Someone to turn to

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
An inspector from the Office for Standards in Education walks into the headteacher's office to discuss her team's visit to the school. There are no minutes kept of the meeting; no one else is present.

When asked what has happened, the shaken headteacher claims the inspector "had it in for the school" and had adopted a threatening manner, apparently failing to act with the professionalism, integrity and courtesy outlined in OFSTED's code of conduct.

At another school, the inspection goes like clockwork but when the report appears the head and governors realise the inspector has put in the wrong data - another school's attainment figures and key stage results.

Both incidents are fictitious but are not dissimilar to some real-life situations that have encouraged schools to complain. And OFSTED is anxious to be seen taking complaints seriously.

Last week, Elaine Rassaby, a 46-year-old Australian, was appointed as the office's external complaints adjudicator. It will be her job to ensure that schools have an outside agency to go to if they receive no satisfaction through the normal channels.

When a school makes a formal complaint, OFSTED asks the inspector to respond in writing to the complainant and then adds its own comments. After an inquiry conducted by administrative staff and HM Inspectorate, the school is sent a letter responding to each point which has been raised.

Where a complaint is upheld, the school will get written clarification, which can be put alongside the original report and circulated to parents. In the past, schools have been informed where inspectors have been cautioned; and when disciplinary proceedings have been launched. An inspector can be "de-registered" if a history of complaints builds up. Last year this happened to 12 inspectors.

Just 3 per cent of inspections give rise to formal complaint. But some 60 per cent of these are dismissed because the evidence is inconclusive or the complaint is unfounded.

Malcolm Westbrook, an OFSTED registrar and member of the inspection quality management department, says: "We treat all complaints seriously. Our existing procedures are fair and robust and we're open-minded. But if we think the complaint is unfounded we say so. "

The appointment of Ms Rassaby is in response to demands for greater accountability and concerns from the teaching unions. Ms Rassaby has no working background in education, but has been a commissioner and adjudicator in the mental health field.

She will be an independent official with the power to reopen files where the complainant is not satisfied by OFSTED's handling of the case, and then give a public judgment.

Andrew Fermie, OFSTED's competition and compliance officer, says: "The appointment of an adjudicator will increase transparency, public accountability and confidence."

He added: "The adjudicator will be able to offer redress - to make OFSTED reconsider its decision - and we have to abide by that. But an important part of the role will be mediation. She will be trying to broker an agreement."

The low number of formal complaints reflects the fact that most disputes are sorted out between the inspector and headteacher at the time of the inspection. An inspector's duty is to listen and respond to a school's concerns.

The most frequent complaints are alleged breaches of the code of conduct and disputes about judgment in a report. Usually when a school gets what it considers to be an unfair slating, the headteacher collates specific issues, underpinned by statements and evidence from teachers or governors.

The easiest cases to investigate are those concerning the report based on evidence which can be reassessed. In the case of wrong data in the report, OFSTED issues a correction. Differences of opinion with inspectors are more difficult to resolve.

Mr Westbrook says: "Schools that come to us usually voice a collection of concerns for which they want an explanation and some form of redress."

But one form of redress not on offer is to tear up the report. Mr Westbrook explains: "Once issued, unless it is judged to be seriously misleading, an OFSTED report cannot be withdrawn. That is the law."

The best that OFSTED can offer is to re-examine the evidence and perhaps revisit the school. If a judgment is not clearly supported by evidence, OFSTED will say so in its response, which the school can publish alongside the report.

In the event of a personal clash between the head and the inspector, often there is not a lot that can be done. Mr Westbrook observes: "You can get two very conflicting versions of events. Often we're not in a position to reach a conclusive view."

However, OFSTED's approach is conciliatory. "We seek the view of the inspector and consider that view against the original complaint. "Sometimes inspectors will accept the process wasn't followed properly. "

In serious cases of alleged breach of the code of conduct, OFSTED might call in HM Inspectorate to accompany inspectors as part of the quality assurance process.

The chief inspector has in the past offered two schools the chance of a re-inspection. Both declined.

As a last resort, even after the new adjudicator has had her say, a school can refer a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner via their MP. The ombudsman proceeds in the same way as with other Government departments that deal with the public.

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