Education in County Durham

– in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 25th October 2000.

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Photo of Lord Dormand of Easington Lord Dormand of Easington Labour 7:17 pm, 25th October 2000

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will investigate the complaint made by Durham County Education Committee against Ofsted's conduct in relation to the inspection of certain schools in County Durham in 1997 and the subsequent actions taken by Ofsted.

My Lords, the complaint by the County Durham Education Authority was made initially three years ago and has involved Ofsted itself, the Ofsted adjudicator and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Mr Chris Woodhead. The fact that the matter has not been resolved after such a long period is a measure of the concern felt about it by the Durham LEA. The latest position is that Ofsted has apologised to the Durham County LEA, to the Director of Education and to another member of his staff. Mr Woodhead has also sent a letter of personal apology on the same basis.

Durham LEA is continuing to press the complaint because although at long last the apologies recognise errors which Ofsted has denied for three years, no action has been taken to deal with what are clearly major professional blunders and deficiencies, but also because the issues of systemic and constitutional significance which have been exposed at the heart of Ofsted need to be dealt with nationally.

It is one of the main contentions of the LEA and myself that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector is accountable to no one, not even Ministers. In addition, the parliamentary ombudsman has confirmed his lack of jurisdiction to deal with the case.

The facts and implications of the case fall into two parts: first, the behaviour of the registered inspector working for Ofsted and the failure of Ofsted to deal with that situation. The second and wider issue is concerned with the situation within and throughout Ofsted, implicating Her Majesty's Chief Inspector himself.

In 1997 Durham LEA was aware of a number of school inspections in its area carried out by the same registered inspector working for Ofsted where schools had complained to the LEA that the lady in question was abusing her position. Although the final reports on those schools were satisfactory, and in many cases outstanding, for most of the week of the inspections the registered inspector in question threatened the schools with being classed as failing schools. Her behaviour was reported by a number of schools, including other schools and other LEAs across the whole region.

One school in the County Durham LEA area asked the authority for assistance during its inspection because of this treatment, and a complaint was subsequently made by the LEA to Ofsted about this registered inspector. That seems to me a natural action which any LEA would have taken. The complaint was, in fact, made on behalf of a number of schools in the LEA. I have been informed that other LEAs in the North East have also complained about the same inspector.

During one of the inspections the head teacher and chair of governors asked the LEA for assistance because of the hostile way in which they were being treated. As a result the Director of Education asked one of the LEA's senior inspectors to visit the school. Again I should have thought that was a natural action for the director to take.

Ofsted complained to the LEA about what it called an "intrusion", to which the LEA replied in the strongest terms saying that Ofsted's view was based on having heard only one side of the story. Ofsted's own adjudicator some two years later in her report on the matter said that Mr Woodhead's behaviour had been "unwarranted" and "implicitly threatening" and Mr Woodhead apologised. I am bound to say that the words that I quoted are just about as strong as any words could be in those circumstances.

There is another aspect of this matter which is quite astonishing. The LEA in its complaint had asked Ofsted to review the whole of the work of the registered inspector in question because of the number of complaints from a number of LEAs. For two years Ofsted in letters to the Durham Director of Education said it was neither possible nor proper to carry out such a review. Some two years later when the matter was referred by the LEA to the Ofsted adjudicator, the LEA learned that Ofsted now told the adjudicator that in fact it had carried out such a review two years earlier. I hesitate to say that this involved deliberate lying, but it is obvious that a detailed explanation should be forthcoming, but it has not been forthcoming at any time. The LEA is also entitled to question the adequacy of the review, on which the adjudicator said,

"It seemed to me that the complainant (that is, the LEA) had a right to be satisfied that OFSTED had considered the LEA's concerns in the context of other relevant concerns about the inspector".

