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School loses court battle over Ofsted downgrade to ‘good’

A school must pay Ofsted tens of thousands of pounds after losing a High Court battle over its ‘outstanding’ downgrading, with a judge ruling leaders effectively “masked suspensions in all but in name”.

The watchdog was “neither irrational or unreasonable” to downgrade Thomas Telford School, in Shropshire, to ‘good‘ over wrongly-recorded suspensions, the court found.

The school claimed the December 2022 inspection was mired by “errors”. An injunction attempt to block publication of the report was thrown out last year.

But High Court judge Mary Stacey threw out the city technology college’s (CTC) judicial review and ordered it to pay Ofsted’s legal costs of £42,000 in a judgment handed down yesterday.

Absence coding ‘masked suspensions’

She said that “errors in the coding of student absences did mean that the records were not accurate and did have the effect of masking what were suspensions in all but name”.

The school was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘good’ following a two-day inspection in December 2022 because of its “method of the recording of non-attendances and absences with the consequent lack of transparency and oversight from unclear data”.

“Cooling off periods” for pupils were registered as a leave of absence, as opposed to suspensions. While this would be breaking the law for most schools, CTCs are not bound by the same statutory guidance on exclusions.

Inspectors initially wrongly thought the school was bound by this guidance, but Ofsted said these “early misunderstandings about the unique status of CTCs were corrected during the inspection process” and before its team reached its provisional judgments.

‘Lessons to be learned’ for Ofsted

However the judge did conclude the “poor bedside manner” from inspectors during the visit meant Ofsted had “lessons to be learned”.

CTCs were the forerunner of academies in the 1990s, where private companies were encouraged to invest and help set up schools. Just two remain.

Stacey said it was “disappointing that the inspectors were not aware of the special status of CTCs prior to the commencement of their inspection and initially made two fairly basic errors”.

This showed a “lack of preparation and precision” and “naturally made [the school] more anxious and defensive”.

It was “right” for the lead inspector to raise the issue “so that the school could correct him, which they did”.

But the judge said “the evidence is however consistent with the school’s experience of it being raised in a heavy handed manner, exacerbating the understandable anxieties already engendered by the advent of an Ofsted inspection in a school, particularly given the seriousness of such allegations”.

The lead inspector “appeared to the school to be insensitive and thoughtless of the impact of the statements he made to the headteacher,” she added.

Stacey said the school’s “indignation was understandable”, adding that it “must have been a bruising experience”.

“It reinforced their perception that the inspection was looking for fault and to find problems. The inspection report itself however is full of praise and adopts a very different tone to the school’s experience of the manner of inspection visit.”

She said it was the “inspection report that falls to be judged. Although a poor bedside manner is not obviously a ground of legal challenge, there are lessons to be learned for Ofsted and its inspectors from this inspection”.

Ofsted’s suspension concerns ‘legitimate’

But Stacey said “behind the noise of the inspection and the school’s understandable fury at the way it was conducted, Ofsted had two legitimate concerns with the school’s approach that were not predicated on the misunderstandings” of the lead inspector.

She said “it was not possible to ascertain which students were absent for misbehaviour” under its behaviour policy because of “the mis-coding of absences”, and this policy “did not reflect the actual practice in some cases”.

“Whether a student is sent home as a ‘suspension’ or for a ‘cooling off’ period is a semantic distinction: either way they are being asked to leave the school premises for a temporary period. “

She said that “ultimately, the errors over the legal requirements applicable to CTCs were not relevant to the criticisms found in the absence reporting process

“It was neither irrational or unreasonable for Ofsted to conclude that it represented ‘good’ rather than ‘outstanding’ practice,” she added.

The judge said that the “errors in the coding of student absences did mean that the records were not accurate and did have the effect of masking what were suspensions in all but name”.

An Ofsted spokesperson said : “We have always been confident that our inspection was fair and lawful, and that the correct gradings were awarded.”

The school has been approached for comment. It is not known how much it spent on its own legal costs.

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