Recently I participated in a Step 3 complaints panel at Ofsted HQ. I had applied for the position a couple of months previously and had to show my credentials as an early years specialist before I was accepted as suitable. It is a voluntary role, however as part of my own CPD I thought it would be an interesting addition to my early years knowledge and understanding. Whilst obviously, I am not going to share the details of the complaint I think it would be useful to talk through the complaints process. The Ofsted complaints procedure is here if you are not familiar with it.
On the FSF we have had many instances when we have needed to support one another through the consequences of a disappointing inspection outcome. Sometimes these have been as a result of things members have/have not done and in these cases, they accept the consequences and look to move on. Hopefully, they can work towards the next inspection and try to improve their inspection judgement by demonstrating that the provision for children is better than it was previously. However, occasionally members have had cause to formally complain about their inspection.
The complaints procedure begins at step 1 and the aim is to resolve complaints informally. At this step, the provider raises the complaint at the time of the ‘issue’, most probably during an inspection. Such examples of a complaint at this point might be that a member of staff doesn’t feel that they had sufficient opportunity to explain something or that the manager feels that a group room (such as a baby room) was not observed for sufficiently long for the inspector to form a legitimate opinion about the quality of their provision. Generally, these things can be discussed ‘there and then’ and can be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Inspectors keep in-depth notes (known as ‘evidence’) during an inspection and any step 1 complaints raised will be well-documented and will include details of any discussions held. The inspector will also note the time that the provider raised the complaint. They will also make a clear note of the discussion held regarding the complaint and the outcome of any discussions. These details from the complaint at step 1 may be crucial if the complaint moves to the next stage, step 2. Inspectors are very careful to document everything that happens on an inspection for this very reason.
Sometimes, providers don’t raise their concerns until the feedback session, by which time it is too late as the inspection has ended. The inspector will still note the complaint and will provide details of how to complain at step 2. Raising a concern at feedback is difficult for everyone because the inspector cannot go back over the inspection again. This is why it is so important for providers to raise concerns as the inspection goes along. During the inspection the inspector has time to deal with any issues that have arisen. Experienced inspectors have told the FSF that they always say to providers ‘are you happy that what I’ve seen today represents a ‘normal’ day at your setting?’ and also ‘Is there anything else you want me to see, you want to tell me, ask, me or show me before I begin to conclude the inspection?’ These are genuine questions and are a real opportunity for providers to raise issues – the key message here is ‘if you have a problem, say so!’
Inspectors will make sure, at the beginning of an inspection, that providers are familiar with the ‘Inspection Handbook’. If providers are not familiar with it or do not have a copy to hand then the inspector will have a copy for them to use for the duration of the inspection. The handbook will be very useful during the inspection as providers will be able to see what has been done and what is still to come in terms of the inspection day. If providers feel that the day is not progressing according to the handbook or that the inspector is asking questions outside of their Statutory Framework remit then these points can be raised (step 1) with the inspector. Providers can raise points at step 2 even if they have already raised them at step 1.
At the end of the inspection providers should be given the opportunity to take a copy of the Complaints about Ofsted: Raising concerns and making a complaint about Ofsted document. If they have any doubts about the inspection, they should take the document – the inspector will note that they have done so. Once the inspection has ended this are 10 days during which a complaint can be raised. This is done from this web page. When completing a complaint form it is important that the issues are clearly explained. Complaints should be detailed, yet succinct and objective. The complaint will be reviewed by one of Ofsted’s senior inspectors working as part of the in-house complaints team.
At step 2, the senior inspector who is handling the case will read the complaint carefully and will contact the provider to talk through any aspects of the complaint that can be quickly resolved. An inspector told us about a good example of this kind of quick and easy resolution. “When the new reporting requirements document came out we had complaints that the report said, ‘safeguarding is effective’ when the inspector had told the provider that their safeguarding procedures were very strong and had been commended on the front page of the report. Providers felt that ‘effective’ insinuated that the safeguarding was only ‘ok’, not strong. We were very easily able to explain to providers that the reporting requirements stated that inspectors should say only either ‘safeguarding is effective’ or that ‘safeguarding is not effective’ – there was no room for a qualitative statement. Once this point was explained at step 2, this aspect of the complaint could be resolved.”
The inspector who carried out the inspection will be contacted – along with any other inspectors who were with them (perhaps training inspectors or inspectors present for quality assurance purposes). They will be asked to highlight aspects of their inspection evidence that pertains to the complaint raised. So, for example, if a provider has complained that insufficient time was spent in a particular area of a setting (e.g. a baby room or the outside space) the inspector will be expected to show from their evidence the length of time (so, time into the room and time out) spent in that area and the evidence (e.g. observations, discussions, documents) collected during that time. This evidence will enable the investigating inspector to make a judgement about whether the evidence gathered is sufficiently robust to lead the inspector to make the judgements that were decided.
The investigating inspector will go through every point of the complaint and will respond in one of three ways to each point raised: upheld, not upheld or ‘no decision reached’. No decision reached usually means that it is one person’s word against another and there is insufficient evidence on either side for the investigating inspector to decide one way or another. Providers will receive a full written response to each point of the complaint with an explanation of how and why decisions were reached.
If the provider remains unhappy with the way that the complaint has been handled at step 2 the complaint can be sent for internal review, this is known as step 3. At step 3 the complaint process will be reviewed by a panel of professionals which will include a sector specific expert who is independent of Ofsted (this was my role when I was part of a step 3 complaint panel). The panel will be chaired by a senior Ofsted HMI and at least one other senior Ofsted representative will be present. None of the panel members will be from the region from which the complaint originated.
The panel will have access to all the documentation regarding the complaint, including the investigating inspector’s report, the original complaint details, the inspector’s evidence and the original report. At the panel meeting the investigating inspector will be challenged to prove that the step 2 investigation was carried out fairly and according to Ofsted’s published methodology. The panel will then review each aspect and will discuss whether or not the investigation carried out was sufficiently robust to establish the upheld/not upheld/no decision reached judgements that have been given. There is no assumption one way or another at the panel meeting. It is through the scrutiny of the information provided and the challenging questions posed to the investigating inspector that the panel makes their decision.
Once the panel have made their decision it is final. If they decide that the step 2 investigation met Ofsted’s requirements for rigour and clarity, then the provider is informed of this. If they do not agree they can make a different outcome decision to the complaint at step 2. The provider receives a written response of all decisions, with explanations.
Following a step 3 decision, if a provider remains unhappy they can refer their complaint to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted who will undertake a further review.
My experience of the step 3 process was positive. As the independent panel member I was given time to ask questions and challenge the investigating inspector on aspects of the investigation and my views were listened to and taken into consideration. Throughout the process, Ofsted looks for opportunities to learn and improve. Learning points are submitted following both the step 2 and step 3 processes and Ofsted review these and pass these on to the inspection teams and to the investigating inspectors if there are lessons to be learned. I’m looking forward to continued involvement in the process.