Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.48 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) on securing this Adjournment debate, which deals with an issue that is clearly of close personal interest to him, as well as to a significant number of those whom he represents. I commend him for the very measured way in which he presented his case to the House and for the very supportive role that he has played throughout, which includes the fact that he alerted me to his concerns ahead of the debate.

I was very pleased that my hon. Friend acknowledged the important role that school inspections play in the drive for higher standards. It is vital that Ofsted is able to do the job that we all want it to do: inspecting, reporting and providing expert advice that is underpinned by the evidence of its inspections.

It is also important that Ofsted has the full confidence of those it serves and that it is properly responsive and accountable to them. It is always worrying when teachers or others feel that they have not had a fair deal from an inspection, or that the conduct or reporting of an inspection did not meet the high standards expected.

Ofsted is a separate, non-ministerial department and, like other such departments, it is required to have procedures for handling complaints when they arise. It is important to recognise from the outset that Ofsted is the regulator of the contracted-out school inspection system. It is independent of contractors and those whom they employ, such as the team who inspected Belmont primary school.

To put this evening's debate in context, between 1 September 2000 and 31 August 2001 Ofsted dealt with 188 complaints of which four were upheld and 24 partially upheld. Out of a total of 4,448 inspections, that suggests a relatively high satisfaction rate or at least a low rate of complaint. Nevertheless, it is important that those who complain receive a fair and effective response.

As my hon. Friend said, Belmont primary school was inspected in March 2000. It was not a happy inspection. We have heard this evening that several complaints were made about various aspects of it. They have been carefully investigated through Ofsted's internal complaints process and, more recently, by its independent adjudicator.

That the process took some 13 months is, of course, worrying and Her Majesty's chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, openly acknowledged that and offered his sincere apologies for the unacceptably long delay.

Although the delay was unacceptable, it was also uncharacteristic. The average time that Ofsted takes to investigate and respond to complaints is around 30 days, and 95 per cent. of complaints are tackled in the three-month target period. The case that we are considering is clearly exceptional.

Ofsted has acknowledged the problems and taken action to ensure that that sort of delay is not repeated. Procedures have been modified, and some changes have been made to the organisation. Ofsted has recently put a

3 Dec 2001 : Column 142

new look complaints section on its website. Early in the new year, it intends to publish revised complaints procedures which reflect some of the lessons that have been learned from the case.

As my hon. Friend said at the close of his remarks, he initiated the debate partly to ensure that others do not suffer similar problems. I hope that he will welcome the changes. He drew our attention to the quality of Ofsted's initial response to the various complaints. It was perceived as dismissive and inadequate. That perception was at least partly confirmed by the independent complaints adjudicator, Elaine Rassaby, when she examined the case. In the adjudication sent on 4 March 2001, she suggested, among other recommendations, that Ofsted should reconsider the original complaint in the light of all the available evidence.

Ofsted did that, and wrote substantively to Mr. Linthwaite on 11 May 2001. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was a comprehensive nine-page reply. Ofsted acknowledges that its initial response in June 2000 was somewhat mechanistic and not as thorough as it might have been. Consequently, some aspects of the complaints that were initially rejected were later upheld.

The case demonstrates the value of the Ofsted complaints adjudicator as an independent reviewer at the end of the internal complaints process. My hon. Friend acknowledged that Elaine Rassaby's intervention was helpful to his constituents. The debate provides an opportunity to pay tribute to her for her work as adjudicator since July 1998. She reaches the end of her term at the end of the month. She has successfully established and developed the post and hands it on to her successor in good shape. Her successor is likely to be in post in January and, for the first time, will be appointed by the Secretary of State rather than Ofsted, in line with Elaine Rassaby's proposal, and for three years rather than one. That will enhance the independence of the post.

On the specifics of this case and, in particular, the concern at the heart of my hon. Friend's speech that the husband-wife relationship between contractor and registered inspector prevented fair consideration of the complaints, Elaine Rassaby expressed the view that this concern was properly addressed by Ofsted's complaints procedures. Those allow dissatisfied complainants to refer their concerns to Ofsted and finally to the Ofsted complaints adjudicator. My hon. Friend noted that the parliamentary ombudsman also felt that the ability to refer complaints to Ofsted should ensure that justice is done.

