The Work of Ofsted - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Stuart Barber, Unison Regional Officer on behalf of Ofsted Unison London members


  1.  As you may be aware, on Wednesday 5 March 2008, the BBC, in their undercover series Whistleblower, reported on how nurseries were putting children at serious risk by failing to check both the criminal records and references of staff employed to work with very young children—and the failure of Ofsted to effectively police this situation.

  2.  Other areas highlighted in this programme included:

    (a) adult to child ratios are not being met;

    (b) the health and safety of children was being compromised;

    (c) there appears to be the absence of training given to new staff;

    (d) infrequent inspections;

    (e) wages well below the national minimum wage being paid

    (f) political connections possibly influencing decisions of Ofsted; and

    (g) the ease with which childminders can be registered.

  3.  Following the airing of this programme, there was, as expected, a flurry of denials from Ofsted and other establishments identified in this programme. In the main, the Nursery World publication was used as an appropriate vehicle.

  4.  In addition, some four to five days after the programme was aired, Senior Management within the South Division of Ofsted set up a "hotline" which was clearly intended to elicit the staff response to this programme within this division.

  5.  Furthermore, on Monday 9 March 2008 a senior UNISON Representative in London had her Ofsted e-mail and computer access frozen without warning by Ofsted on the instructions of South Divisional Senior Management. In addition, UNISON was advised that Michael Hart, the Ofsted Early Years Director, had sanctioned such activities, as well as the immediate suspension from work of this Shop Steward.

  6.  The basis of the suspension was to allow Ofsted to "investigate the possible access of, and use of, confidential material belonging to Ofsted, and the possible involvement in the making of damaging public statements concerning Ofsted". In addition, Ofsted claimed that there was an "unusual file access" by this individual.

  7.  It does appear to be the case that Ofsted, rather than address the extremely serious issues raised by the BBC, appear to be more content by hounding a member of staff who played no part in the compilation of the BBC programme, whilst also creating a climate of fear within the Organisation.

  8.  Notwithstanding the above, given the reasons for the Shop Steward's suspension, UNISON undertook a survey of the London region. The results of the survey were quite clear in that other Early Years Inspectors confirmed that:

    (a) All Inspectors view reports and information relating to cases that are not their own on the Ofsted internal systems on regular occasions, and this practice is widely encouraged by their line Managers. In fact, Inspectors state that if they did not do this, it would severely hamper their work and professional development. Inspectors' reasons for this include: as part of good practice, as part of their professional development, as a result of discussions with other Inspectors, and as part of team meeting discussions under the agenda item entitled "Inspectors' feedback".

    (b) Inspectors report viewing the Just Learning Nursery case via Ofsted's internal systems and discussing the setting with colleagues. In fact, staff reveal that they did this due to: a child dying at that nursery, discussion within teams, discussion with colleagues, media interest etc. Following Ofsted's reply to Nursery World (after the airing of the BBC Whistleblower programme) in which Ofsted state:

    "Inspectors have a whole day to inspect a single childminder, the same as for a small primary school .. Inspectors in the main disagree with Ofsted's statement and state that they are generally allowed only one day to prepare for inspection, attend inspection, and produce the report, with the actual inspection visit taking two to three hours only due to time restraints and target setting".

    (c) Over 50% of survey respondents report that they had been told by their Managers to take "short cuts" when undertaking inspections. In order to meet targets Inspectors report Managers using phrases such as "why reinvent the wheel, just go in and out" and "don't unturn stones" and to undertake a "lighter touch inspection". Other comments from Managers include: "If it fits, use it", "don't make work for yourself". Inspectors also report that the pressure to meet targets changes constantly, and being told "to assume that things have been looked at before—no need to dig too deep".

    (d) Over 50% of survey respondents report that they always feel under pressure. Just under 50% of respondents report that they have had their judgements of provisions overturned by their Managers, and they did not agree with the decision. Inspectors state that they completely disagreed with the decision to overturn their judgement, but were given no chance to discuss or debate the decision. Concerns from Inspectors include a childminder who had breached a regulation relating to safeguarding children (full survey results attached). The report was made null and void, and at no time was the Inspector asked for their professional input as part of the decision. Quote from one Inspector: "I was shocked. I no longer feel that Ofsted safeguard children".

    (e) Comments include that, in some cases, when Inspectors are interviewing personnel under the "Suitable person Criteria" (ie interviewing personnel for Manager positions within a provision) Inspectors will judge that a particular interviewee as "not suitable", but, despite the Inspectors professional judgement, they are told by Managers to "pass" these individuals as "suitable". Others report that they are instructed "not to dig too deep" and to pass previously "inadequate" provision as "satisfactory". Childminders who are not currently minding children, are having their inspections delayed, and Inspectors are concerned that childminders have become aware of this as a way of avoiding an inspection for an indefinite period of time. (Indeed, Inspectors have reported being told that some of these inspections can be undertaken via telephone!)

  9.  Obviously, UNISON will continue to effectively represent the individual who has been suspended. However, we believe that there are some deeper and wider issues that should be examined by your Committee in relation to the effectiveness of the Organisation, safeguarding of children, and their public accountability, as well as the working environment for Early Years Inspectors.

