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Westminster Hall

Thursday 15 February 2001

[Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]


[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1999-2000, Standards and Quality in Education: the Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools 1998-99, HC 345, Seventh Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 1999-2000, Government and OFSTED Response to the Committee's Sixth Report, HC 861, Second Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, OFSTED Corporate Plan 2000, HC 34, and Second Special Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, Government's Response to the Committee's Second Report, HC 258.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned--[Mr. Pope.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): It gives me great pleasure to open the debate on the Office for Standards in Education, which forms part of a process that has been instituted in Parliament over time. On becoming Chairman of the Education Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment a little over a year ago, I discovered that colleagues and former Chairmen of the Committee had made great progress in holding the chief inspector to account. I hope that you will indulge me, Madam Deputy Speaker, by allowing me to outline the historical background to the current position. This important debate reflects what is an outstanding achievement in education, so I shall try not to adopt a party political tone.

Ofsted was created by a former Government; as I recall, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) created it. Although one never quite knew what he would get up to next, he proved an innovator in virtually all the ministerial posts that he held: as Under-Secretary at the former Ministry of Transport, as Secretary of State for Health, as Secretary of State for Education and Science and as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As Secretary of State for Education and Science, the right hon. and learned Gentleman decided, as many people in the education world had, that we needed to know whether school standards were improving and whether teaching was of a sufficiently high standard. It is a mark of the present Government that, on taking office in 1997, they took the same view and recognised Ofsted's achievement. They recognised the need for an independent body that scrutinised school standards and that reported to the Secretary of State, so that appropriate changes could be made where necessary.

Since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have dedicated myself to trying to improve British competitiveness. In that time, the desire to make us more effective and efficient, and better at creating,

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spreading and sharing wealth, has formed the core of my being. Having examined the relevant figures before this sitting, I have to say that any industrial sector that achieved the results that we have achieved in education would be the most remarkable that one could imagine. In 1992-93, 29.6 per cent. of lessons at primary schools were deemed unsatisfactory or poor. According to the most recent figures, 4.1 per cent. were deemed unsatisfactory or poor. That is an outstanding achievement in anyone's terms. In secondary schools, 21.1 per cent. of lessons were unsatisfactory or poor in 1992-1993. That figure dropped to 6 per cent. in 1999-2000.

Across the piece, we can see dramatic change in the quality of the lessons and education that most children receive. However, we know from experience elsewhere that we must not relent in the search for higher standards. It would be a recipe for disaster if people in education said, "We want to pack up Ofsted. We have done the job. We have made a real improvement. Let us all go home." My private sector experience taught me two things. First, if one cannot measure it, one cannot manage it--of course, one must measure consistently over time. Secondly, every time one feels that one has achieved something, a new opportunity arises to get even better.

No member of the Select Committee and no one with a genuine interest in education would want to get rid of Ofsted. Ofsted was founded to report the results of the regular independent inspections of schools to the Secretary of State, so that he or she could take speedy action. That process has built up over the years.

Strangely, there has been a lack of clarity about whom Ofsted was accountable to. I have examined views on that subject in press cuttings from the past nine years. It was interesting to read that some people thought Ofsted was responsible to the Queen, others thought it was responsible to the Secretary of State and others thought it was responsible directly to the Prime Minister. However, the most consistent view that emerged, which was shaped by our previous inquiries into the workings of Ofsted, was that the chief inspector was responsible to the Select Committee.

That is a clear relationship, but in a sense it is an odd one. Ofsted is a strange creature--a previous chief inspector called it a Frankenstein monster--because it was put together randomly. It is a non-ministerial department that is accountable to a Select Committee of the House of Commons. In other words, it is responsible to Parliament through our Select Committee. We must discharge that serious duty responsibly.

That is why I shall try not to be party political today. I hope that my opening remarks, which included a tribute to the innovation and imagination of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe, got the balance right. The Government have not only added to the work, responsibilities and remit of Ofsted, but ensured that there was no disjunction by allowing the chief inspector to have a long period of continuity, which stretched across two Governments. That is the background to the way in which we have established a good pattern in terms of accountability.

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We meet with the chief inspector twice a year. In the spring, we discuss his annual report. In the autumn, we discuss his conduct of the office--in short, the way that Ofsted runs its operations. The press do not always understand that we have two contrasting meetings. The meetings in the spring tend to be more amicable than those in the autumn. In the spring meetings, we examine, take a general view on and ask questions about the annual report. During my chairmanship and that of my predecessor, they have been reasonably happy occasions. The chief inspector has usually reported remarkable progress on education standards. The atmosphere tends to be positive at those meetings.

The autumn meetings tend to be a little more acerbic because, as the accountable body, we are the recipients of complaints about the chief inspector. It would be strange if the Committee held the chief inspector to account, but did not press him or her hard on those complaints. Anyone who reads the Select Committee report of the previous Session will know that it ranged across a number of issues and the agenda wrote itself. Those issues included, for example, Durham education authority and the Commission for Racial Equality. I want to put the matter into context. We have a responsible job to do and the atmosphere at our autumn meetings tends to be more negative.

We are discussing an interesting innovation that has worked. I hope that any coverage of our debate will examine not only the way in which the inspectorate process is working and its achievements, but the remarkable efforts that are being made by teachers, heads, governors and parents throughout the country. They are working together in teams and as stakeholders in education in their communities, and have achieved tremendous benefits for children. That must be acknowledged. We must thank Ofsted. I am saying nice things about it, but it could not make those reports unless real change had taken place at the chalk face. People are working hard to get things right.

Some of my more critical comments about Ofsted should be looked at in context. Before I became Chairman, the Select Committee wanted a board to be established to which Ofsted would have been directly accountable. The work on that was done before my chairmanship--I was not involved in it--but I concur with that view. The Government did not accept that there should be an independent board. The arguments are on the record and I do not intend to dwell on that matter today. However, there is accountability, it is novel and it seems to be working. Many of my colleagues believe that a board would make it even more effective and that is on the record.

I want to issue some warnings. Ofsted is growing very fast. The number of people employed by Ofsted has been relatively small, but Governments are always keen to make organisations more effective, more holistic and more all-encompassing. I do not disagree with that, but it is the nature of the beast that the bureaucracy of Ofsted will increase. It is growing fast and will consolidate into a much larger organisation.

There are always dangers when organisations get bigger and there are more people to manage. Much excellent leadership and management will be needed for

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Ofsted to remain as effective as it has been. The Select Committee will keep hard at it over the coming months. There will be a transition from a modest-sized bureaucracy to a much larger one. We all know the reasons--the extension of the remit to further education and to pre-school and nursery education. That is a new responsibility, but it is cause for concern. Bureaucracies must be watched extremely carefully. We shall watch Ofsted to ensure that it is managed properly.

There is a further issue. I was reading the National Union of Teachers briefing for this debate before I came in. I am acquiring a reputation for not always agreeing with the teaching unions' views on such subjects as Ofsted, although I do not disagree with them all the time. That is a healthy relationship for a Chairman of the Select Committee. The teaching unions believe that schools may go through a rough period when trying to get things right.

Ofsted was set up nine years ago, when 30 per cent. of lessons in primary education and 20 per cent. in secondary education were seen to be unsatisfactory or poor. Now, much higher standards have been achieved. A voice is calling for lighter inspections, a softer touch and a more co-operative attitude. I have been part of that voice, which says that one must ensure that inspection produces a range of ways of making the school better. The worst thing that can happen to a school is to get a bad Ofsted report, to be left demoralised and to have to pick up the pieces. We all know that a school in special measures, for example, is often left literally picking up the pieces, unable to recruit new staff or raise teachers' and governors' self-esteem.

I want to see much more--the change is already taking place--of Ofsted having a discourse with the teachers, the head, the parents and the governors and saying "You have a poorer evaluation than we would like, but you must now work with us to address certain problems." Going back to the private sector parallel, I know of no well-managed organisation that benefits from only negative criticism. Therefore, I hope that, wearing one hat, Ofsted will be frank, honest, impartial and independent, but that, wearing another, it will make a series of recommendations for turning the school around and will quintessentially improve the quality of the education that is delivered to pupils.

I do not, however, want Ofsted to become flabby; I want to have my cake and eat it. I do not want people throughout the country to say "We can all relax now. Ofsted is becoming a softer touch." I want people to be concerned about Ofsted and to know that they must do well to get a good Ofsted report, so that they will be left with a positive feel if an inspection is made and things are found to be less good than they might be. I want the relationship to be positive. I think that I can have my cake and eat it. I do not want Ofsted to be demonic, so that people are frightened and stressed.

One of the best ways in which to evaluate Ofsted is to go out to the country and to talk to teachers about it. The Select Committee has a wonderful reputation, not only for taking written and oral evidence, but for visiting schools, colleges and universities to find out, as far as possible, what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an Ofsted inspection.

When working on our recent report on the early years--birth to eight years of age--we visited the constituencies of the hon. Member for Oxford, West

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and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey). We talked to teachers, at times sitting on extremely small chairs, trying to evaluate the feeling in the school. Not one teacher or head wanted to end Ofsted inspections. A 40-year-old woman said that it was the most stressful experience in her life, but no one wanted to stop such inspections. The balance that we want to achieve will keep on driving up standards and the quality of education for our children, and at the same time form a more positive and co-operative relationship between the inspectorate and schools. That is already happening. Some excellent changes have been made.

Most of the debate will be about our reports. In a couple of weeks, we shall meet the new chief inspector. Much of the two reports before us today are a bit old hat, because they were drafted a long time ago. We thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards for her reaction to our most recent report. We are always pleased, as a Select Committee, when we have a couple of wins. We came up with ideas that were good common sense, and the Minister seemed to agree that we had taken some positive steps.

I shall cite an example of how well the relationship is working. Given the agreement between Durham education authority and Ofsted, we thought that the independent adjudicator would not be as independent as we would like. She was looking into a complaint about the chief inspector who had appointed her. We thought that that was a bit rum and suggested that the Secretary of State should appoint the adjudicator. I am delighted that the Minister agreed.

The relationship between parliamentary accountability and the machinery of government exemplifies how we can make our reports more effective. I ask the Minister to tell her colleagues that we are producing other reports. We hope for even more significant wins as a result of our early years report, the report into access to higher education and the report on retention in higher education. If such a relationship can blossom and we receive positive reactions to our reports, we shall be only too pleased.

My job in introducing the debate is to flag up the issues and to set the debate in a general context for colleagues to weigh in with their comments. Several other concerns in the reports have not produced as much reaction from the Minister, or from the inspectorate, as we would like. Certain areas have sometimes received short shrift from the chief inspector.

The Select Committee has been concerned about the quality of supply teachers for some time. On the basis of conversations with teachers, parents and pupils, nothing is more disruptive to a child's education than having a supply teacher who does not know what point has been reached in the curriculum or the level of the class. Such teachers do not know how to pick up the pieces. We were keen that Ofsted should look much more carefully at supply teaching, and the quality and training of supply teachers. The Minister gave us a reasonable response on the matter. When the new chief inspector appears before the Select Committee in a couple of weeks, we will ask the same questions again.

