Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Chief Inspector, can I welcome you to this Committee, again. It is a pleasure to have you here. I hope you were not anticipating anything too much when you heard applause coming from this room earlier, we were saying goodbye to one of our support staff, who is moving on. But I must report to you that the Clerk, when we were in our private session, I do not usually reveal things like this, said, there are two parts to this session, one is with you and Maggie Smith, and then you bring on fresh horses; now I thought that was an interesting way of putting it, I hope you will not mind that, but we are all aware that there are two teams here today. So I want to get straight into questioning. As I think most people will know, we see you, as Chief Inspector, twice a year, once in terms of your conduct of the office, and the other in terms of the annual report, but word is that really members of this Committee can ask you anything they feel they need to. Can I start the questioning by saying that here we have a rapidly expanding empire, if you can put it like that, a rapidly expanding OFSTED, expanding downwards into pre-school, expanding up into FE, at the same time as we get people, some experts in the field, saying why do you not actually get rid of OFSTED in nursery schools, in primary schools and leave that area alone; what is your view of that?

  (Mr Tomlinson) I do not support the hypothesis of getting rid of OFSTED, certainly not in those areas either. In terms of the early years, obviously, the decision was made by Parliament a while ago to give us the responsibility for regulating the whole area of child care, which was formerly the remit of local authorities. I think what the change brings, importantly, is a set of National Standards which apply wherever you operate, and a consistent approach to that regulatory process as a result of the national system. I think those are both very important factors, and I think OFSTED has experience of such work, from the past, and has set about the task that it has been given, I think, with considerable success so far.

  2. Can I push you a little further on that. You run a very expensive empire, it is a lot of taxpayers' money, and a lot of teachers out there say, `why on earth do we spend this money on OFSTED when it could be flowing into more support in schools, better facilities, new teacher positions, new classroom assistants, and anyway is there any real indication that what OFSTED does adds value to anyone'?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes, of course, we absorb a substantial amount of public money, and the amount is clearly stated in our corporate plan and the plans for forward spending. I would say that, in terms of the inspection of maintained schools, the actual cost over the cycle of inspection, compared with the total expenditure on education, is less than half of 1 per cent. I would argue that a system of quality assurance in any other area would cost a considerably larger proportion of the total budget of the organisation. I think that it is a good value for money system, in terms of the inspection of maintained schools. In all the other work we do, both the inspection of local education authorities, initial teacher training, much of that, of course, is set down as a requirement of Parliament, and I think that our reports on a variety of matters have been influential, both in shaping policy and in reflecting on the impact of policy on the ground, and I think those are very important activities that need to be continued, if, indeed, Ministers want, and, I hope, feel they need, that sort of information and advice. So, yes, it does absorb money; I think, however, there is a good case for it. In terms of overall impact, the most obvious case is the thousand, or so, schools that have been placed in special measures as a consequence of OFSTED inspection, where the vast majority of those schools have been helped to get out of the situation they were in and have improved their performance. There is a very good example in the press today about such a school, how it has moved from a position of being in special measures to being near the top, or at the top, of the performance tables. On another front, with inspecting schools a second time, inspectors are looking at the improvements made since the first time, and I think it is a great tribute to the schools themselves that, in nine out of every ten of the schools that inspectors are visiting a second time, they are identifying clear improvements across a range of matters in the school, some of which were identified in the first inspection, some identified by the school itself, as a result of its own work and evaluation. And I think that the fact that more and more headteachers are saying the inspection itself contributes to their improvement agenda is testimony to the impact that we are having.

Ms Munn

  3. Following the transfer from local authority, the inspection, and childminding and day-care regime, to OFSTED, are you confident that child protection issues are being addressed fully in the registration and inspection process?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes, I am, but I would invite Maggie to offer more details.
  (Ms Smith) I was a local government officer, Meg, and I am very pleased to say that I think that the rigour with which we are checking suitability and the arrangements we are making, and have made, the working arrangements that we have agreed with area child protection committees, with social services departments and our near contact with the Department of Health, are beginning to bear fruit very well. And we have dealt with quite a wide range of allegations of concern from parents, many of them more about reassurance around practice, but in a small but significant number of cases, from very early on, we have acted very swiftly to suspend or cancel registration where there has been a serious issue; and we have had very good co-operation from the police, social services and all others. So my background has always been about that children come first and are kept safe, and I am pleased to say that parents have had no difficulty in making direct contact with us when they have had a worry or a concern, and we have been able to act in every case.

