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.