Alistair Thompson works in public relations, and contested West Bromwich East in 2010.
This week Ofsted launched an audacious power grab – under the guise of a plea for tough new laws to allow it to tackle the so-called problem of unregistered schools Amanda Spielman, its Chief Inspector, claimed that her hands were tied on the issue. And Victor Shafiee, its Deputy Director for Unregistered Schools, said that “Ofsted has limited investigative powers – it is not allowed to take away any evidence, enter premises with locked doors or call witnesses to be interviewed.”
But this is simply not true. Under the terms of the Education and Skills Act, Ofsted can “inspect and take copies of any records or other documents which the Chief Inspector has reasonable cause to believe may be required for the purposes of proceedings in relation to such an offence.” Ofsted apparently believes that this power only applies to the Chief Inspector, and that she cannot be in lots of different places at the same time.
So did Parliament made a mistake when drafting the legislation? Did it limit this power to just one person, thinking that the Chief Inspector would personally visit every school? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no – since, as with much legislation, power resides with a named person (the Chief Inspector in this case) or, and this is the important bit, a person acting on their behalf.
How strange, I thought, that Ofsted don’t know this; but of course they must. In their own handbook for conducting inspections of unregistered schools, the matter could not be clearer. So why all the fuss? Are Ofsted trying to mislead, ot haven’t they read their own instruction manual?
The answer is both simple and deeply disturbing. Their latest proposal is a continuation of their plan to extend their powers to out of school settings – to be specific, to any extra or co-curricula activities that a young person (up to the age of 19) might be involved in for more than a couple of hours a week.
When the plan was first announced it was heavily promoted as a Madrasas Charter – in other words. a plan that would allow Ofsted inspectors to target any Islamic school that it thought was failing to adequately teach British values. But Ofsted already has the power to target unregistered schools and, if they suspect a more immediate problem, there are police powers to target those inciting hate.
On reading the detail of these latest proposals, it becomes clear that Ofsted’s plans aren’t limited to the tiny number of madrasas that allegedly ferment hate: rather, they would apply to other faith groups, Sunday Schools, choirs, bell ringers and well beyond.
Indeed, the breadth of this power grab is so wide that it could potentially extend to almost every organised activity that a young person might engage in, including sports such as cricket and football; amazing organisations like the Scouts and the Guides and even the armed forces – the TA, Royal Naval Reserves and cadets.
Setting aside the farcical prospect of Ofsted trying to judge whether a “British Values” complaint about how to bowl a googly, or ring a church bell, might have merit, why should such organisations be subjected to this level or intrusion and unwarranted scrutiny?
Furthermore, the Education Department has made significant strides in closing down unregistered schools, thanks to a dedicated team of inspectors working on this problem. Between January 2016 and the middle of 2017, 38 unregistered schools were identified by the agency. Thirty-four were shut down, while the remaining four were in the process of being wound up by the courts.
I hope that Damian Hinds will reject these latest calls from Ofsted, and instead order it to focus on what it was set up to do – inspect schools, provide information to parents and to promote improvement and to hold schools to account. Perhaps then it might not repeat the catalogue of mistakes made in recent years, from the Trojan Horse Schools scandal to failing to identify real safeguarding issues.