Some of the issues flagged up by the Select Committee were regarded by the previous chief inspector as not really his business or too difficult to address within the

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inspection system. The Select Committee is probing whether the inspectorate can deal more sensitively with issues such as supply teaching and bullying. Over the past year, several reports have been published which show how disruptive bullying is to the quality of education in a school. When considering the good management of a school, it is possible to ensure a framework for reporting bullying and best practice in dealing with bullying, and a way in which bullying can be tackled positively and proactively. I do not agree with the former chief inspector who said, more or less, that the problem was too difficult to tackle effectively. The Select Committee will revisit that issue with the new chief inspector.

Before I became Chairman, its members went on away-days--or a couple of days away--in an Oxford college. I missed that nice experience.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): It was when the Select Committee was chaired by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge).

Mr. Sheerman : Yes, it was chaired by my hon. Friend, who is now a Minister. In the past, Select Committee reports were of a piece. In an age in which there are dozens of consultancies, think tanks, special groups, working parties and commissions, however, the Select Committee is an unusual--I hesitate to say Frankenstein-type--creature. Things are done in a traditional way. We decide on the terms of reference, invite oral evidence--everyone wants to take oral evidence and have their chance to be on television--and make visits. We then ensure, with the help of special advisers, that we produce as good a report as possible.

Often, that is as far as it goes--it is a cathartic experience. We produce a report, hand it to the Minister and that is it. We walk away from it and it can gather dust. The report that came out of the away-days concluded that that was not good enough. If Select Committees are to be an effective part of the parliamentary process, which many of us are trying and working hard to modernise, they must be more rigorous and on-going. The relationship with Ofsted is part of that. It is not going to go away.

We produce a report, give it to the Minister and the Minister is supposed to respond within a certain time. We then have a debate in Westminster Hall. That, I tell the Minister and the chief inspector of Ofsted, is not the end of the matter. As long as I am Chairman of the Select Committee, I intend to keep returning to issues and pushing forward the elements involved. If a report is good, it is good not only for today but for many months and years to come. A Select Committee should return to themes. That is good advice. I voiced that view in the Liaison Committee, the committee of Select Committee Chairmen, and it is percolating through the thoughts of most Committee Chairmen and members. That is most important.

Our relationship with Ofsted is unique for a Select Committee, as I said earlier. It is good and it will get better if we press those themes until we are satisfied.

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I hope that, in this debate, which takes place just before an interesting short parliamentary break, we shall benefit from my colleagues' participation. As it is such a unique occasion, with Parliament not sitting next week, I hope that we shall receive enormous exposure in the press on our Select Committee and its relationship with Ofsted.

We should not be over-content or feel that we have done the job, but the relationship between Ofsted and the improvement in schools has been positive. We intend as a Select Committee to play our part in ensuring that Ofsted remains independent, rigorous and fair and that we do not mistake Ofsted for something that it is not. Ofsted does not energise the process on the ground. It can play a part in that process, but parents, pupils and, above all, teachers and heads lead that process. I hope that some of my colleagues will join me in saluting the progress that has been made.

3.2 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Education Sub-Committee, on having persuaded the Liaison Committee to secure this important debate this afternoon. It is perhaps the last opportunity that we shall have to debate Ofsted's role before the election. I appreciate his warm remarks about my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, set in process the new inspectorate system. We would do well to remind ourselves why my right hon. and learned Friend felt it necessary to introduce an independent inspectorate.

The effect and work of Ofsted has borne out the deep anxiety that was expressed that the old inspection system took almost too kind an approach to schools and that there was too great a reluctance to level criticism where it was needed. The lesson of Ofsted's success is that, if we are not prepared to criticise, we shall find it almost impossible to improve.

I hope that we shall have a constructive and informed debate and that I shall not be accused of playing a party political card merely because I level significant criticisms of how matters are proceeding. Without such criticism it is hard to imagine how our school system can improve. That is not to gainsay the fantastic work done by the vast majority of teachers and the many schools that make a success of the lives of children who attend them.

I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield on what he called the excellent leadership and management that Ofsted has shown. During the tenure of the previous chief inspector in particular, we sometimes wondered whether the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends saw the role of the chief inspector in that light, so it is encouraging to hear that endorsement today. If the new chief inspector can do as well as the previous one, Ofsted will be fortunate indeed. That is not to say that we should hesitate to level criticism against Ofsted itself--our report did so.

This is a fast-moving scene and, after our reports were issued, we received the Green Paper "Schools: Building on Success" and, in the last week, Ofsted's latest annual report, to which it is proper for us to refer, so that our

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debate is entirely relevant and up to date. It is worrying that on page 20 of Ofsted's new report, the new chief inspector tells us:

The hon. Member for Huddersfield referred to behaviour in the classroom. The chief inspector alerts us to that by saying:

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that elsewhere in the report, the chief inspector points out that only one in 50 primary schools has unacceptable behaviour problems and notes tremendous progress, especially in the primary sector, on behaviour issues?

Mr. St. Aubyn : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for anticipating my next point. I was going to say that behavioural problems in children tend to exhibit themselves far more as they go through adolescence and in secondary school. It may be possible to contain problems in a primary school despite staff turnover, but in secondary school--when all the other pressures, excitements and interests of life bear down on children--that becomes much harder.

Mr. Hayes : My hon. Friend may want to alert the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) to the section of the report that states that one of the chief problems of disruptive behaviour occurs when children first enter secondary education. It is in that changeover period that many problems begin. The chief inspector's report mentions that. My hon. Friend is right to deal with that issue. Of course, on average, one in 12 schools suffers from severe disruption problems.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his extremely helpful intervention. Although we should congratulate primary schools on what is, in broad terms, a healthy report--an overview--from Ofsted, not everything in the garden is rosy. Writing is an area of

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particular disappointment--scores have improved by only 1 per cent. despite all the effort put into booster classes and other initiatives. That opens another area of debate. When testing schools, Ofsted has a clear eye on the results of tests--key stage tests, GCSEs and A-levels. Ofsted regards them as an important external measure of the subjective reading that it takes in the classroom when it visits a school.

Laudable though the improvement that Ofsted has traced through key stage test results is, people worry that some of it may be due to an increasing pressure on teachers to teach to the test, rather than encourage the spirit of learning and develop the child's broader ability. It is far harder to teach for the writing test than for the skills of spelling or adding up. We should applaud what schools are achieving in difficult circumstances, but remain alert to the risk that Ofsted and the testing system may become a new version of the self-congratulating system that did so little to help schools in the years before that body was created.

Ofsted, of course, represented simply one step on a long march. The hon. Member for Huddersfield suggested that, if a private sector company showed the improved performance that schools have recently shown, it would be a star company. He is right to remind us that the golden legacy in education left by the previous Government was matched by a golden legacy in the private sector--the remarkable changes made in those areas coincided and complemented each other. Unemployment is low today because increasing numbers of school leavers are equipped and job ready for the world of work that awaits them.

Some long-term trends show that the Government's best efforts may not have been truly effective.

Charlotte Atkins : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in 1994-95, one in five lessons was considered unsatisfactory? Was that part of the previous Government's golden legacy?

Mr. St. Aubyn : The hon. Lady is right to point out that, since that date, the number of unsatisfactory lessons has steadily decreased. The chief inspector tells us in his latest report that one in five lessons was unsatisfactory in 1994-95, but that the proportion has declined steadily each subsequent year. Teaching is now unsatisfactory in only about one in 20 lessons. The proportion of good or better teachers increased from about 40 to 60 per cent. That shows that the introduction of Ofsted had a dynamic effect on the performance of our schools, but that did not occur in isolation: the improvement also depended on the long struggle to establish an effective national curriculum and testing system for various ages and to create several ways in which to measure performance. As a result of that system, we know more about the performance of individual pupils and schools than is known in any other country.

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris) indicated assent.

Mr. St. Aubyn : The Minister nods in agreement. I regard that knowledge as a good thing, provided that the time and effort spent in collecting the information

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does not impede teaching, the broader development of the child or the broader success of the schools. We should not become fixated on self-created targets for performance that do not accurately measure what is happening on the ground.

Before I was interrupted by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), I was about to refer to some long-term trends. Information is given at the back of the latest reports that was given in previous reports, which allows us to contrast the changes that have taken place. The reduction in class sizes in primary schools in the first few years was a big initiative of the new Government. Ofsted has told us that it would be willing to consider the cost-effectiveness of several of the Government's programmes and it is important that it should do that in this case. I do not gainsay the immense advantages to individual schools of the money that they received as a result of the class size reduction initiative. However, the original cost was given as £100 million in 1997. My latest information is that it now costs more than £600 million. We are entitled to know how the additional teaching in the first three years has affected performance.

Significantly, secondary schools have improved more in the relevant period than primary schools. For instance, a 24-point improvement was made in year 11 between 1993-94 and 2000. A 21-point improvement in year 3 was made in a similar period. I do not suggest that that is more than a crude measure of what Ofsted should examine, but I hope that the effectiveness of what is being done will be studied, bearing in mind that a dislocation cost, as well as a financial cost, resulted from the class size programme in its first three years. Some siblings could not attend the same school and some schools had to cut numbers, despite being popular. Above all, the fact that the programme acted as a magnet to draw more teachers from training colleges into primary schools has contributed to the current acute scarcity of secondary school teachers.

There has been a price to pay for the initiative. I asked the permanent secretary whether he thought that it was a price worth paying and he seemed to imply that it was, but my preference is that Ofsted should examine the issue. I look forward to its doing so.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that when the former chief inspector of schools gave evidence to the Select Committee on 15 March 2000, he said in answer to a question from the Chairman that, when Ofsted had examined the correlation between class size and standards of pupil achievement, there was

Mr. St. Aubyn : I would be the first to accept that, all other things being equal, smaller class sizes are highly desirable. The former chief inspector also qualified his remark by saying that, of course, the quality of teaching is important. We would all agree that a larger class taught by an excellent teacher would probably make more progress than a smaller class taught by a less experienced, less effective teacher. That is common sense.

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The success of the Government's programme and the time frame in which they decided to implement it must be gauged against all the issues that I have identified. We must not merely rely on the presumption that smaller class sizes are always better, whatever the cost to the rest of the system.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of excellent teachers and prefaced his remarks by paying tribute to them. Does he argue, as I would, that labelling a group of schools as bog standard implies that the teachers in those schools--who, everyone would agree, are the ones who create the standards--are bog standard too? Is that good for the morale of teachers and an appropriate comment for Ministers, or even Prime Ministers, to make?

