Schools can’t game inspections, says Ofsted

Experts say accountability pressures encourage such behaviour

Experts say accountability pressures encourage such behaviour

8 Jul 2022, 17:00

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Ofsted has claimed it is “impossible” for schools to game every part of an inspection after a series of reports of staff trying to mislead inspectors.

But experts say accountability pressures encourage such behaviour, and question how far the misconduct regime deters it.

Schools Week has seen evidence suggesting an employee at Atam Academy in Essex recently told colleagues they could hide exercise books in their cupboard.

A leaked screenshot reads: “If you have any exercise books that have not been marked, or you don’t want inspectors to see due to lack of work or poor quality of work, I will leave the cupboard … open so that you can put your books in there.”

All-through Atam Academy was downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’ last week. The screenshot had been leaked to inspectors.

Anita Notta, the new chief executive of Khalsa Academies Trust, which runs the school, said it took allegations “extremely seriously”, with a “full and robust investigation” underway.

The free school’s inspection in May came on the day allegations emerged that inspectors had been “misled” at Holland Park School in London.

Their inspection praised leaders, saying staff respected them and rated the school ‘outstanding’.

But a school-commissioned investigation vindicated whistleblowers’ accusations of a “toxic” environment, and found pupils were “taken off site” during Ofsted’s 2020 visit. It also claimed leaders destroyed staff questionnaires.

Meanwhile in April, Catherina Rowsell-Dickens, a former head of Wapping High School in London, admitted to a disciplinary panel that she had backdated a risk assessment before an inspection.

Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) documents say it preceded an Ofsted visit, though the head told Schools Week it was a similar Department for Education free school monitoring visit.

Ofsted acknowledges wider problems

Ofsted has acknowledged wider problems too, telling inspectors in 2017 to check for off-rolling, and saying in 2020 a “minority” of secondaries were narrowing their curriculum to boost grades.

But a spokesperson for the watchdog defended the robustness of inspections, saying teams “draw on evidence from a wide range of sources”.

“We attend lessons, speak to staff face-to-face and through surveys, engage with pupils in and out of lessons, and use tools such as Parent View.”

Inspectors also checked children’s knowledge “matches what the school tells us”. If pupils were sent home during inspections, Ofsted asked who and why.

“It would be impossible for a school to game all of these factors across the range of things we consider. And parents and pupils are especially helpful in providing independent verification.”

The spokesperson declined to comment on specific cases. But Ofsted recently said it remained “confident” in its 2020 Holland Park visit – despite the alleged deception, which whistleblowers who triggered the visit said they flagged immediately afterwards.

After the allegations were made public in The Guardian, and following the school’s investigation, Ofsted downgraded Holland Park to ‘inadequate’.

Ofsted declined to comment on preventing malpractice around inspections.

But the teacher disciplinary regime is partly designed to deter misconduct, with findings published and tribunals able to ban staff.

Guidance was recently updated to encourage TRA panels to ban teachers for “inappropriate” off-rolling and exam rule breaches.

More SATs cheating probes expected

Jonathan Storey, a barrister, said recent reforms allowing government officials to refer cases could also spell more disciplinary investigations into cheating in SATs.

But Storey said the TRA was “not widely known”, with many teachers only hearing of it when they were referred – limiting its deterrent effect.

Schools Week has previously revealed long waits getting cases heard too, and panels are not obliged to impose bans. Panels consider specific circumstances and could still say a ban “isn’t appropriate” for off-rolling, Storey said.

The panel involved in Rowsell-Dickens’ case acknowledged she was under a lot of stress” with an inspection looming. It did not ban her.

Such cases raise questions about how far the pressures of an inspection fuel deception.

Julie McCulloch, policy director at the school leaders’ union ASCL, said at the time the TRA verdict was a “sign of the intense pressure” inspections placed on leaders.

Ed Dorrell, who has conducted research on teachers for the consultancy Public First, agreed there was “no excusing” cheating, but schools would always present themselves in the best possible light.

“To some extent it’s baked into the system. It’ll never be otherwise while stakes are so high.”

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  1. Harry Kwill

    There’s a well known MAT whose flagship school is still rated outstanding after a decade. The outstanding grade was achieved by sending all the naughty kids on a two day adventure jaunt along with the underperforming teachers and NQTs. Their next inspection must be due very soon. It’ll be interesting to see how it is handled this time…