When Jacquie Sainsbury took up her new headship, she discovered that nine members of staff had still to be cleared to work with children by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). She immediately began the necessary checks, but unfortunately for her Ofsted inspectors arrived four weeks later - before the CRB results had come back.
On the basis of a potential child protection issue, Ofsted downgraded their judgement on the school from "satisfactory" to "inadequate" and gave it a notice to improve. The result has been catastrophic. By the end of this term, five staff will have left, citing the added stress and stigma as a reason for their departure. Another two are on long-term sick leave.
The effects were also felt in the school community. About one in seven pupils - 47 out of 340 - have been taken out of school and moved to other primaries since the inspectors published their report. When Ms Sainsbury asked one parent why she was removing her child, the mother responded by shaking the report in her face.
The addition of the "safeguarding" element into school inspections last September was designed to reduce the risk to children. As well as checking that staff are not convicted paedophiles, inspectors would also assess issues such as whether the school grounds were secure. But teachers have been taken aback at the way the safeguarding obligation has been interpreted.
Ever since its introduction, there have been complaints of an over-zealous attitude among inspectors, picking up on relatively minor issues. Former schools secretary Ed Balls admitted that not every inspector would get it right, and that it was "silly" to mark schools down on "nitpicking" issues.
Even after five revisions to the new framework, critics still complain that it is too dogmatic. And the litany of horror stories continues. Schools have complained of being failed for leaving doors open on warm days, typing errors on staff registers, leaving perimeter gates accidentally unlocked, or having fences that are too low. One school was reprimanded because the head had not immediately asked for the lead inspector's own CRB check on the first day of the inspection, according to the NUT.
A safeguarding failure automatically leads to an inadequate grade, and the consequences can be devastating. "Parents see the verdict and don't look any further," says Ms Sainsbury, head at Brookhill Leys Primary in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. "There is a lot in the report to indicate that the school knows what it's doing, but they don't see that."
Confusion over safeguarding criteria
Mike Welsh, headteacher of Goddard Park Primary in Swindon and vice- president of the National Association of Head Teachers, says there is still confusion about exactly what schools are expected to do to fulfil the safeguarding criteria. While scrupulous attention to detail is justified if there is already a recognised problem with school security, he argues that in most other cases, Ofsted's application of the guidance is "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut".
"Every school takes safeguarding seriously," he says. "Parents trust schools every day to keep their children safe, employ appropriate members of staff and take their children on trips. Instead of trusting schools like parents do, Ofsted is constantly trying to trip them up."
It is not just schools judged inadequate on the basis of their safeguarding procedures, such as Brookhill Leys, that are suffering. Schools that have gained a good grade in their inspection overall say they are having to fight an uphill battle against the dreaded safeguarding criteria.
"Even those who haven't been put in a category have had to fight and fight to ensure that safeguarding issues are either resolved or moderated by the end of the inspection," says Lesley Gannon, assistant secretary for policy at the NAHT.
"They have to constantly argue or defend why things are as they are. The emphasis is totally wrong: schools are considered unsafe until they're proven otherwise; members of staff are guilty until proven innocent."
Brookhill Leys was unable to prove itself safe when the inspectors called. The subsequent judgement has taken an enormous personal toll on Ms Sainsbury.
"As time goes by, I feel that running a school in an inadequate category is having a hugely detrimental impact on my reputation," she says. "My work-life balance has been affected, both in terms of the amount of time I give to the job and in terms of stress. It's a black cloud hanging over me."
`Teething problems', says Ofsted
Ofsted puts some of the initial horror stories down to teething problems. Inspectors are now given more flexibility when assessing safeguarding, it argues. For instance, schools have the opportunity to correct minor administrative errors, such as a missing date on the single central register (SCR), by the end of the inspection.
While Ofsted says just 17 schools were put into a failing category for safeguarding issues "alone" in the autumn term last year, the combination of safeguarding problems plus other weaknesses have consigned many more to a failing grade, adds Ms Gannon.
Mr Welsh acknowledges that schools must take responsibility for the protection of children in their care, but he believes this is being taken to ludicrous lengths. That is certainly how it felt to one primary head in Devon, who asked to remain anonymous. On the morning of Ofsted's arrival, he was informed by the lead inspector of a "category issue" that could potentially put the school in special measures.
The gate to the front of the school had been left open by someone from the private pre-school that shares the site. The internal gates had also been left open. "The inspector said that fortunately she could give some leeway now," says the headteacher. She warned him that several schools in the region had been reprimanded for a similar offence.
