Education in County Durham

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:27 pm on 25th October 2000.

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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.