Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40-59)

MR DAVID BELL, MR MAURICE SMITH, MR DAVID TAYLOR, MR ROBERT GREEN AND MISS ELIZABETH PASSMORE OBE

WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002

  40. I am sorry, Mr Bell, I do not agree with that. I believe you are the sole purchaser of this kind of service. I know in parallel in the private sector if you have the powerful role that you have, you can make yourself open to the smaller player, new people coming into the market or you can get into a comfortable relationship with the big players. It really is the message you give to the world out there. I understand what you say about consolidation but we would be very concerned if there was not a message going out from Ofsted that if a smaller group wanted to tender for Ofsted inspection they would not be excluded.
  (Mr Bell) To be frank, there is always a balance to be struck on this between making sure that the market offers opportunities for a range of providers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, ensuring that the system we have provides quality and value for money, because again those are statutory responsibilities that I have. That is why we are in a consultation period at the moment. We do want to hear what the market has to say. We are anxious as well to open up that consultation more widely. We will hear what a range of other people have to say and I am sure what this Committee has to say will be important.

Valerie Davey

  41. One of the concerns this Committee has had as well is that teachers are seconded in, it is valuable for them, for their training; is that still a criterion?
  (Mr Bell) Again it is for individual contractors.

  42. Again, I would beg to differ, as the Chairman did. That is one of your criterion.
  (Mr Bell) Yes, but what I would say is that I am very keen—very keen—to continue to encourage serving teachers and headteachers to participate in inspection. It is not just good for us, as it were, in terms of having a broader range of people doing inspection. I actually believe it is very good for the individuals concerned because those skills that they take back can be applied in their own schools.
  (Miss Passmore) As far as the market is concerned, we have reached the point where we feel that to have a very large number of contractors offering a very small number of inspections does not allow us to meet our requirements to deliver a value for money service, so we have put a minimum number of inspections on a contract.

Chairman

  43. At what level?
  (Miss Passmore) At the moment we are looking at 45 inspections over the course of the whole year for the coming year. Looking further ahead, there are proposals to look for a longer contracting period and for perhaps larger areas, but at the moment the consultation is only with contractors. That finishes tomorrow. We are then going to look at that response at consultation much more widely because some of the concerns you have raised are concerns that I share about achieving a reasonable balance between what is value for money in all the administration that we have to deal with, whether it be one contractor or 50 contractors, and we are very keen to make sure that we are able to deliver the service well. We do want to increase—we have said to the Committee before—the number of headteachers and teachers who take part in inspections and we have been looking at the ways in which we can do that so that it is beneficial for the people taking part in inspections but does not leave their schools in a difficult situation while they are doing that work. We have in the Education Bill that has just been enacted powers to look at ways in which we can do Section 10 inspections slightly differently, by doing more internally, and we are considering whether that may be a route of involving teachers for perhaps a term or two terms which would not then be so difficult for their schools.

  44. I do not want the Committee to spend too much time on this but I have to say we do have some misgivings about the sort of drift we are getting from this. Even a little bit of consultancy, dare I say it even my own institution, the London School of Economics, will tell you the perils of getting into a situation of large scale but with a small number of providers.
  (Mr Bell) I can assure you that we are in consultative mode at the moment.

  Chairman: Be wary. School inspections—and we are going to be led on this by John.

Mr Baron

  45. Mr Bell, one of the key problems facing schools at the moment is the recruitment and retention of teachers. There is a school of thought out there that part of the problem is the amount of red tape, bureaucracy, and the number of directives that seem to be swamping the profession. Your predecessor indicated at the back end of last year that Ofsted would focus more on this issue, not only as a way of monitoring the issue but as a way of helping the schools improve the way things are going forward. Are you going to maintain that focus?
  (Mr Bell) If I might just highlight the fact that you asked us to report in the Annual Report for next year on some of the issues to do with bureaucracy in schools and that we will do. I think the issue of bureaucracy and Ofsted has two dimensions to it. One is what is Ofsted doing itself either to increase or reduce bureaucracy. My predecessor talked about a number of steps that we had taken to try to reduce bureaucracy associated with inspection. For example, schools should not go about doing especially written lesson plans or policy documents just for the inspectors and so on. You are right the other part of this was for us to be able to report on the impact of bureaucratic demands on schools. As I say, that is something that we will come back to you and report on when we talk about the Annual Report next March.

