Education Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Turner: I am pleased that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has moved the amendment. He is right to suggest that organisations that are set up by Parliament, and called quangos by

Column Number: 607

the disrespectful among us, should be reviewed from time to time. I will first refer back to my intervention and his answer, because I am not sure that it is practical to lay a responsibility on Parliament. It is possible to lay a responsibility on the Secretary of State, the Education and Skills Committee or the chief inspector, but Parliament is a large and amorphous body, and I am unsure on whom the burden would fall.

That is not my main point, which is to celebrate the achievement of Ofsted. It was one of the greatest educational achievements of the Conservative years in government and should be credited in no small way to the former chief inspector, Chris Woodhead. He took what was a brilliant idea—I will not weary the Committee with recitations of my involvement, because it was relatively small—and made it work for the overall good of the education system. He introduced an element of rigour into the inspection process, which made it clearly objective and widely recognised. I understand that many people disliked the inspection process; some had good cause, because they deserved to be found out.

Mr. Willis: We cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with talking such utter nonsense. It was not the inspection regime to which people objected, but the style of the former chief inspector. He deliberately set out to demonise the process and ruin the careers and lives of many good teachers throughout the country. They fell foul of a regime that was draconian, oppressive and deliberately designed to cause confrontation in schools up and down the land.

The Chairman: Order. Let us keep to the amendment and not start discussing one particular individual.

Mr. Turner: I gladly accede to your ruling, Mr. Pike.

Miraculously, information has reached me about on whom the burden of the amendment would fall. It would fall on Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools for England. In the circumstances, to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred, of a chief inspector demonising the profession, terrifying teachers and frightening them out of their jobs, and up-ending schools for his own selfish pleasure and entertainment, the burden would fall on Her Majesty's chief inspector himself. I do not see that as an effective means of reviewing the future of Ofsted. That is a good enough reason for rejecting the amendment. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's assertions about the intentions of an individual. We must not discuss such intentions. Some schools should have been inspected because they deserved to be found out.

11 am

Some teachers found the inspection process unduly daunting for two reasons. First, they were given too much notice of the arrival of the inspection, so their head teachers and governors could rewrite every conceivable document in the school. The threat of scrutiny was often over-emphasised. Secondly, local authorities saw it as part of their role to provide, at a

Column Number: 608

price, a pre-inspection inspection. What could be more daunting than to know that inspectors were on their way, and that there were to be two inspections?

I welcome the changes that would reduce the notice given for inspection. Since Ofsted was created, it has proved to be effective and has demonstrably improved standards, assisted the Government in their policy of improving failing schools and identified failing local education authorities that have contributed to the failure of our schools. It is recognised for those achievements in many other countries, such as Holland, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) recently visited. A rigorous inspection process is essential. We all hope that, one day, parents will have a transparent means of judging the quality of schools so we can get rid of that quango, as we have so many in the past, but we still have a long way to go.

Mr. Timms: The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough argued for a process of continual review of the inspection system and the framework, but the amendment would create a rigid, five-year, periodic big bang approach. I agree more with his speech than the amendment. The chief inspector already has a statutory duty to keep the system of regular school inspection under review. The record shows that the system has evolved since it was introduced in 1992. Recently, short inspections for the most effective schools, and a reduction to the notice given before inspection have been introduced, which will avoid a lengthy build-up of anxiety, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight pointed out. In the past few weeks, an external complaints adjudicator has been added to the system. The system is capable of being, and is being, continually modified and improved.

Last autumn, Ofsted conducted a review of the system. It consulted on a wide range of proposals to make inspection more responsive to the different circumstances and priorities of schools. That consultation was well received and it intends to implement those proposals from next year. As the head of a non-ministerial Government Department—not a quango; it is not a non-departmental public body—Her Majesty's chief inspector is directly accountable to Parliament for the management of Ofsted and for the public funds it administers. In practice, that scrutiny operates principally through the Education and Skills Committee, which is chaired by a Member not normally regarded as someone who responds without questioning to Government advice—quite rightly; he is an independent figure. Whether he would like to have my job, as has been suggested, I do not know. I suspect that that is not the case. That scrutiny is an effective way for Parliament to monitor what the inspection system is achieving.

Mr. Brady: Without passing comment on the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), does the Minister agree that it set an unfortunate precedent that his two immediate predecessors as chair of the Education and Skills Committee were made Ministers in the Department that they were previously meant to scrutinise?

Column Number: 609

Mr. Timms: I do not think that is an unfortunate precedent. No doubt there have been plenty of instances of that happening in the past. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) speaks rightly from a sedentary position. The fact that someone becomes a Minister at a future point does not affect his independence as Chair of the Select Committee.

Arrangements have been put in place for the chief inspector to appear before the Select Committee twice a year. That is an opportunity for regular parliamentary scrutiny of the inspection system. He is next due to appear in March.

The Select Committee asked for a quinquennial review of Ofsted. The Government's response was that non-ministerial Government Departments do not have quinquennial reviews but non-departmental public bodies do. That proposal is rather different from that in the amendment, which provides for the whole system and framework of inspection to be reviewed every five years. I hope that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will agree that the model of continual review for which he argued rather than rigid five-yearly reviews is the right one to have in place. It is currently in place and I hope that he will feel it is appropriate to leave it as it is.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister for his measured comments. I argued strongly that schools should implement the constant review process. That is extremely valuable; the Government should take up that issue and Ofsted should encourage it and inspect those systems. That applies also to local authorities.

I agree with the assessment of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight. The chief inspector, as head of Ofsted, would have to report to the Secretary of State under the terms of my amendment. That report would then come under scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament in the most appropriate way. If that had previously been the case, some of the work of the former chief Inspector would have been dealt with. Some of the excesses would have been dealt with. The current system of evaluating Ofsted's work through its chief inspector's annual meeting with the Select Committee is wholly inadequate, irrespective of whether this or the previous Government are in power.

The Select Committee has no teeth. I was a member of that Committee and remember the former chief inspector simply saying that he did not agree and walking out—end of story. He then submitted his written response. He did all that to dismiss anything that the Committee said. We cannot have such a situation and, to be fair, Mike Tomlinson, the next chief inspector, had a different style. He took the Select Committee's comments on board and was able to make progress. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is right. Until we have confidence in the Select Committee and its ability to scrutinise and make recommendations, the system will not be able to move forward.

I accept the Minister's comments, but I hope that in his discussions with the new chief inspector, he will bear in mind some of my comments about the continual improvement system, in which the Office

Column Number: 610

for Standards in Education should engage. I also hope that the new chief inspector will continue on the path of listening to others and will continue to improve the Ofsted process. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Timms: I beg to move amendment No. 308, in page 176, line 29, leave out

    'In paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to that Act'

and insert

    'Schedule 1 to that Act (Her Majesty's Chief Inspectors) is amended as follows.

    (2) In paragraph 1'.'

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 309, in page 176, line 32, at end insert—

    '(3) In paragraph 2(3) (arrangements for persons other than staff to assist Chief Inspector require agreement of Treasury or National Assembly), for ''the Treasury'' there is substituted ''the Minister for the Civil Service or (in the case of the Chief Inspector for Wales) the National Assembly for Wales''.'

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 January 2002