Durham LA criticised for slow action in two of its schools – but DfE rules makes intervention difficult.

Janet Downs's picture
Labour MP Kevan Jones has criticised the Labour council in Durham for being slow to act after he raised concerns about two Durham community secondary schools in 2013.

But the two schools had been judged Outstanding in 2011 and this restricted the action the Local Authority (LA) could take.
Fyndoune Community College was judged Outstanding in 2011 on all counts (old criteria). Durham Community Business College (DCBC) was also Outstanding in 2011 except for attainment (good). Both schools were in a Federation and the head, Anne Lakey, and chair of governors, David Bell, were the same for both schools. They were also named as head and chair on both Ofsted reports although the head, Anne Lakey, is awaiting retrial on charges of sexual assault. She had been suspended at Christmas 2012 when the allegations were first made.

Inspectors said Durham had ‘acted rapidly’ when serious allegations at senior leadership level were made but had been slow to react to tackle issues relating to teaching, learning and weak leadership. DCBC was described as being in 'turmoil'. Governance in both schools had been Outstanding in 2011 but was judged Inadequate in November 2014.

So how far is Durham to blame? Was the Council slow to act?

DCBC and Fyndoune were both Outstanding schools and LA power to intervene in community schools is much reduced unless the schools are judged Requires Improvement or Inadequate. LAs can intervene if results fall - results at DCBC had fallen year-on-year since 2011. But GCSE results at Fyndoune had reached a high of 85% in 2012 before falling back to 75% in 2013.

LAs can only 'secure' strong governance in a school if they aren't providing a good enough education, according to Department for Education guidance. But DCBC and Fyndoune had been judged Outstanding.

The first formal course of action for LAs listed in the DfE guidance is to issue a warning notice but LAs 'must draw on a suitable range of quantitative and qualitative information to form a complete picture of a school’s performance' before doing so. And DCBC and Fyndoune were Outstanding.

So, the LA intervened quickly when serious allegations about senior leadership were raised but was stymied by DfE guidance from intervening for any other reason because both schools had been judged Outstanding.

Ofsted reports can be downloaded here.

UPDATE 13.54 14 November 2014. The above thread has been amended. 'The first course of action for LAs is to issue a warning notice' has been changed to make it clear this refers to formal action listed in DfE guidance. There are, of course, informal strategies which LAs can take as johnebolt says in comments below. These strategies are outlined in a Durham document dated October 2012 which said they might cease when changes to school funding coming into effect in 2013/14 reduced funding to the LA.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 15:22

Janet - This supports my long-standing assertion (proof is hard to find) of the systemic unreliability and transience of OfSTED 'outstanding' status. There have been many examples recently posted on LSN of dramatic examples of 'falling from grace' for diverse reasons.

In a large number of the known cases it appears that if OfSTED had dug even a little deeper then these embarrassing mistakes might have been avoided. The embarrassment also applies to DfE as many of these short-lived meteoric flashes of educational brilliance have been much praised by Ministers.

It also supports my proposal that LAs should have an early warning monitoring role in respect of all the schools in their area, including fee paying schools as well as Academies and Free Schools. Ideally LAs, DfE and OfSTED should all be co-operating, not erecting barriers to appropriate intervention.

johnebolt's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 09:42

there is a problem I think in assuming that the only things that local authorities can do in relation to problem schools are the very formal interventions set out in DfE guidance. Good local authorities know what is going on in their schools - they use all manner of local intelligence to build up a picture and to spot issues at an early stage.

I believe it is quite wrong to say that the first course of action for an LA is to issue a warning notice. The first course of action is to sit down with a school, debate issues openly and work out what kind of support is going to be effective. If a local authority thinks there are problems in a school it should be ready to get involved regardless of past inspection and examination outcomes. If the relationships are right this should not be a problem - indeed this kind of discussion should be a matter of routine.

Using the letter of DfE guidance as a reason for inaction is unacceptable. Formal actions may be needed if relationships have broken down but never as a first resort.

This is not a comment on whatever may have happened in Durham - I don't have any knowledge of the background. It is a comment on the view that all intervention is formal and rule bound. This is a trap that the National Audit Office fell into when trying to analyse the effect of EFA interventions and I've developed the point further at http://educevery.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/neither-the-national-audit-off...

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 11:05

It is easy to form an opinion from afar and without feel for the overall context.

1, When the executive was suspended there was an opportunity for the LA to come alongside the federation and offer support in relation to assisting the maintenance of high quality L&M in support of sustaining achievements. Did this happen?

