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Westminster Hall

Thursday 4 July 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]


[Relevant documents: First Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2001–02, on the Work of OFSTED, HC 437, and the Government and OFSTED Responses thereto in the Second Special Report from the Committee, Session 2001–02, HC 688; Second Report from the Committee, Session 2001–02, on Standards and Quality in Education: the Annual Report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools for 2000–01, HC 699, and the Government and OFSTED Responses thereto in the Fourth Special Report from the Committee, Session 2001–02, HC 1003; and Fourth Report from the Committee, Session 2001–02, on the Appointment of a new HMCI, HC 830.]

2.30 pm

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

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): It gives me great pleasure to introduce a debate on not one but three reports on Ofsted. They are the products of a great deal of hard work by the Education and Skills Committee. I say that with extra feeling, as we have only just finished the final session of an inquiry into student finance, which I suspect will be the subject of debates in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House. The report will be published next Thursday. Today, however, we are discussing the fruition of another part of the production process of a busy Select Committee. It was a great privilege, last Thursday, to have a Supply day debate on the Committee's individual learning accounts report; now, in this much more intimate and comfortable Chamber, we are discussing the Committee's three reports on Ofsted.

The Select Committee takes its responsibilities for Ofsted very seriously. The responsibility that Ofsted and the chief inspector of schools have to the House of Commons and to Parliament has been a matter for debate for some time, but it has been clearly established over the past five years that the chief inspector, representing Ofsted, is responsible to Parliament through the Select Committee. Indeed, that has been accepted by the Prime Minister and successive Secretaries of State. It is an important part of our parliamentary responsibilities. Having established that, we have to take our responsibilities ever more seriously, because Ofsted is a growing business.

I was checking—or rather, I should be truthful and say that my research assistant was checking—the number of people employed by Ofsted over the years. I was astonished at the numbers. In 1995–96 the Department for Education and Employment had 6,528 employees; on 1 February, the Department for Education and Skills had 5,425—nearly five and a half thousand civil servants. In 1995–96 Ofsted had 511 staff; but on 1 February, it had 1,494 full-time employees. That is a dramatic increase.

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There has also been a dramatic increase in Ofsted's budget. In 1993–94 Ofsted spent £46 million; this year it plans to spend £197 million—a real-terms increase of £150 million, or 240 per cent. That does not mean that Ofsted has grown for the sake of it; it has been given a great deal more responsibility. Hon. Members will know that its remit now runs into early years education, teacher education, further education, prison education and education in the independent sector. We parliamentarians should appreciate the size of the organisation that we are charged with overseeing. It makes our job of scrutiny ever more important.

At present, we meet the chief inspector twice a year to discuss his annual report and his conduct of the job and Ofsted's development under his charge. The meetings are slightly different, but it is important to get that contrast.

I suspect that with the growth of Ofsted we will have to consider whether there is enough scrutiny. You will know better than most, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that a pioneering change in our constitution will begin the week after next, when members of the Liaison Committee will have their first meeting with the Prime Minister. That will happen twice a year from now on. The Committee will ask the Prime Minister questions about his role and his conduct of his office for two and a half hours. That is a breakthrough and a welcome change in parliamentary responsibility, activity and scrutiny.

However, considering the growth of Ofsted, we should not be content with the current arrangements. Having established two meetings a year, we should examine innovative ways of establishing a better relationship. One of the best ways of doing that is dealt with in one of the reports—changing the manner of the appointment of the chief inspector. This is not a comment on David Bell, the newly appointed chief inspector; it is question of what the Committee believes is the right way to appoint a chief inspector.

We have said from the beginning that the process should be more open and transparent, and should be handled differently. In a previous report, we called for a process by which the Committee evaluated the candidates and had a clear role in choosing the new chief inspector. That process could be refined and some of us would even argue—I am not sure that I dare say this, and I am looking round at my colleagues to find out whether they agree—that the Chairman or a member of the Select Committee should be on the appointing committee, as a step towards a different system.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am grateful that my hon. Friend has chosen to focus on this issue so early in his introduction to the debate. The recent report by the Modernisation Committee about the future role of Select Committees, which now almost have a job description, extends their brief quite significantly. Does my hon. Friend think that in that report an opportunity was missed to include in their new role across-the-board responsibility for hearings on major public appointments relevant to each Committee?

Mr. Sheerman : I thank my colleague on the Select Committee for that intervention. I was coming to that, and he saved me from making a long reference to it.

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There have been some missed opportunities, but most Members are aware that the Liaison Committee has been taking a strong leadership role in the regeneration and renaissance of Parliament through its powers of scrutiny and much else. For our Select Committee and its relationship with Ofsted and other major educational quangos, we believe that that kind of scrutiny is important right across the piece. That is why I started with the constitutional part of the Ofsted report and the question of getting the relationship right.

The main purpose of a Select Committee is the scrutiny of the Executive. We start with that, and if we get that wrong we do nothing well. That is why our Select Committee, as soon as a new Committee was formed with a new Chair after the election, set itself to re-establishing the importance of the scrutiny role and placing it at the heart of our existence. That is why we called in all six Ministers, starting with the Secretary of State.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will smile a little at that, because it took us 10 months to get through the process, only for there to be ministerial changes. I am sure that the present Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), who is with us today, is looking forward to being scrutinised shortly by the Select Committee. It is an interesting and vital process, and my hon. Friend is right about the importance of such matters.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): In naming me, the hon. Gentleman has given me an enthusiasm for the job. I shall compliment him later on the fact that Ofsted is being held to account more than in previous years.

One issue that particularly concerns me is how we judge the accuracy and veracity of inspectors' work. That issue does not appear in the report, although the present arrangements are dismissed in the evidence given by Professor Fitz-Gibbon of Durham university. Inspectors judge individual lessons, and base their judgment of the school on an amalgam of those lessons. It is important that there is independent research into their methodology and into assessments, accreditation and the accumulation of information in what is, after all, a judgmental process. Why did the Committee not feel that it was important to ask the chief inspector to carry out such research, as Professor Fitz-Gibbon and her colleagues suggested?

Mr. Sheerman : As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made a rather good mini-speech in his intervention. I know where he is coming from, and I shall talk about his concern in a moment, once I have set it in the context of the next part of my speech. I shall not keep hon. Members long, because many of my colleagues want to speak in this short debate.

I want to establish the constitutional background to what we do, and to explain how big Ofsted is and what role it plays. I shall then explain why it is so important that we get our scrutiny right.

The Government have continued the growth of Ofsted, and it is an expensive item. As I said, it has nearly 1,500 employees, not including the many on

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short-term contracts who inspect schools. It is much bigger than is suggested by the figures that we have given or by the budget in its entirety; it is an enormous operation.

What is the purpose of Ofsted if it does not work, and does not improve schools? It was introduced so that we could assess the quality of teaching, education and the teaching and learning experience in the classroom, but if it does not do that, and does not help to raise standards, why do we have it? That is the crucial question that we must all ask. If it does not drive up standards, we have every right to say that it is a poor use of taxpayers' money.

When Professor Fitz-Gibbon and many of her academic colleagues wrote to us suggesting that there should be a royal commission, it was refreshing, in a sense, because we like to have a good relationship with the academic community. Indeed, we spend a lot of time during inquiries hearing evidence from academic experts, and we have just taken evidence from a whole range of them in our inquiry into student financing and individual learning accounts. However, we were a little peeved by the request for a royal commission, because there is no need for one if we are doing our job well. That request therefore renewed the energy with which we come to our job, and we are ever more vigilant in the questions that we ask.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that we did not ask all the right questions when we last saw the chief inspector. Our questioning will change, although our track record on questioning the chief inspector and calling him to account is not bad. Nevertheless, we do not get everything right. Some people believe that we questioned a former chief inspector a little too hard and too vigorously, because he resigned the next day—although that was nothing to do with our inquiry or our questions, although we ask hard questions. We persist with our interrogation until we have the answers that we require.

