Education in County Durham

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:39 pm on 25th October 2000.

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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.