  4. Obviously, in the past, often the inspectors, the childminders and day-care, were either former colleagues, or they had met regularly, they were in the same work places as the social workers who dealt with child protection. What are the mechanisms that you have got in place to ensure that there are those kinds of relationships which are so important to ensuring that any child protection concerns are followed up?
  (Ms Smith) A range of mechanisms. We have an identified key worker in each regional centre, as well as all our officers being known to each area child protection committee. We have a written agreement about how that working arrangement should happen, and quite often in the past, sadly, although they were colleagues, there was not a written agreement about how it would flow if the two people disagreed, because sometimes workers do not always agree about the seriousness of an indicator. But this was a flow-chart of how to escalate situations as well. So there are named people, there are written agreements, and we are also doing a number of seminars and workshops around the country for local authority personnel to ensure that those things are embedded.

Jeff Ennis

  5. Since we are talking about early years regulation, have there been any teething troubles, if you will excuse the pun, in the transfer from the local authority situation?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Of course, there have.

  6. Can you identify what they are?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes. I think, in terms of transfer, probably two, possibly three. First of all, of course, transferring, as we have done, over 1,400 staff from the 150 different authorities, all with different terms and conditions and salary scales, and the like, inevitably has raised some significant challenges at the personal level, not even to mention the anxiety there was amongst some people about the whole transfer and what would happen. And the fact that we have dealt with the vast majority of those successfully, there are one or two that we are still working with the individuals, that has been one of the challenges, quite clearly. The second has been the transfer of information from local authorities to us about the providers in their area, and, indeed, about the extent to which they have dealt with applications from 1 April of this year through to 1 July, when we were taking on new applications. And I have to say we were rather surprised by the number of cases transferred to us where no action had been taken by the local authority for registration purposes from the initial receipt of the application, and we received far more of those than we anticipated, which, of course, has caused us to have to re-order our priorities and ensure that those cases are cleared as quickly as possible. The third, in terms of transfer, was our decision, a correct decision, in my view, to have our childcare inspectors home-based, and that required, obviously, a very effective communication system, IS system, and, like any other system, that is in place, there are some teething troubles, inevitably, they largely have been or are in the process of being sorted out. So I would put those as the issues that we face about transfer.

  7. One or two supplementaries, in response to the Inspector's original reply. On the harmonisation of staff pay, as I understand it, the staff that are transferred over continue on the old, existing levels of pay; what sorts of differentials are we talking about, in terms of pay?
  (Mr Tomlinson) The other thing, of course, is that we did create some new pay scales as well, but what had to be assured, as a result of the TUPE-type transfer, was that no-one was worse off than when they were working for the local authority. Now we have introduced it, this year's pay agreement has also impacted. The pay agreement we have for this year with the three unions involved with OFSTED will also affect a number of people who were the lowest-paid of our staff, in offices, and the like, and that will affect them. But, in terms of differentials; Maggie.
  (Ms Smith) Yes, and people were given a clear choice whether to choose an OFSTED contract and the terms and conditions there and the pay level, or remain on their local authority terms and conditions; it is a very tiny number, fewer than a hundred, who chose to stay on existing terms and conditions. And most have benefited from the move, perhaps only in small ways, but certainly there has been great enthusiasm for the OFSTED terms and conditions and pay scales, and UNISON have worked with us all the way through the process and have been very helpful.