From our investigation, we believe that there is a fair case for saying that the introduction of Ofsted and its growth, expansion and operation has been in the plus column of the accounts of the national education system. The process of evaluation and inspection has helped the Government to be more competent and focused in their knowledge of the quality of education, and has helped to provide the information that the Department for Education and Skills can then act on to drive up standards.

I make no apologies; it is our remit to scrutinise increasingly. If the empire becomes larger and larger and we cannot see a benefit from the process to the taxpayer, the consumer and, most of all, the student, it is our job to make a loud noise about that. We listened carefully to Professor Fitz-Gibbon and her colleagues. We will ask them to talk to the Committee so that we understand the arguments even better and our questions can be even sharper in future.

I come from the old management school that used to say that if something could not be measured, it could not be managed. I think that it still believes that. We all have to face the tremendous drive to know what is out there in our education system and to measure it, so that we know how children are doing. We must know the level of literacy and numeracy. If children cannot read and

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write, they cannot fulfil their potential for all the other things that they could do in their lives. It is a barrier to making their lives complete. I make no excuse for supporting programmes under this and the previous Administration that were meant to find out what the educational situation in this country was, evaluate it, measure it and then have targets to drive standards up. Ofsted should be judged on whether that process is successful.

Ofsted will not get everything right. We must carefully watch its interesting transition from focus on one aspect of education to involvement in many more aspects. It is always dangerous when an organisation triples in size, budget and personpower, so this is a difficult time. We have to see whether the transition works. Whenever there is even the smallest mistake that involves an examination board and siren voices call for only one body, I am always resistant. In walks of life in which I have been involved, it is sometimes dangerous to have one national body that covers everything.

Mr. Willis : There is only one Ofsted.

Mr. Sheerman : That is an aside. I am aware that Ofsted is in a transitional period, and that the role of the Select Committee on Education and Skills is to monitor that carefully.

I do not want to speak for much longer, but it would be unfair if I did not mention the appointment. It was clear that some of our colleagues were irritated about the appointment process. That is not a criticism of the new chief inspector, but even if we put all the arguments about greater transparency and more involvement with the House of Commons and our Select Committee to one side, more experience on the panel that interviewed, assessed and chose the new chief inspector—someone from the private sector, for example—would have been an advantage. To us, the experience did not look broad or diverse enough.

That is not a criticism of David Bell, the new chief inspector, with whom we have had our first meeting. We wanted to meet him early in his career to build the relationship and hear about his aspirations. The interview that we had with him for this report is clearly different from the interview with Mike Tomlinson for the previous report. Mike Tomlinson had been in Ofsted for a long time, had a long track record as a deputy and fulfilled an interesting role. It is no secret that Chris Woodhead was a more combative, controversial and sparky character—[Interruption.] Perhaps that is an interesting use of the word "sparky". Mike Tomlinson was more competent and agreeable, and led Ofsted well.

As Chairman of the Select Committee, however, I valued the relationship that we had with Chris Woodhead. He did an enormous amount of work in establishing and developing Ofsted. The Select Committee had its run-ins with him, both under me and under the two previous Chairs, and we disagreed about some of the things that he said that did not seem to be supported by the evidence. The only consistent source of disagreement between the Select Committee under three different Chairs and Ofsted under Chris Woodhead's regime was when what he said was not based on

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inspection or evidence, but on things that Ofsted had not worked on. In other respects, we had a creative relationship, and I pay tribute to that part of his work.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I should point out to my hon. Friend that the damage caused by the way in which the former chief inspector would shoot from the hip spread further than Ofsted alone. An Ofsted inspector told me that he was once driving to a school when he heard Chris Woodhead shooting from the hip on the radio. The head teacher from the school also heard the chief inspector's comments, which clouded the whole inspection.

Mr. Sheerman : My great friend and colleague is trying to distract me from giving a balanced evaluation of the former chief inspector. Everyone knows that he and I had disagreements, but I am trying to be fair about a former public servant. He had great strengths but he had weaknesses as well, to which we would refer when we met—we did not keep our objections secret. He ran a different kind of regime. When Mike Woodhead took over—

Mr. Willis : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman : No, I am enjoying this.

Mike Woodhead—sorry, I mean Mike Tomlinson—softened the role of Ofsted. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it did no good to anyone that the staff of schools found Ofsted inspections the most frightening, worrying and stressful experience of their entire lives. There was something deeply wrong with that. Mike Tomlinson's regime introduced a different kind of charisma and a new approach. His inspections had a lighter touch. The Select Committee certainly thought that it was unnecessary to put the fear of the Almighty up a teaching body—a group of professionals—to get results.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Does the Chairman of the Committee agree that the fear of the Almighty was not necessarily injected by her Majesty's chief inspector? In some cases, the inspection process inspired fear because head teachers, governors or local education authorities were so afraid that their school would fail.

Mr. Sheerman : Yes, there were institutional aspects. No one can take a totally relaxed view of an Ofsted inspection—there is a great deal of stress involved in any Ofsted inspection, even now. However, getting the balance right is important. The person at the head of the organisation can send a message about the balance, and make it clear that he wants a creative relationship between a group of professionals who are desperate to do their job well to provide good quality education and teaching in the classroom. In any organisation, that message from the top makes a great difference, and the transition to Mike Tomlinson changed that message.

Of course, David Bell is unproven, and we must watch carefully to see what happens. He says that he does not go in for the heroic style of leadership, and that is, in a sense, refreshing. However, it is important to get the balance right and not to put the fear of the Almighty into everyone in the belief that that is the way to get the

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best out of them. I come from a school of management that regards scaring employees to death as an idea from the 19th century.

Most productive modern companies in the private sector do not scare their employees to get the best results. It is important to encourage them, to build their confidence and self-esteem, and to work as a team. Every successful company in the private sector and every organisation in the public sector works best when that sort of positive attitude prevails. I am looking to David Bell to create a constructive relationship and achieve a balanced approach to the job. Of course he will not be a pushover or a soft option. We expect the chief inspector to know what standards he wants to see in the educational establishments of our country—

2.56 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.11 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): We may resume now. I call Mr. Sheerman.

Mr. Sheerman : It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Olner, but I was about to conclude my remarks when we were so rudely interrupted by the Division.

The Committee was somewhat spoiled during our recent individual learning accounts report because we realised how good a relationship we could have with a Minister. I am not sure whether I should say this in this Chamber, but when we received the ministerial responses to the report, they were of such a high quality and so frank in exchanging serious views that it seemed that it was the then Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), rather than civil servants, who was writing the stuff. Now, whether we are reading the Timms or the Miliband version in response, we get the feeling that they were written by civil servants without much ministerial input. We would have preferred to be at the level that we attained during the discussions on individual learning accounts, so we were a little disappointed.

We took a long time to take evidence and made some intelligent comments. Those on the Opposition Benches might take me up on that idea, but in the first meeting with the new chief inspector we spoke about the appointment process, pupil behaviour and attendance, teacher recruitment and retention, teacher work load, supply teachers, specialist schools, local authority inspections and penalties for parents who do not sent their children to school. Indeed, we were prescient in some ways, because shortly after we asked the chief inspector whether the penalties for parents who did not co-operate in sending their children to schools were sufficient, we saw the remarkable case of the unfortunate woman who was imprisoned for that.

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Although I am in favour of strong, appropriate pressure—I know that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough disagrees—and believe that severe penalties must be handed out to people who do not co-operate in sending their children to school, there are alternatives. I prefer the Australian system of depriving people of their liberty at weekends. It is better process, because it does not take the people away from their family during the week or stop them earning money. The range of penalties must be expanded. As a former shadow Minister for prisons and police, the last thing I want to see is people being sent to prison unnecessarily. It does not do any good—although I know that the courts are forced to do that in some cases.

Mr. Willis : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman : No, I want to finish what I am saying.

I have one last comment, and I shall give myself one more minute to speak. Our Committee has had seminars to try to chart the way of adding value as a Committee. We do not want to produce reports that do not add value.

This week, we spent two hours with academics, civil servants, people from Ofsted and others discussing the crucial issue on which Ofsted reported yesterday. What happens to children when they go to secondary school at the age of 11, bright and full of potential? They seem to lose interest in education between 11 and 14. What is going wrong in the education system? Yesterday's report was valuable, and we shall take up that issue when we next see the chief inspector.

