Ofsted over ruled

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Few things are as devastating for a school as being put in special measures. But what if you feel the inspectors have got it wrong? Would you challenge the decision? Wendy Wallace talks to the heads who did just that - and won

Despite some nervousness among the staff, the first day of Ofsted's inspection of St Ann's Heath junior school in Virginia Water, Surrey, appeared to go well. Children behaved perfectly in assembly. No teaching seen in the five observations was unsatisfactory, the lead inspector (RGI) reported to headteacher Graham Bollands at the end of the day. "I went home thinking it had got off to as good a start as possible," recalls Mr Bollands.

By lunchtime the next day, that feeling had evaporated. The RGI told the head that some of the teaching was unsatisfactory. Staff reported coldness and lack of eye contact from inspectors. The atmosphere in the 285-pupil school that prides itself on its human warmth, was "very, very unpleasant", says the head. In the staffroom, morale collapsed.

Staff at the school at the time (February 2003), although highly motivated and hardworking, were mainly inexperienced. With a recruitment crisis raging nationally, teachers were hard to find in this ultra-affluent, commuter-belt territory. Of 12 teaching staff, one had been recently recruited over the phone from the United States, one had come straight from teacher training, one had just got qualified teacher status and two others were returnees on a job share. Several had never been through an inspection before.

By day four, when inspectors announced that they wanted to see every book of every child, Graham Bollands could no longer conceal from staff that the inspection was spiralling downwards. "People felt abused. Turfed out of their classrooms while they (the inspectors) went through everything." On Friday afternoon, he, his deputy and an LEA consultant received news they could scarcely believe: St Ann's Heath, a popular and successful school, was to be placed in special measures. It was providing an unsatisfactory standard of education. "I felt I was going to wake up and find it was all a bad dream," he says. "But they drove off and that was that."

The judgment was a huge shock. Mr Bollands, 42, had joined as head four years earlier and with staff and governors was tackling the weakness they knew they had in literacy teaching, and strengthening the already strong commitment to extracurricular activities. Although the teaching team was new and inexperienced, they were "generous with their time and commitment".

The school's attached consultant from Surrey LEA double-checked the data: nothing in the figures suggested this was a failing school.

Special measures judgments always have to be confirmed by HMI, and schools can request a corroboratory visit if they disagree with Ofsted's verdict.

St Ann's Heath junior school decided to fight back. Mr Bollands suggested to staff that they contest the judgment, knowing that would mean a further visit from inspectors, this time from HMI. "I sat down with them and explained that we could go through another inspection. Everyone was up for it. They wanted to prove that we were better than Ofsted had shown us to be."

A two-day visit shortly afterwards by HMI resulted in the overturning of the special measures judgment. Although the school was still judged to have serious weaknesses, the head and staff were jubilant. "I don't think in a normal week it was a school with serious weaknesses. But I do recognise we had teachers that were vulnerable through lack of experience," says Mr Bollands. It is a testament to parental confidence in the school that throughout this debacle - and despite the fact that the original highly critical Ofsted report was published with few changes - numbers did not fall.

Documents obtained by The TES under the Freedom of Information Act show that between 2002 and 2004, five schools, including St Ann's Heath, and one sixth-form college had their special measures judgments overturned by the chief inspector, David Bell. In all cases, the schools were instead placed in the serious weaknesses category. However, one, Gosforth West middle school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has since been put into special measures.

The figures give an interesting insight into the scale of apparent misjudgments by Ofsted teams and raise the question of how many more schools might not be in special measures, had they had sufficient self-belief to challenge Ofsted's findings.

Wendy Missons's visit from Ofsted did not appear to get off to a good start: a seagull offloaded on to her while she was welcoming children into school from the playground on the morning of the first day. Ms Missons, 46, knew she had taken on a challenge when she became head in September 2002 of Furtherwick Park school in Canvey Island, Essex. The small comprehensive in an isolated spot on the Essex coast had problems with staffing, finance and quality of teaching. "It needed work, it needed moving forward," she says.

"But we were on a path to improvement."

