Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 80-99)



  80. When did you have the revised framework?
  (Miss Passmore) It was published earlier this year. They were all published at exactly the same sort of time.

  81. You will be looking at that to revise that?
  (Miss Passmore) Yes.

  Chairman: We want to look at the structure of the school year. This Committee also feels it has a distinguished history and one of the Chairmen of this Committee, Christopher Price, was extremely interested in this and wherever he is in the world I hope he takes an interest in David Chaytor's set of questions.

Mr Chaytor

  82. Do you support the LGA's proposals that there should be a six-term year?
  (Mr Bell) The first thing to say is it is not an issue we look at because, as I have explained in evidence, we accept the world as it is in reporting. I have mixed feelings about it. I can see the benefits of moving to that system but, like many changes that are proposed, sometimes they are over-hyped that this is going to be the panacea to all the problems that we are facing in terms of the structure of the school year, so I am agnostic, to be frank with you.

  83. So your reports have not identified any problems in schools as a result of the existing structure?
  (Mr Taylor) On the general issue about whether the current shape of the year sometimes produces problems such as pressures on pupils and teachers as a result of very long terms, particularly in the summer , our evidence supports the general picture. Our evidence is evidence which relates to what real teachers and pupils tell us. That does not necessarily lead us to saying we would put our hands up and say that we support the five or six term model as an alternative. We would say where there are pressures on teachers observable through inspection we do hope to report those.


  84. Give us your addresses and we will send Chris Price round to see you.
  (Mr Taylor) We have written to him in response to a letter he wrote.

Mr Chaytor

  85. Have either of the academies gone for the conventional term year?
  (Miss Passmore) I am not sure. I believe there are one or two schools in the country. I recall one in the Humberside area that has gone for it, but it is very, very rare across the country.

Mr Turner

  86. In your report on LEAs, paragraphs 170 and 171, you talk about the time it has taken to arrange intervention in the case of failed LEAs. The NAO reports that one of the problems with the Capita contract for ILAs was the withdrawal of all but one or two, depending how you interpret it of the prospective bidders for reasons of aggressive and unrealistic timescales. How do you square this problem?
  (Mr Bell) The specific point we were making in that report was that there was a period of drift that seemed to follow the decision to intervene and I think specifically we were concerned about the engagement of consultants and others who to a large extent would say, "Ofsted have said . . ." and to a certain extent you were not taken that much further forward by it. We also have some evidence from inspection reports that far from standing still and nothing happening, things have actually got worse by a failure to respond quickly to the concerns identified in the Ofsted report. However, I suspect on this one there is no exact science and you cannot say there is a period of three months and two days or whatever. I think there is a danger of just allowing the system to drift when nothing happens. Maybe there is an interesting parallel over some of our concerns with schools in serious weaknesses. One of the reasons we have moved more quickly there is precisely because there is a sense of drift after the first judgment was made.
  (Miss Passmore) Our evidence from working with schools requiring special measures reached a point where we said it was very important to take action sooner rather than later and the first six months was very critical. That is what has informed what we are doing with schools with serious weaknesses which did indeed feel there was a period in which they did not have to do anything. What we are seeing with local education authorities is because it was a much more complicated system to set up, the intervention arrangements did take longer and there were pauses or even going backwards for a while was considerable improvement in the poorest performing local authorities where we have gone back again. We are just saying perhaps we might have seen more improvement sooner had there been a slightly shorter timescale before the intervention took place.

  87. You comment on the lack of capacity and diversion of effort into writing specifications for tendering and contracting. What about monitoring, because it is the failing authority in many cases that is having to monitor the contract?
  (Miss Passmore) The arrangements are now changing to try and improve that further. We have introduced what has become called the "frequent monitoring" programme. There was not the same arrangement for local authorities as there had been for schools in terms of the monitoring of poor performance where for local authorities it was left until the next inspection, which might be a year or two years later. Where there has been a little bit of slippage, one might say, in the progress being made, I hope we shall see that that does not happen in the future.
  (Mr Bell) Mr Turner had a slightly separate point about the monitoring internally of the contract. Can I pick that up because in one LEA report we produced last term we made the point that there was considerable confusion on the role as between the client side, if one puts it that way, of the local authority, and the contractor on the other side, and a tendency to duplicate responsibilities. We were really quite critical of that kind of arrangement. Having said that, to be fair, in other reports where there is a client/contractor split, if I can use that terminology, it is working well. That is an important issue for us in our intervention reports to make sure that we do look at the way that these are working. Broadly one has to comment that in a number of inspection reports—and there must be about half a dozen now—looking at interventions, we do make the point we are going back quite soon after a contract has been signed and we can often only comment on early signals.

  88. These have been six very different patterns of outsourcing, have they not?
  (Mr Bell) Yes.

  89. Are you going to report in more detail on how these different procedures compare and the benefits of them?
  (Mr Bell) I am not sure we have got that in the programme.
  (Miss Passmore) It is not in the programme to do so at the moment.


  90. I hope you will look at the New Zealand experience as we have and reflect on some of their experience. One almost got the impression in New Zealand that they would like to get back to something like a local education authority to get systemic change. I may be wrong in that because I just notice some New Zealand parliamentarians come in!
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, if I get criticised in the press for jetting off to New Zealand I will say I am doing it under the express instruction of the Chairman of the Education Committee!

