A free school has lost a high court challenge to gag Ofsted from publishing a damning inspection report – but has forced the education watchdog to hand over its evidence base for the judgment.
Langley Hall Primary Academy took Ofsted to the high court this week in an attempt to win an injunction and ban publication of a report rating the school inadequate, in a move described as “unusual”.
According to the school, the judge found that publishing the report was in the public interest. But Ofsted has been ordered to hand over its evidence base for the inadequate rating within three weeks.
In a letter to parents, the school’s chair of governors Sir Christopher Ball said the court agreed to their request that an independent Ofsted-trained inspector, of the school’s choosing, will then review the judgment.
If the inspector confirms the governors’ view that Ofsted “got its facts wrong” then the court will hear the school’s case for quashing the report and forcing the watchdog to reinspect the school, Ball said.
The school, in Slough, Berkshire, was one of the first free schools to open in 2011 and its founders Sally and Chris Eaton have attended a special free school celebration evening with David Cameron. The school was rated as good three years ago.
In a letter to parents, Ball said the rating stemmed “solely” from Ofsted “incorrectly” thinking details of safety checks for a single supply teacher had not been on file before they started work at the school.
But the Ofsted report, published on Wednesday, found the school did not meet safeguarding process, had poor communication systems for parents – resulting in unusually high number of complaints to Ofsted – and the leadership of teaching was “not strong enough”.
Ball told Schools Week: “We felt it [the report] was beyond unsatisfactory. We went to the high court to ask for an injunction because it was so misleading and incorrect.
“It was based on evidence that didn’t exist and they [inspectors] had not made clear. It was remarkable for its vagueness.”
Ball, a former warden of Keble College at the University of Oxford who has been knighted for his services to education, said the decision to pursue Ofsted in the courts was taken by the governing body. When asked how much the legal action cost, he said “so far not that much”.
He explained the school has been provided legal advice pro bono and has not “invested a lot of its own money”.
However he said governors have made cash available from their own funds. Adding: “It’s an unusual thing for a school to do, but governors felt strongly about it.”
It’s not clear if Ofsted has been in such a position before. The watchdog did retract a “failing” judgment it made on Crown Woods School in Eltham, south east London, in 2000.
The school, backed by its local authority Greenwich, was going to challenge the decision in the high court before Ofsted backed down.
Ofsted said, like any public body, it is subject to this kind of legal action, but said the Langley Hall claim was “not particularly common”.
A spokesperson added: “Ofsted is pleased that the court found no reason to grant an injunction to suppress the publication of the report following the recent inspection of Langley Hall Primary Academy. The report has been through the most rigorous quality assurance process and we stand by its conclusions.
“We are, however, happy to comply with court’s request that we disclose the evidence base for this inspection. It represents clearly the position of the school at the time of the inspection.”
Schools Week also revealed last year that any member of the public can freely request the evidence base for an inspection via the Freedom of Information Act.
Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI School, in Suffolk, said: “It’s not unusual for school leaders and governors to disagree with an Ofsted inspection of their school. What is striking and disappointing here is that the school is having to go to such lengths to get the inspectors’ notes.
“Given the greater level of transparency we were promised by Ofsted, I can’t see why the organisation wouldn’t see that it is in their own interest routinely to provide the evidence base for their judgments – just as inspectors expect of school leaders in our self-evaluation”.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, told Schools Week: “The inspection system has high stakes and subjective judgements with little recourse to challenge decisions, so it’s no wonder challenges happen from time to time within such an adversarial process. When inspection comes to feel that it is more about partnership for improvement, such challenges will decline.”