The jaw-dropping experience of reading Ofsted reports which translate as “we haven’t looked into this”
Why doesn’t Ofsted investigate? This is a question that I have found myself asking reasonably frequently, over the years, on watching how the inspectorate has performed in cases where I know a fair bit about the detail of a school’s recent history.
In some cases, having investigated and reported on concerns about goings-on within a school – often following tip-offs by staff – my jaw has dropped when the inspection report has captured little of this.
This is disappointing as, for all the criticism that comes Ofsted’s way, investigating staff and community concerns rigorously and trying to hold decision-makers to account would be an important public service role which might convince some of the inspectorate’s value. But, too often, in my experience, it doesn’t happen.
Perhaps the most shocking case in my recent experience has been that of Brampton Manor Academy (BMA), in Newham, East London.
This is a school which has gained quite a media profile in recent years, for sending more students to Oxbridge than Eton. This, for a school with a disadvantaged pupil roll in a poor part of the city, is impressive.
But there is public evidence of another side to this academy. Eighteen months ago, an employment tribunal verdict on how the school treated a then-newly-qualified teacher with multiple sclerosis found that it had created a “hostile environment” for her. Yasmin Omar had been “intimidated” by the school, placed under “extreme pressure” and left “frightened” by management decisions.
My website was at the time the only media outlet to report the case. But in the following weeks, several ex-teachers got in touch, indicating that Yasmin’s experience was sadly not unique. Another ex-Brampton teacher who had struggled with chronic illness told me about what she said was its “zero tolerance of staff absence” policy, Yasmin’s tribunal report having stated that Yasmin had been set a target of no further absence during the 2018-19 academic year, having had to take two days off in her second week there.
My website also revealed how, in 2018 on the eve of an Ofsted visit, seven former BMA teachers had emailed the inspectorate about their negative experiences about the school, including three stating they were forced to resign without having secured jobs elsewhere, and one stating they had been sacked after a single day off sick.
But they got no response from Ofsted, which instead delivered a glowing “outstanding” report, with no sense of any staff unhappiness.
A year ago, Ofsted returned for a monitoring visit. Again, the school was given a clean bill of health. But what was striking was that, months after publication of the 73-page tribunal report into Yasmin’s case, which would have raised questions about the school to anyone reading it, there was no reference to it or to any other staff concerns. Blandly, inspectors reported unequivocally that “leaders prioritise the well-being of pupils and staff,” even flagging up the availability of yoga and fitness classes, seemingly as strong evidence.
I obtained the inspector’s notes for this visit under freedom of information. The notes simply documented the fact that “staff absence is very low” and at one point stated that “people [had been] active on social media about Ofsted not taking account of their views in the last inspection”. There was no sense, in either the notes or the report, that this perspective had been investigated substantively.
In January 2020, Ofsted rated as “good” another school run by a high-profile chain: Harris Academy Peckham. This came after a period of turmoil for the south London secondary: I had reported on uproar in the student community in 2018 about the closure of its vocational departments and sixth form.
These changes appear to have altered the pupil experience fundamentally at this school, which opened in 2003 and which, parents and teachers told me, had emphasised vocational subjects such as motor mechanics and hair and beauty from the start.
But there was no sense of this in the report, which did not mention the word “vocational” and simply stated that the curriculum was “well-planned”.
More recently, I’ve learned of parental concerns raised with inspectors about governance and safeguarding at Holland Park School, west London, where the community, including NEU members, parents, the local authority and the local MP, has been campaigning against government moves to hand it to England’s largest academy trust.
A meeting with the inspection team on day two of Ofsted’s visit to the school in April saw parents raise concerns about the current governing body, while parents also handed in a formal complaint about how governors had handled a recent appointment, from a safeguarding perspective.
But if these concerns were investigated by inspectors, this is not documented in June’s report, which seemed instead simply to back the governing body and dismiss concerns of “some stakeholders” – seemingly members of the campaign group which has urged greater transparency and accountability in this case – as “appear[ing] to be pushing their own agendas”.
These cases have been very revealing, from the perspective of someone who, when presented with information, seeks to investigate where I can. Why can Ofsted, as a publicly-funded agency with far more resources and power, not do the same?
It is true that inspection teams are hard-pressed, with inspectors having to reach judgements and write reports to very tight timescales. But there must be a case, if we are to have Ofsted, for teams to be given the ability to look into matters in more detail where such concerns have arisen, perhaps by scaling back visits to schools where there is no such evidence.
Be in no doubt, in cases such as the above, staff, for all their scepticism about Ofsted, will have seen an inspection visit as an opportunity to have concerns about goings-on in a school taken seriously. If Ofsted cannot investigate properly, even when there appears detailed evidence of material that very much merits it, the question as to why it exists in its current form must seem more urgent than ever.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and founder of the education news website Education Uncovered.