Mr. St. Aubyn : It was one of the most unfortunate remarks that has yet issued from No. 10 Downing street. I should have thought that the school standards unit in Downing street would be more aware than anyone that four categories of schools can be identified in the present context. They are beacon schools, which are the best in the system, good schools, coasting schools and failing schools.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): Under-achieving.

Mr. St. Aubyn : Indeed, one might describe them as under-achieving schools. There is such a school in my constituency and we have shown how much more it is able to achieve under a new system of management. I hope to speak about that if I have time.

The Prime Minister's remarks were intended to flag up a document, "Schools: Building on Success", which would be better described as the mea culpa of the Government. It begins with a confession that

We struggled during the Government's first year to explain that each grant-maintained school had a distinctive character. We were perplexed that the Government should contemplate grouping schools into action zones that might be thought of as grant maintained and we were puzzled that they were not prepared to contemplate the continued existence of the grant-maintained schools themselves. They were prepared to promote the Conservative concept of specialist schools and I congratulate the Minister on his wholehearted conversion to that cause. However, they were not prepared to accept that grant-maintained schools were already specialist schools and that their more effective use of resources meant that they already had the additional funding per pupil for which specialist schools now have to apply one by one. I would welcome it if the Minister were now looking for a light-touch inspection regime. That would be a mark of how many schools have already reached the threshold. Indeed, fewer schools are not making the grade.

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The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) pointed out that the Prime Minister offended a great many people when he allowed that phrase to slip out. No school can be called a bog standard comprehensive. We have an excellent system of education in comprehensive schools, and when it is applied properly and if those schools have a proper broad intake of pupils, they can be among the best in the country.

Of those comprehensive schools promoted during the past 20 years, the most outstanding have been city technology colleges. I am delighted that the Government have now taken on board the success of the city technology college model. If more are created, they will be called city academies, but I do not wish a change in nomenclature to prevent another wholehearted conversion to the ideas put forward by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and the other eminent Conservative Secretaries of State who presided over that epic period of radical change in how our schools are run.

As regards the debate on standards versus structures, we need to keep the role of Ofsted clearly in mind. The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that Ofsted cannot energise schools. I am not sure that I entirely agree. It can energise schools dramatically when inspecting them, but the effect is short lived. Ofsted inspectors cannot implement the changes that they have identified as being necessary. What is encouraging about the latest report is that many schools take up Ofsted's recommendations. When Ofsted makes second inspections, it often reports that schools have implemented most or even all of the recommendations made on the first visit. It would be wrong to say that Ofsted does not energise schools, but it cannot be a fully fledged support system. I raised that matter with the previous chief inspector when he was preparing the report that we are considering. I am sorry to say that he did not see things as I did. We shall have to wait to see who was right.

Should the opportunity arise, I look forward to questioning the new chief inspector about leadership. We should consider some of the initiatives suggested by the Government. For instance, we learn on page 64 of the new report that of the eight fresh start schools inspected, only three were making satisfactory progress. The Minister may wish to correct me, but that seems to imply that the majority of fresh start schools are not succeeding. The initiative is not enough, which comes as no surprise to me.

On education action zones, the report says:

The Government said that they wanted standards, not structures, but structures turn out to be important. Finding the right structure to correct deficiencies in failing schools is important in making them successful. That is why I will blow the trumpet--I hope that I will be forgiven for doing so--of my education authority in Surrey, as it has followed a different path in the teeth of opposition from the Secretary of State. It has brought in a private-sector company to run a state school.

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No one would think that such a proposal would generate a great deal of popular support. The local population, especially parents and teachers, treated the initial idea with great hesitancy three years ago. However, a striking mark of the success of the project from day one was the fact that, by the time that the company had been chosen in co-operation with the teachers and parents, nine out of 10 of those people voted in favour of the decision taken by the education authority. Since then, we have seen a transformation in the school in Guildford. Unlike the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I would not say that Guildford was an inner-city area, but the school is in the least prosperous part of town. The local housing estate has unemployment of 7 per cent. and there are problems of literacy and social breakdown.

Mr. Sheerman : I meant my comment humorously, as I remember that the hon. Gentleman described part of his constituency as being an inner-city area once at Prime Minister's questions. I was reminding him of that.

Mr. St. Aubyn : The hon. Gentleman's memory is at fault. If I said that, it must have been a humorous comment as well. We aspired to city status, but that is another story.

We have learned some lessons. For example, we know that an education authority is not a good vehicle for turning failing schools around. An education authority has too broad a focus and too many competing interests, especially its responsibility to champion many schools in the same area. It cannot champion a failing school at the expense of others. An outsider that presents a new brand image for a school--a new future for it--can champion it consistently. The success of the school is due to a magnificent new head, investment and other factors, but they have had to be co-ordinated by a company with a clear benchmark for and expectation of performance. That has been essential in dealing with the challenges and difficulties posed by the children and their homes.

I am glad that the Government appear to be converted on the issue. They should be reminded that they did not think of it. On Monday, David Blunkett must have been in a dream world when he said on "Newsnight" that he had had to bear down on Surrey county council to effect the change. I received letters from him two or three years ago saying that he would try to prevent the project. I am glad that his attempts to frustrate the initiative failed and that he is now big enough to see that he should take it on board, as it has been such a success. However, he should pause before he tries to claim it as his idea in the first place.

What role is left for local education authorities? They used to carry out inspections, but there is now an independent inspectorate and a national curriculum and, increasingly, other providers of services give a range of support to schools. The point is moot, as the defence of the LEAs--I look forward to hearing those who believe in LEAs to respond--is that they still do vital work, especially in special educational needs. That is why the evidence in that category from Ofsted is worrying. In the latest report, LEAs' support for special educational needs comes in for a pasting by the chief inspector. Ofsted found that 45 per cent. of the LEAs inspected had an unsatisfactory special educational

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needs strategy. Furthermore, it found that 35 per cent.--more than one in three--of those inspected provided poor or unsatisfactory value for money in their provision for special educational needs. Ofsted tells us that education authorities are failing in the one area where those authorities still have a critical role. I refer to page 86 of the latest report, for those who have it. Ofsted is telling us that LEAs are not doing the job.

The challenge for the next Government--the Conservatives look forward to taking it up--is to find a new way to deliver high quality special educational needs services without being hung up by the fact that they are at present delivered by LEAs. The Conservative free schools policy, which envisages a gradual minimisation of the role of LEAs, will work better if we can provide alternative structures for the delivery of special educational needs in the free schools. Given that the Government, in their latest Green Paper, go half way towards adopting the free schools model, the Minister should tackle that issue this afternoon.

If I had more time, I would deal with child care inspections. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) highlighted the concerns of Conservative Members on the issue in the Standing Committee debates on the Bill that became the Care Standards Act 2000. Many of us feel that it may be a great mistake for Ofsted to expand its role into that rather different field. Ofsted has succeeded because it is focused. It will now be asked to move into an entirely new area of inspection--early years--in which the number of establishments that it will be required to inspect will be far greater than that which it is required to inspect at present. In an early years setting, inspection will not be as thorough as in a typical school. Nevertheless, the scale on which Ofsted is becoming involved, and its new contractual relationship with local education authority employees in the field as distinct from its independent position in the field of school inspections, will confuse the organisation's approach.

It would probably have been better if, while recognising the importance of the transition from early years to school, the Government, like most of the Governments that our Committee visited, had recognised that early years are not just about education--they are about child development. Those are separate matters and I look forward to the Minister's comments on the issue. When our Committee went to Denmark last May, we were particularly struck by the ethos there. The pedagogic tradition of the early years sector was distinct from the teaching tradition in schools.

To ask Ofsted to undertake both roles could produce flaws in the system. We must bear in mind that part of Ofsted's effectiveness derives from the consistency of its performance and of its evidence taking. No institution is perfect and, as the Chairman of our Committee said, we have criticised Ofsted on individual cases in which inspectors have not been up to the mark. However, I am concerned that if Ofsted's role is broadened to take in so many early years settings, consistency will suffer and the reputation of Ofsted in school inspection will suffer. Ofsted's effectiveness would suffer if there were shortcomings in the inspection process for the early years.

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Finally, we must attend to Ofsted's responsibilities to Parliament. The Committee has struggled to hold Ofsted to account. The current structure is a mish-mash, with its dotted line responsibility to the chief inspector and to 10 Downing street, its appointment by the Crown and the reporting lines to the Secretary of State. Ultimately, however, when people are questioned about it, they say, "He must respond to the Select Committee." We have been well served by the quality of chief inspectors and the organisation but it is vital, particularly in view of the hurdles that Ofsted now faces following the expansion of its role, that the Government should look again at its corporate structure.

Mr. John Butterfill (In the Chair) : Order. I did not wish to interrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric, but he referred to the Secretary of State by his name rather than by his title or his constituency. I remind hon. Members that the convention of the House is that we refer to other hon. Members either by their official title or by their constituency name.

3.35 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I want to refer to three areas as they apply to Ofsted: accountability, following the comments of the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn); credibility; and respect.

I welcome this debate. The Committee's last recommendation was that we should have such a debate in Westminster Hall, and I hope that this will be the first of a series, so that more hon. Members can take part. It is unfortunate that this first major debate on Ofsted should occur on a day when few hon. Members are present--almost all those here are members of the Select Committee--but I trust that on future occasions others will participate.

This debate forms part of our apparent on-going accountability for Ofsted, which I want to split into two or three areas. First, there is the totality of Ofsted's work. It is not often that I agree with the hon. Member for Guildford, but on this occasion I agree entirely. The extension of Ofsted's work gives it a huge remit--early years education in all its forms, primary and secondary schools, 16-plus and the college sector, teacher training and local education authorities. It is a daunting task for the Select Committee to have to cover such a large area year by year. The Committee is also responsible for holding to account the chief inspector. The Committee was given that remit, publicly at least, by the previous chief inspector. The difficulty of carrying out that responsibility became clear at the sitting on 1 November last year, when the Committee realised that it could comment or criticise, but that any enforcement of its comments would be without answer. If the Committee is to hold Ofsted and the chief inspector to account, there must be, with the Department's help, a clearer line of accountability and it must be given greater resources.

One area of accountability that has not been mentioned is Ofsted's value for money. Having undergone an expensive Ofsted inspection, many schools have said, "Wouldn't it have been better to have given us the money?" They would say that, wouldn't they? Who is monitoring whether the state funding for

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Ofsted--this monolithic creature that we are creating--is well spent on raising standards? Although the Committee applauds Ofsted's work generally, who has done the research to show that that kind of inspection and delivery provides value for money? I know that, in part, that is the responsibility of the Audit Commission, but it is also the Select Committee's responsibility; given that, the Committee needs to be given specialist support, which it does not yet have.

There is a National Union of Teachers briefing, of which I have not had a copy, but I should declare my interest as a member of the NUT. All teachers, lecturers and carers of young children are concerned about credibility. Like the Minister, I welcome the appointment, in response to our report, of Maggie Smith to the early years Ofsted team. Given her worthy background in early years work, she would appear to be a good choice. However, we need reassurance that those involved form a credible, professional team of people, particularly given that there has been reason to question the many independent private sector Ofsted teams.

