Select Committee on Education and Employment Second Special Report


Letter to Barry Sheerman MP, Education & Employment Committee from Estelle Morris, Minister for School Standards, Department for Education and Employment

13 February 2001

I am responding to the Committee's Second Report, about OFSTED's Corporate Plan 2000, which was published on 19 December. I understand that HM Chief Inspector of Schools, Mike Tomlinson, is responding on behalf of OFSTED.

Corporate Plan

I am very pleased that OFSTED's choice of Director of Early Years is Maggie Smith, currently Director of Children's Services UK for Barnardos, and my colleagues and I look forward to working with her and her team.

In his letter of 18 December 2000 to HM Chief Inspector, the Secretary of State set out the requirements of OFSTED's extended remit for inspecting sixth form provision in colleges, as well as schools. The letter made clear that inspection of school sixth form provision would be strengthened to ensure parity of inspection with other post-16 institutions. It also emphasised the need for a consistent and coherent approach to inspection that would enable comparisons to be made of provision for 16-19 year olds in different sectors. The Common Inspection Framework, to be published by OFSTED and the Adult Learning Inspectorate in March 2001, will underpin OFSTED's assessment of sixth form provision. The training of inspectors in the use of the Framework is underway and will ensure rigour and consistency of approach in evaluating sixth form provision, wherever it is delivered.

Inspecting schools for race equality

Mike Tomlinson met Gurbux Singh on 5 February and I understand that he is reporting on the renewed links with the Commission for Racial Equality in his parallel response to you.

OFSTED's report "Raising the attainment of minority ethnic pupils—school and LEA responses" (1999) rightly identified ethnic monitoring as key issue. Local Education Authorities have been invited to provide information on the performance of pupils in each of the main ethnic minority groups through action plans supporting bids for the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG). However, because LEAs have approached the task of data collection in different ways, and because some data have been incomplete, it has proved difficult to get a clear national picture.

The DfEE has accordingly advanced plans to greatly improve the quality of the nationally available data on the performance of minority ethnic pupils in schools. As a first step, we have made it a condition of EMAG funding for 2001-02 that LEAs provide baseline data on ethnic minority achievement against which future targets can be set and progress monitored. We have also made clear our intention to invite LEAs to include targets for the achievement of ethnic minority pupils within their next Education Development Plan (for 2002 onwards).

From January 2002, the Annual School Census will be changed so that information about pupils is reported on the basis of pupil-level records, rather than school records. DfEE officials are currently consulting on guidance for schools on ethnic monitoring in preparation for the new pupil level census. With full implementation of the pupil-level Annual School Census it will be possible to access all pupil-level data for statistical and monitoring purposes. This will allow for detailed analysis of educational achievement by ethnic group.

We agree that systematic and accurate ethnic monitoring is a vital element in raising the attainment of minority ethnic pupils at risk of underachievement. DfEE's guidance to schools already makes clear the benefits of monitoring and assessment and we will continue to emphasise the importance of tracking performance by ethnicity as a fundamental tool to raise levels of attainment and allow every child to fulfil their potential.

Degree standards

The standards of degree courses, other than courses of teacher training, are outside the remit of HM Chief Inspector of Schools.

A level standards

Better pass rates at A level are due to students working harder, better teaching, and clearer information from the awarding bodies, not to a fall in standards. The evidence from 1996 SCAA/OFSTED report on exam standards over time, and subsequent follow up reports (for the years 1996 and 1997) demonstrates that standards at A level have been maintained at least over 20 years. Both the 1996 and more recent reports concluded that the overall demand of the subjects studied remained broadly the same between 1975 and 1995, although an increase in breadth of coverage led to a reduced emphasis on some topics.

The new A level specifications introduced in September 2000 take account of the recommendations in all the standards over time reports. Chris Woodhead suggested that A levels should be academically more rigorous than they currently are, both to ensure the continuing recognition of the standard set and to enable differentiation between able candidates. If standards were raised, however, it would not only be unfair to new students but also make it impossible to track standards over time. It is already possible to differentiate between the most able A level students through Special papers or S levels, which will be replaced by Advanced Extension Awards from 2002.

