Ofsted’s overzealous approach to safeguarding jeopardizes the future of boarding schools

This article is about one school, but the predicament it highlights has wider implications – about independence, bureaucracy, freedom of religion and the best interests of children.

My particular interest in this case dates back to 2020. I wrote about it here in December. In September 2020, under ’emergency’ provisions – but without specifying what the urgency was – Ofsted inspectors descended on Ampleforth College, the famous Roman Catholic boarding school in Yorkshire. Although the school had recently been inspected favorably by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, Ofsted had concluded that Ampleforth was “inadequate” in its safeguarding.

As a result, then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson issued a ‘restriction order’ on the school: Ampleforth could not enroll new pupils until it complied with the requirements. of Ofsted. I pointed out that for independent schools – which live off their tuition fees – such an order is a death sentence. Fresh money cannot enter. Current parents, seeing no future, place their children elsewhere.

So the perverse real-life consequence of official measures to improve what has been recognized as a good school, with 100% of parents convinced (even according to Ofsted’s own surveys) that their child is “safe and happy at school, would be to shut it down forever.

Just in time, the Ministry of Education trembled and lifted the restraining order. Ampleforth survived. Indeed, under its capable and determined manager Robin Dyer, new for 2019, standards have improved.

This week, Ofsted published another report on the school. He deemed it good in all other areas, but still “inadequate” in safeguarding. So here we go again.

After posting my column in December 2020, I got an interesting mix of reactions. Most were supportive. Ampleforth has always had a monastic (Benedictine) ethos, with the college and monastery on adjacent sites. My correspondents appreciated this particular form of education, finding it deeper and more spiritual than the secular norm. They felt that the inspectors had no idea of ​​the role of religion in the upbringing of children and suspected them of prejudice against boarding schools, especially Catholics.

A small minority disagreed. They felt that, for many years, Ampleforth had been miserably lax with regard to the sexual abuse of boys (the school became fully coeducational in 2004): the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities to the accusations had been to cover up rather than to clean. They suspected that still applied.

It was worth taking both views seriously. I accepted an invitation from the school to chair its new informal advisory board and went to see the place, which I had last visited about 20 years earlier.

I’m no education expert but, having attended independent schools, sent my two children there, been a school governor and visited dozens, usually to talk to students (and sometimes their parents), I have some idea of ​​their different qualities.

Modern Ampleforth struck me as having a very high score. He cares about all the students, rather than trying to cultivate a few stars. It’s part of something larger, which I found expressed in the conversation and behavior of the students themselves.

In these days of competition, the atmosphere of some independent schools can be utilitarian, supermundane, ultimately boring. Teachers and students are obsessed with exams, resumes and lucrative careers. Ampleforth is different. I found students confident and firm in their convictions, but also considerate, gentle and respectful. That overused word “community” fits the place.

The same goes for teachers and school officials. Although they were, of course, upset by the Ofsted decision, they were not in a ‘There’s nothing wrong with us’ mindset. When the inspectors’ criticisms were based on fact, they were eager to comply. The almost painful awareness of those who care for children today is remarkable.

I noted the difference between the past and the present. The support I received for Ampleforth tended to come from those – parents, students – who know the school today, the critics more from those who had known it in the 20th century (although it also elicits a great loyalty from many old boys of this vintage). The school has not been investigated for child abuse charges for many years.

So why has Ampleforth yet again (must be the most inspected school in the country) incurring the wrath of Ofsted?

The four specific areas denounced, all contested by the school, were: a sexual incident between two students, the access of monks to the school, an organized escape after exams by 80 students of final year who went to drink in the grounds games, and a complicated affair a bureaucratic wrangling over who told which competent authority what when and whether to refer a particular licensed teacher to the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

For the sake of clarity and conciseness, I will detail only the first two.

In the first, a student simulated a sexual act with another as they changed into sportswear. This has been observed. In their report, Ofsted inspectors said ‘penetrative’ sexual activity had taken place. Yet, according to the school, that is not what the witness said. The incident lasted about three seconds. “No involvement of penetration,” the police report said, adding “no further police action.”

Ofsted reaffirmed its sinister version, but did not produce the evidence. “Penetrative” sexual activity is in a completely different class of severity than momentary simulation. One thing Ofsted says in its report is that ‘leaders do not readily accept responsibility for the harm suffered by the pupils in their care’. But how could a school responsibly accept an unproven description?

Now for the monks. Ofsted complains that ‘worrying monks’ could be admitted to the monastery and could therefore pose a risk to the school. They fear that the director has no “veto” over the monks who are in the monastery.

Yet, as the Ampleforth Abbey Trust was quick to write in a letter to Ofsted, the abbey does not contain any ‘monks of concern’. No monk condemned to criminal can enter the abbey, nor the one who was seen prohibiting “a regulated activity” by the DBS. The Abbey Trust says Ofsted is defaming the Abbey (whom it has not checked with) by suggesting otherwise.

As for the point on the leader’s ‘veto’ over the monks, one of the reasons he has none is – almost comically to say – Ofsted itself. Throughout these arguments, Ofsted has insisted that the governance of the Abbey and the School should be separate. It duly happened. As a result, the headteacher cannot have any ultimate power over the abbey. Logically, it cannot be otherwise. The abbey and the school have however agreed on a safeguard protocol between them.

The school has asked Ofsted to correct the facts which it says are wrong. He refused to do so and released his report before the complaints process was exhausted. This way of proceeding is unfair. The school has a duty not to accept factual errors. As I write, more than 200 Ampleforth parents have already signed a draft letter to Gavin Williamson’s excellent replacement, Nadhim Zahawi, defending the school’s conduct.

The practical consequences of injustice could be serious. Under Home Office rules, visas are likely to be denied to foreign students wishing to attend boarding schools deemed “inadequate” for protection. Many schools have 30% foreign students and could therefore collapse as inspectors become more ferocious in their judgments. Indeed, many well-known public schools would be in jeopardy because of this.

Ofsted is serious about improving schools; but I fear that his methods and attitudes make it virtually impossible to run independent boarding schools, especially faith-based ones.

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