Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Ampleforth's latest failed Ofsted inspection

Ampleforth College was inspected (again) by Ofsted for its safeguarding last Novermber/December. It failed (again). The latest Ofsted report was published today on its website. It is a sorry read and I suspect it means the end of the school.

First, a bit of historical context. Ampleforth was the subject of extensive hearings at IICSA (The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse) at the end of 2017. IICSA’s report published the following year severely criticised the school for abuses of pupils (some as young as seven years old) stretching over decades. The perpetrators were predominantly but not exclusively monks. The failure of the college and abbey to report the abuses or otherwise take effective action to prevent the abuse was also severely criticized.

In July 2019, in response to a failed ISI inspection, DfE sent Ampleforth a Warning Notice “requiring an Action Plan which details the steps that will be taken” to meet those of the Independent Schools Standards it was failing. These covered health and safety, child protection, complaints handling and leadership amongst other items.

Ampleforth’s first action plan submitted to DfE was rejected and had to be beefed up. Things seemed to improve, and two ISI inspections in 2020 were passed. But DfE received information to the effect that the second ISI inspection may have missed something important, and so commissioned Ofsted to carry out an emergency inspection in September 2020. Multiple serious problems were found.

As a result, in November 2020 DfE issued an Enforcement Notice barring the school from accepting any new pupils. If this ban were maintained for any significant length of time, it would have meant the closure of the school. No school can survive without new pupils.

Ampleforth’s initial reaction was to deny that there was a problem, complain that Ofsted had got it all wrong and threaten legal action to overturn the ban. This position lasted until mid January. At this point, I rather suspect that they received advice to the effect that legal action had very little prospect of success, and so they were going to have to persuade DfE that they had changed. So they withdrew the threat of legal action, admitted their faults, promised to improve and requested another Ofsted inspection to demonstrate that things were better.

That inspection happened in February 2021 and the report published in March. They failed again, about as badly as before. DfE declined to lift the ban but indicated that Ampleforth could ask for another inspection whenever they wanted.

Things were now quite desperate for the school. If it couldn’t take a new cohort of pupils in September 2021 this would almost certainly have meant the school having to close. No school can survive long without new pupils. But offers have to be finalized around Easter for the following September, and Easter was now very near.

So the school immediately asked for another Ofsted inspection. I suspect that they didn’t believe they would actually pass, but perhaps they might demonstrate sufficient improvement that they could persuade DfE to lift the ban while they carried on working at it. The inspection took place on 23 March.

They failed again, with little if any sign of improvement. Interestingly, Ofsted added another issue to their list of concerns: the governance of the school and the extent to which it was interlinked with the Abbey.

At the IICSA hearings back in 2017, witnesses and Ampleforth’s legal representatives went to great lengths to explain that everything was different now and the mistakes of the past could not be repeated. One measure that was said to have been taken was the separation of the governance of the Abbey and the school into two separate charitable trusts. But Ofsted had concluded that this separation was essentially in name only.

But by a miracle, even through the school had failed its third Ofsted inspection in six months, DfE lifted the ban on new pupils, claiming that the school had made “unprecented undertakings” to improve. There would be a further Ofsted inspection in the autumn term to see that those improvements had happened. Vast sighs of relief all round from the school, abbey and their various influential friends who had lobbied DfE on the school’s behalf.

And so to the present. Ofsted visited again at the end of November 2021, and as we have now seen, failed the school yet again. In a direct repeat of the previous autumn, Ampleforth is blaming Ofsted for getting everything wrong, and has appealed the outcome. This is why it has taken over three months for the report to be published.

The failures are all on the subject of safeguarding. In summary:

  • The school doesn’t have control over which monks live at the monastery on site, who could include those who are judged a danger to children
  • The children aren’t in a position to know the difference between those monks with a school role and therefore entitled to be within the school grounds and those who don’t have a role and shouldn’t be allowed in the school
  • There was a serious incident around a sixth-form party involving drugs and excessive alcohol consumption
  • Inadequate supervision leading to sex between pupils with special educational needs
  • Failure to make a prompt DBS referral when a staff member is dismissed

On the positive side, experienced safeguarding staff had been recruited, referrals were getting made to external agencies, past records had been combed resulting in further referrals, and the safeguarding policy itself was compliant – although not being properly followed.

But even so, it obvious that there is a long way to go before there can be confidence in the school, and Ofsted bluntly said so. “The arrangements for safeguarding are not effective” and “there is still much work to do to ensure that the independent school standards are consistently met over time”.

Ampleforth is a long-established and prestigious school. It complained bitterly about the September 2020 report before belatedly withdrawing its objections. Those complaints included press articles from friendly journalists and commentators suggesting anti-Catholic bias was motivating Ofsted and the government. Ofsted would have known to expect something similar this time. One can therefore be reasonably sure that the report has been triple-checked for factual accuracy and thoroughly lawyered before publication. It is undoubtedly as bullet-proof as Ofsted and the government legal service knows how to make it. (The government legal service has some very good lawyers!)

