What are the rules around schools refusing entry to Ofsted inspectors?
Ofsted, the UK body charged with inspecting schools, is facing pressure from education unions to postpone visits after a headteacher in Berkshire threatened to refuse entry in response to a leader from a nearby institution taking her own life.
Flora Cooper, executive headteacher of the John Rankin Schools near Newbury, tweeted her decision after fellow head Ruth Perry, 53, who led Caversham Primary School in Reading, was found dead in January after suffering anxiety about an imminent Ofsted report, according to her family.
Tweeting on Monday, Ms Cooper wrote: “I’ve just had the call. I’ve refused entry. This is an interesting phone call. Doing this for everyone for our school staff everywhere!”
Crowds duly gathered at the gates of the Newbury school on Tuesday morning in solidarity with the gesture, only for a member of the board of governors to emerge and read a statement that said: “The Ofsted inspection is now going to go ahead and the school will fully engage in the process.”
While that standoff appears to have been resolved through negotiation, what happens if a school does elect to boycott Ofsted?
Responding to the present controversy, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is a legal requirement for schools and nurseries to be inspected by Ofsted and they have a legal duty to carry out those inspections.
“Inspections are hugely important as they hold schools to account for their educational standards and parents greatly rely on the ratings to give them confidence in choosing the right school for their child.
“We offer our deep condolences to the family and friends of Ruth Perry following her tragic death and are continuing to provide support to Caversham Primary School at this difficult time.”
Section 5 of the Education Act 2005 places a duty on the chief inspector of schools “to inspect under this section every school in England to which this section applies, at such intervals as may be prescribed” and “when the inspection has been completed, to make a report of the inspection in writing”.
Ofsted itself explains that its purpose in reviewing and reporting on school standards is “to provide information to parents, to promote improvement and to hold schools to account for the public money they receive”.
It adds: “School inspections are required by law. We provide an independent assessment of the quality and standards of education in schools, and check whether pupils are achieving as much as they can.”
The government states that the timing of an Ofsted inspection “depends on the findings of its previous inspection”, with schools previously graded “good” or “outstanding” not likely to be reviewed again for another four years but those deemed to be performing less well likely to be given more frequent attention.
An institution can request an inspection be deferred or cancelled but only in “exceptional circumstances”, the government states, adding: “If pupils are receiving education in the school, an inspection will usually go ahead.”
It outlines a number of scenarios in which a planned inspection might not go ahead on the agreed dates but stresses that its list is “not exhaustive”.
Examples given include a senior management figure within the school being made the subject of an ongoing police investigation, the institution having experienced “a recent major incident” such as the death of a pupil or staff member, the school being due to merge or move or having suffered a recent security incident, any of which could potentially be considered grounds for postponement.
Ofsted says it “puts the interest of children and learners first”, hence only conceding not to carry out an inspection in particular circumstances, citing ongoing building work or refurbishment as a reason it would not accept to suspend a school visit.
Section 10 of the aforementioned Education Act grants inspectors a “right of entry to the premises of the school” and makes it an offence to “intentionally obstruct” an inspector from carrying out a review.
“Anybody found guilty of this offence is liable to a fine up to a maximum of £2,500,” explains Edapt, a provider of legal advice and support to the education sector.
“As this is a criminal breach of the law rather than a civil breach, it could become part of a criminal record.”
A headteacher found to have committed such an offence could be in breach of their employment contract, Edapt warns, adding: “It is also possible that such conduct could be deemed to constitute ‘gross misconduct’ which could lead to suspension or dismissal. The fact that the act is also a criminal offence adds weight to the likelihood of this meeting a threshold for gross misconduct.”
An inquest has yet to be held into Ms Perry’s death but her sister, Professor Julia Waters, told BBC South Today that said her sibling had experienced the “worst day of her life” when inspectors reviewed her school in November, saying that the episode had “destroyed” her and “preyed on her mind until she couldn’t take it any more”.
The report found Caversham Primary to be “good” in every category apart from leadership and management, where it was judged to be “inadequate”.
In a statement on behalf of her family, Professor Waters has said: “In our opinion, the findings of Ofsted were disproportionate, unfair and, as has tragically been proven, deeply harmful in their (implied) focus on one individual.
“We are in no doubt that Ruth’s death was a direct result of the pressure put on her by the process and outcome of an Ofsted inspection at her school.”
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the National Education Union (NEU) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) have all called on Ofsted to postpone further inspections following Perry’s death while a petition calling for an inquiry into the episode has reportedly gathered more than 39,000 signatures.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said it was “the height of insensitivity” for inspections to go ahead as usual while Geoff Barton, her counterpart at the ASCL, said: “Many school and college leaders and their staff find inspections and Ofsted judgments very traumatic, and this is often damaging to their wellbeing.
“This case has brought matters to a head and something has to change. We will be discussing this with Ofsted as a matter of urgency.”