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

I recognise that point, and I recognise that my hon. Friend said that the school has not submitted a formal complaint. I will come to that school in a bit more detail in a moment.

Of the 320 complaints that were that were closed last year, 26% had an aspect upheld or partially upheld, which shows there is a degree of responsiveness in the complaints process. I encourage that school to submit a formal complaint so that its views can be taken into account. In most places where a complaint was upheld, that was because an aspect of the process could have been better or a small change was required to the report. In three cases, Ofsted decided to change the overall effectiveness judgment following complaint investigations, and five inspections were deemed to be incomplete, which in turn led to inspectors carrying out a further visit to gather additional evidence.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford raised questions about the complaints procedure. I am very interested to hear the detail of the survey that my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer conducted, and I will be happy to meet him to discuss it in more detail after this debate.

Ofsted gives careful consideration to its complaints procedures and introduced some improvements in September 2020 after consultation. As step 1 of the process, providers can now submit any comments on their draft reports—I believe my hon. Friend’s school will have engaged with that already. Inspectors consider them and write a response in a cover letter with the final report. Once the final report is issued to the provider, that opens the five-day complaints window, to which my hon. Friend referred.

A complaint received during that window triggers step 2 of the process. It means that the report publication is held until the complaint response is sent. Ofsted investigates the concerns and sends an outcome letter. Five days later, it publishes the inspection report with any changes identified in the outcome letter. If a complainant remains dissatisfied on receipt of the step 2 letter, they have 15 working days to request an internal review. That review will consider whether Ofsted’s policy or procedures on handling complaints were followed correctly at step 2, based on available information from a step 2 investigation.

At the end of a review, a panel will discuss how the complaint was handled and come to a final decision. Panels are never held in the region where a complaint is from to ensure added independence. Where available, the panel includes an external attendee, such as a head- teacher or a nursery manager.

If the provider remains dissatisfied, it can then complain to the independent adjudicator to Ofsted, appointed by the Secretary of State, and the adjudicator will consider Ofsted’s handling of the case and come to a view on it. Ultimately, as my hon. Friend said, schools and providers have the option to pursue a judicial review, although I absolutely accept that there is a high bar to that, and we hope that is not where most people need to go.

My hon. Friend asked whether I knew the number of cases that had gone to judicial review. I have to be honest: I do not, but I do have some figures, which are hopefully helpful to him, on the complaints reviewed by the independent adjudicator. The numbers are small. For example, there were 13 in 2019, 17 in 2020 and six in 2021. The adjudicator consistently reports that Ofsted takes very seriously any recommendations put forward. In 2021, none of the six cases were upheld, and there were no recommendations for the inspectorate to improve its complaints arrangement.

My hon. Friend, totally understandably and quite rightly, has spoken up for and championed a small rural school in his constituency, as any of us would want to do as MPs championing our constituencies. The Department absolutely recognises the importance of rural schools and the need to maintain access to good local schools in rural areas. Rural schools are often at the heart of their communities, which is why there is a presumption against the closure of rural primary schools. The possibility of closure would be a hugely difficult issue for all involved. The legislation requires that decisions be made by local authorities, which are required to follow a well-established statutory process, including a period of representation when they must gather comments and opinions from affected groups, and they must consider them during the decision-making process.

Our national funding formula reform has meant that the funding schools attract through the sparsity factor has more than doubled from £42 million in 2021-22 to £95 million this year. That is one of the ways we are supporting rural schools.

My hon. Friend rightly raised concerns about the length of the gap between the 2007 inspection and the more recent one. It is absolutely vital that we remove the exemption to ensure that schools and parents have an up-to-date assessment of the quality of education being provided in every school. I would have made that change myself on my appointment, but I was very pleased to find that the decision had already been taken by my predecessor. I think it was not before time. The Government were rightly concerned that over time the exemption was starting to lead to a loss of confidence in the outstanding grade, particularly as many exempt schools were judged outstanding under previous Ofsted inspection frameworks. Over time, we have increased expectations in order to raise standards across all schools. Ofsted’s new framework presents a tougher test for a school to be judged outstanding. It is also the case that Ofsted is focusing at this time on those schools that have gone longest without inspections, including those that have gone a decade or more without inspection.

