The Strange Case of Ofsted & HPS
In order for the inspectorate to gain trust from parents and teachers that its judgements are arrived at fairly, one would have thought that it must arrive at its conclusions independently and without undue influence from the DFE or Regional School Commissioners (RSCs). This is particularly the case when an inadequate judgement is reached because it enables the relevant RSC to broker the school into a multi academy trust (MAT). Surely OFSTED does not want to be seen as one of the mechanisms by which government policy on pulling all schools into MATS is achieved? Trust in its judgements would be undermined if this were seen to be the case.
Holland Park School has been labelled by the press as the ‘socialist Eton, because Tony Benn et al sent his children there. More recently it has become the ‘conservative comp’ with Nadim Zahawi as an alumnus and Michael Gove as a current parent. It is well known, well-endowed and previously one of the Labour run ILEA’s flagship schools. Therefore, it is a big fish for any MAT to catch. Undoubtedly Holland Park became a victim of the government’s academisation policy which allowed schools to break away from local authorities to become ‘stand alone’ academies. Such a policy left schools entirely without oversight except by governors and trust members many of which were self-picked. This left famous schools like Holland Park as places where maverick heads could make a name and start to build their own MAT. I do not have time to here to consider the allegations against the previous head at Holland Park, but it is clear the system (or lack of it) allowed him to operate without constraints leading to the allegations of bullying and financial impropriety.
The crisis led to mass resignation of the board of governors/trustees and a new team being appointed by the DFE who were all miraculously supporters of MATS and it transpired, one in particular:- United Learning Trust (ULT). In the meant time a joint campaign from teachers and staff which included nine days of strike action, demanded proper consultation and a locally based solution. Though all the power was in the hands of the governors, the DFE and the RSC, the mass opposition to the plans was becoming embarrassing, especially as the school could claim it was ‘outstanding’ in its previous OFSTED report. A judgment of inadequate would both challenge the campaign’s case and make the process of brokering the school into a MAT much easier. It would be seen then as a rescue of a school in trouble.
In April 2022 OFSTED descended on Holland Park School at the height of the turmoil the school was going through as a result of the campaign. Was this a coincidence? Was it a straightforward inspection? OFSTED claim it was a normal section 5 inspection and that as now ‘outstanding’ schools can be inspected, Holland Park was due one. It may well have been triggered by concerns identified by their risk assessment process. Parents though smell a rat. The inadequate rating takes the decision out of the school’s hands. So were there any differences between a routine inspection and the Holland Park one? Having worked for them I think they have questions to answer though so far they refuse to comment.
Why was the inspection team made up entirely of HMI?
Those unfamiliar with OFSTED may not know that there are two types of inspector. First there are His (previously Her) Majesty’s Inspectors who are full time contracted employees of OFSTED. As well as leading and carrying out inspections they are involved in compiling reports on a range of educational topics and subjects. They make up one third of the inspection workforce nationally. The remaining two thirds are OFSTED inspectors (OIs) employed on a casual basis. Most work in schools, some are recently retired senior leaders etc. The Holland Park inspection team was made up entirely of HMI. This is highly unusual. There was only one other all HMI inspection in the year previous to the Holland Park inspection in the London region and it was a much smaller team. Why is this significant? Because it would have been difficult to assemble a team including OIs if the inspection was to be carried out at short notice because most OIs have other commitments and agree to inspections way in advance. It is much easier to redirect full time employees. Is this a sign that the decision to inspect was taken rapidly in response to some external request?
Why did two inspectors from the team return for two further days?
Again highly unusual. Perhaps the team had not collected enough evidence to reach the conclusion they wanted?
Why was the draft report (factual accuracy check) sent to governors?
Before the final report is published a draft is sent to the head to check for accuracy. OFSTED state this is purely to ensure accuracy e.g correct numbers in the sixth form. It should not provide an opportunity to challenge the report itself though in reality this happens. One person’s fact can be another’s opinion. It is not uncommon for a head to ask for a change of wording at this stage to put the school in a better light. I do not know whether the school leadership received the draft. It did though go to the governors. This again is highly unusual. In an inspection, governors play a minimal role. They are interviewed and attend the final feedback. They normally do not get to see the draft report. The campaign submitted an FOI request to see the draft. It was refused on the grounds it would undermine the inspection process. Is the real reason for the refusal that the governors put pressure on OFSTED to absolve them from any blame for the conflict in the school? The final report effusively endorses their role.
‘Members of the new governing body are very experienced. They bring a range of expertise and have devoted considerable time to their work following their appointment in September 2021. New governors have quickly got to grips with serious issues that have emerged and are taking significant action to tackle these. They have a credible action plan to secure further improvement and create a more cohesive culture’
Why was the Regional School’s Commissioner involved in this inspection and why did she direct inspectors to the LA?
The FOI request also revealed the RSC had been in touch with the OFSTED team. She wanted to check that OFSTED had contacted the local authority to hear their concerns. The DFE website in its job description of RSCs is quite clear that they should pass on intelligence about schools to OFSTED. ‘RSCs may share intelligence with Ofsted about underperforming schools and MATS, and share other concerns where relevant to Ofsted functions’
This must be a conflict of interest if their role is to broker schools into MATs. It is very telling that they only share intelligence about under performing schools. This certainly happened in Holland Park’s case. According to the report inspectors conducted three interviews with LA officers. This is highly unusual when the school has left the auspices of the LA. Usually in academy inspections the LA is only contacted in relation to SEND provision or safeguarding, if at all. Why the LA wanted to have this input is also unclear given Councillors’ apparent support for the campaign’s case.
Why does the report absolve the new governors of all blame for the conflict and disharmony at the school?
The school was found to be inadequate because behaviour and attitudes plus leadership and management were. Inspectors identify a cause of poor behaviour in the school to be ‘uncertainty and discord in the community about the future direction of the school’. However, new governors are seen to be battling against mistrust and resistance to change.
‘New governors have quickly got to grips with serious issues that have emerged and are taking significant action to tackle these. They have a credible action plan to secure further improvement and create a more cohesive culture. However, there is dissonance between the governors, some staff (including some established senior leaders), and other stakeholders. This is because not all recognise the need for change. Some hold widely differing ideas for the future of the school. Mutual distrust between the governing body, several stakeholders (including a group of parents and carers) and the local authority is adding to disharmony in the community.’
There is no recognition from inspectors that a group of imposed governors trying to push the school into ULT with paltry consultation and against the wishes of parents and staff is a major factor in the discord in the school.
The OFSTED handbook lays out the expectations they have of governors.
‘ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
holding executive leaders to account for the educational performance of the school and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
overseeing the financial performance of the school and making sure that its money is well spent, including the pupil premium’
Arguably these governors have destroyed any clarity of ethos and have imposed rather than ‘ensured’ strategic direction. They have also overstepped the role of governors by involving themselves in the day to day running of the school, for which the governors receive positive recognition in the report.
‘Some governors have had to step in to work alongside the interim headteacher and get involved with day-to-day operations’.
The inspection of Holland Park in April was far from routine and OFSTED need to answer why. Otherwise, the suspicion that OFSTED inspections are becoming a weapon in the government’s armoury to force school into MATS, will become increasingly strong.
Article published in the Journal of the Socialist Education Society, written by former Ofsted Inspector, James Whiting.