Our job is to evaluate the use of taxpayers' money. That is what the job of a scrutinising Committee should be. If Ofsted does not drive up standards, we, not a royal commission, should be first to tell the House and the public. Diversification and plurality, with specialist schools and foundation schools, are the fashion with the Government. If that diversity does not improve standards, we should be the first Committee to say that it is not working—but the jury is out on that.

People can rest assured that the Education and Skills Committee will continue its positive scrutinising relationship with Ofsted, and we look forward to many more positive engagements with it.

3.15 pm

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): It is a great pleasure to participate in my first debate in connection with the Select Committee on Education and Skills. I had hoped to participate in last week's debate on individual learning accounts, but unfortunately the time scale was truncated, and I was not allowed to do so. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Committee Chairman, whose adroit footwork has enabled many reports to be produced with the full support of all members of the Committee, across political parties. That is a credit to him and his skills as Chairman.

Ofsted is a large subject, and the reports that we are debating cover many issues, but I shall concentrate on the relationship between Ofsted and schools. Ofsted has been a tremendous success in improving standards in schools. The size of Ofsted's role in improving standards

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is debatable, and more analysis needs to be done, but the principle of external inspection is sound and provides quality assurance.

Whether Ofsted provides value for money is another debate. Let us consider successful schools in particular. Three or four inspectors may spend up to a week in a school telling the school what it already knows. Is that good value for money, particularly when public resources are in such demand in so many sectors?

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge the role of the light-touch regime in that regard?

Mr. Simmonds : Yes, I do. I shall say more about that later, but my view is that the light touch needs to become even lighter. More emphasis should perhaps be placed on schools with weaknesses, to prevent some of them from going into special measures, and on schools that are in special measures, to enable them to come out of that situation faster.

I welcome the maturing of Ofsted that has taken place, particularly under Mr. Tomlinson, and the reduction of the burden on schools. The report summarised that by saying that Ofsted had become more responsive, more supportive, better informed and better co-ordinated. However, the evidence taken by the Committee from Mr. Tomlinson, and, more recently, Mr. Bell, was that they felt that the current relationship between Ofsted and schools was satisfactory or almost perfect. I detected a sense of incredulity when they were told that schools did not take the same view.

Let me describe the feedback that I am receiving from schools about the so-called lighter-touch regime that came into existence relatively recently. First, schools believe that they have a "them and us" relationship with Ofsted inspectors. It is not a partnership, and this creates an atmosphere of animosity which, although perhaps not as great as it has been, still exists.

Secondly, Ofsted inspectors have often been described as intransigent. They do not always listen or take on board points made by the teaching staff.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Is the hon. Gentleman not generalising? We have also heard evidence that other schools have found the process helpful and supportive. Indeed, there are probably as many different types of Ofsted inspector as there are types of member of the Select Committee.

Mr. Simmonds : I accept what the hon. Lady says. She is quite right to say that that I am generalising, but my point is that the Ofsted inspection process, as it exists today, is not perfect. Improvements could be made to the process, and I do not think that it is unreasonable for me to point out some of the current failings. I agree that the process is more positive than it has been. However, if the process had the same vigour as it started with all those years ago, we would not need this light-touch approach. One statistic that illustrates that point is that nine out of 10 primary schools that have gone through their second Ofsted inspection are significantly better than when they were first inspected. If there had been a loose, light-touch inspection in the first place, we would not be seeing such a high percentage in that category.

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There is also the belief that Ofsted is stuck on concentrating too much on paperwork before, during and after the inspection process. Many schools and local education authorities have said to me that if the full implementation of the paperwork processes that Ofsted requires of schools were put into operation 100 per cent. of the time, it would detract from the core focus of teachers in schools, which is providing learning and educational facilities for their pupils. That is primarily a function of time.

Liz Blackman : May I jog the hon. Gentleman's memory? I understand that he pursued this line of questioning when Mike Tomlinson came before the Select Committee, and Mr. Tomlinson described in detail ways in which the paperwork was being considerably reduced, and returns could be made online. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is merit in that?

Mr. Simmonds : I am delighted that the hon. Lady has read the Select Committee's evidence. Mike Tomlinson referred to 34 areas in which reductions had been made in the bureaucracy demanded of schools that went through the Ofsted process. However, more can be done, and I think that it is right for us to look at ways in which further reductions can be made. I shall say more about that later, if I may.

The report forcefully made the point that the Asssociation of Teachers and Lecturers commended Ofsted for its continuing awareness of the unduly demanding nature of inspections. However, it says:

I agree with that and look forward to Ofsted's analysis of bureaucracy, which it promised when it came before the Select Committee, and how it can be further reduced, in conjunction with the Minister and his colleagues at the Department. I hope that that will include an analysis of how effective the prescriptive literacy and numeracy hours have been, and the correlation between prescriptive hours and the raising of standards in those areas, because prescription takes away the freedom and innovation from which many schools, particularly primary schools, would benefit.

I wonder whether orders have come to the inspectors from above, either from the Department or the heads of Ofsted. Schools believe that Ofsted inspectors are now much more pleasant to teachers. Although that is a positive step, I suspect that it is not necessarily a function of the Ofsted process, but has happened because the Government do not want any more good teachers to leave the profession, given the present retention crisis.

It cannot be right for schools to spend days and weeks preparing for Ofsted inspections, which distracts them from what they are supposed to be doing and inevitably creates a false impression when the inspectors arrive at the school. There must be scope for successful schools to have a lighter-touch inspection regime than exists at present. I am extremely sympathetic to the argument that unannounced visits and inspections would add a useful tool to Ofsted's armoury, as the school would be seen as it really is, rather than the polished and prepared school that the school governors, teachers and pupils would like it to appear.

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I welcome the Ofsted drive to allow more current teachers to be involved in the inspection process. Although that has proved complex as teachers are taken out of the classroom in other schools to take part in inspections, it allows professional development and the exchange of best practice between schools, which did not happen enough in years gone by. It also gets away from the "them and us" dynamic, which still exists, and creates a more positive way forward.

Although I welcome the experimentation in getting feedback from pupils in schools, I question whether they will tell the truth or say how they really feel rather than what they want the Ofsted inspectors to be told. I accept that local authorities should be brought into the loop to discuss a school's performance prior to its Ofsted inspection, although I have heard schools, not necessarily in my constituency, complaining that since the local education authorities are being inspected by Ofsted, they appear to be more interested in passing their own inspections than they are in giving a good and proper service to the schools for which they are supposed to be responsible. I accept that LEAs need to be brought further into the Ofsted inspection process before the inspection, as should other interested parties, as the report states—but there was no mention of bringing parents into the process. If there is one group of people who have an inherent interest in a school's performance—its dynamics and its educational processes for their children—it is the parents of children at the school.

Jonathan Shaw : The hon. Gentleman is, of course, aware, that there are parents consultation meetings prior to school inspections.

Mr. Simmonds : I am aware of that and I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing it out. However, more could be done with parents in a more formal way, perhaps on the first evening of the Ofsted process or when the inspectors are at the school.

I shall draw my remarks to a close by asking the Minister to encourage the Ofsted process, but to stop trying to micro-manage schools, because most teachers are well aware that the Ofsted process has benefited their schools. However, they—especially the more successful ones—would prefer a lighter touch, and they want to be allowed to teach. There is a direct correlation between the potential and the desire of central Government to micro-manage as many schools as possible and the reluctance of teachers to remain in the education system. It is one of the main, fundamental reasons why many teachers are being driven out of the profession. I plead with the Minister to stop micro-managing, and to support a lighter Ofsted regime.

3.28 pm

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I, too, welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. Hon. Members have talked about the benefits of school inspections and the importance of quality and raising standards, and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) gave us a good outline of the principle of external inspection.