  46. Can you give us an early indication of how forthright you are going to be on this. If you think it is warranted, are you going to be quite critical in order to highlight the problems surrounding this issue?
  (Mr Bell) We have said I think for the third time this morning that we will report without fear or favour. I think this is an important issue for us to talk about. At times it is quite difficult to get a handle on it. Headteachers and teachers will say we have got a lot of bureaucracy and, of course, quite legitimately either in inspection or in more casual conversation you say to people, "Give me some of the specifics." It is quite important to drill down because presumably for government it will be important to know exactly where that bureaucratic burden falls and what are the things that people are most concerned about, so we will try to do that in our report. If I can give you an example. We have commented on in other work on Education Action Zones and Excellence in Cities. At times there can be a kind of bureaucratic overhead in bidding, in writing bids, in securing funding, and so on. We have commented already quite forcibly on that. Those are the sorts of ways in which we can make a very specific contribution to identify where there might be a particular bureaucratic burden.

Jeff Ennis

  47. The last time you gave evidence to the Committee my colleague Meg Munn asked you about the issue with regard to schools' policy on inclusion as opposed to focusing on the resource of the school and achievements of the school. You said you would take a rain check on that and prepare for it this time. How important do you think the issue of inclusivity is in terms of the overall ethos?
  (Mr Bell) It is always dangerous to have people with good memories!

Chairman

  48. I hope Meg Munn is paying you a good sum for asking her question!
  (Mr Bell) Education inclusion is an area where I think Ofsted can be quite—I use the word advisedly—proud of the way in which we have incorporated this in our inspection arrangements. We have in the last year or so produced guidance called Inspecting Evaluating Educational Inclusion. All inspectors were required to undertake training in these materials as a condition of continuing registration. That right away gave a signal of how important we saw this. What I think is very important about that guidance is that we make the point that talking about education inclusion is not something that can be relegated to a paragraph of a report of a school inspection; it should actually infuse everything that you report on in a school inspection. I think that is a really powerful issue for us. That is one way in which we can do it. The other way, of course, is that we have quite a distinguished history in reporting on a whole range of issues to do with special educational need—

  49. You say distinguished history. Is there an external adjudicator on this distinguished history apart from us?
  (Mr Bell) We have talked about SEN issues at the back of our evidence. We have talked about issues of racial equality. One of the most important pieces of work we ever did was reporting on the education of children in public care, a group of children who we would all have to accept had not been properly included within the education system. So we do take this really, really seriously both in individual institutional inspection and in the broader policy and survey work we do.

  50. Have you got a distinguished history in influencing the climate within schools. I come back to the OECD report which I am looking at again in the editorial in the Financial Times when, yes, it says our schools are performing pretty well but where we should be concentrating all our efforts is lower down the ability range. It just seems to me that all the work you do in all these inspections, perhaps Carol Fitz-Gibbon is right, get rid of you lot and spend the money on helping address the underachieving child. Let teachers get on with teaching and children with learning. That is the sort of thing that teachers say to us, "Ofsted has done a job. Get rid of it now and put the resources into helping lift this tail." What do you say to Carol Fitz-Gibbon who says this is a waste of public money?
  (Mr Bell) To repeat the point I made earlier, it is a very small proportion of the education budget.

  51. Your budget?
  (Mr Bell) The Ofsted budget is a very small proportion of the overall education budget.

  52. Most of our constituents think it is a lot of money.
  (Mr Bell) At this point I might bring in Robert Green to give you the killer fact.
  (Mr Green) I am grateful to everybody who has been trying to bring me in! The fact is the Ofsted budget is about half a per cent of the education budget in terms of schools and FE.

Mr Chaytor

  53. Can I pursue the point about the "distinguished history". What I am interested in is how do we measure the impact of the distinguished history? Your report on local education authorities seemed to include this apparent relationship between good LEAs and the performance of schools. Would it not be logical to conclude that there is a case for external evaluation of Ofsted to demonstrate whether there was a proven relationship between 10 years of distinguished history and the fact that—
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, I am going to forever regret using the terminology "distinguished history", I am sure. What I would say is that it is very difficult to prove cause and effect when it comes to inspection and the raising of standards. I for one would not claim that inspection causes improvement. What I would say to you is, first of all, that the inspection system identified in many cases the need for improvement in a way that had previously not gone on in the English education system. That is a fact. I think if one takes the most extreme end of the continuum and looks at the number of schools that were in special measures with serious weaknesses, there are a quarter of a million children who were from schools that were in special measures that are now, I would argue, receiving a better standard of education because of what we have identified.