  8. As I understand it, there are pay differentials in the area-based teams now, who are actually working in isolation, of up to £5,000 per member of staff. How long do you think it will take before we actually harmonise the pay rates for all the staff employed, in those cases?
  (Ms Smith) I think that is a very small minority of cases, and it is largely in London, London boroughs, where the pay tended to be higher. They have a right to stay on those terms and conditions and, of course, natural turnover and retirement, etc., will ease those things. It is a very small number of people, so not many teams should be affected by differential, due to the opportunity.
  (Mr Tomlinson) But what the three unions addressed, amongst the key issues, was the progression, and the agreement had the support of the UNISON negotiator, so we are dealing with this. And it is a problem not just for the childcare inspectors, it is an issue throughout the Civil Service, in fact, and we have introduced systems into the Department's pay arrangements this year which give an assurance of how long, how many years to get to a particular pay point, so we can assure progression through the scale.

  9. So how many years, Mike, are we going to take to have harmonisation of staff pay?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think, in fairness to you, it is probably something I ought to put in writing to you, because I would prefer to be certain of the facts rather than give a statement now by which I might be thought to have misled you in some way, and I would not wish to do that.

  10. You also mentioned some of the teething troubles that you have identified, like the IT problem that you have got, and that you are addressing that. Following on from the point that Meg has made, staff now are working from home, to some extent, I guess, they are feeling isolated; what sorts of mechanisms are there within the new structure for cross-fertilisation of ideas, and I know you have touched on this to some extent, in Meg's earlier reply, how can we make sure that all the good practice that went on before at local authority level is not going to be dispersed or down-graded because of the isolation of the officers working from home?
  (Ms Smith) If you do not mind me coming in, we have a range of measures. All the inspectors will meet weekly and certainly have a monthly patch meeting across the team; so internally they will be able to keep together fairly readily and easily. They will meet regularly for seminars and workshops within the region, and quite a lot of them are volunteering for very good, across-England working groups on specific issues of practice. They have also agreed to our studying how we support them during this culture change to home-working. So there is quite a large study going on that will be very useful to us, because it is something that is very important. Reports already are that some are finding it very, very helpful, because it means they can order their working day much better around their domestic arrangements, and some are struggling a bit, and they have actually begun to develop self-help strategies as well, such as there is a poetry group in the south who are writing poems about how they have developed strategies to cope with lap-tops, and things. It is lovely that staff actually are active in saying, `this is a big change and we need to work, too, on fun ways, useful ways, that help us adjust to a different way of working.'
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think I can assure you that we will look at any and every means of (a) ensuring that they do not feel isolated, in the professional sense of not being able to speak to anyone, and (b) that we will take every cognisance of good practice and try to spread it around. Indeed, what we have established is built upon the good practice that was evident in local authorities previously, and which, of course, many of the staff transferring have brought with them, a great deal of experience.

  11. Under the old structure, of course, the childcare inspectors were based in very small teams at local level; we have now gone to regional working and regional centres, and I think the one that covers my area, South Yorkshire, covers the whole of Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham. Is that too big an area; have we not jumped from the sublime to the ridiculous here?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think there are two things. The regional office largely is administrative staff supporting the inspectors, and I have to say they have got more administrative support, specialist administrative support, than many, many had when they were part of a local authority structure. But the people doing the inspecting on the ground, the childcare inspectors, are working in small groups, that is why they are home-based. Secondly, of course, many of them are continuing with the same contacts, with the same providers, as they had previously, but, for some, of course, they can extend it because we have no need to recognise local authority boundaries in the work now. Some people were not actually living in the local authority where they were operating as childcare inspectors; for some, we have been able to give them a patch which is much nearer to their home, and therefore minimises travel.

  12. A very quick supplementary on this line of questioning, Chair. Scotland has not gone over to a regional-based system, as I understand it, they are maintaining the existing structure; who is right, Scotland or England?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think time will tell. We started in September; I think it is a bit early to make a judgement.
  (Ms Smith) I think devolution is very interesting, if I could just add, because Wales are doing something different too. The sad thing, for me, about Wales's and Scotland's approach is they are keeping the 0-8 provision as a childcare rather than a universal approach, an educative approach, to all children's developmental needs, and I think that is an error, in both presentational terms and the way people think about children's learning.

  Chairman: I let Jeff get away with all those questions because they were such good questions; but I am going to welcome Mark Simmonds, whose first meeting of the Committee it is today, and ask him to ask a question.