The inspector demanded that the front gate should be locked at all times during the school day and an additional lock placed on the inner gates. "I said that this would cause significant problems not only for visitors - who couldn't contact the office and would be effectively locked out - but also for the older children who used the inner gate for access to the main playground," says the head.
The inspector finally conceded to a sliding bolt on the inner gates, to be installed by the time she left the following day. The front gate would have to remain locked. Parents, visitors and pre-school staff complained about the added security, but the school complied by replacing the front gate and fence with a remotely operated locking mechanism.
Brendan Hassett, head of Dolphinholme CofE Primary School in Lancaster, had to jump through similar hoops when Ofsted visited in March. On the first morning, one of the inspectors came out with the dreaded line: "We've got a problem."
Mr Hassett had failed to initial and date certain sections of the SCR when he checked the photo IDs of some members of staff. "I left it blank because these members of staff had had to show their photo IDs as part of their CRB check," he says. "I didn't see the point of asking for their ID again."
The staff had been appointed 18 years ago - nine years before Mr Hassett arrived. The omission earned Dolphinholme a grade two for safeguarding. Not a failure, but still lower than Mr Hassett was expecting. Another bugbear for Mr Hassett was the way inspectors handled comments made on questionnaires handed out to parents. Although 94 per cent felt the school kept their child safe, two parents indicated they had issues with safeguarding.
One said there was no fence separating the playground from the field, despite her son having an allergy to grass. The problem was investigated by the inspector and dismissed. But the other was not so easily rejected. This was a concern about security at the front entrance. "We are a very rural school with just 60 pupils," says Mr Hassett. "Very few vehicles pass except for the odd tractor. And I have never heard of a child being snatched from a school."
Despite this, the inspector measured the perimeter wall and suggested Mr Hassett put up an 8ft-high fence. "We are in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and the only reason I'd erect a fence would be to prepare my pupils for prison," rebuffs Mr Hassett. "The pupils only actually play out front for 15 minutes a week because we have a large rear play area. It's a total over-reaction."
Dolphinholme was still judged outstanding overall, but it was a close call. Mr Hassett knows of one school with a footpath running through its car park, which doubles as a playground. The school was deemed to be unsatisfactory because the footpath was not fenced off.
"Netball would have to be played in two separate, fenced-off halves," he says. "It's totally nonsensical."
Ofsted, however, denies that such a scenario would lead to a school being judged inadequate. But the school should have "carefully assessed and mitigated the potential risks and taught pupils to be aware of them".
Such stringent measures would be justified if they made children safer, agrees Mr Welsh. But he is not convinced they make a difference. One reason for the introduction of safeguarding inspections was to prevent a repetition of the Soham murders in which two girls were killed by their school caretaker. But critics say Ian Huntley would not have been caught by the new system.
The other danger is that meeting the safeguarding criteria could become less a matter of making sure children are safe than of ticking the relevant boxes.
"You've got to ask yourself whether, after a good inspection, a school really is safe or whether it was just prepared to jump through the hoops put in front of it," says Mr Welsh, who received a grade one in safeguarding during an inspection in January.
The signs are that any attempt to create a foolproof system is bound to fail. Safeguarding checks can only warn of anticipated dangers, never of those that come out of the blue.
Ms Sainsbury cites a member of staff at another school who had five different CRB checks for five different child-related roles. Even though he had been cleared by each one, he was later embroiled in a child- protection issue. "Just because someone hasn't been caught before, doesn't mean they are automatically safe," she says.
Of course, no system is perfect or can accurately predict a crime that has not yet been committed - or even identified. The inspections are not designed to catch out the vast majority of schools that get safeguarding right, says a spokesman for Ofsted. "They are there to improve the few schools that get it drastically wrong," he adds.
Mr Hassett agrees with the principle but not the practice. "Child protection has always been very important to schools, but Ofsted are over- reacting," he says.
"Because one or two schools have big problems, we all have to jump. Small issues get turned into major problems that have almost nothing to do with pupils' genuine safety."
`Shift the focus from schools to families'
If the Government really wanted to protect children it would shift the focus from schools to families, argues Mr Welsh. "I've had more sleepless nights about children's safety at home than I ever have when they're in school," he says. "Schools are expected to solve every social ill, but what about when the pupils are not with us? That's where a lot of problems stem from and where a lot of harm is done."
Instead of being obsessed by non-existent safeguarding issues, Mr Welsh wants Ofsted to re-focus its energies on the original role of schools, teaching and learning, while safeguarding should become the responsibility of local education authorities. Teachers should stop trying to be social workers, and let social workers do that job, he says.
"Social workers are crying out for resources so they can support struggling families at home, yet money is being poured into checking and double checking schools," he adds. "We need to redress the balance."
