Update: Norfolk academy Ofsted tip off probe says schools were not given advance notice - but investigation hampered by missing emails

Dame Rachel de Souza, when she was principal of Ormiston Victory Academy.

Dame Rachel de Souza, when she was principal of Ormiston Victory Academy. - Credit: EDP pics © 2010 (01603) 77243

An independent probe into allegations three Norfolk academies received advance notice of Ofsted inspection dates has said that 'on the balance of probabilities' no-one at the schools was unfairly tipped off.

Dame Rachel De Souza, left, at the official opening ceremony of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy, with

Dame Rachel De Souza, left, at the official opening ceremony of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy, with Bill Holledge, the then headteacher, Dr Liz Sidwell, schools commissioner, and Theodoe Agnew, academy sponsor. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2012

The findings of lawyer Julian Gizzi contradicted claims published in front-page stories in the Observer newspaper in August and October.

Mr Gizzi had been asked to review an earlier internal investigation carried out by Sir Robin Bosher, Ofsted's director of quality and training, which came to the same conclusion.

In the case of each school - which were all connected to Dame Rachel de Souza, and two of which are sponsored by her Inspiration Trust - the report said the evidence 'does not demonstrate, on the balance of probabilities', they were given any more than the requisite half day's notice.

However, Mr Gizzi said his investigation had been 'hampered' by emails that were either inaccessible or had been deleted, and minutes of meetings that had gone missing.

Adrian Ball, executive principal of Thetford Academy, with Dame Rachel de Souza.

Adrian Ball, executive principal of Thetford Academy, with Dame Rachel de Souza. - Credit: Archant

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He also said he had not been able to contact three key witnesses, including Dame Rachel's former PA and the former headteacher of one of the schools.

The Inspiration Trust said the report confirmed that it and Dame Rachel were 'innocent of these false allegations', and called for The Observer to retract the claims and apologise.

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Read the full report here

Mr Gizzi's report said Sir Robin Bosher had carried out his original investigation 'with an open mind, that he acted with fairness and integrity and that his overall approach was methodical and diligent.'

His conclusion was that Sir Robin's investigation 'was, overall, appropriate' and the conclusions he reached 'were reasonable.'

Missing emails and minutes

In his report, Mr Gizzi wrote he had been 'hampered in my search for information, and interviewees had in turn been hampered in their ability to engage with my questions, by an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances'.

He continued: 'The Ormiston Victory Academy server, containing all the emails from the relevant period, was replaced when the academy moved into their new premises in November 2013. I understand that the server is currently disconnected and so the emails are inaccessible.

'Furthermore, I was informed that the minutes of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) meetings for May 2013 are missing from both the paper and electronic files held by the academy.

'Finally, I was told that all the emails contained on Dame Rachel's Inspiration Trust email account, dating from March 2013 onwards, were irrevocably deleted by accident in September 2014.'

He said he had received 'acceptable explanations' about the Victory server and Inspiration emails, but 'the whereabouts of any May 2013 SLT meeting minutes remains unclear'.

Preparations for Victory Academy's inspection

The report reveals a series of emails between staff at Victory Academy in the two weeks before its May 2013 inspection, including the existence of an 'Ofsted 100 point plan'.

The report said the plan 'sets out a long list of actions and tips for teachers to enable them to be prepared for the Ofsted inspection, and a process to be followed during the inspection'.

A reference to 'the visit next week' was emphasised.

However, Mr Gizzi wrote: 'The documents that have been provided to me support the conclusion that the school expended considerable energy preparing for Ofsted, on an ongoing basis. I have not attached any weight to the reference in the 29 April 2013 version of the 'Ofsted 100 point plan' to 'the visit next week', as I am satisfied that reference was a relic from previous iterations of the document.'

He added: 'Overall, interviewees have cogently and consistently explained (to me and to Sir Robin) the reasons for their confidence about the likely dates of the inspection, and I have not seen evidence that demonstrates on the balance of probabilities that it derived from advance notice, rather than from a process of deduction and calculated guesswork.'

'Troubling email'

Mr Gizzi said he was concerned by an email Dame Rachel sent three weeks and two days before the inspection, saying 'Only three weeks or so till Ofsted due at Victory too!'.

He wrote: 'Having considered it carefully, I do find this email troubling. On its own, however, I do not consider that it demonstrates on the balance of probabilities that anyone at Ormiston Victory Academy knew the precise dates of the impending inspection at the time that it was sent. It is one email amongst many pieces of evidence that I have seen and heard.'

Supply teachers on inspection day

The Observer alleged that at least two teachers were asked to teach lessons at Victory Academy during its Ofsted inspection, despite having never taught there before.

Regarding one, Sarah Mintey, who replaced a supply teacher who was sick on the date of the inspection, Mr Gizzi wrote: 'Having considered the allegation in the light of the other evidence available to me, on the balance of probabilities I have concluded that Ms Mintey was not given prior notice of the inspection date.'

Mr Gizzi said he was unable to speak to Mark Evans, believed to be the other teacher, who was at the time the principal designate of the Inspiration Trust's Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form, and working from an office at Victory Academy.

He wrote: 'I conclude that Dr Evans was asked to teach a lesson during the inspection without ever having done so at Ormiston Victory Academy before. However I have not seen evidence to suggest that this was prompted or facilitated by the school having notice of the inspection before noon on Monday 13 May 2013.'