Mr Simmonds

  13. Can I just pick up on a point that Mr Ennis was asking about, which is the disparity in pay levels. Have you found that that is creating motivational problems, when people who work within these small teams are perhaps on different pay structures because of their historic pay within the local authorities?
  (Ms Smith) The issue is such a small one that, no, we have not, at this stage. Everyone did get involved, participated in road-shows, lots of input sessions, before the transfer, so they knew what the OFSTED grades would be, they knew what the pay rates would be, they knew what were the terms and conditions, they knew that they had the choice. So those who have chosen to come have made that choice quite openly and clearly, because it is of benefit to them. So, no, we have not experienced any great difficulty. I think, perhaps, interestingly, it has been harder for new staff recruited to be at the specialist centres, the support centres, for the home-based workers, sometimes to understand a difference between a local authority transferring admin. worker and themselves. That is possibly where there is a minor touch of problem, but it has not been a big one.
  (Mr Tomlinson) And nor, for that matter, have the union concerned raised major concerns with this. We have been concerned, as I have said already, to give proper pay progression and narrow the range anyway, and that is part of the agreement we have this year. So it has not been an issue.

Mr Pollard

  14. Chief Inspector, there is a great shortage of childminders, all over the place. My concern is that bureaucracy will get in the way of encouraging people to become childminders. My own experience, 30 years ago, we used to childmind, we stopped 25 years ago and we are still getting calls now from people wanting us to childmind; clearly, that is nonsensical. But things I have got in mind are, for example, having low sinks, having low toilets, which I have not got in my home, and we never had one, we had a little step that the children used to stand on to do whatever they needed to do. Now it is that sort of thing that might well put people off. You have got to have a light touch, that is all I am asking really, to make sure that people who would want to childmind, a mum who has got a child but would like to take on another one to help with their finances, also to help someone else to be able to go to work, all of that, so that we encourage, do not put people off, and make sure that it is positive rather than negative?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Maggie will answer in detail. I agree entirely with your proposition, not that you should become a childminder again, but that there should be no barriers to people becoming childminders; and we are determined to do that and cut down any unnecessary bureaucracy. I think the important thing is, the new National Standards that have been established by the Department for Education and Skills, we are using them as ways of asking the childminder how they are going to meet them, not us specifying very specific matters. In the past, for example, childminders moving across a boundary have found that, in some cases, the precise demands made upon them have changed, i.e. the white line needs to be one centimetre wider than it was where they previously were. The important question is, `how are you securing the safety of the child, taking account of those Standards?' Now that gives them a degree of freedom and not a bureaucratic way of ticking-off, `well you've done that, you've done that, you've done that,' we are trying to avoid that, but I think Maggie may give more details.
  (Ms Smith) I do not think I can add much more to that, except, at this stage, I think, it is an anxious time for childminders, but that we are very keen to support the National Childcare Strategy, very pleased that the policy currently is providing more financial help to new childminders and more support. And one of the first pieces of survey work we want to do is, with childminders, to look at retention rates and what keeps them in the work and why they leave it. And I think one of the benefits of having a national system is immediately that ability to gather that kind of data and get underneath the issues of people who stay, or do not stay, in this important work.


  15. If we are going to get underneath the issues, how much can we rely on you in the future telling us, for example, how well Sure Start is helping to improve standards, it covers now, what, 30 per cent of the postal code areas, what service can we expect from OFSTED in actually monitoring, and that is very important to us? Sure Start is costing a great deal of money, if it is rolled out it will cost a great deal more money; what role will you be playing in telling us how Sure Start is being effective in that very early period of a child's development?
  (Ms Smith) Unless a Sure Start project has a day-care or a funded education facility, or a maintained education facility, as part of its network, and many of them do, we are not charged with evaluating the Sure Start programme. That work has been commissioned outside DFES to independent researchers. It is a big evaluation programme, and my Head of Policy, Dr Denise Hevey, is a member of the group overseeing that evaluation, which I am very pleased about. So we do have some participation into steering the way the research is going; and, obviously, we are very, very interested in the findings. But overall we do not have a remit to evaluate Sure Start's effectiveness, as OFSTED.
  (Mr Tomlinson) What I can say is, we are looking at a possibility of work that follows children through 0 to 6, to see what happens to them, into schools, as a result of the provision that they have access to, in an area. So what we are trying to look at is some defined area and to be able to look then at what happens to young children right through, whether or not they have childcare, because we need to know what difference does it make, are there particular features of some provision which make it more effective than others, and help children to move into school comfortably and happily and effectively. So it is quite a challenging idea, but we are exploring how we might do that, and I think that that could be quite interesting as well, because it will pick up on, as part of it, the matter that you are raising, Chairman.

