School Inspections

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 7:07 pm on 12th July 1999.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne 7:07 pm, 12th July 1999

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute briefly to this important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), who obviously speaks with a great deal of practical experience of Ofsted inspections. I also compliment the Select Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks); they have done a workmanlike job in producing this report.

It is worth just noting that Ofsted was set up in 1992 and was very much a Conservative policy. I am delighted that, these days, there is a spirit of cross-party co-operation, both on the Committee and in the Chamber, about the importance of Ofsted. That view has not always characterised the attitude of the leaders of some teaching unions. All too often, the reservations, which have not abated in the intervening years, have been funnelled into personalised criticism of the chief inspector. With some of them, it is still a coded attack on the concept of inspections altogether.

As has already been mentioned by at least one other hon. Member this evening, Ofsted has now completed its first full cycle of inspections, having inspected all of the country's 24,000 schools over a four-year period. Under the old system, secondary schools were inspected on average once every 50 years and primary schools once every 200 years, which says something about the previous system.

What this is all about is helping the process of accountability in education. Ofsted has always had, and will continue to have, its critics, who do not want this level of inspection and accountability in our education system, but the great weight of serious opinion, both in this House and in the teaching profession, is now firmly behind the concept of Ofsted. I very much welcome that.

The concept of inspection has reached a high pitch of interest. In my constituency—I am sure that Eastbourne is not atypical in this respect—the local papers cover Ofsted reports, with detailed coverage of the results and much picking over of the recommendations and findings. There is a vigorous rebuttal process by teachers and governors if the school feels that it has been treated unfairly. That is extremely valuable, because it brings the inspection process into sharp focus as it affects individual schools and communities.

Bishop Bell secondary school in my constituency has been turned round in the past couple of years by a new head teacher, Mr. Terry Boatwright. There is now a completely new attitude. I cannot help feeling that much of that is due to the inspection process and the prospect of an Ofsted inspection. At this time of year, or a little earlier, my mail bag used to fill up with letters from parents whose children had been allocated to that school. They said that they would rather die than have their child sent to that school. It was a massive problem, because it put enormous pressure on the other secondary schools in the area. As a result, Bishop Bell school had falling rolls, poor buildings—which it had to start off with—a poor reputation and was unable to attract the support that a successful school should have attracted. The writing was on the wall when permission was given to build a brand new school, Causeway school, which is now open. It is an attractive school, and is not far from Bishop Bell school.

One envisaged the new school attracting children away from Bishop Bell school and sucking its support. The moment had come when it was either to succeed or to fail. The governors took that on board, and a new head teacher was recruited. The school has been turned round, and parents now write to me because they cannot get their children into Bishop Bell school and ask me what I can do about it. That is a tribute to the school and the commitment and dedication of the head teacher, teachers, governors and parents. It fits neatly into the whole picture of inspection and of encouraging and driving up standards in schools, which was a centrepiece of education policy under the previous Conservative Government, and which, at least in their rhetoric, the present Government have also taken on board.

The inspection system gives real backing to dedicated and determined teachers and head teachers, and can make all the difference. A former Conservative colleague, Rhodes Boyson, who was very much loved in the House, was a well-known head teacher. He had strong views about the teaching profession, and he once memorably said that some teachers could teach a class of 50 in a bus shelter without any difficulties, whereas some teachers could have a riot on their hands with one dead chicken. We have all met both categories of teacher.

The Ofsted process enhances and underpins the concept of parental choice. Parents must be able to make an informed choice. There is a report in today's Evening Standard about the remarks of Mr. Justice Kay in a case brought about the assisted places scheme in private schools. He severely criticised some of the undertakings that were given by the Prime Minister and Ministers.