I turn to what might be called the constitutional implications, the personal position of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, and the lack of accountability which this whole episode demonstrates. The key point is this: we know that the episodes took place--there is no denying that--and that Ofsted eventually accepted it and apologised for it. However, we do not know why it happened because Mr Woodhead has never been asked to explain his conduct. Ofsted maintained that a full investigation was carried out, but how could that have been done when Mr Woodhead was not interviewed, or, indeed, as I understand it, consulted at any stage? That is a most peculiar situation.

This, of course, opens up the question of accountability. It appears that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector is accountable only to Parliament, and, if this is so, what form will it take? In a case such as this, will a printed report be tabled in both Houses of Parliament? Without such a report it is difficult to see how a proper judgment can be made on such important issues. I have to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench whether, in the face of such serious events, Ofsted itself has taken steps to prevent a recurrence of the significant and serial failings exposed by these complaints? I should have thought too that intervention by the Government was essential.

It really amounts to "who inspects the inspectors?" No one would expect that Ofsted would carry out its work without mistakes being made, but when deficiencies of this scale are exposed it is imperative for the good of the education service in the country as a whole that the machinery and the personnel involved be subjected to the closest scrutiny.

My Question today asks whether the Government will investigate these complaints. There can surely be no doubt about the need for an investigation, not only because of what has happened in County Durham but also because of the implications for the education service in the rest of the country. I conclude by saying that that seems to me to be a matter of absolutely fundamental importance. I hope that I receive a satisfactory reply from my noble friend on the Front Bench.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat 7:27 pm, 25th October 2000

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, for giving us the opportunity to discuss a very important issue. What we have heard about Ofsted's behaviour in Durham has had echoes in other places and raises issues about Ofsted which warrant serious scrutiny.

May I first of all stress that we on these Benches support the need for a tough and effective, high quality and accountable independent schools inspection service in the interests of raising standards. I therefore propose to address my remarks to these three desirable qualities for Ofsted in the light of the issue which the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, has brought to the attention of the House.

Let us first look at the effectiveness of Ofsted. As a parent, teacher, school governor and employer, I have always found the carrot more effective than the stick in delivering results. The Minister will undoubtedly relate to us statistics to show how standards have been rising. However, one of the many problems with Ofsted is that it is very good at wielding the stick but does not seem to have much idea about the carrot. That is why one of the ways in which we should like to see Ofsted reformed is by giving it a duty to help schools rather than intimidate them, to take a more developmental role, and to get involved with schools following inspections. If it was able to do that, who knows how much better the statistics could be? And perhaps we would not be facing the very real twin crises of teacher morale and teacher shortage.

Despite the guidelines in the new framework for inspections about being sensitive to teachers in the way feedback is given, we still see situations similar to that in Durham with teachers demoralised by the Ofsted process rather than helped by it.

Moor Lane School in Chessington, as highlighted in another place in July by my honourable friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, is another example of where things were badly handled. In that case the whole staff resigned when an Ofsted follow-up inspection recommended that the school be put into "special measures", despite considerable progress on its action plan. That case brings me to the question of whether we have a high quality independent inspection service.

One of the reforms on my shopping list is to end the current system of bidding for inspections, ensuring that all inspections are led by HMI, with a standard national fee for all members of inspection teams. We would also like to see some monitoring of the effects that competition for inspection contracts has on the ability of contractors to invest in quality assurance measures. The findings should be made public.

Clearly, teachers, parents and governors are going to be more willing to accept the findings of a high quality Ofsted service they can respect. If they are convinced that the inspection has been a thorough one, carried out by competent people with relevant experience and taking into account all appropriate evidence, they will buckle down and address the areas of weakness identified. But where we have cases such as one I heard about recently where a school for profoundly deaf children was inspected by a team only one of whom had any experience of teaching children with this problem, we are bound to have a crisis of confidence.

In the Chessington case, the extreme strategy of special measures was triggered by a snapshot follow-up inspection where only five hours of lessons were monitored. Where time for classroom inspection is as limited as that, surely it makes sense to look for corroborative evidence. However, no reference at all was made to the officers of the local authority who knew more about the school than anybody, nor the imminent publication of SATS results. Those results were excellent and might have informed the inspectors' conclusions, but they were ignored.

