Opinion: 'Our story shows the dangers of data-led Ofsted inspections and the human cost of robust action'
Following on from Geoff Barton’s heart-breaking blogs last month on the ‘disappeared’, let us tell you about the past few months at Ely College, a large secondary school in East Anglia; an academy with the CfBT Schools Trust since 2010; a school where we were governors until we were stood down in late March 2015 after an Ofsted inspection, which we believe was deeply flawed and punitive, placed the school in "special measures".
Our reason for sharing this story is to show the real human impact of Ofsted’s over-reliance on data when coupled with the apparent need for academy trusts to take ‘robust action’ under pressure. For, in this case, that combination has destroyed the careers and well-being of three committed teachers, disrupted a community and undermined the reputation of a good, improving and innovative school.
We knew they were coming. The school’s 2014 results had been much lower than expected, but we were confident about our response, boosted by the findings of a monitoring visit by a former HMI commissioned by the regional schools commissioner in October 2014. He concluded that the school was still "good" in Ofsted terms, that there was “strong evidence of underlying improvement for 2015 and beyond based on validated progress measures” and that “leadership and management [were] an overall strength”, endorsing “the very high quality of teaching and learning throughout”. He also agreed that the 2014 GCSE cohort’s relatively low prior attainment had meant they were disproportionately affected by the grading changes. This was a view our trust adviser had confirmed in a separate monitoring visit in September 2014.
So, we were expecting a section 8 inspection and were prepared to accept a "requires improvement" verdict after a fight, but we had a good story to tell. We were ready.
But when Ofsted’s team of additional inspectors (AIs) turned up in February 2015, it soon became very clear that they had their own ideas. The lead AI moved from a section 8 to a section 5 inspection halfway through Day 1, despite (or possibly because) we were operating a collapsed curriculum that day, so he hadn't been able to see what he wanted to. As he rushed his team through Day 2 to collect enough evidence, it was very clear that he was intent on failing the school. It seemed by then that the inspectors were just looking for evidence to justify their judgement of "inadequate" overall.
So they rated behaviour inadequate because of their take on the school’s behaviour policy, spuriously linking it to what their data was telling them about performance, and ignoring its demonstrably positive impact on low-level disruption, attendance, exclusions, persistent absenteeism and, most surprisingly, behaviour. Incredibly, they used the same evidence that had been cited by Ofsted only two years before as the basis for a "good" verdict to back their case for an "inadequate" rating. They could cite virtually no actual instances of poor behaviour during their inspection. Indeed, just three school weeks after the publication of the inspection report, the HMI assigned to monitor the school out of special measures found behaviour to be “exemplary” on his first visit. The regional schools commissioner had said the same when he visited, too. So much for "inadequate" behaviour.
In terms of safeguarding, the school was judged inadequate because an inspector had apparently seen a registered adult learner – one of the school’s community education students – go to a staff toilet unaccompanied.
Of course, this particular issue was a very quick fix. A speedy change of policy, some re-rooming of adult learners and it was all sorted. So why did Ofsted need to issue a report saying the school was unsafe to achieve that? Why did it set out specifically to worry parents and involve the local authority when it just needed to highlight that a minor change of practice was required?
But, as we have outlined above, the lead AI was out to take the school down, and boy did he get the scalps he wanted.
Within a few days of receiving the draft report, the trust decided it needed to be seen to take "robust action", so it started the process of removing the principal and her two vice-principals, and dissolving the local governing board. God knows how much it cost to buy three "mutual agreements" and lift a new leadership out of their existing jobs in a matter of weeks without any due process.
And all because the lead AI’s data told him to take the school to the cleaners. It was truly a data-led judgement. But what if the data was wrong?
It’s commonly accepted that the 2014 GCSE data is not a useful comparison for previous years, nor for projections. Even Ofsted’s own Data Dashboard has a disclaimer. Partially because of this, we knew that the school’s own view of student performance wasn’t as secure as it should have been, and we were putting pressure on the leadership team to provide us with more accurate data. It now transpires that, if anything, they had been underestimating student performance. Because what we can now see in the trust’s published statement of action is a predicted headline GCSE result this year of 53 per cent A*-C including English and maths. While this is still below the expectation for similar schools, it would represent Ely’s best ever GCSE results, and a substantial leap from 2014, all in the year Ofsted judged it inadequate.
To spell it out in even more clear terms, this would all mean that the judgement made by a team of AIs and quality-assured by Ofsted was wrong, and that three good people lost their jobs because of it. Moreover, it would mean that more than 1,000 students and nearly 200 staff have been labelled inadequate and had their work disrupted at a key time, and that the trust’s kneejerk response was premature at best.
Of course, the formal complaints lodged against the Ofsted judgement by the former principal and a parent weren’t upheld. This surprised no one, as Ofsted had delegated the management of the complaints to Serco; the very organisation whose conduct we were complaining about! And a less formal complaint sent to the chief inspector was delegated to his outgoing regional director, who dismissed it. But we had to try, because we knew it was all wrong.
As a group, we are struggling to find any reason to have confidence in Ofsted, especially now it’s clear they’ve known for some time that many of their additional inspectors haven’t been up to the job but have kept them working. Is Ofsted going to publish a list of the 40 per cent who are not set to get a permanent in-house job? Surely there must be some redress for those people and communities judged ineffectively.
We are also finding it hard to reconcile something that Ofsted’s refreshingly open national director of schools policy, Sean Harford, has said on several occasions, and so would like to pose an open question to him via this blog:
Dear Mr Harford,
You’ve said in the past that it’s not Ofsted that removes school leaders after inspections "don’t go well". True, but even though others do the dirty work, they do it in direct response to your organisation’s judgements, and that means Ofsted has an absolute responsibility to make sure its judgements are accurate.
Now it’s clear that 40 per cent of your additional inspectors were substandard, an issue Ofsted has obviously known about for at least a year since your decision to end their contracts. But trusts and local authorities have continued to remove school leaders in response to your inspector’s judgements. So for you to claim that Ofsted has had no stake in this – no responsibility for the damaged lives and livelihoods – is disingenuous at best. We think you owe an apology and explanation to the Ely College community, and the wider sector.
We think you need to explain why your organisation has allowed unreliable and inconsistent inspections to continue when everyone knows their impact is so damaging. And, although your recent announcements include some concessions to better quality assurance, we think you need to tell us why your proposed scrutiny boards are still not independent and won’t examine past cases like ours.
Six former members of Ely College’s local governing board:
Peter Bates (former parent and community governor of four and a half years, and existing parent)
Sandra Cullen (former community governor of two years)
Ben Gibbs (former associate and community governor of 10 years, and chair 2013-15)
Bill Harrison (former parent and community governor of 25 years, and chair 1998-2013)
Jenny Stevens (former parent governor of eight years, and vice-chair 2010-15)
Chris Weeds (former community governor of 12 years)
Ely College features in a news article in today's TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.