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7.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on securing this Adjournment debate on an issue that is obviously important to his constituency and, as he has pointed out, important in terms of the Government's objective of raising standards for all our children.

I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged the Government's commitment to inspection as part of their strategy for raising standards in schools. Inspection provides a periodic external check on each school, helping to tackle under-performance and develop plans for improvement. Parents value inspection reports highly because of the inspectors' independence.

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I speak with some understanding of Ofsted, having been on the receiving end of an Ofsted inspection before I was elected to Parliament. Observation of lessons is not designed to criticise teachers unjustly. Evaluation of the quality and impact of teaching is central to inspection. The evaluation of teaching is fundamental to the quality of education provided to pupils.

Moor Lane junior school was inspected by registered inspectors in October 1995, and the resulting report clearly set out the key issues for action. As the hon. Gentleman said, points of action always come out of Ofsted reports. However, in April 1999, registered inspectors visited again and found that, in their view, very little action had been taken on the key issues. Making use of the safeguard provided in law, Her Majesty's inspectors gathered additional evidence, and the need for special measures was not corroborated, although they confirmed that the school had serious weaknesses.

The school lodged a complaint about the conduct of the April 1999 inspection, which was partially upheld by Ofsted. Ofsted agreed that there had been an over- emphasis, in drafting, on the negative statements in the report but, importantly, that did not result in any change in the report. It was made quite clear to the school and all concerned that serious weaknesses existed.

Inspectors judged that at Moor Lane junior school one third of the teaching was less than satisfactory. Standards were below average in English, maths and science. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not tolerate low standards for our children, and the Government certainly do not. Children at this school deserve a better deal.

In the monitoring visit in May 2000, Her Majesty's inspectors decided that the school had made no improvement and was failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education. We cannot allow a school that has been told that it has serious weaknesses to make no improvements. Action must be taken.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was possible to make such judgments on the basis of a brief inspection. In fact, the final monitoring visit in May 2000 was subsequent to the two previous visits--it was part of a programme of visits. Also, the criteria for deciding whether a school requires special measures are specified in law--that is, that the school is failing, or is likely to fail, to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education. That definition is explained in Ofsted's framework for school inspections and the accompanying guidance handbook for inspectors.

Whatever the type of inspection, the judgment that a school requires special measures is made only when there is an adequate evidence base to support it. In addition, the decision that a school requires special measures is a matter for Her Majesty's inspectors' professional judgment. Ministers, local education authorities-- even very well-intentioned constituency Members of Parliament--cannot, and should not, intervene. The most important thing is that the standard of education at Moor Lane junior school and others in special measures improves as quickly as possible and that that improvement is sustainable. We must not fail these pupils.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about improvements in key stage 2 results this year. However, the 1999 Moor Lane key stage 2 results were for English 67 per cent. at level 4, for science 61 per cent. and for maths 52 per cent. That compares with a national average

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of 75 per cent. for English, 84 per cent. for science and 73 per cent. for maths in similar schools. I was pleased to hear that it looks as though this year's results are an improvement in English and science, and I hope that the maths results are equally good.

Moor Lane junior must now embed and sustain that improvement.

Mr. Davey: Will the Minister reflect on the fact that the yesterday's SATs results showed a large improvement, particularly in science? That must surely bring into question the findings of the Ofsted visit in May.

Jacqui Smith: As I pointed out, it is a professional decision for inspectors, based on the programme of visits that I have outlined, to determine whether a school should go into special measures. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that the task of raising standards for our children should not and cannot be put off because people do not believe that there is sufficient evidence. Decisions have to be taken, and they have to be taken in a way that will support improvements in schools.

We recognise that inspections cause pressure, and we are working with the chief inspector to do what we can to keep that to a minimum. For example, we have shortened the notice period before inspections to avoid the lengthy build-up of pressure that teachers have told us is damaging. Ofsted's guidance for inspectors contains firm advice on the need to minimise stress for teachers.