  54. But how do we measure that? The concept of serious weakness and special measures is your own characterisation, as it were. There is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy about this. What about the external measures? If I can give you an example. There is no point in having a reduction in the number of schools in special measures unless there is an objective measurement of the improvement in the education of the children attending those schools.
  (Mr Bell) It depends what you mean by objective improvement. What I would say is that those schools have been judged in the first place using the inspection system to determine whether they are in special measures or not. If you are saying to me, "That is your judgment, nobody else's . . ."

  55. It is a subjective judgment.
  (Mr Bell) The reality is if you look at the judgments that inspectors have to make before determining a school is in special measures, they are very rigorous indeed. To be frank, I would say that if we are suggesting that it is not possible using the inspection system to identify schools that are failing to provide an adequate standard of education, that is just not true. I think we were able and are still able to identify such schools. You raised a question about the external evaluation of Ofsted's work. I take very seriously my accountability and Ofsted's accountability to this Committee. That seems to me to be a very serious kind of external challenge to the work of Ofsted. I said it publicly recently that I have absolutely no problem with people looking at our work. The books are open, if I can put it that way. One of the other virtues of the Ofsted inspection system is that the work, the criteria, the framework we use are all open and transparent. So I do not have a problem. I think the issue is do you really want to commission an external evaluation when there are so many ways in which through this Committee you can challenge me and challenge us about the work of Ofsted.

Chairman

  56. Can I follow up on my colleague's question on that. One of your predecessors yesterday said on television that here is a system trying to improve school standards and still one in four children at 11 are illiterate and innumerate. That is a comment on the value of the work of Ofsted, is it not? Is it true that we have still got one in four illiterate and innumerate children, because it has not come out in the figures?
  (Mr Bell) The national test results published recently suggest that just under 80% of children had achieved the appropriate level at aged 11. That is what was published at the key stage with national results.

  57. So it is one in five?
  (Mr Bell) As David pointed out earlier, the identification of some of the systemic problems to do with the teaching of reading and writing in schools were identified in the first place through the work of inspection. Again, I am not suggesting that inspection has caused or brought about those improvements in schools. It would be arrogant in the extreme to suggest that. That kind of work has been brought about by teachers, headteachers, governors and others in schools. What I would say is that we have identified some of those issues and difficulties. We have cited a number of examples this morning—Connexions, Early Years, and so on—where we are identifying what is happening and how that then leads to the bringing about of improvement.

  58. But are you not creating the wrong culture? You have just admitted in the last section you seem to be moving to larger groups coming in to do your inspections. They are coming in as hired mercenaries, they go and do an inspection, and one of the greatest criticisms of Ofsted is that you then walk away from a school and do not work with a school to make sure that the improvements that are necessary when you find failures through inspection actually happen. That is the big criticism of Ofsted, is it not?
  (Mr Bell) Let me deal with that directly. I think it is very important that we remind ourselves where the responsibility lies for bringing about improvement. That lies with the governors, staff and the wider community associated with an individual school, and I think one of the reasons why it is important to have a separation between inspection and advice is precisely so that we do not confuse lines of accountability. Having said that, I think I would be concerned if schools see inspection as some sort of disembodied experience that does not make any contribution to their improvement. I have said in a number of settings recently that the responsibility for evaluating the work of what goes on in a school is the schools' but external inspection—rigorous, independent inspection to published criteria—can assist the schools' processes of evaluation. That is one justification. Do not forget I believe another important justification of Ofsted's work is public accountability for the education system.

  59. Can we take you through the culture of this. You are a teacher or head in a small school. The way you are going, it seems to me, is in comes a highly efficient team of inspectors from Pricewaterhouse or Capita and they walk in and they do a rigorous evaluation of your school and then they walk away. Psychologically, in terms of any kind of improvement, do you think that kind of big business world coming in, evaluating, and walking away is really helpful or could it totally demoralise the school?
  (Mr Bell) I think to some extent that could be seen as a caricature of what actually happens during an inspection process.


 
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