Exclusive: Ofsted on ‘mission to find fault’ at Islamic school, leaving staff feeling bullied, court told

8th November 2016 at 06:01
islamic school, sir michael wilshaw, ofsted, high court, mr justice stuart-smith, judgment, segregation, faith schools
High Court judgment reveals that school staff felt bullied by Ofsted at a meeting attended by chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw

School staff felt “bullied” after attending a meeting with Ofsted and chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, according to details contained in an interim High Court judgment.

It also suggests that Ofsted inspectors who failed the state funded Islamic school went with a “pre-determined” agenda.

The court’s final decision in the case – expected later this morning – could amount to a test case over whether schools are legally allowed to segregate by sex, and is also likely to confirm whether the allegations made against Ofsted by the unnamed school are well-founded. 

TES can reveal that the court also heard in July that Sir Michael had incorrectly linked the school to “Trojan Horse” – an alleged plot by hardline Islamists to infiltrate secular state education – during a visit to the school in June.

The judgment says: “He referred to the school as a Trojan Horse school and, when corrected, asserted that it had traits of the Trojan Horse schools… The meeting was highly confrontational, to the extent that some of the staff said that they had felt bullied.”

According to the judgment of Mr Justice Stuart-Smith, who presided over the case, Sir Michael’s “prime concern” was the fact that the school segregated boys and girls, and that the school should be inspected as a result. School staff said that the inspectors “appeared to be on a mission to find fault”, the document states.

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith said that evidence given by members of the school’s leadership team about the conduct of Sir Michael’s visit, and Ofsted’s subsequent inspection was “apparently plausible and credible”. He added that it “appears to be indisputable that HMCI (Sir Michael)’s visit led directly” to a further inspection of the school, because “he said it should”.

The details have emerged as the school – known only as School X – which has applied to have its last Ofsted report quashed, awaits the High Court’s judgment.

The school’s Ofsted report was to have been published during the last week of the summer term, but Mr Justice Stuart-Smith agreed in August that this timing would do “widespread and irreparable damage” to the school and its community.

In his judgment, he said that the school’s policy to separate boys and girls from Year 5 onwards had been known to Ofsted for years. Inspection reports in December 2014, March 2015 and December 2015 did not comment negatively on the policy.

The judge heard that, on 8 June this year, Sir Michael Wilshaw visited the school. His judgement describes the “disastrous meeting” that resulted between the chief inspector and the school’s leadership team.

According to evidence given by the School X headteacher, Sir Michael “pressed the issue of segregation of pupils from the outset, making clear his opposition to the practice”. Sir Michael’s visit led to another Ofsted inspection, on 13-14 June. “His prime concern was the fact of segregation in the school,” the judge’s report states.

“The evidence on behalf of the school is to the effect that the inspectors appeared to be on a mission to find fault.”

The judge notes that a witness, speaking on behalf of the school, “with full knowledge of the gravity of what she is saying, says that ‘inspectors appeared to be determined to find evidence to support predetermined views that the school requires special measures’.

“She also states that she ‘believes[s] that the inspection was driven by a pre-determined agenda to find fault with the school due to the specific concerns of HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw… regarding the separation of girls and boys from year 5’.”

In their subsequent report, the inspectors said that the decision to segregate girls and boys “limits the opportunities for pupils’ social development”. They added that some older pupils told inspectors they were worried that segregation would mean that they were not properly prepared for the outside world.

Mr Justice Stuart-Smith acknowledged that he began “with a mild scepticism that HMCI or the inspectors who carried out the inspection would have behaved in the way described by the witness evidence put forward.”

However, he added that: “The discrepancy between the judgments stated in the July 2016 report at the three previous reports…are extraordinary. To my mind, they are frankly inconsistent.”

In response to arguments that the school’s separation of boys and girls was unlawful under the terms of the 2010 Equality Act, the judge countered: “It is common knowledge that there are schools of high repute that practise degrees of segregation in mixed-sex schools based upon an ethos other than Islam…

“If the degree of segregation practised at the school is illegal, it has been illegal for years, and there is no credible evidence…to explain why successive inspections failed to mention it.”

An Ofsted spokesperson said: “We can’t comment on this until the judgment is handed down. Tomorrow’s ruling will comment on the school’s evidence and claims that were made.”

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