Ofsted

Ofsted suspends ‘independent’ scrutiny panels

Watchdog accused of being 'unaccountable to anyone but themselves'

Watchdog accused of being 'unaccountable to anyone but themselves'

3 Feb 2023, 5:00

Exclusive

Ofsted stands accused of being “unaccountable to anyone but themselves” after it emerged scrutiny panels that oversee how it handles complaints about inspections have been suspended.

The panels, which crucially include a sector representative who does not work for Ofsted, check the “robustness” of how complaints are handled at the internal review stage.

Introduced in 2015, Ofsted said the “independent scrutiny” would make the complaints process “more transparent, fair and fully objective”.

But the panels have been paused as Ofsted reviews how it deals with complaints. Schools Week revealed last month a review had been launched after the watchdog admitted its complaints policy was “not working”.

Ian Hartwright
Ian Hartwright

Ofsted told Schools Week the panels had been suspended since Covid. They remain so while officials consider “how best to incorporate external sector representation in our complaints handling process”.

The watchdog aims to consult on any changes later this year.

Ian Hartwright, a senior policy adviser at the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the suspension was a step backwards.

“An independent external view is required if schools are to have more confidence in Ofsted’s handling of complaints, otherwise the inspectorate will stand accused of marking its own work.”

Headteacher Kulvarn Atwal recently requested an internal review of an inspection at Uphall Primary School in east London. Inspectors rated it ‘requires improvement’.

But after Ofsted’s original findings were upheld, Atwal said the absence of external oversight meant it had not been “properly investigated”.

“It creates distrust within the system and makes them unaccountable to anyone but themselves.

Effective complaints process needs ‘independent person’

“It’s important for an effective complaints process within any organisation to have an independent person involved.”

In correspondence with Atwal, Ofsted said a “further quality assurance check” was carried out by a senior Ofsted officer before the findings were finalised.

Independent representatives on scrutiny panels were originally chosen from Ofsted’s headteacher reference groups.

Alongside an His Majesty’s Inspector (HMI) and a senior HMI, the panel would “test” the “robustness of the complaints handling process” for each case before confirming a final response.

Following internal reviews, complainants are able to apply to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted (ICASO).

The service may then investigate alleged failures by Ofsted to follow proper procedures.

But David Whitehead, the chief executive of the Our Community Multi-Academy Trust in Kent, said Ofsted was a “closed shop”.

His recent submission for an internal review following the inspection of one of his trust’s schools upheld the original findings.

“As schools we would be held to account if we were constantly conducting complaints processes ourselves,” he said. “But [Ofsted] feels like a closed shop, the way it’s operated.”

ASCL said the internal review only considered if Ofsted followed its proper procedures and could not overturn outcomes.

An external representative “does not change the fact that this is a largely toothless stage of the process”, a spokesperson added.

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