Great Yarmouth Primary Academy

The Observer alleged in August that Dame Rachel 'received warning in early April that an inspection of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy would occur in the first few weeks of May'.

The inspection took place on May 13-14, 2014.

In October, the newspaper wrote that 'Bill Holledge, the then Principal of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy, 'felt confident enough in early May of his knowledge of a likely inspection date to turn down an offer from the prime minister to attend a function at Downing Street on 12 May'.'

Mr Gizzi's report quotes an email Mr Hollege sent Dame Rachel on May 2 as stating: 'Nice to be asked but this is the Monday of test week – so not great both in terms of likely Ofsted (could well be that Monday night I need to be at school to oversee prep for inspection Tues/Wed) and also in terms of being on hand Mon PM to support with test admin.'

Mr Gizzi said he had been unable to talk to Mr Holledge during his investigation.

He wrote: 'Whilst I agree that the language used in the 2 May email does not convey a sense that Mr Holledge knew for certain when the inspection would take place, it is notable that he does in fact precisely identify the dates that the inspection ultimately took place.'

The newspaper also quoted an email from Dame Rachel to her PA requesting that no more appointments be made for 14 and 15 May 2014 as she was 'expecting a late notice very important event on or around those days'.

She told Mr Gizzi this referred to a 'possible family trip abroad or other form of celebration for her son's birthday', likely to be organised at late notice, and she did not think the inspectors would come during that week because of Key Stage 2 exams taking place then.

Mr Gizzi wrote this was 'difficult to reconcile with some of the evidence I have seen', and added: 'I would also observe that I was surprised to hear that Dame Rachel was confident about taking time off at that point, given that Great Yarmouth Primary Academy was on high alert as it was expecting an inspection that term.'

However, he added that she said her involvement in inspections as chief executive of the Inspiration Trust was 'more limited' than in her previous role as principal of Victory Academy.

He concluded: 'Whilst I find the emails of 27 April, 2 May and 12 May troubling, I do not consider that, when taken together with the other evidence I have seen and heard, they demonstrate, on the balance of probabilities, that anyone at or connected with Great Yarmouth Primary Academy knew the precise dates of the upcoming inspection at the time that they were sent.'

Thetford Academy

The Observer claimed Thetford Academy had at least two weeks notice that its inspection was directly impending.

However, Mr Gizzi wrote: 'None of the interview notes made by Sir Robin, or any of the interviewees I spoke to, corroborates this allegation. On the contrary, Mr Ball, principal of The Thetford Academy, told Sir Robin that he was due to move house on 1 July 2014 – the first day of the inspection – and do a lot of the removals himself, and so had to make alternative arrangements very short notice when The Thetford Academy received notice of the inspection.'

An earlier article in The Guardian said sources close to the Inspiration Trust had told the newspaper the correct inspection dates of Thetford Academy on June 28 - ahead of the school's formal notification on June 30.

Mr Gizzi wrote: 'Although this allegation is troubling, I have not seen any written evidence that corroborates it and none of the interview notes made by Sir Robin, or any of the interviewees I spoke to, corroborates it.'

Chief inspector responds to report

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: 'The claims that were made about certain Norfolk schools being given advance notice of Ofsted inspection dates were very serious and damaging. I am, therefore, pleased that the overall findings in our original enquiry are supported by the conclusions reached by the independent and impartial review. I am also pleased that Mr Gizzi has recognised that Sir Robin's original investigation was professional, substantial and rigorous.

'What today's review does lay bare is the extent to which some Norfolk schools were on such a high degree of 'Ofsted readiness' for weeks and even months before the inspection actually took place.

'It's very important that schools maintain a sense of proportion when preparing for an Ofsted inspection. In my experience, the best schools devote their energies to getting things right for their pupils, not for inspectors.

'Leaders should be focusing on making sure there is good teaching, robust assessment and a positive and respectful learning culture at their school. If they are attending well to these things then an Ofsted inspection will usually take care of itself.'

Background to the allegations

The allegations centered on three schools connected to Dame Rachel de Souza: Ormiston Victory Academy in Costessey, where she was principal until summer 2013, and Thetford Academy and Great Yarmouth Primary Academy, both of which are sponsored by the Inspiration Trust, which Dame Rachel now leads.

Allegations were first published on the front page of The Observer newspaper in August.

The Inspiration Trust denied the allegations, and Ormiston Academies Trust, which sponsors Victory Academy, said none of its schools received illicit advance notice.

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw ordered an internal investigation of the allegations, to be carried out by Sir Robin Bosher, the organisation's director of quality and training.

In September, Sir Robin's review found 'no evidence to substantiate the allegations', but did find that Dame Rachel, a seconded Ofsted inspector, had mistakenly been emailed the date of Great Yarmouth Primary Academy's inspection.

It said the date of that inspection was then changed, and a later re-inspection in September, carried out without any notice, confirmed the school's 'good' rating.

In October, The Observer published renewed allegations, based on leaked emails sent by Dame Rachel, prompting Sir Michael to announce today's independent review of Sir Robin's original investigation.

Julian Gizzi, a lawyer at DAC Beachcroft whose specialisms include education, was appointed to carry out the review in November, and was initially expected to report back by Christmas.

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