2. A review of public domain data may not indicate a decline in attainment for E&M measures over time (i.e. first 2013). But we don't have the RoL data. However, a visit to the school performance tables and federation website www.thedurhamfederation.co.uk/index.php?p=KS4 reveals a significant dip in the E&M results for 2014 that compounds the reduction in 2013. These are triggers and clear indicators for both governance and LA that support was necessary. Bearing in mind that summer 14 was the first year of first entry results counting this slide indicates that both schools used 'gaming' (multiple entry in E&M to bolster results). Did the governors take any internal action to hold either schools L&M teams to account and take steps to arrest the decline? Simultaneously did the LA monitor, review and take steps to support the schools and arrest the declining standards? With the removal of multiple entry best score from the results data what steps did the LA take to help schools prepare for this?

3. There is a body of opinion amongst Durham schools that the LA is not endowed with a particularly supportive schools team and that the comment regarding them being to deal with some issues than others (it's easier to move a HT on than address staffing performance and union based issues). Put another way the LA does not seem to held in high regard within education circles in the county.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 11:07


Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 11:09

Apologies: Point 1 opening sentence should read "When the executive head was suspended ..."

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 12:42

In addition to my comments above, it is important to note that there were clearly significant issues regarding the governance of the schools that led to difficulties in overall L&M. This begs the question as to whether this was apparent and if so to whom, and if the LA knew then they should surely have acted?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:34

Andy - according to Ofsted the LA did act swiftly when serious allegations were raised about the senior leadership. However, your comment about moving a head seems to imply that such action might compound problems not soften them. That's an interesting point - certainly chaos ensued when Trevor Dunn, the head brought it after Mrs Lakey was suspended, was himself suspended and then his replacement was suspended. Trevor Dunn was later reinstated.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 14:10

Janet, This relates to some of my earlier comments and indirectly Johnebolt. Much turbulence at HT level so other than removal of HTs what did the LA offer the schools? Yes, the schools had the option of buying into a SLA with the SIS or, and as they appear to have done, going elsewhere but this does not cover the LA responsibility to come alongside and offer focused support. One thing is for sure they [the LA] are keeping very quiet on this.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 12:11

johnebolt - You are absolutely right. So is the article you link to.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 12:24

Andy -

' Bearing in mind that summer 14 was the first year of first entry results counting this slide indicates that both schools used ‘gaming’ (multiple entry in E&M to bolster results).'

Why didn't OfSTED notice this gaming? I have never seen an OfSTED report that commented on gaming even after Michael Gove to his credit, condemned it. I am genuinely puzzled by this. I am aware of many 'outstanding' OfSTED judgements of schools where there was clear evidence of gaming without even going anywhere near the school. Surely inspectors discuss curriculum and exam entry policies with Heads/Principals don't they? I would have thought they would also seek the views of the the teachers and HoDs in the departments concerned. 'Whistleblowers' in the NHS are now protected. The same should apply to teachers in all schools.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 12:39

Not sure why you should think I'd know the answer to that?

Even at a rhetorical level the multiple entry issue wasn't and couldn't have been a formal part of the Ofsted process until (1) the former SoS changed the rules and (2) the inspection handbook was updated. Even then is cannot be applied retrospectively.

What you are suggesting it that even before a SoS/DFE implement a change Ofsted has the right and/or authority to make things up as they go along. Whether there is consensus over the nature of inspection and accountability or not, the judgements and criteria must be based on national frameworks applied nationally. This means you simply cannot hold Ofsted to account for something that didn't exist at the 2011 inspections (i.e. schools were allowed to use multiple entries).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:42

It was indeed a rhetorical question. I have never been much of a blind respecter of rules. Any science inspector should be able to understand that making every pupil in KS4 take BTEC science instead of GCSE science in pursuit of league table success for the school raises ethical issues. Similarly making pupils take GCSE maths in every year from Y8 onwards until they get a C. I know lots of science teachers that were well aware that this was 'wrong' and 'wrong' is the right word, but they had to do as they were told - that is what is really wrong. We really do need a culture change in our school system.

Everyone has their own moral compass. I would have thought that this especially applies to Her Majesties Inspectors of Schools. I know from personal experience of some that it once did. This is what I meant by the need for a 'Hippocratic Oath' for teachers, but I realise that the notion is far too easy to lampoon.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:44

Sorry - Majesty's!

