Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 32)




  20. Just on the quality assurance point you make, Chief Inspector, as you know, the predecessor to this Committee, which I chaired, and I think it was universally acclaimed that Maggie Smith was appointed to the job that she is now in. But I do hope the message will get across that we do not see this as the cuddly area of inspection, that we expect highly trained early years inspectors, and whether they are scattered around the country, working from home, we expect them to be well trained and for them to be an effective body of people. And I was a little worried, in those earlier replies to questions, bending over backwards to make sure they are fine, and I welcome the fact that they are writing poetry in the south of England, but the fact of the matter is, it is quite difficult to quality assure a whole rag-tag and bobtail of people, across the region, working from home, not meeting very often, everyone will tell you, in similar organisations that are run in that way, that is a very difficult group of people to manage. And I am a little concerned, did you get rid of any, how many people did not get through the net because they were not good enough to work in the new OFSTED inspection?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Chairman, you know that it was a TUPE-like transfer.

  21. Yes.
  (Mr Tomlinson) And therefore people had the option of coming across to us and we had to accept them.

  22. Everyone; regardless?
  (Mr Tomlinson) Yes; that is the basis of the transfer system. What we have got in place is a considerable training programme, which the inspectors themselves say is far more, in terms of training, than they had previously, and we are determined to continue with that training, not just in the first year but throughout. We would like eventually, for those who do not have any formal qualifications to be able to get formal qualifications in this area, and we would want to work on that. Equally, we will face the issue, if we have to, that some of the people that we have may not make the mark, ultimately. We have to accept that is a possibility.

  23. And they would go?
  (Mr Tomlinson) And we will have to deal with the situation then, if that arises, yes. I am quite determined, while I am Chief Inspector, that the people doing the job are well trained, well supported, but very effective, and if they are not then it is simply not good enough.

  24. You can give this Committee your assurance that if somebody was found to be not up to the job they would go?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I am giving you the assurance we have the capacity to do that, yes.

  25. No, that is different. The question I asked was, would you continue to employ people you knew not to be effective in the job?
  (Mr Tomlinson) No, I would not.
  (Ms Smith) Could I add to that. Each of the home-based inspectors has a home-based senior living very near to them and will have, that is the weekly session I referred to earlier, regular supervision. And all the staff have a performance agreement, which is very explicit, it has measurable outcomes, and their first appraisals are due in March, and those that do not meet the standards will be asked to do some further training, get further support and demonstrate how they are going to reach the competencies that we know they need to have to make clear judgements. It is a very rigorous system, and I believe that we will manage that well, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for raising the status of this group of staff, as a profession, and they know that their part in that is to be competent and to demonstrate that they are. So it is crucial that we deal with this with great rigour. I do not expect miracles, people will not change particular habits overnight, nor will they acquire new knowledge overnight, so we have to be fair in the process but we also have to be firm, and that is the intention.

  26. Two last, very quick questions, before we move on to the next group of witnesses. And that is, in terms of your quality assurance, presumably your inspectors will go to settings, full of the father's smoke, children running around in a smoke-laden environment, whether they are prone to asthma, or whatever, you will see occasional physical punishment of these children, and you will not able to comment?
  (Ms Smith) No, that is not so at all; that is not the case. Our guidance on the standards for childminders, in respect of those things, makes it very clear that the childminder takes enormous risks if they engage in activities such as that, and for all sorts of reasons. And I am told that our guidance makes it very clear to the childminder that if they have entered into an agreement with a parent on either of those issues they are still not safe, because a parent can suddenly change their mind, if they feel their child is at risk, etc., or has had a smack that was rather harder than the parent envisaged when they made the agreement. I do not know of a childminder, yet, we certainly have not, and we have done well over 12,000 transitional inspections by this stage, and we have not found a foggy, smoky room, or signs of physical punishment, in a childminder's home, to date.
  (Mr Tomlinson) If we do then we shall report on it and draw attention to it, as we review the standards.

Paul Holmes

  27. Can I ask one follow-up there then. The Education Committee previously recommended it should not be allowed that childminders could smack or smoke, in relation to children; the Government rejected that completely. From what you are saying, do you think the Government were wrong to reject that advice?
  (Ms Smith) All I can say is that it is not OFSTED's place to set the standards, and we need to regulate against them, and we have to collect evidence to say whether this is a problem or not a problem. And I think any wise person would bear in mind the basic legal framework in the country, and if there is not a legal framework which says it is a criminal offence to assault a child, which is quite true in this country, then it is very difficult to impose things outside the law. And in my past work in this area, in local government, I do know that magistrates consistently overturned cases where a local authority had tried to deregister a childminder because of that agreement to smack. And so there is not any case law to support that either; and it can be very difficult to impose such things, as I think that Scotland will learn. However, sense prevails, good quality is good quality, and that is the encouragement that we will give, and good quality means being extremely scrupulous about these matters with children.
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think the other thing is, as we collect evidence, we will report on the way in which the standards operate, and where there are difficulties we will state those without fear or favour, and the Government will then take whatever cognisance it feels appropriate of those findings.

Mr Turner

  28. I just got the impression, from Ms Smith's answer, that she does not subscribe to the Government's view. Does she agree with the Government that it is acceptable that childminders should use physical chastisement to children, when appropriate?
  (Ms Smith) I do not agree that the Government ever said it was acceptable. I understand their dilemma.

  29. But they accepted it?
  (Ms Smith) I understand their dilemma about public law and what is largely a private situation, and I am keen that we help Government achieve solutions to that dilemma through inspection evidence. I think the way this has been interpreted is sometimes rather sad, because it is a difficult issue, it is not simple.


  30. Can I ask you, do you think there is a correlation between the growing incidence of asthma in children and exposure to smoking?
  (Ms Smith) I am not sufficiently medically expert to say that. I think there are all sorts of theories about chemical toxins, car fumes, etc., in respect of asthma. The rise in childhood asthma is very worrying. My focus, through our work, will be to actually help, hopefully, over time, to gather evidence of how that is worked through and what strategies in childcare can help and support parents in this issue.

  31. Would you be happy if your small children were in a smoky environment then?
  (Ms Smith) Not at all.
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think we have to differentiate here; that is a personal view and that is all. As the Office for Standards in Education, the task we have got to do on behalf of the Government's policy is that the Government's policy is the policy and our reports must be set against that policy. And I do not think it is right that our personal view has any bearing upon the way that we do our job, we must do it in pursuit of the Government's policy.

  Chairman: Thank you, Chief Inspector.

Mr Pollard

  32. Just following on from that, would you expect that the general environment, as well as the smoke-filled room, could perhaps have effects on the asthma rise in young children?
  (Ms Smith) Of course, and I think there are really important issues for us all to consider for childhood health in this, and we can only play a small part in that, but I hope we play it well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Maggie Smith. And we look forward to seeing you at our next meeting.

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