Ofsted

Ofsted was aware of ‘gaming’ school inspection alerts

But watchdog refuses to say if it has acted to curb systems that monitor web hits to predict visits

But watchdog refuses to say if it has acted to curb systems that monitor web hits to predict visits

Investigation

Ofsted stands accused of being “complicit in gaming its own inspection system” after admitting it was aware of schemes that give schools advance notice of visits.

But it refuses to say if it has ever taken any action.

A Schools Week investigation has uncovered evidence that schools have been able to predict inspections for at least a decade by monitoring web traffic.

It exposes a loophole in a system that is built on the principle that schools should only be told about inspections at most the day before they happen.

Robin Walker, the former schools minister and chair of the education committee, said such monitoring “risks creating a two-tier system that dodges the need for constructive scrutiny of how schools are run”.

Ofsted activity tracked online

We revealed this week how a website company developed an algorithm to track Ofsted activity online, a move described as “highly unethical”.

But the use of such practices is widespread and an open secret in schools.

Walker said inspections were “intended to create a level playing field between schools, regardless of their location or type”.

Robin Walker MP
Robin Walker MP

“Use of this technology clearly undermines that principle and is therefore not in the interests of children or the schools themselves.”

Ofsted this week admitted it was “aware of these types of systems and companies”. But it refused to say how long for, or whether it had ever taken any action.

Colin Richards, a former senior inspector, warned that “in saying nothing in public or doing nothing to prevent it in practice means it has been condoning ethical malpractice and has been complicit in gaming its own inspection system – and maybe still is”.

Former Ofsted inspector and senior manager Frank Norris said he was “unaware of this practice but I’m not surprised to see schools trying to poach a few more days”.

“The stakes have been raised to such a point that schools are concentrating too much on Ofsted readiness rather than just getting on with teaching.”

He added that “if Ofsted did know about it I suppose they are powerless to stop the practice”.

“Bringing attention to it would probably have encouraged others to adopt the practice.”

‘It shows high-stakes nature of inspections’

Ofsted staff look up key information documents on school websites up to two weeks before inspections.

Greenhouse School Websites’ new algorithm, which alerts leaders to a “pattern of behaviour typically associated with an Ofsted visit”, was recently rolled out to more than 2,000 schools.

The company acknowledged schools receiving its alerts would not “necessarily” receive an inspection, adding: “We know that Ofsted undertakes regular desktop research.”

However, it also published what it claimed was an email from Prestbury St Mary’s Federation in Cheltenham, saying of the system: “It works! I received your texts throughout last week and we have an Ofsted today and tomorrow.”

The federation’s infant school was inspected in early February, its first visit for 14 years. The school was downgraded from ‘outstanding’, but remained ‘good’ in all areas. It declined to comment.

Julie McCulloch
Julie McCulloch

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the school leaders’ union ASCL, said the “fact that there is perceived to be an appetite for this technology … is a reflection of the incredibly high-stakes nature of Ofsted inspection”.

Graham Miles of Greenhouse said schools had asked the company to “help make sense of website analytics to understand whether their website’s compliance is being checked or monitored”.

The email alert is “intended to be a helpful guide if schools wish to use it”, but “of course, the system will also highlight any user that follows these patterns of behaviour”, including school staff.

“We know that good school leadership, governance and management practices will, however, always be the only way schools can be prepared for an Ofsted inspection.”

Schools opt out of alerts

The service is provided at no extra cost, and schools can opt out. The company told Schools Week on Monday that no school had, but several told us they had.

Jackie Rose, the interim head of St John Fisher Catholic Voluntary Academy in Dewsbury, said she did not realise the schools had opted in. It had now sent an email “to say we do not want to be any part of an early warning system”.

“I think this is highly unethical and we would hope that we are always ‘Ofsted ready’.”

Greenhouse’s clients include several prominent academy trusts, including the David Ross Education Trust (DRET), the Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust (BWMAT)and Chiltern Learning Trust.

DRET said it had “not received any information that has informed Ofsted inspections and has opted out of the service”. BWMAT said it was “not aware that we had been opted into this system” and had also withdrawn. Chiltern also said it only found out about the system “recently” and had opted-out.

Mark Lehain, a former DfE special adviser who is now head of education at the Centre for Policy Studies, said there was an “ethical dimension to this – having this kind of possible insight for a fee, when others don’t, feels very much against the spirit of the system”.

Practice is widespread

But a senior leader school leader said the practice was widespread.

“In all the schools I’ve worked with, the IT team monitors hits on pages of the school website when the school is in the Ofsted window,” they said.

They “didn’t see it as unethical at all. Any headteacher would surely use any means at their disposal to prepare for Ofsted as effectively as possible. It’s not an exact science, however, and I know of several ‘false alarms’.”

Multiple sources said Cleverbox offered a similar service. However, the company denied this when approached by Schools Week.

However, schools “have access to their own Google Analytics dashboard which they could, in principle, use to monitor document downloads”, the company said.

Its flagship client is the Harris Federation, one of England’s largest academy trusts. Other customers include the Inspiration Trust and The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT).

Harris did not respond to questions about whether they had used such a service. Inspiration said they did not.

TKAT said the company “has not offered us, and we have not asked Cleverbox to provide a service that gives alerts about possible Ofsted inspections”.

Schools set up their own systems

But leaders don’t need to pay a website provider. Discussions on school IT professionals forum Edugeek about setting up an “Ofsted early warning” system date back as far as 2015.

Posts suggest schools could monitor for visits by using Ofsted’s internet service provider.

In 2016, a user even shared a PDF guide to “Using Google Analytics to track Ofsted page views on your school website”.

A PDF guide from 2013 shared online

By creating a “custom report”, the explainer told users they could monitor views by service provider and search for “Ofsted”. The school was approached for comment.

In 2017, forum users also reported receiving hits with service providers listed as “logica ofsted ngdc” and “logica ofsted aviaton hse”.

A screenshot from a schools analytics showing hits from Ofsted shared on Edugeek

This facility has since been removed from Google Analytics, with schools now focusing on detecting multiple downloads at the same time.

‘Look for traffic to key pages’

One post advised users to “look for traffic to key pages, eg policies, as these will be checked by Ofsted. They will normally be the lowest traffic pages so easier to spot the sudden increase…”

While some saw an immediate result, others warned of a “red herring” after traffic spikes were not followed by an inspection.

Edugeek forum
Edugeek forum

One user said: “I’m not saying it’s ironclad proof … but I am saying it can’t hurt to check if you know you are due an inspection. If anything it will make sure you are semi-ready should you get the call.”

Greenhouse’s new service has also been discussed on the forum this month.

One user said their Ofsted early warning system “was bang on the money”, giving two hours’ extra notice.

Asked if this was enough, they said “our headteacher and SLT appreciated the heads-up, especially on this day where our head was absent so our deputy was more prepared to take the call.”

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One comment

  1. Emanuel C

    As a former Edugeek regular I can say that our school would definitely have made use of this technique. If Ofsted want to prevent it, perhaps they should do their homework earlier, over a longer period – these documents hardly change daily.

    There are other countermeasures they could use that are hinted at here which would eradicate it entirely. That it has been prevalent for nearly a decade and Ofsted haven’t deployed these very inexpensive techniques to prevent it suggests they don’t see it as hugely problematic.

    Those claiming it is unethical should examine how much time they devote to optimising their Ofsted outcomes rather than optimising their teaching and learning. Wasting that resource across an extended timespan is a scourge that is significantly less ethical than squeaking a day more notice about an inspection.