Ofsted: Accountability — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:16 pm on 8th June 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education) 3:16 pm, 8th June 2022

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.