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I particularly welcome the improvements that Mike Tomlinson, the previous chief inspector, described in a letter to schools in September. He paid particular attention to the need to cut bureaucracy. There was a clear emphasis on the importance of not preparing material especially for an inspection. Now that we are some years down the road, we are right to expect schools to have policy statements already in place. Some years ago, I was a governor of a school awaiting its first inspection. As hon. Members will know, at least a year's notice is given, and there was much activity to produce many documents specifically for the inspection. The situation should be different now. Schools are used to the requirements, and it is a matter of Ofsted going in and seeing what is there, rather than there being excessive preparation.

Like the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness, I welcome the involvement of practising teachers. However good Ofsted inspectors may be, many have been out of direct teaching for some time. They do not experience the immediate pressures that teachers face daily as they deal with a range of issues, and therefore have a different perspective. Including practising teachers wherever possible can add to the process a realism about the range of tasks that teachers must perform, the issues that they face and all the other requirements that members of the Government and some Opposition Members would like teachers to fulfil.

I differ from the hon. Gentleman in that I welcome the importance attached to seeking the views of pupils. I believe that skilful Ofsted inspectors could talk to young people about their school and teachers and get sensible opinions. They may not get a full impression if they spend only a short amount of time with them, but if the discussions are conducted properly, they could make an essential contribution to the process.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I welcome my hon. Friend's contribution. As she knows, the Select Committee took formal evidence from members of the Youth Parliament for the first time, which proved to be a valuable experience. I understand that Ofsted took evidence from young people only once. Does she endorse my view that such evidence should be more widely taken?

Ms Munn : I certainly do, and I agree that it should be part of the inspection. It is important that Ofsted inspectors not only listen to young people, but examine how well schools involve young people in all their processes. Evidence shows that schools do better if they have school councils and other processes for engaging young people in what goes on. More is achieved and behaviour is generally better.

Mr. Andrew Turner : Does the hon. Lady agree that an Ofsted inspector may be more successful in getting a representative view from pupils, rather than a self-selected one? I regret to say that those pupils who came before the Select Committee were articulate but unrepresentative, as more than half of them were from grammar schools, and more than half were doing politics A-level.

Ms Munn : They were clearly unrepresentative. As we know, politics remains a minority interest in most parts of the country.

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Jonathan Shaw : Surely it is up to Ofsted inspectors how they consult children or young people in a school. It is not for the Government to prescribe the method. The discussion could be formal or informal. Any Ofsted inspector worth his salt would know whether the wrong children were being selected for such a consultation.

3.34 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.4 pm

On resuming—

Ms Munn : For those who can remember the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), the answer is yes, I entirely agree.

We are pressed for time, so I shall move on to other issues that the Select Committee considered. In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I welcomed the change in tone when we met Mike Tomlinson. Ofsted should be challenging, but most teachers and schools want improvements in teaching and attainment, so the process should be supportive and challenging rather than confrontational.

Our hearing with the new chief inspector was positive and I particularly welcomed the opportunity to explore the gap between the best and worst performing schools. I referred during the hearing to Myrtle Springs, a school in my constituency, which was involved in special measures. The school found its recent Ofsted inspection helpful and supportive of the improvements that were already beginning to take place. The school was commended for its approach and its hard work.

The school is raising standards, but because of the area and range of children attending, we should recognise that it is unlikely to appear high up in the league tables. The school works well with children with learning difficulties, using the learning mentors introduced by the Government. One concern raised with me by the head teacher is that league tables often lead to the labelling of schools as either good or bad. Whatever we say about that, the children begin to feel it themselves, which takes us back into the cycle of issues about aspirations, expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies. It is a problem that we must tackle.

I asked David Bell how schools that were good at tackling problems such as social exclusion—including helping pupils who had been failing elsewhere to achieve positive results—should be reported. I shall refer briefly to his response, which was not necessarily what I was looking for:

I told him that I would ask the same question next time, and he said that he would prepare for it. I hope that the issue will stay on his agenda.

We have heard some positive reports about schools coming out of special measures. I have experienced the joy of writing to several head teachers in my

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constituency to say well done—well done to head teachers, teachers, parents and children in building a partnership to lift schools out of special measures and to provide pupils with real hope of educational achievement.

Other schools facing serious weaknesses, however, do not secure the early intervention and help necessary to prevent them from going into special measures. Is Ofsted going into schools often enough? Is a combination of Ofsted reports and local education authority oversight of schools necessary? Some believe that LEAs should not have much of a role in schools, but I disagree because they can provide important external support. Some LEAs have not been doing that job, which is why I welcomed Ofsted inspections of them. But there is a question of how we can help those schools with serious weaknesses. I hope that the issue will be addressed by both the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted.

Finally and briefly, I want to refer to early years. That did not appear in the chief inspector's report for 2001–02 because it is a new area that Ofsted has taken on. A number of us on the Education and Skills Committee, particularly those of us who come from a social work background, were concerned about what would happen when Ofsted took over the inspection and regulation of child minders. The previous regime looked at child care and the other issues that are important to children's early development in such a way that they did not get lost in what could become an over-riding education agenda. While obviously—

4.10 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.25 pm

On resuming—

Ms Munn : That suspension allowed me briefly to support Bradford's bid to be city of culture, which I am sure will please my colleagues from Yorkshire.

On early years, finally, the Select Committee raised the issues of physical chastisement by child minders and smoking. Those matters have often been discussed at length. I shall not do so today; I do not want to be interrupted again. I hope that in future reports, the Select Committee will pay more attention to issues relating to early years.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Hon. Members have indicated that they wish to finish as near to 5.30 pm as possible. Unfortunately, there have been four Divisions in the House, and others are threatened. So that I can call as many hon. Members as possible, I ask the remaining speakers to be reasonably quick and sharp.

4.26 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): I should declare two interests. First, as a member of the Education and Skills Committee, obviously I am delighted to be present to

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discuss the report. Secondly, I was a teacher for 22 years, and more importantly, I was subject to two Ofsted inspections in five years. One was only just over 18 months ago, so it is very fresh in my memory.

In the light of that, I shall deal mainly with some of the concerns about Ofsted inspections and accountability that were discussed by the Committee with the then chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson. There has undoubtedly been an improvement in the approach of Ofsted since Mr. Woodhead moved on. There is a more positive approach, but it must be said that the Ofsted process is still judgmental, rather than developmental.

In Committee, the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard) asked Mr. Tomlinson about the stress, fear and trepidation that he had witnessed when inspections took place in a school where he was a governor. Mr. Tomlinson told the Select Committee that schools actually welcomed inspection and that

I had to disagree entirely with that, based on my experience of two inspections, and on the experience of many colleagues and friends from other schools. Other members of the Committee also disagreed, on the basis of evidence gained from visiting schools in their constituencies. I can confidently say that I have never met a teacher who welcomed an Ofsted inspection, whether they, their department or their school had a glowing report or a bad one.

Why is that? We have heard several reasons from hon. Members. We have heard about "shooting from the hip", although thankfully that seems to have ended with the departure of Mr. Woodhead. Another reason is the work load involved in preparing for an inspection. The report and Mr. Tomlinson's evidence to the Committee dealt with ways in which Ofsted was trying to reduce the amount of preparation involved, although if a school is to be judged on the basis of a snapshot inspection, it will inevitably do a great deal of preparation in an attempt to get a favourable judgment.

Many teachers lack confidence in the inspectors. There is a view that those who can, teach; and those who cannot become Ofsted inspectors or possibly—I shall say it before any colleague suggests it—Members of Parliament. Furthermore, there is a feeling that inspectors come to a school with preconceived images and agendas, based simply on mounds of statistics. It is felt also that inspectors apply a universal yardstick to all schools, with little recognition of different levels of social deprivation, or of the fact that some schools have many more pupils with special needs or behavioural difficulties than other schools in more favoured or more selective situations.

There is a perceived lack of consistency. There is a widespread impression among teachers, which my experience backs up, that too much depends on the particular team of inspectors that visits a school or, within a team, which subject inspector a teacher happens to get. Teachers can have very different experiences, depending on the approach and the personality of an individual, instead of the approach being consistent.

