Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 33 - 39)



  Chairman: Can we now welcome the new team, and I welcome Elizabeth Passmore, David Taylor and Judith Phillips. I want to start with looking at seeking pupils' views during inspections, and, Chief Inspector, I think Paul would like to open the questioning on this.

Paul Holmes

  33. You are looking to expand the use of anonymous questionnaires to collect pupil views; now, in my experience as a teacher for 22 years, children can be pretty good at making assessments like this, and once you have cut through their initial assessments, based on things like personality and fashion sense, as opposed to things we are looking for, how, through anonymous questionnaires, are you going to cut through those superficial impressions and get down to the important point then?
  (Mr Tomlinson) As you know, we have been consulting on whether we should introduce this, and I am still waiting for the report from MORI on the responses to that. Just for information, we have had 8,500 responses, which is very, very pleasing indeed. But assuming that there is support for this, what we have already agreed is we would establish a working group involving a variety of interests, from outside of OFSTED as well as inside, to take forward the issue of the format, style of questionnaire, the way in which it would be used and then the data analysed, and so on. There are examples about; for example, there is a lot of work being done at Keele University on this issue, and we are hoping to involve them in our work. Equally, of course, a number of schools already use such questionnaires themselves for a variety of purposes, and we shall make use of their experience and expertise as well. So that we shall be drawing together a great deal of, I hope, expertise which will enable us to come out with a proposal and a type of questionnaire which we hope will avoid some of the obvious pitfalls, but provide us with a very valuable means of obtaining pupils' views. Another, of course, that we will look at, where a school has a school council, and more and more schools do have school councils, we will very much want to talk to the school's council and its members to hear about how that operates, to hear how they feed in their views, and what the response to those views is. I suspect that, despite the initial sort of apprehension, in fact, we will get a lot of very valuable and indeed supportive comment and information from pupils, if and when we move down that path. But that is the plan at the moment; that working group will operate as from January to help us in the development.

  34. Looking at, rather than just at the general questionnaires, specific groups of children who do conspire to make malicious allegations, certainly, as a union rep., I have come across cases like that over the years, where it may be a small group, it could actually be quite a larger bunch within a teaching group, who will conspire against a particular teacher; there have been cases in the national press, again, where such false allegations have been made. How would you cater for that when analysing your results?
  (Mr Tomlinson) At the moment, I cannot give you a firm answer, otherwise I would be, in a sense, pre-empting what the group we are setting up will come forward with, advice on how we deal with this matter. Clearly, it is an issue we are very aware of, and it is an issue that we are going to have to have an answer to, in the way that we deal with the questionnaire and the analysis of the data. But, at the moment, I cannot give you a definitive answer, simply because I want this group to help advise us how to deal with this very specific issue, and to offer us a way which is robust enough to give us a reasonable degree of assurance, hopefully, 100 per cent, but it is rare you can get that, that we will avoid this issue. Equally, of course, we will be talking to the school, because they will have information about pupils' views about various matters within the school. So it will not be done in a way which ignores what the school can also tell us.

  35. And, finally on that, in theory, the OFSTED report in its totality does not identify individual teachers but does focus, for example, on individual departments. Do you see the pupil questionnaires only being reported on in the sense of the whole school, or would you see it coming down to individual areas?
  (Mr Tomlinson) No. At the moment, we are envisaging it dealing with whole-school issues. For example, questions such as, if you are a pupil new to the school, a year seven pupil, how you are helped to settle down in the new school, questions about do you know where to go in the event that you are in difficulties or need support, what about homework issues, use of extracurricular clubs and societies, and the like; so there are a number of questions about the whole school. What we want to avoid is getting down to the opportunity to be commenting on Mr Smith, or Mrs Jones, or whatever; that we do not regard as legitimate territory. No doubt they do have views, but we do not intend them using the questionnaire to express them.

  Chairman: I want to move on to short inspections now, Chief Inspector, and Kerry Pollard.

Mr Pollard

  36. Chief Inspector, I was part of a school inspection on two or three occasions, and I can recollect well the fear and trembling throughout the whole community at the prospect of an OFSTED inspection, and the inspection itself and the post inspection. My question to you is, would it be possible, likely, that every school should have a short inspection, and only in exceptional circumstances would a full inspection be done, or perhaps even on a ten-year cycle, which has been suggested from other sources?
  (Mr Tomlinson) First of all, the proposals we have been consulting on do propose, for primary schools, that for the vast majority we would use a form of the current short inspection. For the secondary schools, where we have used the short inspection at the moment, schools have said to us, `this is fine and dandy, but we'd like you to do a little bit more.'