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:54

It is wholly illogical and irrational to assert, as you are doing, that inspectors (AI or HMI) should act independently of the inspection handbook. Moral compass has nowt to do with it other than to act professionally and morally inspectors are framed by the handbook at the time of the inspection.

Set aside personal angst at the process and consider the utter chaos and anarchy of HMIs/AIs conducting inspections on the basis of this is what the criteria are, this is the professional latitude but to heck with it I don't agree/I don't like it? I think it's wrong so I'll do it differently.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 14:11

Andy - I don't think anybody should do anything that is wrong. And I am not even a Christian. Is 'gaming' in respect of pupils' one and only chance of an education, in pursuit of marketisation objectives right or wrong?

If we step back a little from pure conscientious objection, where is the evidence that the issue has ever been raised or debated within OfSTED? Even if inspectors feel morally bound to 'follow the rules in order to avoid worse outcomes' - a morally justiable argument, why don't they raise the matter? They are public servants bound by the Nolan principles.

You can read them here.


It doesn't say that any of the principles can be overruled by what's in the OfSTED handbook.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 14:30

Quite where Christianity comes into this is beyond me. For me your position is contradictory, illogical and irrational, and moreover is skewed toward hijacking the matter in hand to pursue a personally held position. The latter is not a tenable stand.

I also believe you are misapplying the Nolan principles. The straightforward fact is that inspection teams cannot operate on the basis of personalised moral compass decisions. The latter has some bearing in the context of the decision taken by GBs/HTs as to whether they used the full extent of permitted qualifications and multiple entry or not. It was their moral compass decision not an inspectors. If the system approves the use then an inspector simply cannot say, I don't so there and I'm going to mark you down for it. Likewise an inspector couldn't say to a HT that didn't game or use multiple entry, your wrong not to so I'm going to mark you down for not doing it.

Polite words and phraseology fail me in articulating just how strongly I feel about the incomprehensibility of your position in relation to asserting that HMIs/AIs should have taken it upon themselves to ignore the pertinent framework/handbook criteria and merrily apply their own personalised standards.

Making difficult/hard decisions is one thing but creating anarchy is ...

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 15:02

Andy - I am not talking about 'marking down' schools based on personal views of right and wrong. This is what I wrote.

'Even if inspectors feel morally bound to ‘follow the rules in order to avoid worse outcomes’ – a morally justifiable argument, why don’t they raise the matter?'

Somewhere? - Anywhere? Surely OfSTED, which once claimed to be independent of the government and the guardian of educational standards in our schools, should be advising the Secretary of State what should be in the OfSTED handbook, not the other way round?

Here are the 7 principles.


This is principle number one.
Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

This is principle number five.
Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

This is principle number seven.
Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

OfSTED is surely primarily a service to parents providing expert judgements on matters of educational importance taking place in their children's schools.

Is 'gaming' with children's education motivated by marketisation incentives, in the public interest or not?

Is the such 'gaming' something that parents should be told about or not?

Is such 'gaming' poor behaviour on the part of school leaders or not?

I see you feel very strongly about this and that we are not going to agree (again).

So I rest my case.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 15:42

Doubly whammy: I initially misread your comments which led to misconstrual on my part for which I apologise.

I don't think it is difficult to recognise that by the very nature of their employment/contractual obligations all inspectors are legal bound to conduct their work in accordance with laid down regulations. It is also for consideration that whistleblowing is restricted to incidents where laws or regulations or other wrongdoing is taking place. As a layman I cannot see that the legislation covers disagreement of opinion (professional or moral).

As for internal systems within Ofsted and/or the ISPs I have absolutely no idea. In any event whereas HMIs as employed members of Ofsted may be considered 'public office holders' the AI are sub contractors and do not fit that description.

My understanding is the 'gaming' was coined in relation to the strategy of using pre-Wolf vocational quals to boost league table performance i.e. A*-G. The issue of multiple entry for E&M was not strictly gaming rather, and it depends on how individuals want to interpret this, it was (a) to ensure that a pupil attained at C or higher (b) improve a schools performance against national benchmarks (e.g. 35% then 40%).

As to parental/carer awareness that was down to the HT/GB of each school. It was their decision not Ofsted's or an inspectors.

Your approach shines through in the closing statement (i.e. the snide use of "(again")

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 16:16

PS The culprit at the foundation of this digression is the obsession with national benchmarks and league tables. It is not Ofsted or inspectors but the politicians that created the hothouse. DFE didn't create them either it started with a Conservative government and has been perpetuated since by Blair/Brown and Cameron/Clegg.