Reference has been made to the process having energised schools, but on occasion, it has exhausted them. We need to show professionalism and practise self-assessment and self-inspection, so that we can provide the necessary encouragement and improve the way in which schools and local education authorities are assessed. That theme, on which I have often concentrated, is the long-term future for the entire inspection system. We have changed the way in which Ofsted inspects on return visits to schools that need them most. The new structure is clearly welcome, but as has been said, it is not Ofsted's role to be a constant presence providing long-term support. Each school should self-inspect, and I hope that encouragement of such a system underpins Ofsted's work at every level.

Credibility is crucial but so is respect, and respect must be mutual. Ofsted must respect the teaching profession and, of course, the children themselves. In that regard we need to build trust, and although there have been clear examples of a breakdown of trust, Ofsted has done a great deal to rebuild it. Because of the more laid-back--by which I mean relaxed, positive and reassuring--approach to inspection, teachers are beginning to realise that there is a life beyond Ofsted that is purposeful, and which hopefully will be enhanced by the experience of an Ofsted inspection.

That brings me almost full circle. In terms of accountability, there are the Durhams of this world, although I do not want to discuss that example in detail. Let us consider the two examples that have been brought to our attention: a disgruntled and completely disillusioned LEA, and an organisation such as the Commission for Racial Equality. If, having participated in the complaints procedure, such a body remains dissatisfied, its last resort is the House of Commons.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, the Minister's response was generally positive and has enabled on-going dialogue. According to the Government's response to the second report, because it was mentioned in the House of Lords and debated in the House of Commons, Durham county council's case

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The House of Lords is the final court of appeal, but I do not believe that the Committee is the final court of appeal for individual cases. What must bodies such as Durham county council and the Commission for Racial Equality do to establish a right of appeal and somewhere justifiably to take their case? I would maintain that that is not the role of the Committee.

We have tried desperately not to use individual cases, even when members of the Committee have had detailed cases brought to their attention, because individual cases make bad law. We are not here to justify an individual case or cause; we are here to examine a broad remit, which I trust will be the case in the future. That examination relates to accountability and how individuals can seek justice.

Last but not least, I want to bring a personal touch to the debate. Her Majesty's inspectorate, Ofsted and the many agencies that have sprung up to give advice to local education authorities and schools drain many excellent teachers from the system. However, we could put those quality teachers back in schools. The credibility of the inspectorate would be increased by inspectors spending one year--I am prepared to argue the toss whether it should be one year in three or one year in four--teaching in schools. Some inspectors have been out of school for eight or nine years since Ofsted was set up, while Her Majesty's inspectors have been out of teaching for much longer. To be back teaching in the kind of school that they have seen as lacking in some way would increase their credibility and add to their professionalism. Although many regions are not experiencing a recruitment crisis, I suggest to the Minister that some areas would welcome the experience and professionalism of inspectors teaching in schools and colleges.

3.46 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I am delighted to take part in this important debate. I am also delighted to see the first annual report of the new chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson. He has brought a welcome change of style to Ofsted. The report contains no snide attacks on teachers or suggestions that the goalposts have been moved and that tests are less rigorous. It celebrates particularly the success of our primary schools, where the great improvement in attainment in schools with the highest levels of disadvantage is especially pleasing. Clearly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing schools has narrowed. The report also recognises the positive role played by the Government's national literacy and numeracy strategies. I was delighted that it highlighted the fact that behaviour is unsatisfactory in only one in 50 primary schools.

There may still be problems with behaviour in secondary schools, but in my experience as a governor of a primary school, the seeds of poor behaviour are often sown when children--especially boys--are seven or eight years old. Having sat through many lessons, I know that learning flies out the window when teachers are engaged in sorting our rows, squabbles and fights.

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The advancement in primary school behaviour provides a great foundation for improving behaviour throughout the school system.

The Education Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment has always stressed the need for the observations of the chief inspector of schools to be based on the evidence of inspections, which is something that Mike Tomlinson has done. His commentary at the front of the report is timely. In 1994-95 teaching was unsatisfactory in one in five lessons; the figure is now one in 20 lessons, which is a tremendous achievement in anybody's book. The proportion of good or better teaching has increased from about 40 per cent. to 60 per cent. over the same period. That is marvellous. It is tremendous for pupils, teachers and parents.

Those significant improvements are, rightly, attributed to the hard work and dedication of head teachers and teachers, ably supported by local education authorities, governors and parents. Improvements in teaching, not surprisingly, have gone hand in hand with rising standards in pupil attainment at all levels of education and I was delighted to see the figures rehearsed. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard in maths increased from 57 per cent. to 75 per cent. in 2000, which is a staggering 18 per cent. increase in attainment. That percentage rise is mirrored in English. It is more difficult to achieve such an improvement in English, particularly written English, and it is a tremendous improvement.

The second round of inspections provides evidence for how the improvement was achieved. Schools have focused more sharply on raising standards by tackling the key issues for action identified in their first inspection. That comes down to good teaching and high-quality leadership. I can testify to the success of the primary school that has become the most improved primary school in London. I am proud to be a governor of that school and I was chair of the governors for six years before coming to the House. The improvement was the result of solid hard work and the support of the local education authority. I recognise and welcome the chief inspector's recognition of the role of LEAs, two of which I know: Lewisham and Staffordshire. LEAs are variable but they have a crucial role in acting decisively and supporting schools in difficulties. If a school is on its uppers, it is difficult for it to garner its personnel and financial resources, to give a clear lead and to pull itself up by the boot straps without outside support. Collaboration, pooling good ideas and even sharing innovative teachers are important.

My daugher's school--Westwood high at Leek in Staffordshire, which is not a bog standard comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination--has just seconded its deputy head to another school. He is doing a tremendous job in leading that school to improved performance.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady. Such intervention may help to turn schools around when they are in difficulty, but structural changes may also be needed if the turnaround is to be sustained. Surely the lesson to be learned from the

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failure of, for example, the fresh start initiative, is that the flash-in-the-pan approach does not lead to consistent improvement in performance.

Charlotte Atkins : The lesson to be learned from the problems in fresh start schools is that it is impossible for individual schools to turn themselves around on their own. If they have the same pupils and, by and large, the same staff, head teachers alone, however brilliant, cannot be expected to transform the situation. The approach must be collaborative. If private sector initiatives work as islands, there is no cross-collaboration and the result is the damaging competition between schools that occurred under the previous Government. We do not have that now because we have partnership and collaboration, which I welcome.

The previous chief inspector's hostility to LEAs did nothing to encourage this partnership approach, which has replaced the previous damaging competitiveness. That partnership approach is demonstrated by specialist schools, which were set up by the previous Conservative Government, but are very different under Labour. I welcome the Secretary of State's recent encouragement of joint bids for specialist school status. That will be ideal for my constituency. We already know about the requirement of specialist schools to share their resources with the community and with other schools. It is not a winner-takes-all situation as it was under the previous Government. Clough Hall technology school in Kidsgrove in my constituency shares its resources with the community in Kidsgrove. It has after-school clubs and shares its resources with Maryhill school down the road. Such action has a tremendously important community spin-off.

I am delighted that Ofsted's latest report has highlighted that insufficient progress has been made in key stage 3. In much of Staffordshire, Moorlands there is a middle school system in which pupils move to the high school in year 9. In my experience--both personal and professional--that system can leave year 8 as a gap year, when pupils can mark time unless extreme care is taken. Many of them are bored and insufficiently challenged. Year 8 could be an exciting year for pupils. They could be encouraged to think beyond the horizons of obtaining a job at 17 years old, and to consider looking into further and higher education and planning for GCSEs. Collaborating with local universities and other institutions will ensure that pupils' aspirations are widened. Key stage 3 should be a good foundation for GCSEs. It should enthuse pupils, not bore them.

If we are to achieve the Government's ambitious target of opening up higher education to 50 per cent. of pupils, we need to start encouraging pupils early in years 7 and 8. They can then explore the opportunities of higher education, and the available Government financial support, rather than feel burdened by the idea of debt. They must consider in those early years how they can expand their life chances, not limit them. That would particularly help non-traditional students--those students whose parents did not attend university.

All hon. Members here today know that Ofsted has played a valuable role in providing independent external inspection of education services. When the Select

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Committee produced its report on Ofsted in 1999, we recognised that, too. However, I share the worries of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) about accountability. I am delighted therefore that the Ofsted complaints adjudicator is to be appointed by the Secretary of State rather than Ofsted. That will give him or her a truly independent role.

That will give an important message to schools such as Moorside high in Cellarhead in my constituency. Its Ofsted report was poor in many ways. The school's standards had declined, but the report contained factual errors. There were several performance shortfalls and problems and the school went into special measures. The head teacher did not consider that Ofsted dealt with his justifiable complaints fairly. That created a problem for the school in accepting that certain matters had to be put right. The school's confidence in Ofsted was undermined. It then found it difficult to deal with the concerns of parents, staff and pupils. I am glad to report that, because the local education authority put in a temporary head who was subsequently replaced by a permanent head, the school is facing a renaissance. It is now on the up and up. In less than a year, it has started to make tremendous progress. I congratulate the LEA for helping to steer the school to success.

Any inspection system will be stressful for teachers. In April 1997, when my enthusiasms may have been elsewhere, I promised, as chair of governors at Kelvin Grove school in Lewisham, that I would be at the school for the Ofsted inspection, although my election agent thought that that was inappropriate. I became heavily involved in that inspection, which was very fair. It highlighted some of the problems in the school, and science was identified as a particular problem area. In the four years since the inspection, Kelvin Grove has become the most improved school in London, and the 10th most improved primary school in England. That demonstrates that if teachers have the right approach to Ofsted, they can draw lessons from it and ensure that the focus is not on teaching to test but on individual pupils, their potential and their ability to make progress. Personal concentration on individual pupils is the way forward.

The shorter notice of inspections, which we recommended in our report, will help to reduce the pressure on the school, teachers and heads. The shorter period during which a school can prepare for inspection will also ensure that over-enthusiasm for preparation, which so many schools told us about during our Ofsted report inquiry--one school produced several crates of paper, which Ofsted inspectors had to hire a car to take away--will be curbed. Schools will always be prepared for their inspection because they will use the Ofsted framework, which many people have praised as a useful self-evaluation tool. They will use that framework to ensure that they are up to the mark, not just for the Ofsted inspection, but throughout the year, for the benefit of all their pupils.

