Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20-39)



  20. But you do have a co-ordinating role in that area, do you not? Therefore, if you have an inefficient element within that, or a slow element—you said there had been delays for you caused by the Criminal Records Bureau—then that must be a matter of concern. Would you like to be more involved in the issues that were clearly raised over the summer with the Criminal Records Bureau, for schools?
  (Mr Bell) Can I make one important point? There have been good operational relationships between staff in Ofsted and the Criminal Records Bureau. I have to make that point very clear. Colleagues have worked together well, and there has been sympathy within the CRB to our difficulties. I am sure you will appreciate that teachers CRB checked have been fast-tracked—to see whether that would have a detrimental effect on childcare providers and so on. It is important to state that once these operational difficulties that the CRB is facing are over, we have got the basis for a good relationship to work efficiently.
  (Mr Smith) The Criminal Records Bureau is fit for our purpose, particularly in terms of enhanced checking. It is the pace of fitness for purpose that gives us concern. If that offers any risk, the risk is that people would be put off by the length of time, but we have not found any evidence for that.

Paul Holmes

  21. Moving on to 16-19 inspections, when the inspections first started in schools, one of the complaints was that you were not comparing apples and pears, to coin a phrase. You would go to a school in a very affluent area and compare it to a school in a very deprived area, and say, "look how well one is doing and look how badly the other is doing." The Association of Colleges is saying exactly the same thing is happening in colleges. Some colleges that serve very deprived areas, where traditional industries have shut down and just getting kids to stay on at school and college is an achievement in itself; but your inspections do not recognise that, and you will then compare that college to another one in an affluent, middle-class area.
  (Mr Bell) To make an important opening comment about that, you will have seen from the Association of Colleges' submission to this Committee that the first point it makes is that it welcomes the focus on teaching and learning that the Ofsted and Adult Learning Inspectorate inspectors have brought. That is the starting point and it is a really important point to make by way of partial response to what you said, Mr Holmes. If we focus on the quality of the teaching and learning, that is a good place to begin. We do use a common inspection framework, so that all colleges are judged against a common inspection framework. Also, it is not true to say that our evidence suggests that colleges serving more deprived areas always get the negative judgments under the inspection process; nor is it true to say that the colleges servicing in a more affluent area always get a positive judgment. That is the virtue of a common inspection framework; that you make judgments vigorously against that framework.
  (Mr Taylor) If I could pick up on the specific point about how we would inspect against the value-added or individual institutions; plainly it is fundamental to all our inspections that we judge our colleges, as we judge schools, in their context. We look at the nature of the socio-economic composition of the intake and assess as far as we can the progress being made by all the students, of whatever level of attainment, against the baseline with which they start their courses. In the first year of inspection in colleges on which we will be reporting fully in the annual report in February next year, and in the joint college report with the ALI, we will be analysing in quite some detail the way in which the differential findings for different parts of the whole college sector have come out. At this point, it seems clear that we are finding that using, as fully as we can, the existing measures of value-added and progress, there are considerable differences in performance. Those are reflected by the proportions of colleges doing well or badly in their first inspections. We have focused on one of the key areas, namely relatively poor progress in the lower attaining pupils' courses, particularly levels one and two. We think that is a national concern, that the quality of provision and response for those students, is not as good as for the higher achieving A Level students. That is a general picture and a matter on which we shall be commenting. That is not to say that we are being harder on colleges that predominantly have those students; but that the quality, as observed by inspectors, is weaker in some of the lower level courses and work-related courses that are being seen, than it is in A levels.
  (Mr Bell) The finding that David has just referred to is supported by our area-wide inspections, where we looked at provision for 16-19 year olds across a larger area than one single institution. The choice, the options and advice is often poorer for students at levels one and two, than for students at level three.

  22. You made the general point that with colleges that serve areas of high deprivation, some do well but the majority do not. You say that they do not all do badly. The same thing is always said about schools, but it still remains true with schools, that the vast majority of schools that ever went into special measures, served areas of social deprivation. The Association of Colleges is saying that it is concerned that the relatively low inspection grades achieved by the majority of colleges are disadvantaged. In the vast majority of cases it is true that colleges that serve deprived areas are getting much lower inspection grades than others. With schools and league tables trying to work in value-added factors, how far can you do that with college inspections?
  (Mr Taylor) If I may finish the point, we have fairly well-established ALIS type evaluations of progress from GCSE to A level, subject to the reliability of either of those measures, because no value-added indicator is better than the input and output ratios. There are no such measures nationally, and the Association of Colleges and we have had many productive discussions about the need to get better, by developing a value-added regime, which will reflect progress in vocational courses and in lower level courses. That is one of the challenges to the system. We can only use those indices that are there now. We do so, but we are working with the sector and with the LSC to try and develop much more sensitive ways of measuring progress to reflect the real achievements of some students who start with very low levels of achievement.

