The challenge of inadequate Ofsted reports

16th February 2018 at 00:00
Removing documents from its website, mistake-filled emails to parents and ‘insufficient evidence’ are some of the inspectorate’s problems, writes Chris Parr

My two-year-old son’s nursery was inspected by Ofsted last June. It was determined by the inspector that it “requires improvement” in all categories. Not good.

Effectiveness of leadership and management? “Requires improvement.” Quality of teaching, learning and assessment? “Requires improvement.” Personal development, behaviour and welfare? “Requires improvement.” Outcomes for children? “Requires improvement.”

The nursery appealed the rating. Remarkably, Ofsted agreed – and rescinded the inspection report. More on that later.

In November, Ofsted carried out a second inspection of the very same nursery. The result? “Good” in all categories. Leadership, teaching, development, behaviour, outcomes – all “good”. Much better.

I have plenty of experience writing about Ofsted from a journalistic perspective, but this was my first encounter with the inspectorate as a parent. It made me sympathise profusely with every teacher – at whatever level of education – who has ever been officially judged “inadequate”.

Let me put it on record that before that first, “requires improvement” inspection report dropped into my inbox – sent by a very apologetic and clearly hurting nursery manager – I had no concerns about the nursery’s provision. My son has always been very happy there – to the point where it can be a challenge to get him to leave – and I have no concerns about his safety or his development.

It’s remarkable, though, how an Ofsted report can make you question your own judgement. Was I wrong?

If a professional inspector had taken a look and found it to be falling short, then they must have good reason. Had I been blinded by the professional staff? By the way he talked so excitedly about what he had done each day? By the daily online updates about his progress, complete with pictures and real-time information about everything from what he had for lunch – Jollof rice a particular favourite – to how many times he’d used the potty?

Everything seemed so well organised – and he seemed so happy. OK, the nursery is based in a terraced house in suburban south London, rather than some 20-acre nature reserve, but it seemed to us to be doing an excellent job.

Regrettably, there’s no doubt that despite my previous delight at how things were going, a simple Ofsted report made me question everything. “We’re going to appeal,” the manager told me.

So what? I didn’t hold out much hope. In June last year, Tes reported that not one school had successfully changed or quashed an Ofsted report following a legal challenge in the previous three years. Ofsted’s judgement is final. They are the law.

Before and after

This, however, is where the story got interesting – particularly to me as a journalist and, I hope, you too. Because the appeal was successful, the report was immediately removed from the Ofsted site.

Luckily, I had already downloaded a copy, so when the new report was published a few months later – during which time there had been few if any major changes at the nursery – I was able to compare how different an inspection can be when carried out by a different person.

June: “Staff do not organise or plan activities effectively to ensure they fully engage and challenge children’s learning.”

November: “Staff have developed effective partnerships with parents to help ensure all children make good progress.”

This is odd. Because it was the same staff, and the same students, when both these conclusions were drawn. What could it be that was different?

June: The nursery needs to “ensure staff in the baby room promote children’s communication and language skills effectively”.

November: Children “sing and listen to nursery rhymes in different languages, use resources from different cultures and read books about other countries”.

We’re not talking about reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the original Russian here, by the way, but am I supposed to conclude that despite singing and reading in a range of languages, language skills are not being promoted effectively? They do plenty of English, too, for the record.

I appreciate I am selectively quoting here, but if you read the two reports in tandem – which you can’t, because one has been scrapped – you’d think they were written about two completely different places. Not the exact same place with more or less the exact same children and staff.

Disappointing response

I got in touch with Ofsted – as a parent, not as a journalist, because I wanted the same experience as anyone else in my situation – and asked them why the first report had been withdrawn. Disappointingly, I received a very brief response, stating that the correct information was now on the site in the form of the updated report – and that I should get in touch if I had any further queries.

Both “information” and “queries” were spelled incorrectly in this email. Bit rich to be judging people’s language ability, eh? I replied to point out that my specific questions had been ignored and shortly after, I received a more official letter – with good spelling – stating that an investigating officer had “found that the inspection evidence did not meet our required standard”.

“The inspector had recorded insufficient evidence at the time of the inspection to robustly support the judgement of requires improvement and the actions and recommendations raised,” it said, and the “outcome of the investigation was to withdraw the report from publication and carry out a re-inspection.” Ofsted said it had apologised to the nursery.

I spoke to the nursery manager to get a sense of how she felt. She told me that the appeal they filed had been extensive – running to 16 pages – and questioned just about every point of the inspection.

Thankfully for her, she had assistance from a family member who had experience of such matters and also had the time to help out with the process.

“I fear that many nurseries would not necessarily have the time or resources to make such a comprehensive complaint and therefore would not necessarily have a fair outcome,” she told me. I agree. Not least because the evidence suggests that appealing an Ofsted judgement is an entirely futile exercise.

So what is my assessment following my first ever first-hand experience of Ofsted inspections as a parent? That’s easy to answer. “Requires improvement.”

And this judgement is not open to appeal.

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist. He tweets @chrisjparr

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