After years of protest about Ofsted’s increasingly capricious judgment of schools, it has finally happened. Ofsted has been sent to the naughty step. By a judge. Here’s how it happened.
Durand Academy used to be the darling of the Department for Education. Feted by Michael Gove in 2011 as he celebrated the school’s successful academy conversion, the DfE press release trumpeted: ‘An already outstanding school doing a wonderful job for children in one of London’s most challenging neighbourhoods has, in the last twelve months, made even more amazing strides forward. New support for children in the early years. More superb academic results at the end of Key Stage Two. A new cohort of brilliant young teachers trained here – in the classroom – and transforming children’s lives’.
Earlier this year, Ofsted, following an integrated inspection, attempted to put the Trust’s schools into special measures. So what happened to cause such a significant reversal of the Trust’s inspection fortune?
One clue is found in the 2011 press release, which went on to say that the Trust had ‘exciting plans drawn up to establish a brand new secondary school – with boarding accommodation – ensuring that young people in Lambeth can enjoy an outstanding state education which will equip them for the future every bit as effectively as any private school’. The Trust acquired a site in rural West Sussex and a local campaign group immediately swung into action. A lengthy battle for planning permission to develop the site was lost, so it was not surprising that serious concerns about the suitability of the building for residential education were raised when it was inspected.
Switch your attention back to London, where Durand was rapidly and heavily falling from favour. The Head, Sir Greg Martin, had created a new entrepreneurial business model, not seen before in education. It involved running various businesses, including a gym, leisure facilities and, if press accounts are to be believed, a dating agency. The schools benefitted to the tune of £8 million; students benefitted from smaller classes and subsidised meals; the local community benefitted from access to the facilities, and Sir Greg is alleged to have benefitted by £161,000, in addition to his salary as head of the school. The Public Accounts Committee didn’t like it. The National Audit Office didn’t like it. There were calls for the removal of the Head because the Trust’s ‘complex’ structure left if open to ‘perception of wrongdoing’. The Trust was ordered to re-tender contracts.
Quite suddenly, all the strands of conflict and opposition came together. The boarding school was expecting a follow-up inspection, but Ofsted seized the opportunity to initiate an integrated inspection, which meant that all the Trust’s schools could be inspected at the same time and one common judgment made. The judgment, unsurprisingly, was that the schools all needed to be put into special measures. The Education Funding Agency announced termination of funding, which meant that the Trust would be taken over.
The Trust vowed to fight the decision, saying that it was a victim of ‘half truths and inaccuracies’, because if it is anything, Durand Academy Trust is both determined and wealthy enough to finance what followed. The Trust took legal action, first to prevent publication of the ‘glaringly perverse’ report, and then to quash the judgment. Anyone knowing how Ofsted operates would probably, at this point, have thought, ‘Good luck with that’.
In fact, the Trust achieved a seminal judgment when the case came to court. The judge ruled that Ofsted’s complaints procedure was neither ‘rational’ nor ‘fair’. He added: ‘To my mind, a complaints process which effectively says there is no need to permit an aggrieved party to pursue a substantive challenge to the conclusions of a report it considers to be defective because the decision maker’s processes are so effective that the decision will always in effect be unimpeachable is not a rational or fair process … The absence of any ability effectively to challenge the report renders the complaints procedures unfair and in my judgment vitiates the report.’
Ofsted has indicated its intention to seek leave to appeal and in the meantime has announced the setting up of an independent adjudication service. But it’s too late for the Durand Academy boarding school pupils. To the glee of local campaigners, it closed this week. It’s too late for the many schools that have been forcibly academised following adverse judgments. It’s too late for the schools that have closed because they couldn’t comply with Ofsted’s capricious requirements or didn’t have the necessary finance to take action – Durand has spent around £300,000 on legal fees.
And what of the future? Vishnitz Girls School recently failed an Ofsted inspection on just one factor – failure to teach Key Stage 1 children about same sex relationships and gender reassignment. As the new social engineering experiment know as Relationships and Sex Education comes into force in 2018, how many more schools will be failed? Will this judgment make any difference to their appeals?
Watch this space.