Complaints about schools are on the rise because people are “grumpier” post-Covid and have a “greater propensity to put pen to paper”, Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman has said.
The chief inspector of schools also revealed she was pushing the government to create a “coherent model”, given people “often spray complaints” at multiple organisations.
Speaking at the Confederation of School Trusts annual conference in Birmingham today, Spielman was pressed on a rise in complaints to Ofsted about schools.
In 2017-18, the inspectorate received around 11,700 schools. In 2021-22 this rose by about a quarter to 14,900.
But Spielman said the number of complaints leading to early inspections “I don’t think is any higher than it ever was”.
She said post-pandemic it “feels like we’re all existing in a grumpier world where people’s patience is less, their willingness to assume the worst is greater”.
‘Greater propensity’ to complain
“There’s no question that there’s more stuff coming through to us. Whether it reflects any real and underlying change, I’m sceptical. I think it’s very likely a greater propensity to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard in a web form.”
She said the “vast majority” of complaints resulted in no further action, though some are “very serious” and are rapidly referred to other agencies. Complaints “sometimes form lines of inquiry in the next inspection, but we’re not a complaint investigator”.
“And the proportion of complaints or the absolute number of complaints leading to early inspections, I don’t think is any higher than it ever was.”
The chief inspector also revealed she received “quite a lot of correspondence from people who are grumpy that writing me a letter doesn’t guarantee them an instant inspection”.
“But it shouldn’t. We’ve got to be proportionate. We only use that that lever in the cases where we’re certain it’s the right thing to do.”
Ofsted can tell when complaints ‘orchestrated’
She also revealed Ofsted can “often see very clearly, both in the context of routine inspection and outside when there’s a pattern of somebody orchestrating, organising [complaints], it shows through at the receiving end.
“Those of you who’ve inspected and you’ve been through parent view, for example, will know that you can see the different profile when there’s a bit of orchestration.
“So I hope I can encourage people to have confidence that that we are rational proportionate and recognise all the different things that can contribute to the flow of complaints about schools.”
The government announced as part of its academy regulatory review earlier this year that it would review its approach to processing parental complaints. This aims to make it “less duplicative” for parents, schools and trusts.
Spielman acknowledged this morning that parents complaining to multiple agencies at once was “a problem at the moment”.
“We are defined in law as a place to go to if you don’t get satisfaction from a school or a governing body. But as the Education and Skills Funding Agency and [DfE] regions group have expanded, people often spray complaints.
“And so I have been pushing DfE to try and get to make sure we get to a coherent model to make sure there isn’t action on many fronts.”
‘Nobody gives us credit’ for Covid response
Spielman also lamented that Ofsted had not received enough “credit” for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which involved much of its workforce being seconded to other departments and agencies.
“I think we did something absolutely fantastic. And nobody gives us credit for anything but what we did was, within days of the first lockdown, we knew routine inspection was suspended. We knew that we had to get all of our people contributing wherever we were needed.
“It was a national crisis. We recognised that we would need to second a lot of our staff out to the parts of the world that were dealing most directly [with Covid].”
Ofsted had permission from the Treasury “within days” to use its budget for other purposes and was the “first department to get that”. It then held a “skills and vocation audit” for staff and “divided up our responsibilities”.
The watchdog sent more than 100 staff to the Department of Health and over 50 to the DfE. Many went to local authorities, but Spielman said there wasn’t demand for inspectors to work as teachers.
“What we found was people didn’t want more teachers actually especially in that first lockdown the last thing people needed was more bodies in schools. The real demand was from local authorities social care and in the central government.
“I’m immensely proud…because so many people without a moment’s hesitation turned their hands to whatever they were asked.”