Nonetheless, in its media statement in response to the Ofsted report, Ampleforth has claimed that “Ofsted's report contains substantive factual inaccuracies which undermine its conclusions about our safeguarding and leadership”. They go on to describe four specific cases where they claim that Ofsted has got its facts wrong about various incidents referred to in the report.

In a message to parents and alumni, the school has said

“We have used, and continue to use, Ofsted’s complaints process to try to demonstrate these inaccuracies and request revision of their assessment. At our request, Ofsted are now carrying out an internal review, but they have decided to publish the reports while the review is ongoing. During and since the inspection, Ofsted have viewed our consistent attempts to correct inaccuracies as a failure of leaders to accept responsibility. However, we cannot simply accept damaging errors and ill-founded judgements. The Abbey have also been in touch today to say they have contacted Ofsted directly to express concern about inaccurate statements about the Abbey and the Abbot which are contained in the reports. We are expecting a follow-up inspection after Ofsted’s review has finished and we are ready. Aside from being factually inaccurate, the cases Ofsted have raised are not linked and do not demonstrate systemic inadequacy."

Ampleforth’s big problem is that it hasn’t demonstrated to Ofsted’s satisfaction that there is substantial improvement in safeguarding. Their great fear is that the ban on new pupils will be re-introduced. Assuming DfE accepts Ofsted’s assessment, it is hard to see how Baroness Barran (Minister for the School System) could politically justify not re-introducing the ban.

But last academic year, the ban was introduced in late November and lifted in mid April, just in time for the school to confirm offers of new places for September. But we are now in mid March. If the ban were to be re-applied, then they would need to get it lifted by end of April at the very latest in order to make offers to pupils for September. (Easter is late this year, which helps somewhat.) That would mean another immediate inspection, and given how long this saga has now dragged on for, I can’t see DfE this time accepting anything less than a complete pass from Ofsted as justification for lifting the ban.

Ampleforth (Abbey and College) is also in serious difficulty financially. The school has been losing money. It is financially dependent on the Abbey (which owns the land and the buildings), and the Abbey has missed scheduled repayments on a substantial overdraft, which they hoped to clear with the proceeds of the sale of Gilling Castle. They haven’t yet found a buyer at the £3.5m asking price. This seriously complicates the problem of demonstrating that the school is independent of the Abbey, which seems to be an aspect of safety DfE has insisted on.

This suggests that Ampleforth has concluded that its only chance of survival is to fight Ofsted and try and get the report overturned, so that DfE isn’t persuaded that a ban is needed. My guess is that this is a desperate and probably forlorn hope. If they fail, they will further convince DfE that they aren’t willing and able to make the changes that are needed, and enforcement will almost inevitably follow. If that happens, the school will very probably close.

Monday, 10 May 2021

The legal issues around the DfE decision

The Department for Education isn't free arbitrarily to do what it wants over issuing or revoking Enforcement Notices. There is law defining both the circumstances under which an Enforcement Notice can be issued and under which it can be varied or revoked. The relevant law is the Education and Skills Act 2008. Section 115 defines the circumstances in which a notice can be imposed and Section 118 defines how and when it can be revoked. Here is the wording of section 115.

115         Power of Secretary of State to take enforcement action

(1)  This section applies to a registered independent educational institution if the Secretary of State is satisfied, taking into account relevant evidence, that one or more of the independent educational institution standards is or are not being met in relation to the institution.

(2)  In subsection (1) “relevant evidence” means—

(a)   the report of an inspection carried out by the Chief Inspector or an independent inspectorate, or

(b)    any other evidence in respect of the institution.

(3)  The Secretary of State may take enforcement action under section 116 against the proprietor of a registered independent educational institution to which this section applies if either of the following conditions is met.

(4)  The first condition is that—

(a)    the Secretary of State has, during the period of three years before the enforcement action is taken, required the proprietor of the institution to submit one or more action plans under section 114, and

(b)    any action plan required as mentioned in paragraph (a)—

(i)      has not been submitted, and the date specified by the Secretary of State under section 114(5)(b) has passed,

(ii)      was submitted but was rejected, or

(iii)      was approved but was subsequently not complied with.

(5)    The second condition is that—

(a)   at least two years before the enforcement action is taken the Secretary of State required the proprietor of the institution to submit an action plan,

(b)   at least one inspection of the institution has been carried out, by the Chief Inspector or an independent inspectorate approved under section 106 in relation to the institution, since that requirement was imposed, and

(c)    the Secretary of State has not at any time since that requirement was imposed been satisfied that the institution was meeting all of the independent educational institution standards.

