I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the accountability of Ofsted.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for the first time, I think.
I applied for the debate after I was contacted by a small village primary school in my constituency which has recently had a difficult experience following an Ofsted inspection. I thank everyone at Naburn Church of England Primary School, as well as the residents of Naburn for their engagement in the issue, with a special mention for headteacher Jonathan Green, for his invaluable input and for his skilful leadership of the school in these challenging times.
I also thank the Chamber engagement team here in Parliament for all their work in publicising the debate and for organising a survey of members of the teaching profession. My sincere thanks go to everyone around the country who took the time to complete the survey and to provide their own experiences of the Ofsted inspection process. Little did I realise when I organised the debate how widespread some of the concerns about Ofsted are among those involved in our school system. The survey for the debate alone attracted nearly 2,000 responses. Time prohibits me from mentioning every contribution, but I hope to provide a useful summary to inform discussion and the debate today, grounding it in first-hand experience of teachers and governors.
Last month, I attended a packed public meeting in the village of Naburn to discuss the future of the village school. The school is small, with only 56 pupils across two classes, but its importance to the community life of the village is significant. The school was inspected by Ofsted in 2007, when it was found to be “outstanding”. As a result, there was a 14-year gap before the next inspection in December last year, a gap that in itself I find worrying. The result of the inspection has been a finding of “inadequate”, which has put the school in the precarious position of having to find an academy sponsor within a tight timeframe of just a few months.
Many of the concerns expressed by Ofsted in its report were fair, but there was widespread frustration with how the inspection was carried out and the unconstructed nature of the findings, above all the fact that the school and the local community felt completely powerless to challenge oversights or omissions, or to add any sort of context to the report’s findings. That left them asking an important question, which I would like the Minister to answer today: to whom, if anyone, is Ofsted ultimately accountable?
To me, there seems to be no obvious answer to that question, which I find quite staggering. The Ofsted website sets out a four-stage process by which a school may pursue a complaint. Three of the stages are internal, with only the final stage bringing in external lawyers from the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to make non-binding findings on the narrow question of whether Ofsted has handled the complaint in line with its own procedures. Above and beyond that, the only means by which a school can ultimately force an about-turn by Ofsted is through the courts—an expense that is, to be honest, completely out of the question for the vast majority of schools. Over the past 10 years, I think, there has only been a handful of such cases, but the Minister will have the figures.
Turning back to the first stage of its complaint process, Ofsted is, to its credit, good at encouraging schools to take an active part in the inspection process and to discuss any concerns with the inspectors informally; inspectors are under an obligation to record and acknowledge any such concerns before continuing with the inspection. As the report is being drafted, there is an ongoing opportunity for the school to comment, to object on any issue in any particular way, and to contest the accuracy of the facts given, particularly in the report; and the lead inspector must then respond to those comments.
That may sound like a collaborative process, and for some schools that have positive experiences of Ofsted inspections it is. However, what comes through very strongly from the feedback that I have received from teachers is that inspection really is a lottery, and the experience depends to a large degree on the attitude of the inspector.
Of the nearly 2,000 respondents to the survey, just over half reported experience of the complaints process. Within that sample, there were plenty of examples of the system working well, with some respondents asking the inspector to see something in action during the course of the inspection, to correct the false impressions. There was praise for the flexibility of the system, with schools challenging the findings of the inspector partway through and finding that their grade was raised by the end of the process by that individual inspector. After the inspection, challenges to specific statements in the draft report were duly accepted and the wording was amended in the final report.
I think we can all agree that that is how the system should work. An Ofsted inspection should not be a walk in the park; it should be a rigorous process by which we ensure that appropriate standards are being maintained. After all, teachers and schools are given an enormous social responsibility of looking after and educating our children. However, there should be some humility on the part of Ofsted to recognise the fact that what its inspectors see during an inspection is, in the words of one of the respondents to the survey, “a snapshot in time”, with the outcome of the inspection not always capturing the reality of the school.
Time and resources permit inspectors to see the school for only one or two days, and in quite highly pressurised and therefore unrepresentative circumstances. It is right, therefore, not only that a significant opportunity is given to teachers to add context or to correct the record, but that appropriate weight is given to this feedback when the final assessment is being made. The unfortunate truth, however, is that that was the minority experience among respondents to my survey, with most of them reporting real concerns about how receptive inspectors were to comments and complaints at that stage.
Several teachers were frustrated with the “rude and dismissive” attitude of the inspectors and the lack of professional respect given to teachers. Many respondents felt that they were not given significant opportunity to highlight evidence of the excellent work done in classes, with the inspector focusing only on perceived weaknesses. Consequently, they felt that Ofsted inspection was a blinkered, tick-box exercise—or worse, an exercise in picking them apart on specific issues—rather than a fair, holistic assessment of how well the school was performing.
Respondents also highlighted unprofessional conduct by Ofsted inspectors, referring to deliberately combative attitudes and inspectors making judgments based on preconceptions. Points of concern included thinly disguised prejudice against faith schools and a perceived agenda against the type of school under inspection or the teaching methods being used. As one respondent put it:
“Some come in with a preconceived idea and nothing that they see or do will change it.”
Another respondent was of the view that the inspectors’ line of inquiry was very much about proving that their own initial decision was correct. If that is the case, it is extremely concerning.
This is more a criticism of the system than of individual inspectors themselves. Indeed, the headteacher of Naburn School was at pains to highlight the pressure put on the inspectors by operating to such a short timescale, and clearly a great many inspectors uphold the high professional standards expected of them. However, a recurring complaint in the feedback that I received was about the rigidity of the inspection criteria and the lack of focus on the context of the school. This was a concern among parents and teachers at Naburn.
