Education in County Durham

Part of the debate – 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.