Ofsted: Accountability — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:50 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:50 pm, 8th June 2022

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.