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Above all, as I mentioned at the start, Ofsted is perceived as judgmental, not developmental. I recall working with Her Majesty's inspectors in the 1980s. When they visited a school, they quickly and perceptively diagnosed a department's strengths and weaknesses in one day. They outlined the weaknesses but, unlike Ofsted, they said, "This is how we will help you to tackle them in the forthcoming weeks and months." Ofsted descends from on high, passes judgment and disappears until the next time.

How could the chief inspector say in his evidence to the Committee that all teachers welcome inspection? Yes, teachers can argue with inspectors during the week about the judgments that they pass on them as individuals in the classroom, on the department and on the school. However, partway through the week, teachers are reluctant to do that because the inspector has to return, watch more lessons, further examine the department and write his conclusions before the end of the week. There is therefore a natural reluctance to antagonise. Teachers can complain about the report that they read at the end of the week, but it is not the final version. The inspectors will go away and write that. Again, there is a fear of rocking the boat.

When teachers complain during or after an inspection, how responsive and accountable is Ofsted? The famous Summerhill school had to spend £140,000 on an expensive court case to force Ofsted to take into account evidence from pupils and thus save the school from closure. How many state schools have the ability and the funds to do that? Comber Grove primary in Southwark had a good Ofsted inspection in 1996 and a devastating inspection in 2000.

Mike Kent, the head teacher, wrote about his experiences in an article in The Times Educational Supplement in 2000. He said:

Fourteen months later, Mike Kent had battled through a complicated complaints process, which required him to ring Ofsted time and again to inquire what was happening to the complaints and when he would receive a reply. He had to nag Ofsted constantly. At the end of that 14-month battle, more than half his complaints were upheld. However, the damage had already been done.

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Ofsted inspections continue to need reforming, especially if the chief inspector believes that teachers love to see his cohorts crossing the school's threshold. The inspectors appear to be learning from some mistakes, and there are welcome comments in the report. However, do they apply the same lessons to inspecting further education colleges?

The evidence that the Association of Colleges submitted to the Select Committee conveyed great anxiety about, for example, inspections that focus on A-level and equivalent provision and give far less weight to the wide range of other work undertaken in further education. The association was worried that Ofsted inspectors did not allow for the relatively different and often lower academic ability in the intake of FE colleges, and castigated some colleges for failing to produce good enough results when compared with some other national yardstick that did not apply to them.

The association was worried about the sheer weight of the clerical work load, the burden of inspection and preparation for it; the same old complaint as that made by schools. It also complained that Ministers used the first Ofsted inspection reports to attack colleges for failing. Those attacks were based on only half a dozen early inspection reports, when the next 60 or more painted a different picture. However, we should not blame Ofsted for Ministers shooting from the hip, with their technical educational jargon of bargepoles and toilets, or at least not now that Mr. Woodhead has moved on.

I hope that Ofsted will take note not only of the Select Committee report, but of what has been said during today's debate. Ofsted might be judged to have moved from the "failing" to the "improving" category, but there is still much room for improvement.

4.34 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I want to reiterate some of the points that have been made about the improving performance and changing perception of Ofsted in recent times, due to the efforts and skill of the previous chief inspector, who recently moved on to other responsibilities. That is evidenced by the new inspection guidelines, which he produced in March 2002 and which will be implemented in September. Those guidelines will bring about a significant change in the culture and practice of Ofsted inspections.

Having said that, I have great sympathy with the comments made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who obviously speaks from the heart, as well as from his recent direct experience. We should give careful consideration to what he said, particularly about the fact that Ofsted has not traditionally been able to comment at much length about a school's context. He referred to the enormous difference between schools, in terms of their catchment areas and intake, including their proportion of statemented children and children on free school meals.

Another important factor, however, is a school's budget. Just as schools vary according to their intake, they vary according to their budget. I speak with particular feeling on this issue because the primary and secondary schools in my constituency are now, and have always been, among the worst funded in the country,

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entirely because of the iniquitous education standard spending assessment, which we hope will show some improvement on 1 April 2003.

In any inspection or any judgment of the quality of an institution, the budget available to that institution must be a defining factor, yet, to date, Ofsted has not been able to comment on a school's budget.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Chaytor : Happily, as long as the hon. Gentleman is quick.

Mr. Brady : I do not differ from the hon. Gentleman in his aspiration for a fairer funding assessment for education authorities, which is important. Does he accept, however, that there is no direct correlation between the funding of schools and their performance? Ofsted should perhaps take an interest in that and consider the achievements of some schools that have very little.

Mr. Chaytor : No, I do not accept that there is no direct correlation, although I accept that schools with a similar level of funding vary in performance. By and large, if we compare like with like, the best funded schools are also the high achievers.

I do not want to labour the point, but criterion No. 10 of the new inspections framework, which will commence in September, relates to other specified features of a school, thereby providing an opportunity for Ofsted, if it wished and if the Government endorsed it, to make specific reference to the way in which the funding of a school impacts on its performance. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider that point.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who has so skilfully compiled the report. The Government's response was generally sound, with one exception: its response to the section on further education was only two lines and one word long. That is indicative of the fact that further education is the most marginalised sector of the education system. Whoever wrote the Government response—it is in the name of the new Minister for School Standards, but I do not attribute any blame to him—ought to have given a more considered response to that section of the report.

It is significant that Ofsted's response is more detailed and helpful than that of the Government. Perhaps the Select Committee report is unique in having a dual response. I pay tribute to those responsible for Ofsted's response, which I found especially constructive.

The Chairman mentioned the Select Committee's involvement in the appointment of the chief inspector. I want to endorse the importance of the role of Select Committees, and the need to extend it. We are all acutely aware of the fragility of our democracy and the fact that our Parliament is less effective on many issues than it ought to be. It does not assert itself as frequently as it ought to, and our constitution does not give it the powers of Parliaments under other constitutions.

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If we review the role of Select Committee, as we have recently, it would be valuable to give them a role in the appointment process of the heads and chief executives of major Government agencies. That would invigorate our democracy and increase transparency and accountability. I ask all hon. Members present to consider that further. If in the near future we come to another report from the Modernisation Committee about the extension of the role of Select Committees, the time for that idea may eventually come.

I want to focus on Ofsted and evidence. In theory and largely in practice, the beauty and value of the inspection system is its ability to collate evidence. I want to add a question mark as to how that evidence is used, and to dwell on the selectivity of some of it. An example is provided by a section from the chief inspector's report on the performance of small sixth forms, although one could use other examples from it. Some hon. Members will know that I take a great deal of interest in that subject.

The striking feature of small sixth forms compared with larger ones—the criterion or threshold that the chief inspector's report chooses is 100 pupils—is the direct relationship between the size and the A-level point score. The chief inspector makes some extremely critical comments about the performance of small sixth forms. I simply point out that the evidence is concrete, and that it is not the first time that it has been documented. It was documented over many years, long before Ofsted existed. How are we acting on it? I do not see an enormous drive to build on the evidence provided.

Similarly, the inspector's report has a section on prison education. Members of the Committee might admit that we did not pick up on the subject. We discussed it, but we did not pick up on it specifically when preparing our report. The evidence on the subject is also pretty damning, yet what we doing about it? That was an oversight on the Committee's part; we should have given it more attention. Also, the Department should now build on the evidence and raise the profile of prison education.

In contrast, other matters on which evidence has been collected have been acted on. The classic example would be evidence on specialist schools, which was highlighted in the White Paper on schools last autumn, albeit selectively as it suggested that all specialist schools performed at a higher level than non-specialist schools, although the evidence did not quite say that. We now have a programme that is extensively promoting specialist schools.

Similarly, some areas that do not appear in the report seem to merit serious investigation. I draw attention to Question 12 on the Order Paper for today's Education and Skills Question Time; my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) asked about the performance of grammar schools in Kent. Performance in selective areas is enormously important to many hon. Members and to many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of parents, but it does not appear as evidence in the Ofsted report.

The main issue that I want to flag up is Ofsted's essential role in collecting evidence. We have to be uniform in our approach; we cannot require Ofsted to

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collect evidence on some things and not others. When the evidence is documented and is indisputable, we have to translate it into policy uniformly and coherently. We cannot be selective about what evidence we choose to translate into policy.