In this case too the Chief Inspector of Schools interfered without doing his homework. He appeared on television saying that the school should have pulled its socks up following the 1995 inspection. He did not appear to know that the inspection had in fact been very positive about the school, while identifying areas for improvement--as all inspections do.

This raises very serious questions about the worrying tendency of Chris Woodhead to shoot from the hip and make pronouncements about all sorts of issues on which it is not appropriate that he should speak. For example, he has recently had an uncanny habit of commenting favourably on the pronouncements of the Official Opposition about education matters. I refer in particular to his comments during the summer about the "free schools" idea which I should have thought went well beyond his brief.

So we seem to have a common thread here between the Durham and the Chessington cases from which I would hope Ofsted would learn a lesson. In both cases the inspectors seemed unwilling to work with or trust the LEA, even though those LEAs had been found, on their own Ofsted inspections, to be trustworthy and competent. One cannot leave the LEAs out of the picture when looking at how schools can be helped to raise standards. I was staggered recently to see an extract from the Ofsted inspection of Worcestershire County Council, which was found to be "too supportive" of its schools. I do not believe that it is possible for LEAs to be too supportive of their schools. Of course, schools must take responsibility, but so must LEAs and they should be encouraged to do so, not criticised for it.

Moreover, we on these Benches believe that it should be the duty not only of the Government and the LEAs but also of Ofsted to encourage and offer advice to schools, and that is why we would like to see the arrangements that prevent Ofsted from doing that changed. To separate the identification of problems from the means of putting them right is a great mistake. If this change were made it could remove, at a stroke, the tendency for teachers to see Ofsted as the enemy and not as an ally in the fight for higher standards and would remove a great deal of the stress associated with the process of inspection. If inspectors could not only show schools where they were going wrong but enable and help them to do better, they would be seen in a totally different light.

This, of course, brings me back full circle to the issue of the effectiveness of Ofsted. If a system of inspection is putting such unwarranted stress and additional workload on teachers that they have time off with stress-related illnesses or, worse, commit suicide, there is something wrong with it. If it demoralises a whole staff to the point where they all leave a school which has been making good progress, there is something wrong with it. If the system precludes taking evidence from those in the LEA who know most about the school, it is flawed and needs reforming.

Finally, I turn to one of the most serious shortcomings of the way Ofsted operates--the issue of accountability. We need a stronger, clearer mechanism to ensure that Ofsted is fully accountable. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington. The question is "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" which, roughly translated, means, "Who keeps an eye on Ofsted?" What sort of sinecure is it where someone becomes an Ofsted inspector--or even a chief inspector--and once appointed is accountable to no one? In accepting that not every teacher is perfect, we must also accept that not all inspectors, or chief inspectors, are perfect and must, therefore, be subject to monitoring themselves. The Education and Employment Select Committee in another place in its report on Ofsted last year appears to agree. It recommends a series of sensible suggestions about how this could be done which we on these Benches would support. They include ensuring a regular debate in another place on Her Majesty's Chief Inspector's Annual Report; an annual meeting between HMCI and the Select Committee; ensuring that Parliament has an advisory role in the appointment of HMCI; and establishing an advisory board for Ofsted which would also handle the complaints procedure. I am sure that your Lordships can see the relevance of the last idea, in particular to the topic of this debate.

I come back to the question of what Ofsted is for. If it is to raise standards it must help schools to be effective. But if our secondary schools are suffering a chronic shortage of teachers they will not be effective. The profession is bleeding. Too many experienced teachers are taking any opportunity to jump ship. Despite the Government's recent measures, too few students are applying for initial teacher training, particularly in maths and physics. This cannot go on. We have a crisis of morale in the profession and the modus operandi of Ofsted plays a very big role in that. Winston Churchill said, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job." Too many teachers are saying, "If you don't give us the tools we'll quit the job." I speak to many teachers. I can tell your Lordships that morale is at an all-time low. Dedicated teachers--I would never have believe in a thousand years that they would say it--are saying that they would leave tomorrow given half a chance. This is very sad and a great waste if they carry out their threat. We have to plug the hole in the bucket before we start trying to fill it.

