A special needs free school has been rated as inadequate by Ofsted with inspectors claiming a lack of access to external support was a “key element” in the school’s decline.
Inspectors said school leaders at the Inspire Free Special School, in Kent, were not able to call on external help – meaning the school’s fall in standards was not recognised quickly enough.
While local authority maintained schools would be able to seek help from councils, or academies can rely on their sponsors, the report said Inspire only had “visits from an Education Funding Agency adviser”.
The findings raise questions over the government’s flagship free schools policy, which came under scrutiny last year after a quarter of mainstream free schools inspected by Ofsted were rated as requires improvement or inadequate.
Prime Minister David Cameron said last year his government would deliver 500 new free schools by 2020 – claiming the schools are “raising standards”.
But the Inspire Ofsted report found since its formation as a free school, in 2014, “there has been no access for leaders to any external support”.
The report added: “This lack has proved a key element in the school’s declining effectiveness, following an initial period of improvement. The school’s vulnerability, caused by staff absence and unfilled roles, was not recognised quickly enough.
“Consequently, when weaknesses became apparent, there was insufficient capacity to tackle them and no support.”
The school was rated as inadequate across all inspection categories.
Inspire Free Special School governors are in negotiations with “relevant multi-academy trusts (MAT) to address this [the school’s] shortfall”.
But Ofsted also criticised governors because “their focus on securing support from a MAT means that they have not maintained a sufficient level of monitoring of the effectiveness of the school”.
Inspire has 37 pupils on roll and was set up by three headteachers from the region, in partnership with Medway Council.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have been monitoring progress at Inspire Special Free School carefully since before the no notice inspection by Ofsted, and the Regional Schools Commissioner had already taken steps to bring in a strong new sponsor, Parallel Learning Trust, before the inspection took place. Ofsted’s judgement shows that we were right to take this action and we are working with the new trust to bring about the rapid improvements necessary.
“This demonstrates one of the strengths of the free school programme – we can identify and deal with failure quickly, in a way that is not possible in council-run schools.”