Sometimes inspections can be marred by lack of co-ordination and liaison between the inspectorate team and the school management. That sometimes occurs because the inspectors are self-employed and do not operate from an office. I was pleased to see that in future the new early years inspectorate will be employed as opposed to self-employed. However, much concern has

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been expressed about the fact that those inspectors will still be home-based rather than based in an office, which would facilitate effective team working. While we were conducting our inquiry we heard stories about inspectors meeting for the first time in the car park. I do not know whether those stories were true, but that is certainly the impression that some schools had. If we are to overcome the problem, we must consider whether inspectors should be employed rather than self-employed. I am pleased that at least early years inspectors will be employed, even if they are working from home. That issue should be revisited.

We should also consider the issue of pay and conditions. Currently, no one would move from being a head teacher to working for Ofsted as there would be no financial benefit in doing so. We became aware of concerns that inspectors had to take on the burden of too many inspections because of pay and conditions. Unless inspectors were retired, and therefore already had a pension or other retirement income, they might be tempted to take on too many inspections in order to make a decent living. That does not do justice to Ofsted. That issue must be considered if Ofsted is to deliver the quality service that we want for our education system. Ofsted inspectors must be properly employed, with appropriate pay and conditions, in order to provide an effective service to schools.

4.5 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss the work of Ofsted. I praise the Select Committee for so tenaciously throwing the spotlight on that work and for producing such balanced reports. In essence, the debate hinges on getting the balance right in the inspection framework. We must also disentangle the noise that has recently surrounded Ofsted and its work.

Like every hon. Member who has spoken today, I am unequivocally in favour of independent inspection, owing to my experience as a former local authority chair of education. I held that position in a London borough in 1986, during a period in which the local authority inspected its own schools but never published the reports. One of my first moves was to ensure that they were published, which was a small step in the right direction, and a necessary change. We would all acknowledge that, in those days, local education authorities had little incentive to admit that things were not going well, because that would have reflected on the close relationship of those authorities within the system.

Inspection, together with standard assessment tests and other new measures, has given us much more information about what pupils do in schools. The process has developed as a common thread of Government policy over the past 25 years. In 1976, Jim Callaghan made his famous Ruskin college speech about the secret garden of the curriculum. If he had been asked at that time what percentage of lessons were of a satisfactory standard, he would have had to admit that he did not know, because--to continue the analogy--he had not investigated that particular flowerbed of the secret garden.

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We can now demonstrate categorically that standards are rising for pupil achievement and the quality of teaching. I welcome the commentary contained in the chief inspector's annual report. Mike Tomlinson says:

I say hear, hear to that--first because it recognises reality, praising head teachers and schools for their good work in the vast majority of cases and, secondly, because it makes the important point about parents' satisfaction. A great deal of evidence suggests that people give one view when asked about the state of education in general but another, more favourable view when asked specifically about the education received by their children. As the latter view is based on their actual experience, that is positive news.

I welcome the new style followed by the new chief inspector, which could be described as rigour without the provocation. The provocation of former times unquestionably, and unfortunately, tainted attitudes towards Ofsted. I support the Select Committee's comments on the role of encouragement and support in raising standards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) said that inspection, and the shouldering of accountability that goes with it, is a painful process to undergo. In two months, every hon. Member will undergo his or her own form of inspection. In some cases it may be painful, or indeed terminal to parliamentary careers, but it is necessary. We must not lose sight of the fact that Ofsted itself must be subject to external evaluation. One of the Select Committee's most valuable contributions has been to begin to tease out issues surrounding that question. There is no doubt that the dialogue between the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues about precisely how Ofsted should be held properly to account should continue.

I have had two experiences of Ofsted inspections as the chair of a primary school governing body. As has been said, there is no doubt that the inspection in both cases was stressful, and anything that can be done to reduce that stress--shortening the duration and the other steps that the Government have taken--is to be encouraged. However, after both those inspections we sat down with the head and the staff and I asked: "On balance, was that a fair reflection of the school?" With one or two quibbles, on both occasions the head and the staff said, "Yes, it was a fair reflection." That is extremely significant, because it reflects what surveys tell us about the attitudes of heads and others to the inspections they have experienced: inspections may be stressful and difficult but in the end they describe the school as it is. That is clearly a strength of the system.

A criticism that I--and, I am sure, other hon. Members--have encountered is from head teachers, teachers and others who say, "Aha! It's accurate, but it doesn't tell me anything that I didn't already know." We must acknowledge that that is true. One would hope that a good head teacher and good members of staff would see reflected in an external evaluation what they knew about their institution, but the crucial

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importance of independent inspection is that it may tell those of us outside the school--parents and elected representatives--things that we did not already know. That is why the principle is right.

When I think back to my local authority days, there were schools in which, to be frank, head teachers were not up to the job. The local authority did not want to declare that fact publicly and used a variety of mechanisms to try to move them on, including encouraging them to take early retirement, and so on. However, during that time, children in those schools were getting less than a fair deal because the system found it difficult to acknowledge that things were not going well. The lesson is that in some cases--especially for schools in special measures--it is the external Ofsted inspection that brings schools face to face with their problems. That is not pleasant or easy, but sometimes an external stimulus is what makes the school sit up and say, "All is not well and we need to make progress." That self-awareness, encouraged by external inspection, is sometimes necessary.

That is not to say that improvements could not be made to the system; I shall mention one. The biggest weakness of the current system is what I describe as the inspect-and-go approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) talked about staff being left demoralised. In my experience, if people are told, "I've looked at what you're doing; a lot of it is good, but in these areas you could do better", the reaction is usually, "Please show me how." Once they have got over any initial disagreement and concern, they want to be shown how to do it. It is frustrating if a person says, "It's not up to scratch" and then disappears in a cloud of dust, leaving people unsure of where to get support and advice. Of course, local education authorities have an important role to play in providing post-inspection support, but I was interested to discover when I visited a high school in my constituency last year that it had paid money from its own funds to get an inspector to return to give precisely that post-inspect-and-go advice. It found that arrangement most satisfactory.

I know that it is difficult to strike a balance so as to provide sufficient resources to perform inspections to cover all schools, but more needs to be done to bridge that post-inspection gap between the judgment--what inspectors have found-- and practical, down to earth support for schools and teachers to act on that judgment.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I am sorry to have missed the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. Does he recognise the potential for a conflict of interest in the role of an auditor of an operation who returns and is put in charge of putting matters right? Is there not something to be said for a system in which a group of people independently assess and identify problems and leave to the school the choice of who to introduce to help resolve those problems?

Mr. Benn : I do not believe that it is a question of asking the inspector to return and putting him or her in charge. Under the system, the head teacher and the governing body are in charge of dealing with issues

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identified in an inspection. I feel that we have not struck the right balance and that schools need better support in tackling issues that have been identified.

All systems that are intended to measure and quantify process and output face a future challenge. In essence, that is where the debate began. We needed to introduce such systems for education because we lacked detailed information about developments. The challenge for schools, the examination system and the inspection framework is to establish precisely what we are trying to measure and whether we are absolutely confident that we are measuring the right factor.

Employers tell me, "Yes of course we want young people who have literacy and numeracy skills.", but they also say, "We are looking for young people who have curiosity, aspiration, creativity, imagination and flexibility"--in other words, the very qualities that in another age might have been described as essential to a rounded education. We need to reflect on how the system of qualifications and inspection captures those qualities, given what we know about their importance to young people's chances of finding a job on leaving school. We also need to consider the link--which my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield has mentioned in debates on the Floor of the House--between that and the contribution that those qualities, combined with good standards of literacy and numeracy and a good basic education, make to our economic future as a nation.

I was forcefully reminded of that point during the second of the two Ofsted inspections that I experienced as the chair of a governing body. The inspectors felt that there were insufficient opportunities for awe and wonder in religious education. That left us slightly mystified. I believe that the head teacher said, "Well, I'm very sorry, but awe and wonder didn't happen to be on the curriculum that week." It is an interesting phrase to use, because part of what characterises excellent teaching and successful learning is the stimulation of awe and wonder, which can be combined with purposeful application and the acquisition of knowledge and new skills.

I am not suggesting that if we open the equivalent of this report in 10 years' time we shall see that a 10 per cent. increase in episodes of awe and wonder has been observed by Ofsted inspectors--

Ms Estelle Morris : Why not?

Mr. Benn : Well, perhaps I am being too cautious. I am merely observing that we must value what is important to us as parents and to our children and recognise that that may change over time and that the inspection framework will need to do so too as it evolves over the months and years ahead.

4.19 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I apologise for the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who has a long-standing interest in such issues, having been a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, and who would have been present had the debate been on another day, is unable to attend due to a long-standing constituency engagement.

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We have had an interesting exchange of views. It started with a helpful, clear and characteristically balanced introduction from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Education Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment. He set the scene for our debate. That was followed by a typically robust contribution from the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). He made several points that need to be heard; both sides of the argument are needed to have a debate. Although I, like others, do not agree with everything that he says, the hon. Gentleman certainly challenges us to justify our position.

The contribution by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) was excellent. She spoke about the possibility of more self-assessment during inspections. I share her view about the unsatisfactory interaction between Durham county council and Ofsted. Furthermore, I agree that it represents a failure of the system. People who feel hard done by should know that a fair overview can be taken and that an appeal system is in place.

I was disappointed that the Government did not respond more clearly to the fact that, regardless of the merits of the Durham case, which many of us thought were strong, we still cannot be certain of fairness. The Government say that they will ensure that the person who is to be taken on to hear appeals at Ofsted will be appointed from outside. It remains to be seen whether that will give sufficient distance in the working relationship.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West suggested that inspectors should spend some time teaching. It would not only benefit them, because they would be able to keep in touch with developments and new challenges, but give them more credibility and help them to tackle the relative shortage of experienced teachers. I hope to explore the feasibility of that excellent idea. I hope that the Minister will consider encouraging that, although not necessarily compelling it, and perhaps linking the prospects for promotion and reward in Ofsted to regular classroom experience and what might be seen as in-service training for inspectors.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) gave us the benefit of some sensible ideas to improve the employment arrangements of Ofsted staff. Many people recognise that the credibility and effectiveness of Ofsted depends on the competence and ability of its inspectors and of school inspectors generally. The way and settings in which they work are crucial.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), who has continually impressed hon. Members during his time here, raised some important points about inspection that were hard to disagree with. He compared the inspection of schools with the inspection and the verdict that hon. Members receive at elections. That analogy was a little stretched, especially as the two fundamental factors for surviving that inspection--the size of one's majority and the performance of one's party--are, for better or worse, more important than one's own performance. To use the election result as a judgment of one's performance seems a little unfair on those of us in more marginal seats. However, the point that he makes is taken.

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Many people ask whether the inspection is a traumatic experience for schools. Although perhaps it is not more damaging than the verdict and advice resulting from the inspection, they want to know whether the mode and style of inspection could be altered, so that the experience provided maximum value.

