Senior school leaders are attempting to launch a judicial review against Ofsted on behalf of the whole sector, amid claims that schools feel “powerless” to challenge unfair or inconsistent inspection judgments, the Observer has learned.
What Ofsted has called the “outpouring of anger” from schools across the country over the suicide of Berkshire headteacher Ruth Perry in January, after the inspectorate downgraded her school, has shown no signs of abating.
Heads say individual schools are generally put off pursuing a legal appeal against an Ofsted grading because of the costs involved. Former inspectors say the “vast majority” of complaints made to the inspectorate are not upheld. However, one group of school leaders is currently talking to lawyers about a potential group judicial review of Ofsted, challenging inconsistencies in the way it inspects and judges schools.
A school leader from a primary in north-west England, who used to be a lawyer and is currently leading the campaign, told the Observer: “This would be a landmark case on behalf of schools across the country.”
The leader, who is keen to protect her school by remaining anonymous at this stage, added: “Schools are left for years and years, downgraded within a few hours, and then left to pick up the pieces with no advice or support. Ofsted is simply no longer fit for purpose.”
Paul Garvey, a former Ofsted inspector who now helps schools navigate the high-stakes inspections process, has been assisting the group. He said: “I support their position completely. It is a really big ask for an individual school to appeal against an unfair inspection. It is just too much.”
‘The vast majority’ of complaints about unfair inspections are not upheld, says former Ofsted inspector Julie Price Grimshaw. Photograph: Ewen Weatherspoon/The Observer
He added: “A lot of people out there are really sick of what Ofsted has done, and how much pressure they place on schools. Heads often contact me about their inspections and they are distraught and crying. They feel so powerless.”
Julie Price Grimshaw, a former Ofsted inspector who now advises schools on how to improve and has done extensive research looking at past Ofsted reports, said that “the vast majority” of complaints about unfair inspections and judgments are not upheld, and Ofsted refuses most requests for a reinspection.
She said: “The whole complaints system is utterly ridiculous. It is done by Ofsted for Ofsted.”
Schools often tell her consultancy about inspectors who were “just nasty”, she says. “One inspector has been known to put their hand in front of a teacher’s face and ask them to stop talking.”
Price Grimshaw is fiercely critical of the focus in the current Ofsted inspectionguidelines on what children say in discussion with inspectors. She says many children are nervous when talking to adults they don’t know, and in some cases questions have been “leading or even unreasonable”.
She described an inspection she saw where the inspector pulled out two nervous children with special educational needs to talk about a history lesson. Price Grimshaw and the teachers warned the inspector that these children might struggle with questions, but “she didn’t seem to care”.
Many children are nervous when talking to adults they don’t know, according to former Ofsted inspector Julie Price Grimshaw. Photograph: Julian Claxton/Alamy
“She said: ‘So girls, tell me five things about the Romans,’” Price Grimshaw recalled. “One girl started shaking and the other couldn’t say anything. She claimed this was evidence that the teaching in the lesson wasn’t working.”
Price Grimshaw added that heads had told her about inspectors who had refused to look at additional evidence. “Headteachers say that some appear to have made a negative judgment and they don’t want anything to interfere with that,” she said.
The head of a small primary school in a deprived area told the Observer she had been warned by her local authority that the lead inspector at her Ofsted inspection was a “complete nightmare”.
He had recently conducted a bruising inspection at a nearby school, prompting them to complain to Ofsted about his conduct. “When he came in he had clearly already decided we were inadequate,” she says. “He didn’t want to know the story of our school or our families.”
The inspectors were the first outsiders to come into the school since Covid had broken out, and the children were “really twitchy”. The Covid pandemic was ongoing, staff and pupil absence was high, and families were “really struggling”. Many younger children had been left to their own devices by submerged parents during the lockdowns.
But on arrival the lead inspector warned her not to use Covid as an excuse. “He said: ‘If you say that word I’ll walk out of the room’,” she remembers.
Neither inspector had any experience of primary schools. One singled out a four-year-old boy in the reception playground. She told the headteacher that she had asked him: “Do you think there is enough equality and diversity in your lessons?”
“She was astounded that he didn’t know what she meant. She flagged it as a big issue. I looked at her thinking: ‘He’s four – what planet are you on?’”
The lead inspector criticised the children for not walking down the corridor in silence. This angered the headteacher, who felt he was trying to impose his own austere education style on her friendly primary. “If our children are excited about going out to play and want to sing and skip, I will join them,” she insists.
By the end of the inspection every staff member had been reduced to tears, she said. “It felt personal. I’ve never felt such unfiltered hatred coming from another human being. He hated everything I stood for.”
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: “Our school inspectors are all former or current school leaders and well understand the pressures of the role.”
She said inspections look at the quality of education, school behaviour and how safely schools are run. She added: “We always want inspections to be constructive and collaborative, and in the vast majority of cases school leaders agree that they are. Where there are complaints, particularly about conduct, we always take them very seriously.”
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