One of Ofsted’s primary concerns in its report was the poor attendance rate and the steps that the school had taken to address it. On the face of it, that is a fair criticism, but it does not take into account that about a third of the children at the school are from a local Traveller community with very specific and well-documented issues around school attendance—something that is arguably beyond the sole control of the school leadership. Lauren, a constituent of mine who teaches at another local school, said that although she thought the outcome of her school’s last Ofsted report was fair, she was concerned to see how little Ofsted seemed to take the area and its demographics into account. She works in a school that has a higher than average pupil premium rate, with high numbers of students on free school meals and those for whom English is an additional language, but the school is judged in exactly the same way as schools without these difficult challenges. When such concerns are raised, schools feel that they are falling on deaf ears because they do not form part of the inspection criteria, and that a major part of the factual background to explain the school’s weakness is simply being overlooked. The complaints procedure does not seem able to accommodate these sorts of concerns.
If the subject of a complaint is the conduct of an Ofsted inspector, the situation is arguably even more difficult, because the complaint is reviewed in the first instance by the individual who conducted the inspection, leading to frustrations about how objective the exercise could really be. The informal complaints procedure is therefore an important part of the process. It can be valuable and effective when it works well, but it is important to recognise its limitations and the need for a robust mechanism by which the substantive findings of the report can be independently reviewed.
At stage 2 of the complaints procedure, schools are given a short window to submit a formal complaint prior to the publication of the final report. This is the only opportunity given to schools to put their substantive case before anyone who is not the initial inspector.
The final two stages narrow to an almost exclusive procedural focus, in which an internal scrutiny panel reviews how a stage 2 complaint has been handled. If the school decides to take it further, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted will perform a similar exercise. It is specifically not within the remit of the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted to review the professional judgment of the decisions made by Ofsted, meaning that there is no external means of challenging the outcome of an Ofsted inspection, short of going to court—a reality that my constituents in Naburn found unbelievable.
Even within its narrowly prescribed remit, the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted faces certain limitations. Its determinations are not binding on Ofsted; all it can do is offer an independent view on the complaints and provide individual recommendations, advice and guidance to Ofsted to help it achieve best practice in the complaints-handling procedures. Ofsted does not have to comply with the recommendations, but if it does not comply, it must explain its reasons. In short, far from being an ombudsman-type of service with real teeth, the role of the ICASO is more of a mediator, albeit in a relationship in which the power balance between Ofsted and the school is heavily skewed towards the former. Its limited role is reflected in the small number of cases it reviews every year—about 20, which represent a tiny proportion of Ofsted’s overall workload. That figure is surely not reflective of the number of schools with concerns about their Ofsted inspection that are simply unable to ask for a review under one of the heads of complaint available.
Given the problem that I have set out, the question is: how can the system be improved? By way of comparison, it is useful to look at the complaints procedure used by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. The inspectorate also accepts contributions from schools during the inspection and drafting process, but it is treated as a given and is not explicitly part of the complaints procedure. Schools have the opportunity to submit a formal complaint for internal review, much like Ofsted’s procedure, but they are given a 10-day window, which seems much more reasonable than the five-day timeframe given by Ofsted. Crucially though, there is then a procedure by which the complaint can be submitted to an independent adjudicator, whose decision is considered final and binding on both ISI and the school. The independent adjudicator has before them all the relevant documentation and, crucially, can both investigate whether the complaint was handled correctly and adjudicate on whether the decision was reasonable. As a result of the adjudicator’s findings, the report can be amended on a full or partial reinspection ordered by ISI at its expense.
I appreciate that the comparison is slightly limited, as the case load and remits of ISI and Ofsted are very different, but it does provide an example of the sort of checks and balances that would go a long way to alleviate many of the frustrations felt by schools that have had difficulties dealing with Ofsted.
Another point worth considering is the relationship between Ofsted and the Department for Education. First, I recognise and acknowledge that a system where a Minister can be accused of intervening in an individual case on the basis of political pressure is undesirable, and it is completely right that Ofsted operates at arm’s length. However, the result is that parents, schools and local communities feel completely powerless in the face of an organisation that does not appear to have to justify its decisions to anyone.
If there is reluctance to reform the standard complaints procedure to give the independent element more teeth, one alternative could be to create a safety mechanism by which the Secretary of State can order a reinspection with a new team of inspectors or an independent review, so that Ofsted can no longer mark its own homework, which it seems to be doing on a regular basis. This mechanism would have the dual effect of providing an outlet to enhance accountability for local communities if they feel their school has been treated unjustly, while ensuring that the final decision is taken independently of political pressure and purely on the basis of the relevant criteria.
There is a debate to be had about the school inspection system more generally and its impact on the wellbeing of teachers and the effectiveness of the education system. I was interested to receive feedback in my survey on those points, and I am sure they will be picked up by many other colleagues. I have sought to confine my comments to the specific issue of the accountability of Ofsted and the procedure available to challenge its decisions. I am not opposed to having a robust school inspection system, and I believe that a strong inspection body is central to achieving that. Many teachers, as evidenced by my survey, have had nothing but positive experiences with Ofsted, but it is also clear that there are many who have not.
My concerns came to a head when I spoke to teachers and parents at Naburn school in my constituency. They are frustrated at how powerless they felt and incensed at the lack of accountability. The national response I have had since publicising this debate shows that their concerns are not isolated, but are widely shared in the teaching profession. The Government need to address this issue, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I know him well, and I am sure he will take a lot of what I have said on board.
Order. Members will see that we are not greatly oversubscribed today, but that does not give them licence, as I am sure they will appreciate, because the Minister will want time to respond to the points that have been made.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, not just because you are the Chair, but because you are a colleague and a friend. I am pleased to follow Julian Sturdy, who presented the case. We are debating the accountability of Ofsted, but the Minister will know that we have different arrangements back home in Northern Ireland. I always like to sow into these debates the things that happen in Northern Ireland.
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. I share his concerns and I want to talk about some points that concern me. In recent years, there has been a breakthrough in the education system. We have tried to improve our educational standards by miles, and I believe we are on the right path to ensuring that every child has a fair shot at education. That is the ambition. Some people will say that we are on the pathway to achieving that, and others will say that we are not there yet. Saying that, we must address some of the current issues, so it is great to be here today to discuss how we can move forward.
