Ofsted: Accountability — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 2:30 pm, 8th June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the accountability of Ofsted.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for the first time, I think.

I applied for the debate after I was contacted by a small village primary school in my constituency which has recently had a difficult experience following an Ofsted inspection. I thank everyone at Naburn Church of England Primary School, as well as the residents of Naburn for their engagement in the issue, with a special mention for headteacher Jonathan Green, for his invaluable input and for his skilful leadership of the school in these challenging times.

I also thank the Chamber engagement team here in Parliament for all their work in publicising the debate and for organising a survey of members of the teaching profession. My sincere thanks go to everyone around the country who took the time to complete the survey and to provide their own experiences of the Ofsted inspection process. Little did I realise when I organised the debate how widespread some of the concerns about Ofsted are among those involved in our school system. The survey for the debate alone attracted nearly 2,000 responses. Time prohibits me from mentioning every contribution, but I hope to provide a useful summary to inform discussion and the debate today, grounding it in first-hand experience of teachers and governors.

Last month, I attended a packed public meeting in the village of Naburn to discuss the future of the village school. The school is small, with only 56 pupils across two classes, but its importance to the community life of the village is significant. The school was inspected by Ofsted in 2007, when it was found to be “outstanding”. As a result, there was a 14-year gap before the next inspection in December last year, a gap that in itself I find worrying. The result of the inspection has been a finding of “inadequate”, which has put the school in the precarious position of having to find an academy sponsor within a tight timeframe of just a few months.

Many of the concerns expressed by Ofsted in its report were fair, but there was widespread frustration with how the inspection was carried out and the unconstructed nature of the findings, above all the fact that the school and the local community felt completely powerless to challenge oversights or omissions, or to add any sort of context to the report’s findings. That left them asking an important question, which I would like the Minister to answer today: to whom, if anyone, is Ofsted ultimately accountable?

To me, there seems to be no obvious answer to that question, which I find quite staggering. The Ofsted website sets out a four-stage process by which a school may pursue a complaint. Three of the stages are internal, with only the final stage bringing in external lawyers from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to make non-binding findings on the narrow question of whether Ofsted has handled the complaint in line with its own procedures. Above and beyond that, the only means by which a school can ultimately force an about-turn by Ofsted is through the courts—an expense that is, to be honest, completely out of the question for the vast majority of schools. Over the past 10 years, I think, there has only been a handful of such cases, but the Minister will have the figures.

Turning back to the first stage of its complaint process, Ofsted is, to its credit, good at encouraging schools to take an active part in the inspection process and to discuss any concerns with the inspectors informally; inspectors are under an obligation to record and acknowledge any such concerns before continuing with the inspection. As the report is being drafted, there is an ongoing opportunity for the school to comment, to object on any issue in any particular way, and to contest the accuracy of the facts given, particularly in the report; and the lead inspector must then respond to those comments.

That may sound like a collaborative process, and for some schools that have positive experiences of Ofsted inspections it is. However, what comes through very strongly from the feedback that I have received from teachers is that inspection really is a lottery, and the experience depends to a large degree on the attitude of the inspector.

Of the nearly 2,000 respondents to the survey, just over half reported experience of the complaints process. Within that sample, there were plenty of examples of the system working well, with some respondents asking the inspector to see something in action during the course of the inspection, to correct the false impressions. There was praise for the flexibility of the system, with schools challenging the findings of the inspector partway through and finding that their grade was raised by the end of the process by that individual inspector. After the inspection, challenges to specific statements in the draft report were duly accepted and the wording was amended in the final report.

I think we can all agree that that is how the system should work. An Ofsted inspection should not be a walk in the park; it should be a rigorous process by which we ensure that appropriate standards are being maintained. After all, teachers and schools are given an enormous social responsibility of looking after and educating our children. However, there should be some humility on the part of Ofsted to recognise the fact that what its inspectors see during an inspection is, in the words of one of the respondents to the survey, “a snapshot in time”, with the outcome of the inspection not always capturing the reality of the school.

Time and resources permit inspectors to see the school for only one or two days, and in quite highly pressurised and therefore unrepresentative circumstances. It is right, therefore, not only that a significant opportunity is given to teachers to add context or to correct the record, but that appropriate weight is given to this feedback when the final assessment is being made. The unfortunate truth, however, is that that was the minority experience among respondents to my survey, with most of them reporting real concerns about how receptive inspectors were to comments and complaints at that stage.

Several teachers were frustrated with the “rude and dismissive” attitude of the inspectors and the lack of professional respect given to teachers. Many respondents felt that they were not given significant opportunity to highlight evidence of the excellent work done in classes, with the inspector focusing only on perceived weaknesses. Consequently, they felt that Ofsted inspection was a blinkered, tick-box exercise—or worse, an exercise in picking them apart on specific issues—rather than a fair, holistic assessment of how well the school was performing.

Respondents also highlighted unprofessional conduct by Ofsted inspectors, referring to deliberately combative attitudes and inspectors making judgments based on preconceptions. Points of concern included thinly disguised prejudice against faith schools and a perceived agenda against the type of school under inspection or the teaching methods being used. As one respondent put it:

“Some come in with a preconceived idea and nothing that they see or do will change it.”

Another respondent was of the view that the inspectors’ line of inquiry was very much about proving that their own initial decision was correct. If that is the case, it is extremely concerning.

This is more a criticism of the system than of individual inspectors themselves. Indeed, the headteacher of Naburn School was at pains to highlight the pressure put on the inspectors by operating to such a short timescale, and clearly a great many inspectors uphold the high professional standards expected of them. However, a recurring complaint in the feedback that I received was about the rigidity of the inspection criteria and the lack of focus on the context of the school. This was a concern among parents and teachers at Naburn.