  23. One specific adjustment that the College would argue is needed, and which has to be recognised, is the nature of their students, particularly adult students. Many of them are pursuing a college course while they look for employment. Often, they will leave the course because they got employment—sometimes as a result of things they did on the course—and so they never complete the course; yet the criteria that you apply focus very much on things like completing the course and achieving the qualification. An awful lot of students leave the course because they have a job, which to them might be more important. How do you build things like that into a general framework, where you are measuring how many students are passing the course?
  (Mr Taylor) We are working with ALI to build it in as sensibly as possible, bearing in mind that at the moment there is a deficiency in some of the data we need about where the students who leave the course prematurely are actually going. If we were clearer on the destinations of all those people who leave courses—and colleges themselves are not always as clear as they might be—then we could say more about whether for somebody to leave the course prematurely for an alternative course of action it is a positive thing or not. At the moment, we are still concerned that levels of retention are too low across the board, and you cannot explain that factor entirely by people leaving for what one might term to be good reasons. We think it is right to continue to focus our attention with ALI on the issue of retention as a very serious one.

Mr Chaytor

  24. We now have a system of inspection of colleges, inspection of local education authorities, and area inspections. What is the evidence that all this inspection has led to any improvement in quality of 16-19 provision, or any structural and organisational change in specific parts of the country?
  (Mr Bell) Can I take the second part of your question first, and in a sense make the comment to Mr Holmes as well. These sorts of concerns about the comparison of the data that has been used are important for judging any single institution; but of course they are equally important when you try to make comparisons across the sector as a whole, because many young people are educated in post-16 provision of schools or sixth-form colleges. That is a pressing issue because you will recall the proposals within the Government's Green Paper Success for All suggest that the local learning and skills council will be given precisely the kind of reorganisation or plan-setting powers that you have described. Therefore, it will be important in our inspections to be able to make those accurate comparisons between different sorts of institutions, and also look at the range of provision across an area. It is true to say, Chairman, that we have a new inspection power to do area-wide inspections of 14-19 provision, so that is a really pressing issue for us, to get that right.

  25. What is the evidence that change has been brought about by the current inspection at the moment? You are saying it may well be brought about in the future.
  (Mr Bell) Obviously, this is not our area of responsibility. My understanding is that I do not think there have been massive amounts of change coming about in post-16 provision. That is partly to do, I think, with the absence of power. What has been proposed within the Success for All Green Paper is that the local learning and skills councils should be given this new responsibility for bringing about plans which may in turn lead to the organisation.
  (Mr Taylor) This is new; we have only been doing these inspections for just over a year, but there are some positive outcomes already emerging. We have largely been in the process of training our searchlight on the areas most worthy of investigation. We have highlighted the lack of strategic planning for post-16 and poor provision of guidance on work-based training groups and will continue to highlight them. They will feature prominently in next year's reporting. On the ground, just the fact that we have drawn attention to such issues is beginning to make a difference. That difference will need concerted action by the local learning and skills councils and the providers themselves, but we have already unearthed some serious issues that need to be addressed if proper provision for all 14 and 16-19 year olds is to be put in place. Inspection is already starting to work in those areas.

  26. One of the traditional criticisms of Ofsted is that it came in, it reported, and then it moved on, without building on the recommendations that it made. I was interested to hear you saying, Mr Bell, in your opening remarks, that in secondary school inspections, in fact all school inspections, you are now taking a more interventionist approach in setting up special measures, working parties, to try to prevent schools with serious weaknesses descending into special measures. Are you taking a more interventionist approach in the 16-19 year old area, and, if so, what is it; and how will you influence the LSC, given it is the LSC that has structural responsibilities?
  (Mr Taylor) We are, but we are having to make very clear what is our role and what is the LSC's role. That partnership, involving the ALI, the DfES and the DWP as well, is crucial in taking this forward constructively. We have built in to the inspection regime a systematic follow-up of a monitoring character by HMI; re-inspection of any curriculum area that is found deficient, with the promise of a full re-inspection of any that is continuing to be unsatisfactory and a cause for concern; regular reporting back to the local learning and skills councils, to ensure that the actions plans which follow inspections are followed up systematically. Indeed, the intervention programme is already showing clear successes in terms of colleges which, on their first inspection, were failing. Some of those colleges have made extremely good progress and some have not made such good progress yet. We are continuing to work closely with them to make sure that that progress is as it should be.