Where Ofsted inspects and finds a school is no longer outstanding, it makes a point in the report to recognise that the declining grade is not necessarily a reflection of the work of the current leadership in the school. The vast majority of former exempt outstanding schools inspected since September 2021 have been judged either outstanding or good.

I recognise the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich has raised regarding Thomas Mills High School. I will raise the issue with Her Majesty’s inspector when we next meet. However, I should reflect that in the many debates I have listened to and attended over the years, I would be pressed hard to make sure that we did emphasise the importance of safeguarding.

I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer all the opportunities in the White Paper on how to attract strong trusts to his area. He also asked about guidance and support. We have been looking at revised guidance on behaviour and attendance, and at clear guidance on keeping children safe in education to support governors and school leaders to navigate their responsibilities more effectively.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the outcome of the inspection at Naburn primary school and the implications for the future of the school. Our priority is always to ensure that pupils receive a high standard of education. That is why the regional schools commissioner, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, will take responsibility for ensuring that an inadequate maintained school becomes a sponsored academy as swiftly as possible.

Our expectation is that schools with directive academy orders convert within nine months. In the case of Naburn primary school, following an Ofsted judgment of inadequate and the subsequent issuing of a directive academy order, all parties are acting quickly to support the school, particularly as safeguarding concerns have been identified. The local authority, the Department for Education and Ofsted are in agreement that the standards at Naburn were not good enough, as pupils did not have access to high-quality provision. The Ofsted inspection report from December 2021 indicated that the school curriculum is not developed and does not meet the needs of pupils, that the teachers do not have high expectations for all pupils and that there is not a strong culture of safeguarding at the school. This does put pupils potentially at risk.

The Ofsted report also notes that the local authority identified the school as being vulnerable in 2019 and gave leaders extra support. However, the support provided has not prevented the overall decline. The local authority knows that intensive support is now needed in order to ensure the quality of education becomes acceptable. The diocese agrees with the local authority that there are significant areas of the school’s work that need improvement. There are a number of strong trusts already operating in the York area that collaborate well across the York Schools and Academies Board, but we need to be realistic about some of the challenges that my hon. Friend has raised on the viability of the school, given the small number of pupils currently on roll and the lack of applications for September. This is a small school with 57 pupils on roll and at 66% capacity. At this point, there are two sponsors who have conducted due diligence on Naburn primary and early indications for sponsorship are promising. Should a potential sponsor be identified, that sponsor will need to explore options it might take to rapidly bring about the necessary changes at the school.

The Department has made it clear that school closures are necessary only in exceptional circumstances, which are detailed in our statutory guidance. We will continue to work with my hon. Friend and with the local authority to try to make sure that this situation reaches a good outcome for the school and the community that he represents.

I have tried to cover a lot of ground this afternoon, and I hope I have addressed some of the specific points raised by hon. Members in what has been a thought-provoking discussion. I take into account the concerns that have been raised. I want to make sure that we explore fully the outcomes of the survey that my hon. Friend has conducted and discussed today.

I have outlined the various lines of accountability for Ofsted which, taken together, provide what I believe are appropriate checks and balances, with Ofsted being answerable to Government and Parliament and to its statutory board, but at the same time having appropriate and demonstrable independence in carrying out its work. Its independent insight and judgment remain just as important today as they were 30 years ago, perhaps even more so as we seek collectively to ensure that all children, pupils and students are able to recover following a period of substantial disruption to their education and lives more generally. Ofsted has its part to play—a key part, as I have outlined—and while we must never be complacent, I believe that the accountability mechanisms are in place to allow for appropriate challenge and support as it carries out its work.