The hon. Gentleman said that Ofsted visits give only a “snapshot in time”. It is important to recognise that the inspection does not sum up all that happens in the school over a 12-month period, as it only captures the things that happen in that one-day snapshot. I understand the purpose of Ofsted and why inspections are necessary, but let me explain why I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the stress that inspections have on teachers, schools and pupils. He said that some faith-based schools have expressed concerns, and are particularly annoyed at Ofsted inspections. Some felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were targeted because of their faith. I am sure that is not the case, but some felt it to be.
Something has to be done about the situation if the only way for schools to challenge the conclusions of the Ofsted inspection is on a legal basis. I very much look to the Minister for a response to that point. There cannot always be a legal challenge to the inspection’s conclusions and recommendations. The Minister always replies sympathetically and helpfully, as he did when he was in the Northern Ireland Office—we miss him there, although we are very glad he is here to respond to this debate.
Ofsted is accountable for school inspections and the inspection process. The devolved nations are covered by different arrangements, but I like to give a Northern Ireland opinion in these debates. Back home, the Education Training Inspectorate is responsible for school inspection duties. Although we are grateful to it for ensuring that our schools are of the highest standard, there are undoubtedly issues to be addressed. When it identifies issues, it highlights where improvements can take place, and it does so in a way that encourages schools, but also ensures that they make the necessary changes.
I have been contacted by many teachers who first and foremost must deal with the ongoing pressures of inspections. It is usually the principals who take on that responsibility, but the teachers and pupils are also part of it. While an inspection is a necessary procedure, it can severely disrupt the routine of the school day. There is often a slight disregard for the disruption that inspections can cause to not only the school day, but the pupils. There is a need to be sympathetic, careful and cautious when it comes to inspections.
We are all aware that our respective Education Ministers in all the regions have worked tirelessly to support pupils with special educational needs and to provide an organised, strict routine to help them learn. My plea is on behalf of those with special educational needs who are disrupted by Ofsted inspection, and who find that it affects them as individuals and in their schooling.
The discomfort and frustration that pupils with special needs can face when their routine is disrupted is unnecessary and could be handled much better. Ofsted and other inspection agencies must be held accountable for ensuring normality in the school day. In addition, our teachers have been feeling extreme pressure to perform as “perfect” in their profession. None of us is perfect. As you know, Mr Paisley, there is only one person who is perfect: the man above. We are just humble human beings with all our frailties and mistakes.
The National Education Union has stated,
“Able teachers, repeatedly assessed as ‘outstanding’, still have their preparation, teaching, management of behaviour and marking of students’ work evaluated incessantly. The pressures created by Ofsted cascade down through the system, increasing teachers’ stress and workloads to the point of exhaustion and burn-out.”
How are Ofsted inspections affecting teachers? Is consideration being given to teachers as it should be, ever mindful that teachers are under incredible pressure as it is? They have a responsibility to deliver for their pupils and they want to do that well, so they do not need extra pressures.
The NEU also notes that Ofsted has failed to address the impact that poverty and the cost of living are having children’s learning. Other factors need to be considered when Ofsted carries out its inspections and draws conclusions about education. One such factor is poverty and the cost of living. The moneys that parents have for their children has an impact on them when they are in school. Another is the responsibility of schools to ensure that pupils have a meal to start the day and are getting fed. Sometimes—I say this very respectfully—a child may not be the best dressed or the tidiest, but that may be because of pressures at home. What is being done to consider that?
The pandemic has already seriously disrupted the education of pupils without the familial and technological resources to study at home. With the increasing fuel and electricity payments, it is estimated that thousands more will be plunged into working poverty, with 3.9 million children having parents who are in in-work poverty. What consideration has been given to the direct impact of in-work poverty on pupils?
There needs to be more support for our teachers. After a horrid, terrible two years due to the pandemic, there has been much judgment as to how schools are operating. I gently suggest there should be a wee bit of flexibility in Ofsted inspections, to ensure that all those factors are taken on board and the pressures of the inspection do not overload teachers and schools.
The workload pressures are concerning, with many teachers working late into the night as it is. There have also been judgments of schools based on limited evidence. The hon. Member for York Outer referred to the pressures on schools, and the importance of ensuring that there is evidence to back up the Ofsted inspections. Most pressures are due to the pandemic. Indeed, many feel that Ofsted inspections should be more circumspect when it comes to other factors—life outside of schools—that have an impact on schools. Ofsted must address basic errors and misunderstandings, and work alongside Ministers to support schools and teachers.
I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I will conclude, ever conscious that others have the opportunity to speak. I welcome the debate and hope that we can be a voice for our education system—to help make teachers’ and principals’ lives easier, to ensure that pupils in schools are not disadvantaged by all the things that are happening outside school that have an impact inside schools. The Minister always strives to give us the answers we look for, and I look forward to hearing him, but I am ever mindful that there can be difficult periods of inspections, which, by their very nature, disconcert, annoy and disrupt school life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and it is always a pleasure to follow Jim Shannon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy on securing the debate, and highlighting some of the challenges of the Ofsted system.
Everyone recognises the importance of having a school inspectorate that is independent and able to support schools to uphold the highest standards, but there are undoubtedly imperfections in the current inspection regime, which have been highlighted admirably by my hon. Friend.
I want to draw on an example from my constituency that I hope will help the Minister to understand where the Ofsted inspection regime could be improved. Thomas Mills High School has always had outstanding academic results. It is now an academy, but was a high school when I first became a Member of Parliament and I still slip into calling it that. Its academic prowess is well known in Suffolk, with a high proportion of students annually progressing to Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
The school had historically always been considered outstanding. During the pandemic it was inspected by Ofsted and was unfortunately rated as inadequate. In many areas, the school was still considered outstanding, but on the issue of safeguarding, the school was unfortunately rated inadequate. As the Minister will be aware, that forces the global rating of the school to be inadequate.
My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer commented on the challenges of monitoring pupils from deprived and marginalised communities, and he mentioned the Traveller community. Indeed, Thomas Mills academy had challenges supporting some pupils during the pandemic who came from more difficult backgrounds. I believe that was the primary reason for the inadequate rating.