The stress of an impending inspection is not the only consideration. It would probably be the same regardless of the time scale. I suppose that giving less warning leaves people less time in which to feel stress, although it may accentuate it by concentrating it in a shorter time. Another fear is dislocation of time--which is not in the interests of the children--to prepare for the inspection. Something that is more continuous and perceived as less of an event might not give rise to the problems that we have heard about. That is why there is some validity in the arguments for an element of self-assessment and for inspection and quality assurance on the self-assessment mechanisms. Those points were well made in the briefing that many hon. Members received from the National Union of Teachers, which cited evidence to support its view.

The effect of putting schools in special measures should be examined by the Government. We have all heard stories of such schools being unable to retain staff, particularly in a market that suits those in search of employment, rather than those advertising posts. It is difficult to recruit teachers to schools in special measures because of prospective teachers' concern about the future of the school, the extra pressure on people working in such a stressful environment, and parents and pupils voting with their feet. Much funding is based on capitation, so a cycle of redundancy or lost posts is created. Together with difficulties in recruitment and retention, that makes matters very difficult.

I am the governor of a primary school in my constituency that was put into special measures following an inspection some time ago. Since then, there has been a huge turnover in teaching staff. Regular vacancies have had to be filled on an ad hoc basis, which is traumatic for the children, who rely on continuity, and for the rest of the staff, who must box and cox to fill posts. That makes it even more difficult for the school to emerge from special measures.

Schools that move out of special measures are almost certainly doing an incredible amount right and making a huge effort, because being in that position creates even more barriers to progress. We need to make abundant support available to overcome the problems. Another approach would be to change the way in which language that is used in that context: the implied threats and blame that, not unnaturally, arise stigmatise special measures.

I do not propose to discuss at length the rigour of inspections, because comments about that should be based on evidence and I have expressed concern in that regard in previous contributions on the subject. The school where I was involved was asked to set a target for the percentage of lessons that would be deemed satisfactory. That target was 85 per cent., based on a sample of about 20 lessons to be inspected over several days. That was the ball park figure. Each lesson represents 5 per cent. of the total. Any statistician knows that, when the sample is so small, 85 per cent., 90 per cent. and 95 per cent. are all much of a muchness. The

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conclusions are determined by the random circumstances of one or two lessons, which might have been satisfactory on other days.

On one inspection visit, all 20 lessons could be considered satisfactory, but, on another, only 17 or 14 might be so considered. If one considers, for example, 200 lessons, the average percentage will be 97 per cent. Choosing a day at random could lead to the school being unfairly assessed as providing fewer satisfactory lessons than the requirement. Conversely, it could lead to the school being judged as providing a higher percentage of satisfactory lessons than it actually does. That brings into question the validity of conclusions based on inspections that do not use a big enough sample.

There is the issue of the effect that having an inspector in the lesson has, for better or for worse, on standards. If we are to stress, as we do, the importance of evidence, we must ensure that qualitative opinion is translated into quantitative targets. Scrutiny of the inspection process by someone competent in the validity of sample sizes would be useful.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands welcomes, as I do, the change of style that we have already seen, and that we are likely to continue to see, from the new chief inspector. She pointed out that the confrontational style of Mike Tomlinson's predecessor, Chris Woodhead, was a problem. I agree. However, for me, the main problem with the work of the previous chief inspector was not his style. It is important to put that on the record. I certainly had run-ins with him, but I did not mind robust exchanges in Select Committee, involving interrogation, questioning and an exchange of views. I never complained about what was said. However, I was, and still am, concerned about chief inspectors making comments that are not evidence-based, or straying too far into the role of party political commentators. Some of the views expressed by Mr. Woodhead were of the sort that one would expect to hear, and indeed one does hear, from people such as the hon. Member for Guildford. However, that is a politician's role, not a chief inspector's.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I am interested to know which of the comments that I have made this afternoon, or on other occasions, have not been evidence-based. Is the hon. Gentleman sure that he is happy for politicians such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer to stray into the educational world with their opinions, which turn out not to be based on any evidence?

Dr. Harris : There is a lot in that. Any criticism that I make of chief inspectors making comments that are not evidence-based should not be taken to imply that anyone else who makes comments--I am prepared to include myself in this--without adequate evidence should not be criticised. I am concentrating on the matter before us. In his comments, the chief inspector often strayed into areas on which he had no evidence or on which he might have had evidence, but made political pronouncements. Sometimes, he committed only one of the offences that I have described; sometimes, he committed both. I was not referring to any of the remarks by the hon. Member for Guildford

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today. However, generally speaking, politicians on all sides will make remarks that are highly political in nature, with or without the evidence to support them. We should not expect that from the chief inspector.

Mr. John Butterfill (in the Chair) : Order. I hope that we will not stray too far into the realms of history. We are debating the report.

Dr. Harris : Not at all, Mr. Butterfill. Several parts of the report relate to the issues that I will now talk about. The first issue is A-level standards, the second is degree standards, the third is the role of LEAs and the fourth is section 28. My earlier remarks were simply to explain why I was concerned about the conduct and role of a previous chief inspector, who is criticised in the report that we are discussing alongside the Government's response.

I do not want to discuss the detail of our points on A-level standards, but it is worth pointing out that the Government's response to it is encouraging. The response points out that the job of checking those standards does not belong to Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, and that evidence suggests no wide-scale problem of declining standards. The response provides some clarity. We expect that more able students will be stretched by existing exams. That is separate from stating that A-level standards have declined, or making comments in the press that can be interpreted by any normal person as implying that. It is important that the inspectorate concentrates on its job, which, as hon. Members have said, is big enough without straying into other areas.

The same applies to degree standards, about which the previous chief inspector of schools made comments that implied concern. Those were then reported in the media. I welcome the Minister's response in her letter:

The role of LEAs is party political. LEAs' standards, which are set out in the annual report for 1999-2000, are rightly within the remit of the chief inspector. Far too often, however, Chris Woodhead commented or implied that LEAs should not have had their current role. I do not believe that to be anything other than a political judgment, on which we can have a debate. We have now started that debate.

One of the values of an LEA is that it is democratically accountable. We often pray in aid such democratic accountability, when the LEA is not too badly capped, to add resources. Sometimes, as in Bristol recently, that leads to decreases in the amount of funding. That affects standards, as the chief inspector and inspectorate may discover when they go to Bristol. Democracy is a good thing and we must follow it in every way.

Mr. Hilary Benn : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a chief inspector questioning the validity of such

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structures leads others to question the independence of judgments by someone with a statutory responsibility to inspect those structures' effectiveness?

Dr. Harris : I agree. The hon. Gentleman has, characteristically, put the problem well.

The credibility of the inspectorate depends on evidence. That is why my final example of concern about the previous approach is homophobic bullying in schools. The chief inspector was significantly questioned on the issue, as the report shows. There is clear evidence of a problem and of section 28 perhaps impeding measures to tackle it. A bullying policy is well within the remit of the chief inspector, so before he makes public comments on its relevance, one would expect him to ask inspectors to ask schools about it, or to judge from his own experience. Information may not easily be volunteered about the subject, due to its sensitive nature.

It was extremely disappointing that the previous chief inspector made assertions about section 28 that were not based on evidence, that were directly ascribed in The Sunday Telegraph of all places, when the issue was highly political, and that he could not substantiate when questioned later by the Committee. It was fortunate that the timing of our interview with him enabled that issue to be raised.

As regards the inspectorate's accountability, there will always be a temptation for anyone who holds such an important position to make pronouncements, based on the evidence and his independence, which some may feel go beyond what is appropriate. I would not want a chief inspector who thought that he had the evidence and that a matter was in his remit not to feel able to make such comments.

Because of the confrontational nature of the accountability mechanisms, which arise partly because the Select Committee has only limited opportunities to ask questions and only limited time within those opportunities, I worry whether the chief inspector's role, style and evidence will be adequately scrutinised or, conversely, whether, to avoid the problems caused by the nature of the exchanges between him and the Select Committee, the chief inspector will feel that what he says must be curtailed or trammelled. Neither situation is satisfactory. It is therefore with regret that I as a Select Committee member see that the Government have not accepted our recommendation to establish a board to supervise his role.

In their response, the Government say that there are arguments in favour and against such a board, as we accepted in a previous report. However, on further consideration, we judge from experience that the arguments are now in favour of establishing such a board. The Government simply say that there are arguments for and against and do not give a detailed explanation of their reasons for rejecting the recommendation. Nor is their vague reference to value for money enough to convince me, and I suspect other members of the Committee, that the point has been adequately evaluated.

Finally, I want to refer to the future of the school system. Something that is now in the public domain and which many hon. Members have commented on--it

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relates to standards and the role of the chief inspector--is the Prime Minister's use of the term "bog standard" to refer to comprehensive schools generally.

Mr. Sheerman : The Prime Minister did not say that.

Dr. Harris : I believe that the Prime Minister's spokesman did, and the Government did not take the opportunity to apologise or to say that that was not what was meant. Not only was it a generalisation, but it was not clear on what evidence the view was based that comprehensives generally are bog standard. I can find no reference to the term in the report. Word searches on the internet will probably reassure me that it is not referred to by the chief inspector, or any chief inspector; usually, chief inspectors do not mince their words.

We can criticise, and have criticised, Ofsted and chief inspectors for making generalisations without evidence, but the Government should take this opportunity, the first that a Minister has had, to clarify what was meant by that comment. As the inspector has found--the hon. Member for Guildford made the point--schools are excellent, coasting or under-performing, rather than comprehensives or not comprehensives. It is impossible to make that generalisation. The Minister must take the opportunity not necessarily to make the apology called for by the National Association of Head Teachers, but to clarify what was meant and on what evidence it was based.

This has been a useful debate and I welcome much of the Government's response to our recent report, although I wish that they had done more. I look forward to Government responses to future reports that are even more helpful.

4.45 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I hope that my brief contribution will inspire awe and wonder, although it remains to be seen whether I shall succeed in either case. This has been a welcome debate to which many hon. Members have made useful contributions. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) made a telling contribution about the need to ensure that the focus of schools is not too narrow. I think that it was Mark Twain who said that he never let schooling get in the way of his education, and although I would not go so far, it is certainly true that we need to develop in young people the flexibility, creativity and imagination that the hon. Gentleman describes. Although such qualities are hard to measure, schools should nevertheless try to engender them, and of course, good schools do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) spoke of the need to share good practice, and of the innovative and creative partnerships that stem from city technology colleges and similar schools. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) made a similar point and it is worth repeating. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) always brings an unusual and remarkable view to debates such as this, and although he got in a bit of a tangle I welcome his contribution. Minority views are not always popular but they have a place in our considerations.

It would churlish, probably inappropriate and certainly unwise to begin without making some concessions. First, I would be foolish not to

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acknowledge that the reports suggest that standards have risen during the lifetime of this Government. Secondly, the Select Committee has played a helpful and useful role and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), always brings a profound interest to such debates. Thirdly, it must be said that the Government have bought a good deal of the Tory education agenda. The Government's current language--I am mindful in particular of the Green Paper, of which all hon. Members present will be conscious--is reminiscent of Conservative party thinking some 10 or 15 years ago. Some of the Government's comments might have been found in the education black papers that were condemned by the Labour party in the 1970s.

