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Trust boss criticises Ofsted complaints transparency

An academy trust leader has called for greater transparency over how Ofsted handles complaints after revealing how he persuaded senior officials to “set aside” a negative report amid criticism of inspectors.

Ofsted visited Oakwell Rise Primary Academy in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in early 2020. Inspectors told leaders it would be rated ‘requires improvement’.

But the report never saw the light of day after Mark Wilson, chief executive of the Wellspring Academy Trust, complained directly to Ofsted’s chief operating officer Matthew Coffey about “bullying” behaviour.

Wilson has decided to speak out after a coroner ruled in December that an inspection contributed to the suicide of Caversham Primary School headteacher Ruth Perry.

“We held up a mirror and showed Ofsted that it had a problem with some inspectors two years and 10 months before the inspection at Caversham Primary School. They had and have had ample time to put their house in order. Have they done that? And how should we know?”

‘I demanded to speak to the top’

Wilson called Ofsted during the inspection “incensed by the behaviour and conduct of the inspectors in this case” and the impact on the school’s leaders.

“I simply did what anyone in any other walk of life would do in the circumstances, which was to pick up the telephone and demand to speak to the person at the top.”

Mark Wilson

He also raised a formal complaint alleging “bullying”, “intimidating questioning” and problems with the inspection process.

An investigation into the conduct of the lead inspector was launched. Complaints about “onerous requests” for information and about the inspection timetable were upheld, documents seen by Schools Week show.

Complaints about the judgments awarded, a lack of communication and the accuracy of evidence were not upheld. But the inspection was deemed “incomplete” and a re-visit was carried out.

After several months, Ofsted told Wilson it had “decided not to publish this school report”, and inspectors would return after lockdown.

In its letter, the watchdog said although it had “no legal power to void an inspection”, it had “no duty to publish” reports on its website.

‘A rare and significant act’

A different inspection team returned in 2021, rating the school ‘good’. Inspectors said “pupils, parents and staff say that the school has been transformed”. The school had been in special measures before joining Wellspring in 2017.

Wilson said the two inspections “were as different as chalk and cheese”.

“For Ofsted to set-aside an inspection is, to the best of my knowledge, a rare and very significant act on their part,” he added.

“We submitted a 78-page complaint about the unprofessional attitude, conduct and management of the inspection that had incensed me so much that I was prepared to take our complaint public.

“I remain firmly of the view that Ofsted did not want the detail of that complaint out in the public domain.”

Wilson said the formal complaints process was “unhelpful in the extreme. I felt institutionally stonewalled and brushed off.

“It was only by acting outside of the published process direct with the chief operating officer, was I able to secure a natural justice outcome to the matter that had prompted my complaint.”

‘We followed our policies’ – Ofsted

A watchdog spokesperson said it had “followed our policies, including the complaints process of the time and our protocol for gathering additional evidence”.

“This was happening while the country was heading into lockdown in 2020. When inspections were suspended and our inspectors were diverted to supporting local authorities and other priorities, the school remained unsatisfied.

Ruth Perry
Ruth Perry

“Given the unprecedented circumstances, we decided that the fair and pragmatic thing to do was to set the inspection aside until lockdown was over and we could return to the school.”

Ofsted reformed its complaints process in the wake of Perry’s death. It scrapped its internal review process for schools concerned their complaint was not processed completely. Schools can now go directly to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted.

Inspections can now be paused for up to five days if there are concerns about wellbeing.

Tom Middlehurst, curriculum, assessment and inspection specialist at the ASCL union, said school leaders “find the lack of consistency and transparency within Ofsted’s complaints process deeply frustrating”.

He welcomed “small steps in the right direction”, but warned there was “still a long way to go in order to win back the trust of the profession”.

Wilson added: “The power asymmetry of the model is toxic.”

Ofsted does not collect data on how many times it has withheld a report entirely. Schools Week understands it intends to do so in the future.

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