  Chairman: Absolutely, and I will come with you!

Jonathan Shaw

  91. Will you be looking at local education authorities' ability to manage PFI contracts? It seems increasingly that if PFI contracts are the only game in town, as it seems, for large capital expenditure, and it does require the local education authority (which becomes a client) to bring together a whole host of different schools with different agendas, and in order for that PFI contract to work well there does need to be a clear framework, the schools need to be clear about what they are going to do in terms of facilities' management. Who is going to manage those schools? What is going to happen after the initial expression of interest. There is a lot of concern amongst governing bodies, "What the hell are we getting ourselves into?" If those arrangements are not made you then see later down the line the experience of Harringay and Sheffield who now say that there are difficulties. What is your view on that?
  (Mr Bell) I know from personal experience in Newcastle where I was involved in the early days of the PFI, that it is very complex.

  92. You say that and then people think, "I do not want to know" almost like they do with computers. It is the only game in town. You cannot just say it is complex because that turns people off.
  (Mr Bell) It is complex but what I was going to go on to say is that it really does force governing bodies to think about what their role is going to be in this. It is hard work and it is, frankly, time-consuming but many schools now benefiting from new buildings would say it is perhaps better in the long run. In terms of reporting, I am not sure if it is out yet but certainly the Audit Commission reported on PFI in education. It may be that is a subject to pursue with the Audit Commission. We would probably only comment insofar as an LEA inspection report is concerned to say a PFI deal is in place to do this, that and the other, and presumably we would only comment further if very significant issues had been raised either by schools or the LEA itself.

  93. You do not think it is your role to comment on the expertise of the local education authority as the client in supporting schools to ensure that huge public projects are managed successfully?
  (Mr Bell) I do not want to speak out of turn but I think that is an issue the Audit Commission have touched on in their report looking at the capacity of LEAs to manage projects.

  94. If it is the only game in town for getting cash for schools, this is going to be increasingly an LEA responsibility and you inspect LEAs—
  (Mr Bell) That is a reasonable point. I guess you would also expect me to say that in this work that has been done in some detail by the Audit Commission, we would have to be absolutely sure that we are adding any more value, but you are right.

  Jonathan Shaw: They are not looking at every LEA in the way that you are.


  95. Can I ask you to give us a reasoned response to that. I think Jonathan makes a very strong point. In my own local authority in Kirklees, where there is a major PFI contract, you can see physically the change in the management of that school and it must be of some interest to Ofsted?
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely. We will come back to you with more.

Mr Pollard

  96. In your report in Annex A my local authority, Hertfordshire, appears regularly as purveyors of good practice, in fact miles more than any other authority and yet there are distinct gaps where it does not appear, although I am not saying it is not good in those areas. Is there a bit of hoop-jumping here, as Elizabeth was talking about earlier, and people saying, "We do not jump through hoops and, even if we do, we jump through hoops for a purpose." Secondly somebody on the panel said earlier on that it is the governors and staff who drive up standards. Should not greater emphasis be given on those aspects of supporting governors and staff rather than being one of a whole range of things? If they are the key determinants in driving up standards we should be putting some wellie into that.
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely. As far as the first point is concerned, we made the conscious decision to report in that annex on areas where particular authorities were doing particular things very well. Interestingly, that has been very well received.

  97. Certainly in my authority.
  (Mr Bell) Not just by those who are mentioned in despatches but by those who perhaps have got weaknesses in some areas, who will say, "That is good, we can go and talk to Hertfordshire and Birmingham or whatever." I think it is good that is there. I am sure that Hertfordshire and other authorities that are mentioned a number of times would probably also say to you they are not good at everything and they will look at what other authorities are good at and perhaps they can learn. As far as governors are concerned, yes, what support the LEA gives to governors is an important part of the LEA inspection process. The support governors are given is something we look at more generally in Ofsted. I and a number of colleagues have addressed governors' conferences. That is terribly, terribly important because sometimes there is a tendency for important performance information within a school to reside with the headteacher and properly that should be the responsibility of the governors to look at the data and then to hold the school to account. We are all for pushing that. As you know, we look after that nearly extinct beast, the PANDA, within Ofsted, which is the performance and management information sent out to every school each autumn. We send a copy of that to the chair of governors and we just recently strengthened the advice in the accompanying letter to say it is really important that this is discussed by the whole governing body. I think Ofsted is making a contribution to encouraging governors to take their responsibilities for governance and leadership very seriously.

  Jonathan Shaw: Are any of the staff here from Ofsted also school governors?


  98. Robert Green is.
  (Mr Green) I resigned as vice chair of a board of governors of a comprehensive school on taking up my post in Ofsted, so I have recent experience.

  99. So none of your senior management are on a board of governors?
  (Mr Bell) There is a restriction on being governors. As I think you can understand, there may be a concern about Ofsted there.

  Chairman: You have been very courageous sitting there taking all this fire but we have got one more item we want to cover and that is reducing the burden of inspection. David, would you like to lead on that?

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