There has also been movement in terms of standards, raising expectations and delivering excellence. When a sinner comes to heaven, one must acknowledge that a significant road has been trod and obstacles overcome, but in debating Ofsted we must not assume that everything in the garden--be it a secret garden or not--is rosy. The reports have alerted us to significant problems with school standards that require amplification in this debate. There is welcome acknowledgement throughout the House that Ofsted does a good and valuable job. For the most part, the fears--some of which were reasonable and realistic--that pervaded schools in Ofsted's early days have begun to dilute.

Like the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, I was a member of an education committee in the mid-1980s and beyond. I remember well that any measurement of output was regarded as slightly bizarre; indeed, measurements that were independent, published, available, comprehensible and comparable were regarded as extraordinary. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, we have made a great deal of progress since then, and I know that the Minister shares that view and the concern that I and other hon. Members who have participated in the debate have expressed.

I want to draw attention to three aspects of the problem facing education, which are highlighted in the Ofsted report. First, there is concern over the morale and status of the teaching profession, which is reflected in the problem of recruitment and retention. Secondly, there is the Government's over-prescriptive approach, and thirdly, there is the quality of life in many schools. Denial is not useful, so we should not pretend that the problems are not profound or deny the specifics. I want to make a couple of points, and I shall mention them fleetingly. I realise that the Minister will not have time to respond to them in detail, but perhaps we can continue the debate on another occasion.

Specific issues have been raised about the teaching of religious education and information technology, the setting of homework, and the achievements of boys generally, especially in writing. Those issues are reflected in the tables in the first and second reports. It is interesting that in the context of both teaching quality and pupil achievement some of those subjects consistently and regularly appear at the bottom of the league table. There is also a problem with subjects such as history and geography, which because of the proper concentration on the basic skills of literacy and

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numeracy, may receive lower priority in schools. We know that there are problems with recruitment in those subjects.

Mr. Tomlinson, the new chief inspector, refers to significant recruitment and retention problems and states:

The correlation, albeit not a direct one, between teacher recruitment and retention, poor behaviour, and the risk of decreasing standards and progress needs to be acknowledged. It should not be denied. It is emphasised in the report and Mr. Tomlinson is flagging a significant danger. We know that there are 4,000 to 5,000 vacancies and that vacancy rates are increasing. We know that the demographics of the teaching profession suggest that, despite the golden hellos, we are storing up problems for the future, particularly in subjects such as history, geography and religious education. There has been progress in maths and English but not all those problems have been addressed and some may even be exacerbated by some of the proposals in the Green Paper.

If an arts graduate is considering a postgraduate certificate in education in English or history and knows that his student loan will be paid off if he trains to teach English, what incentive is there to be a history teacher?

Mr. St. Aubyn : I have in my hand an e-mail from a constituent who is a new teacher. She states:

Mr. Hayes : We must understand that when people move from working for a degree to teacher training, the available options are affected by circumstances and incentives. It may be that, perversely, encouraging people to plug the gap in English is opening an even bigger gap in subjects such as history, geography and religious education. With the addition of the demographic problem--the profession is getting older--we may be unable to deliver even basic requirements for teaching those subjects.

Standards fall when teachers teach subjects that are not their natural specialism. The Ofsted report states:

Interdependence kicks in again because the problem is especially profound in the most disadvantaged areas. It is no surprise that there is difficulty with teacher retention and recruitment where quality and standards

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are the biggest problem. That causes problems with disruption and discipline, which makes it harder to attract teachers and pupils. There is a relationship between behaviour and staying on rates because people can be put off education as a whole. The Minister ought to acknowledge that several significant and growing problems in education are interdependent; the Government should acknowledge that with a more coherent policy.

I have already alluded to the report's stark remarks about behaviour. I was in a good school this morning that has problems with retention and recruitment, even though it is known as a good school. Such problems stem from teaching becoming a harder job. Indeed, in some cases home-school relationships are breaking down. We hear that behaviour is deteriorating in one in 12 of our schools. It may be one in 12 as an average, but if one visits the most disadvantaged areas, it is considerably more than that. We must not mask great problems with blind averages. The head teacher and chairman of governors of the school that I visited today said that that problem was under-recognised--I shall not say unrecognised because that would be unfair to the Minister, but the Government are not responding with sufficient vigour. That is the line that Ofsted takes when it states that "urgent action" is needed.

Mr. Tomlinson's remarks on the subject of behaviour were stark:

Mr. Sheerman : I participated in an earlier education debate with the hon. Gentleman when reference was also made to bad behaviour. Members of the Select Committee try to strike a balance in these matters because it does no one any good to exaggerate the problem. In that debate, I asked him and his hon. Friends to dissociate themselves from the wild remarks made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who claimed that the role of the teacher was merely to try to keep order. It was a dreadful comment, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to repudiate it.

Mr. Hayes : I would not want to repudiate anything that I had not read or heard.

Mr. Sheerman : The hon. Gentleman was there.

Mr. Hayes : Well, I shall examine the record carefully.

I can inform the hon. Gentleman, whom I know brings a considered view to these matters, that I am not describing the situation in every school. I have emphasised that the problem is worse in certain areas and is especially significant in areas that suffer from other problems. That is not my view, but the view

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expressed in the Ofsted report. The report draws attention to problems with, for example, ethnic minority pupils and deprived areas. We have a poisonous cocktail of recruitment and retention difficulties, poor behaviour and a difficulty in achieving high standards.

I agree that it would be wrong to suggest that that was the daily experience of every teacher, parent, head and pupil in every school. Equally, the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be wrong to sweep the problem under the carpet, given what Ofsted has said. It has warned us that the problem may become injurious to standards. All hon. Members and the Government must take that warning extremely seriously. There is a vicious circle of disruption, under-achievement and retention problems.

Teachers feel embattled due to an excess of schemes and initiatives, which is also a threat to standards. Teachers' daily experience is one of pet-project fatigue, as was made clear to me in two schools today. They want a period of stability, and do not want to be over-burdened by excessive regulation and red tape. We need to collect data, as has been said, but it must be used effectively so that it is not just collected for its own sake. We must not become more obsessed with collecting data than delivering results. There is a worry that each new scheme and initiative puts additional pressure on hard-pressed teachers and schools, especially as such schemes sometimes overlap and contradict one another. Head teachers and governors will often protect their teachers from such schemes because they are mindful of those worries, which have been expressed to me as I have visited schools around the country.

The standard of achievement is good in the vast bulk of our schools, and we must achieve a balance between proper reservation and celebration. We must celebrate the work of our teachers. It is extraordinary that every civilisation that I can think of--ancient Greece, ancient Rome, China, Persia, Egypt, and hon. Members may be able to think of others--valued and revered the role of the educator, yet western society has denigrated teachers in the second half of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st. That is inappropriate. It is not good for teachers and worse for our civilisation. We should celebrate the achievements, efforts and endeavours of teachers who do excellent work in our country every day.

I want to draw attention to what Ofsted said about the need to be vigilant in maintaining standards. In education--in an individual school, an LEA or a nation--complacency is always a danger. We must think about how we can maintain the improvement. I suggest that we do so by recognising that teachers are creative and innovative people who need to be given the freedom to express that creativity.

We need to exercise a greater degree of good judgment in the powers that we give to schools. That is difficult, because where there is freedom, there is the freedom to disappoint and not to deliver. However, there is also the freedom to excel. Some schools are desperate for the freedom to set their own means by which to achieve targets. We can set our desired targets, but we can also give schools the freedom to meet them in their own way. I am concerned that an over-prescriptive attitude will be injurious to standards. We must have the courage, energy and foresight to trust our teachers to innovate, to allow our governors to manage and to

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allow our heads to lead. That seems to be the next step on the road that we have travelled, sometimes apart and sometimes together.

A measure of agreement seems to have been engendered today. Unless we achieve it, we will not move forward. I am frightened that we shall not achieve it, certainly not through the Green Paper, but unless we do, not only will our schools suffer, but our children--our very future.

5.4 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris) : I thank hon. Members for a very useful, supportive, sensitive and sensible debate. I agree with much of what has been said, but disagree with some things. I will try to respond as fully as I can in the time available.

I begin with three sets of thanks. First, I join members of the Select Committee in thanking the teachers, head teachers, governors, parents, pupils and communities of the 24,000 schools in this country. Most of those schools get very good results and we have a right to be proud of them. Hon. Members have quoted the figures in the Ofsted report. They are on the record, correct and a joy to behold. I add two further statistics, which have not been mentioned and which touch on many of the issues that hon. Members have drawn on.

The first figure fills me with awe, wonder and amazement--I say that partly for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn). No local authority is performing, in terms of literacy or numeracy, at a level at or below the national average of three years ago. That merits our awe and wonder and shows what teachers can achieve if we get things right, support them well, put resources into the system and base our work on good evidence.

The second set of statistics shows that the greatest improvement in GCSE performance and in literacy and numeracy is in areas of the greatest deprivation. For many years, what is basically a good national education system has had the flaw of allowing the difference of attainment between those who achieve and those who do not to grow and grow. We all strive for excellence, and even the best can be better, but I pay tribute to and acknowledge the improvement of the children in those schools that have traditionally under-achieved.

Secondly, I thank Ofsted. I particularly thank the chief inspector, the inspectors--whatever guise they come in and wherever they inspect--and the Ofsted staff, without whose effort and work we would not have a report to discuss. Without them, there would be no inspection system and no statistics from which to learn and of which to be proud.

Thirdly, I thank the Select Committee--its Chairman and its members--for its work throughout the year. I would be lying if I said that I looked forward to appearances before the Select Committee. That would be less than truthful. It is not with awe and wonder that I sit before them; it is, rightly, with some trepidation. Perhaps appearing before the Committee is a better analogy for the experience undergone by teachers and governors during inspection than the analogy of a general election. Inspection is useful--it is good to be

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questioned in depth, to read the report and to have to respond to it. I welcome our dialogue and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and to Committee members for their work.

I confirm that we have now decided that, at the end of the term of office of the present adjudicator, in June, whoever gets the post will be appointed by the Secretary of State. To add something that perhaps has not been picked up, the new term of office will be for three years, to give more stability. I trust that members of the Select Committee will welcome that.

It is tempting to respond to every point that has been raised and to get into a battle over things that I support, things that I want to quibble about, the odd percentage point or the wording of a particular phrase in the Ofsted report. I will try not to do that. Perhaps the best way in which to respond is to deal with the general themes of the Committee's proceedings and of our discussions.

Every hon. Member has said that Ofsted inspections are okay, but what really matters is what happens after the inspectors have gone. There has been an interesting debate. In this country, we no longer have to argue the need for clear inspections and for information to be put into the public domain. The debate about what should be done when the inspectors have gone is interesting and we have heard both sides of the argument.