It is unfortunate that that one issue—in an inspection carried out at a particularly challenging time—resulted in the global rating being downgraded to inadequate. As a result, the regional inspector of academies has been involved and taken action. The normal step taken in such situations would be for the regional schools commissioner to send in additional support to the academy from other schools. The great irony is that the headteacher at the Thomas Mills academy, Mr Hurst, is the very person that the regional schools inspector has gone to in the past to be that troubleshooter in other failing schools, and he has been instrumental in helping to turn some of those schools around. The school knows that the appeals process is challenging to navigate. It is now likely to be asked to become part of a larger academy schools trust, which in itself may bring challenges.
I think it is worth the Minister considering how we can help schools that have previously been outstanding—and are still outstanding in many respects, in their inspections—not to be dragged down or judged on one single aspect of that Ofsted inspection. That has had far-reaching consequences for Thomas Mills and the future of the academy. Joining a multi-academy trust—possibly one that does not have links to Suffolk—will have significant consequences for the way in which that school is managed and run, when it has always been considered to be an outstanding school, until recently, by Ofsted.
The other point that the inspection regime raised was the challenges that schools experience in attracting high-quality governors, or trustees in the case of an academy. Clearly, attracting a governing body, or a trustee body, with the right skillset to support schools in an increasingly complex modern environment—navigating safeguarding issues through to issues relating to the mental health and wellbeing of pupils—is important, but many schools find it challenging. Often, that group of trustees or governing body is there to support the headteacher or the school in navigating inspections successfully.
I wonder what comments the Minister may have on how we can support schools—not just Thomas Mills in my constituency, or the school mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer, but all schools—in attracting the governing body or trustees that will provide the necessary skillsets to support them, and ensure they put in place the right governance and processes to ensure the pupils have the best education and are safe- guarded in everything that they do.
I hope that my brief contribution has been helpful in highlighting some of the challenges for schools and why they have concerns with the current Ofsted regime. We must recognise that this is about moving beyond the impression of one inspector, or one group of inspectors, looking more globally at a school, and recognising some of the challenges those schools have had in supporting people from marginalised communities and supporting pupils during the pandemic. That should all be considered as part of an Ofsted inspection. One inspection can now have far-reaching consequences for the future of single academies or smaller schools.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. If he will excuse me, I have another school from Suffolk visiting me this afternoon, so if I do have to leave early, I look forward to reading his remarks. I thank him for his time and congratulate, once again, my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer on securing today’s debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank Julian Sturdy for securing this important debate. As we have heard today, the role of Ofsted is an issue that prompts much discussion among teachers, parents and constituents.
The hon. Member for York Outer spoke about concerns shared with him by a village school in his constituency, and the impact on staff, parents and the wider community. He cited the impressive response to his efforts to seek the views of others, on which I congratulate him. It is great to hear that nearly 2,000 responses were received, but it is also a sad reflection of the concerns about existing inspectorate arrangements. He raised particular concerns about the complaints processes and the limited effective opportunities to challenge the inspectorate and its outcomes; those points were well made.
We also heard, as ever, from Jim Shannon, who shared his insight and considered views from a Northern Ireland perspective. He spoke passionately about the pressures that Ofsted places on teachers and the need for more support for them, which I will address later in my speech. Finally, Dr Poulter also shared helpful insight from his constituency about the impact on schools and communities of one-word judgments.
It is true that the majority of schools are now rated good or outstanding, but that masks an estimated 210,000 pupils stuck in schools that for 13 years or more have received ratings of inadequate or requires improvement. There are also significant regional inequalities. More than 200,000 primary-age children live in areas in which there are no good or outstanding schools. Eleven out of 12 local authorities in the north-east have a higher-than-average share of pupils attending underperforming schools.
School inspection must be a crucial part of our education system to deliver the best for our children, but I fear that the framework drives a tick-box culture, as echoed by other Members in the debate. It does not necessarily encourage the delivery of excellent education to every child. It also contributes to a growing recruitment and retention crisis in the teaching profession, which will inevitably have an impact in the classroom. For too many school leaders, teachers and governors, inspection has become emblematic of all that is wrong with the profession. Time and time again, in conversations that I have had since becoming shadow Schools Minister, teachers tell me that they feel punished, not supported, by Ofsted.
Earlier this year, I visited the National Education Union advice line in Doncaster. I spoke to teachers desperate to find a way to stay in the profession that they love, but the pressure of inspections was listed by teachers and staff as a significant factor in their decision to leave. I visited a school in Gillingham where people described the relief that the inspections were suspended during covid, because they could then
“focus on doing what was best for the children”.
That seems completely counterproductive to me, and to many parents and teachers too.
I want to say to school leaders, teachers and governors: “I hear you loud and clear.” Unlike this Government, Labour has a clear plan to tackle the challenge. This year, Ofsted turns 30 and, in that time, the role of schools has changed immeasurably; so, too, must the inspection framework. Getting the best out of people means respecting their efforts and supporting improvement, as well as challenging their performance. Ofsted should be an ally to every teacher and school leader, determined to set their school on the right path. In government, therefore, Labour will undertake fundamental reform of Ofsted to ensure that it supports school improvement proactively, and does not just deliver high-stakes, one-word judgments on the hard work of teachers and governors.
First, we would free up inspectors to work more closely with schools requiring improvement. They would be empowered to put in place plans to deliver sustained change in struggling schools, similar to the peer-to-peer support that worked so well in the London challenge. We would connect teachers and leaders with the training they need. Next, we would require Ofsted to report on a school’s performance relative to other schools in its family, or those with similar characteristics. That would recognise the short and long-term improvements that teachers plan, helping parents understand inspection results more clearly. We would also require Ofsted to report on areas of excellence within a school, so that we can celebrate what is great as well as what needs improvement. Working with school leaders and staff, we can reset the adversarial culture and refocus on the delivery of excellence for every child.
While important, however, reform of Ofsted is not a panacea. I recognise that the challenges that children and teachers face, and that this Government choose to ignore, go beyond that. As I said, the inspection regime is contributing to an increasing recruitment and retention crisis. Ministers have met teaching recruitment targets only once in the past decade. DFE data released earlier this year shows that the number of applications to initial teacher training has plummeted by almost a quarter from the same time last year. Forty per cent. of teachers now leave the profession within four years.
