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(1) At the sittings on Tuesday 11th, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th December, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any Lords Messages relating to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill have been received; and
(2) At the sitting on Thursday 13th December, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until he shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Act agreed upon by both Houses.
Dr. Kumar: This debate is about an Ofsted inspection of a primary school in my constituency. It is not about challenging the bulk of the findings of Ofsted's inspection of Belmont school, nor about education policy. I fully support the Government's aim of raising standards through monitoring and inspection of schools and helping those that need improvement. The debate is about what I, the head, the teaching staff and the governors of the school believe is an inherent flaw in Ofsted's inspection structurea flaw that was inserted by the legislation that gave birth to Ofsted.
Belmont primary school is overseen by Redcar and Cleveland local education authority. It has 362 pupils on its roll and a well-respected head teacher, Colin Linthwaite. At the time of the inspection, a high percentage of the school's pupils came from outside its designated catchment zone; the figure has now reached 47 per cent. It is an improving school with continuing good results at key stages 1 and 2. I cannot stress too much that the school is one that I know personally as a Member of Parliament: I have visited it many times and I know that it possesses the indefinable but unmistakeable air of a happy school.
Belmont primary school was visited by Ofsted in March 2000. It was not a happy inspection. Before it started, there were concerns that the registered inspector had not made contact with the school until prompted to do so by the head. There was also concern about the fact that the contractor and quality manager of West Yorkshire Inspection and Consultancy Services took part in all the pre-inspection meetings. At those meetings, I am told, he was seen to be taking on a greater role than his duties as quality assurance manager warranted. It then became known that the contractor and quality assurance manager was married to the registered inspector; Mr. and Mrs. Charlton were husband and wife.
At first, it was thought that they would overcome the possible conflict of interest by acting professionally but, in the view of many in the school community, that did not happen. Comments by the contractor and quality assurance manager contributed to heightened anxiety among staff and the head. For example, there were comments on the accuracy of financial information submitted about the schoolclearly a serious issue. Only later, after the head asked for the figures to be checked by the local education authority auditor, did the contractor accept that there were no problems.
Such incidents led the school community to feel that the team came with a pre-determined agenda. Things did not get much better during the inspection itself. On one occasion, a class was interrupted so that feedback could be givenan incident felt by many staff to be unprofessional and inconsiderate. Only later was the head
During the inspection, Mr. Linthwaite raised the issue of the quality of school statistical information that was requested. He pointed out that it was skewed by reorganisation and that the Goldstein report, commissioned by Ofsted, stated that inspectors should not look simply at figures in the abstract, but seek to quantify their social and demographic background. Knowledge of the report was denied both by the inspector and the contractor and quality assurance manager. When pressed on that, I am told that the contractor said that his wife's judgment should not be questioned; he spoke about his wife, not the inspector.
After the inspection, the head teacher was told that the school had serious weaknesses. It was also made clear that the school community could not challenge the judgments. The attitude of the contractor and quality assurance manager were perceived as hostile. On one occasion, a feedback meeting involving the governing body was subjected to what can only be described as a unilateral attempt to suspend the meeting by the contractor and the quality assurance manager. Those present felt that he was attempting to avoid detailed questions being put to his wife; the incident was a telling symptom of the problem.
The final report and the oral feedback did not mention strengths in many areas of the school's curriculum, nor did they focus on its capacity to improve. Negative comments were made in the inspection report about staff turnover, which did not acknowledge that some staff had left because they had been promoted elsewhere; others had retired on the ground of ill health; and that the school had a legacy of problems with falling rolls. Finally, sweeping statements were made about unsatisfactory teaching despite the fact that 83 per cent. of the teaching was seen as
The letter of complaint was initially sent on by Ofsted to the contractor, asking him to organise a response from his wife. Given that the nub of the complaint was the relationship between the two, that was seen as perverse
The reply led the head to take the matter to the second stage of the complaints procedure. He wrote to the Ofsted complaints adjudicator, making the same points and posing the issue of the long delay in the response to other detailed matters of concern. The adjudicator, Mrs. Elaine Rassaby, was, by contrast, far more thorough and critical of Ofsted.
In an adjudication dated 4 March this year, Mrs. Rassaby agreed with Mr. Linthwaite on a number of issues. She felt that the comments made by Ofsted about the relationship between the registered inspector and the contractor and quality assurance manager was, to say the least, unhelpful. She stated that Mr. Linthwaite had not been given a full substantive response by Ofsted. In her view, by basing its reply to Mr. Linthwaite solely on the registered inspector's response to the complaint, it had prevented objective assessment of the substance of the complaint; and the comment that the inspector and contractor were
The adjudicator recognised Mr. Linthwaite's concerns about the relationship, and his view that the relationship denied him fair consideration of his complaints by the contractor. However, she also thought that the existence of the complaints procedure in itself would serve to prevent collusion between any two parties, by an act of commission or omission. In her final recommendation she stated first, that Ofsted should apologise to Mr. Linthwaite, and secondly, that account should be taken of her concerns that Ofsted's response was based on the views of the inspector. Finally, the adjudicator declared that the comments that Mr. and Mrs. Charlton's professional experience and history should be enough were dismissive and inappropriate.
Ofsted's response came in May 2001. Barry King, from the office of the chief inspector of schools, replied in a detailed and thoughtful nine-page letter to Mr. Linthwaite. Many issues were dealt with and some resolved. On some
Mr. Linthwaite came to see me, seeking to take a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman. I was happy for that to happen, as I was convinced of the rightness of his case, but I had an uneasy feeling about the outcome on the basis of the comments of the inspector of schools. The ombudsman replied on 3 October. He felt that he was constrained by the rules governing his own responsibilities from taking the matter any further. However, in his letter to me, he stated:
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the case for that change. One school has been affected by the issue, but there may be others. I do not intend to pass judgment on the outcome of the inspection. Some issues of injustice have been noted by Ofsted and they have been taken up with the West Yorkshire inspection and consultancy services. In that sense, the issue of the outcome of the inspection is finished. The action plan proposed by the school and the local education authority has worked and the school is once again going forward confidently and successfully, but the central area of concern remains: the perceived issue of a compromised process. Quite simply, making a statutory split between the contractor and inspector would allow the inspection process to go forward confidently and without the perceived taint of conflict of interest that was so evident at Belmont school.
I believe that the relevant legislationthe School Inspections Act 1996 and the Education (School Inspection) Regulations 1997need amending, and that a simple statutory instrument could achieve that and would not be objected to by any Member of Parliament. Such a measure could prevent the issue from arising again, perhaps in a form that threatens the cohesion of a school