Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 40-59)

MR DAVID BELL

WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002

Jeff Ennis

  40. Moving on to issues where you have direct work experience in the past, Mr Bell—I am thinking particularly about the role of LEAs. The LGA would say, for example, that the role of LEAs has diminished drastically over the last 20 years under the previous Tory Government and under this Government. What is your view on that? Do you think the role of the LEA is about right now or do you think we should beef it up?
  (Mr Bell) I think you are absolutely right that the role has changed quite dramatically. I think in the main it was entirely appropriate that we move to a system of local management because I think that has been very important in terms of bringing about change, improvement and reform in the education system. I think the OFSTED reports, successive annual reports, have highlighted some of the benefits there. As far as the role of the LEA is concerned, again it is very important that OFSTED has been able to report on what has been found. I think it is important to make the point that we are now into the second cycle of inspections and that will be a differentiated programme: we will inspect all the authorities again but we will not necessarily do it the same way in every authority, and that is right back to this principle of inspection arrangements evolving. I think LEAs have a harder task now in persuading schools that what they do is valuable. We are in a situation where there is a very open market for the provision of services to schools in lots of areas and the LEAs, I suppose, have had to raise their game to provide services that are considered appropriate. On the other hand, of course, LEAs continue to have a number of important statutory responsibilities and I think we would have to say there that the inspection evidence has shown that the record has been mixed: even with some of the statutory functions not all LEAs have been carrying those out. But—and I think this is an important but—the first round of inspections, the full inspection programme of LEAs, has highlighted those issues and really now given LEAs the opportunity, as I have suggested, to raise their game on the back of that evidence.

  41. Coming back to your earlier response about the future of OFSTED being able to carry on its role in LEA inspection terms rather than in school improvement terms, do you think LEAs ought to concentrate on that provision to try to improve the level of educational attainment in schools?
  (Mr Bell) School improvement?

  42. Yes.
  (Mr Bell) I think that is properly a decision for each LEA to take. They have a lot of competition out there. There are a lot of people now providing what one might describe as school improvement services and they have to provide the right sort of service that schools want to buy. That is the reality.

  43. I was also delighted to see in your CV that you are actually qualified to inspect early years education. As you know, that sector has just recently come over from local authority control to OFSTED control and it has moved from an area-based delivery of service, where the inspectors work in local authority teams, to working from home. I know there have been teething problems in the transition—issues to do with the lack of computer systems being brought in and also the change in working, from working in a team to working in isolation. What do you see as the challenges for the successful future inspection of early years education?
  (Mr Bell) I highlighted that in my opening remarks, that it was one of the big challenges to embed those changes. I think one of the advantages has been to standardise the procedures across the country. I think one of the things that OFSTED has found in bringing together150 different approaches, whilst they have been against a national criteria, is that inevitably different styles of work and patterns emerge over time. That just happens when you have different local authorities running the system. You are right to say that we had some teething difficulties, and I would not pretend that they have all been eliminated—one of the first briefs put on my desk was about the IT systems in the early years area—but I think we can work our way through those. I think perhaps the more interesting point is the one about working practices. We are now based in eight regional centres for early years, but we would be quite keen to ensure that each of those regional centres continues to have a link with the early years and child care development partnerships within their areas, so we are not just seen as just a remote arm but we are actually working closely with the early years partnerships. We have a management and leadership task, to ensure that people, in moving from working in an office-based environment to a home-based environment, have plenty of opportunity for professional development, opportunities to come together and so on. That is our task, because it is not just important to combat isolation, it is also important in professional development terms that colleagues know what is happening. I think it is really important that we address that. I think, again, we perhaps should not over-exaggerate. It has not just been a simple move from: they all used to work in an office and they have all been sent off to work at home. It is not quite as simple as that, but we are aware that if you are going to have a home-based work force you need to find time and opportunities to bring the people together.