One of Ofsted’s primary concerns in its report was the poor attendance rate and the steps that the school had taken to address it. On the face of it, that is a fair criticism, but it does not take into account that about a third of the children at the school are from a local Traveller community with very specific and well-documented issues around school attendance—something that is arguably beyond the sole control of the school leadership. Lauren, a constituent of mine who teaches at another local school, said that although she thought the outcome of her school’s last Ofsted report was fair, she was concerned to see how little Ofsted seemed to take the area and its demographics into account. She works in a school that has a higher than average pupil premium rate, with high numbers of students on free school meals and those for whom English is an additional language, but the school is judged in exactly the same way as schools without these difficult challenges. When such concerns are raised, schools feel that they are falling on deaf ears because they do not form part of the inspection criteria, and that a major part of the factual background to explain the school’s weakness is simply being overlooked. The complaints procedure does not seem able to accommodate these sorts of concerns.

If the subject of a complaint is the conduct of an Ofsted inspector, the situation is arguably even more difficult, because the complaint is reviewed in the first instance by the individual who conducted the inspection, leading to frustrations about how objective the exercise could really be. The informal complaints procedure is therefore an important part of the process. It can be valuable and effective when it works well, but it is important to recognise its limitations and the need for a robust mechanism by which the substantive findings of the report can be independently reviewed.

At stage 2 of the complaints procedure, schools are given a short window to submit a formal complaint prior to the publication of the final report. This is the only opportunity given to schools to put their substantive case before anyone who is not the initial inspector.

The final two stages narrow to an almost exclusive procedural focus, in which an internal scrutiny panel reviews how a stage 2 complaint has been handled. If the school decides to take it further, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted will perform a similar exercise. It is specifically not within the remit of the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted to review the professional judgment of the decisions made by Ofsted, meaning that there is no external means of challenging the outcome of an Ofsted inspection, short of going to court—a reality that my constituents in Naburn found unbelievable.

Even within its narrowly prescribed remit, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted faces certain limitations. Its determinations are not binding on Ofsted; all it can do is offer an independent view on the complaints and provide individual recommendations, advice and guidance to Ofsted to help it achieve best practice in the complaints-handling procedures. Ofsted does not have to comply with the recommendations, but if it does not comply, it must explain its reasons. In short, far from being an ombudsman-type of service with real teeth, the role of the ICASO is more of a mediator, albeit in a relationship in which the power balance between Ofsted and the school is heavily skewed towards the former. Its limited role is reflected in the small number of cases it reviews every year—about 20, which represent a tiny proportion of Ofsted’s overall workload. That figure is surely not reflective of the number of schools with concerns about their Ofsted inspection that are simply unable to ask for a review under one of the heads of complaint available.

Given the problem that I have set out, the question is: how can the system be improved? By way of comparison, it is useful to look at the complaints procedure used by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The inspectorate also accepts contributions from schools during the inspection and drafting process, but it is treated as a given and is not explicitly part of the complaints procedure. Schools have the opportunity to submit a formal complaint for internal review, much like Ofsted’s procedure, but they are given a 10-day window, which seems much more reasonable than the five-day timeframe given by Ofsted. Crucially though, there is then a procedure by which the complaint can be submitted to an independent adjudicator, whose decision is considered final and binding on both ISI and the school. The independent adjudicator has before them all the relevant documentation and, crucially, can both investigate whether the complaint was handled correctly and adjudicate on whether the decision was reasonable. As a result of the adjudicator’s findings, the report can be amended on a full or partial reinspection ordered by ISI at its expense.

I appreciate that the comparison is slightly limited, as the case load and remits of ISI and Ofsted are very different, but it does provide an example of the sort of checks and balances that would go a long way to alleviate many of the frustrations felt by schools that have had difficulties dealing with Ofsted.

Another point worth considering is the relationship between Ofsted and the Department for Education. First, I recognise and acknowledge that a system where a Minister can be accused of intervening in an individual case on the basis of political pressure is undesirable, and it is completely right that Ofsted operates at arm’s length. However, the result is that parents, schools and local communities feel completely powerless in the face of an organisation that does not appear to have to justify its decisions to anyone.

If there is reluctance to reform the standard complaints procedure to give the independent element more teeth, one alternative could be to create a safety mechanism by which the Secretary of State can order a reinspection with a new team of inspectors or an independent review, so that Ofsted can no longer mark its own homework, which it seems to be doing on a regular basis. This mechanism would have the dual effect of providing an outlet to enhance accountability for local communities if they feel their school has been treated unjustly, while ensuring that the final decision is taken independently of political pressure and purely on the basis of the relevant criteria.

There is a debate to be had about the school inspection system more generally and its impact on the wellbeing of teachers and the effectiveness of the education system. I was interested to receive feedback in my survey on those points, and I am sure they will be picked up by many other colleagues. I have sought to confine my comments to the specific issue of the accountability of Ofsted and the procedure available to challenge its decisions. I am not opposed to having a robust school inspection system, and I believe that a strong inspection body is central to achieving that. Many teachers, as evidenced by my survey, have had nothing but positive experiences with Ofsted, but it is also clear that there are many who have not.

My concerns came to a head when I spoke to teachers and parents at Naburn school in my constituency. They are frustrated at how powerless they felt and incensed at the lack of accountability. The national response I have had since publicising this debate shows that their concerns are not isolated, but are widely shared in the teaching profession. The Government need to address this issue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know him well, and I am sure he will take a lot of what I have said on board.