The chief inspector of schools in England asked for greater powers to monitor independent schools over “potential safeguarding issues”, but was ignored by ministers, the Guardian can reveal.
Despite concerns raised by Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, the body was later stripped of its role in overseeing the inspections of private schools now engulfed by a wave of sexual assault allegations.
Documents seen by the Guardian show Spielman complained to the Department for Education in 2018 and 2019 that her organisation was unable to monitor the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), to which the DfE delegates inspections of elite private schools such as Westminster and Dulwich College.
They are among schools involved in a growing scandal over complaints by pupils of rape, harassment and assault at private and state institutions, documented on the Everyone’s Invited website. Conservative MP Maria Miller has called for Ofsted to investigate why “nothing has changed in the last five years”.
In 2018 Spielman told the DfE that Ofsted had been unable to adequately monitor the ISI’s inspections of private schools because of DfE restrictions over the previous three years. The dispute continued until late 2019, with the then schools minister Lord Agnew telling Spielman that Ofsted’s oversight role would be instead taken over by the DfE.
The controversy has shone a light on the role of the ISI, which in England is authorised by the education secretary to carry out regulatory inspections of “association” independent schools – schools that are members of groups such as the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference or the Girls’ Schools Association, including the likes of Harrow and St Paul’s Girls’ School, about 1,250 in total.
The ISI’s previous chief inspector, Christine Ryan, was named as the chair of Ofsted by Gavin Williamson in July 2020.
In November 2018 Spielman told the DfE it was failing to commission Ofsted to oversee ISI’s work by carrying out its own inspections, leaving Ofsted without enough evidence to assess the ISI’s performance.
“I am therefore concerned that, while many inspections are doubtless carried out to a high standard, the system is not currently configured so that any problems can be spotted and tackled, for example regarding potential safeguarding issues in the schools,” Spielman wrote to the then education secretary, Damien Hinds.
The chief inspector asked for greatly increased powers over independent schools, telling Hinds: “These new arrangements should have ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all children educated in the independent sector as their focus.”
Spielman said “as a minimum” Ofsted should be allowed to conduct “unannounced on-site monitoring visits” and “carry out termly safeguarding-focused checks, to verify that any safeguarding issues were followed up and reported on appropriately”.
The failure to monitor independent schools was raised again in June 2019, at an Ofsted board meeting. Sean Harford, Ofsted’s director for education, reported to the board: “The current arrangements do not enable us to provide assurance on the inspection activities of ISI, and our preference is to increase our monitoring activity.”
Spielman also wrote to the education secretary later in 2019, to report that Ofsted was again unable to report on ISI’s effectiveness because the DfE had failed to authorise Ofsted to undertake any monitoring at all.
“Ofsted does not have the necessary evidence to be able to make any comment, in this report, to the secretary of state on ISI’s suitability as an independent inspectorate,” Spielman wrote to the DfE in July 2019.
But in November 2019, Agnew wrote to Spielman to make clear that Ofsted would have only an academic part in overseeing ISI. “I expect that the Department of Education’s own monitoring of ISI’s reports and information provided directly by ISI, should allow the secretary of state to fulfil this role,” Agnew wrote.
Agnew also told Spielman that Ofsted should no longer report on the “robustness” of of ISI’s judgments or on its agreements with the DfE.
Ofsted declined to comment, but pointed to remarks by Victor Shafiee, Ofsted’s deputy director of independent schools, to the education committee last week. Shafiee told MPs: “The allegations [of sexual abuse] that you have noted, which we all care about and we are all concerned about, do not, on the whole, involve independent schools that we inspect.”
Ofsted inspects around 1,100 independent schools that are not covered by ISI.
Shafiee also told MPs: “We stand ready to support the government in any way we can to strengthen safeguarding across the independent school sector.”
The DfE said “Ofsted continued to support the monitoring of ISI as required,” under the directions issued in 2019. The DfE also said that if a school was reported to have safeguarding failings, “we will immediately ask Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate to conduct an inspection”.
Meanwhile, a new survey of young women aged between 14 and 21 found more than half had suffered sexual harassment while at school, college or university.
The poll by Plan International UK, the children’s rights charity, found 58% of those who took part in the survey said they had been publicly sexually harassed in their learning environment and of those, 66% were targeted by someone from the same institution.
One in five said they had been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual comments, more than a quarter had been catcalled or wolf-whistled, one in 10 had been grabbed, and similar proportions had been followed, groped or touched sexually while in a public place. Fourteen interviewees said they had been “upskirted” using a mobile phone or camera to take illicit images.
Rose Caldwell, the head of of Plan International UK, said: “School, college and university should be a safe space for girls to learn. Instead, just like in high streets, parks and bus stops, they are facing relentless harassment every day and they want it to stop. It is vital that schools recognise and tackle this if we’re to end public sexual harassment in the UK.”