Appeals and complaints to Ofsted – consultancy for free?

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Colin Forrest, Mike Cooper and Carolyn Medlin of the Policy Consortium discuss some of the potential questions and issues arising about Ofsted’s complaints system, as described in the preceding edition of FE Week.

In a previous article for FE Week, and elsewhere over the past six months, we’ve written about how well or otherwise Ofsted supports improvement in the FE sector, as it claims – and how it might improve its own approaches. Last week’s FE Week article, although centred on a single college and its former principal, was underpinned by revealing insights into Ofsted’s published inspection complaints system.

In short, there were 35 formal (‘Steps 2 and 3’) complaints from September 2012 to mid-November 2013. That’s around 14% of approximately 250 inspections undertaken over that time; 13 of those (about 5%) were upheld. At least one produced a significant uplift of grades from ‘requires improvement’. It’s not clear what the full spectrum of ‘successful outcomes’ to complaints has been, but that may include other grade changes, or significant changes to report narratives (without change to grades or judgements). There is no indication of the scale of informal ‘Step 1’ concerns about processes.

This proportion of complaints upheld might be seen as relatively minor, and thus acceptable. Nevertheless, the context of an inspectorate making more and more stringent demands on providers suggests improvement is required here from Ofsted.

And it’s so important to get this right. Apart from damage to reputations, funding may be at stake, since Grade 3/4 providers may be excluded from some provision and/or growth. Inspections, of course, can cover only part of a provider’s activity – but findings can be seen as applying across the organisation.

One particularly contentious aspect is that reports are published to fixed timescales, even if the process is subject to an appeal or complaint. The stated procedure suggests this is non-negotiable, apart from in (unspecified) ‘exceptional circumstances’. Anecdotally, this is characterised as ‘Learners and employers have a right to know the truth!’ Ofsted do allow up to 48 hours for an accuracy check, but that is not a test of the findings’ validity. It allows no debate on judgements or grades, since it focusses on spellings, learner numbers, and so on.

There may also be other factors, including the implications of short-notice inspections. The compressed window for dialogue between lead inspector and provider limits potential for sharing information and adjustments to the expertise available within the inspection team. It also compromises opportunities for the provider’s input into the pre-inspection briefing. This may increase the potential for more complaints.

It is good to read that Ofsted have reviewed their complaints process. However, the role of providers (and other ‘consumers’ of inspectorate outputs) isn’t clear in that review. That is crucial, to reduce dissonance between improvement approaches which the inspectorate looks for in providers and their treatment of complaints.

Consultancy for Free was the title of an excellent short publication by Jane Owen for the Learning and Skills Development Agency in 2001. It set out simply and clearly the case for FE providers to make serious, thoughtful use of open, well-constructed, responsive complaints systems – and to generate real improvement from that. Perhaps Ofsted ought to take those strategic messages about transparency and accountability very seriously, in implementing its review.

This article also appeared in a slightly different version in the FE Week of 29 January 2014

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One comment on “Appeals and complaints to Ofsted – consultancy for free?
  1. Isn’t the big issue rather the nature of inspection and the self-image of inspectors? What was once a collegiate process (and both those words need to be emphasised) has been turned into just another unquestioning branch of government ideology. Inspection is used to coerce and humiliate staff and reach a set of questionable and subjective judgements based on random performance criteria – or whatever other management BS is currently in vogue. Call me old fashioned but colleges and inspection were more honourable before all this nonsense. Thank you for analysing the chaos. I am retired from FE but the message to sector staff is an old refrain, “Don’t mourn. Organise.”

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