Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. I welcome David Bell and the team; there are some familiar faces and some not so familiar. This is the first operational meeting we have had with you, Mr Bell, because it was rather a get-to-know you occasion the first time you came in. Now we can blame you for everything, as you have been in post for how many months?

  (Mr Bell) Six months

  2. The buck now stops with you. Would you like to make a brief opening remark?
  (Mr Bell) I can hardly believe it is six months since I first came here. I have to say, you were generous to me in taking account of my newness, I suspect. I might not be so lucky today! I am not sure that an HMCI is supposed to say this, but my job is proving to be interesting, stimulating and very, very exciting. Ofsted is an excellent organisation to work for, and already I have been very impressed at the calibre of my colleagues, a number of whom are with me today. It is very clear to me that Ofsted's history since 1992 has been one of evolution rather than revolution. We have adapted our inspection arrangements in line with changing circumstances and the new demands that have been placed upon us by Parliament. We have delivered what we have been asked to do. You will not be surprised to know that it is a personal priority of mine to ensure that this record is maintained. Consistently, Ofsted has inspected and reported on its findings without fear or favour. It is that capacity to speak from the basis of our evidence that makes the post of HCI so worthwhile, and also the work of Ofsted vitally important. One of the personal challenges I have had to face in the last six months is coming to grips with our wide range of inspection responsibilities. In the last year we extended our brief to include regulation on Early Years and the inspection of 16-19 education in colleges. Another part of my role is to provide advice to Government and contribute more generally to the national policy debates on education. Again, if you just look over the past six months, using the evidence we have got we have reported on topics as diverse as the primary curriculum, teaching assistants, achievements of black Caribbean youngsters, and work on LEAs. All this is in addition to the 1800 school inspections that have taken place since we last met. Nothing stands still, and we are taking new developments in our stride. Let me give you one example because it is something this Committee raised a year and a half ago. We have new ways of working with schools with serious weaknesses, so that we now hope to arrest the decline into special measures. Schools and LEAs are invited to an action plan seminar. Earlier visits are being made to schools with serious weaknesses, and we are making an assessment about the capacity of a school to improve and the progress that needs to be made. A major part of my work is about management of Ofsted. It is a much larger and much more widely dispersed organisation than it has ever been before. The senior team from Ofsted that you have here today recognised the very significant management and leadership challenges that we face in running the organisation as efficiently and effectively as possible. If I might make one or two more specific comments on Early Years by way of introduction in this first part of the session, it is just over a year since we took over responsibilities for inspecting day-care and child-minding. This followed implementation of the Government's national childcare strategy, the publication of the 14 national standards against which childcare and providers are judged. Our overall aim is to ensure children are safe, well cared for, and engaged in meaningful activity. Our regulatory duty is to register, inspect and investigate complaints against providers, and enforce necessary action. Just to give you a feel for the span of our work, so far we have registered 15,000 new applicants. We have inspected over 50,000 existing providers. We have investigated 6,000 complaints against providers and we have enforced 100 actions. Alongside that, internally we have had to absorb over 1,400 ex local authority staff, establish eight regional offices and support our home-based inspectors in their work. We believe there are signs of achievement in our first operational year; equally, though, we are not complacent as there have been, and continue to be, some difficulties along the way. For example, with our information systems we are making steady, if unspectacular, progress in resolving a number of our difficulties. We are on track to achieve our prime objective of the inspection of 100,000 providers by March 2003. However, we have been hampered by some delays in obtaining clearance from the CRB. Nevertheless, we are working hard to improve our performance after a slow start in some regions of the country, particularly where the recruitment of administrative staff proved to be problematic. Let me conclude these opening remarks by saying I believe that Ofsted continues to provide a unique perspective on the education system through our right of access to inspect. I am determined to make as much of this as possible in co-ordinating our inspection activity, not least because we need to continue with our efforts to make inspection as light a burden as possible, consistent with the need to maintain standards. Mr Chairman, I look forward to discussing this and other aspects with the Committee this morning.