We expect a lot of our teachers--rightly so, since they care for our precious children. But I urge the Minister to ensure that Ofsted is reformed to become more effective and accountable and that the chief inspector learns the lessons of the Durham case and acts accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative 7:39 pm, 25th October 2000

My Lords, I am concerned about perspective in this debate. The Motion on the Order Paper relates to Durham and Durham schools. It is essential that we address that specific issue in this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, made little reference to Durham except in her final sentence.

First, I want to say something positive about Ofsted. I am proud to have belonged to a party which introduced external inspection for all schools. Before that, the average school could expect to be inspected about once in every 300 years. As a system, that was indefensible. It seemed to me right that there should be regular external inspections of our schools.

The previous government and the present one have benefited enormously from knowing what goes on in our schools and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The schools and the teachers in the classroom also benefit from that information and the databank that has been built up over the years from external inspection.

The activities of the inspectors could not be more public. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I have been a governor and I know that the first act of an inspectorate is to discuss the school and its performance with the governors. The staff are considered; the reports are made public; they are discussed at an interim stage and at the final stage and the final version is published and made available in public places. The parents are made aware of the report and any necessary action plans are followed up. We have a great deal to be thankful for from a regular objective external inspection system.

My other point is specific to Durham. As a Minister I always argued that when a complaint was being made about a service, a system or an individual, it was important that all the information relating to the complaint should be very specific. I have tried to find out the problem in Durham. My understanding is that, although there was considerable disquiet about the inspection of a particular school where I understand that a local education authority inspector interfered during the inspection, the authority refused to allow the subsequent review of the inspector's work any contact with the school. A complaint cannot be reviewed without going back to inspect the school.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, and the LEA have made general comments about other, unnamed schools. That is unfair when complaining about any organisation. Complaints should be detailed properly. The schools and their particular complaints should have been detailed.

Reference has already been made to the fact that Ofsted is answerable to a parliamentary Select Committee. It was suggested that it should appear before the committee at least annually. That is a matter for the Select Committee. Ofsted has to come if it is summoned. Parliament receives the report and we have an opportunity to consider it.

It is right to go back and look at the thousands of inspections that have taken place since the inception of Ofsted and the number of governing bodies and schools that have used them as management tools to address the issues that arise from the reports. Parents feel much better informed as a result of the work of Ofsted. Its work is made public and it is accountable to every parent, every teacher, every governing body, the Department for Education and Employment, and Parliament, through the Select Committee. It is wrong to say that it is unaccountable and to expand on one particular complaint to condemn the whole system. It is uncharacteristic of the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, to use phrases such as "major professional blunders" and to make an even more serious complaint that Ofsted was deliberately lying.

Photo of Lord Dormand of Easington Lord Dormand of Easington Labour

My Lords, if all the people concerned, including parents--we do get complaints from parents--felt, as a result of a number of incorrect comments made during an inspection, that an inspector was not up to the job, who would have the power to dispense with their services?

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I shall come to that point in a moment. I was talking about the serious accusation that Ofsted deliberately lied.

Photo of Lord Dormand of Easington Lord Dormand of Easington Labour

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but I did not say that. I said the opposite. I went on to say that there should be a full explanation. That seems obvious to me.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

My Lords, I, too, shall look at Hansard tomorrow, but the noble Lord said, "That was a lie".

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Conservative

I was listening very carefully and wrote the words down as the noble Lord said them. If I heard wrongly, I shall not hesitate to apologise to the noble Lord.

Many generalised comments have been made, but there is a poverty of specific comments. My understanding is that when the LEA made the complaint, Ofsted was banned from going back to the school, but there was a thorough investigation of the procedures used by the inspector in question and the way in which she conducted her business in the school. The complaint was not upheld.

