OFSTED: Hidden Agendas and No Way to Complain

Note: this blog was edited on 24th October 2021 after an inaccuracy was drawn to my attention.

“I will not be writing this in the report,” the lead inspector paused in his feedback to governors and looked round the table. “But governors may wish to consider whether inclusion in the school has gone too far.”

And there we had it, on the table in the open. Or rather, not in the open because this wasn’t going in the report. Our school “Requires Improvement” (RI) because we are too inclusive. At the time of that inspection 14% of our pupils had EHCPs. An EHCP (Education Health and Care Plan) is a recognition that a child has Special Educational Needs (SEND) which require resourcing significantly above that normally available to schools. This figure of 14% was by far the highest in our Local Authority and 10 times the national average. Several other pupils then in the school would also go on to be given EHCPs in the future.

These children were no kind of burden. They enhanced our school. They helped all pupils to become tolerant, patient and caring; they allowed our teachers and support staff to gain skills and experience which made them better teachers. The inspectors looked hard at whether the presence of so many pupils with SEND harmed the progress and achievement of others. They concluded that it did not.

But the one thing inclusion rarely enhances is academic results. One year our two highest performers at Key Stage 2 SATs both had EHCPs but they were exceptions. Many children with EHCPs have barriers to learning and in our school pupils with the greatest need were disproportionately represented in the older age groups, having joined us in years 4, 5 and 6. These had a noticeable impact on our published results. In addition, the more abstract reasoning required at KS2 SATs means some who succeed at Key Stage 1 are unable to achieve age related expectations at 11. This is the case, for example, for children who decode text extremely well but are totally lost when it comes to inference and deduction. So being inclusive skews data for both achievement and progress. Which is the point the lead inspector was making to Governors. We could not be rated “good” because the numbers in our data could never be good enough. Inclusion, had ”gone too far” for that.

When I complained, Ofsted told me I had “misinterpreted” the inspector’s remarks to Governors but did not offer an alternative interpretation. They pointed to the praise for inclusion in the report which said our “very inclusive approach” ensured: “pupils are nurtured and cared for well”; “pupils respect and value the faiths and cultures of others”; and “pupils enjoy being in classrooms”. It also highlighted that parents really liked our inclusive approach: “Many bring their children from outside the local community because they value the school’s caring, inclusive culture.” The view that inclusion had “gone too far” was not just absent from the report; it was contradicted.

This seems the very definition of a hidden agenda. In public the report praises inclusion; in private the lead inspector tells governors inclusion has “gone too far”.

That Ofsted report was strong in its praise for many other things: our work with children with special needs; behaviour, which at the first team meeting was described as “outstanding”; a “rich, varied curriculum” which “meets the needs of pupils well”; the “strong” extra-curricular and enrichment activities… Over the two days the inspectors found more and more about the school they liked. I fed back to staff that things were going well.

Then I was blindsided.

Note: in the latest edition of the Inspection Handbook, the word “should” becomes “will”.

The handbook for inspection stated that if there were a possibility of a school being graded as “Requires Improvement” the head should be told on Day 1 or during Day 2. (The latest 2021 handbook replaces “should” with “will”.) Thus alerted, a head may provide further evidence. Instead, at the final team meeting where the head is an observer not a participant, out of nowhere I was told the school would be declared RI and the issue was progress.

Stage 1 of Ofsted’s complaint process is to address your concerns to the lead inspector. I wrote him a 3 page letter. His reply was 4 sentences long and translated as “tough”.

At Stage 2, Ofsted appoints an “investigator”. Any implication that there would be something approaching an investigation is misleading. I was not asked for any evidence; no witnesses were spoken to. My complaint was put to the lead inspector and his word was taken. The response evaded some of the issues I raised; addressed others I hadn’t mentioned and included one downright and easily disprovable lie.

For Stage 3 I reiterated many of the points made at Stages 1 and 2. I pointed out the direct lie; this was ignored. I asked again about the inspector’s words at feedback to Governors; I was told again I had “misinterpreted” the meaning. The reason I was not told of the possibility of an RI judgement until the final meeting was because the evidence “was not clear”. I was asked to believe that by the afternoon of the second day there was no clear evidence until it suddenly emerged at the final team meeting.