Section 116 of the Act describes the possible kinds of enforcement action that can be taken, and Section 124 describes how a school can appeal against a Notice. Ampleforth did in fact make an appeal but withdrew it on 22nd January, before any hearings had taken place. So it was in effect agreed by all parties that the Secretary of State had the legal right to act as he did in imposing the ban. He had "relevant evidence" as described in 115(2)(a) in the form of the September emergency Ofsted inspection report, and under 115(5) the school had previously been required to produce an action plan (in response to an earlier Warning Notice issued under Section 114), at least one inspection had been carried out since and the Secretary of State had not in the intervening time given the school a clean bill of health by withdrawing the Warning Notice.

So the Enforcement Notice was issued on 27th November 2020 and went into force on 22 January 2021 on withdrawal of the school's appeal.

Section 118 describes how the Enforcement Notice can be revoked.

118         Relevant restriction imposed by Secretary of State: supplementary

(1)   This section applies where the proprietor of an institution is subject to a relevant restriction imposed by the Secretary of State under section 116(1)(a).

(2)   If the proprietor fails to comply with the relevant restriction the proprietor is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale (or to both).

(3)   In relation to an offence committed before the commencement of section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44), for “51 weeks” in subsection (2) substitute “six months ”.

(4)  The proprietor may apply to the Secretary of State for the restriction to be varied or revoked.

(5)  On an application under subsection (4) the Secretary of State must—

(a)    vary or revoke the restriction as requested in the application, if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is appropriate to do so because of any change of circumstance, and

(b)    in any other case, refuse to do so.

(6)  The Secretary of State must notify the proprietor of the decision made under subsection (5).

(7)  A decision to vary or revoke the restriction has effect as from the date on which the proprietor receives notice of it.
 
The key phrase is section 118(5). The school can apply under section 118(4) at any time for the ban on pupils to be revoked. Section 118(5) then defines what the Secretary of State can do in response. Under 118(5)(a), if he is “satisfied that it is appropriate” to lift the ban because there has been “any change of circumstance” making it appropriate, he must do so, and under 118(5)(b) he must refuse in any other case.
 
Ampleforth first applied for the ban to be revoked probably in late January. As a result DfE commissioned the February Ofsted inspection. It showed no evidence of any “change of circumstance” which in the context of this law can presumably only mean a transition from not meeting the Independent Schools Standards (ISS) to meeting them, or to really stretch the point, to have made great progress and to be very nearly meeting them. The Independent Schools Standards are clearly mentioned in Section 115 as the criteria against which action is decided on. As a result, DfE acted under section 118(5)(b) and refused to revoke the ban. DfE's public comment at the time was as follows.
“The most recent Ofsted inspection showed the school has made some progress, but not yet enough. The school is able to immediately request a further review of the restriction if it chooses, which would trigger another inspection."
Ampleforth did precisely that and DfE therefore commissioned yet another Ofsted inspection. Ofsted visited in March. This is where legally things get a bit murky, because the March Ofsted report was no better than the February one, and yet the DfE's response was the opposite. They revoked the ban.

On the face of it, that's hard to justify legally. If the situation following the February Ofsted was such that no "change of circumstances" had occurred making it "appropriate" to lift the ban, it is extremely hard to argue that a "change of circumstances" had happened at the time of the March inspection.

To the best of my knowledge there is nobody who has both the standing (i.e. the right to bring a case having been adversely affected by the decision) and the resources to seek a Judicial Review of the decision to revoke the ban, so the decision is going to stand. But it would be interesting to see what the case might be either way. I asked a solicitor friend to take an informal look. This is my paraphrase of what he told me.

The challenge would have to be on one or more grounds of illegality, procedural impropriety or unreasonableness.

Illegality is out. The Secretary of State for Education is the person with the legal authority to make the decision.

Procedural impropriety is similarly out, as the correct procedure has been followed: the decision was made following an application from the school to revoke the ban.

That leaves unreasonableness, in which case the Wednesbury standard applies. "A reasoning or decision is Wednesbury unreasonable (or irrational) if it is so unreasonable that no reasonable person acting reasonably could have made it". This isn't in any law, it was established by precedent in the judgement in the case Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation (1948) 1 KB 223. So it goes back a good long way.

It is an extremely low bar for the government to clear. A decision can be wrong or even unreasonable, but still not be so utterly irrational that it fails the Wednesbury standard.

The government could argue that the wording of section 118(5)(a) gives the Secretary of State wide discretion and that he is free to take absolutely anything into account in deciding what is "appropriate", and isn't limited to the kinds of "relevant evidence" or even the criteria described in section 115. The government would claim that in essence the Secretary of State has unlimited discretion in deciding what evidence and criteria are relevant since nothing on the subject is directly stated in section 118. So he is free for instance to take into account the fact that the school has come up with a further action plan and promised to sort itself out.