Chairman

  44. This Committee will be looking very carefully at that transition and what it costs the tax payer. We hear of so many transitions, from TECs to LSEs, for example, that are going to save tax payers a great deal of money and then we find not a great deal of evidence that that has happened. We will be looking very carefully to see whether the transition of this large number of staff from one sort of service to another actually costs the tax payer a great deal of money.
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, I wonder if it might be helpful to undertake that sort of investigation really by the end of the transitional period, which is March 2003, when obviously we will be in a better position to understand how it has gone, what the costs have been and so on.

  Chairman: Mr Bell, part of this is not new territory. It is one of the things that we are interested in. I know you are going to be working closely with the Audit Commission—even more vigorously, since I think they are losing part of their other empire, in health—but the fact of the matter is that we do have responsibility for value for money for tax payers. As you are responsible to Parliament through this Committee, that is one of the things on which we will be coming back to you.

Jeff Ennis

  45. The NAHT say that there can still be difficulties regarding the experience of inspection teams for special schools. Do you see that there are any special challenges that confront the inspection teams when they are dealing with special schools as opposed to ordinary schools?
  (Mr Bell) In our consultation document, the one that I cited earlier, we do recognise that there are issues about the inspection framework for special schools and we want to consult quite carefully with schools and other stakeholders on that subject. One of the concerns that has been raised by a number of organisations is: Do you get the right range of experience in an inspection team where you perhaps have a range of needs to inspect? That is an important element of the specification that is given to contractors, to ensure that they actually do provide that kind of experience. As I said on the issue of inclusion and perhaps special needs more generally, I am fairly cautious in what I am saying on that subject at the moment because it is an area that I have to look at but, obviously, as with any other organisation that raises specific issues I am more than happy to look at that.

Mr Turner

  46. If you, like many parents, had insufficient confidence in the schools local to where you live to send your children to one of those schools, what would you have done?
  (Mr Bell) It is difficult territory, is it not, because you are speaking about personal experiences. I think I would have done what I suspect most parents would do: I would look at the school and I would then make a judgment about whether it was right for my child. I do not think I can really add much more to that. I might have made a decisions in those circumstances to keep my child at the school, depending on what I thought was going on there, or I might have made the decision to take my child away. I have to say, it is very difficult to answer because it is a hypothetical situation.

  47. But it is one which clearly thousands of parents face, some of whom are very well known parents. What do you think should be the order of decision making for those parents and what opportunities should be open to them which are not open to them?
  (Mr Bell) What I would say, Mr Turner, is I would not presume—I very seriously would not presume—to tell other parents how to do their job. Decisions about the education of their children are properly the decisions of parents. I suppose what I can say is that at least through the information that OFSTED provides, parents have more information on which to base their judgments, but I really would not—not just for professional reasons but for personal reasons—want to sit here and tell parents what they should do. I think what we have to ensure is that they continue to have good information about the quality of schools, so that they can make reasonable and informed choices, and I think OFSTED has provided over the past 10 years, and will continue to provide, a good service in that respect.

  48. Do you think then that the structures of education matter more than the personalities? Sir Keith Joseph used to say, "The nearest thing to a magic wand is a good head teacher" and yet governments of both complexions have fiddled around with structures.
  (Mr Bell) That is an interesting question. Structures can be important but I think there is a danger that if you just fiddle around with the structures you do not necessarily change what is actually happening. I think it is interesting if you look at inspection evidence of different kinds of schools, if that is what you are alluding to, that, yes, you can make a case that some schools are doing this, some schools are doing that, but also you will find that, whatever structures you have, you have good schools and you have not so good schools. I think it is hard to make a very strong case that one kind of structure always delivers the right kind of school. It would seem to me that if we have, as we have in this country now, quite a variety of types of schools in the maintained system, surely the real task is to improve standards across all of those groups, in whatever type of school it is, and for OFSTED to be able to report on standards in schools in different types of schools. I think I am again back to evolution rather than revolution. I am not always convinced that making massive structural changes will necessarily bring about change, but I think you have to have an open mind, and where structures are getting in the way then you act.