To respond to the hon. Gentleman's concern that changes and improvements be made in Ofsted's operation, there will be increased feedback to teachers and head teachers about teaching quality, together with improved training for inspectors, new powers for Her Majesty's chief inspector to remove incompetent inspectors and strengthened complaints procedures, including final review by an external adjudicator.

It is not the fault of Ofsted, however, that a school finds that it is failing. In this case, it is the failure effectively to remedy the weaknesses identified by inspectors over the past five years that has resulted in the situation in which the school now finds itself. Many hundreds of primary and junior schools in England have been judged by inspectors to have serious weaknesses, or to be in need of special measures. None of them will have welcomed those judgments, but they have mostly tackled the problems and turned their schools around.

This is the first time that a large proportion of staff have refused to accept the judgment and resigned. It is regrettable that many of them did so before seeing the detail in the report. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it has yet to be published. I understand that the head and deputy resigned before the inspection took place, and that Kingston upon Thames local education authority acted fast to ensure that a new head teacher and deputy head were appointed for this September. What matters now is that Kingston LEA and the governing body are able to appoint a new team of talented and dedicated professionals to meet the challenges ahead and to make Moor Lane junior school a better place for both pupils and staff. That is already under way; three senior teachers have been appointed and further interviews will be held next week.

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It is clear that to challenge and support our schools in raising standards, the Government need to engage in a range of measures. Such measures do not only involve Ofsted, although more than 1,000 schools have been given early warning that standards are slipping by being put into the serious weaknesses category by Ofsted. The vast majority--nearly 90 per cent.--act immediately to put things right. Those that show no improvement after a year, when HMI or additional inspectors pay a monitoring visit, are rightly placed under special measures.

Each school is responsible for providing the high standards that will allow its pupils to achieve their full potential. LEAs play a vital role, through challenge and support, in helping schools to raise standards. However, schools are responsible for their own improvement, although LEAs play a critical role in supporting governing bodies and head teachers in their efforts.

In the case of Moor Lane junior school, Kingston LEA provided much support for the school. It appointed additional governors when the school was put into the serious weakness category; and gave financial advice in response to the criticisms in the April 1999 report that procedures for financial planning were poor and that the school provided unsatisfactory value for money. The LEA provided monitoring of and challenge to target setting. However, the LEA and the school must work together on such matters and it is judged that the effect of the extra resources has yet to have a sustained impact on standards in the school.

Mr. Davey: I share the Minister's praise of the LEA. It behaved well both before and after the events. However, surely that shows that, as Ofsted carried out a short inspection and could monitor only 16 lessons, it should have referred back to the LEA before giving the verbal briefing that special measures would be recommended.

Jacqui Smith: There is a conflict between my statement as to the importance of an independent inspection regime and what the hon. Gentleman asks for. We need to recognise the independence of Ofsted. That is part of its value, and one of the reasons that parents value its inspections.

It is important to recognise that Ofsted plays only a part in what we need to do to raise standards. For example, LEAs and schools have access to the standards fund school improvement grant. The grant will support expenditure of more than £290 million in 2000-01, enabling schools and LEAs to support activity to raise standards.

Our policy to tackle failing schools is working. The number of such schools is falling and the average turnaround speed is faster; it stands at 18 months for schools coming under special measures since May 1997. That is down from 25 months for schools coming under special measures between 1993 and April 1997. Recent figures show that more than one third of primary and special schools turn around in 18 months or less. We are considering ways of strengthening our approach--for example, by increasing the rigour with which we challenge LEAs to identify and intervene in schools at risk at an early stage.

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We are passionate about improving the education of pupils in under-performing schools, and have taken decisive action to tackle failure in our schools. Independent inspection is a key part of that. However, other Government action is crucial. We know that many schools are striving against the odds to improve--often with success. However, that success must be true for all schools if we are to ensure that all young people, whatever their background, can fulfil their potential.

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I give my best wishes to the parents, the new staff and the governors of Moor Lane junior school for a sustained improvement in standards. That is what the hon. Gentleman and the Government want, not only for the children of Moor Lane junior school, but for all our children.

Question put and agreed to.

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