Many head teachers, teachers and parents are concerned about what happens once a critical Ofsted report has been completed. A universally glowing report is less of an issue, but if criticisms have been made, the school is left to pick up the pieces, and many teachers and head teachers feel isolated when dealing with the problems. They say, "Oh well, Ofsted inspectors came in, they told us what was wrong and they went away. We did not see them again. We were left to deal with it by ourselves." That, however, is the system. Ofsted has no role in continuing the process of school improvements once it has completed its inspection.

I question whether that is entirely satisfactory and whether Ofsted should continue to be involved if it has made a critical inspection. It comes back to the point about how we deal with critical evidence. I am not entirely sure whether we have the mechanisms in place to use that evidence to improve the school as quickly as might otherwise have been the case.

My final point builds on the question asked by the hon. Member for Chesterfield about the challenge to Ofsted by Summerhill. A document that I think was given to all members of the Select Committee—I am not familiar with the details—flags up another important issue. We are moving to a system with more diverse schools, particularly in secondary education; we are actively promoting diversity between institutions; under the Education Bill, we are giving greater autonomy to certain categories of school to develop their ethos, to opt out of the national curriculum and to vary pay and conditions. Has Ofsted kept pace with that? How will Ofsted deal with that diversity?

Summerhill is an extremely diverse school, but it presented a challenge for Ofsted because the off-the-shelf inspection package clearly did not work. I hope that the Minister and the newly appointed chief inspector will take on board the fact a bog-standard inspection method cannot deal with a diverse framework of schools.

4.48 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I apologise to the hon. Members for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) and for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) for missing their speeches. I had an engagement that I could not miss.

It should be remembered that Ofsted is one of the great educational achievements of the Conservative party. I am pleased to recall that it was introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I also acknowledge the action of my noble Friend Lord Patten in appointing Chris Woodhead, who was certainly the best-known chief inspector of schools. The origins of Ofsted are lost in the mists of time, but it does us no harm to remember that it is another of the achievements of the Conservative years that the current Government have taken on board.

Ofsted's role in inspecting LEAs has not had much coverage in the parts of the debate to which I have listened. I happen to work for the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, which proposed in a report in 1997

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that Ofsted should inspect LEAs. I do not know whether that had any effect on the incoming Labour Government, but it was the right way for them to go. Such inspections recognise the important role that LEAs play in supporting and, sometimes, in failing and undermining schools. I am glad that the Government have built on those Ofsted inspections. I am also pleased to have taken part in the process of out-sourcing the management of failing LEAs and building up new, more effective LEAs in several parts of the country. I hope that that will contribute significantly to the improvement of education in those areas, and that the Committee will find time to investigate failed LEAs and how they have been turned round. A range of solutions has been attempted, and some have been more successful than others. It would do no harm for us to inquire into them. I see the Minister nodding in agreement.

I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds), and commend the vigorous start that Ofsted made. It was quick off the mark, sharp and quick in reporting on schools. It was a bit rough and ready, and there was too much bureaucracy and paperwork, but it was necessary to make that vigorous start if the whole range of schools across the country was to be inspected in the first four years.

I congratulate Ofsted in particular on the structure that it chose for inspecting schools. It did not employ all its inspectors itself, so it was free to employ effective inspection teams from LEAs or the private sector. That was a masterly approach to inspection, because people did not get bogged down in Ofsted's culture, as I fear they sometimes did in the culture of Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools. That meant that inspection teams that did not perform effectively in the judgment of Her Majesty's chief inspector could be sidelined with no great cost to the taxpayer.

I want briefly to consider three aspects of the report and, in particular, the Government's response to the second report. First, however, I should deal with a point made by the hon. Member for Bury, North. A great diversity of schools demands more than a bog-standard inspection process, and it is important that a school sets out its philosophy, objectives and performance indicators so that Ofsted can judge it on the basis of its success in meeting its own objectives. We must assume, or at least hope, that parents who choose Summerhill school for their children know broadly what to expect. They do not expect a traditional education, so Ofsted should not inspect the school on the basis of whether it delivers one. Such an inspection process would respond to schools' autonomy and to the demands of parents and children, which would be wholly appropriate.

I want to remark on three elements of the report, the first of which relates to LEA inspections. I understand that the Government are undertaking an independent evaluation of the new organisational models in LEAs. Will that include whether they are out-sourced, in-house or partnerships, however defined? Will there be a vigorous and detailed evaluation so as to research and

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publish the evidence of the success of the Government's policy, which is implemented through a number of different mechanisms?

Secondly, I should like to refer briefly to teacher recruitment and retention, on which the Government display a little complacency in their response. They repeat that their

Clearly they do not, because there are not enough teachers, particularly in certain shortage subjects and in certain parts of the south-east of England. I am glad that the Government are contemplating putting more resources into areas where the cost of living is high, but I ask the Minister also to consider areas such as my constituency, where recruitment difficulties arise for entirely different reasons.

The head teacher of a primary school is quite likely to have a spouse who is in the same or a similar public sector profession. If someone is unlucky enough to live in Southampton and is the head teacher of a primary school, their spouse can look for a job anywhere from Brighton to Woking, from Oxford to Axminster. If they live on the Isle of Wight, the area in which their spouse can look for a job is much reduced, so there are far fewer women in work on the Isle of Wight than in almost any other part of the country. That is a significant recruitment problem, not only in education, but for the medical profession and the private sector professions.

Mr. Chaytor : The hon. Gentleman said that there are fewer women in work on the Isle of Wight than almost anywhere else in the country. Is there not therefore a significant pool of labour from which to recruit into the public services on the Isle of Wight?

Mr. Turner : There is a significant pool of labour that can be recruited to the less skilled end of public service employment. However, my primary schools find it hard to recruit head teachers, my hospital finds it hard to recruit doctors and my local authority finds it hard to recruit the more senior professionals because there is no job for the wife or husband to go to within easy travelling distance. I hope that the Minister will address that matter.

Finally, there is the issue of pupil behaviour and attendance. The real problem is whether the head and governors of a school can take effective action to deal with pupils who do not or will not attend, or who will not behave when they do attend. I appreciate what the Government are trying to do to roll back the difficulties caused by the fact that for many years people in authority, particularly authority over children, have been undermined. However, that does not require a range of micro-management activities. Members, the Government and as many people as possible should express their confidence in those in authority, even when they occasionally get it wrong. The range of appeal systems does not express that confidence. Indeed, it expresses the opposite. It encourages parents to appeal against an exclusion, to complain and to believe that they and their children have rights to the exclusion of the rights of others.

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4.58 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.13 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Turner : I think that all my points have been made.

5.14 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am grateful for being called, and shall be rapid and try to keep to my allotted two minutes. I was going to praise the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but I managed to miss his erudite comments and, as he is not here now, I do not have to praise him. Therefore, I shall move even more quickly.

I shall refer briefly to value for money, and to the appendix to the memorandum from Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon. I do not necessarily agree that there should be a royal commission. However, we should consider value for money, especially with regard to those being inspected. The point is worthy of mention—if other hon. Members referred to it earlier and I missed it, I apologise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) referred to the inclusion of further education in the Ofsted regime. The vast majority of colleges are now inspected under that regime. Although that fact does not get much of a headline, it is worthy of note. It is early days, so it is difficult to gain an understanding of the importance and the impact of that, but we can comment on what the Committee said and also on the evidence, especially from the Association of Colleges. The jury is still out, but there must be some recognition of matters that cause concern, on which the Minister may wish to comment, although not necessarily today.

We must ask who is doing the inspecting and whether they have the appropriate depth of knowledge of further education. We recognise the need to see how FE works and to examine its learning strategies, but because the FE strand goes well beyond the 16-to-19 range, it must be considered sensitively. What is happening outside the modus operandi of the inspection must be included, otherwise an unreal impression will be gained of what a college is about.

