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.