NEWS
02/01/2019 23:04 GMT | Updated 03/01/2019 07:52 GMT

Top Academy Chain Accused Of ‘Cheating’ Ofsted Inspections At Multiple Schools

National Education Union is now calling for the government to step in, after Ofsted "failed to act" on a number of troubling allegations.

One of the country’s top-performing chains of academy schools has been accused of “systemic cheating” during Ofsted inspections at a number of its primaries, a HuffPost UK investigation can reveal.

Concerned teachers and a governor have made serious allegations that the renowned Harris Federation, which runs 47 schools in and around London, is “gaming the system” during Ofsted inspections at more than one of its schools.

The academy trust, one of the largest in England, was set up by Conservative peer and ex-Carpetright mogul Lord Philip Harris, and has often been praised by government ministers as a shining example of the academy schools model.

But insiders at some Harris primary schools have told HuffPost UK the unrelenting drive for success from the academy trust has led to an endemic culture of “cheating and rule bending” during Ofsted. 

Those concerned say the Harris Federation needs good or outstanding Ofsted ratings at all its schools in order to justify the bumper salaries of top staff. Its CEO Dan Moynihan was paid at least £420,000 in 2015-16.

One former Harris teacher, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost UK: “Staff are parachuted in to protect the Ofsted grade.

“This is all about the veneer of excellence without substance to hold up the PR about all Harris schools being good or outstanding at Ofsted.” 

A number of sources close to Harris schools have made specific allegations about highly experienced executive teachers from a central team being brought into schools on the eve of Ofsted inspections, allegedly in order to boost performance.

Critics say this type of support is not available to local authority schools and the issue is a critical one, as a good or outstanding Ofsted rating is a key factor when parents select schools for their children.

So influential are the watchdog’s ratings that house prices around outstanding schools often increase, while a bad Ofsted rating can have profound consequences for the future of a school.

Erin Aniker for HuffPost UK
Illustration by Erin Aniker

At two Harris primary schools the central team’s staff, a group of teachers who are employed by the trust rather than working for any specific school, reportedly taught lessons in place of less experienced class teachers on the day Ofsted inspectors visited schools. It is claimed this was “hidden” from inspectors.

In another serious case, a source says safeguarding records on an IT system were updated the night before an Ofsted inspection, which the Harris Federation denies.

The raft of allegations come weeks after SATs results at two Harris primary schools were annulled following investigations by the Standards and Testing Agency due to “over-aiding” of pupils during tests.

The Harris Federation has forcefully denied all allegations, pointing the finger at “anti-academy campaigners and a small number of disgruntled former staff” for fuelling allegations against it.

A spokeswoman for the federation told HuffPost UK: “These claims are simply untrue, made only to denigrate the success of our schools.”

The federation said its track record in gaining 22% good and 78% outstanding Ofsted ratings at formerly failing schools had not come without “ruffling feathers”.

PA Archive/PA Images
Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane in north London is one of the schools embroiled in a row about 'cheating' during Ofsted inspections

What are the allegations?

Central to the allegations are reports that the Harris Federation’s consultancy team of 60 staff are brought into its primary schools on the eve of Ofsted inspections in order to paint a rosier picture than the typical day inspectors should see.

HuffPost UK has been told this has happened at four Harris primary schools – Harris Peckham Park and Harris Shortlands in south London, and Harris Philip Lane and Harris Coleraine Park in north London. 

Central team staff are also alleged to have taught lessons in place of weaker class teachers at Harris Peckham Park and Harris Philip Lane. 

One former Harris teacher, who has now left the academy chain, said: “I’ve known that’s been endemic practice ever since I started.

“I knew from day one that was one of the things the central team did. They would just be parachuted into schools that were struggling and they would run classes during Ofsted as if they were the class teachers.

“Then generally speaking they would disappear and move onto the next Ofsted-pending school.” 

Another former teacher at Harris Philip Lane told HuffPost UK the central federation staff “arrived like an army” on site within two hours of a call alerting the school to Ofsted’s visit in May last year.

Central team teachers are also alleged to have retrospectively marked children’s exercise books at Harris Shortlands, in Bromley, and Harris Philip Lane, in Tottenham, to bring them up to standard before Ofsted inspectors looked at them.

“This was either because the marking hadn’t been done or hadn’t been done well enough,” a former Harris teacher said. “Clearly the purpose was to hide this should an Ofsted inspector see what was going on.

“They should not have been marking those children’s books because they had not taught that work to those children and there’s no other purpose for retrospectively marking books other than to gain some kind of advantage with Ofsted.”

Erin Aniker for HuffPost UK
Illustration by Erin Aniker

Parents and governors at Harris Peckham Park reportedly complained when they found out about the federation’s use of central team staff during the Ofsted inspection in March last year.

