Ofsted tightens inspection early warning alert loophole

Watchdog has 'made changes to its processes around how, and when, inspectors gather documents from websites'

Watchdog has 'made changes to its processes around how, and when, inspectors gather documents from websites'

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Ofsted has shaken up how and when inspectors access provider websites after FE Week sister title Schools Week exposed a loophole that offered advance notice of visits to those who monitored their website downloads.

But the watchdog this week refused to give more details, apparently fearing doing so would allow schools, and other education settings, to identify other ways to predict inspections.

Last year, website provider Greenhouse School Websites claimed to have “developed an algorithm to accurately tell when Ofsted are looking at your school website.” It signed up thousands of its clients, though some opted out when approached about the scheme.

Further investigation revealed the use of such practices was widespread and an open secret, with discussions on IT forum Edugeek about setting up an “Ofsted early warning” system dating back as far as 2015.

At the time, inspection teams were understood to look at key information documents from websites between two and 14 days before inspections.

By monitoring who was downloading documents, schools were able to work out if this was an inspector.

The inspection system is built on the principle that education settings should only be told about inspections in the relevant notice period, up to two working days for FE and skills.

Minister says Ofsted has ‘made changes’

When pressed about Schools Week’s investigations this month, schools minister Damian Hinds revealed Ofsted had “made changes to its processes around how, and when, inspectors access school websites.” 

It is understood this means documents are downloaded much closer to “the call” informing schools they are due to get an inspection. 

Ofsted is “also continuing to consider proportionate technical options to hide or disguise its access to websites prior to an inspection,” Hinds added. 

FE Week understands this includes the use of virtual private networks (VPNs).

Ofsted said the changes were “intended to stop schools from monitoring website traffic, we won’t be putting specific details about them in the public domain.” 

Professor Colin Richards, a former senior inspector, said Ofsted and DfE “have clearly been embarrassed” by the investigation “and are afraid to give anything away – even at the cost of a lack of transparency.” 

But Frank Norris, another ex-inspector and senior manager, said he understood why they “don’t want to alert schools to how they might be able to avoid website searches undertaken by inspectors being detected.”

The Department for Education also refused to say whether it had carried out a formal investigation into the practice when alerted to it last year. 

Former schools minister Nick Gibb had warned monitoring could “cause unnecessary pressure and add to workload for staff.” 

James Bowen, assistant general secretary at the NAHT, added the use of alerts was “further evidence that the impact and significance of Ofsted inspections has gotten out of hand.” 

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  1. Phil Hatton

    Several colleges I have worked with going back several years had worked this out for themselves. My advice was to ensure that you were doing the right things and had an ‘Ofsted plan’ in place to tell parents, students and employers that it was happening and to have a base room ready to function. Where this was the case there was no need to have staff working all weekend as there was not much required to be done. Schools for some reason have always been over the top with their fears of Ofsted which then transmit to their pupils.