Her statement is borne out by GCSE results, up from 29 per cent when she arrived to 42 per cent the following year. Attendance was improving, as were what she terms "fluffy" indicators, such as parental confidence and feedback from primary heads. When Ofsted arrived in November 2003, she was keen to demonstrate that she and her team knew what the issues were and had begun to tackle them.

The registered inspector commented that Wendy Missons' S4 - the self-evaluation that heads must write of their own school for Ofsted - was the most open and comprehensive he had seen. "I think we paid a price for that honesty," says Ms Missons. "I believe it was interpreted in an unforgiving way."

Over the course of the inspection, staff at Furtherwick Park maintained morale and confidence. "Staff found the team members constructive and helpful and felt they had recognised what we were doing," says Ms Missons.

Meanwhile, she was getting a different story in her office from the registered inspector, and knew the school risked being placed in special measures. "It was very hard sitting through three or four days, knowing that judgment was getting closer, and not being able to share that with staff."

When the judgment came, Wendy Missons was outraged. With a career spent mainly in challenging schools in similar contexts in Kent, she knows "what special measures looks like". "It did have serious weaknesses. That is accurate. But it was by all measures an improving school. We were put down, and that was not going to help this school." The key factor in the judgment was the proportion - 18 per cent - of teaching judged unsatisfactory; the school at the time had 10 unqualified teachers. Leadership and management were commended.

Supported by governors and the local authority, the school asked for a corroboration visit, and HMI arrived in the last week of the Christmas term. Wendy Missons was content to accept their judgment, whatever it was.

"I have a great deal of time for HMI," she says. "They are serious players, of proven quality." Meanwhile, she sent David Bell an email outlining her case of an improving school.

When the judgment came back in the new year that Furtherwick Park did not require special measures, "it was like winning the pools. Special measures is being told you are rubbish, no matter what Ofsted say. For headteachers it is very personal. You put your heart and soul into a school, and if it's not good enough, it's your fault." She immediately called a staff meeting to relay the news. "No one even noticed the serious weaknesses tag. We had won, on the basis of professional judgment of the reality. It gave us a huge sense of satisfaction and self-worth, that we could and were making a difference."

Furtherwick Park faces a further Ofsted inspection this autumn, when it hopes to come out of serious weaknesses. Although the school is now fully staffed, the Ofsted report has had a negative impact on pupil numbers. "We have had to work extra hard to overcome the stigma of the report," says Wendy Missons. "But the feeling among our community is that Furtherwick Park has turned around."

The old-style Ofsted inspections come to an end this term. Apart from the new emphasis on self-assessment, one aspect of the new framework is that, from September 1, all decisions on special measures will be made by David Bell, "who will consider any comments on the draft inspection report that are made to him within the prescribed period by the school", says an Ofsted spokesperson. Mr Bell's decision, and the grounds for it, will be made public. HMIs will play a much greater role in the new framework; they will lead 70 per cent of secondary inspections. The money-saving measures - cutting costs by about pound;15 million a year - should provide a better deal for schools.

After his school's initial Ofsted inspection, Graham Bollands was ready to resign his headship had parents, governors and the LEA not all expressed full support for him. "I felt real anger," he says. "Everything we had worked so hard to build up had been totally destroyed. It felt like being burgled." When a different team of Ofsted inspectors returned this spring, two years on from the original inspection, they removed the school from serious weaknesses and described it as good. The registered inspector, says Mr Bollands, was "one of the most knowledgeable people I've met, able to make judgments about the school that were spot on". The question for him remains: how can a broadly similar framework be interpreted so differently by two different teams?

See page 24 for one inspector's views on Ofsted's new regime

How do I contest?

Wendy Missons's advice to headteachers considering contesting a special measures judgment

* Know your school's strengths and weaknesses and be honest about them.

* Be clear on the answer to the question, "Does this school have the capacity to improve?", and your role in this. Special measures could be the correct judgment.

* Stick to the big issues: don't be waylaid by detail.

* The support of governors and your LEA is essential.

* Look after your team: staff, students, governors, parents.

* Be professional at all times. Your credibility as head is on the line.

* Seek support from other heads, spouse, best friend. You are not alone.

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