I am clear that the world-class education we want for all children need not come at the cost of the high-quality teachers we need. That is why Labour has introduced the most ambitious programme of school improvement for a generation, which contains practical steps to tackle the day-to-day issues that teachers face in the classroom. First, we will recruit 6,500 new teachers to help close the vacancies gap, and we will make a real investment in teachers through a professional development fund that gives them access to the skills they need during their career. Aspiring headteachers will be given the support they need to lead outstanding schools. Our excellence in leadership programme to support new headteachers throughout their first years in the job will be well supported. We will work together with school staff and leaders to give them time to teach and to deliver the outcomes we need for our children. Labour is clear that inspection should apply to the whole system, with multi-academy trusts properly responsible for provision in schools, as Ofsted itself has called for.
Labour is relentlessly ambitious for children’s success. We want to build an education system where children thrive once again and staff have the time to teach. Making that a reality requires curiosity, an understanding of the problem and a real plan, but what we see from this Government is a White Paper full of bluster and gimmicks and a Schools Bill that fails to tackle the day-to-day challenges facing our school system. Yet again, Conservative Ministers simply do not have the answers that teachers, children and parents need. That is why the next Labour Government will transform education again, as we did in the past, and place children at the centre of our national approach. That is the very least they deserve.
Before I call the Minister, I commend the Chamber Engagement Team on their production of an excellent piece of work, which has helped to inform and assist today’s debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, for what I believe is the first time. I thank my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy for opening the debate. I greatly value the opportunity to listen to his insights and the detailed research that he has done, supported by the Chamber Engagement Team, before holding the debate.
I extend that appreciation to other colleagues who have spoken today and brought up individual cases. It is always a great pleasure to hear from Jim Shannon; that is not unusual for Ministers responding to a Westminster Hall debate, but it is a particular pleasure for me. My hon. Friend Dr Poulter raised an important case in his constituency, as did my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. I will try to address those cases towards the end of my remarks, so I fully understand if my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has to leave the Chamber before then. It is rare to have an opportunity to speak at such length in the Chamber, but I remember PPS-ing one debate in Westminster Hall in which I was asked by officials to pass a note to the Minister saying, “You don’t actually have to use all the time, you know.” The Minister was not entirely pleased to receive that advice from his officials, who clearly felt he was being much too long-winded.
As Stephen Morgan has pointed out, the debate is timely, given that it comes in a symbolic year for Ofsted with its 30th anniversary. Such occasions rightly demand that we pause to reflect, and I am pleased that the debate has provided another opportunity to do so. I will try to set out some of the context and some of the broader points about accountability that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer has asked me to address, and then come to the specific cases towards the end of my remarks.
This period in Ofsted’s history has added significance, with the resumption of routine graded inspection programmes taking place at the start of this academic year—an important milestone that comes after a period of enormous disruption to our society caused by the pandemic, which has required significant adaptation in the education and children’s services sector and in Ofsted as an inspectorate. I join my hon. Friend in thanking teachers and heads for all they have done through that period. It is right to acknowledge the enormous pressures they have been under and the additional work that heads in every school, no matter its rating or relationship with Ofsted, and their teachers and all school staff have been facing.
The fact that schools and other providers face challenges and disruption in their work only reinforces the importance of parents, the Government and Parliament having independent assurance through Ofsted that children are receiving the best possible education and are safe at this critical time. It is encouraging that when inspections have taken place this academic year, the outcomes have often been very positive and in many ways similar to, or an improvement on, what was there before the pandemic. For example, the large majority of good schools continue to be good, or have improved to outstanding, and a large majority—a higher percentage than before the pandemic—of schools that were previously less than good are now being graded as good or better. It is the case that a significant proportion—around half—of formerly exempt outstanding schools, which are often receiving their first Ofsted visit in a decade or more, have not maintained their former grade. However, even the change from outstanding has more often than not been a change to good.
As we turn to recovery, it is clear to me that every part of the education system, including Ofsted, has its role to play. Before moving on to the specific matter of Ofsted’s accountability, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the significance of Ofsted within our system.
Ofsted, or the Office for Standards in Education, was established in 1992, introducing for the first time universal, regular and independent inspection of all schools, with inspectors working to a national, published inspection framework. Much has changed over the years and I do not want to go into a detailed blow-by-blow account of all that, but it is worth noting that Ofsted’s remit has grown over the years to encompass early years, children’s services and skills. It was reconstituted, as the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, by the Labour Government in 2006. The legislation establishing Ofsted in its current form—the Education and Inspections Act 2006—also stipulated a set of responsibilities for Her Majesty’s chief inspector and, separately, Ofsted’s statutory board, comprising a chair, members and Her Majesty’s chief inspector.
The fact that Ofsted was established by a Conservative Government and expanded under a Labour Government signifies the broad cross-party consensus for its independent inspection role that has existed for most of the last 30 years, and I was pleased to hear from the shadow Minister’s comments that he is restoring at least a degree of that consensus in his approach.
Despite the various changes and developments over the years, Ofsted’s central role in our systems has remained a constant. Inspection provides key and trusted information for parents. When it comes to choosing a school, school proximity is usually the decisive factor in making the final choice, followed by the ethos of the school and then Ofsted’s judgment. That shows how important the judgment is, and 70% of parents feel that Ofsted reports are a reliable source of information on their child’s school. Beyond that, though, Ofsted’s inspection gives recognition and validation to effective practice where it is seen and prompts self-improvement. It provides assurance not only for parents but for the wider community and it triggers intervention where necessary. It also provides evidence both to Governments and to Parliament.
In that context, it is entirely legitimate to reflect on and examine the inspectorate’s accountability. It is of great significance that Ofsted was established as, and remains to this day, a non-ministerial Government Department and an independent inspectorate, a duality that brings benefits as well as a degree of complexity and which has implications when it comes to considering accountability.
Starting with a rather obvious point that will not have escaped the attention of hon. Members, I am standing before Members in Westminster Hall today, not Her Majesty’s chief inspector. That reflects Ofsted’s non-ministerial status and means that the Government have a line of accountability to Parliament for Ofsted and its work. Sitting beneath that, however, are lines of accountability between Ofsted and the Secretary of State, between Ofsted and the Government more generally, and directly between Ofsted and Parliament. I will address those lines of accountability now.