It is fair to say that dialogue is needed between the Department and the AOC, and I understand that that is to take place. There is recent evidence that colleges are improving, and they are to be congratulated. If we do not get the process right, we know the damage that it will do, as it did to schools. We do not want to go through that process again with FE, in which people feel that the inspection is not a fair reflection of the work that they do and what the college is really capable of.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): I thank hon. Members for being brief, which has given us half an hour for the three main winding-up speeches.

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5.16 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I shall take my customary brief 10 minutes.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): I see there are no lawyers present.

Mr. Willis : I shall ignore that remark, Mr. Olner.

It is good to have a debate on a Select Committee report about which there is no real contention. People accept that it is a good report, and I compliment the Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), in his absence—please do not tell him—on the way in which the report was prepared. I put on record my party's thanks to Mike Tomlinson, who did a remarkable job in turning Ofsted round. We wish David Bell well as he commences his work.

There were some interesting contributions from hon. Members, but I shall not go through them one by one as time does not allow that. However, I pick out the comments of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on Ofsted's inspection of further education. I think we have got it wrong; there is a basic flaw in the way in which the Learning and Skills Act 2000 set up the post-16 inspection. I urge the Chairman of the Select Committee and the Minister to reconsider that issue. It is important to examine what Ofsted and the Adult Learning Inspectorate are doing and to get inspection right.

FE continues to be marginalised in the comments that come out of the mouths of Ministers. That is to be regretted, and ultimately we will suffer as a result. The FE sector has done a remarkable job, especially since incorporation, and we should celebrate it.

There has been much talk about the royal commission and research. I agree with the Select Committee Chairman, who said that a royal commission is not necessarily needed. When it reviews its work next year, the Select Committee and the Government must ask how Ofsted knows that its conclusions are correct. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to occasions when lives have been devastated and schools blighted as a result of Ofsted's work. If that is the case, we must know that its conclusions are right.

I have one question for the Minister, which he can either pick up later or put into his thought bank. Government policy and Ofsted are closely linked: in effect, Ofsted inspects the Government's policy. The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) commented on that. Few hon. Members would disagree with the view that the Government have done a good job in focusing on literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and my party would be the first to say that. However, are standards improving in primary schools because of the Government's strategies or because children, with their teachers' aid, are getting better at passing the tests? When I visit schools around the country—which I am sure the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) does, too—regrettably I see children being endlessly prepared for their SATs. That may well bring improvement in the outcomes of SATs, but does it improve the education system? That question must be answered.

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Like several hon. Members, I want to talk about moving on from where we are now to where we want to be. I regretted the way in which Ofsted was introduced and felt bitterly about it as a head teacher, but my school's inspection in 1997 was one of the most fruitful experiences that my staff and I went through. I have put that on record many times. That was partly because of the registered inspector, Champac Shan, who was absolutely brilliant in informing, advising, bringing people together and listening to their complaints.

That inspector later left Ofsted because he was not allowed to work as a registered inspector in the way that he wanted. He was probably what I would describe as too developmental and should have been more judgmental, but we should move towards being more developmental. Most schools have got the message—if they have not, something has gone badly wrong—and we now need a different approach. That point was made earlier by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds), and there were a few guffaws around the Chamber, which was a pity because he has a point.

Whether we want a lighter touch is not my point, and I want to leave the Minister with one thought. In the models for improving practice and achieving best practice in the private sector—not the one-size-fits-all practice, the virtues of which the hon. Member for Huddersfield was extolling—the idea of total quality management is very exciting. The Minister should examine what is happening in Londonderry, where two schools have adopted the process of total quality management. They are continually looking for small incremental improvements rather than quantum leaps, which is what Ofsted wanted in the early days. When a system is put in place that enables the organisation to improve bit by bit, the sum of those parts gives an immense feeling of satisfaction. I commend that to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Bury, North was right to comment on the changes that are occurring. We support some of the principles behind the Education Bill, which is due back from the Lords soon. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and I supported the principle of innovation and autonomy, but if we want real innovation and autonomy, we cannot have one-size-fits-all inspection or examination systems. Whether the Conservatives want to get rid of AS-levels or we want to get rid of GCSEs is not the point. The point is that schools must be encouraged to develop their own curriculum and ways of working that make them exciting institutions. I want schools in Altrincham and Sale to adopt the international baccalaureate—or perhaps a north-west baccalaureate. I want schools to begin their AS-level work with pupils at the age of 15 rather than 16. Those changes are all possible, but not under the current regime, because Ofsted must report in a certain framework.

My last point is on special educational needs. I regret to inform the hon. Member for Huddersfield that, as far as Ofsted is concerned, special educational needs are a tag-on in schools and in further education. I compliment the Government: they have done a great deal to raise the profile of special education, as did the previous Government. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001—the new code of practice which we fought hard to get through and which the Government supported—and the amendments that were tabled have

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enabled us to make progress in leaps and bounds. However, we have a one-size-fits-all inspection system that does not recognise what is happening in the world of special needs. We have developed inclusion in most schools, and that has been a roaring success. Of course, sometimes it has not worked. Large groups of youngsters with hearing and sight impairments and severe learning difficulties enrich the school, but also skew it. Ofsted still reports on such schools irrespective of whether they have such kids. The Government and the Select Committee must be more rigorous in deciding what they want Ofsted to do. Ofsted is a good developmental tool, but it needs to move on.

5.26 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Even in a commendably brief contribution, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) managed to raise the prospect of separate examinations for Altrinham and Sale, and even a north-west baccalaureate, which may be what the AS-level will become. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), must shortly leave for another engagement, and was kind enough to apologise. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee on their report, and on the hon. Gentleman's genuine commitment and determination to continue scrutinising the activities of the Government and Ofsted. I hope that he will forgive me if I note that the two Chairmen who preceded him were demoted from that position to the Government Front Bench. I hope that he will take it in good part if I say that I hope that the same will not happen to him. It is essential that the Select Committee and its Chairman focus on the scrutiny of the Department for Education and Skills, and that no other goals cloud their judgment.

In his introduction, the hon. Member for Huddersfield talked about the extent to which Ofsted has grown and developed in its work, and how much more important it is that Parliament scrutinises its work, not least from the perspective of looking after public money. As he rightly said, that is our core function. He also talked about the potential role of the Select Committee and the appointment of the chief inspector of schools. He made a compelling point when he asked why we should have Ofsted if it did not drive up standards. He was probably far from alone in the Chamber in finding in favour of Ofsted in that regard. Members on both sides have been clear that Ofsted has been a positive force overall, although there are different shades of opinion on how that work has been done at different times.

I was also pleased that the hon. Member for Huddersfield praised Chris Woodhead for his work while he was at Ofsted. As several hon. Members said, it is important to find the right balance between toughness and rigour on the one hand, and encouragement and the developmental role on the other. I am tempted to observe that perhaps Chris Woodhead was ahead of the current Secretary of State with her bargepole and Alastair Campbell with his bog standard schools in seeking to give encouragement and urge a more developmental approach.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) spoke about the importance of light-touch inspection. That is absolutely right. The situation of a school that is known to be good and doing its job properly is very different from that of a school that needs more intervention and assistance to improve standards. He also spoke about the importance of the rigorous start that Ofsted had made, and that point was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness praised the introduction of unannounced inspections. Again, that is positive. Much of the criticism that one hears in schools about the inspection process is about the work that goes into preparing for the inspection, rather than the inspection itself.

I was fortunate on Monday evening to be presenting prizes at Wellington school in my constituency. That local high school is a technology college and is doing fabulous things. The school recently underwent an Ofsted inspection, and the head said that when he heard that it was about to be inspected, he called the staff together and told them that they should look forward to it. He was right, at least about looking forward to the inspection's outcome, because the work of the school was found to be excellent. That is how schools should address inspection. A good school that focuses on raising standards and improving the education of all its pupils has nothing to fear from an Ofsted inspection, and frequently much to gain.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), in a very long speech—that was not entirely her fault—spoke about league tables and the inspection of child care, which are important issues. We must acknowledge that when considering league tables and the difficulties that might arise for schools that become known for specialising in children with special educational needs or in particular types of education. We must seriously consider publishing alongside existing league tables value-added information, which could address some of those concerns. Problems have arisen with the inspection of child care. In the introductory stages, there appear in some places to be significant delays in registration, and there are problems with the bureaucracy involved in processing paperwork. That must be addressed.