  27. Do you not get worried about this whole area? This is an area that is pretty new to you. At the same time, the learning and skills councils, which people say are not really up and running properly—it seems to me that most of our constituents would say, "we know what the skills needed in this country are and we know what needs to be done for 14-19"; but at the same time, the Junior Minister is now telling us that there is going to be a new reappraisal of skills needs that will not report until June. Is this not the most confused area that you are working in, David?
  (Mr Bell) We bring clarity to it, Mr Chairman.

  28. You have all these partners. I am surprised that you do not pick up that this is a very confused area of education and training—
  (Mr Bell) To some extent, we would support that point. If you look at our area-wide inspections, we are saying that there is an incoherence in a number of areas, and an absence, as David suggested, of strategic planning and so on.

  29. Absolutely.
  (Mr Bell) If you look at what is proposed in the Green Paper Success for All, that identification of incoherence or a problem now has to be translated into a specific plan of action laid out by the local learning and skills councils. Our task, surely, is to report on what we find; and then others who are responsible for implementation take that forward? We are contributing to what I would accept is in some areas an incoherence of provisions; and it is for others to take forward the next steps.

  Chairman: We will be taking it up with the Learning and Skills Council shortly. Can I now move on to the Connexions inspections.

Ms Munn

  30. This again is a relatively new area for Ofsted, so can I start with some general comments about how you feel Ofsted has adapted to taking over the inspection of something that is quite different.
  (Mr Bell) You are right. I guess our traditional inspection activity in this area had been looking at careers provision in schools and looking at council-led youth services; so this was a new area. As you know, the Connexions Service is an interesting partnership of a range of providers both public, private and voluntary. We were asked to carry out these inspections, and, as we say in the introduction to our report, these were inspecting partnerships that were pilots and had only been in place for a relatively short time. However, this report has highlighted some of the important issues that remain for Connexion's partnerships up and down the country to address. Let me give you two that I think are particularly important. One is making young people more generally aware of the work of Connexions. Our report points out that for those young people that HMI interviewed as part of the inspection, who are having direct experience of working for a personal advisor, were in many cases quite complimentary about the work that is being done. But a more general knowledge and understanding of what Connexions did and how it could help you, as a young person, were not always there. To some extent that is inevitable, is it not, given the fact that these are such new services? However, it raises quite an important issue for Connexions' partnerships. The second point that I think is terribly important—and in some senses this is reasonably predicable—is to do with the engagement of all the different partners making proper provision for young people. For example, what is the relationship between the Connexions' personal advisor and the working going on in an individual school? What is the relationship between the Connexions Service and the work being done by the educational psychologist, and so on? These are important issues that really need to be addressed. Again, let me pick up on a theme that seems to be emerging this morning. Our job is to identify those areas, and in this case we have identified these issues quite early in the process. I hope that will be useful both to the Connexions Service national unit and to individual Connexions partnerships.