The counterargument would be that sections 118 and 115 are two sides of the same coin and that the details of criteria and "relevant evidence" described in section 115 also apply to section 118, and that the wording was not repeated in full simply as a matter of brevity. It is therefore not rational to apply different criteria or different standards of evidence to section 118, and therefore if an Ofsted report was the basis for the decision to impose the ban, a further Ofsted report was the basis for the decision to maintain the ban then only an Ofsted report with a different outcome can be used to justify revoking the ban.

The government could also argue that if the (presumably educated and successful) parents of 165 prospective new pupils are keen to send their children there, then it's not on the face of it outrageously unreasonable (to Wednesbury standard) to allow them, even if Ofsted's opinion is that the school is unsafe.

Also, if a judge were to rule against DfE then he would in effect be demanding the closure of the school against DfE's wishes. Judges hate doing that sort of thing, and of course most judges have been educated at similar sorts of schools. (That shouldn't make a difference, but it does.)

That's not to say a case brought for Judicial Review couldn't succeed, but these are the arguments it would be up against. I don't think anyone can say how a case would go, because to the best of my knowledge, these sections of the Act have never been tested in court.

But I would strongly suspect that the legal advice DfE received leaned more towards "you can get away with this because of Wednesbury" rather than "this is the right decision". 

The same Wednesbury standard would have applied when Ampleforth was contemplating appealing the original ban, I'm pretty sure the legal advice the school received will have addressed the same issues of illegality, procedural impropriety or unreasonableness, and would have found that particularly in the light of the September Ofsted report, there was absolutely zero prospect of persuading a judge that the imposition of the ban was Wednesbury unreasonable. This is why the appeal was withdrawn in January before the matter reached a hearing.

Similarly, had  DfE decided to maintain the ban following the March Ofsted inspection, the school could have had no conceivable means of overturning it because that decision could not plausibly be argued as being unreasonable to any extent, let alone Wednesbury unreasonable. So the school had put itself in a position where it was completely at the mercy of the decision of the Secretary of State for Education. In addition the leadership team, just to make things more difficult for themselves, had insulted Ofsted and DfE in their earlier public statements. Since they had failed to get the school's safeguarding right, the school's survival did in fact depend on its lobbying capabilities.

There is to be a further Ofsted inspection in the autumn. The Warning Notice from July 2019 has not been withdrawn, it is still up on the DfE website though the Enforcement Notice has been taken down. Even though DfE has been extremely vague about what (if anything) it will actually do if Ampleforth fails the autumn Ofsted, it would seem that DfE has the legal power to re-impose the ban. It's entirely plausible that DfE would use that power if Ampleforth fails badly enough as there is a limit to how long DfE can be seen to let Ampleforth get away with inadequate safeguarding. Remember that DfE has not professed itself satisfied that Ampleforth meets the Independent School Standards since it issued the Warning Notice back in July 2018.

If the ban is re-imposed, then there will be the same merry-go-round of requests to revoke the ban, additional inspections and further decisions by the Secretary of State until around Easter next year, by which time the ban is either lifted again or the school acknowledges it can't stay open without the next September's intake. If Ampleforth hasn't got its safeguarding properly in order by then, it will most thoroughly deserve to close.

Friday, 7 May 2021

The DfE's decision on Ampleforth

On the face of it, the DfE's decision to lift the ban on new pupils at Ampleforth makes no sense at all. Two requests from the school to lift the ban, each of which triggered an Ofsted inspection which found serious and multiple safeguarding shortcomings. On 9th March in response to the February Ofsted report, DfE decided to maintain the ban, but on 14th April, having received the March Ofsted report with almost identical results, the ban was lifted. Why?

The process for recruiting new pupils in independent schools supplies the context for the decision. Schools like to get their roll for the following September finalized by Easter. It provides financial certainty and allows proper planning for staffing levels etc for the following year. But for as long as the ban was in place, Ampleforth was unable to guarantee that any prospective pupils would actually be able to take up their places.

Almost all those pupils would have had backup offers from other schools. Had the ban lasted even a week longer, those other schools would have been pressuring parents to make a final decision where they wanted to send their children. The 165 prospective new pupils that Ampleforth says it has on its books would rapidly have melted away. 165 pupils equates approximately £5 million in fees at risk. (The precise figure would depend on the mix of junior and senior, and the mix of boarders and day pupils.)

That £5m would not just be for one year. It's very hard to recruit significant numbers of pupils except at the standard entry points (1st year junior, first year senior, lower 6th), so that "missing year" would gradually move up through the school depressing fee income for some years. 

The school is already in the red, it can't afford a loss of income on this scale. In recent years it has been subsidised by the Abbey which itself is in a tricky financial position and cannot afford indefinitely to bail out the school. The school owns no assets of its own, and so cannot borrow to tide it over. Almost certainly, had the ban not been lifted immediately, the school would have closed at the end of the summer term. No doubt the school and its friends and lobbyists made it clear to Gavin Williamson that a decision to delay lifting the ban was a decision to close the school.

