'If Ofsted wants to be a true force for improvement, it needs to fix its damaging complaints policy'

Ofsted's complaints policy gives least protection to those who need it most, the schools that have been placed in special measures, writes one inspection specialist

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A recent court case ought to be a watershed moment for Ofsted.

The conclusion of Judge McKenna that Ofsted's complaints process is "unfair" should carry implications beyond the report on Durand Academy alone. If you're yet to read about the case, it's worth catching up on.

The problem with Ofsted's policy is as much to do with the perception of impartiality (or lack of) as anything else. However, as Gustave Flaubert wrote: "There is no truth. There is only perception."

To understand the issue, it is useful to consider the steps outlined in Ofsted's complaints policy:

For schools and colleges judged "requires improvement", "good" or "outstanding":

  1. Complain during the inspection to the lead inspector (see my blog for tips on how to complain during an inspection). 
  2. Formally complain after the inspection using Ofsted's online complaint form (no more than 10 working days after publication of the report).
  3. Request an internal review. "The review will not be a re-investigation of the issues raised in your original complaint: it will consider how we handled your original complaint."
  4. Complain to the independent adjudicator.

For schools and colleges judged "inadequate", the policy is significantly limited:

  • "The judgements made will not be reconsidered under step 2 of this policy. This is because all such judgements are subject to extended quality assurance procedures before being authorised on behalf of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. The school contributes to this process and may comment on the inspection findings as well as factual accuracy before the report is published."
  • "Once the report has been finalised, any complaints about inspector conduct or the inspection process can be considered under step 2 of this policy." 
    [Note – this does not provide a clear facility to complain about the judgements.]
  • "Schools can then request a review of the process for confirming the inspection judgements under step 3 of this policy, after the step 2 complaint investigation is complete."
    [The implication is that schools can request that complaints raised in relation to step 2 (process and conduct only) were investigated properly, but it still does not appear to give a facility to appeal the judgement itself. In essence, this means Ofsted checking it followed procedure, not checking the accuracy of the original judgement.]

Rather absurdly, the process appears to give less voice, and less protection, to the very schools which are most at risk following an adverse inspection judgement.

School leaders need little reminder that inadequate judgements carry the potential for severe consequences, both personally and for the school community, including academisation, rebrokering and changes to employment.

It is, therefore, damaging that the policy seems to tell inadequate schools there is no need to challenge the judgement as Ofsted's internal quality assurance processes are infallible and will ensure the judgement is accurate.

In Judge McKenna's words: "To my mind, a complaints process which effectively says there is no need to permit an aggrieved party to pursue a substantive challenge to conclusions of a report it considers to be defective because the decision will always in effect be unimpeachable is not a rational or fair process."

This has the effect of undermining transparency and confidence in the inspectorate's most contentious and most high-stakes judgements. This can't be good for schools and it is certainly not good for perceptions of Ofsted.

However, there are some factors you may not be aware of: Ofsted’s internal quality-assurance processes do, on occasion, lead to a change in judgement. But the fact that such changes are not usually in the public domain is not helpful to the image of Ofsted's internal quality assurance.

In some instances, inspectors are required to return to gather more evidence in order to secure the right judgement. For some schools, this has resulted in a change in judgement. Inspectors who have undergone training at Ofsted will testify how seriously the organisation takes complaints; preventing and dealing with complaints is a key part of training for inspectors.

And Ofsted clearly wants to get it right. As HMCI Amanda Spielman acknowledged in February: "Inspection will never be painless, and a regulator will never be loved by those it regulates – nor should it be. We must, though, make sure we are respected and use evidence responsibly and intelligently in everything we do."

We have seen over the past few months how Ms Spielman is working to recalibrate the work of the inspectorate and make Ofsted a “force for improvement”. To do so, Ofsted must continue to build trust with the schools and colleges it inspects – especially those which are most vulnerable from adverse judgements.

It can't be right that inadequate schools are denied the same complaints process as other schools. If Ofsted is to be successful in being a force for improvement, it is time for the inspectorate to address the damaging perception caused by its complaints policy.

Stephen Rollett is the Inspection and Accountability Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders

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