  10.  Whilst we, as a Union within the London region, have repeatedly raised our concerns in the past 18 months, relating to the way staff are being treated by Ofsted, this latest example of a Senior Trade Union official being suspended on the basis of the most flimsiest of evidence, leads me to believe that the current Ofsted Management approach, particularly in the Southern Division is "not fit for purpose".

  11.  Indeed, I believe that due to the past and current Management style within Ofsted, there is a current "climate of fear". Examples of the Management style over the last 18 months include:

    (a) Four members of staff being suspended without warning, and after the event, for "cutting and pasting" reports. Following the internal and appeal process, all four members of staff received a written warning.

    What was appalling was that an estimated total of at least 28 days of Senior Managers time was deployed to undertake the investigations, first hearings and appeal hearings. We estimate that this cost Ofsted at least £146.00 per day (based on an average salary of £36,000.00 per annum) which was paid out of the public purse. In addition, four members of staff, on a salary of approximately £28,000.00 each were suspended for between four to six months each, giving a further estimated total of £42,500 spent from the public purse.

    (b) We have raised a number of issues relating to the bullying and harassment of staff within the Southern Division, which (despite the promises given following the previous staff survey) notwithstanding formal grievances being lodged, has, we believe, fallen on deaf ears.

    This situation, of course, is appalling, and I may add unacceptable, particularly given the bland assurances and promises given in the past on this topic to previous Select Committee hearings.

    (c) We are concerned at the number of cases that end up at the Employment Tribunal as a result of the abject failure of the Ofsted internal Management structures to resolve what were initially internal grievances. What I find equally of concern is that when such cases are lodged, Ofsted, instead of using I house or Treasury Solicitors, use a little known legal consultancy based in Leicestershire. Once again, this is fully funded by the public purse in what I believe is an unaccountable fashion.

    (d) On at least four separate occasions within the last 18 months, formal grievances have been lodged by Ofsted staff within the Southern Division, relating to the breach of the Data Protection Act. These hearings involved a total of 12 members of staff.

    (e) The response to the grievances from Ofsted was appalling to say the least, particularly when it related to managers putting confidential data on the Ofsted open (shared) drive for all to see. Indeed Ofsted advised UNISON that their internal computer security system could not identify these individuals. Needless to say, that on the basis of this information, it would appear to be the case that anyone within Ofsted can post offensive or racist material on the Ofsted (open) shared drive without any fear of being identified.

    We as an Organisation were sufficiently concerned in respect of these breaches that we reported Ofsted to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO). The Information Commissioners Office in November 2007 confirmed to us that these were breaches of the Act and that Ofsted had promised them that they would take more care in the future over such confidential matters. Notwithstanding this promise, we had cause to lodge a further grievance alleging a data protection breach in December 2007.

  For the record, the breaches raised with the ICO included:

    (f) The storage of confidential information on a common computer access drive which was not password protected despite the staff involved (15 in total) being advised that such personal information would remain confidential. Ofsted could not identify the individual who placed this information relating to staff who were on an Improvement Plan as well as their sick leave records, at the conclusion of the grievance.

    (g) A Manager circulated widely to inspectors an e-mail which identified staff requiring training as a result of the "Coaching Drive".

    (h) A Manager from Ofsted's Health and Safety Committee circulated the document prior to a meeting involving other Committee members. This document, involving eight individuals, detailed their sickness absence, number of days lost due to this absence, and identified the nature of the illness or disability.

    (i) A document was placed on the open shared drive which identified all members of staff in the Southern Division, identifying each individuals work output. In addition, comments were placed alongside each individual, including whether they were on sick leave, long term sick leave, annual leave, maternity leave or bereavement leave. Needless to say, after a grievance and appeal hearing, we were advised that, once again, the Ofsted IT security system could not identify the person who placed this on the open drive.

    (j) The Assistant Division Manager for the South Region, circulated to all staff in the Early Years Division of the South Region, all employees individual home postcodes.

  12.  Notwithstanding the intervention of the Information Commissioners Office, and following the assurances being provided by Ofsted, a further breach occurred, which related to the publication of staff members' full home addresses on an open shared folder.

  13.  Given the foregoing catalogue of deficiencies and concerns relating to the internal Management operation within Ofsted, particularly in relation to its apparent "gung ho" attitude when taking the step to suspend individuals on the flimsiest of evidence, I would ask that your Select Committee take on board our concerns with a view to examining in more detail the internal Management activities in relation to staff who work within the Early Years Division. We believe that this "management style" is reflected in the organisational approach to issues raised by the BBC in respect of the vulnerability of children within the gambit of the Early Years Division (see results of survey). Clearly, I have set out above a number of differing yet specific concerns which we have encountered. I and our members within the London region are more than happy to provide you with chapter and verse of the issues referred to above. In this connection, I look forward to hearing from you. You will note that I have attached to this correspondence:[1]

    (a) a copy of the press release from the BBC prior to the airing of their programme;

    (b) a copy of the articles in Nursery World following the airing of the BBC programme;

    (c) a copy of a letter received in November 2007 from the Information Commissioner, and my response; and

    (d) UNISON's survey following the suspending of their London Representative.

April 2008

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