The Government is not complacent. To ensure that A level standards remain rigorous, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have set up an international panel to review the quality assurance and quality control arrangements for maintaining A level standards. The panel, consisting of three internationally recognised 16-19 qualification experts, will consider QCA's procedures for monitoring the standards, as well as the practices of the unitary awarding bodies in operating A levels, against best international practice.

The statutory responsibility for monitoring A level standards lies with QCA and the Government looks to it for advice on these matters. QCA already works closely with OFSTED and will continue to do so on this and other matters.

Durham County Council

The handling by OFSTED of the complaint from Durham local education authority was fully reviewed by OFSTED's complaints adjudicator and, in the light of her comments, OFSTED offered an apology and modified their internal procedures. The case has been discussed twice in Parliament, first in an unstarred question debate in the House of Lords on 25 October 2000 and then during the Committee's oral evidence session with the then Chief Inspector on 1 November 2000. The case therefore confirms that OFSTED is accountable to Parliament and illustrates the importance of external review by the adjudicator, which provides both a safeguard for complainants who are dissatisfied following OFSTED's initial handling of their complaint and an input into improving OFSTED's internal procedures.

Inspection evidence on the teaching of swimming

OFSTED have carried out a comprehensive evaluation of the provision of swimming in schools and the results were published in November 2000. The study found that the attainment of pupils is satisfactory or better in most lessons; and well over 4 out of 5 schools are providing satisfactory or better time allocation for swimming.

In 1999, 83% of pupils were able to swim 25 metres by the end of Key Stage 2—over four out of five. However, this overall figure conceals a significant variation depending on the location and free school meals (FSM) banding of schools. It ranges from 91 per cent of pupils in rural schools to only 67 per cent of pupils in FSM Band 5. This variation must be a cause for concern.

Other concerns raised by the report are that half of schools have no specific policy or provision for pupils who are non-swimmers or reluctant swimmers; and over half of schools have reduced the time allocated to swimming over the past three years.

There are some very positive findings in OFSTED's report, but we do have to address the concerns. We will be establishing a small "focus group" to review the findings, and any other evidence which may be available, and make recommendations for improving the provision of swimming in the curriculum. The group is likely to comprise representatives from OFSTED, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Amateur Swimming Association, DfEE, Sue Campbell (DfEE's Specialist Sports Adviser), Sport England, and other interested bodies.

HMCI's Accountability

The accountability of OFSTED and HM Chief Inspector was considered in detail during the Committee's enquiry into the work of OFSTED in 1998-99. In the Government's response to the report of that enquiry, in July 1999, I said that we did not believe that the benefits of appointing a Board to oversee the work of OFSTED would provide sufficient added value to justify the resources that would be required. That remains the Government's position. The Chief Inspector has, and should continue to have, independence in matters of professional judgement. He must be able to speak out about the strengths and weaknesses of the education system which are identified through inspection. We recognise, as the Committee did in its report in 1999, that there are arguments for and against the establishment of a Board. We remain unconvinced that the balance of those arguments is such as to justify changing the present arrangements.

Appointment of a successor

The Government continues to believe that ministerial accountability and selection on merit should be the key elements of the appointment system for public bodies. As I said in 1999 in the Government's response to the report of the Committee's enquiry into the work of OFSTED, we have no plans to propose Parliamentary involvement in the appointment of HM Chief Inspector of Schools. The appointment of Mike Tomlinson as HM Chief Inspector was confirmed, as required by section 1(1) of the School Inspections Act 1996, by Order in Council on 13 December 2000.

OFSTED's Complaints Adjudicator

Finally, I mentioned in my response to the Committee's fourth report for 1998-99 that we would consider the recommendation that OFSTED's complaints adjudicator should be appointed by the Secretary of State, rather than by OFSTED. In the light of the adjudicator's first two annual reports, and the report of the Cabinet Office's review of English public sector ombudsmen, we have decided to make that change. This will take effect later this year, when an appointment is due at the end of Elaine Rassaby's current contract.

Estelle Morris

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Prepared 15 February 2001