Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 16)




  1. Could I welcome Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, Mike Tomlinson; Judith Phillips, who is Director of Policy, Planning and Resources; and Mrs Maggie Smith, Director of Early Years. Welcome all of you. There is a rumour in the Committee, Mr Tomlinson, that you are the most regular visitor to our Committee across the piece, so welcome indeed, and may I congratulate you on becoming the Chief Inspector. We do play this Committee reasonably informally, so, if you would not object to first names, that would add to the way in which we conduct these sessions. As you know, we have two sessions with you a year. The one at this time of year is on your annual report and the one in the autumn is about the conduct of the office. This is the annual report session. We have an awful lot to get through and so, I hope you do not mind, I will be encouraging my colleagues to ask relatively short questions and I would ask for reasonably succinct answers. I am going to apologise in advance. Because Maggie Smith has only been in her position for a short time, we will be asking just a couple of preliminary questions and then we will switch the team. That is no discourtesy to you, Maggie. Could we start then with early years. We are pleased to see that there is a Government response to our early years report, which we received last night. It is in general, I think, a very positive reaction. But we were particularly proud of that report. Although it did not get the most headlines in the national press, in the specialist press it received extensive coverage and we have had some very warm responses from across the piece in terms of the people who make early years happen. I am going to start off by saying that in terms of early years you will know that we were particularly concerned—and I wonder if you share this concern. On the one hand we were very welcoming to the Government's initiative that has put an awful lot of money into early years. Now children are going to pre-school at the age of four, and the intention is that that will come down to three—and of course the Second Reading debate yesterday on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] focused a great deal on the ability to identify a child with SEN problems early on in their career. What do you think your role is going to be in terms of helping to ensure this identification of early years' needs in this pre-school sector? Is that going to be a difficult territory for OFSTED to get into?

  (Mrs Smith) I do not think so. I think it is at two levels from my point of view. One is that one of the National Standards is very specifically about special needs. Quite often, in the very early years of a child's life it is an indicator rather than an assessed issue, so using the standard will help us in all settings assess how well providers understand an emerging special need or are actually dealing with one. Of course, with more defined needs there can be a statement of special needs from two years of age. It is quite often the emotional behavioural ones which are a bit more difficult. So the standards are there but also corporately, with colleagues across the other divisions of OFSTED, we will be looking in total about how we assist, through evidence that is built over time, in terms of good practice in this particular issue.

  2. What about the change in culture? This is a very different territory for inspection, now that we are moving down the age range. Is there going to be difficulty for OFSTED adapting itself? I have been told by all our special advisors that we must never use the popular acronym "OFTOT".
  (Mr Tomlinson) No.

  3. If we slip into that, please forgive us, but we have been warned.
  (Mrs Smith) As a field, it has been regulated probably far longer than any other, if you look at the 1948 Nurseries and Childminders Act. It has just been regulated in a very different way, in-house, in local government—and that is very familiar to me because I have worked in local government for quite a long time in this field. I think the problem that was there before about differentiation in standards, etcetera, will now be solved. But, because we are bringing staff across with that expertise already of the Children Act and we have a lot of training going in and support, I am quite sure that it will help join everything up for children.
  (Mr Tomlinson) We already do have members of staff within OFSTED who have experience of the early years. We have other people, additional inspectors, brought in who have been very much involved in the three- and four-year-old settings. The important point is that we will be relying very heavily on the expertise and experience of the staff currently within local authorities who will be transferring across to us during the period July to September. What we have to do is to build upon that, help them to apply the new National Standards consistently, and we have plans in hand to help them. But we acknowledge and always acknowledged that we ourselves did not have within our present organisation the numbers of people and the expertise needed, but we always knew they were coming across from local authorities.

Mr St Aubyn

  4. That rather neatly leads into the next question. As you say, those doing the inspections in the early years have been for a long time employed by the local authorities, whereas for your school inspections you have teams with whom you contract.
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes.

