Ofsted under fire again over inspections row at three Norfolk schools

The official opening of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy - one of the Inspiration Trust schools at the

The official opening of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy - one of the Inspiration Trust schools at the centre of the allegations. (L TO R) Rachel De Souza, Bill Holledge - Headteacher, Dr Liz Sidwell - Schools Commissioner and Theodoe Agnew - Academy Sponsor. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2012

Pressure is mounting on Ofsted today for further reassurances over claims three Norfolk schools were unfairly given advance notice of inspections.

Dame Rachel de Souza. Photo: Bill Smith

Dame Rachel de Souza. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Bill Smith - Archant

An inquiry was launched in August after it was claimed that three schools – Ormiston Victory Academy in Costessey, Thetford Academy and Great Yarmouth Primary Academy – were unfairly told in advance about upcoming Ofsted inspections in May 2013 and 2014 and July 2014.

The probe concluded there had been no wrongdoing, but further damning accusations were made in a national newspaper on Sunday.

A series of emails allegedly from Dame Rachel de Souza, an associate Ofsted inspector with links to all three schools, provide evidence that prior knowledge was acted upon, the paper claimed.

Dame Rachel was principal at Ormiston Victory and is now chief executive of the Inspiration Trust, which runs the academies in Thetford and Yarmouth. She declined to comment on the latest allegations when approached yesterday. But the chairman of the Inspiration Trust, Tory party donor Theodore Agnew, insisted that Dame Rachel had alerted Ofsted 'immediately' when she was aware of the mistakenly shared inspection schedule.


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The trust added it had sent a six-page lawyer's letter to the national paper ahead of the story being published, but claimed 'most of the responses' in the letter were ignored.

However, a string of local politicians and union bosses are demanding reassurances from Ofsted, which led the initial inquiry, claiming that a failure to do so would undermine the credibility of the schools watchdog.

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James Joyce, chairman of the children's services committee at Norfolk County Council, addressed yesterday's full council meeting.

'It [the national newspaper story] was an interesting article and an interesting piece of investigative journalism,' he said. 'It has been something that has been dragging on for a few months and when it came to light we went to them [Ofsted] and they did an internal investigation and said nothing was there at all. Rest assured we will be going back to them on this.

'We are working with them and our schools are performing better, but we need total belief in what they stand for.' George Nobbs, county council leader, added: 'While we are not in control of what academies do, we are held responsible for what they do, which is incredibly unfair.'

Norwich South MP and former teacher Simon Wright has already called for an independent inquiry.

Mike Smith, of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Norfolk branch, said the saga would not go away, and was concerned by the new claims.

'We've already called for an independent inquiry and were told that was unnecessary. We hope they [Ofsted] will have one as there's so much evidence going out that someone's got to look at it. Ofsted has never been held in great regard by teaching professionals and with this going on all confidence will be lost in them.'

He added that the NUT had been approached by many people claiming to have evidence, and believed 'more and more' would come forward if there were not a further inquiry.

But Ofsted bosses insist that no further action is required.

HM chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said: 'Ofsted has taken these allegations very seriously.

'That is why I had no hesitation in asking Sir Robin Bosher, a senior director at Ofsted, to lead an investigation. I am entirely satisfied with the thoroughness of his investigation and the conclusions he reached, none of which are undermined by Sunday's claims. I am also determined to learn the lessons and implement the recommendations in his report.'

But he hinted that Dame Rachel's ties to Ofsted would not be severed and processes would not be changed.

'It is vitally important that our ability to spread good practice by working in professional partnership with good and outstanding school leaders across the country is not compromised,' he continued.

'I have no intention of reverting to an inspection system which failed to benefit from the professional expertise, credibility and insight of those currently running our best schools.

'Those days are behind us and we will not be returning to them.'

ADDRESSING THE ALLEGATIONS

The Norfolk academy school chain the Inspiration Trust has issued a statement responding to 'serious allegations' made in a national newspaper.

Bosses said they sent a six-page lawyer's letter to the paper addressing some of the claims.

Here are some of the allegations, and the responses from the trust:

1) Claim: Schools under the control of Dame Rachel de Souza and the Inspiration Trust were tipped off about forthcoming Ofsted inspections.

Response: 'Ofsted completed a detailed and in depth investigation into the allegations, which were published on September 23 and reported that 'the investigation team found no evidence to substantiate the allegations that the three schools in question had improperly received prior notification of the dates of their Ofsted inspections in order to put them at an unfair advantage'.

At that time a spokesman for the Inspiration Trust said Sir Robin Bosher's report 'utterly refutes' allegations of irregularities about Ofsted inspections of the three schools in question.

'We maintain the highest levels of integrity and transparency at our schools,' the spokesman said. 'This report underlines that.'

2) Claim: Inspiration Trust received favouritism in winning the Maths Hub appointment for Norfolk and Suffolk.

Response: 'The guidelines stated that there needed to be a teaching school in the hub.

'This is why the Maths Hub that we are part of is shared with Kesgrave School in Suffolk, a teaching school.

'Inspiration Trust has a sixth form maths and science school at its heart – The Sir Isaac Newton – it makes an effective combination for the hub.'

3) Claim: The Inspiration Trust spent inappropriate sums on office furniture and fittings, and on a private dinner held in Norwich.

Response: 'The Inspiration Trust has furnished many of its offices with furniture that is either second hand or received as a gift.

'The private dinner is to be paid for by two of The Inspiration Trust's trustees.'

4) Claim: Suggestions of foul-play around planning issues relating to The Sir Isaac Newton Free School.

Response: 'The planning decision was made and approved by Norwich City Council, and no government minister played any role in the decision.'

Do you have an education story? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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