School Inspection Reports: How to Read Them

School inspection reports are a fact of school life - loved, loathed, feared and when they work, a source of inspiration. This guide takes you through what they are, and what they're for, along with how they should be read.
School Inspection Reports: How to Read Them
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This guide is NOT about the latest KHDA reports, or not specifically about them. It is applicable to all school reports, and can be applied to any, anywhere in the world... By Michael Embley.

Let us be clear from the outset; the perfect school inspection report does not and should not exist. In fact the whole point of a school inspection is developmental - i.e. to improve a school.

No school is ever perfect and a school inspection report is designed to give the school a snapshot view of where it is in its development. They are often combined with a series of reports to give a profile of the school's development over time.

What happens in a school inspection? This will be the same pretty much anywhere in the world. Typically a few months ahead of the inspection the school will begin a dialogue with the inspection team or organisation. This will consist partly of logistical matters but the main part of it will focus on documentation.

Schools are required to send across vast amounts of information including policy documents, staffing lists, timetables, assessment history, health and safety information and a great deal more.

One of the key areas that inspection teams will often look at is the schools statements of intent. The name of these statements goes through changes in educational fashion, it might be “Mission Statement” or “Core Purpose” or “Values Proposition” but essentially they are all the same thing, a statement that lays out what the school says it is setting out to do.

This might vary between a non-selective school that aims to do the best for all its pupils, a specialist sports or music academy, a selective school that only admits the academically very able or a school that is focussed on providing for students with additional needs. An inspection should measure the school against its own stated purpose.

The next phase is usually some form of visit by either an individual or a team to the school. This might be a single visit or one of a linked set of visits but the general format is the same.

The team will consist of mix of practitioners. Often it will have serving school leaders, teachers and specialists. It might also include government representatives. There is some variation that must be highlighted here of course between external inspections and internal inspections.

An external inspection is one that is carried out by a group or team independent of the school. An internal inspection is one that is carried out by parties linked to the school in some way, perhaps the owning company.

The visiting team will commonly observe lessons, survey parents, talk to students, talk to school governors and look at relevant statistics. Very thorough teams will also inspect facilities and procedures. Commonly these will relate to health and safety and child protection matters such as recruitment processes.

They will also talk to the school Principal and the leadership team. School leaders can request that the team focus on particular areas. This is done for a number of reasons; to offer genuine constructive feedback to the leadership team from an impartial group, to highlight an issue to an owner reluctant to provide proper funding or investment by a frustrated Principal, or to highlight an area to parents that the school feels is worthy of attention are a few examples.

The final stage will be some form of report, verbal, written or, most commonly, both.

The report will generally consist of a set of facts, a set of observation reports, a set of opinions based on observations, a set of recommendations and then a summary. The summary might also include grades of one kind or another.

Understanding a Report's Context

Inspection reports must be read in context, this is critical but often not applied. A number of these apply and should be kept in mind at all times.

1. What kind of organisation is completing the report?

a. Internal reports (the owner of the school, a franchising organisation of some kind with a monetary relationship, the school itself). These reports, or at least the public ones passed to parents are far less credible than reports by an external organisation. In fact I would go as far as to say in most cases they are almost valueless. This point might be disputed I’m sure by some but suffice to say that no school owner would publish a report which shows their school in a poor light or one which highlighted major shortcomings. It might well be however that privately these reports are much more forthright and do serve as useful developmental tools for the school and its leadership if the organisation is reputable. This has not always been the case worldwide and a number of examples can be found of internal reports being little more than advertisements dressed up to give credibility. This is unfortunate.

b. External reports (a properly accredited body giving an expert view of the school). These reports are clearly more valuable to parents than the first type. The reports are however still to be read in context. What did the team look at, what were their priorities and as we mentioned in part one, what is the mission of the school.

2. The reference points of the inspection

By this we mean the terms of comparison that are being made in value judgements. For example, stating that a school is in the top 20% of schools worldwide is a very different statement than stating that the school compares well to UK or US private schools. The statement “worldwide” if left unqualified would compare a fee paying UAE school to a free school in a remote part of the world as if the two should be expected to produce equal results. That is not to say that these comparisons are factually in error, simply that the context needs to be accounted for.

The most common way in which this statement is applied in Dubai is perhaps with the way in which IB scores are listed compared to the world average. Some schools with relatively poor results will be careful to phrase the presentation of these results against a selected set of statistics. It should also be appreciated that many state schools in the US provide the IB diploma and that this has a particular effect on the worldwide averages. It is important that parents compare like for like and make themselves aware of the outcomes required for their child and their expectations.

