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The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I withdrew my name from the speakers list last night and informed the Government Whips' Office. I noticed that there were a great many people with more expertise speaking on the subject this afternoon, and I wanted to allow them more time to speak.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, for introducing the debate with his characteristic sharpness and specificity. I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities and wish him well. A senior civil servant whom I knew once said that the only lobby that he thought more fractious than the education lobby was the arts lobby. Perhaps the Minister can draw some consolation from the fact that that is not included in his current brief.
I begin with a declaration of interest: I was the first HMCI under the new regime that introduced the system that is now, rightly, being rethought and amended. In 1992, when the new system was set up, there were three founding principles. It is important to re-emphasise them because they should be retained, whatever the particular changes introduced. The first was that inspections of schools should be regular. We discovered that some schools had not been inspected for 20 years. The responsibility for inspection was split between national and local sources and a number of schools reported never having seen an inspection team. That was the reason for insisting that there should be regular inspections, perhaps initially on a five or six-year cycle.
The second principle was that the inspection should be independent because there was clearly a confusion of roles among a number of those who were involved in inspection. Perhaps I may put it colloquiallythey found themselves as both referees and coaches and it is difficult to combine those two roles: going to a school to inspect what is happening and at the same time
The third principle was that the report should be published. That was as equally contentious as the others, but the intention, properly, was that the parents, school boards and the local communities should be aware of the manner of schools operating in their neighbourhoods. I hope that those three principlesregularity, independence and published reportswill be retained through change.
Ofsted was created and I confess that I invented the term, for which some have never forgiven me. Indeed one wag suggested that it should be called "Instead". It was deliberate that it had a new title to indicate that it was a new type of business. The context was not simply the formal creation of an independent inspectorate that would be a non-ministerial government department, but that it would sit alongside a national curriculum, of which the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, knows much and over which he spilt many drops of blood; and national testing alongside the national curriculum. That was a three-pronged approach that, I would argue, over the course of time led to significant improvements in schools over the past 10 years.
Of course times change and it was always envisaged that there should be development in the inspection process from day one. We were entering an area that was almost an unknown quantity. What would we find in 26,000 schools across the country? The intention was to build up a knowledge of what was happening and a database. In the light of that we could perhaps develop new systems in due course.
Ten years on all schools have been inspected more than once. Databases of reports have been built up. There is 10 years of learning and experience of how to do that and, indeed, of how to play the game, which is one of the dangers. All of that provides reason for change and development. But the change and development can be informed by that 10 years' experience and by the database that is there. Inspection teams who go into schools now, compared with, say, 1994 or 1995, have significant factual data available about the performance of those schools. On that basis, inspections ought to be different.
I re-emphasise that the changes proposed will not involve a change of the principles: regularity, independence and publication. But I welcome the new pilots in principle and in general, with the intent to reduce burdens on schools and the focus perhaps on specific issues in the light of the knowledge that we now have. I conclude by making one or two specific suggestions that I hope that the Minister will be able to take away and discuss with his colleagues.
First, I support the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in that the mechanisms of appeal should be strengthened. A report now ought to be well-honed, built on a database and ought to be specifically looking for the issues that that knowledge of past inspections could bring to the inspection team. That leaves room for some element of appeal.
One measure that we took that was not well publicised but that I commend as a possible way ahead for the pilot studies was that in the first 100 new-style inspections under the new framework we had external monitoring carried out by a completely independent body. Predictably in those days it was Coopers. That 100 inspection report was useful and interesting ammunition for the HMIs who were working on how to develop the new framework. It also meant that one did not go ahead simply on the basis of innuendo, hint or, perhaps, the suggestion that the inspection teams had not been up to their job. So I suggest that an external monitoring of pilots might pay real dividends. If necessary there should be re-inspection by HMIs after the report is in and published. The timescale is such that that should be fairly quick. Re-inspection ought to be strengthened.
Finally, there should be a greater focus on outcomes. The system has been process-focused. Outcomes are the final judgment of whether a school is doing well. There are different ways of doing that. There is not a single orthodoxy on how to run a school, primary or secondary. I much commend the notion of self-evaluation as central. It gives schools a role. Self-knowledge, as Socrates reminded us, is the beginning of wisdom and, indeed, of good management.