The Haringey branch of the National Education Union (NEU) also wrote to Ofsted multiple times this summer to complain about 10 members of the central team being deployed to Harris Philip Lane for Ofsted and being “passed off” as regular staff of the school.

The union demanded action, calling for Ofsted to investigate the “deliberate, premeditated structural cheating” of the inspection process.

In one other serious allegation, a source says report logs on a school safeguarding system called CPOMS, used for monitoring child protection issues, were allegedly “faked” on the night before an Ofsted inspection in April 2017. This was at Harris Free School Peckham, another Harris Federation primary.

The Harris Federation said the allegation relating to safeguarding records was false and “baseless”. It said use of the CPOMS system was not an Ofsted requirement and the school was using an appropriate paper-based system. Ofsted inspectors found the school’s safeguarding arrangements were effective.

At the heart of the row are differing views on the role of the Harris Federation’s central team and how it can be deployed in Ofsted inspections.

The federation says the floating team of highly qualified teachers are in place to support schools all year around and this model is one of the huge benefits for schools that are part of the multi-academy chain.

A spokeswoman for the Harris Federation said: “We employ an amazing team of 60 teachers, not so they can sit in our head office all day long, but so they can be deployed to work in our schools throughout the year, training and supporting other teachers, filling temporary staffing gaps and standing in front of pupils giving them the best education going.

“We are open about this approach and our central team is always identified to inspectors. The transparency and efficacy of these arrangements is why the support of the federation is regularly highlighted in the Ofsted reports of our schools.”

It admits central team staff are at school during Ofsted inspections, but says they work across the federation’s schools all year around.

Erin Aniker for HuffPost UK
Illustration by Erin Aniker

Ofsted under fire 

But those who have spoken out fear there is a systemic problem in both the way Harris is operating and Ofsted’s apparent failure to act over this.

A Harris governor who spoke to HuffPost UK, also on condition of anonymity, said: “There is a wider feeling that Ofsted have their hands tied, because they can’t inspect the multi-academy chain itself.

“So the multi-academy chain is taking a lot of these decisions and who’s actually monitoring whether they are the right decisions? So there’s no realistic picture of what exactly is going on.” 

When HuffPost UK asked Ofsted directly about the use of the central team staff at Harris schools, it said inspections are based on evidence of a school’s performance over time and not solely on what is seen on the day of inspection.

An Ofsted spokesman said: “We are aware of the National Education Union’s concerns about the deployment of central teaching staff and these were taken into account during recent inspections.

“Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has been clear that she would like the Department for Education to give Ofsted the power to inspect multi-academy trusts directly.”

The National Education Union said the allegations relating to Harris showed the inherent weaknesses in the current system of Ofsted inspections and called for the Department of Education to step in and take action.

Martin Powell-Davies, London regional secretary of the NEU, said: “A system that can be played that way, and yet has such important consequences, is a system that needs to be looked at.”

He called for Ofsted to clarify whether all schools could bring in expert teachers during inspections to “level the playing field”, saying: “If that makes the whole system farcical then it shouldn’t be allowed in the first place.”

‘Pressure to perform’

More broadly, the whistleblowers who spoke to HuffPost UK allege the stress exerted on schools by the Harris Federation to perform well in Ofsted is intense.

One source said the federation puts “incredible pressure” on headteachers to get the levels of performance required, while others expressed concerns about the turnover of headteachers at some schools.

“They get bonuses if they get the results and if not they are pushed out,” one Harris former staff member told HuffPost UK. “Children are being used as a commodity and teaching staff are pushed to the brink.

“Teachers are being made to fall on their swords while Harris Federation staff are like Teflon; indestructible.” 

Others described the charged atmosphere at Harris Federation conferences, which are said by insiders to have a culture of competitiveness that would rival city investment banks.

One ex-Harris teacher, who has more than 20 years experience, said graphs ranking every schools’ performance are shown on big screens, with under performers “named and shamed” and “made to squirm”.

“It puts huge pressure on the teachers, because every year you know it’s coming,” the person said. “You have to sit there and be the worst performing school and you can only do so much with the cohort you’ve got.” 

The Department of Education (DfE) said Ofsted was an independent body and any complaints about school inspections should be directed to them.

A spokesman for DfE told HuffPost UK: “We have a robust process for monitoring the performance of multi-academy trusts and ensuring their growth is sustainable.

“All academy trusts must have an external audit of their annual accounts by a registered auditor to ensure consistent levels of scrutiny. There is no equivalent requirement for local authority schools to publish individual accounts.”

HuffPost UK also contacted Lord Harris for comment in his capacity as sponsor and chairman of the multi-academy chain, but was told the response from the Harris Federation reflected his position. Lord Harris was chairman of Carpetright Plc until he left in 2014, sold all of his shares and he is no longer associated with the company.

*HuffPost UK spoke to multiple sources for this investigation, all former Harris teachers, staff or serving governors. All requested anonymity for fear of negative repercussions for their careers if they were named.