If you’re worried about how a school is handling safeguarding incidents, where do you go?
How do you report a concern?
Whose responsibility is it to hold the school to account?
Those are the stark questions prompted by revelations today that schools were given clean bills of health by Ofsted, even after the inspectorate was alerted to their major safeguarding failures over child rape victims.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the charity End Violence Against Women, says she is concerned there is a gap in the system, with no organisation properly overseeing how schools are dealing with safeguarding.
And you can see why she reached that conclusion when you appreciate how difficult it is for a parent to raise concerns with Ofsted.
There are several ways they can try to contact the watchdog. The first is via its Parent View website – an online survey that parents can fill in at any time.
However, the website just asks parents generic multiple-choice questions, such as whether their child is happy at school and whether they are safe, with no space for parents to add their own written comments.
The only time parents can submit their own thoughts online is once Ofsted has announced an inspection. But parents usually receive very little notice about this, and even then they are often only given about a day to report their feedback to the inspectorate.
This system for contributing views to Ofsted was criticised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in a report published earlier this month.
The PAC said: “Ofsted does not give parents enough opportunity to contribute their views as part of school inspections.”
It noted that parents can access Parent View “at any time but can enter free-text comments only once Ofsted has announced an inspection, which means they have a very short time (often only one day) in which to give their views”.
While the PAC said Ofsted “appears to have good intentions to improve how it engages with parents”, the committee said it was “not convinced” that the inspectorate “yet has concrete plans to turn these intentions into actions”.
Parent View is not the only way to flag up an issue with Ofsted – parents can also try calling the watchdog via its telephone contact centre.
But while children calling the helpline are given an immediate opportunity to report a concern, the same opportunity is not offered for adults.
Instead, a parent has to click through multiple menu options.
While they are trying to navigate this system, there is a subtle shift in the language used in the automated menus. To begin with, the caller is asked whether they wish to report “concerns” about provision, but later they are asked if they are calling to make a “complaint”.
At this stage, a caller is simply asked to direct their complaint to Ofsted in writing via the inspectorate’s website.
A caller is given the opportunity to talk to an Ofsted employee only if the caller has accessibility issues that means they are unable to use the online complaints form, or if an inspection is taking place at the school in question when they are calling.
Commenting on Ofsted’s labyrinthine system, one mother who tried to raise concerns told Tes: “You need a degree in patience to get through.”
If a parent finally decides to use the online complaints form, the Ofsted website makes clear that it will only accept their submission if they have already exhausted the school’s own complaints procedure.
But there are reasons why parents might want to get in touch with Ofsted first. They might not have confidence in a school’s ability or willingness to deal with their concern, or they might worry that complaining to the school will rebound on their child.
When asked for comment, Ofsted said it was “reviewing Parent View”, but added that this website “should not be used to lodge complaints about a school, identify safeguarding issues or report a crime”.
A spokesperson said that if parents were not happy about an aspect of a school’s work “then they should, first of all, follow local complaints routes – such as the headteacher and chair of governors”. “That is because Ofsted cannot take specific action against a school,” they said.
“In the first instance, any safeguarding concerns should be reported to the relevant local authority children’s services.
“Ofsted has no powers to investigate allegations of individual safeguarding incidents. If we do receive information then we will always pass this on to the local authority.”
It’s fair for Ofsted to point out it’s not an investigative unit. But there are good reasons why it should have better processes for receiving concerns.
Ofsted monitors schools’ academic standards and, if it has concerns about performance, it takes a closer look with an inspection. But the watchdog also makes judgements on safeguarding so shouldn’t it also be gathering intelligence in this area and responding in the same way?
And while Ofsted can’t investigate individual safeguarding incidents, it should surely be collecting feedback from parents and weaving this into its inspection judgments if it wants to give a well-rounded assessment of a school. The evidence uncovered by Tes casts doubt on whether this is happening.
Of course, direct parental feedback is not the only way Ofsted can gather information about a school’s approach to safeguarding.
Where safeguarding is not working well, it can spark complaints or even legal action. However, there is confusion about whether inspectors have sight of this information when they inspect a school.
In a letter sent by a parent to Ofsted this summer, the inspectorate was asked to give a Yes / No answer to the question: "Is a school is required to show inspectors details of all ongoing complaints and legal action against the school?"
In its letter of response, Ofsted did not directly answer the question, but referred the parent to paragraph 41 in the school inspection handbook. The paragraph is a list of information to be shared with inspectors. But it makes no reference to complaints or legal action.
However, when Tes asked the same question about whether a school was required to tell inspectors about all ongoing complaints and legal action, Ofsted answered with a more straightforward: “Yes.”
Asked to clarify the inconsistency in its answers, Ofsted would only direct Tes to a separate guidance document, which says the lead inspector “must check whether there have been any safeguarding incidents or allegations since the last inspection that have either been resolved or are ongoing”. Ofsted told Tes that any complaint or legal action should be disclosed at this point.
Ofsted is just one institution, and not every problem relating to how schools approach safeguarding can be laid at its door.
But Tes’ investigation suggests a lack of grip on the issue within Ofsted and across the wider education landscape, which Rachel Krys thinks is symptomatic of our increasingly atomised schools system.
“We’re talking about a system that is totally fragmented and gives almost total authority to individual schools,” she said. “There’s actually nowhere upstream other than Ofsted for you to go – you’ve got Ofsted or the DfE.”
“Structurally that obviously doesn’t work… It would take quite a lot of resource and a big change in Ofsted’s whole operation model in order to deliver what needs to happen.”
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Safeguarding children is a collective effort that lies first and foremost with those whose care and supervision they are directly under.
“Ofsted takes pupil safety very seriously, but we are not an investigative body. The local authority is the statutory authority with responsibility for investigating safeguarding concerns for children and vulnerable adults.
“We can only report on the evidence we find during inspection and the information provided to us. However, when we are made aware of complaints during inspection, we will always check that these have been investigated by the most appropriate authority.
“Where serious safeguarding concerns are reported to us, we will always inform the relevant authority.
“We can, and will, bring forward inspections where we believe a school may be failing to fulfil its responsibilities in respect of safeguarding children.”