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Free schools 'not all hotbeds of innovation', Ofsted says

Free schools and academies are “not all hotbeds of innovation” which should be viewed differently from other schools, one of Ofsted’s most senior members has said.

Mike Cladingbowl, who is inspectorate’s director of schools, made the statement in a bullish defence of the watchdog’s approach to inspections, following calls for free schools and academies to be inspected by a separate watchdog.

Last month, it was revealed the right of centre think tank Civitas is to publish a pamphlet calling for a different agency to inspect free schools and academies amid claims that Ofsted’s inspectors often adopt “progressive” approaches to learning, which they claim stifles innovation.

The suggestion provoked Ofsted's chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw into a furious rant in which he described himself to be "spitting blood" and claimed the Department for Education was briefing against his agency.

But speaking in the latest edition of the TES podcast, Mr Cladingbowl dismissed the idea that free schools and academies should be treated any differently to state-maintained schools.

“I know that some commentators – and I disagree with them and they know that – feel that we should not be inspecting free schools and academies or that a separate inspectorate should be set up to do so.

"I cannot believe anybody takes that idea seriously. These are public funded schools and why would you want one set of rules for one set of people and another set of rules for another?” Mr Cladingbowl said.

“People argue that these academies and free schools are so different, and that we don’t understand them somehow. But it’s just not true because these places are not all hotbeds of innovation, trying to do something different that inspectors don’t understand.”

Many free schools, he added were “very traditional places”, including old grammar schools and former independent schools that have “reinvented” themselves as free schools.

“We want the free school and academy movement to do something differently particularly if what has been done before hasn’t worked,” he said.

“But they’ve got to be judged by the same basic standards: do they teach the children well enough? Is behaviour good enough? Are parents satisfied with the school? And if they don’t, we’ll carry on saying so publicly regardless of what type of school it is.”

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