  3. Mr Bell, thank you very much for your introduction. Can I open the questions by asking you if you looked at the widely-reported OECD study this morning in the Financial Times?
  (Mr Bell) I am sorry, I have not.

  4. It is quite worrying when it can say the findings there seem to contradict the perceived wisdom about successful countries and states that most industrial countries have a lot to learn. What it does point out, something that was reinforced by our visit to New Zealand recently, is this growing problem that we seem to be able to teach to a relatively good level with a reasonable percentage of our students, but we share this difficulty with four or five other OECD countries, including New Zealand. We had interesting evidence of that in New Zealand. Does the inspection system help in this?
  (Mr Bell) It helps first of all in relation to the point you made about teaching. If you look at our inspection evidence, just when Ofsted was being created, chief inspectors were talking at that time of up to 30% of teaching that was unsatisfactory, now poor teaching has dropped to just around 5%. Inspection is not the cause of that, but I think inspection has been an important mechanism in focussing on what constitutes high-quality teaching. So there is important evidence that inspection has helped to drive up the quality of teaching. On the second part of the question, I recall at our first session here making the point that one of the biggest problems facing the English education system is the gap between the very best and the very worst. For all sorts of reasons, we have a big gap. Some of our inspection evidence and activity recently has been focussed on, for example, schools that are facing the most challenging circumstances, which often will contain young people who are disengaged 100%, or are increasingly disengaged from education. I happen to think that the amount of discussion, debate and so on about the 14-19 curriculum does offer some opportunity for thinking more creatively about different kinds of opportunities for young people. I know that that is a concept that this Committee—

  5. I was looking at one of your reports when you were talking about LEAs and you said there is no proven relationship with the quality of an LEA and overall standards of attainment. On our visit to Birmingham—and Elizabeth Passmore gave evidence to our Committee during that visit—we were rather of the opinion that the work of that education authority had made a significant difference in what was occurring and had occurred, in terms of achievement in Birmingham. People could ask whether there is a proven relationship between the number of people and the budget of the Inspectorate and improving standards in schools. The depressing thing about the OECD standard is that we seemed to be on a par with a number of countries that are not devoting enormous amounts of money to a growing inspection system and growing numbers. How many people work at Ofsted?
  (Mr Bell) Including our Early Years staff, it is a full-time equivalent of 2,500, but a substantial number of these people are involved in Early Years and childcare regulation.

  6. What is the annual budget?
  (Mr Bell) Our annual budget is £195 million, but, again, the majority of that budget is devoted to the Early Years work.

  7. The numbers are getting almost half the size of the Department for Education and Skills itself.
  (Mr Bell) The point I would make is, given the billions of pounds that are spent on education each year, the amount of money that we are spending on the schools systems represents a minuscule proportion of that expenditure. I think we have made an important contribution in terms of the quality teaching in schools, the quality of leadership, increasing the range of the curriculum and so on. Prior to the inspection system being set up in 1992, the majority of schools and teachers would go through their careers without any inspection and there would be no public reporting of what was going on in schools. I think that the combination of focusing on what goes on by inspecting schools, and making schools publicly accountable is an important lever in driving up standards.
  (Miss Passmore) We found when we looked at all 150 local authorities and the performance in those local authorities, if you take the whole lot together, you cannot find positive correlation between the way in which a local authority performs the functions that we are required to inspect and the outcomes for those young people. But there were some cases where there was clear evidence that an authority that had not been performing particularly well and schools that had not performed particularly well, had together moved forward considerably. The best example of that is the authority you will be visiting shortly. There are authorities where—I suppose one would say fortunately—despite the authority not performing very well, individual schools are well led and the people responsible for leading those schools are nevertheless doing well for the youngsters in those schools.

