A move that empowers education secretary Michael Gove to order inspections of councils’ school improvement services has been criticised as a front for a government drive to accelerate the conversion of primary schools to academies.
Concern from the secretary of state over school performance is one of seven triggers for an inspection of school improvement services, which were unveiled by the schools watchdog this week.
Inspections can also be set in motion when pupils’ performance levels dip below the national average or when official figures identify high numbers of underperforming schools in their areas, according to Ofsted (see box below).
The inspection framework was aimed at levelling out an “unacceptable level of regional variation in school performance across the country”, a spokesperson for the watchdog said.
However, LGC has been told a significant number of Ofsted’s own inspectors are worried the regime is linked to Mr Gove’s drive to increase the number of academies, particularly among primary schools. Only 6% of all primaries have become academies compared with 48% of secondaries, Department for Education figures show.
A source close to Ofsted said: “If a school needs improvement and Ofsted finds that the council is not good enough at providing the support, it will be easy for the government to say the school must get its support by becoming an academy. That’s what inspectors are saying. It is about putting pressure on the schools to convert.”
A “significant” number of inspectors had raised concerns that the new inspections were politically motivated and were “objecting to it”, the source added.
Mr Gove has already gone to battle over primary schools becoming academies, forcing Downhills Primary in Tottenham, north London, to become a sponsored academy last year - despite a local campaign against the move.
Senior council officials share Ofsted inspectors’ suspicions. Mark Rogers, chief executive of Solihull MBC and head of Solace’s children and young people network, predicted the new regime would “accelerate primary school academisation”.
“The thinking behind these inspections seems completely out of date. It assumes councils are playing a role in school improvement that for many is not appropriate any more,” he added.
Mr Rogers also said he feared that the new inspections could lead to councils having their school improvement functions forcibly outsourced by the DfE.
“If you look at the direction of travel, that seems a logical outcome”, Mr Rogers said, pointing to the DfE announcement last month that councils could be stripped of their adoption role if they did not improve services.
LGC understands some local authority figures have also questioned whether Ofsted has the legal power to inspect their school improvement services. None of the legal provisions Ofsted has pointed to contain explicit references to school improvement services, they claim.
However, an Ofsted spokeswoman said it had the power to inspect whether a council was fulfilling its statutory duty to “promote high standards and fulfilment of potential of pupils in an area”. This was directly related to school improvement, she added.
“What Ofsted will therefore be inspecting is the extent to which the council is meeting its statutory responsibilities effectively or not.”
The spokeswoman also denied the suggestion that its new inspections were politically motivated. “Ofsted does not promote ‘academisation’,” she said.
A DfE spokeswoman said the inspections would be a “powerful lever for improvement”.
An inspector calls
The seven triggers for school improvement inspection
- Education secretary has concerns
- Proportion of children attending a good or better-maintained school below national levels
- Above average number of schools are of concern and/or slow progress on improvement
- Higher than average proportion of schools not judged ‘good’
- Below national average attainment levels across the local authority and/or weak improvement trend
- Below average rates of progress
- Ofsted concerned about level of qualifying complaints