  31. One of the tensions in setting up Connexions, which concerned me, is the laudable aim, and a very sensible aim and trying to focus in on a small group of young people who are struggling and need a lot of support, and the ones that need some kind of database to carry round for all their personal advisors, whether for education or youth development team, or whatever. Do you need to focus in on giving them extra help and support, but at the same time providing a universal service so that in theory every young person has a personal advisory who will help them through planning the next stages of their life. Do you think Connexions are beginning to show how they are going to manage this inherent tension?
  (Mr Bell) David Taylor might wish to comment, but I think the report is quite clear; that a number of these management and operational issues about relationships between personal advisers and other services would remain unresolved. That is a general observation. To be fair, there is a tension for the Connexions Service because it is a universal service, though it does work on the premise too that there will be higher levels of intervention for young people with specific difficulties. One of the important questions that remains for the Connexions Services is how you can avoid the Connexions personal adviser just becoming yet another individual, like all the others that deal with them if they are in difficulty? For example, if you are a young person in the criminal justice system and you have your YOT officer, you might be having problems with substance abuse and there will be somebody supporting you there; you may have special educational needs or family difficulties, and a social worker is supporting you. One of the intentions of the Connexions Service was to allow the personal advisor to be a kind of gatekeeper. It is early days, but that is an important issue that needs to be resolved.
  (Mr Taylor) It emphasises one thing we have said in our report, which is that the role of the personal adviser is quite a complex one. Some of the people that came in from careers guidance backgrounds had quite a lot of work to do to take on some of those functions. That is something we have highlighted as still needing to be done. On the careers, education and guidance front, that is where that inherent tension between the universal service and them more specific support for those most in need, is the most apparent. We have registered continuing concerns that a possible unintended casualty in some places is the loss of the kind of universal support in years ten and eleven particularly, to access to advice and guidance on careers and work-related matters that all young people should receive at that stage.

Mr Pollard

  32. What challenges does inspection of the Connexions Service place on the experience and expertise of your staff?
  (Mr Taylor) It has been very exciting actually. We have recruited a number of people with quite a range of backgrounds, including youth services, careers education, secondary and post«compulsory. We have deliberately set it up as a cross-divisional project where we involve HMI with a range of backgrounds. The framework is a new framework and in some ways a pioneering one, with a very strong focus on the young person at the heart of the experience, as being one that has gained immeasurably from that internal dialogue as well as making sure that we brought in our external partners. I think it was important that we worked hard to get the right kind of teams, but having done so I have a very high level of confidence that we are bringing that sort of multi-skill approach to inspect Connexions, which will guarantee a quality product.

  Chairman: This Committee will be looking at Connexions in more depth in future. I get the distinct impression when we visited schools and mentioned the Connexions Service that . . . Perhaps it would not be accurate to say that. We are going to look at inspection regulation and tendering

Mr Turner

  33. You have always had a small directly employed inspectorate, and now you have a massive one and a contracting inspectorate. Which is better?
  (Mr Bell) I am not sure it is a question of which is better and which is worse. The decision, as you know, is enshrined in legislation, that a market would be created for the inspection of schools. I think that that market has increasingly matured over time. We are in the process of consulting at the moment with the market about new ways of contracting in the future. For example, we are considering the possibility of reducing the number of contractors, and of offering them longer periods of time over which they can have guarantee of work and so on. That has been a maturing process in the contracting system. Do not forget, as well, that at the very beginning of Ofsted we tendered on a school-by-school basis with a very, very large number of people. Over time those numbers have reduced. That was enshrined in law. The arrangements that were determined for the childcare system were that we would transfer over the staff that we have got. As we have indicated earlier, these arrangements are working well. We have had a slow start, but it is beginning to move forward. These are different systems, rather than one being better and one being worse.

  34. Presumably, if you thought that the market system would work better for early years or the direct employment system would work better elsewhere, you would be encouraging Parliament to change the law.
  (Mr Bell) In my view, the market system in school inspections has delivered very effectively for us over the past ten years. Therefore, there is little, or no, prospect of me coming back and saying we should return to a directly employed workforce in terms of inspection of schools. As far as the inspection of childcare is concerned, we have to consider all options for the future of that kind of work. It has been a very demanding task for us having to expect 100,000 plus providers to carry out the regulation and so on. Our focus at the moment, as you would expect, is to deliver the task that was set to us in the transitional period; then, as I suggested earlier, we are moving to a new kind of inspection system with the emphasis on quality and so on. Therefore, we will consider all the options in the way in which we deliver in the future.

  35. Clearly, the fewer contractors there are, the bigger they are, the more potential there is for conflict for other work they may be doing with schools or with a local education authority or indeed with a local authority, or even with the government. How can you judge at what level the involvement of a large-scale operator like PricewaterhouseCoopers—in some other work being done by the local authority, say—which would present a conflict of interests?
  (Miss Passmore) We have always had to take account of connection or a situation which would mean it would be unfair for a school to be inspected by a particular person or particular team. As we look at developing our contracting arrangements, we have to take account of the situation as we find it now, which is very different from the situation 10 years ago, when these large consulting companies were not involved in education in the way they are. It is something we are very alert to. We want to make sure that we allow our inspectors to continue to report properly. As David has already said—in words we have used throughout our entire history of inspections—"without fear or favour"—but we want to make sure that the people we involve have the right lines of demarcation between different areas.
  (Mr Bell) If we do look at fewer contractors and possibly longer period of time, we might bring about further benefits because we have a greater incentive for organisations that are really focused down on inspection activities. I think there is a potential benefit there.