There was also considerable disquiet on the part of Ofsted and of the inspector herself about the unprofessional interference with the inspection by the LEA's inspector. The independent Ofsted complaints adjudicator thoroughly reviewed the case and concluded that it was not necessary or appropriate to reinvestigate the complaint. That is important. However, having said that the case did not need further reviewing, the independent adjudicator said that it was unnecessary for the words of the chief inspector to be communicated to the complainant and that the wording of Ofsted's response was implicitly threatening. Ofsted and the chief inspector had no hesitation in accepting that criticism and made a fulsome apology, which has since been repeated. The apology was not an admission of defeat; it said that the inspector had come to a legitimate conclusion. Ofsted accepted that such comments did not present a non-judgmental opinion of the chief inspector.

After the first review, the second review by the adjudicator and a further look by the legal department at the whole affair, it was further said that there was no basis for a claim that the chief inspector had acted ultra vires. However, he offered a second fulsome apology, even though he was not involved in the inspection in question and the complaint related to a particular inspector.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, asked what was to be done about inspectors not performing. That is the responsibility of the chief inspector, if proven, but there is a complaints procedure to be followed. A school should raise properly detailed complaints initially with the inspection contractor. If it is unable to resolve its concerns, it should then write to the registrar at Ofsted, setting out in detail the grounds for the complaint. If it involves criticism of a contractor, registered inspector or team member, Ofsted will invite them to respond and will use any monitoring information available to reach a considered view. After inquiries have been carried out, the complainant will be sent a full response and, in appropriate cases, Ofsted may take further action on the inspector. If the complainant is dissatisfied with the way that his complaint has been handled, Ofsted has an internal review procedure operated by the competition and compliance team which reviews the handling of complaints to ensure that the procedures have been properly followed. If the complainant remains dissatisfied, he may ask for the case to be considered by the Ofsted complaints adjudicator, an independent, external arbiter.

All of that was done. But I must say that the complaint lacks some real detail. Certainly, it brings in all the other schools, again unnamed. It certainly lacked specific detail. But it was reviewed a first time; it was reviewed a second time by the independent adjudicator; it was looked at again by the legal people. I understand that it is now to be considered by the Select Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, painted a desperately gloomy picture. She seemed to be saying that the low morale in schools is all down to Ofsted. I find that extraordinary. The picture is not that gloomy at all. I believe that Ofsted has done a very good job. I agree with the noble Baroness that where there are complaints, they should be properly and independently considered. Teachers should have confidence in the system. The DfEE should certainly take all complaints seriously.

I was disturbed to hear the Minister--not the Minister in this House--suggest that the complaint should be taken to the ombudsman. If he was properly advised, he should know that that was not possible. The noble Lord, Lord Dormand, is absolutely right to say that the ombudsman does not have jurisdiction to look at the matter. But perhaps the DfEE should have taken greater note of the complaint. If it really felt that there had been an injustice, it could perhaps have done something to make the LEA feel that its complaint had been taken seriously.

Indeed, I believe that it was incumbent on the DfEE, if it had faith in the Ofsted way of dealing with the complaint, to say to the LEA in Durham some of the things that I have said today: that the complaint had been looked at properly the first time, a second time and that, indeed, the legal department had looked at it a third time. It would have been helpful if the DfEE had said that.

I return to my first point. I believe that Ofsted has served the country well. The system for dealing with complaints should be sensitive. We should continue to build up the confidence of the teaching profession, parents and governors in the work that Ofsted does. My statistics are two years out of date, but looking at the number of inspections and the percentage of complaints, on balance, I give Ofsted a fairly good report.

That is not to say that one should be complacent. If there has been serious wrongdoing, I do not know what else the system can do to deal with it. This matter has been looked into three times already. It is now for the DfEE to say either that it is satisfied with what Ofsted did or that it is dissatisfied. If it is dissatisfied, this is the forum in which that complaint should reside.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Minister of State (Education and Employment), Department for Education and Employment 7:53 pm, 25th October 2000

My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to the Front Bench. I believe that this is the first occasion on which she has spoken from the Front Bench.

