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Taking on Ofsted

So what happens when you complain about an inspection? Primary head and 'TES' columnist Mike Kent did and was vindicated - eventually.

A little over a year ago, my school, Comber Grove primary in Southwark, south London, had its second Ofsted. Our first inspection in 1996 had been extremely successful, and we went into our second with pride and confidence. By the middle of the week, I was holding an emergency staff meeting, wondering if I should call a halt to the inspection.

By Friday, we were devastated. The team, it seemed to us, had read the documentation, noticed the previous year's SATs results were slightly down, and come in to prove we were falling apart. Older members of staff had suffered particularly. One was so distressed that by Friday she couldn't speak to me on the telephone. Younger teachers, never having experienced an Ofsted, were appalled that evaluations could be carried out in such a manner, and the governors were bewildered and angry. People who knew our school simply couldn't believe what we'd been through. At the end of the inspection, I told the registered inspector we would make a formal complaint.

I wrote about our experiences in Friday (May 26, 2000), and I was astonished by the number of letters and calls I received. Our experiences weren't unique. I replied to them all, asking one question in particular: did you complain? Just one school had. The others felt that as the nightmare was over for another four years the best plan was to forget it, pick up the pieces, and get on with the job.

The head who'd decided to complain warned me that I was in for a long haul, with little chance of success. I'd need to complain to the contractor, then, if still dissatisfied, to Ofsted, then to the complaints adjudicator, and finally the ombudsman, if there was no joy along the route. I began to understand why Chris Woodhead had proudly stated that schools were happy with their inspections because only 3 per cent had ever complained.

The Easter holiday followed our inspection. I spent much of it putting together a lengthy document, collating all the grievances staff and governors had raised, and showing how I felt the Ofsted guidelines for the conduct of inspectors had been clearly breached. I sent it all to the inspection contractor, expecting to wait a long time for a reply. I also asked for the names of the last three schools inspected by senior members of this team, as it occurred to me a precedent might be established. I had a reply within days. There was concern that we'd been upset by our inspection, and my document was to be forwarded to the registered inspector for comments. The contractor's own principal inspector would make a judgment. And sorry, it wasn't within their brief to tell me which other schools the team had inspected.

Three months passed, and I jogged the contractor's memory. A reply was on its way, but the registered inspector was very busy and complaints as detailed as mine were unexpected. I pointed out that I was very busy too, probably even busier than the registered inspector, but I'd managed to put the document together in a few days, and I saw no reason why a response should take so long. It arrived soon afterwards, and I gave copies to my staff.

The response simply increased their anger. It was clear the inspectors' versions of events were completely different from our own, and in some cases we couldn't recognise the scenarios they were describing. We were heading into stormy weather.

I couldn't believe my luck when I found a school on the Ofsted reports website that had recently been inspected by our registered inspector, but I hesitated before calling it. I've had few confrontations in my career, but whenever I have, I have examined my own emotions and attitudes carefully. Would the head tell me her inspection had been fine? Had her school received glowing praise? Was I wrong in my assessment of my school?

I needn't have worried. The school had gone through a virtually identical experience (the written reports were almost interchangeable) and her staff, like mine, were demoralised and demotivated.

"My teachers work their backs off," she told me. "And so do I. I'm standing on my head keeping up with everything. We've turned the school around, and I simply couldn't do more. Then this happens." Shortly afterwards, I learned that, still upset and angry, she was taking early retirement. Her teachers were distraught, and it made me even more determined.

We were now "responding to responses". I wrote, again in detail, quoting sections from the inspector's reply to my complaint document, and pointing out inaccuracies. We'd also been sent our Ofsted report to check for "factual errors". After a brief look through, I returned it to the contractor; there were spelling and grammatical errors, bits that didn't make sense, and factual inaccuracies. I insisted it was retyped before we looked at it again.

Time passed, and back it came. Could we examine the revised version, but as Ofsted wouldn't extend the publication deadline, could we return it by June 29? It had arrived on June 27, but I worked into the small hours and managed it. This version was published. We also asked for the name of the Ofsted official who'd given us one day to respond. I wrote to him too, but he didn't reply.

Then, out of the blue, I received a letter from the "corporate services group" of Ofsted. They were unhappy that I had written the piece for Friday, as the report hadn't been published yet. What's more, they'd received complaints from the inspectors about the "hostility and intimidation" they had been subjected to. He would, he said, be sending a copy of his letter to Mr Woodhead.

I wrote back, saying it wasn't the report that bothered me, but the manner in which the inspection had been carried out, and that I was astonished the inspectors had felt intimidated. I trusted he would send my letter to Mr Woodhead, too. He replied saying he didn't intend to respond further, referring me back to his previous letter. I wrote back and referred him to mine.

Near the end of the year, we received a comprehensive summing up from the contractor's senior administration officer. Our views had been studied, with the responses from the inspectors, and he'd made a brave attempt at sifting the wealth of detail on all the issues raised. He explained that he was replying in place of their principal inspector, as she'd gone on long-term sick leave. Since the teacher worst affected by our inspection was also now on long-term sick leave, it seemed a bizarre case of tit-for-tat. I couldn't help thinking what a dreadful waste of human resources the whole Ofsted business is.

He was sensitive to the fact that the inspection had been a disaster and, genuinely anxious to avoid this in the future, he offered to discuss ways forward with my senior management team. We gladly accepted, and he visited a fortnight later. We warmed to him immediately. He'd been a policeman in south London, a lay inspector and a chair of governors, and had a passionate interest in education.

After a fruitful hour, some interesting facts emerged. As we'd suspected, it was becoming difficult to recruit inspectors as there was gold in other hills; threshold assessment, performance management and consultancies were all calling, all well paid but less arduous. Nevertheless, we had to inform him we were still not satisfied, and intended to pursue our complaint through Ofsted. Our dossier, nearly an inch thick, was posted to the Ofsted complaints department the next day.

I heard nothing for weeks. When I phoned, an official apologised and said they had no knowledge of it, but certainly the name of the school "rang a bell". They'd look into it and phone back. Half an hour later a different person said yes, it had arrived, but unfortunately it had been accepted by temporary staff and put underneath some documents. They'd respond as quickly as they could, although it could take up to three months. It was already nine months since we'd been inspected.

Five months passed, and I wrote again. Another official wrote back, apologising for the delay, but assuring me our complaint was receiving their full attention. By now, my staff had put the inspection firmly behind them and the school had returned to normal, although there was still a residue of anger.

Then, early this month, 14 months after our inspection, Ofsted's final response arrived. On many of the issues, Ofsted was sympathetic but unable to make a judgment because the versions given by both sides were so different. Nevertheless, just over half of our complaints were upheld and would be "brought to the registered inspector's attention". She, and other members of the team, will now be monitored by HMI. The letter said this meant Ofsted could witness the inspectors' behaviour and organisation "at first hand" and offer "specific or general guidance where faults appear during the inspection".

I'm told that upheld complaints are rare. So, bearing in mind the work involved, was it all worthwhile? Yes, it was. It won't help our school, but it could benefit others. Teachers are not naturally aggressive creatures, though I'm sure if more schools had complained after intimidating inspections, Ofsted would never have acquired such aggressive power. Schools should complain if something is wrong - and take it right through to the ombudsman if necessary.

A booklet, Making Complaints to Ofsted, is available from the Ofsted Publications Centre.Tel: 0770 263 7833

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