NEWS
19/09/2018 07:00 BST | Updated 19/09/2018 09:23 BST

Top Academy Chain Accused Of ‘Cheating’ During Ofsted Inspection

Whistleblowers claim more experienced teachers were brought in for watchdog's visit.

PA Archive/PA Images
The Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane in north London is embroiled in a row about 'cheating' during an Ofsted inspection earlier this year

A flagship academy trust has been accused of placing extra, more experienced teachers into one of its schools during an Ofsted inspection to “deliberately and premeditatedly cheat” the system.

Ten extra staff were reportedly deployed to the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane in north London during an inspection in May this year.

The team of highly experienced advisory teachers are said to have taught classes in place of less experienced staff at the Tottenham school.

The teachers union says the school gained an unfair advantage and may see its Ofsted rating increased from “good” to “outstanding” in the future as a result.

It says local authority schools and lone academies are not able to bolster inspection performance in this way and has called for a full investigation to ensure fairness and transparency – particularly as so many parents base school choices on Ofsted ratings.

But the Harris Federation – which runs 47 schools in and around London and has been praised as a shining example of an academy chain by ministers – says the allegations are “false”.

It claims the additional staff were teaching consultants who worked at the school regularly and has hit out at “campaigners who have spent most of the past decade objecting to the school’s conversion to academy status”.

Concerned teachers decided to whistleblow to union reps over a raft of allegations about the inspection at the academy. It comes only weeks after the same school was censured for “over-aiding” pupils during SATs exams and forced to annul its English and maths results.

The National Education Union (NEU) has written to Ofsted twice since June demanding an independent investigation into what happened on inspection day.

In letters, seen by HuffPost UK, Haringey NEU branch secretary Ed Harlow calls on the watchdog to investigate “deliberate, premeditated structural cheating of the Ofsted process”.

He told HuffPost UK: “If I’m a headteacher in a single academy trust or a local authority school, I can’t have 10 people turn up and remark all the books, tidy the school up and ensure that all my weakest teachers are out of the classroom on the day of the Ofsted inspection.

“That’s not an option that’s open to anybody other than the very biggest academy chains and Harris in particular. So that skews the system in favour of the big trusts.”

HuffPost UK understands the union has accounts from three separate sources – all teachers or former teachers at the school – about staff being “parachuted in” for the Ofsted inspection.

In a complaint letter, sent to Ofsted in June, the NEU branch secretary writes: “It has been reported to us by members at Harris Academy Philip Lane that during the Ofsted inspection of the school a few weeks ago about 10 members of the Harris central team were deployed to the school to prepare for inspection by marking books and checking records.

“Whilst this in itself may be seen as a supportive measure, we are also told that the staff in question remained at the school during the inspection and that they were ‘passed off’ as regular staff on the establishment of the school.”

He continues: “Members are clear and adamant that these staff are not normally deployed in this way and this is by no means a typical occurrence. Clearly if this were the case, the typicality of the teaching and learning observed on the day would be called into question.”

HuffPost UK also spoke to one of the whistleblowers, a former teacher at the school, whose identity we have agreed to protect to prevent repercussions for their career.

The teacher said a call came into Harris Primary Academy on the day before the Ofsted inspection and within two hours the central federation staff arrived “like an army” on site.

“I think Ofsted probably called to tell them that they were going to visit the next day and they had a code,” the teacher said. ”There was a megaphone in school and they said, ‘Can you all please bring your blue folders to staffroom.’ That was the code that we were going to have Ofsted the next day.

“We had a briefing and we were told the central team from Harris were going to come. We were told we were going to be teaching assistants and the central team would be the teachers.

“It was not normal for the support teachers to take classes away from us. I was really frustrated, really furious to be honest.

“Literally I couldn’t argue because I was going to lose any argument. The way they directed us was not a nice way. There was no choice.”

The Harris Federation insists no rules were broken and says the resulting Ofsted rating of “good” was well deserved.

“The successful Ofsted inspection at Harris Philip Lane is testament to the hard work of the staff and pupils at the school,” the spokeswoman told HuffPost UK. 

“The allegation that ‘Harris central staff taught classes while the usual teacher was asked to be a classroom assistant’ is false.

“Every person teaching on the day was either a permanent member of Philip Lane staff or one of the federation’s team of teaching consultants who had been working at the academy across the entire academic year.

“They were named on the school’s website throughout the academic year and were well known to all pupils and staff.”

The academy trust instead pointed the finger at campaigners who battled to stop the ex-local authority school becoming an academy, saying they had made “false allegations in an attempt to undermine” the school.

The Ofsted inspection scandal comes after the same school was censured last month for “cheating” on its year six SATs exams by “over-aiding” pupils.

The fiasco has left parents angry as their children join secondary school without SATs results for maths and English.

On Monday Schools Week also reported pupils at the “outstanding”-rated Harris Primary Academy Kent House, in south London, have had some of this year’s SATs results wiped after a maladministration investigation.

The Haringey NEU branch secretary has accused the Harris Federation of incentivising league table success over pupils’ education.

“There is a culture here,” said Harlow. “At Harris the Ofsted grade is king and they will do anything to get high Ofsted grades because it protects their reputation.

“It ties in together - the over-aiding on SATs and dropping people in on the eve of Ofsted inspections. They are linked in my view because it’s the league table culture of SATs results and Ofsted. If you have poor SATs results you can’t get good grades in Ofsted.”

Tottenham MP David Lammy backed calls for a full independent investigation.

He told HuffPost UK: “Ofsted inspections are a vital part of testing the quality of education in our schools. If true, the allegation that staff at the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane may have facilitated cheating not only undermines the process, but it sets an incredibly bad example for the students present.

“Coupled with the SATs exams scandal earlier in the year, it raises serious questions about the culture at the school. I hope it is investigated thoroughly to determine whether this wrongdoing indeed took place, and, if so, what action is most appropriate.”

The row comes after Ofsted was criticised by parliamentary watchdog the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last week for shortcomings in performance.

The committee found Ofsted focused too narrowly on the cost of inspections rather than the value of getting independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness.

The report also highlighted spending on inspection of schools has more than halved in real terms since 1999-2000.

Ofsted told HuffPost UK it was confident in the inspection result for Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane.

A spokesman said: “The inspector who visited this school took the NEU’s concerns into account when she wrote her inspection report.

“Ofsted short inspections are based on evidence of a school’s performance over time, not solely on what was seen on the day of the inspection.

“By law, the Department for Education is responsible for whistleblowing about schools.

“As stated in our latest published report on this school, we will undertake a full inspection within two years.”