How Valid is an Inspection by OFSTED?

Head Teachers are sometimes surprised by the cursory observations and way in which an inspection is conducted.  One may accept that professionals in all disciplines, including OFSTED inspectors, may have an occasional  ‘off day’ but the outcome of a flawed inspection is likely to have a serious impact on the reputation of both the school and the staff.

While the inspection process allows for comments on the inspection to be fed back, that may not be sufficient to overcome the loss of confidence in the process and the resulting damage.

Earlier in 2016, the Courts demonstrated that they will not allow OFSTED or other government related bodies to exceed or abuse their powers.   Although the case involved early years provision by a nursery school and the safety of children, the case is of interest because it sets out some key principles and comments on the inspection process and the duty of an inspector.

The Evaluation Process During an OFSTED Inspection

Some of the Judge’s comments are given below regarding the process.  At the core of the case was a grievance that an OFSTED Inspector had exceeded her powers by investigating a complaint made by a member of the public about the safety of a child – a child had been pushed accidentally into a road while children were being escorted between the nursery and the primary school.

“… the evaluation must be evidence-based, with “the main evidence” coming from the inspector’s direct observations and interviews with the relevant staff.”

“…I consider this aspect of the defendant’s guidance (i.e. OFSTED – editor) to be of fundamental importance. Inspections of schools (and the subsequent reports) are a vital tool in the defendant’s armoury so as to ensure that all schools strive to and maintain a proper standard. But it is of critical importance to ensure that such inspections are not random, one-off events in which absolutely everything turns on what happens on the day of the inspection. Instead, inspections must be carried out on a consistent basis, ensuring that each one is part of a continuum, building towards improvement or the maintaining of excellence.”

“…A system of inspection which ignores previous inspections runs the risk of turning the whole process into a lottery. It would give the individual inspector on the particular day of the inspection an arbitrary power and influence. It would prevent systematic monitoring and consistency of approach. It is most definitely not to be encouraged.”

Those are piercing words about the inspection process as may be expected when the Courts have to intervene to determine the respective legal rights of the parties but even more so when the facts are examined.  The Inspector decided to investigate a complaint but did not have a duty to nor the legal authority to do so in this instance.  It seemed that OFSTED received a complaint about the incident involving the child which, within a week or so, resulted in an inspection and also led the Inspector to take a critical view of the organisation’s performance as the incident overshadowed the objectivity of the inspection.  The Judge examining the evidence did not find that approach justifiable and felt that there was an element of ex post facto justification on issues such as the number of adults escorting the children.  In particular, the Judge noted there was no balance as the Inspector, in her report, did not refer to the previous history of the provision nor the  achievements to date nor a previous, fairly recent OFSTED report.

Remedy for a Flawed Inspection

The publication of the OFSTED report was deemed to be unlawful as was the investigation of the complaint by an Inspector. The question arose as to whether the school was entitled to damages regarding its reputation.  The answer in this case was that reputational damages did not arise because:

  • “Section 151 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provides that reports of this kind are privileged unless malice is present”;
  • No malice was present in the publication of the report;
  • No damage to the school’s reputation had arisen in practice.

Starting a court case to secure a reasonable outcome is an expensive process but in some instances may be necessary if an inspection report is flawed significantly on the evidence especially if the inspection feed back and complaint process is not taken seriously as warranted by the facts.

Unfortunately, it is not just OFSTED that have occasional flawed inspections and outcome summaries of a school.  Local Authorities can also at times create issues for the Head Teacher and Governing Bodies.

Local Authority Stances Towards Schools

For much of the time, Local Authorities are supportive of their schools but in recent times both financial pressures and performance vetting has led some authorities to become embroiled in disputes and/or interference with the leadership of a school.   The reasons are not always clear for this but seem to be driven by the LA wishing to force the school to accept a course of action that would be detrimental to the school’s future provision and attainments.  This also seems to be influenced by the LA losing ground in its attempts to retain schools under the LA banner.

Such disputes are damaging to the trust between the school’s governing body, senior leadership team and the LA and are also draining as energy and focus is sapped away from raising students’/pupils’ achievements.

As such times, the Governing Body and Head Teacher can find it helpful to seek independent advice not tainted by the politics of the LA.  Such advice can help Governors and the Head to explore options to move forward with or without the support of the LA.

If you believe as a Head Teacher or as a senior School Governor that such as confidential discussion would be helpful to take on objective view of the ways forward,
contact Jim Harrington for an exploratory discussion.
His contact details can be seen in the footer of this post.

© 2016 HR Management Dimensions

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