3. Cultural and regional variations

All reports are framed within the local environment and will take account of this. This is the case for external and internal reports. In the UAE for example the KHDA has made it clear that they place a great deal of importance on the provision of Arabic within schools. This will have a bearing on the outcome of any inspection carried out and that is quite right and proper. In fact the KHDA is very transparent as a regulatory body. This is the case around the world and parents should make themselves aware of these requirements when looking at school reports.

4. And finally… the issue of bias

This is the bane of school leaders. Although external reporting teams are generally well-trained one does from time to time meet an inspector with a very particular view, or very particular opinion which can colour a report more than perhaps it should. It is hard to detect this, and it is relatively rare but it can be a significant issue. The best inspection teams will have processes in place to prevent this.

What to Look for When Reading a report

Reports are usually broken down into sections and the first is generally factual (we should note here that we are talking about all types of inspection report and some vary in details).

Part 1 is generally factual and will give information about pupil numbers, curriculum type etc.

Part 2 will generally be a set of statements about the school itself, what it self identifies as its mission and a report on its examination results.

Part 3 is the meat of the matter. Here the inspectors will report on lessons observed (although it is often in aggregate so individuals cannot be identified), the conduct of the students observed, the quality of teaching, assessment, homework and feedback. The language here is very formulaic and codified in many reporting regimes so that where teaching is identified as being “at an acceptable level”, that is quite literally the case and is very distinct in a set manner from “teaching is at a good level”. These judgements are almost always criteria based and/or a statistical aggregate.

It should be noted that negative points are very rarely pointed out directly and for them to reach the report generally more than one instance will have been observed. For example; “homework was below expectations” would be a statement of a general trend.

All of the points above are compared to the mission statement as their main criteria. So, for example, a school in which academic progress was listed as “Excellent” is referring directly to “progress measured against our stated aims”. This means that a school which catered solely to pupils with severe learning difficulties could indeed be making better progress with its pupils than a school which only accepted the most gifted.

This is worthy of some explanation.

Schools measure two distinct portions of their academic programme: Progress, and absolute achievement.

Absolute achievement is measured against a set standard. It might be examinations (IGCSE, A Level, IB, SAT for example) or it might be standardised levels in other areas of the school. These are often supplied by a national body and are criterion based.

Progress is perhaps more important but a less well understood measure of how the school is actually doing. A very crude statement of this for effect would be to observe that a school which took in pupils of every background and achieved 80% grade “A” (in which ever externally verified system) might actually be doing a better job than a school which took in only the very best students and achieved 85% grade “A”.

Parents should be very aware of the headlines referring to pupil progress while reading the report while of course keeping an eye on the absolute results.

Part 4 will frequently be a statement comparing the schools “other” aims to its observed “results”. These will be the less tangible matters such as ethos and community. A school which suggests it has a great sports programme, or a great sense of community, or a focus on good manners etc will be tested and commented upon in this section.

This is another very important section and one that takes careful reading as it is often what is NOT said which is important here.

If a schools mission statement says; “we place great pride in our pupils engagement with the school” and the report did not have a statement supporting this a parent can conclude safely that the school was not in fact, at least in the opinion of the team, meeting this statement.

This is because it is safer and less contentious for the team in many cases to not comment, than to issue a negative statement which might be challenged.

Part 5 will often contain some kind of grading statement. In many ways these are too general as different sections of the school might vary greatly.

Some reports try to break this down further, but not all. This might mean that a school with a great secondary section and a weak early year’s section might receive a rating of “satisfactory” overall. Simply reading that headline overview though would give quite a misleading impression of the nature of the school. It must be stressed that this is not the case for all reports and certainly reading the full report will give a greater insight into the nature of the school.


Articles on frequently state that there is no 'good' and 'bad', but only 'right' for a specific child. This is in large part correct, and why reading a report, understanding its context, and filtering the information provided is required to be able to appreciate why an Outstanding school may not be right for your child, while one deemed Satisfactory may be.

That said, there are objective standards that all schools should aspire to. Some may be regulated requirements, others will be part of the school's own mission statement. A good school inspection will therefore not only provide parents with an understanding of its character and strengths, but ultimately the information the school itself needs in order to realise its own aspirations and goals.

Michael Embley, the former principal of Nord Anglia School which opened in September 2014, graduated first in his class from the University of Leeds. He has led some of the most prestigious and successful international schools across the globe. He has worked in the UK, Taiwan, Venezuela, Norway and mainland China. In addition he has also worked with governments, assisting them in curriculum design and implementation. A clear focus on the whole student, from academic achievement to sporting and musical success and, vitally, the health and social wellbeing of every student, have been hallmarks of the schools he has led. As a father of five he is always aware that student really means “someone’s child” and it is perhaps this fact, above all, that informs his approach to school leadership. He has a keen interest in music and is a world-class swordsman… but rarely finds the need to use this talent with his students!

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