It may well be that DfE never had any intention of forcing the school to close. After all, closing the school might result in the pupils having to be educated in the state system at public expense! Conservative governments are inclined to go to great lengths to help private schools. Most of their MPs and cabinet members were educated in them. So it's reasonable to suppose that DfE just wanted to give Ampleforth a bit of a scare and get the leadership team to pull its socks up. 

The Independent Schools Standards aren't that hard to meet. There are 2,500 independent schools in England and the rest of them seem to manage without too much difficulty. With even moderate competence and a bit of effort, the school should have been able by Easter to improve to the point where it passed an Ofsted inspection, and that is probably what DfE expected to happen. Ban lifted, school firmly slapped on the wrist, everyone happy.

But DfE perhaps didn't realise how deeply ingrained the problem was even after the September Ofsted report, and didn't count on the refusal of Ampleforth to believe it had a safeguarding problem at all, even when facing imminent closure. The school wasted valuable time challenging the original Ofsted report. The emergency Ofsted inspection was on 24-25 September. Because of the school's appeal against the result, the report was not published until 10th December. Even after Ampleforth was informed of the ban on new pupils on 27th November, the school was publicly claiming that Ofsted had got it wrong. the rest of the autumn term was wasted while the trustees and senior leadership team remained in denial.

The headmaster Robin Dyer was still following this line when he gave an interview to Times Radio on 29th December 2020. This is what he said in response to a question about what the school needed to do next.

There are three things I think. One we need an inspection and a new inspection team to arrive, whether it be the Independent Schools Inspectorate or Ofsted, to come with a fresh approach, fresh mind, perhaps not necessarily with the mindset of the inspection that occurred in September. So that's number one and we need that really in mid-January because any longer and the Restriction order will impact very adversely on the school.

The second thing is I think we need some political input here, because the secretary of state has issued this order. It seems to be cast in the past. It seems to be about 2016 to 2018 and remarkably little about what has happened in the school since August 19 when I started to lead the school, so I think we need some political action to be honest with you.

And third we need a much better relationship with North Yorkshire Safeguarding Partnership, NYSCP it is called, who we think are not terribly happy with the idea of the college living alongside a separate institution, the monastery. They seem to feel that the old relationship of the past continues and that isn't the case, we’re now separate institutions.

In the answer to a single question he insulted the professionalism of Ofsted, suggested that decisions affecting the safety of pupils should be the subject of political lobbying, and made an extremely misleading statement about the degree of separation between the College and Abbey. His view was that Ofsted needed to change their attitude, the DfE must forget the past and NYSCP should turn a blind eye to the proximity of the Abbey and its monks.

It's hard to imagine a course of action more likely to enrage the Ofsted inspectors and sow distrust of the school at the DfE. The headmaster seemed not to have realised that the school's future in all probability depended on the good opinion of just two people: the lead Ofsted inspector for the next visit and the Secretary of State for Education.

By the time the headmaster and the governors finally realised that the concerns of Ofsted and DfE weren't going to go away and had to be addressed (no matter how much they might privately or even publicly disagree), the autumn term was over, and it was clear that because of Covid the school would be unable to open as normal in January. This was an extremely stupid misjudgement on the part of those running the school. (Precisely who was responsible for this policy is of course not really known given the somewhat opaque governance arrangements and the school's continuing dependence on the Abbey.)

It was at this point that the Safeguarding Alliance was commissioned by the school to come in to advise and assist. I suspect what they found when they conducted an audit in January severely shocked the leadership of the school. The audit found (amongst many other problems) a bunch of recent peer-on-peer abuse cases which should have been reported to the authorities but hadn't been. IICSA's principal criticism of Ampleforth in its 2018 report had been the school's failure to report abuse to the authorities. This new finding completely shattered the claim that all those problems of not reporting abuse were long past. On the contrary they were still horrifyingly current.

The school had already made an application to DfE for the ban to be lifted, and Ofsted arrived on 3rd February to inspect. There was no time to do anything other than come clean and promise to start improving. Had the school tried to hide the Safeguarding Alliance findings from Ofsted and Safeguarding Alliance not been willing to go along with this and blown the whistle, then the February inspection report would have been even more catastrophic (from the school's point of view) than it actually was. (I'm not saying this was ever seriously considered as an option, just explaining the probable consequences had it been attempted.)

Even so, the February inspection was a disastrous failure, and by the time the DfE decision to maintain the ban was announced on 9th March the spring term was almost over. A change of mind from DfE following a further inspection after Easter would be too late. So another application to revoke the ban was made immediately and maximum pressure no doubt applied to DfE to get Ofsted to visit again before the end of term. They just scraped in: Ofsted visited on 23-25 March, the last three full days of the spring term.

By now, the trustees and senior leadership team had almost certainly realised that actually passing the March Ofsted inspection was an unattainable goal. The headteacher effectively said as much to the Yorkshire Post, as they reported 13th February.