I want also to thank my noble friend Lord Dormand for initiating this debate. Education is this Government's highest priority and Ofsted has a central place in carrying forward our agenda for raising standards in schools. Ofsted and regular school inspections are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, now a well-established part of the education landscape. I rather accept what she said. This debate is specifically about a particular complaint by the local education authority in Durham and I am not sure that I shall be able to answer all the much more general questions which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked.

But I repeat that Ofsted is now an accepted part of what we do to maintain standards in our education system and the debate has moved on from whether external inspection is necessary--that argument has been won--and is now about how inspection can continue to develop and improve so that it can play the most effective possible role in raising standards.

I would like to say something first about the particular case that my noble friend has drawn to our attention and then turn to the wider issues of status and accountability that he has also raised.

The case in question dates from as long ago as 1997. It seems to me to demonstrate very well the role of the Ofsted Complaints Adjudicator, Elaine Rassaby, who reported in some detail on the case in her first annual report, published in September 1999. In going through this case, I shall repeat one or two of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but it is important that I, as the Minister, should do so for the record. The adjudicator made some specific recommendations, and secured an apology from Ofsted to the local education authority about some aspects of its handling of the case. More information was made public and internal procedures were changed as a result. This suggests to me that the complaint has been taken seriously and has indeed contributed to that process of improvement and refinement that I mentioned.

As we have heard, the authority's initial specific complaint was about a registered inspector's behaviour in one school. Elaine Rassaby concluded that that had been properly investigated, although the fact that the authority specifically requested that the school involved should not be contacted clearly made detailed investigation very difficult.

The adjudicator did however ask Ofsted to be clearer about the reasons why special measures--a serious judgement of school failure--had been mentioned by the inspector as a possible outcome when the final report did not justify that. Ofsted wrote to the LEA with an explanation of how the weaknesses identified in the report justified early consideration of special measures.

The second complaint was a more general one about the inspector's conduct in other schools. Durham LEA asked for a general investigation to be held and wanted information about how many other complaints had been made. Ofsted did in fact carry out that wider investigation. But it did not tell Durham LEA. Elaine Rassaby thought that to be an error of judgment, and did inform Durham that that wider investigation had been undertaken.

On the issue of sharing information about numbers of complaints, Ofsted was bound by the code of practice on access to government information. Elaine Rassaby suggested it should again make that explicit to Durham LEA. That has been done.

The third strand to the complaint arose out of the registered inspector's response to the initial complaint. A counter allegation was made of improper conduct against a local authority inspector who visited the school at the time of the inspection. The local authority inspector was also a registered inspector. Ofsted wrote to the local authority inspector to ask for a response to those allegations. When that response was received Ofsted concluded that it was not possible to come to an authoritative view of events and no action was taken against the local authority inspector concerned.

Elaine Rassaby agreed that it was proper and necessary for Ofsted to investigate this counter allegation. She stated that the language in which those representations were sought, which included HMCI'S view--that if the events took place as alleged it would represent an unacceptable intrusion--was "unwarranted and implicitly threatening". Ofsted accepted her adjudication; an apology has been offered; and internal procedures were modified.

I believe that all this shows that both the complaints were fully investigated, and that not only were the complaints about Ofsted's handling fully investigated by Elaine Rassaby, but that investigation had an evident effect: Ofsted accepted that mistakes had been made; apologies have been offered and practices amended.

We are being asked to investigate that handling again. Indeed, the local education authority has sought to have an investigation carried out by the Select Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration as well as by the Government.