Even a cursory look at the legislation underpinning Ofsted demonstrates a clear link between Ofsted and the Secretary of State. For example, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provides that, in addition to specific inspection and regulatory responsibilities, Her Majesty’s chief inspector has a general responsibility to keep the Secretary of State informed about the quality and effectiveness of services within Ofsted’s remit. The chief inspector must provide information or advice to the Secretary of State when requested, and in carrying out her work must have regard to such aspects of Government policy as the Secretary of State may direct. Inspection legislation also places a duty on Ofsted to inspect schools when requested to do so by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, although the position of Her Majesty’s chief inspector is a Crown appointment, the chief inspector holds and vacates her office in accordance with the terms of her appointment, and those terms are determined by the Secretary of State.
It is clear that Ofsted’s relationship with the Secretary of State and Ministers provides one important dimension to its accountability, and means that Ofsted inspects within the context of the Government’s policies. I, the Secretary of State and my colleague in the Lords regularly meet Her Majesty’s chief inspector—the regularity varies from about once a month to every six weeks—to discuss a wide range of matters relating to Ofsted and its work. The debate has certainly given me some further issues that I will raise and discuss in such meetings.
As for examples of Ofsted’s broader accountability to Government, hon. Members will wish to be aware that Ofsted is expected to comply with various Government rules, for example those set by Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Cabinet Office that relate to Departments. For the purpose of illustration, these include requirements to publish equality objectives and to report on them annually, and requirements to publish information on pay, gender and so on.
I turn now to Ofsted’s accountability to Parliament, starting with a simple example. On a day-to-day level, Ofsted regularly responds directly to correspondence from hon. Members, and Her Majesty’s chief inspector also responds directly to written parliamentary questions relating to Ofsted’s work, with a record of her responses being placed in the Library. Her Majesty’s chief inspector can also be called to give evidence to Select Committees. In practice, that line of accountability usually operates through the Education Committee, which I understand holds regular sessions on Ofsted’s work, but it is also the case that Ofsted may appear before other Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee. That scrutiny of course extends to the other place, where I know that Ofsted recently gave evidence alongside me on the issue of citizenship education.
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. The meetings often involve frank discussions in which we do not always necessarily agree. We are certainly not in a position to give Ofsted orders, but we have the opportunity to raise concerns that have been expressed by colleagues, and those meetings can be influential and important. I will give an example. During the course of the covid pandemic and in the immediate recovery, we had many discussions about the process of deferrals. Ofsted brought forward a generous deferral policy that allowed schools that felt that they were facing disruption to defer their inspections, and many schools took advantage of that and benefited from it. However, there has to be a degree of independence, and that is all part of the balance.
Beyond the accountability mechanisms in place that relate to the Government and Parliament, the Government’s arrangements for Ofsted also provide a separate line of accountability. As I mentioned earlier, the 2006 Act established a statutory board for Ofsted with a specified set of functions relating to setting its strategic priorities and objectives, monitoring targets, and ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of Ofsted’s work. The board has an important challenge and support role in relation to the inspectorate’s work and performance, and it is notable that Her Majesty’s chief inspector is required to agree her performance objectives and targets with the chair. It will also be of interest to hon. Members that Ofsted’s board is currently carrying out a routine board effectiveness review, as confirmed by Dame Christine Ryan when she gave evidence to the Education Committee last September. I understand that Dame Christine will update the Education Committee on this work in due course.
So far I have provided an outline and we have discussed various elements of the accountability that applies to Ofsted, but I turn now to the other side of the coin, which is its independence. Independence is a necessary pre-requisite for the inspectorate, providing credibility and value to Ofsted’s work. Ofsted’s ability to inspect and report without fear or favour remains as relevant today as it always has been, and it has to be carefully guarded. Operating within the constraints of legislation and broad Government policy, Ofsted has appropriate freedom to develop and implement its own inspection frameworks through consultation, and to offer advice on matters relating to its remit.
Ofsted is also responsible for the conduct and reporting of its inspections, and it is perhaps here that Ofsted’s independence is most apparent. No Minister or Committee member in this House, however powerful, can amend Ofsted’s professional judgments, and I recognise that that is one of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer. Parliament has chosen—I believe rightly—to protect the inspectorate from interference in these matters. To put it simply, when it comes to inspection judgments, Ofsted has complete independence. The buck stops with Her Majesty’s chief inspector.
I absolutely recognise that independent inspection can sometimes mean that there are difficult messages for individual schools, colleges and other providers about the quality of their provision. I am conscious that Ofsted’s independent view can sometimes result in uncomfortable messages—even for Ministers—but as challenging as that can be at times, the benefits of independent inspection and reporting are undeniable and should be carefully protected in the interests of pupils and parents, as well as staff and leaders, across the country. There will always be debate when it comes to judgments on quality, and I accept that. After all, an inspection is not, and should not be, a tick-box exercise. It requires professional judgment to weigh up multiple factors that contribute to a school being assessed as good or, much less often, not good.
When it comes to assessing safeguarding of pupils, I hope hon. Members will agree that we need Ofsted’s assessments to be robust and absolutely clear where there are concerns. It is also important that Ofsted’s inspection approach is proportionate to risk, with more extensive and frequent arrangements for weaker schools. That is not over-surveillance but responsiveness to provide additional scrutiny and the assurance that parents, Governments and Parliament need.
With the power to provide a published judgment on the provider comes the clear responsibility to ensure that those judgments are evidence-based, fair and accurate. I know that Her Majesty’s chief inspector is absolutely committed to ensuring that inspections are of the highest quality. That requires, among other things, a careful selection of inspectors, effective training led by Her Majesty’s inspectors, and strong quality assurance arrangements, all of which are taken extremely seriously by Ofsted.