  8. When we were in Birmingham and when we were in Auckland, the real challenge was that you could have individual schools—dog eat dog, everybody competing to be the best—but it was very difficult, certainly with the very devolved nature of the schools in New Zealand, but in a very real sense in the United Kingdom as well, to get change across the system, systemic change to raise the overall level of groups of schools. Without a local education authority, many of us believe that there will be no instrument or tool to do that.
  (Mr Bell) I happen to think that there is no silver bullet when it comes to systemic change. I think it is a combination of factors that bring about change. We know that the Department is talking about ideas about a federation of schools, about some schools helping to support and lead other schools. I think that that will be an interesting development and an interesting development for us to report on. Can successful schools bring forward, lead forward and achieve improvements in other schools? At the moment, if you look at school-to-school, it is relatively untested.
  (Mr Taylor) When you started by referring to the report from the OECD, my initial thought was that at last somebody else is saying exactly what we have been saying for rather a long time, and the stress on the importance of teaching has been the thing that is most needed to turn round what we referred to, for example, in our Three LEA Reading Report of 1994, as the "long tale of under-achievement". The need for that to be tackled through systematic national systemic teaching and strategies was what led most directly to the decision which was a cross-party decision to have national strategies for literacy and numeracy. I think we were directly instrumental in bringing about that, on the basis of reporting on what we found, and on the basis of our relentless probe of the area of under-achievement, exclusion and disadvantage, which were for us the most intractable and irremediable problems. The fact that eight years on from that we are still finding that this tale of under-achievement exists does not in any way invalidate the method of inspection, it shows that the capacity to implement that nationally is still imperfect.

Mr Shaw

  9. I would like to ask you a few questions about the early years. It is a year since the transfer of staff from the local education authorities or other local authorities to Ofsted's employment. There was concern in many quarters that the relationships that had been built up over many years within local authorities would break down, and particularly when one considers issues such as child protection. Relationships on the ground are vitally important for sharing of information. What has been your observation of those relationships? Have there been any problems?
  (Mr Bell) I will ask my colleague Maurice Smith to comment specifically on the child protection issue, but let me make a more general point about relationships. You will of course know that local authorities retain some important residual responsibilities in terms of early years and childcare development partnerships. We have made a great effort to ensure that there are good working relationships. For example, Ofsted staff will have regular meetings with representatives of early years and childcare development partnerships. In many cases, they will attend on a regular basis with early years and childcare development partnerships. We place great strength on building and in many cases maintaining relationships, because it was a transfer of staff that had often worked for those authorities to Ofsted. That has been a real priority for us to keep those relationships going.
  (Mr Smith) I wonder whether you would mind if I added a little local flavour to how those relationships work, having just come from a position as one of the regional managers in the North-West. We have written protocols with nine local functions—child care partnerships, the environmental health authority, the fire brigade, et cetera. Those written protocols only become live when those individuals meet each other across the table; and those meetings are now well established following on from the protocols. A senior member of staff from each region—and I am talking about the team manager and above in the main—attend as part of each of the 150 partnerships, so Ofsted has a seat at the table. In addition, we have regular meetings with those other colleagues I have mentioned. In each region we also have a dedicated senior member of staff who has specific responsibility for liaison in terms of child protection. That person's responsibility is to link in with however many there are—and in the North-West there are 22—area child protection committees, and also to link in with the named officer in each authority. On the child protection front, Ofsted is not primarily a child protection agency but it does have a place in the child protection landscape. Indeed, our checking mechanisms where we have found some difficulty in advance of somebody being registered, are effectively child protection measures to prevent people coming in to the system who will be a risk to children.

  10. It is about those informal relationships which are very necessary with professionals, not necessarily team managers and above but those operating at the grass roots level. What is your observation of those relationships being monitored and built on?
  (Mr Smith) Those relationships are good and are being built on. One might have thought it would have been a disadvantage to separate out this role.

  11. That was a concern during the Bill.
  (Mr Smith) In central government, my experience has been that that is not the case and that relationships are strong. I would add, going back to a report recently published about child protection, one of the issues we do come across is the issue of stability of personnel in the child protection field under the relevant social services departments. From personal experience, I will relate that forming a relationship with a local child protection senior officer is often a relationship that changes fairly frequently.

