Inspection of free schools will be in third year of operation not two, Ofsted says

Janet Downs's picture

Ofsted is to stop inspecting new schools such as free schools in the second year of their operation. In an announcement today, Ofsted said:

From this term all new provision, including those schools that opened from September 2014 to date, will be inspected during the third year of operation.’

New provision means doesn’t just mean new free schools but new University Technology Colleges(UTCs), Studio Schools, academy converters, schools which amalgamate or merge and schools which add a new key stage (eg a secondary school which decides to become all-through).

This is a departure from earlier policies. Free schools have been inspected in their second year usually from the fifth term onwards while amalgamated schools haven’t always been given the luxury of settling down. For example, Hockwold Primary School and Methwold High School in Norfolk amalgamated in September 2011 to become the all-through Hockwold and Methwold Community School. Both schools were judged Satisfactory before the merger. But in February 2012, barely a term after amalgamation, inspectors arrived and judged the newly-merged school to be Inadequate. Conversion to a sponsored academy followed – one of the governors admitted they jumped before they were pushed. The school pulled itself out of special measures in October 2012 when it was judged Requires Improvement – but that didn’t stop the school joining the Academies Transformation Trust in January 2013 and being rebranded as the Iceni Academy. ATT was ‘paused’ from taking on more academies two months later. Ofsted found Iceni to Require Improvement in September 2014 shortly before ATT was given permission to expand again.

Ofsted says its decision to defer the inspection on new schools for a year was taken ‘in consultation with the Department for Education.’ A cynic might say the new policy gives the DfE a chance to pour support into struggling free schools before Ofsted judges them less than good – this would avoid any negative publicity. This could be done by removing free school trusts and replacing them with new ones. For example, Thetford Alternative Provision Free School, which opened in September 2013, was handed to The Engage Trust (formerly The Short Stay School Co-operative Academy Trust) on 1 April 2015. Its name has been changed to The Pinetree School and it's advertising for a new head.

In June 2014, the then schools minister Liz Truss tweeted that the head, Nico Dobben, was providing 'inspired leadership'. This raises the question why a new sponsor was needed. The Eastern Daily Press reported the DfE had considered closing the school but no reason was given. The school has since been judged Inadequate.

Delaying inspections of new free schools could potentially hide problems. And changing sponsors with minimum publicity and little consultation, if any, hardly chimes with the Government’s alleged desire to maintain transparency. It appears struggling free schools could be provided with DfE funded support and given time to turn around while ‘council-run’ schools in similar circumstances are said to be ‘languishing’ in failure.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Patrick Hadley's picture
Sun, 04/10/2015 - 10:29

So on the one hand the government has been trying to get Ofsted to do more "no notice" inspections where the school is not told until the inspectors actually arrive, and on the other free schools are given at least a two year warning of their first inspection?

I am not sure how the DfE will know which free schools are struggling during their first year of life. The leaders of a school are unlikely to request intervention themselves.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/10/2015 - 08:16

Patrick - DfE and EFA officials regularly visit free schools and produce reports. These aren't publicly available although some free school heads let the findings slip if they're favourable - see blog post for Bedford Free School, which was later judged to Require Improvement, for example.

The Eastern Daily Press also refers to DfE and EFA monitoring of free schools when it quotes Nico Dobben, head of Thetford Alternative Free School:

'...the support from the Department for Education as “tremendous”, with an education adviser coming once a term as a critical friend, helping to set up tracking systems. But he found another branch of government, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), which funds education for learners aged three to 19, more tricky.'

It's likely that these DfE officials (job titles, experience etc unknown), will be expected to forestall any likely free school problems. They will have more time to do so if the first inspection is not until the third year of operation. Funny, but 'council-run' schools similarly struggling aren't given the same leeway but expected to convert (by force if necessary) to academies.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 07/10/2015 - 08:24

Please correct me if I've got this wrong. A school can be judged to be inadequate by Ofsted, following this HMI carry out regular inspections which could also find the school to be inadequate in all areas. The head teacher can be removed and the school's governing body can be forced to approve amalgamation with another, better, school or is forced to join an academy chain. Ofsted then leave the school alone for three years.

My understanding is that there will still be an opportunity for parents or other interested parties to lodge a formal complaint with Ofsted during that three year period, for example if safeguarding issues are raised, which would then trigger a no-notice inspection.

agov's picture
Thu, 08/10/2015 - 09:58

Might trigger rather than 'would'.

It's also the case that Ofsted might judge a school to be good and then the DfE may deem it to be 'coasting' and force into academy status.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 08/10/2015 - 10:34

agov - you're right the Education and Adoption Bill allows the DfE to ignore Ofsted judgements if it regards a school to be 'coasting'. So it appears Good and better reports can be thrown aside but judgements of RI can trigger the requirement for schools to produce an improvement plan which, if not regarded good enough, will mean the school converts to academy status. At the same time, an Inadequate judgement will automatically trigger conversion.

It appears, then, the DfE will trust Ofsted when it's judging schools RI or worse but will not trust judgements Good or better. The message to inspectors appears to: judge schools poorly or we'll take no notice of you.

Add new comment

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