As it stands, the profession is losing good heads to unreasonable requirements, says Ms Gannon. Anne Riley was a recent casualty. Her school, Coppice Primary in Derbyshire, had been marked "good" in almost all areas during an inspection in January. However, it was failed because of "gaps in the school's records relating to staff recruitment and vetting checks", according to the Ofsted report.
Mrs Riley, who said the checks had been done verbally with the local authority, disputes this. Following intense questioning, the headteacher suffered a breakdown, according to her husband. She has since been signed off work with stress and is pursing complaints against Ofsted over how the inspection was handled and its outcome.
"There is nothing wrong with the school," says her husband, John Riley. "It is not unsafe. It is a ridiculous judgment and it's an awful and cruel way to be finishing a career."
Such horror stories highlight all that is wrong with Ofsted's approach to safeguarding, argues Ms Gannon. The vast majority of schools do not fail on the back of safeguarding. However, there is mounting anger about how complaints are handled and how heads are treated when something is amiss. When so much is at stake, it can seem perverse to pick up on whether the correct forms have been signed.
"Few heads will be worried about the grade they receive," says Ms Gannon. "It's more about the conduct and the process of the entire inspection. A poor inspector who doesn't necessarily understand the sector could highlight one trivial error that costs a headteacher their career."
Keith Dennis, inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, acknowledges that improvements have been made since the safeguarding element was introduced. After five successive revisions of the guidance he is now receiving fewer complaints.
But he says further clarity is needed. For instance, there is still some confusion over what schools are legally obliged to do in terms of safeguarding. Ofsted insists it expects no more than what the law requires. However, simply fulfilling statutory safeguarding requirements will only get schools up to a grade three.
"It's still not clear what schools have to do to acquire a grade two or higher," Mr Dennis says. "It comes down to attitude to risk and how good schools are at spotting risk. Ofsted isn't just looking for compliance with the law, it seems - it wants a certain attitude that signifies that schools will effectively identify, assess and take action on risk."
Most schools already do this, insists Ms Gannon. They are at the forefront of flagging up concerns. But to do this effectively, teachers need to build strong relationships with parents - something that may be jeopardised by a heavy-handed approach to safeguarding.
"Some schools tell us they are caught between trying to promote community cohesion and adhering to rules imposed by over-zealous inspectors. If parents can't come into the school without stringent checks, that builds up mistrust and barriers," she says. This can hamper a school's attempt to create a positive image within its community.
One poster on the Mumsnet internet forum complained of a "them and us" attitude at her son's primary school since September, which has left her feeling unwelcome. As well as having to sign in and wear a badge when entering school, parents are escorted to their destination, where they are supervised at all times by a member of staff. The pupils have been told to challenge them if they are not wearing a visitor's badge.
"I'm all for security, but the pendulum has swung so far the other way that it feels like a prison," she says. "It feels like we are now the enemy. I find it so sad that every adult is seen as a threat."
As well as turning parents away, the over-reliance on child protection could distract heads from their primary objective of promoting teaching and learning. Safeguarding issues may not bring a whole school tumbling down, but they can cause a disproportionate amount of stress on senior management.
Every head recognises the need to keep pupils safe, as well as the need to be held accountable. But there is also the question of trust. Can we trust heads to uphold their "duty of care" towards pupils, or do we need to be constantly checking up on them? Parents, on the whole, trust schools to look after their children; the same cannot always be said for inspectors
What inspectors want
- Procedures that ensure safeguarding and welfare of puplis, including those relating to bullying
- Adults who are properly recruited and vetted
- Staff with up-to-date training about effective safeguarding
- Ease with which puplis can raise concerns or complaints regarding abusive practices
- Reasonable steps to ensure that pupils are safe on the school site, eg, by monitoring visitors
- Possible abuse or neglect that is identified and referred to outside agencies where necessary
- Accurate records of safeguarding concerns
- Pupils who know how to keep themselves safe, eg during science practicals and when online
Source: The Evaluation Schedule for Schools, January 2010, Ofsted
- October 2009: St Wulstan's Catholic Primary in Staffordshire failed to supervise properly a congested car park outside the school gates. The car park belongs to the parish, rather than the school.
- November 2009: Lawnswood School in Leeds paid the price for 1.3 per cent of its parents saying they did not feel the school kept children safe. The parental survey contributed to concerns that led to a notice to improve, despite record results and a Healthy Schools award.
- December 2009: West Kidlington Primary in Oxfordshire had some gaps in its CRB data and was given a notice to improve even though pupils said they felt safe and the vast majority of parents who responded to a survey said they were positive about their child's well-being.