A high-profile school has lost a legal bid to keep secret an ‘unfair’ Ofsted report where it was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ over wrongly recording suspensions.
Thomas Telford School, in Telford, was knocked down to ‘good’ over the way in which “cooling off periods” for pupils were documented, a court heard on Monday.
The lead inspector had initially accused the school of “acting illegally” or “gaming the system” over how it recorded absences, the school’s counsel Russell Holland said.
However, as Thomas Telford is a City Technology College – statutory guidance on exclusions and suspensions did not apply to the school, the court heard.
CTCs were the forerunner of academies in the 1990s, where private companies were encouraged to invest and help set up schools. Just two remain.
Holland added the lead inspector planned to rate the school ‘inadequate’. But after it was pointed out the guidance did not apply, the inspector took advice from Ofsted and decided the school was not acting unlawfully.
In the final report, the school’s leadership and management is rated ‘good’, with all other areas remaining ‘outstanding’.
Its bid for an interim injunction to stop publication of the report while it pursues a judicial review was turned down at Birmingham Administrative Court.
The report, following the inspection in early December, is now set to be published this week.
School doesn’t believe in ‘labelling pupils’
While inspectors revised initial conclusions on the practices, inspectors reached their final decision to downgrade the school partly on the basis of how attendance codes were used.
The school recorded “cooling off periods” as a leave of absence, as opposed to suspensions.
Code C, which was used by the school, is defined as a leave of absence granted by the school “only in exceptional circumstances”, such as where they are participating in a performance or pregnant.
Judge Worster, presiding over the case, said that in his witness statement, the school’s head Sir Kevin Satchwell, argued the school did not believe in “labelling pupils” with suspensions.
Instead, it sought to give pupils who had “behaved badly the opportunity to reflect upon their behaviour”. During this period, pupils remain at home with schoolwork or “go to another facility”.
But Ofsted argued this contradicted non-statutory guidance on school attendance, which advises schools to regularly review attendance data and urges governing bodies to challenge “current trends” in attendance.
Using leave of absence codes did not “enable” schools to “make a distinction between someone who has been excluded for a temporary period…and someone who has not been at school because they’re participating in a performance, or because they’re pregnant,” said Toby Fisher, defending.
The school also challenged the “procedural fairness” of the inspection.
Satchwell, one of the country’s best-paid chief executives earning £290,000, said there wasn’t a discussion with the inspection team around why its judgment for leadership and management had been reached, the court heard.
“They haven’t had a fair inspection and therefore the remedy they are seeking is that this needs to be done again properly with someone who does understand the correct legal position,” said Holland.
He added that this would include concerns being addressed “in the usual way”.
Revised report had ‘softened tone’
Some aspects of a formal complaint to Ofsted about the judgment were upheld, with a “degree of acceptance” on the part of the watchdog that there “could have been some further discussion or consultation” about how it was reached, said Judge Worster.
A “revised” report had “softened the tone” of what was said in regards to leadership and management.
Fisher said there was “no dispute” that by the end of the complaints process Ofsted was “entirely clear that exclusions guidance did not apply” and it should not “have been suggested” the school was acting illegally.
“That was not the basis on which… the judgements have been reached.”
However inspectors’ conclusions were “not solely” based on attendance codes, the judge said.
In the evidence base for the findings, they also said governors did not have “oversight” of the processes around pupils being sent home for poor behaviour.
They were also unaware of the “indications” in attendance registers, and did not demonstrate a “sound understanding” of the schools records on the number of pupils being sanctioned for behaviour.
But Holland said Ofsted had “declined” to comment on a complaint about the conduct of the inspector.
He added that Thomas Telford had a “strong prima facie case” and the report would lead to “reputational harm”.
Given that delay was “built into” the Ofsted inspection system – because reports are not published until complaints processes are over – an “additional” delay to publication would not “harm the public interest”.
Ofsted report is ‘glowing’
In the hearing, which was only to determine the outcome of the interim injunction application, Judge Worster said he had “sympathy” for the school but was “not persuaded” its case could be described “as a strong prima facie case”.
He said a case preventing the report of Ofsted inspections would need to present “something so powerful as would outweigh the public interest” in its findings.
“I’ve reached the clear view that it’s not the sort of case where there should be an interim injunction,” he added.
He added that while staff and parents would be “deeply disappointed” with the overall outcome, “it’s hoped that anybody reading that report will go beyond the headline and see that what sits behind that is… a glowing report”.
The report, he told the court, was “peppered” with references about how good the school was.
The application for permission to proceed with a judicial review has yet to be heard. It is understood that 22 judicial reviews have been taken against Ofsted since 2007, although few made it to court before action was withdrawn or settled.
While leading a single-school trust, Satchwell does also oversee the five-school Thomas Telford Multi-Academy Trust as an “executive adviser” without extra pay.
The Thomas Telford School has previously topped national GCSE league tables. Schools Week reported the City of London-backed school in 2021 had the highest reserves of any academy trust, at nearly £10 million, and made hundreds of thousands of pounds each year in investments.