Ofsted: Accountability — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 8th June 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich 3:00 pm, 8th June 2022

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.