Ofsted: Accountability — [Ian Paisley in the Chair]

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

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

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.