Mr Dyer, who joined Ampleforth from Wellington College in Berkshire in 2019, admitted that the school would close if the decision were not reversed.

He has led reforms and accepts that Ampleforth's past is 'indefensible'.

He has removed several senior staff from their posts but says that a further three years would be required to oversee a complete overhaul of the school's culture.

This is a remarkable change from the belligerent tone adopted in the interview with Times Radio a mere six weeks earlier. It sounds like an exercise in managing expectations - telling DfE that they couldn't possibly be expected to get all the way to passing Ofsted in one go and should be allowed an extended period of time in which to bring themselves up to standard. They pinned their hopes on making enough improvement that they could justify a decision by DfE to lift the ban while they continued to work at it. 

But they blew it. This strategy required that they show some substantial improvement to show they were on the right path, but the March report was no better than February and in some ways worse, partly because DfE and Ofsted had finally noticed that they needed to take a hard look at governance and the school's claims about separation from the abbey.

But because the school wanted to remain open and DfE presumably didn't really want to force it into closure, something had hastily to be cobbled together to justify lifting the ban. The local MP Kevin Hollinrake said he had "had a number of conversations with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson". I'm sure there were several meetings to try and come to some arrangement that would save face all round.

The result was a triumph of political lobbying. It might have been better had the school put the same effort into being good at safeguarding and not needed its political lobbying capabilities. In the end DfE announced that:

Our robust action in relation to the school has secured unprecedented commitments to improve governance and safeguarding. With this in mind, we have lifted the restriction on Ampleforth admitting new pupils. We will be monitoring it closely and if it is not meeting the standards at the next inspection we will not hesitate to consider whether further action is necessary.

The DfE is remarkably vague as to what (if any) action it will take if the school fails the next Ofsted inspection. Promising that they "will not hesitate to consider whether further action is necessary" is about as meaningless a statement as it is possible to make. It commits the DfE to precisely nothing and leaves open the option of letting Ampleforth get away indefinitely with failing to meet basic safeguarding standards.

The DfE's actions (such as they are) are the opposite of robust and the requirements are unprecedented only in their leniency in the circumstances. Any other school that has got this bad and not improved has actually been closed.

Some of the commitments demanded of the school have been disclosed by DfE to the press.

The school has committed to a formal action plan to sustain a strong safeguarding culture and meet the independent school standards in full at the point of its next Ofsted inspection in autumn 2021.

That word "sustain" is rather curious in this context. Achieving a strong safeguarding culture needs to come first before we can think about sustaining it, and that still seems a distant goal.

Amongst other measures, it is to make substantial changes to the trust board, appointing new trustees with no previous connection to either the school or the Abbey, employ a new, experienced designated safeguarding lead, and contract an external agency to provide ongoing safeguarding support for a period of three years.

It is also to commission twice yearly independent monitoring reviews of its safeguarding practices, with findings made available to the Department. This will be in addition to Ofsted inspections as required.

The action plan hasn't been disclosed, so we have no idea what these "other measures" are, what else  the school has actually promised to do and by when. Without that, neither staff nor parents nor public have any means of telling what progress is being made.

Of the measures we have been told about, the most striking is the requirement to "employ a new, experienced designated safeguarding lead". It looks as if the school has been forced to accept that the existing designated safeguarding lead was part of the problem. Hardly surprising given that Ofsted had made serious and specific criticisms about his competence. But it doesn't reflect well on the headmaster and trustees that it took three Ofsted inspections failing specifically on safeguarding and the need for an action plan that would satisfy DfE for this decision to be forced on them.

A job advert has already been posted for his replacement. From the wording of the job ad, it looks as if they expect the new person to arrive immediately (without working out their notice at their previous school), hit the ground running and transform safeguarding in the school in a single term in time to pass an Ofsted inspection in the autumn. All while working on a temporary contract. That's a challenging brief to put it mildly. The new person will need to work miracles.

A great deal of independent monitoring for the next three years has been demanded. This is an indication of how deeply DfE mistrusts the school. It is pretty clear that DfE has agreed with the headmaster's revised view that it will take three years to change the school culture and have concluded that they need to keep close tabs on the place for the entire duration. I expect that the Warning Notice is going to remain in force for all that time, so any backsliding by the school could easily see the ban re-imposed. Even for an old-established public school with friends in high places, there is ultimately a limit to how much patience the DfE can justify.

All the additional support that DfE is demanding that the school obtain is going to be expensive. The school is going to have to pay for it out of fee income, and the finances aren't great at the moment.

Overall though, whole thing stinks. The government has scrambled to find some figleaf of justification to avoid making a decision that (for the safety of the pupils) it knows it should, but doesn't want to for fear of upsetting friends. I guess the main reason this story hasn't hit the news to a greater extent is that it has had to compete with much bigger stories about government cronyism.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Ampleforth's finances

Ofsted found that "The St Laurence Education Trust and the Ampleforth Abbey Trust remain linked closely" and clearly weren't happy about it for reasons I described in my previous article. So one needs to take a look at precisely how closely they are linked, and how easy would it be to separate them. An experienced professional accountant has conducted an examination of Ampleforth's finances, based on their Companies House and Charities Commission returns published last year.