  Chairman: Thank you, Mr Tomlinson.

Valerie Davey

  16. The concern I have had for some time is how we look after three and four year olds and whether they are best suited in a nursery school, in a class, in a reception class; is your work going to be able to tell us in future what would be best, I know not for every individual child, but in the round, are you going to give us a comment on that at all?
  (Ms Smith) One of the clear abilities we now have is to assess the foundation curriculum outcomes for children across all types of setting; again, it will be work that is done in conjunction with DFES colleagues, and there are two very important pieces of research that DfES have commissioned that are part-way through, and that is the EPPE research and the Post research. So there is a broader context of how children develop and learn. There is a look, in the EPPE research, at all the different types of settings, and where outcomes are better for similar groups, and then we will be able to compare data across foundation curriculum. So I think there is a huge amount being done to get better evidence, and hopefully that will benefit policy decisions in the long term.
  (Mr Tomlinson) We have been, for some years now, since the grant system for three and four years olds was introduced, monitoring that provision in the different settings, and there is a further report due out very shortly on what we found in last year's work, which does look at provisions specifically for three and four year olds in the variety of settings, from play groups right through to nursery.

Mr Turner

  17. One of my nurseries tells me that they are being strongly encouraged to adopt a kite mark, I do not know if this is a national or a local requirement or who is doing it, do you know?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes; well, there was an announcement by the Government just before the last election which announced a star system for early years providers, the detail of which is now being worked up with the DFES and ourselves, because they want us to be involved. A number of organisations concerned with early years provision already have quality assurance systems in place, and if you are a member of that association and you meet those standards then you are given that kite mark; what is wanted is to bring some rationale to all of those. I think there are over 50 such schemes operating across the various providers, what we want to do is to bring some rationale to that and to be able to be sure that the actual quality assurance system is rigorous and is valid, and therefore has some weight when it is said to be earned by a particular setting. This is ongoing work, as I say, it was announced just before the last election and the detail of it has not yet been finalised.

  18. So it is not a new requirement?
  (Mr Tomlinson) No.
  (Ms Smith) It has been around, I think, since the very early days of the early years development and childcare partnerships; the research evidence shows that providers who use a quality assurance system often have better outcomes for children, because they become more reflective about practice, they look at training for staff in a much more focused way, and it does tend to improve the developmental benefits for children. So there has been an encouragement through the partnerships for providers to utilise quality assurance in that way, and they have had targets set for encouraging people; but this is a way of bringing that work together and making sure that, where providers choose, because it will be an opt-in system, to use that kind of tool, they know the tool they are using is good quality. And that is where OFSTED will help, in quality assuring the systems to be used.

  19. I think there is possibly a misunderstanding about the voluntary nature of it, but it does seem, to me, that, having amalgamated two systems of inspection under OFSTED, the Government is in danger of creating a new one, or encouraging a new one. Is not that mildly absurd?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think there is a risk, but I am confident that the discussions that we are having with the Department will secure a solution which does not end where you suspect or feel it might. And, the fact is, providers can now use these systems, independent of OFSTED, independent of Government, independent of anyone else, and a goodly number do choose to use them, because they regard it as an important statement they can make to people who actually want to make use of their provision. All that we want to do in the future is make certain that all of them that operate actually meet a suitable level that gives assurance to people wanting to place their children there that these quality assurance systems are reliable, are robust, in what they want to do; and what we are keen to do is tie that in with our inspection and regulation work, and not have, I think, as you fear, a sort of double requirement placed upon the provider.

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