In that context, it is particularly encouraging that the evidence from Ofsted’s post-inspection surveys indicates that the vast majority of schools with experience of inspection are satisfied by that experience. The data shows specifically that almost nine in 10 responding schools were satisfied with the way in which inspections were carried out. A similar proportion felt that the inspection judgments were justified based on the evidence collected, and nine in 10 agreed that the inspection would help them to improve further. I think that is a strong sign that the inspection framework can and does support schools. I recognise, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has his own survey data, and it is important that we look at that in detail and take it into account.
Julian Sturdy, the shadow Minister and I referred to the impact on teachers. I am not saying that the Minister’s figures are not right, but if we are all getting that sort of feedback about teachers, perhaps it is not as straightforward as nine out of 10 schools saying that inspections are okay.
As I said during my speech, I am conscious of those with special educational needs. We all know that it does not take a lot to throw those children out of kilter for a while, so sensitivity and caution around them are important. The Minister was perhaps going to respond to those questions anyway, and if so, fair enough, but I would like answers to them.
The hon. Gentleman makes an absolutely fair point. He is right: I was coming on to the workload challenge. I think we have to be honest and accept that independent inspections leading to a published report will inevitably be a source of some pressure on schools. I recognise that he and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer have raised concerns about the workload impact on teachers. I have discussed that many times with Her Majesty’s chief inspector, who is committed to ensuring that pressure is kept to a minimum and that inspectors take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and minimise stress.
As part of that, Ofsted has taken steps through its new framework—for example, including a section designed to dispel myths about inspections that can result in unnecessary anxiety and workload in schools, and ensuring that inspectors consider the extent to which leaders take into account the workload and wellbeing of their staff as part of an inspection. We at the Department take seriously our responsibilities when it comes to workload. That is why we have worked with the unions on a workload-reduction toolkit for the sector and on a well- being charter.
I recognise that there is a balance to be struck here. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer raised the issue of the short period of inspections. Of course, under previous inspection regimes, there had been a longer period of inspections, or notice given for inspections, and that was criticised for increasing workload because it required people to spend more time collating and preparing data for Ofsted visits. That is a challenging balance to strike.
There will be some occasions when providers are unhappy with their inspection experience or outcome, and yes, there will be occasions when inspectors do not get everything right first time, despite the quality assurance processes that we all want, but it is important to see that in perspective. Ofsted’s annual report and accounts documents provide interesting data on complaints about inspections. They show that, across Ofsted’s remit in 2018-19, 1.8% of inspection activity led to a formal complaint being received. In 2019-20, that figure was 2.5%, and in 2020-21, which I appreciate was a different year in many respects, it was just 0.3%.
I want to give a little context on that point. My local primary school in Naburn, which I mentioned, felt that there was no need and that it was irrelevant to complain because nothing in the process would change. The worrying aspect is the lack of accountability in individual cases. Some schools do not challenge inspections because they feel that there is no opportunity to do so. I would like the Minister to address those concerns.
I recognise that point, and I recognise that my hon. Friend said that the school has not submitted a formal complaint. I will come to that school in a bit more detail in a moment.
Of the 320 complaints that were that were closed last year, 26% had an aspect upheld or partially upheld, which shows there is a degree of responsiveness in the complaints process. I encourage that school to submit a formal complaint so that its views can be taken into account. In most places where a complaint was upheld, that was because an aspect of the process could have been better or a small change was required to the report. In three cases, Ofsted decided to change the overall effectiveness judgment following complaint investigations, and five inspections were deemed to be incomplete, which in turn led to inspectors carrying out a further visit to gather additional evidence.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford raised questions about the complaints procedure. I am very interested to hear the detail of the survey that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer conducted, and I will be happy to meet him to discuss it in more detail after this debate.
Ofsted gives careful consideration to its complaints procedures and introduced some improvements in September 2020 after consultation. As step 1 of the process, providers can now submit any comments on their draft reports—I believe my hon. Friend’s school will have engaged with that already. Inspectors consider them and write a response in a cover letter with the final report. Once the final report is issued to the provider, that opens the five-day complaints window, to which my hon. Friend referred.
A complaint received during that window triggers step 2 of the process. It means that the report publication is held until the complaint response is sent. Ofsted investigates the concerns and sends an outcome letter. Five days later, it publishes the inspection report with any changes identified in the outcome letter. If a complainant remains dissatisfied on receipt of the step 2 letter, they have 15 working days to request an internal review. That review will consider whether Ofsted’s policy or procedures on handling complaints were followed correctly at step 2, based on available information from a step 2 investigation.
At the end of a review, a panel will discuss how the complaint was handled and come to a final decision. Panels are never held in the region where a complaint is from to ensure added independence. Where available, the panel includes an external attendee, such as a head- teacher or a nursery manager.
If the provider remains dissatisfied, it can then complain to the independent adjudicator to Ofsted, appointed by the Secretary of State, and the adjudicator will consider Ofsted’s handling of the case and come to a view on it. Ultimately, as my hon. Friend said, schools and providers have the option to pursue a judicial review, although I absolutely accept that there is a high bar to that, and we hope that is not where most people need to go.
My hon. Friend asked whether I knew the number of cases that had gone to judicial review. I have to be honest: I do not, but I do have some figures, which are hopefully helpful to him, on the complaints reviewed by the independent adjudicator. The numbers are small. For example, there were 13 in 2019, 17 in 2020 and six in 2021. The adjudicator consistently reports that Ofsted takes very seriously any recommendations put forward. In 2021, none of the six cases were upheld, and there were no recommendations for the inspectorate to improve its complaints arrangement.
My hon. Friend, totally understandably and quite rightly, has spoken up for and championed a small rural school in his constituency, as any of us would want to do as MPs championing our constituencies. The Department absolutely recognises the importance of rural schools and the need to maintain access to good local schools in rural areas. Rural schools are often at the heart of their communities, which is why there is a presumption against the closure of rural primary schools. The possibility of closure would be a hugely difficult issue for all involved. The legislation requires that decisions be made by local authorities, which are required to follow a well-established statutory process, including a period of representation when they must gather comments and opinions from affected groups, and they must consider them during the decision-making process.
Our national funding formula reform has meant that the funding schools attract through the sparsity factor has more than doubled from £42 million in 2021-22 to £95 million this year. That is one of the ways we are supporting rural schools.
