Who will speak up for the condemned?

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Schools which have been unfairly damned in an inspector's report, are often left too shattered to pick up the pieces. Stephen Hoare finds out what they can do.

When John Harries, head of a grant-maintained primary in Wands-worth, was told his school had failed its OFSTED inspection his initial reaction was one of deep shock. As the inspector delivered his verdict on Hillbrook primary, Mr Harries was struck dumb. A colleague had to take him home where he saw his family doctor. Off work for three weeks, complaining was the last thing on Mr Harries' mind. "I felt I and my school had been rubbished that my professionalism had been called into question."

As he began to recover and messages of support flooded in from parents, governors and staff, Mr Harries knew he had to fight back for the sake of his school. "As the shock began to subside it was replaced by considerable anger." He was soon in touch with other heads who believed they had suffered harsh criticism at the hands of the same registered inspector.

HMIs who later visited Hillbrook primary overturned the inspector's findings. And last week, The TES reported on the letter of complaint signed by Mr Harries and three other heads that has been sent to Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools. Two local authorities, Hampshire and Somerset, added their voices to the protest.

OFSTED's response has not satisfied the complainants. According to a spokeswomen for Somerset, Mr Woodhead's replies simply re-stated OSTED's position. She says: "We did not get satisfaction so we are having to put the experience behind us and get on with supporting the school concerned." The simmering row reveals the level of disquiet many heads now feel about the whole inspection process.

One local authority-employed registered inspector says that she is unhappy at the level of expertise within the inspection service and claims that disputes can arise when traditional inspectors are sent into progressive schools and vice versa. "I am aware of registered inspectors that I wouldn't want working in my schools. I don't think a mechanism exists to weed them out. If I worked for an agency and didn't do very well. I could go and work for another and slip through the net."

Chris Woodhead refutes this claim: "I reject absolutely any accusation that our standards have slipped because of the number of inspections now being done," he says.

According to OFSTED, its handbook for inspectors and complaints procedure would have dealt with this problem without the need for heads to resort to public recrimination.

OFSTED is a regulatory body set up by government to oversee and monitor the inspection process. Employed by local authorities or private consultancies, inspectors have to undergo rigorous training to ensure they do not bring their own prejudices to the inspection process. OFSTED's role is to ensure fair play through its registration department which selects and monitors registered inspectors, and its competition and compliance team which acts as an internal watchdog, investigating complaints.

OFSTED receives on average two letters of complaint each week - not just from heads but from any interested parties such as parents, governors or individual teachers. The initial letter is responded to and if the complainant wishes to pursue the matter formally, an internal investigation is launched. The level of complaints is running at just under 2 per cent of the several thousand inspections carried out each year.

Registered inspector Bill Laar, sent in by the Funding Agency for Schools to support Hillbrook and help the head and staff put together a development plan, maintains the official complaints procedure is very much a last resort. He advises heads to read the OFSTED handbook carefully and to log any incidents where the inspection team have not followed the guidelines.

"Where there are misunderstandings and these are sometimes inevitable they can be resolved by dicussion between the head and the RegI."

OFSTED recommends that inspectors meet heads to discuss the progress of the inspection at the end of each day and to let the head have sight of the draft report before it is published. An OFSTED spokeswoman says: "This allows heads to check for factual inaccuracies. It is something we encourage."

But what happens if a misunderstanding is not resolved and there is a clear difference of opinion, or a breakdown in communication?

OFSTED has its own safeguards built into the system - a second opinion from an HMI in the case of a school which has failed its inspection. The HMI that visited Hillbrook on a corroborative visit four weeks after the initial inspection overturned the ruling of the registered inspector that had failed it. But according to OFSTED officials this is a routine precaution that is not part of any complaints procedure. And OFSTED has no power to withdraw the RegI's original report which is a legal document.

If Mr Harries had made a formal complaint to OFSTED, then the internal investigation team would have approached the registered inspector concerned and sought his views before setting up a forum to discuss the issues. This would normally bring in the local authority, many of which have a policy of sending inspectors to sit in on the final meeting between the head and a RegI at the end of an OFSTED inspection. Mr Harries admits that being grant-maintained this is one area where he is out on a limb.

OFSTED admits the investigation can never determine what thoughts were at the back of an inspector's mind during the inspection but relies on sifting all the documentary evidence to determine whether the inspection has been carried out professionally.

A spokeswoman says: "We can't say whether a lesson was rightly or wrongly graded as we weren't there. But by looking at all the evidence we can see whether an inspection has been carried out in the right way and that the inspector has the facts to back up his or her judgement."

If the complaint is upheld, OFSTED has the authority to amend a RegI's report usually in the form of a correction slip which can be circulated by the school to any outside party. Under certain circumstances OFSTED has the power to de-register an inspector on the grounds of professional incompetence. No RegIs have been formally de-registered as yet, but OFSTED says several who have been the subject of investigations have resigned.

If matters are still not resolved at this stage of the complaints procedure, HMCI can offer a further inspection by either an HMI or a RegI. But OFSTED admits it would be difficult to find the resources to do this at secondary level where a team of up to seven inspectors might be spending a week at the school and questions the wisdom of putting a school through another stressful inspection.

Mr Harries wants to avoid any further confrontation with the RegI and he would like to see some form of independent arbitration. He is supported by the National Primary Headteachers Association whose spokeswoman, Jacqui Green, says: "We'd like to see a more open and accountable appeals procedure. It seems odd to us that a professional body should have no independent right of appeal."

If the issue cannot be resolved and the school and OFSTED are still at loggerheads, the complainant has the right to take the regulatory body to court to challenge the outcome of the complaints not the findings of a registered inspector's report.

OFSTED claims some schools find it hard to come to terms with the fact that the report has not found them to be as good as they thought they were."Some schools will not be satisfied at the end of the day. We just hope they'll be satisfied we've handled the complaint fairly."

Meanwhile Mr Woodhead wants to reassure schools yet to be inspected. "Improvements to the inspection service depend on the reactions, positive and negative, that we receive and we encourage and welcome all feedback."

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