In recent weeks I have spoken to several ASCL members who expressed concern after receiving notice from Ofsted that someone, often a parent, had complained to the inspectorate about their school. But are these isolated cases or indicative of a wider trend?
Having raised this question with Ofsted’s national director for education, Sean Harford, I have set out some key points below which school leaders should keep in mind.
There are three things school leaders need to know:
Complaints to Ofsted are indeed on the rise - something that Sean Harford confirmed.
Ofsted is aware of the need to treat complaints with caution and not rush to judgement.
Leaders need to be appropriately reflective but also keep a sense of perspective.
Why are complaints to Ofsted on the increase?
It’s difficult to know for sure. There may be system-wide exacerbating factors such as curriculum reform and changes to the governance of schools. However, there has been no general decline in satisfaction with schools. In fact, as of January 2018, Ofsted’s own ParentView data indicates that 87% parents would recommend their child’s school to another parent – an increase of 2% from 2016’s figure of 85%.
It is far more likely, in my view, that the increasing number of complaints mirrors a general shift in consumer behaviour in the age of mobile technology. An article in The Guardian in 2015 reported that customer complaints to businesses via social media underwent an eight-fold increase on the previous year. It may be that parents, and others, are taking advantage of the increased opportunity to interact with schools and Ofsted via mobile devices.
Does Ofsted investigate all complaints it receives about schools?
The simple answer is no. Some complaints relate to issues for which there are other appeal mechanisms and statutory processes. Where Ofsted may be the appropriate body, inspectors have to establish whether complaints may be indicative of wider failings, so they can investigate and take a view on whether inspection is necessary.
Ofsted’s complaints guidance and online form both state it would normally expect a complainant to have first followed the school, academy, local authority or Education and Skills Funding Agency’s complaints procedure. Following exhaustion of these ‘local routes’, Ofsted can investigate the complaint under section 11A, if it meets certain criteria. These complaints are known as ‘qualifying’ complaints.
Alternatively, HMCI can waive the need to pursue local routes if the complaint is deemed serious enough. As part of the section 11A investigation, an HMI will usually phone the school and may talk to the local authority. It is important for schools to remember that the purpose of Ofsted’s investigation is not to form a judgement of the school, but to determine if there is a need to inspect. Ultimately, a very small proportion of all complaints, 1%, actually lead to an inspection. Even then, the result of the inspection is not pre-determined and most schools find their practice is actually validated.
When safeguarding concerns are raised it is common for Ofsted to pass the complaint to the local authority, which may then contact the school as it investigates any concerns. It will often share the outcome of its investigation with Ofsted.
Ofsted always writes to schools if it has investigated a complaint under section 11A. The wording of the letter can seem severe. For example, it may say that the details of the complaint and investigation will be held on file for the next inspection. Understandably, this can cause anxiety for school leaders.
However, it is largely procedural and, whilst it may be revisited in the school’s next inspection , this should not be misinterpreted as Ofsted having concluded the school has a case to answer. In many cases the complaint on file will form a small part of the next inspection, provided it does not concern inspectors when set alongside other evidence. In addition, for a maintained school, the local authority Director of Children’s Services is informed, and for an academy or free school, the ESFA is informed.
How should we respond if Ofsted advises a complaint has been made?
Firstly, take the opportunity to reflect on practice, policies and procedures in your school. Although Ofsted won’t usually reveal the identity of the complainant, leaders are often aware of what may have prompted the complaint. Are your policies having the desired impact? What have you done to seek and address the views and concerns of parents or other relevant people? Is there anything you should do differently?
Some leaders express frustration that they’ve not had a chance to set out their side of the story. However, such a view works on the assumption that Ofsted has reached a view that the complaint was legitimate. As noted above, receiving notification of a complaint will not mean this at all. At your next inspection you should have an opportunity to present your evidence.
You may find it useful to draft an immediate response to Ofsted’s letter, outlining any relevant information, but not actually send it . Rather, do as Ofsted does and keep it on file. That way, you can record your response whilst incidents are fresh in your memory, have your narrative ready should you need it at your next inspection, and then move on. Although it is not required, you could decide to send your response to Ofsted, in which case your communication should be added to the complaint file and made available for the lead inspector at your next inspection.
Lastly, if you are satisfied that the complaint does not have merit then try to keep it in perspective. If Ofsted had considered it to be of serious concern, it may well have already been on site. The fact this hasn’t happened should give you some comfort.
Stephen leads ASCL Professional Development's programme of Ofsted Seminars: Understanding and managing inspection held at different venues throughout the country - for more information and to book, click on the course link.