It is virtually impossible for schools to overturn a critical Ofsted judgement, a Tes investigation has established.
Figures obtained from the watchdog through a freedom of information (FOI) request show that not a single school has successfully changed or quashed an inspection report following a legal challenge in the past three years.
But this has not prevented tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on court disputes over schools’ Ofsted judgements, with more cases in the pipeline.
Durand Academy Trust, in south London, is applying for a judicial review against an Ofsted inspection report, after a draft version was temporarily published that would have placed the school into special measures.
The school refused to reveal how much had been spent on the action when asked by Tes.
The inspectorate has itself spent £57,840 before VAT on legal challenges since 2013-14, its FOI response reveals. Ofsted’s legal team “seeks to recover costs wherever possible” from the losing school, the response adds.
In total, seven schools in the past three years have been prepared to take legal action against inspection reports, one of which has now been kept out of the public domain for nine months as a result.
Many more schools have complained directly to Ofsted about inspections, but Tes has established that not one of these resulted in a school having its overall judgement overturned in 2015-16 – the most recent year for which figures are available – when 197 state school inspections resulted in formal complaints.
In 2014-15, just two state schools were successful in changing their overall rating through the complaints procedure; the year before, there were only three. In both years, more than 400 inspections led to formal complaints.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: “This exposes an ongoing problem with the complaints process. Too many members still worry about the inconsistency of inspections and the laborious complexity of the complaints procedure.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, believes the feeling that Ofsted is “infallible” creates “an aura of fear in the education system”.
“Often we help members with challenges against inspections and we find it very hard to overturn overall verdicts,” he says.
“It’s a principle of justice that every organisation needs to be able to admit that it will get things wrong and have an open process for tackling that.”
Not all schools that complain to Ofsted ask for their overall judgement to be changed: the watchdog said it did not hold information on how many did make such a request.
Of the 197 inspections complained about in 2015-16, 37 per cent saw at least part of a complaint upheld – a slightly higher proportion than the previous two years.
But schools stand only a slim – and decreasing – chance of succeeding at the next stage of Ofsted's complaints process, known as the “internal review”.
In 2013-14, 23 per cent of school complaints were upheld or partially upheld after internal review, dropping to 22 per cent in 2014-15 before falling to 17 per cent in 2015-16.
There has been a 58 per cent fall in the annual number of complaints against school Ofsted inspections since 2013-14, when they numbered 475.
Hobby suggests this is partly down to school leaders feeling that “there’s no point in complaining".
“Ofsted has tightened up the complaints processes, and also its attitude towards complaints have got tougher as well,” he says.
Ofsted said the data “demonstrates the thoroughness of our inspection and quality assurance arrangements”.
She said: "We take all complaints seriously and aim to resolve concerns promptly. We are talking a very small number of complaints compared to the overall number of inspections. We will acknowledge if our work has not met our usual high standards and take steps to put things right, including, when necessary, amending reports.
“However, our complaint investigations very rarely find that inspectors reached the wrong overall judgement.”
This is an edited version of an article appearing in the 9 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here