Chairman

  49. I think Andrew makes a good point. In your press release play was made of the fact that you send your child to school in the state sector and that you have, by that, shown that you have faith in the state sector providing the education for your child. I think Andrew was making that point. A Belgian journalist a few days ago asked me why there was a fuss about the Prime Minister sending his child to somewhere which was not a home-based school. He said, "I understand he is the first British Prime Minister in history to send his children to the state sector." In a sense, if the people who make decisions, like yourself, or the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Education, were to send their children to the sorts of schools their constituents and the voters in this country do, they might have more confidence in them. Is that not right?
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, I am not making a political statement about where I send my children to school.

  50. But your press release made a very clear statement, that you were very proud of the fact that you sent your child to state school.
  (Mr Bell) I do not think it was a case of being proud of the fact. It was not a case of making a statement one way or the other. I put that in, or it was put in, on the grounds that I was bound to be asked. I think it is entirely reasonable for me as a parent to make a choice where I send my child, but, as I said in response to Mr Turner, I would not under any circumstances presume to tell other parents what sort of choice they should exercise for their children.

  51. But do you take the point that some of us on this Committee believe it is quite important for those people who make significant decisions about the future of our children's education actually to participate as active participants in using that service?
  (Mr Bell) I take the point.

Mr Turner

  52. In responding to Mr Ennis, you used the words (which he did not, I think) "local management". In inspecting, would you regard the objectives against which you are inspecting as those of the school or those of the local authority or those of the inspector or those of the Government or what?
  (Mr Bell) I think I can answer that quite simply and then expand on it. We are making judgments against the framework for inspection—and that obviously is one of my responsibilities, to ensure that the framework is kept up to date, hence the consultation exercise that we are engaged in at the moment. I think it would be foolish, however, in any inspection not to take account of what the school's or any other institution's priorities are. In fact, I think the inspection process, again in evolutionary terms, has done that increasingly, trying to find out: What does this school stand for? What does this school think is important? So, yes, we are inspecting against a framework, taking very careful account of what the school thinks its priorities should be and also in the context of national policy. OFSTED has had a role and will continue to have a role in reporting on the impact of those national policies on individual schools. In fact, we will be publishing a report later this year that looks at the impact of some of these major funding streams on schools. I think that is an important role for OFSTED. We inspect objectively against the framework; we take account of what the school is doing, what its priorities are; and we also have to take account of the wider national context in terms of educational policies.

  53. Finally, on the difficulties that children bring with them, clearly those affect a school's priorities and its performance.
  (Mr Bell) Yes.

  54. Do you feel that it is within your responsibility to examine how those difficulties arise?
  (Mr Bell) I think in any context statement, say, that a school provides in advance of inspection, we invite the school to comment on the characteristics of its area, and, of course, OFSTED itself holds quite a lot of information about the characteristics of an area in which a school is located and that is very helpful in understanding the backdrop. I would perhaps quote something Mike Tomlinson said in his annual report when he said: yes, schools can do so much, but actually they are subject to wider societal influences. I am not sure it is really for OFSTED to stray into that territory, except where we can find direct evidence of wider societal factors having an impact on education. I think Mike Tomlinson cited a good example when he talked about truancy and parents perhaps being caught in shopping centres with their children and being quite surprised that somebody had challenged them. I think wider societal issues are really not for OFSTED to comment on. The one thing I would say, however, about children coming to school is that with our new early years responsibilities we are going to be in quite a good position in the future to comment on the different kinds of provision that are available and, perhaps, what is working well. We hope to be publishing a report sometime in the summer, which will be our first early years report, based on a 10 per cent sample of all the early year centres that we have inspected. That will give us a good indicator and then from next year's annual report, my first annual report, we will talk in much more detail about the early years settings. I think, whilst that is not necessarily talking about the societal influences, it will be very helpful information to understand the impact that different kind of early years settings have on the education that children get in school.

