Ofsted tightens up procedures after inspection failings at independent boarding school

Janet Downs's picture
“We have learnt lessons from Stanbridge Earls that will make our systems, structures, processes and practices more effective.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, 31 July 2013

Stanbridge Earls, an independent boarding school in Hampshire for pupils with special educational needs, was judged Outstanding in Ofsted social care inspections in 2011 and 2012. But in January 2013 an emergency social care inspection took place following grave concerns about safeguarding.

The inspection discovered serious shortfalls and found the school, which had been judged Outstanding only seven months before, didn’t meet the national minimum standards for independent schools.

Ofsted returned in April after the Department for Education (DfE) rejected the schools’ Action Plan. Ofsted reported some systems had improved but “serious weaknesses remained” and “children remain unsafe”. Ofsted recommended that the DfE take urgent action and the school should close if leadership couldn’t be improved after DfE intervention.

Stanbridge Earls began negotiations with another school, More House, in the hope that it would take over the school. An interim head was appointed.

Ofsted found leadership had improved and the new head had taken decisive action. However, concerns about safeguarding remained. There had been a further incident on a school trip when pupils had removed clothing, the group leader had failed to take appropriate action, a member of staff had taken photos and the incident was not immediately on return to school.

More House has since withdrawn from negotiations and Stanbridge Earls will close.

Ofsted realised the first emergency inspection revealed serious weaknesses in its social care inspection systems. Sir Michael Wilshaw set up an inquiry to review Stanbridge Earl's inspection history from January 2011. The review looked at 3 inspections: June 2011, January 2012 and May 2012. The January 2012 report is not available on Ofsted’s website so it’s unclear whether the inspection judged the school to be outstanding like the others did.

The review identified “some weaknesses” in Ofsted’s procedures which risked safeguarding issues in residential special schools not being fully addressed. It also identified concerns about the conduct of some Ofsted staff.

Ofsted has made the following changes:

1 From 1 January 2014 all inspection work will be managed in 8 regions under Regional Directors. This will encourage in-depth knowledge of local provision and greater intelligence gathering.

2 A Divisional Manager post has been created.  S/he will establish a team to merge Ofsted’s compliance, investigation and enforcement work when complaints are received.

3 An Ofsted-wide Safeguarding Group has been set up.

4 Technology has been improved so inspectors have access to all information about providers including any concerns.

5 A new inspection support system will be developed over the next 12-18 months.

6 An audit of procedures for handling complaints has taken place. An action plan has been agreed and is to be monitored by Ofsted’s Audit Committee.

7 Case Management has been strengthened.

8 A comprehensive learning plan for all regulatory inspectors has been developed.

In addition, appropriate action has been taken about the conduct of a small number of Ofsted employees including dismissal.

Sir Michael is right about the importance of local knowledge. But this raises the question about how inspectors employed by only three organisations: Tribal, CfBT and Serco, can adequately inspect England’s state schools when they are parachuted in from outside to carry out inspections over a very large area: the south, north and midlands respectively.

And Sir Michael was right to set up an investigation into suspect inspections. It’s to be hoped that he will set up similar reviews to look at other inspections where judgements have brought Ofsted into disrepute.

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