Ofsted has shaken up how and when inspectors access school websites after Schools Week exposed a loophole that offered advance notice of visits to those who monitored downloads.
But the watchdog this week refused to give more details, apparently fearing doing so would allow schools to identify other ways to predict inspections.
Last year, website provider Greenhouse School Websites claimed to have “developed an algorithm to accurately tell when Ofsted are looking at your school website.” It signed up thousands of its clients, though some opted out when approached about the scheme.
Further investigation revealed the use of such practices was widespread and an open secret in schools, with discussions on school IT professionals forum Edugeek about setting up an “Ofsted early warning” system dating back as far as 2015.
At the time, inspection teams were understood to look at key information documents from a school’s website between two and 14 days before inspections.
By monitoring who was downloading documents, schools were able to work out if this was an inspector.
The inspection system is built on the principle that schools should only be told about inspections at most the day before they happen.
Minister says Ofsted has ‘made changes’
When pressed about Schools Week’s investigations this month, schools minister Damian Hinds revealed Ofsted had “made changes to its processes around how, and when, inspectors access school websites.”
It is understood this means documents are downloaded much closer to “the call” informing schools they are due to get an inspection.
Ofsted is “also continuing to consider proportionate technical options to hide or disguise its access to school websites prior to an inspection,” Hinds added.
Schools Week understands this includes the use of virtual private networks (VPNs).
Hinds also urged schools “not to use this kind of service” and said: “Schools do not need to take any extra steps to prepare for Ofsted inspections.”
Ofsted said the changes were “intended to stop schools from monitoring website traffic, we won’t be putting specific details about them in the public domain.”
Professor Colin Richards, a former senior inspector, said Ofsted and DfE “have clearly been embarrassed” by the investigation “and are afraid to give anything away – even at the cost of a lack of transparency.”
‘A sad reflection of the inspection process’
But Frank Norris, another ex-inspector and senior manager, said he understood why they “don’t want to alert schools to how they might be able to avoid website searches undertaken by inspectors being detected.”
Norris added: “It is, however, a sad reflection of the inspection process that schools feel the need to try and gain an advantage.”
The Department for Education also refused to say whether it had carried out a formal investigation into the practice when alerted to it last year.
Former schools minister Nick Gibb had warned monitoring could “cause unnecessary pressure and add to workload for staff.”
Tom Middlehurst, curriculum, assessment and inspection specialist at the ASCL school leaders’ union, said it was “important that the inspection system is consistent and fair for all schools.”
But he said “it is surely possible to outline this work without creating another loophole.”
James Bowen, assistant general secretary at the NAHT, added the use of alerts was “further evidence that the impact and significance of Ofsted inspections has gotten out of hand.”