Stage 3 is the end of the process but I wrote twice more to Ofsted, copying my letters to Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford. I got two brief, dismissive replies.

Ofsted carries out more than 5,000 school inspections every year: in 2017-18 there were more than 6,000. Yet from 2014 – 15 onwards, despite hundreds of complaints, in more than 20,000 inspections Ofsted did not once admit to a mistaken judgement. No organisation could ever genuinely be infallible like this, but the cavalier, disingenuous and mendacious dismissal of my complaint at every stage illustrates very clearly why judgements are rarely successfully challenged. In early 2020 a school in the Advantage Schools MAT successfully persuaded Ofsted to change its rating from good to outstanding: the CEO of this MAT was a frequent adviser to the DfE in 2019. I am still unaware of any successful challenge to an RI or inadequate judgement.

Ofsted judgements have huge consequences. If we had been judged inadequate heads would have rolled, including mine, and we would have lost our autonomy and been forced into a MAT. But a judgement of RI was bad enough. We had to give up leading our highly successful School Direct teacher training consortium; we no longer had access to funds and opportunities available to good or outstanding schools, their staff and pupils; staff were placed under huge pressure… and other schools were discouraged from being inclusive. The praise for inclusion in the report was irrelevant: few read a report. Only the judgement is noticed. Our school was well known to heads and chairs of governors across the Borough for its ethos, and again and again over the next few months I was asked if the judgement of RI was because we had so many children with special needs. One school withdrew its bid for a specialist resource as a result of our inspection judgement.

For myself, I would scrap Ofsted completely and move to a system of support for schools without grades. But while it exists, and with so much riding on the judgements, the very least we deserve is a proper system of complaints and no hidden agendas.


17 thoughts on “OFSTED: Hidden Agendas and No Way to Complain

  1. Thank you so much for sharing the detail of all this John. We also made a complaint to OFSTED that was totally disregarded. If an organisation like OSFTED cannot be allowed to make mistakes and apologise for them and be accountable, they have absolutely no place in our education system.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. John – you are spot on! We made a complaint about an inspectors behaviour in 2017 and it was barely acknowledged. Things said were denied outright even though they had been witnessed. There is no independent body which holds ofsted to account when complaints are made by schools or at least offers an independent and objective view when things like this occur. Years ago I did challenge a judgement and was one of the few schools to have a judgement overturned by a team of HMIs but this was way back in 2003…my sense of injustice nash stayed with me and others for a long timsek

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you for this, John – your voice and the people you speak for can never be underestimated.


  2. As an SEN teacher, I am appalled to read this and feel compelled to write. If this is the way inspections are now operating, they are surely crossing the line with discrimination. I could go on and on but I need to stop as I am so angry. Words do not fail me, they would be as unprofessional as those used by this inspectorate.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is appalling. Do you know you can judicially review OFSTED? They are required to abide by the Equality Act and this sounds like a flagrant violation of it in their practice in this instance and assessment criteria in general. The Law Clinic at the University of Liverpool has excellent SEND lawyers and may be able to help you for free (but note there are strict time limits on judicial review cases).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It must be so difficult but try not to lose heart over Ofsted. What you are doing is morally and ethically sound. We consider ourselves as very inclusive at our school and undoubtedly this impacts on end of key stage results. We will not abandon any child because of a data set. How appalling that Ofsted cannot see beyond this. They are on the lookout for off-rolling yet apparently condone it so schools can keep results high. Where are we expecting children with additional needs to go? Disgraceful! You keep putting all your children first and well done for such strong principles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your report makes painful reading John but it really needed repeating at this present time. In over 40 years in education I have known no other headteacher as inclusive as yourself. You were the saviour of many children who didn’t fit into their schools and a real friend to the many heads who were finding them too challenging for their settings. No child was turned away and in the many conversations we had to relieve the daily stress of the job I never ever once remember you speaking with anything else but affection about any child, no matter how challenging. It’s so ironic that by taking the pressure off other headteacher’s facing OFSTED you made life more difficult for yourself in proving progress and attainment. Your inclusivity was an example to all of us In Reading and an inspection regime that can’t fully recognise that really isn’t fit for purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Charlie. You are far too generous – as always. The care you had for the children of your school was legendary: you worked tirelessly in their interests and supported me and many other heads in Reading in so many ways. Thank you.


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