A quick summary of the organisations involved: The Abbey is represented by The Ampleforth Abbey Trustees Ltd and Ampleforth Abbey Trust, and the St Laurence Education Trust runs the school. Where a charitable body also engages in trading activities of some kind, it is common for it to be registered both as a company and a charity. Both the abbey and the school have this dual registration. The key question analysed is how independent the school is from the Abbey.

The overall conclusion is that the school is dependent on the Abbey financially, organisationally and operationally, and their combined somewhat precarious financial position offers little or no prospect of being able to achieve a meaningful separation for the foreseeable future. 

In fact the ability of Abbey and school to continue operating as going concerns is an open question, since there is a substantial bank loan secured on the property (all owned by the Abbey) and repayable in full by January 2024. That's a stiff repayment schedule for a group of organisations which collectively appear currently to be losing money.

It may be that satisfying Ofsted that the school can meet the Independent School Standards section on leadership depends (among other things) on achieving the separation in governance which the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse has described as essential. If so, then there's very little chance of the school passing an Ofsted any time soon. Quite what this means for the future of the school remains to be seen.

Here is the accountant's analysis.

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The statements examined were those for 31 August 2019 in respect of:

  • The Ampleforth Abbey Trustees Ltd, (TAAT) Company
  • Ampleforth Abbey Trust (AAT) Charity and
  • St Laurence Education Trust (SLET) Charity, Company

The relevant financial statements can be inspected through the hyperlinks listed above.

All figures and quotations below come from these statements. Underlining and italics have been added for emphasis.

How independent is SLET?

The purported independence of SLET is set out by implication in SLET's financial statements, Note 16: “St Laurence Education Trust is a company limited by guarantee and until May 2019 was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ampleforth Abbey Trust, a charity registered in the United Kingdom (charity registration number 1026493).… In May 2019 the Ampleforth Abbey Trustees (on behalf of Ampleforth Abbey Trust) ceased being the sole member of the St Laurence Education Trust and there was no ultimate controlling party from this date. In May 2019 the Ampleforth Abbey Trustees (on behalf of Ampleforth Abbey Trust) ceased being the sole member of the St Laurence Education Trust and there was no ultimate controlling party from this date.”.

Eight criteria normally associated with control or autonomy are shown below in points (a) – (h). For an entity to qualify as independent, all eight need to be met, but not one is in respect of SLET. Evidence for the non-compliance with the criteria is demonstrated for each of the eight criteria by the numerous extracts below taken from the financial statements that the Ampleforth companies have drafted themselves:

(a) Not being a subsidiary of any other body and/or no other body publishes consolidated accounts incorporating those of the body claiming control or autonomy.
The following extracts portray a different picture from the one shown in italics above, while perhaps not being necessarily mutually exclusive.

AAT’s audited financial statements at 31 August 2019 were consolidated ones which included 100% of SLET’s figures. Per Note 1 “In relation to the subsidiary entity of St Laurence Education Trust, which represents a material component of these consolidated financial statements …”.

Similarly, per AAT Note 6. “St Laurence Education Trust (company number 3415320, charity number 1063808) and The St Benet's Trust (company number 7684231, charity number 1143350) are wholly owned or controlled subsidiary charities, incorporated in the United Kingdom which are included within the consolidated figures.” These figures related to the year ended 31 August 2019.

(b) The unfettered ability to appoint directors/trustees (and dismiss them).
According to SLET Note 16 “Trustees [directors of SLET] are appointed by the sole corporate member of the St Laurence Education Trust, The Ampleforth Abbey Trustees.” (TAAT)

Until 10 December 2019, all the directors of TAAT are/were in holy orders, thereafter (Companies House records were accessed on 15 March 2021), the majority of the directors are/were in holy orders and therefore in control. (Information taken from the TAAT Directors report and Companies House).

(c) Having a business model that is independently sustainable
For the year ending 31 August 2019 SLET lost £(1,473,000) and at 31 August 2019 it had net liabilities of £(1,083,000) (SLET Pages 16 and 17). SLET is entirely dependent on AAT’s goodwill to continue.

Per SLET Page 11: “The College’s projected deficits to 31 August 2021 are expected to be funded by a non-repayable grant from Ampleforth Abbey Trust.  The intention to provide this funding has been confirmed in writing to the Trustees and this support is subject to certain performance and monitoring conditions.”

Per SLET Page 13 “the Trust [SLET] is financially reliant upon the support facility provided by Ampleforth Abbey Trust for the foreseeable future”.

