On Sunday, the head of Ofsted admitted there was a “culture of fear” around school inspections in England. But in her first interview since the tragic death of Ruth Perry, who was the headteacher of Caversham Primary School in Berkshire, Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of schools, told BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg only a “tiny proportion of schools” were rated inadequate and most schools find inspections to be a “positive and affirming” experience.
It is clear from the national conversation in recent weeks that this rosy picture is not one that the majority of headteachers, teaching staff, parents and unions would recognise.
And what the majority of parents do not seem to know is that this is not just about a school being branded with a label of inadequate when it is doing well in most areas, but if the school is not already an academy, that inadequate judgement will trigger a process of forced academisation.
What happened to King Edward VII School, Sheffield
Parents and carers of students at the iconic and popular King Edward VII School (KES) in Sheffield, the last local authority run secondary in the city, learnt this to our cost in January 2023 when Ofsted downgraded the school from good to inadequate on the basis of one area – safeguarding and leadership.
The school had already tried to appeal, telling parents in a letter they were unclear how the judgement had been reached. They asked for reinspection but were refused. The Ofsted report went through several drafts before we saw the final one, four months after the original one-and-a-half-day inspection in September 2022.
A group of parents quickly came together as a campaign group (KES – The Future) to make our views known. My daughter is in Year 7 and thriving, and that one-word judgement did not reflect the school most of us knew.
As the Ofsted report noted, most pupils are happy at the school, there is a respectful atmosphere, relationships between staff and pupils are positive and “pupils enjoy their lessons because they are taught by passionate, engaging and expert teachers”.
But Ofsted said leaders at the school do not do enough to keep children safe and, based on the results of a routine survey that the school undertook, that a significant minority of students do not feel they have an adult to speak to about bullying. In addition, risk assessments had not been completed around pupils over 14 leaving the upper school site at lunchtime.
When parents started asking questions, confused about the basis for the ‘inadequate’ rating, we quickly learned about ‘limiting judgements’; that if a school is rated on safeguarding, this automatically results in an inadequate grade on leadership. This in turn condemns the school to be rated as ‘inadequate’ overall.
A inadequate rating immediately triggers an academy order, which means the Department for Education (DfE) takes the school administration away from the local authority and gives it to a multi-academy trust of the government’s choosing.
No say for parents
We also learned that as parents and students facing this significant disruption we have no say, at least as far as the DfE goes. No one cares what we think. No one wants to listen to the views of the families whose children and teenagers attend the school every day, who take part in its wide variety of clubs, who value our expert and caring teachers and its broad and ‘ambitious’ curriculum. No one is interested that we chose the school for its unique ethos, academic success, and its view that all achievements are celebrated.
This can be best illustrated by what has transpired over the past ten days. After having no update, and despite being previously promised by local authority representatives we would be kept in the loop, a vigilant parent spotted a draft agenda for the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board meeting which listed the item: To consider King Edward VII school, Sheffield, joining Brigantia Learning Trust, a multi-academy trust which already administers several other schools in Sheffield.
So, a multi-academy trust had been selected but we had not been told. It soon became apparent that the DfE had not had the common courtesy to inform the school or headteacher either. The meeting agenda also told us we had five working days to make representations to the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board. Because we only found out by accident, this was now two working days.
Complaints registered with the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board
We had already done a great deal of research into local trusts and when Brigantia was named we began to learn more, and it wasn’t looking good. We very quickly developed serious concerns about the trust’s experience, capacity and track record.
For example, Brigantia is currently on an NASUWT list which questions the financial affairs of 122 academy trusts “which paid at least one employee over £150,000 per year”. NUSUWT raise concerns that such levels of expenditure on senior administrative staff “siphons funding away from teaching and learning”.
Overall, it was clear Brigantia was not at all a good fit for KES on multiple levels. The teachers at the school explained the reasons for this in an open letter, which has been circulated amongst the members of the NASUWT and NEU.
I don’t know how many representations the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board meeting would normally get but that email address (that had a typo on the agenda) would have seen some heavy traffic over those two days remaining, as we wrote in droves to register our opposition. Local MPs and councillors all unanimously agree that forced academisation is inappropriate for KES, which should instead be supported to make any necessary improvements.
Parents, pupils and teachers take to the streets
By Saturday, 500 people – parents, carers, students, teachers and other members of our school community – gathered in front of Sheffield City Hall steps holding placards and banners to say ‘No to Brigantia’ and ‘Hands off KES’. We were the lead item on BBC Look North that evening.
It was the culmination of a frenetic week that saw widespread local and national media coverage, including an article in Schools Week that questioned the transparency of the decision. Just two days before I had been on Times Radio explaining our situation to the schools minister Nick Gibb and asking if Ofsted was fit for purpose only to be told: “Don’t worry too much about academisation, it’s a liberating process.”
We certainly don’t feel liberated, and as yet we also don’t know the outcome of the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board ‘allocation’ meeting. We have asked to be informed of the decision quickly rather than having to search around on the internet looking for it. Our children are the people upon whom it will most significantly impact, after all.
Parents and teachers from around the country who have previously been through this process have been reaching out to us to offer their support and advice, and this has only strengthened our resolve. Academisation is seen as some kind of magical solution. But if the DfE is not listening to the strong and clear views of the very communities that schools serve, what is it actually doing? What is it trying to achieve?
Former Ofsted chair speaks of her concerns
Later on Sunday, after the widely publicised Laura Kuenssberg BBC interview with Amanda Spielman, another interview was aired on LBC Radio, in which former Ofsted chair Dr Zenna Hopson echoed the views of KES parents when she said: “I absolutely believe in accountability but what we are doing now is outdated and actually positively dangerous.”
She noted that you can’t have a school that gets more goods than anything else in its report and ends up with an overall grade of inadequate. “The minute you see that, you know something has gone desperately wrong”. She added that due to forced academisation for schools in this position “there are political pressures coming into play here”.
The political pressures exerted upon Ofsted were also briefly raised by Spielman, in her interview with Kuenssberg; she comments that the way in which inspections are structured is “essentially political… we’re just the inspectorate [that] fits the current model of education”.
The protest continues
We could not agree more that “something has gone desperately wrong”. Given that Ofsted has announced it would seek to reinspect schools in this position more quickly, we would also like some clarity on what that means for KES where decisions are being rushed through behind closed doors by officials who have never visited or spoken to the school and its community.
Our group of hundreds of parents who oppose forced academisation, backed by a wider petition that now has almost 3,000 signatures, will take their opposition to forced academisation all the way to judicial review if we have to. If school improvement is in fact the aim of the DfE, then it’s about time they started listening to the students, families and teachers who care so deeply about its future success.