In the short time available, I cannot comment on all the speeches and interventions that have been made, but I always enjoy listening to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), partly because I disagree with almost everything that he says. We must thrash out the interesting question of how schools use money and where value for money is being delivered. There is strong evidence that there is no direct correlation between the amount of money spent and the attainment of schools. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of his response to my intervention, he will see that he was not far from agreeing with me when he said that there was a huge divergence in performance between schools to which similar resources were devoted.

It is important that we focus on how we can derive the best value for money in the delivery of education, and how we can spread best practice and ensure that all schools do the best that they can with the available

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resources. At the same time, I agreed with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of a fairer distribution of resources throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about the great Conservative achievement of the introduction of Ofsted. In the consensual spirit of the debate, I am glad that he did so in the way that he did, because he drew attention to the areas of agreement between the Opposition and the Government. We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the important role of Ofsted in inspecting schools and helping to raise standards. We also welcome their acceptance of our belief in increased specialism in schools, and in allowing a degree of selection in schools for that purpose. I think that Ministers' opinions in that respect differ somewhat from those of the hon. Member for Bury, North. However, I shall leave it to the Minister to deal with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke compellingly of the realities of inspecting a diverse range of schools. The Government are taking measures in the Education Bill to allow a greater diversity of schools across the country. We welcome that, but it will be a challenge to ensure that the right form of inspection takes place.

I should like to say something about this week's report from Ofsted and the Government's reaction to it. Ofsted's criticism of the performance of schools and of teachers at key stage three contradicts its earlier findings that at key stage three the measure of good teaching amounted to 75 per cent. but only 72 per cent. at key stage two. It seems slightly contradictory to suggest that the weakness comes in key stage three and that all problems are resolved at an earlier stage.

Ofsted must be rigorous, independent of the Government and prepared to speak out in support of standards, even when that is unpopular. I wish the Select Committee and its Chairman well in their future work in helping to hold Ofsted to account, and I am sure that it will fulfil that important function to the best of its ability.

5.36 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg) : We have had an excellent, if somewhat interrupted, debate. I thank everyone who has taken part, and also one or two colleagues who have not taken part out of respect for the time constraints. I undertook to give the Committee the apologies of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who could not be here for the winding-up speeches as he had to fulfil a prior engagement.

On behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, I congratulate the Select Committee on securing this important debate on Ofsted and on the work that it has done. The Select Committee's reports are a very valuable input into the continuing work of ensuring that inspection is of a high quality and makes a significant contribution to the vital work of improving quality and raising standards at local and national level. As a number of colleagues have said, Ofsted is a slightly unusual organisation. It is an inspectorate, enjoying independence in matters of professional judgment, as

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well as a non-ministerial Government Department. That is why the Select Committee is so important as a mechanism for ensuring Ofsted's accountability to Parliament.

I apologise to hon. Members if I do not respond to all the specific points raised during the debate, but I shall try to address some of them. The role that the Select Committee plays in the appointment of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools has been discussed before. I take the point that my hon. Friend made about the composition of the selection panel. As we have a new chief inspector, David Bell, it is not a matter of priority to address the procedures for this appointment. However, the Government take seriously the points that the Select Committee has made, and we will consider them carefully at the appropriate time. My hon. Friend was right to place this in the context of a broader debate about the modernisation of Parliament and the strengthening of Parliament as an institution. It would be helpful if comments from this Select Committee were fed into other Select Committees, including the Modernisation Committee. Although there is no commitment to change, there is certainly an openness and readiness to reconsider this matter in the months and years ahead.

I am aware from the debate and the reports that the Select Committee endorses the widely held belief in the value of external inspection. Inspection is now accepted as a valuable part of education, as is Ofsted, even by Members who criticised some of its practices, particularly the early practice. Much has happened in the 18 months since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who was then the Minister of State, addressed the previous debate on Ofsted in Westminster Hall. She began by paying a warm tribute to the many people in schools throughout the country whose efforts have contributed to the very good results achieved in most schools. We have seen further improvements, and they are borne out in the reports that we are debating today.

It has been widely accepted by hon. Members that it was right to give priority to the literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools. Although we must be careful about over-testing and the burden of tests and examinations, I have no doubt from reading the reports, reviewing the evidence and visiting schools that we have seen a real improvement in literacy and numeracy standards among our primary school children. We should all pay tribute to the teachers and others who have ensured that that has happened.

There is also much to celebrate in our secondary schools. Last year they achieved the national target of 50 per cent. of pupils reaching school-leaving age gaining five good GSCEs. That is a real advance, which was achieved a year earlier than the Government's target. There are improvements in the position of our young people compared with those in other countries in tests in science, literacy and maths. A great deal more still needs to be done. Standards are rising but they are not as good across the board as they should be. The gap between the best and the worst performing schools remains too wide.

The reports from Ofsted make it clear that standards rise when schools are well led and when there is good teaching. Ofsted has told us that the standard of

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leadership and teaching in our schools has continued to improve. Indeed, the quality of teaching is now at an all-time high. Not only has the long tail of unsatisfactory teaching shrunk year after year, which few believed possible, but the proportion of good and very good teaching has risen.

Ofsted has a central role in our strategy for raising standards. Its role has been enhanced, which has meant a period of organisational change as a result of two significant extensions to its remit. Those are the addition of 16-to-19 education in colleges, where Ofsted works in partnership with the Adult Learning Inspectorate, and the regulation of child care. It is timely to pay tribute, as hon. Members have done, to the work of Mike Tomlinson, who stepped into the role of chief inspector at short notice in December 2000, and to welcome in his place David Bell, whose five-year appointment began on 1 May.

We have seen considerable improvements in the school inspection system over recent years, which are borne out in the debate and in the reports. Of course there is always scope for further improvement, for more flexibility and for learning lessons as we go along. We have had some important contributions to the debate about how inspection can be improved. Inspection should be challenging, but it should also be the positive, constructive experience that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) described from his school visit earlier this week. We also want Ofsted's approach to be more responsive to schools' individual circumstances, to make more use of the findings of schools' self-evaluation, to take more account of the views of parents, pupils and other stakeholders and to be better co-ordinated with other inspection and monitoring. We want to involve schools more in what we are doing in a genuine sense of partnership.

This year, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, has also seen the start of the second cycle of inspections of LEAs, which Ofsted is conducting with the assistance of the Audit Commission. New arrangements for inspecting local authority education services are being developed in the context of the comprehensive performance assessment. Those will build on the proportionate inspection process already implemented by Ofsted since the beginning of this year, and will deliver even more streamlined arrangements. It is important that these new processes are a success.

In the remaining two minutes, I should like to respond to one or two of the specific points that have been raised. The new role with FE is important, and it is vital to get it right. I regret that only two lines about FE appear in our response to the report, because it must be at the heart of our strategy for widening participation in education, particularly after the age of 16. FE is also vital for the 14-to-19 curriculum and for tackling some of the behavioural problems to which hon. Members referred.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) asked about recruitment and retention in his constituency. I shall ask his local authority to write to the Department about that matter, and I shall chase it up for him.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) asked about prison education. We have seen some improvement in prisons and other offender institutions, but it is only a start and much more needs to be done. My hon. Friend's neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), has taken on that responsibility, which he takes seriously. We all want to see further advances made.

Recruitment and retention is a challenge across the country, especially in high-cost areas. Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State issued the London challenge. We are developing a strategy for

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schools in London and, together with my right hon. Friend, I take responsibility for it. We recognise that some of the problems London faces with recruitment and retention are shared in other high-cost areas. We must take that into account as we debate the funding of local education authorities.

I apologise for not being able, in my 10 minutes, to refer to all the issues raised in the debate. However, we have had a positive and constructive discussion, and I look forward to future debates about Ofsted and the Select Committee's work in ensuring that both Ofsted and the Department are accountable.

Question put and agreed to.

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