection will have identified qualitative weaknesses and/or judged that the school does not meet the independent school standards. If the previous inspection was a standard inspection, we will have judged the school to be inadequate or requires improvement overall.

Following the previous inspection, the DfE may have required the school to write an action plan to set out the steps the school proposes to take to address its weaknesses and to meet the un-met independent school standards. If so, we will carry out the inspection against the version of the action plan approved by the DfE.

Progress monitoring inspections normally take place any time during term time.

We charge schools a fee for each progress monitoring inspection that they receive.

Fees for inspections

Schools are charged a fee for standard, pre-registration and progress monitoring inspections. We invoice schools in 3 annual instalments for each standard inspection that they receive. We send schools one invoice for each pre-registration and progress monitoring inspection.

The fees for pre-registration, progress monitoring and standard inspections are set out in The Independent Educational Provision in England (Inspection Fees and Savings Provisions) Regulations 2019.

An inspection fee will always be charged unless a deferral is granted in line with our deferral policy before the start of on-site inspection activity. If the inspection is rescheduled to take place at another time, a fee will be payable once the inspection has taken place.

If a proposed school withdraws its application at or following notification of its pre-registration inspection, the fee will still be payable.

During the notification call, proposed new schools will be asked about the progress of any building works and whether there are any issues preventing access to the site. Proposed schools may request deferral of their inspection during the notification call. We will not normally defer a pre-registration inspection if the proposed school states that it is not ready for inspection, unless there are issues preventing access to the site.

Therefore, if inspectors arrive on site and are unable to undertake or complete the pre-registration inspection due to an inability to access the site, for example incomplete building works, the inspection fee may still be payable. The fee will be payable if the lead inspector has carried out inspection activity to assess whether the proposed school is likely to meet any aspects of the independent school standards. In these circumstances, Ofsted will publish an inspection report that reports these findings.

Gathering personal information on inspection

Inspectors will gather any personal information necessary to assist them in inspecting a school. Our privacy policy sets out what personal information we collect, what we do with it, how long we keep it and individuals’ rights under data protection legislation.

Further guidance

Inspection guides

The education inspection framework, together with the regulations, sets out the statutory basis for independent school standard inspections.

The non-association independent school inspection handbook explains how we carry out independent school standard inspections and the judgements that inspectors make. It contains the grade descriptors that inspectors use when making their judgements.

The handbook for additional inspections of independent schools explains how we carry out independent school pre-registration, material change, emergency and progress monitoring inspections.

You can access our guidance for inspections of independent schools.

Resources for independent schools

The Standard inspections of non-association independent schools leaflet (PDF, 178 KB, 8 pages) outlines what we look at during a standard inspection of a non-association independent school.

The Pre-registration and material change inspections leaflet (PDF, 181 KB, 9 pages) outlines what we look at during pre-registration and material change inspections.

The Inspecting non-association independent schools: guide for parents (PDF, 130 KB, 7 pages) outlines why we inspect non-association independent schools, what happens during an inspection and how parents can make their views known.

Published 3 December 2014
Last updated 23 May 2024 + show all updates
  1. We have updated this page and the ‘Standard inspections of non-association independent schools leaflet’ and ‘Pre-registration and material change inspections leaflet’ with the changes that were made to our handbooks and frameworks in April 2024. Updates include: information on welfare support available to schools; opportunities to provide information on and/or discuss potential equalities duties, including reasonable adjustments for individuals; information to share with inspectors during inspection; Ofsted’s policy for pausing inspections; and our updated arrangements for handling concerns and complaints.

  2. Updated the ‘Standard inspections of non-association independent schools leaflet’ and ‘Pre-registration and material change inspections leaflet’ with the changes that were made to our handbooks and frameworks in January 2024.

  3. Updated the 'inspecting non-association independent schools guide for parents'.

  4. The 'Standard inspections of non-association independent schools' and 'Pre-registration and material change inspections' leaflets have been updated for clarity, in line with changes made to the handbooks in July 2023.

  5. Updated the leaflets for clarity and to include reference to our privacy policy and code of conduct.

  6. Added a new paragraph in the ‘Timings of inspections’ section. This sets out scenarios in which the DfE may decide to bring forward a school’s next standard inspection, following an additional inspection, to update the school’s graded judgements.

  7. Updated section 'After the inspection' with amended timescales and updated all leaflets on the page.

  8. Updated guidance with details of the education inspection framework (EIF).

  9. Updated to reflect September 2015 changes.

  10. First published.