Back in June last year, when Ofsted announced the changes to inspection under the common inspection framework, we also explained how we intended to strengthen the way we deal with complaints about inspection. In September, we introduced independent scrutiny to make the process more transparent, fair and fully objective.
Bear with me as I do a quick run-through of the way we handle complaints about our work. The majority of concerns by schools, early years or further education and skills (FES) providers are raised directly at an inspection – we call this Step 1 – and in the most part these are resolved promptly by inspectors. Where a provider isn’t satisfied, they can submit a formal complaint (Step 2). An investigating officer calls the complainant directly to discuss issues ahead of a detailed investigation and a formal written complaint response. If the complainant remains unhappy, they can ask for an internal review (Step 3) where another inspector, who is independent of the inspection, looks at the case to check if the investigation process has been carried out properly.
Changes put in place in September 2015
At the start of the academic year, we introduced a new scrutiny panel as part of the Step 3 internal review process. This includes: an independent, external representative from the relevant sector (early years, schools, FES or social care); one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) specialising in that remit; and a Senior HMI. The inspector who is reviewing the case at Step 3 presents their draft findings to the panel and is tested by the panel on the robustness of the complaints handling process. The panel also confirms the final response to the complaint.
It is really important that we get the right external individuals on panels to ensure that the necessary challenge is rigorous and appropriate. Initially, we approached our regional headteacher reference groups and identified leaders from outstanding childcare or social care settings who aren’t involved in carrying out inspections for Ofsted. We had a great response with 60 external members volunteering to be part of this work.
Progress so far
To date these new panels have considered around 39 cases covering early years, schools and social care. These have ranged from reviews of the inspection judgements awarded to concerns about inspector conduct, and the whole process of the inspection itself to the publication of the report.
The panels held up to now have all broadly supported the initial findings of the Step 3 internal reviews. However, the additional scrutiny the panels have offered has led to changes in the way we respond to complainants, providing greater clarity and explanation of the outcomes and reasons for them.
Views from external members
After each panel we ask the external member for feedback. So far, the responses have confirmed the value of this additional scrutiny of our work. The following are typical:
Schools panel member: “My experience of being part of the Ofsted scrutiny panel was overwhelmingly positive. From start to finish the process was thorough, professional, respectful and considerate to all parties. Evidence, from a variety of sources, was scrutinised to an extremely high level over a lengthy period of time and all panel members’ views were sought. I was both reassured and impressed at how protocol and procedures were followed exactly and am certain that decisions were reached fairly and equitably.”
Early years panel member: “The panel is very well organised with a lot of time afforded to the process. I was quite surprised with the large number of man hours, which are already invested into the complaint before it arrives at the panel. It’s very clear to see that Ofsted are really serious about having a transparent and clear process”.
Early years panel member: “It was very informative and encouraging to see how thoroughly the panel looked at the complaint and used the expertise of all those present to examine very carefully to see if there were any grounds for the complaint. It was also encouraging to see the degree to which they wanted input from the external candidate both to examine the complaint and also to look at ways in which they might improve the overall experience for everyone.”
This feedback is encouraging, and chimes with the findings of reports from the Independent Complaints Adjudicator, that our complaints handling process is robust.
However, I’d like to stress that it’s still early days and we are considering several suggestions from the panels about improvements we could make to our complaints responses and to the panel process. This includes looking at whether our responses can be structured better and whether we can do more to convey the key message that the child is at the heart of our work. We’ll continue to consider and act on the feedback we receive from future panels and to make the best use of the valuable information provided by complainants to help us improve the quality of service we provide.
I look forward to comments.