Everybody else responds to the prevailing circumstances.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 12:36

Thanks johnebolt - I'll change the article to make it clear the first 'formal' action that an LA can take according to DfE guidelines is to send a Warning Notice. You are quite right that LAs can, and do, act informally. The NAO actually found these informal interventions were actually more effective than formal ones, and among formal interventions academy sponsorship (the Government's preferred option) was the least effective.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:23

Andy - the question here is whether Durham LA intervened when the MP complained about the schools just over a year ago (2013). The 2014 results (obviously) weren't known then. The decline in 2014 results might be enough to trigger intervention but the question is whether Durham intervened when results fell earlier than 2014. Any intervention (if there was any) triggered by the 2014 results (starting September 2014 at the earliest) would hardly have had time to work before Ofsted arrived on 17 September.

That said, you are right it's difficult to form an opinion from afar. Ofsted said the LA had been quick to intervene when serious allegations were made about senior leadership (presumably Autumn 2012 before the head was suspended in December following allegations against her). But GCSE results (including equivalents) at Fyndoune were the best ever in 2012 (85%) so there was no reason on the surface to intervene based on falling standards. Even the MP, Kevan Jones, joined in the celebrations as Fyndoune was crowned 'most improved school in the County'.

No-one seemed to care much that these results were inflated with equivalent exams and dropped to 42% when equivalents were removed.

Results at DCBC had fallen from 66% to 54% (43% when equivalents removed). So your question about what intervention, if any, was taken is pertinent (that's presuming raw results are a reliable way of judging schools).

I checked with Ofsted whether Durham schools improvement service (SIS) had faced one of Ofsted's targeted inspections but it had not. This suggests that neither Ofsted nor the DfE had concerns about Durham's SIS. In any case, Fyndoune and DCBC had, according to Durham, bought their school improvement from another source.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 13:48

This document (dated 15 October 2012) outlines the role of Durham's SIS and the support it gave to schools (which include many informal strategies mentioned by johnebolt above). It raises the possibility of the services being ceased because of changes in the way schools were going to be funded:

'The purpose of this report is to identify the role and activities undertaken by the centrally provided School Improvement Service, which may cease to be provided, should the sums currently retained centrally be delegated as part of the school funding reforms in 2013/14.'

What pressure, if any, did this put on the LA's SIS? Did it cease after school funding changed?

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 14:03

Janet, the Northern Echo article citing complaints by two local MPs and the defence of the LA by on of them (which in my view, risible) is riddled with ambiguity and vacuity.

The concerns raised by the MPs are not revealed and this creates an information vacuum regarding the strength of any issues and whether the LA, DFE should have responded earlier.

The defence of the LA by dint of turning everything on Ofsted by one MP is abject nonsense. The Ofsted decision can only have been based on the criteria/standards applicable at the time of the inspection. Things have changed since 2011 and it is totally ridiculous to imply that 2013/14 criteria/standards should have been applied by Ofsted in 2011.

It is important to keep chronology in mind: KP celebrating in 2012 is not a double standard or contradictory because he subsequently raises concerns in 2013.

Whether one disagrees or not the fact is that at the time of the 2011 inspections and until very recently gaming and multiple entry were accepted and common practice, and schools cannot face official sanction rebuke for using permitted strategies. However, this changes when the qualification and examination process changes in relation to what counts toward school performance and how it is counted. But, and importantly, these changes are not applied retrospectively.

The issue is then whether the LA did all that it could to come alongside the schools when they encountered leadership issues (whether HT or Governing Body)? A corollary question centres on the unknown nature of the MP concerns i.e. did the DFE act appropriately.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 15:53

Andy - I wasn't suggesting a double-standard by the MP, sorry if it read that way. I was just trying to point out that a much-praised school with high results might not have raised concerns for its results despite legitimate concerns about the leadership following allegations against the head (which have not yet been proven).

You're right, however, that the benchmark included equivalent exams and it wasn't in Ofsted's remit to judge schools' results in any other way except by using this flawed benchmark. I'm surprised Gove didn't discuss with Ofsted the possibility of inspectors commenting on the use of equivalents when assessing a school's performance after he had criticised their use.