Lord Tombs: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, for introducing this important debate and welcome the Minister to his new bed of nails, which we will try to make blunt.
Schools inspections can make an important contribution to the standards of education. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case and increased demands on inspectors have too often resulted in inconsistent judgments. Schools have come to view inspections as a lottery in which the capability of the lead inspector settles the odds and the rules are constantly changing. This, coupled with the long period of notice for inspections, has produced a febrile atmosphere in which over-preparation can present an unrepresentative picture to the inspectors and a huge additional workload for the staff. Happily, this is now changing for the better and I should like to pay tribute to the present chief HMI, David Bell, for his willingness to promote a widespread consultation and to seek to improve its efficacy as a result of that consultation.
The two main changes resulting from this process are generally welcome but, inevitably, they risk creating further difficulties. My object today is to identify those difficulties and to seek to suggest ways in which they could be managed. First, the proposal to shorten the notice period for inspections will do much to reduce the over-preparation to which I have referred. That will be welcomed by the staff and, no doubt, the pupils. But more warts will show and the inspectors will have to adjust their methods
More potentially difficult is the proposal to shorten the inspections. This will also increase the judgmental importance of the inspections and will therefore rely heavily on the experience of the inspectors. The proposal to have an HMI as lead inspector for every inspection is presented as a contribution to meeting that challenge. But the notion that Her Majesty's Inspectors are invariably superior in experience and judgment to registered inspectors is questionable. The plain and unsurprising fact is that neither constituency is perfect and it is on that fact that I want further to examine the problem and to suggest some ways of dealing with it.
There is a pressing need to ensure that the experience of all inspectors is adequate to the task they face. This requires that they should have practical and recent experience of the type of school under inspection, notably whether it is primary or secondary but also its social environment. Experience at senior management level is, or should be, a sine qua non. To some extent this calls for good management of existing inspectors by matching their experience to the task. But good management also calls for regular updating of that experience, perhaps by secondment to schools and regular audit of the experience and capability of inspectors. This should be seen, not as an intrusive process but as a means of helping inspectors in their important but difficult task.
I now turn to the category of "special measures" which is used to categorise schools which are seen as "failing" and which often results in the replacement of the head teacher. We should note that the "failing" head often goes on to rescue another school in the same "failing" category while a "superhuman" head comes in to perform the same transformation at the first school. We should also note that the decision to place a school in special measures is often preceded by one or more satisfactory inspections to the understandable astonishment of staff and governors.
The placing of a school in special measures is a draconian step, attracting opprobrium in the educational establishment and in the sensation-loving press, and imposing a massive additional workload and stress on the management team. It should not be undertaken lightly and, in my submission, the ensuing recovery process has not been properly examined or validated.
"Special measures" is a simplistic and unsatisfactory process which is attracting growing criticism in the educational world and urgently demands critical examination. In most cases, it involves schools in areas of great social deprivation where inspectors require a depth of understanding which is not always evident.
The need for constructive support of teachers should be intrinsic to the inspection process and the steps already taken will contribute to that. But the need for better training and audit of inspectors remains to be addressed and the penal aspect of the system, of which "special measures" remains an
Without doubt, some schools are genuinely failing but, even then, it is very doubtful whether publicly pillorying them is the best way to obtain improvements. In special measures, the workload rises to meet supervision requirements, new staff are difficult to attract, newly qualified teachers cannot be appointed without specific permission and good staff leave to further their careers. How much better that could be handled in a supportive environment. But when "special measures" rests on a dubious inspection report, how much more damage can result. Steady, if slow, progress is interrupted or even reversed by the extra demands on staff. Morale is seriously damaged by a feeling of unfairness and victimisation. Nervous breakdowns can and do result and both staff and pupils suffer.
I make two pleas to the Government regarding special measures. First, commission an independent review of those schools placed in special measures over the past five years to examine the validity of the inspection recommendation and the methodology of the recovery. Secondly, abandon the public declaration of "special measures" with the general and indiscriminate opprobrium which results and concentrate instead on constructive measures to the benefit of staff and, most importantly, pupils.
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