How to make a complaint over an Ofsted inspection

Written by: Stephen Rollett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

If your inspection goes wrong, do not suffer in silence. Stephen Rollett explains how school leaders can complain about an inspection, both during the visit or after the fact

Complaining about an inspection, especially one that is still in progress, can be daunting, but you and your school deserve a high-quality inspection. So, what if your experience does not go as you would like? What do you need to know about complaining to Ofsted?

Are you the right person to complain?

Essentially, the right person to raise the complaint with Ofsted is usually the headteacher. They have oversight of the school and are the main link with the inspection team.

If you are not the headteacher, that does not mean you cannot have concerns about the inspection, it just means you should share them with your line manager or the headteacher so that they can speak to, or write to, the inspectors on behalf of the school, if necessary.

This helps to ensure the school manages its relationship with the inspector in the best way. Also, it may be that the headteacher is privy to information that you are not aware of which might affect the validity of a complaint.

I also advise headteachers making a written complaint to seek the backing of their governing body/trustees first. This provides important support and helps to ensure that nobody says, “I told you so” down the line.

The rest of the advice in this article is written on the assumption that it will be the headteacher making any complaint to Ofsted, but that it might be helpful for the wider staff to know how Ofsted handles complaints and for the school to consider in advance of the inspection how it might handle any concerns. Forewarned is forearmed!

Ofsted wants you to complain

If your inspection is not or was not up to standard then Ofsted wants you to complain.

Ofsted officials may not thank me for saying this in case it causes a flood of complaints, but if your inspection does go wrong they want to know about it. This is especially important during the roll out of the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF).

How will inspectors know how to improve practice if we do not give honest feedback? It is perhaps unsurprising that most complaints come from schools which have been judged requires improvement or inadequate – after all these are the schools where the stakes of inspection tend to be highest. But schools judged good are able to complain about their inspection – or inspector – too if they have concerns.

Be clear about the complaint

It is helpful for you and for Ofsted if you can be as clear as possible about the cause of your concern. In fact, Ofsted’s online complaints portal asks you to structure your complaint into specific sections: conduct, judgement and process.

For example, a complaint about a rude inspector (there are not many of these but some are out there) would be a complaint specifically about conduct.

A concern about an inspector not having followed the deep dive methodology correctly would be about process – although it might blur into “judgement” too if the result was what you consider to be an unfair judgement.

Don’t wait until the inspection is over

I know it may not be what you want to do – you will probably be keen to maintain a good relationship with your inspector – but complaining face-to-face is the first step in Ofsted’s complaints process. They want you to do it. This is because they would prefer to resolve the issue during the inspection than have it rumble on afterwards. Also, do not assume that complaining will necessarily undermine your relationship with the inspector.

Ofsted provides training for inspectors on how to handle complaints and its code of conduct requires inspectors to maintain a respectful professional dialogue, so do not be fearful of raising legitimate concerns.

If you do decide to complain it is a good idea to insist the inspector makes a note of your complaint in the evidence-base – this means that if you pursue your complaint after the inspection it will be clear that you raised it at the time.

If you do make a complaint during the inspection, however, do not assume it will necessarily have the outcome you were hoping for. It may be the inspector takes a different view and you need to be prepared to continue with the inspection in the right frame of mind. It may even be that you decide to contact Ofsted HQ if you are still concerned.

Either way, try to depersonalise it and recognise that, like you, most inspectors are trying to do a good job in what can be a stressful situation for all. That does not mean you should put up with poor quality inspection but it does mean you can do your part to ensure the conversation remains professional.

Get your ducks in a row first

Whether complaining during or after an inspection, you will want to make sure you are as well informed as possible. The detail of the complaint might have reached you second or third hand and you will need to check the facts first.

Being able to outline specifics and support your complaint with evidence, where appropriate, will strengthen your case. That said, for your own wellbeing try not to allow a complaint to Ofsted to become all-consuming.

Don’t assume the worst – but do manage your expectations

Popular consensus holds that it is almost impossible to get Ofsted to overturn a judgement. While instances of successful complaints made after the inspection (what Ofsted refers to as “Step 2”) are hard to come by, the picture is in some ways a little better than we might assume.

First, Ofsted does take Step 2 complaints seriously. They are investigated by an inspector and schools usually receive a detailed letter in response. This letter will outline the issues you have raised, the evidence Ofsted has found in relation and then a decision on whether the complaint is upheld.

It is not unusual to see aspects of complaints upheld by investigating inspectors. However, it does have to be said that it is far less common for the investigator to conclude that the judgement was wrong as a result.

Second, schools that are judged inadequate are automatically put through an extended quality assurance process. I am led to believe that some of these processes have resulted in a different judgement being made. However, as this process happens behind closed doors and is not mentioned in the final report it is difficult to ascertain how frequently this happens.

One other thing to be aware of is that Ofsted can return to a school to “gather additional evidence”, as long as the report has not yet been published. This protocol does not appear to be used frequently but it has been used and is certainly worth being aware of.

Take care of yourself and your colleagues

A poor quality inspection can in itself be a stressful experience. Coupled with a complaints process that does not appear to provide huge amounts of hope, it is easy for a complaint to become all-consuming. At some point you may need to be prepared to draw a line under it, for your own wellbeing. Ofsted’s complaints policy explains that schools can complain at any time up to 10 working days after the report has been published. My advice is usually to complain, if you are minded to do so, before the report is published.

Conclusion

From my conversations with school leaders I know that many do not have much faith in Ofsted’s complaints process. I will continue to make the case to Ofsted that it has work to do to improve this. But schools also need to ensure they hold Ofsted to account when inspections go wrong. You do not have to suffer in silence.

  • Stephen Rollett is curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information & resources

For more information on Ofsted’s complaints procedure, visit http://bit.ly/2U4p8cA


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