  5. One of the positive aspects of the contracting system is, I suppose, that OFSTED has been able to develop very much its own culture, for good or bad, towards the inspection of schools. To what extent, therefore, is OFSTED going to add anything to the style and manner in which these local authority inspectors go round their role, if what you are doing is really just keeping what appears to be a weather-eye on it.
  (Mrs Smith) I am not sure we were just keeping a weather-eye on them at all. The plans certainly are to ensure that they are competent inspectors. There is a very strong competency-based appraisal system in OFSTED. To go on the register, people will have had to have been appraised as competent. We are certainly looking at developing some accredited training for registration and inspection personnel, and we may, of course, want to use the market at seasonal high points. Local authorities have struggled with Open Access Play and the huge seasonal surge in May/June to register those facilities. We will work carefully over the next few months to assess both the competence of inspectors and also where we might have gaps and whether the market is a good way.

  6. Presumably one of the advantages of the contracting system is that if you are not satisfied with the quality of inspection being carried out by a team, you simply do not renew their contract.
  (Mrs Smith) Yes.
  (Mr Tomlinson) Indeed.

  7. How are you going to cope with the fact that, quite rightly, those who work with local authorities have employment rights and a track record with the authority? If you are not satisfied with them, will it not take a great deal longer, if you cannot improve their performance through training, to ensure that the inspections that are carried out by that area are being carried out by people who are fully up to your requirements?
  (Mrs Smith) As Judith has been dealing with the transition, I think she can give you more detail on that.

  (Ms Phillips) Clearly people will come across and they will be our employees and we would always offer training before they were asked to do any particular type of inspection, and, of course, with National Standards it is new for everyone. If of course people are not able to do that, we may have other work that they can do that is not inspection. If not, it would be like any other member of staff whose standards do not reach those which are required for the job.

  8. So there is clearly going to be a different level of flexibility, in dealing with this problem, amongst your inspectors for the early years, to the level of flexibility you have with inspectors dealing with the school system.
  (Ms Phillips) One lets contracts for quite a period of time and, equally, if you have already let a contract to someone, you would only in extreme circumstances change it in the middle of that, so I am not sure that the timescales might be quite as different as it would appear.
  (Mr Tomlinson) Plus the fact, of course, the contractor is given information by us as well as any they might collect themselves about the performance and individual inspectors. We expect them to take necessary action in terms of retraining the inspector or, indeed, discovering that they would no longer employ them. So it is less a matter of cancelling the contracts as the contractor taking action to ensure that the inspectors are further trained as necessary or, in the extreme, not invited to join any teams in the future.

Helen Jones

  9. You have taken a decision that many of your inspectors will be home-based, as are your contracting teams now. Do you not agree that that raises particular problems in the area of child care? You are going to have to have very clear arrangements for liaison with other child care professionals and, in some cases, for the security of your inspectors. Could you tell us how you intend to do that?
  (Mrs Smith) I would like to say something and I am sure Judith would too. Interestingly, most of these staff are very rarely in an office—they are out doing what they should be doing on the patch: visiting, liaising and inspecting—at the moment. I do believe it is crucial to have structured and set spaces and times for people to meet as teams and to share professionally, but also not to spend too much time in the office. The structure on which Judith and colleagues had worked so hard before I came, perhaps she would like to explain, as to how a lot of the prior administrative burdens and things that took a lot of time will be eased in the future with arrangements in regional offices.
  (Ms Phillips) The regional centres will provide much more administration than perhaps the local authorities have been able to do and, by concentrating it, we hope, perhaps of even a higher quality. The inspectors themselves, as Maggie said, most of the time are out of the office. There is provision for them to work with their seniors and meet as regularly as, I think, most of them would do now. We did look into this quite clearly and really we have tried to put our emphasis on investment in the people rather than in buildings which would be left empty. There are some authorities which have already done this. We have talked to them very much, we have talked at conferences, and I am pleased to say that, whilst at the beginning this was a big concern, it is much less so now and people understand it is a way of working and it is not total isolation.