My hon. Friend suggested that it would be helpful to ensure a clearer separation of functions between inspection contractors and registered inspectors. The role of contractors is defined by Ofsted and is a contractual matter rather than being set out in legislation, so such a provision would not require a statutory instrument or other measure of that kind. So my hon. Friend's suggestion is, in the first instance at least, a matter for Her Majesty's chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson. I know that members of his staff are paying attention to this debate and will report back to him on its content. Having listened to my hon. Friend's concerns, I want to make it clear that I will also ask the chief inspector to consider my hon. Friend's suggestion and write to him directly with a response to it.

On inspection judgments, it is important to note that complaints which questioned the objectivity and rigour of the inspection were not upheld. The judgment that a

3 Dec 2001 : Column 143

school has serious weaknesses is not taken lightly. It is arrived at as a corporate decision, after extensive consideration of evidence gathered both before and during the inspection from a variety of sources, including discussions with the head teacher, staff and governors. It was Ofsted's view, following careful scrutiny, that the key judgment of the inspection team—that the school had serious weaknesses—was secure and supported by the evidence that had been gathered.

My hon. Friend noted early in this debate that the school had been told that it could not challenge the inspection judgments. Ofsted's view is that when complaints are upheld which have a bearing on the judgments in an inspection report, Ofsted's procedures allow for action to be taken. For example, an addendum may be added to a report and, in extreme cases, the report may be withdrawn, reissued or even declared null and void.

There is, however, no formal appeals system against inspection reports and judgments; nor is it our view that such a system would be appropriate. The then Education and Employment Select Committee, in its detailed examination of the work of Ofsted in 1999, considered this matter and reached the same conclusion that we did. Such a system could undermine the inspection process and lead to lengthy disputes between schools and Ofsted, which would then distract staff and governors from the priority task of developing and improving educational provision at the school.

This last point leads me to something that is easily lost in the discussion. I am talking, of course, about the impact of inspection on children and their educational opportunities. As I have already mentioned, the inspection of Belmont in March 2000 found that the school had serious weaknesses. As a result of that judgment, challenge and support mechanisms were triggered to help the school to tackle its weaknesses and to develop plans for improvement.

I was particularly encouraged to learn that evidence gathered during a monitoring visit to Belmont in July this year showed that the school was making good progress in

3 Dec 2001 : Column 144

addressing its key action points. I understand that the visit by HMI found improvement on all five issues raised in the original inspection, that progress was not just satisfactory but good on every one of the five and that the HMI visit uncovered no unsatisfactory teaching at all in any of the lessons that were viewed. My hon. Friend has confirmed that optimistic picture this evening, and I know that those improvements will be appreciated by the children and their parents. They are also a tribute to the staff at the school.

On the evidence before us, it is clear that mistakes were made in this case. Apologies have been offered and procedures re-examined and improved in the light of this case, and I think that that is right. Ofsted has an important job to do and high standards are expected of it.

Inspection is, above all else, about helping schools to improve. It encourages schools to build on their strengths and to address their weaknesses. The judgment that a school has serious weaknesses is intended to spur that school into improving the education that it provides, with education authority support.

The news that Belmont is making such good progress is heartening. I know that a great deal of hard work will have been put into achieving that. The school can expect a further inspection next year, because schools identified as having serious weaknesses are reinspected after about two years. I trust that Belmont will then be able to shed the "school with serious weaknesses" label, move on to be recognised as achieving continuous improvement, and play its full part in achieving our aim—and my hon. Friend's aim—of making a first-class education available to every child.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that lessons have been learned from this episode. I am grateful to him for drawing the matter to our attention and for the work he has done in following it for nearly two years. I also hope that he and Belmont parents, pupils and staff can now look forward to making further progress in the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Next Section

IndexHome Page