Chairman

  55. We value highly that aspect of OFSTED's work. I got some very strange looks on the tube this morning as I was reading Sex and Relationships, your latest report, but it is a very good report. It is a very important one. I think this Committee is very pleased that you looked at good practice. The number of young school children becoming pregnant is a real issue—we have the highest level in Europe. It is a significant issue. I think the good practice that comes out of here should be continued. We will be asking you in the future time and time again about disruptive and difficult to teach pupils. What we have found in our individual constituencies and in terms of experience of the Committee is that, where there is very good practice, it is very good indeed, and the role of OFSTED in sharing that good practice I think is going to be very important.
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, you have cited that report, and I am please that you did. I am also pleased that my predecessor launched it and I did not! I thought that for my first public appearance, to talk about sex and relationships was a way to make an impact. At the tail end of the week before, we also published reports on the achievements of black and Afro-Caribbean youngsters, and we did exactly the same thing: we cited examples of good practice. Coming back to the earlier comments Mr Chaytor made, it seems to me that OFSTED has an important role in school improvement by being able to cite, "Here is what some schools are doing that we think is very impressive. Here is what characterises this as interesting practice." Hopefully, other schools will take those reports, have a look at what successful schools are doing and perhaps amend their own practice in the light of that material.

  56. I hope you will have a good relationship with us, good enough for us to suggest areas that we have picked up. We are at the end of this summer going to be looking at education in one city, Birmingham. This Committee is going to spend a week there. We will be picking up very important information which we hope to share with you, so that, if we identify areas we think you should look at, I hope you will be receptive to that.
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, I will be receptive. The only thing that I have noticed in the first couple of weeks in post is that OFSTED gets lots of requests, I think quite legitimately, to look at pieces of information. I certainly will look very carefully at any requests made from this Committee.

  Chairman: I hope you will prioritise this Committee over Tom, Dick and Harry from outside!

Mr Shaw

  57. My colleague mentioned local education authorities and you talked about the competition they face from other providers of support to schools. You also made the point that they hold a lot of information on schools and they have their statutory responsibilities. You inspect local education authorities, and at Newcastle when you were there. When you were inspecting, as chief education officer, the schools that you had responsibility for were asked to make a comment as to what they thought about performance. I do not know whether they are asked to comment about other private sector providers. I think probably not. Do you think, as the OFSTED inspection system evolves, that LEAs should make a comment on schools? If we are to foster this partnership and finding ways of improvement and using the OFSTED inspection as a part of that process, do you think that is a future you envisage, where LEAs make a comment on the schools?
  (Mr Bell) Can I come to that point in a moment and make a passing comment about the first bit of your question regarding the local education authorities. It is interesting that schools are asked—and I think rightly so—to comment on what they think of service A, service B, service Y. I think it is just a little anomaly that these questionnaires—and it is an issue to discuss with the Audit Commission—do not always pick out the distinction between the service that the LEA has provided directly and the services that other private providers are delivering. I think that can give a skewed impression of what the LEAs are doing, because in fact they may not be responsible for the service at all. I think there is a degree of sophistication that we have to bring in now to account for the fact that there is a greater number of private providers. As far as the suggestion about consulting the local education authority, again in the consultation document that OFSTED published we cited examples of potential partners that might be approached for information; for example, in secondary schools asking the local Learning and Skills Council to comment or the local education authority to comment. The very fact that we were suggesting that approach, we thought was a good indication that it could be helpful. What I would say is that, as with all aspects of evidence that inspectors gather, the inspectors still have to make their judgment on what they find. Whilst that picture that they build up about the school is better informed by receiving information from a variety of sources, it cannot be allowed to skew the judgment of the inspectors. Again, I think that is the principle of the independence of the inspection. Whilst partners' views are important, inspectors must make the final judgment.

  58. Do you envisage a time where that will form part of the inspection process, the comments of wider stakeholders?
  (Mr Bell) Yes, we are looking at how we might take that forward and we have not quite concluded what we are going to do on that. In some ways it would be a logical extension of what we do at the moment, because we get the views of parents, as very important prime stakeholders. Obviously we do get the views of pupils, and part of our consultation was about getting more systematic views from pupils as well, and therefore the extension into getting views from other relevant partners would be appropriate. I should say to you of course that it has always been the case that during inspections anyone has been able to submit information and evidence to the inspectors in advance of the inspection. That has always been the case. In fact a number of schools make a point of presenting a portfolio of views that they have received from outside stakeholders.

  59. But that might be self-selecting.
  (Mr Bell) That is their perspective on it. I think it is about just sharpening that process up.


 
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