I haven't actually disputed the 2011 Ofsted reports for the two schools. They were glowing and I've no reason to believe they were inaccurate (sorry if it appeared I was). The point I was making was that because the two schools were Outstanding it made it more difficult for the LA to intervene formally (although, as jonebolt explained) they can intervene informally and we have no evidence whether this was done or not.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 16:07

Janet, thank you for the clarifications. We are in broad agreement in relation to there being insufficient information upon which to base substantive critique (e.g. MPs concerns and what the LA did or did not do/offer). There is however one single and really quite damning indicator that the LA didn't do enough and that rests in the 2014 inspection report that cite quick decisive action re senior leaders that was the opposite of T&L or other issues. I don't know about you but as an Ofsted report watcher I've never seen that type of stridency before. I'm guessing that the lead inspector had sufficiently strong evidence to support the strength of such an open criticism/observation of the LA.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 14/11/2014 - 19:42

Absolutely right Andy. It is was silly of me to suggest that we always disagree.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 08:06

Andy - my purpose in writing the article was to ask the question whether LAs were stymied in intervening in maintained schools judged Outstanding or Good. I was using the Durham case as an example. What I had overlooked, of course, is there are informal methods which LAs can take as johnebolt reminded me. And we have no information about that in this particular case (and would such informal methods be easy to evidence?).

Take a hypothetical case:

1 An LA receives local intelligence that a maintained school judged Outstanding s having trouble.
2 But the school's results are still well above the national benchmark.
3 The LA approaches the school with offers of informal support and is rebuffed.
4 What can the LA do? It can't, according to DfE guidance, intervene formally because it has to look at a range of qualitative (Ofsted) and quantitative (results) evidence. But this evidence shows no problems with the school.

This appears to me to result in an impasse. The LA can go no further but could be criticised later for not acting. In any case, sending a Warning Letter may be rather blunt at this stage and open it up to accusations of trying to exercise too much 'control'. You can almost read the headlines in the Daily Mail:

'High-flying Outstanding school gets Council warning following unsubstantiated rumours. Head and Governors feel intimidated by heavy-handed action.'

Andy V's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 09:54

Janet, Taking a purely hypothetical scenario does demonstrate the difficult position that LAs can find themselves in. This also extends to LAs and academies/free schools on their patch. The basic message is the same:

1. They are somewhat limited in what they can do
2. Unless within prescribed circumstances maintained schools can reject what is offered
3. Academies/Free Schools are simply not obligated to even consider the approach

Ultimately, unless the LA makes an approach and offers support they are breaching their role and responsibility but once an offer is made and rejected then they have fully complied and removed from even retrospective criticism. Importantly they have the evidence trail to affirm their actions and rebut such criticism from whatever source.

The difficulties in Durham's case are that there is too little information available other than the highly unusual criticism in the inspection report, an absence of rebuttal data from the LA and two MPs raising undisclosed concerns in 2013.

PS Huge digression but thank you for the change to Captcha - it now works everytime (well as long as the maths is kept at the simple level :-) )

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 10:36

Andy - my error in the first place was not making it clear I was using Durham as a case study to highlight how LAs might be hamstrung in their intervention. And you're right about the importance of keeping evidence. One of the complaints made by some B'ham heads whose schools were threatened with enforced conversion despite their being no obvious reason was that the DfE used phone calls and didn't put anything in writing. No paper trail - no evidence.

Re Catptcha - can't claim the credit for the change. All I did was highlight you and Roger's concerns. But glad it's working better.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 10:49

If the 'other side' are employing verbal communication then the policy has to be make a note of the date/time/caller and content of the discussion. This forms a record that is robust and legally admissible.

To the best of my knowledge it is recognised if not standard practice in many areas of employment and is still best practice in schools in relation to contact with parents/carers and the media etc.

So while LAs may feel as though they are between a rock and hard place they can nevertheless create a communication audit trail.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 11:11

Andy - I used to say, 'If it's not written down, it hasn't happened.' This became such a joke in my school that when I left they presented me with a twig sprayed gold to represent the rain forest I was said to have destroyed in my insistence on written evidence.

When I mentioned this to an ambulance driver, he said, 'Yes, and the written evidence can also be produced after the event' implying that even written evidence can be unreliable.

However, my policy proved very useful when a parent complained to the LA we hadn't done enough to protect his child from bullying. When the LA solicitor arrived I presented him with a ring binder solely about the pupil and the action we'd taken. Case dismissed.

agov's picture
Sat, 15/11/2014 - 14:28

"Captcha – it now works everytime"

Unfortunately, not so. It worked fine for me on the 11th but would not do so on the13th.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.