At this point we come to the wider issues raised about the accountability of Ofsted and why the Secretary of State in particular cannot be called upon to investigate its activities, which, after all, are those of a separate government department. As my noble friend said, the status and accountability of Ofsted are central to this evening's debate. It is vital that Ofsted is able to do the job that we all want it to do: inspecting, reporting and providing expert advice underpinned by the evidence of inspections. It is also vital that Ofsted has the confidence of those it serves and is properly accountable to them.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that the LEA has a vital role in supporting the work of schools and raising standards. It is for the LEA and the Standards and Effectiveness Unit in the DfEE to follow up what the inspectors say, not for the inspectors to follow up and inspect their own advice. It is a long-standing and fundamental principle that school inspectors have independence in matters of professional judgment. They need to be able to speak out openly and honestly about the strengths and weaknesses which are identified through inspections. Inspectors have a responsibility to act in the wider public interest, and that is reflected in the title of Her Majesty's Inspectors. The principle of independence is widely recognised as essential for school inspectors and, therefore, underpins the status of Ofsted.

When Ofsted was set up in 1992, this House felt strongly that it must be allowed the maximum independence and not be in danger of being seen as the poodle of the government of the day, of whatever complexion. I took part in those discussions in 1992. I believed then that it was right, and it is right now. Ofsted was to secure its independence and be made a government department in its own right, headed by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools for England. The chief inspector is both head of a government department and a statutory office-holder who is neither a member nor a servant of the Government. His role is, and must be, distinct from those of Ministers and civil servants, and the mechanisms by which he is accountable reflect that.

The chief inspector is appointed by Her Majesty by Order in Council and can be dismissed only by Her Majesty on grounds of incapacity or misconduct. In response to my noble friend, it is not true that the chief inspector is not accountable to anyone. He is directly accountable to Parliament for the management of his department and the public funds which are allocated to it. In practice, that accountability operates principally through the Education and Employment Select Committee which has taken a close interest in Ofsted's work.

The issues of status and accountability were explored by the Select Committee during its detailed inquiry into the work of Ofsted in 1998-99. The committee published its report in June 1999 and the Government considered its conclusions very carefully before responding to them. We believed then, and we continue to believe, that the chief inspector's role as non-ministerial head of department gives him the status and accountability required, and we have no plans to change that.

I believe my noble friend is aware that Durham LEA has written to the Select Committee about the issue. The Select Committee has the power to consider it and to ask questions about it. These and other matters could be discussed when the chief inspector appears before the Select Committee on 1st November. The complainant has also written to the ombudsman. However, as noble Lords have said, because the complaint was made in the name of the local authority the ombudsman has no powers to investigate it. I confirm that he can act only on complaints from individuals. I am sure your Lordships accept that it would not be appropriate for the head of one department to investigate complaints about the work of another. It would not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to investigate complaints about Ofsted. It is for each department to have robust and transparent procedures.

Ofsted's complaints procedures reflect its statutory role to oversee the contracted-out school inspection system and ensure that the work of inspectors is of the necessary high quality. It falls to Ofsted to consider complaints arising from school inspections and to identify and take appropriate action. Complaints can lead Ofsted to monitor an inspector's performance, require him to undertake training or, in extreme cases, it may result in the withdrawal of his registration.

Ofsted's complaints procedures were reviewed and strengthened in 1998, taking account of the Cabinet Office's guidance about effective complaints-handling in public sector organisations. The most significant change was the appointment of an external complaints adjudicator. Elaine Rassaby took up that post in July 1998. Her role is to provide an impartial view--I stress that--where a complainant is dissatisfied with Ofsted's handling of that complaint or the conclusions reached by Ofsted. She reviews the handling of complaints and, where possible, seeks to broker agreements between Ofsted and complainants. She also advises Ofsted about how its handling of complaints might be improved. As we have already seen, she was very active in the case before us this evening.

On the evidence before us, I believe that the case that we are being asked to investigate has already been investigated very thoroughly and with a useful outcome. I do not believe that it casts doubt on the procedures in place or the accountability of Ofsted and the chief inspector. I believe that the independence established in 1992 remains appropriate and necessary. At the same time, we have had a good, open debate on an important issue, for which I thank my noble friend. I hope that we can move on and that the file on this particular complaint can now be closed.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.18 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.7 to 8.18 p.m.]