  10. I understand what you are saying about inspectors not being in the office much anyway. That is a given, because we know they spend a lot of their time out looking at the provision. What I would like to know from you in a little more detail is what arrangements you are making to ensure that proper child protection measures are followed when your inspectors are largely home-based and do not have that day to day contact with the child care professionals that they would if had been they operating on behalf of local authorities.
  (Mrs Smith) There will be particular staff with the lead on the child protection roles. All of them will have good training—many of them have had it already but it would need updating in child protection procedures. But there is a range of guidance measures and, if you like, desk instructions to them about how to deal with particular situations. One of the biggest advantages of the new structure is that there will be specialist teams working on investigation of allegations across the board—that includes child protection. There will be very clear and formal links with area child protection committees. We have also been very concerned about the personal safety of the inspectors themselves, so they know clearly they must not give out home telephone numbers, details of where they live. They are going to have some quite intensive training in all those issues, including their own health and safety. One of the very good things we have managed to do is to secure space in Inland Revenue offices (of which I believe there are over 600—so there is almost one in every patch) where there is space to meet for any purpose or reason for the inspectors and people with whom they work. Clearly close contact with social service colleagues with early years' partnerships will be part and parcel of the teams' work. So I can see no particular extra barriers to what were already there in prior local government arrangements; in fact, I can see a great deal of enhancement in the skills available in the teams.

  11. I think we might want to see how that is working.
  (Mrs Smith) Yes.


  12. There is one concern—one we very strongly picked up when we did our early years inquiry. Out there people want two things. One is that they always felt that they should have one standard of inspection for everyone.
  (Mrs Smith) Yes.

  13. They did not like the fact that there was a two-track system; they wanted a fair appraisal for everyone on an equal basis. How do you react to that?
  (Mrs Smith) I think that is absolutely correct and appropriate. It is important to recognise that contexts are different, but, apart from that, the real standards about the quality of a child's experience need to be absolutely the same. People need to know what is expected of them, how to achieve it, and they are helped to do that through a good process.

  14. Why is it, then, that out there there is a kind of feeling—and I do not know why it is, but some of us are picking it up on this Committee—a fear, that in this particular area OFSTED coming in is going to lead to a dilution of standards, a sort of dumbing down of pre-school standards. Why do you think that is?
  (Mrs Smith) I am not sure. I think there are many reasons for people being anxious. In respect of someone who applied the Children Act standards for the first time—and they were not written as standards, it was a turgid, huge set of volumes of guidance accompanying the Act—all I can say is that they should have no fear from applying consistent standards. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose. At the moment, a childminder registered with one local authority who moves across the border, say from Manchester to Salford, has to go through the whole process again and may receive very different expectations and instructions. That has to be silly. Where the fear lies, I do not know. This is the first time that real child-focused and parent-focused standards have been applied with great clarity, or will be, and I think that fear will dissipate. I think change always creates anxiety, but in this case, having spent most of my life in this field, I feel very, very sure that, within a year/18 months time, providers, parents and children will be seeing the benefits.
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think the other point is that the standards, of course, are not those set down by OFSTED; the standards are those determined by the Government and by the relevant ministers after consultation, and, as you know, that consultation has raised some issues about what is conceived to be dumbing down in certain areas.

  15. Yes.
  (Mr Tomlinson) Of course, we are awaiting ministerial reaction to that consultation and to those concerns. I am led to understand that the National Standards will finally be published at the end of March and we shall see then how ministers have responded to the concerns expressed. But the concerns about dumbing down were related to the National Standards which are the departments concern and not ours; we will simply use those standards as our framework for regulating the system.

  16. So it is the Secretary of State we should be talking to about that.
  (Mr Tomlinson) If you are wanting to discuss the question of standards and whether the ones that are going to be adopted are dumbing down, yes, you have to talk to the ministers because they are the ones who are responsible for the standards.

  Chairman: Unless any other member of the Committee wishes to ask a question, I think we will move on to the next section. I would thank you very much for joining us and ask Elizabeth Passmore and David Taylor to join us.

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