Per AAT Note 1: “[AAT] has agreed to provide a certain level of financial support for the period to 31 August 2021. … The trustees of St Laurence Education Trust have taken action accordingly and, having prepared updated financial forecasts, are satisfied that, with the support provided by Ampleforth Abbey Trust, there are adequate resources to continue in operation for at least the next 12 months from the date of approval of these financial statements.”

Without such support, SLET could not survive.

(d) Retaining sole control over all important activities
Joint committees with Ampleforth Abbey Trust have been formed to consider Trustee appointments and senior staff remuneration, safeguarding, health and safety and risk management.” (SLET Page 4)
Similarly, “Management of Risk - The management of risk is exercised by the Trust through the quarterly consideration of a consolidated risk register containing risks pertaining to the three on-site entities (Ampleforth Abbey Trust, St Laurence Education Trust and Ampleforth Abbey Trading Ltd).” (SLET Page 5)

Also “On 26 October 2018, the Ampleforth Abbey Trust and the St Laurence Education Trust signed a Framework Agreement governing the works of Ampleforth. The revised governance relationship enshrined in the Agreement allows the trustees of each Trust to discharge their legal duties and responsibilities, operate as independent charities with intrinsic links.” (AAT Page 4)

(e) Having control of strategy
Work is almost complete, following significant collaboration and consultation, on the development of a strategic plan for the Ampleforth site which spans both trusts. (AAT Page 13)

(f) Having control of finance
the trustees [of AAT] have renegotiated the existing banking covenants and realised funds through the sale of a proportion of the Trusts investments in order to fill the short term funding gap.” (AAT Page 11)

SLET is in no position, even if it were permitted to do so, to negotiate finance, including for working capital or covering operating deficits - without which it cannot continue to operate. It has no assets to offer as security and had net liabilities of £1,083,000. (SLET Page 11)

(g) Having control over expenditure
Per AAT Note 1: “The Trust incurs expenditure on behalf of its subsidiaries, the St Laurence Education Trust, The St Benet's Trust and Ampleforth Abbey Trading Limited. These costs are then re-charged to the relevant companies and are shown as income and expenditure within the Trust accounts.” This re-charge exceeded £8,000,000 for 2018/9 (SLET Note 17b)

(h) Having control of its physical infrastructure necessary to operate
SLET has no property (SLET Page 17) which is owned by AAT (Page 23). And rather than being held under a lease, its occupancy of the property is included in the arrangement overall agreement with AAT, which as shown above, is conditional.

AMPLEFORTH FINANCES (BASED ON 31 AUGUST 2019 FINANCIAL STATEMENTS OF SLET AND CONSOLIDATED ONES OF AAT)

  1. Overall asset deficit, stripping out unrealised and unrealisable property gain
    The unrestricted reserves at 31 August 2019 were £41 million. This figure is inclusive of £43.6m of fixed assets which are essential for the charity to operate. If the net book value of such unrestricted assets is excluded from the calculation of free reserves, this gives a net deficit of £2.6 million.” (AAT Page 11)

  2. Auditors’ defensive comment
    “ …the Trust [SLET] is financially reliant upon the support facility provided by Ampleforth Abbey Trust for the foreseeable future. … These events and conditions indicate that material uncertainties exist which may cast doubt on the College’s ability to continue as a going concern. Our opinion is not modified in respect of this matter.” [SLET Page 13]

  3. Bank reducing facility and requiring security.
    The bank loan was £4,897,000 at 31 August 2019. “In April 2019 a new 5 year revolving credit bank facility of up to £7 million was taken out, secured over [Ampleforth Abbey Trust] property. Repayment of this facility commences in January 2022 (the reduction date) where the facility must be reduced to £4m. Repayment in full must be completed by January 2024. Subsequent to the year end this [£7 million] facility was capped at £5.65m.” (all AAT Page 37)

  4. A major reduction in employees
    The average number employed including recharges was 370 (2018: 440) (SLET Page 34)

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Since the accountant's analysis was carried out, a news item relevant to Ampleforth's finances has appeared. The Yorkshire Post has reported that Ampleforth has taken Gilling Castle (the former location of the Ampleforth's prep school St. Martins) off the market. The asking price had been £3.5m. Instead, Ampleforth has formed a partnership with children's activity camp provider Activate to use the site as a holiday resort and glamping site. It appears that the correct planning permissions for the change of use may not have been obtained and Ryedale Council is investigating whether there has been a breach of planning regulations.

Presumably the repayment terms for the bank loan were negotiated on the assumption there would be a successful sale of Gilling Castle, and this is not now happening. It is not obvious how the necessary repayments to avoid a default on the loan can be made without substantial proceeds from asset sales, so the withdrawal of Gilling Castle from the market is potentially a serious blow. Even if the planning issue is overcome, a partnership with a holiday camp company is hardly going to do much to fill a £3.5m gap in the finances.

Ampleforth's 2020 accounts are expected to be published towards the end of June, so we may find out more then.