My hon. Friend rightly raised concerns about the length of the gap between the 2007 inspection and the more recent one. It is absolutely vital that we remove the exemption to ensure that schools and parents have an up-to-date assessment of the quality of education being provided in every school. I would have made that change myself on my appointment, but I was very pleased to find that the decision had already been taken by my predecessor. I think it was not before time. The Government were rightly concerned that over time the exemption was starting to lead to a loss of confidence in the outstanding grade, particularly as many exempt schools were judged outstanding under previous Ofsted inspection frameworks. Over time, we have increased expectations in order to raise standards across all schools. Ofsted’s new framework presents a tougher test for a school to be judged outstanding. It is also the case that Ofsted is focusing at this time on those schools that have gone longest without inspections, including those that have gone a decade or more without inspection.
Where Ofsted inspects and finds a school is no longer outstanding, it makes a point in the report to recognise that the declining grade is not necessarily a reflection of the work of the current leadership in the school. The vast majority of former exempt outstanding schools inspected since September 2021 have been judged either outstanding or good.
I recognise the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has raised regarding Thomas Mills High School. I will raise the issue with Her Majesty’s inspector when we next meet. However, I should reflect that in the many debates I have listened to and attended over the years, I would be pressed hard to make sure that we did emphasise the importance of safeguarding.
I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer all the opportunities in the White Paper on how to attract strong trusts to his area. He also asked about guidance and support. We have been looking at revised guidance on behaviour and attendance, and at clear guidance on keeping children safe in education to support governors and school leaders to navigate their responsibilities more effectively.
My hon. Friend raised concerns about the outcome of the inspection at Naburn primary school and the implications for the future of the school. Our priority is always to ensure that pupils receive a high standard of education. That is why the regional schools commissioner, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, will take responsibility for ensuring that an inadequate maintained school becomes a sponsored academy as swiftly as possible.
Our expectation is that schools with directive academy orders convert within nine months. In the case of Naburn primary school, following an Ofsted judgment of inadequate and the subsequent issuing of a directive academy order, all parties are acting quickly to support the school, particularly as safeguarding concerns have been identified. The local authority, the Department for Education and Ofsted are in agreement that the standards at Naburn were not good enough, as pupils did not have access to high-quality provision. The Ofsted inspection report from December 2021 indicated that the school curriculum is not developed and does not meet the needs of pupils, that the teachers do not have high expectations for all pupils and that there is not a strong culture of safeguarding at the school. This does put pupils potentially at risk.
The Ofsted report also notes that the local authority identified the school as being vulnerable in 2019 and gave leaders extra support. However, the support provided has not prevented the overall decline. The local authority knows that intensive support is now needed in order to ensure the quality of education becomes acceptable. The diocese agrees with the local authority that there are significant areas of the school’s work that need improvement. There are a number of strong trusts already operating in the York area that collaborate well across the York Schools and Academies Board, but we need to be realistic about some of the challenges that my hon. Friend has raised on the viability of the school, given the small number of pupils currently on roll and the lack of applications for September. This is a small school with 57 pupils on roll and at 66% capacity. At this point, there are two sponsors who have conducted due diligence on Naburn primary and early indications for sponsorship are promising. Should a potential sponsor be identified, that sponsor will need to explore options it might take to rapidly bring about the necessary changes at the school.
The Department has made it clear that school closures are necessary only in exceptional circumstances, which are detailed in our statutory guidance. We will continue to work with my hon. Friend and with the local authority to try to make sure that this situation reaches a good outcome for the school and the community that he represents.
I have tried to cover a lot of ground this afternoon, and I hope I have addressed some of the specific points raised by hon. Members in what has been a thought-provoking discussion. I take into account the concerns that have been raised. I want to make sure that we explore fully the outcomes of the survey that my hon. Friend has conducted and discussed today.
I have outlined the various lines of accountability for Ofsted which, taken together, provide what I believe are appropriate checks and balances, with Ofsted being answerable to Government and Parliament and to its statutory board, but at the same time having appropriate and demonstrable independence in carrying out its work. Its independent insight and judgment remain just as important today as they were 30 years ago, perhaps even more so as we seek collectively to ensure that all children, pupils and students are able to recover following a period of substantial disruption to their education and lives more generally. Ofsted has its part to play—a key part, as I have outlined—and while we must never be complacent, I believe that the accountability mechanisms are in place to allow for appropriate challenge and support as it carries out its work.
Thank you, Minister. I think that is one of the longest speeches a Minister has ever made in response in a 90-minute debate in this Chamber. I saw his Parliamentary Private Secretary twitching—he was going to send one of those notes, but he resisted. Mr Julian Sturdy, you have the opportunity to wind up the debate.
I will be brief. I thank the Minister for his response, but I want to pick up one quick point before thanking everyone else. He talked specifically about Naburn school, which is what led me to bring this debate on Ofsted’s accountability to the Chamber. The new headteacher, Jonathan Green, has been tasked with turning the school around. He has the full support of the parents and is doing an amazing job, but he was in place for only 24 days before Ofsted came on site to inspect the school. Is that normal, or should he have been given more time to try to turn the school around? There was a huge amount of frustration in the local community that that was how the inspection came about, and that context needs to be laid out in response to what the Minister has said.
I would like to thank Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Dr Poulter for their valuable contributions and for raising different aspects of Ofsted’s accountability. I agree with one of the points made by Stephen Morgan that many schools, headteachers, teachers and parents, at times, feel punished by Ofsted. We have to change that.
I agree with the Minister on the issues of the overall accountability of Ofsted and its wider policy. He raised the fact that he and the Secretary of State have regular meetings on that. However, it still goes back to the real concern over individual cases and how schools can challenge decisions made by Ofsted. I do not think that that has been properly addressed. There is real concern out there.
The Minister referred to the ICASO review, but we have to remember that it is not binding on Ofsted, as I said in my speech. I wonder whether the Minister feels that a change such as making those findings binding on Ofsted could ensure more individual accountability when schools feel aggrieved by an Ofsted inspection and need some form of redress to be able to challenge that. I do not feel that they have the confidence to do that at the moment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the accountability of Ofsted.