Obviously, if nothing happens, a golden opportunity has been wasted. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central said that, in both the inspections in which he had been involved, the teachers were left saying, "It has got us right, but it has told us nothing that we did not know." I had another interesting conversation with a mutual friend of ours, who shall remain nameless, who said of LEA inspections, "Not one of them has been a surprise to me." My question to him and to the schools is, "What did you do about it?" It will be no good knowing about it and saying, "They have not surprised me" if nothing is done about it. The fact that they knew about it but the situation is still the same leads me to think that what was missing was the ability to do anything about it. The difficult part, with respect to Ofsted, is knowing what to do about it.

I am proud to say that the Government have opened that debate. I acknowledge, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, that the last Conservative Government introduced some of the key measures for assessing performance--SATS, end of key stage results, performance tables and inspection. All that accountability information had to be put in place. What the previous Government never put in place was a school improvement package to go with it. Schools were therefore left on their own.

I agree with most of what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central says, but on this occasion I agree with the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn). It is crucial that Ofsted remains independent. What I worry about most is inspectors coming back and inspecting again. They are not so perfect--no one is--that they might not be tempted to think, "They have done what I said, so it must be right." It is more complex than that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central hit on what I think is the answer--the local authority and the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the school is not left by itself. The worst thing about a bad

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Ofsted inspection report is the loneliness the staff must feel on Friday night and on Monday morning when they return to school. It is the feeling of being alone; they are not one of the majority with good inspection reports and wonder what to do about it. The measures that we have introduced to support those schools are showing results. The local authority must move in, not so much to tell the school what to do, but--this is the key point--to ensure that it learns from other schools that are already doing well. Successful schools are the best teachers, not Ofsted inspectors, advisers or Ministers.

Dr. Harris : Will the Minister give way?

Ms Estelle Morris : I shall when I have finished my train of thought.

Part of the challenge is to make successful links through the extension and spreading of good practice, which enables schools to learn from each other. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) referred to a deputy head who had gone to work with a struggling school. That is one way of spreading good practice.

The best way to achieve objectives--whether twinning of heads, or twinning with other schools that have had similar experiences, enabling staff to share good practice or professional development--must be determined not by academic research, but by what works in schools in similar circumstances. We are beginning to build that in. We have developed beacon schools with the mission of sharing good practice. We have given specialist schools the role of working with schools that may not be as strong. We have set up the standards website. Our advisers spend days and weeks phoning schools and saying, "You're weak on that. Do you know the school down the road that is slightly better?" I acknowledge that we are just beginning to try to develop connections with good and improving schools. However, I would sooner go down that road than only have inspectors who inspect, advise and inspect again.

I applaud the school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central, which said to an inspector, "Can you come in and tell us what went wrong?" I have no problem with that as long as the same inspector does not come back to inspect. In that situation, an individual took on a different role and I have no problem with that. Inspectors, in a different part of their life and wearing a different hat, might contribute to advice about school improvement. Their expertise should not be ignored. I do not care whether inspectors assume a different guise. The key point is that the follow-up must be outside the Ofsted framework.

Dr. Harris : I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Lady has said. I just want to take her back to the thought that some schools knew that there was a problem, so the report would not tell them anything that they did not know. The report allows such schools to access the funding available under the statutory duty of LEAs to support those that are deemed to be "failing". Would it be sensible to ensure that schools can either access that help directly, if they accept that there is a

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problem, without having wait for an inspection, or call in an inspection, rather than just hope for improvements?

Ms Morris : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The Ofsted report states that schools in special measures have a good record. They are leaving special measures more quickly than they did under the regime of the previous Government. For the first time, fewer schools are going into special measures than are coming out. If I remember correctly, about 68 schools went into special measures in the autumn term of 1998 and 47 went into special measures in the autumn term of 2000. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that schools with serious weaknesses are not making sufficient progress. If schools go into special measures, the support mechanism will be there to get them out. The really good news is that they stay out and grow from strength to strength.

Mike Tomlinson said that schools with special weaknesses on the second inspection round sometimes slip into special measures. We recognise that that is a real challenge. As I said, schools and the LEAs should know if they are heading on the downward trail and do something about it. The hon. Members for Guildford and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) were right: there is so much good quality information in the system that we should all know if a school is heading for serious weaknesses or special measures.

I can ask for the most elaborate performance data on any one of the 24,000 schools in the country and receive the details in two minutes. We have responsibilities to assist such schools, to monitor them before the inspectors visit them and to stop them going into special measures. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon is right that the schools have to key into better resources and support.

In January at the north of England conference, I announced up to £70,000 extra for all schools in which less than 25 per cent. of pupils were achieving five A to C grades. The excellence in cities clusters are not just magicked out of the air. It is not a case of, "Where shall we have the next excellence in cities cluster?" They are areas with a high level of free school meals and under-achievement. Our policy is to pile on with the basics of effective literacy and numeracy strategies for all students. An effective key stage 3 strategy is to come. The hon. Gentleman is dead right. Let us use the extra money to pinpoint support for schools that need it most because of deprivation and under-achievement. To date, there has been a tendency to think that those matters go together, but they do not. That has been a failure in the system. We have piled in the money after the failure has taken place.

We must become brave enough to say that, whenever a school goes into special measures, the system has failed--someone should have kept the school out before that occurred. Not until then will we be able to say that we have a good school improvement system. We have put in place a lever that will take us in that direction.

Mr. St. Aubyn : I am grateful to the Minister for her generous comments. As she said, given all the available information, she should know what is going on. Does

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she agree with the chief inspector's assessment of the situation in last week's report that the increase in standards is at risk?

Ms Morris : Good teachers are essential to the improvement in standards. We have high standards only because teachers are teaching more effectively. We have played a role in bringing that about. If we did not have sufficiently well-qualified effective teachers, standards would be at risk. The Government have introduced golden hellos, training salaries and the paying off of student loans. They have achieved more routes into teaching and developed courses so that people can obtain a degree and be teachers in three years instead of four. We would not have done that if we did not acknowledge the existence of a problem. A lot of resources must be devoted to the issue because, if it is not addressed, standards could fall. We have always made the link between having sufficient well-qualified teachers and high standards.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right to say that the 1994 statistics show that teacher numbers were going down until last year, when the situation began to improve. It has just occurred to me that this is the first report since the last occasion on which the economy was strong. Teaching recruitment fell at the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s. Her Majesty's inspectorate did not produce reports then, but it did produce them all the way through the period of economic decline and recession, when teacher recruitment was easier.

The Secretary of State, my boss, always says three things to me. Have we recognised the problem? We have. Are we doing something to solve it? We are. Is there evidence that that is producing a result? There is. I am not going to repeat what I said in two debates on the Floor of the House, but the link to which I referred explains why we are spending so much money. Evidence is beginning to show that it is having an effect: applications are 12 per cent. up on this time last year. Expressions of interest, which have increased greatly, are not included in that figure. Applications have risen by 7 per cent. in secondary schools and by the balance in primary schools.

People should not be churlish, because we admit that there is a problem. Everyone in the House should be honest about teaching with those who are considering careers in the profession. Those who exaggerate the problem by saying that Government measures are not working dissuade people from entering the profession, which does kids, parents and teachers a disservice. The measures are beginning to work, but I am not complacent.

Mr. Hayes : Far from being churlish, I revered the role of the educator during my speech. The Minister has made a good argument in respect of retention, and I acknowledge that there has been progress in maths and English. However, will she now address the problem subject areas? The Library figures show that retention

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for teachers under 30 is a problem; the proportion of that age group leaving the profession has increased annually since 1995.

Mr. John Butterfill (in the Chair) : Briefly.

Mr. Hayes : Paying off student loans of new teachers will not deal with that problem.

Ms Morris : I do not have the figures with me, and I will clarify later if I get them wrong. However, I believe that application numbers rose for all but two subjects--I do not remember which ones--and that applications for those two had fallen by only a small percentage. I am not complacent, but application numbers were up, and the golden hellos caused the first reverse for a while in the decline of maths applications.

I do not want to get bogged down so, if hon. Members will excuse me, I will move on to the subjects of education action zones and pupil behaviour. Too many Opposition Members have missed out the same sentences while quoting from a paragraph of the Ofsted report. The report acknowledges that, for the first time, the instances of bad and destructive behaviour have increased. That provides a warning, because it is evidence based, and we will investigate. Opposition Members have quoted the sentence:

We have taken that early warning, which is why we have been developing initiatives and spending money for the past three years. Bad behaviour does not start on the first day of the academic year--it builds up. There is general building up of bad and niggly behaviour. Low level disobedience sometimes becomes more problematic and teachers find that they can no longer cope. Teachers do not go home in the summer and come back in September and find that behaviour has worsened. There is a general decline, which is why, over the past three years, we have made money available so that we will have pupil referral units within full-time education.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings omitted the sentence from the report, which states:

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I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield that what will contribute most to reducing bad behaviour is better literacy and numeracy results at key stage 2. Many children who misbehave at secondary school do not have the basic skills to access the secondary level curriculum, and poor behaviour often derives from that.

I shall now deal with education action zones, excellence in cities, key stage 3 and fresh start. The difficult end of the school improvement market is, and always has been, in those areas to which the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred, which face a multiplicity of challenges. There is acute poverty, low expectation, and no experience of going to university. There is the failure to master skills--often, historically, there has not been an opportunity for good quality early years education. Yet, parents in those circumstances are as aspirational for their children as parents in the more affluent areas.

Some kids who are born into this world with the potential to achieve have almost lost that ability by the age of five. Where there is such multiplicity of disadvantage, it sometimes takes longer to get it right. I have always said, and will say to my dying day, that I would rather try and not make it in the first year than turn my back, which is what happened for decades under previous Governments. If, for example, Ofsted says that in the fresh start programme three children have shown progress and five have not, then I thank God that three are making progress. That means

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thousands more children will have a better life chance, because in some circumstances, schools have been failing the kids, sometimes for decades.

Where children are not making progress, we will try something different. Some of those referred to in the Ofsted report as not making progress, are now doing so--I receive fortnightly monitoring reports on them. We should never give up, we must be open and honest--just as schools have to be with Ofsted reports. The performance of our initiatives should be put on the table for debate. However, the general spread of the initiatives to raise standards is working. It is working because we have shown leadership as a Government and because we have committed the resources. Above all, it is working because we are lucky enough to live in a country where we have a profession that is prepared to stand up and be counted, to acknowledge good practice and to learn from it. Although sometimes it does so with reticence, it is professional enough to change its practice where necessary to raise standards.

The end result is an education system that is far from perfect, but improving. Certainly, after three or four years under this Government, many more children have the good fortune to be educated in many more good schools. I am happy to acknowledge that Ofsted is one of the organisations that helps us to celebrate that progress and achievement. I pay tribute to it, as I do to both the education service and the Select Committee's work.

Question put and agreed to.

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