  12. There is an explosion of childcare provision now, so the transfer means there is a lot more work in early-years and indeed in after-schools as well. In the maintained sector there is a team of inspectors, but in the private and voluntary sector there is only one inspector. Do you think that is right? Why is there a difference, with one inspector for private and voluntary and a team for the—
  (Mr Smith) It is not always one inspector for the private and voluntary sector. We will actually send two inspectors, depending on the size and nature of provision. But we will do it according to need. Our view is that in terms of our inspection responsibilities under the Children Act, we only require one inspector to inspect on that basis. When we come to combined inspections, which include funded nursery education, then often there will be more than one inspector.

Jeff Ennis

  13. You mentioned in your earlier comments, Mr Bell, that you registered another 15,000 new childcare providers. Is the childcare register now complete? Have you got everybody registered who should be registered?
  (Mr Bell) No, because we had a transitional period from September 2001 to March 2003, an 18-month transitional period. Our stated intention at the beginning was that that exercise would be completed. As I indicated, we are on target to complete that process by March 2003.

  14. Going back to the transition from local government responsibility to Ofsted responsibility, you have apparently still got problems with the information systems operated by the early-years inspectors. Without going into too much detail, can you enlarge on what those problems are and when you expect to rectify them?
  (Mr Smith) The problems, in the main, have been to do with what I am reliably informed is called connectivity, logging on to the system, and the amount of capacity. We have taken three steps. As we speak, they are taking place. That is the installation of ISDN lines for those people in remote areas; installation of broadband for those people who can connect to that; and the increase in the number of ports by 50%. They have been the main problems with the system that we have had.

  15. When will it all be sorted out?
  (Mr Smith) It has improved considerably over the last six months—and I speak both statistically and from personal experience. The final piece in that jigsaw goes in place in mid December.

  16. In terms of the differential inspection in terms of the maintained sector and the private and voluntary sector, are we going to bring them closer together? Are we looking at different ways of inspecting; or will we always maintain this difference?
  (Mr Bell) You will be aware that we are working under different legislation, which is the first point. As Maurice indicated, we are also working in different settings in terms of size, scope and range. There is a debate to be had in due course about the possibility of trying to bring together, and bring together more closely, different sorts of inspection regimes. It would be commonsense, would it not, that it would never be appropriate to have a single all-encompassing inspection framework that counts in the same way in a 500-place primary school as in a child-minder's home. However, we need to be clear about the common underpinning principle of inspection. One of the advantages of the Ofsted approach is to be able to use the expertise of making judgments about the quality of provision, and apply that in the future. The transitional inspections that are due to be completed by next April are largely focused on compliance against the 14 national standards. We always said that after those transitional inspections were completed, we would be moving to making more quality-based judgments. That, I think, offers an opportunity for us to think more carefully about the way in which we go about inspecting.

  17. Do you think the more formal inspection of child-minding premises will put new child-minders off registering and not come in to the sector?
  (Mr Smith) I have no evidence for that.

Mr Pollard

  18. It is about people going underground and not registering because of the inspection process. My understanding is that there are many of these. I could give you names in my own constituency, but I will not, where people have said, "I am opting out of that" and both parties agree.
  (Mr Smith) I have nothing to add to what I have said, except that that has always been the case I have no evidence to suggest whether Ofsted taking on these responsibilities has changed that in any way.

Valerie Davey

  19. I want to ask you about your responsibility in the area of childcare. Is the Criminal Records Bureau fit for purpose?
  (Mr Bell) There is a specific policy issue about the creation of the Criminal Records Bureau, which is obviously not for me to comment on. As Maurice indicated earlier, it is an important part of the checking of the suitability of potential providers. There are difficulties and timescale delays at the moment, but I think it is an important part of the process. We are not, as Maurice said, a child protection agency, but if we can carry out a number of checks, including criminal checks, I think that that is important in helping us to regulate a good childcare system.

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