Mr Baron

  36. Mr Bell, many schools share a concern that the tendering process produces inconsistencies when it comes to inspection, something that seems to be borne out by the National Association of Education Inspectors. Do you think this is an issue and what are you trying to do to combat it?
  (Mr Bell) It is a major responsibility of mine, again enshrined in law, as far as maintaining the quality of the inspection system. There is a lot that we do, and it is a big challenge because we have got about 4,000 actively and regularly inspected, and it is a fair number of people doing these things. To give you an indication of the ways in which we do it, we give very clear guidance about what is expected of inspectors, and there is a lot of training from inspectors. We also have a division of Ofsted that is responsible for inspection quality. Just to give you some indication of that activity, last year there were approximately 4,000 inspections. Around 11% of those were directly monitored on site by the HMI going out and seeing how these inspectors were carrying out that task Another 13% were monitored via a review of the report. All the evidence we have brought together would be checked to see if the written report matched up. It is something that we take incredibly seriously. Obviously, it is one of the virtues of the Ofsted inspection system that we are able to say that a judgment made in a school in Cumbria is done in the same way as a judgment on a school in Cornwall. That is very important.
  (Miss Passmore) We have to look carefully at what is meant sometimes by consistency and uniformity. There are things we would be very, very concerned about if we felt that there was not the right sort of standard of approach being applied to the way inspectors conduct inspections; but, equally, we are very concerned that inspectors take account of the school as it is. Therefore we do not want a formulaic situation where you have to report on such tight lines that you cannot take account of the school that has got a particularly innovative curriculum or is doing something really exciting in terms of out-of-school activity. We want to make sure that there is a consistency of standard of the way we do things, but that there is sufficient flexibility in the way inspectors respond. This sometimes leads to people saying, "why is it different in this school from the one down the road?" It is because we have tried to take account of the right sort of circumstances.

  37. I fully accept your point about consistency. Do you not think, though, that that aim would be helped, for example, with contracts on an annual basis. There does seem to be some long distance travelled by many of the inspection teams, and sometimes different inspection teams visit the same school. Would that not be helped if we fell back on what was happening in regard to early years and basically a regional office?
  (Miss Passmore) Yes, although I have had the view put to me very forcibly in the last week that there is something important about inspectors having a rather greater national perspective. It was always regarded as very important in the work of the HMI that we did see the variety across the country, and we have to guard against what could be a problem of saying, "it is always like this in X area, and therefore you cannot expect any more". I am anxious that we do not do something that depresses expectations because of difficult circumstances.

  38. What about annual awards?
  (Miss Passmore) The annual awarding can be difficult and we are looking at and trying to increase the period. We have to take account of the changes that might come along, that Parliament might have in store for us but of which we are not yet aware. We cannot contract for too long a period therefore, but we certainly want to make it a more attractive proposition, that it will be longer than the current period.


  39. Some members of this committee would be concerned, and some of us believe strongly that small and medium size enterprises are the ones we would rather champion. It would be worrying for us if we saw that big organisations like Ofsted were dealing with big players. There are rumours that you are looking to drop the principle of smaller players that carry out inspection work, and go for the bigger players. That would worry us because we think that at the end of the day it is limbering up to the bigger businesses. We have had some interesting conversations with Capita and others on individual learning accounts. We would be a bit worried if we saw Ofsted becoming more dependent on the big players, and starting and pushing out the smaller players. At the end of the day, you might get into a situation where you are too dependent on a small group of big players that then would not only force prices up but take the availability—the smaller ones will go to the wall and they will not come back easily. What do you say about that?
  (Mr Bell) It has been a process of evolution really, as I suggested, since the beginning of Ofsted, where you had very small operations and of course there has been consolidation, consolidation, consolidation over that period of 10 years. We are seeing that happening naturally within the market. That is not something that we have direct control over. If particular kinds of organisations decide to link with other kinds of organisations—and there is evidence that that is happening—that is not really for us to control. I accept the point of course we are suggesting that that is the way we are going in a push within Ofsted. It is really for the market, the inspection providers to determine that.

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