Ofsted is facing allegations of approving "cut and paste" inspection reports that use identical sentences and phrases to justify placing schools in special measures.
The claims were made after two reports were published that contained a large number of similarities in the way the schools' "inadequate" standards were described. The inspectorate has launched an investigation into the judgements for Belvedere Junior School in Bexley, South London, and Malmesbury Primary School in Tower Hamlets, East London, amid allegations that they have been treated unfairly.
Belvedere was placed in special measures in March this year and Malmesbury a month later after they were visited by the same lead inspector. The reports repeat a number of sentences verbatim and contain other passages critical of the schools that differ by only one or two words.
For example, both reports state: "Some teachers do not plan learning for pupils at their different levels of ability and marking is not leading to improvement." The reports also both say that "the majority of parents and carers are positive about how well the school develops their children's skills in reading, writing and mathematics", while stating that inspectors disagree.
The lead inspector of the reports was employed by services company Tribal, one of three organisations to which Ofsted subcontracts inspections. Both Ofsted and Tribal said they stand by the judgements, but a spokesman for Tribal added: "Similarities noted in some of the wording caused concern and are being rigorously investigated. If proven, Tribal would take swift action to stop using the inspector."
This is not the first time that concerns over similarities between Ofsted reports have been raised. In October 2010, two primary schools in Lincolnshire - Sturton by Stow and Dunholme St Chad's - received identical reports, differing only in the overall judgements of the schools. The inspector, who worked for one of the private inspection contractors, was dismissed after an investigation.
While each of the recent reports contains specific comments on the school's strengths and weaknesses, the NAHT heads' union said that they were symptomatic of an overly corporate and inflexible inspection regime that presents an inaccurate picture of schools.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the union, said he had heard anecdotal accounts of similar "cut and paste" reports, and added that such approaches were "not acceptable given that the fate of the school rests on what is written".
"There are a limited number of words in the English language, but we are concerned that reports are seemingly written before the inspectors make their visits. It's a great discourtesy to the school," Mr Hobby added.
Lesley Gannon, head of research at the NAHT, said the problem lies in part with the formulaic evaluation schedule that Ofsted inspectors must obey.
"Problems are compounded at the second stage of the inspection process when the reports are rewritten by a moderator - someone who has never been to the school - who checks the descriptions to ensure they fit the grades described in the inspection schedule," she said. "That is the pattern we are seeing and it's very worrying.
"Inspectors just cut and paste, regurgitating wording from the evaluation schedule. Therefore the reports are often more similar than they are individual. We want the best inspectors to be able to freestyle a little bit more."
Nicola Bulpitt, Belvedere's headteacher, confirmed that the school was in discussion with Ofsted over the reports, but said she could not comment further "at present".
The headteacher and governors of Malmesbury did not want to comment on the reports, but parents are angry that the school has been placed in special measures. A newsletter circulated by parents in April described a meeting of parents, teachers and the council at which they were told that Malmesbury had not been on the council's radar as a school it was worried about. "The true strengths of the school were clearly not recognised in the Ofsted report," the newsletter says.
In a statement, Ofsted said it stands by the judgements for the two schools, which were subject to moderation by a directly employed inspector. But it added: "We are concerned by the similarity of some of the wording used in the two reports and this is being looked into with the inspector concerned."
Original headline: Ofsted under fire for `cut and paste' reports that fail schools