  37. Name those schools?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I can name you a large number. We have had this consultation, we have talked with lots of schools, I think we have to kill once and for all this idea that schools actually do not welcome and value inspection. What, from short inspections, we are getting in secondary schools is, `yes, it's great, but we would have preferred you to have done the full inspection and been able to talk about all our subject departments, because that would be very valuable information to us.' And, indeed, at the consultation we have recently had, and Elizabeth Passmore will come in at this point, lots and lots of comments have been, `well, we don't want you to reduce it so much, because actually we value the process.' As far as fear and intimidation, yes, I have heard that, more than once. I would put to you that, in recent times, certainly judging from my mail bag, I think that the changes that we have tried to bring about, not only in the process of inspection but in the climate in which inspection is conducted, there has been a considerable change there, and I do not think quite the fear and trepidation is there. Anxiety, yes, I cannot deny that there will be a degree of anxiety, and it was just as much a case of anxiety in inspection as it would be if they were going to get married, or they were having children, whatever it was, there are occasions in our life which give us higher levels of anxiety and stress, and an inspection is but one of them. My job, as far as I can, is to keep that to an absolute minimum, but a lot of the consultees are not in the frame of mind of saying, `oh, golly, don't inspect us at all,' or `keep it to an absolute minimum;' but Elizabeth.
  (Miss Passmore) We have held 43 meetings across the country, to which we invited people to whom the consultation document had been sent, which was to every single school, and three copies, to encourage teachers, as well as headteachers and governors, each to reply with their perspective. At the 43 meetings, we were able to explore issues in greater depth obviously than in a written response, and we have also held 17 meetings with individual interest groups, with the teachers' unions, the headteachers separately from the teachers, Commission for Racial Equality, and so on. And some of the things that have come out from those discussions, which we will have to build in to looking at when we get the MORI results, were that if you are going to have an inspection you might as well have enough of it to make it really useful, and this has been borne out by what Mike has already said, that a short inspection does leave some schools feeling that it would have been more helpful to have had more detail about certain aspects. It is when the brown envelope arrives announcing the inspection that there is particular anxiety, not about the actual amount of time that somebody is in a school. So one of the things that we are beginning to look at now is, and I think we will be able to do quite a lot of work on, it is the conduct of the inspection, a lot of people have told us they would like more time before the inspection starts to talk about issues with the inspectors; so I think we shall be doing a lot of work on the how it is done rather than just how much of it there is.

  Paul Holmes: Only to say that I was a teacher for 22 years, I have had the dubious pleasure of being inspected twice by OFSTED, once right at the beginning—

  Chairman: Why was it dubious, Paul?

  Paul Holmes: Because of the fear and trepidation, quite literally.

  Ms Munn: Of reading the reports?

Paul Holmes

  38. No, actually, I got really good reports, but the first time OFSTED came to the school, the last school I was working at, was right at the beginning, when OFSTED had just been set up, and the last time was last autumn, so quite recently. And I have to say that, despite the years in-between, the experience was no better and had not really improved in the way the inspectors carried out what they did, and it is a very soul-destroying experience. I have never known a single teacher who has said, `I would love OFSTED to come back and do that again in more detail,' not ever.
  (Mr Tomlinson) I am afraid that the returns from schools, which include a return from teachers, express overwhelming satisfaction with all aspects of the inspection; so I find it difficult at times to reconcile what I see as conflicting views, but certainly the hard evidence from returns is very clear, in terms of the satisfaction with all aspects of the inspection. That is not to say things cannot be improved.

  39. It is certainly not the experience from the bottom up. Can I go on though. If you are looking to expand the number of short inspections, it was about 26 per cent last year and you are looking at increasing it to more, possibly, is that because standards in schools are improving, so therefore you do not need the full-scale inspections, or is it because schools are getting better at performing for inspections, a bit like teaching to the tests, say, at various National Curriculum levels? And, again, to give the example from my own experience, when OFSTED first came, most of us said, `well, we're far too busy, we've got GCSE course work due in, we've got reports to write for the last month's exams, we've got exams for another year written out, we're not going to jump through hoops for this;' the second time OFSTED came, everybody would jump through the hoops, because they knew what the result of the report would be. So is it simply that schools are getting better at hitting the right tick-boxes, as opposed to there is a real difference in standards in schools?
  (Mr Tomlinson) I think there are a number of factors. I think the first thing is, certainly in primary, where I mentioned we were thinking of having, the proposition was largely to have short inspections, first of all, there has been significant improvement in what is happening in our primary schools, we now have more teaching which is good, very good, or excellent, in our primary schools than we have ever had before, and I have been an HMI for 20 years. We have, equally, got more of our schools well led now than we have had previously. These are real rises, and I think we should recognise those and give due credit to the teachers and others involved in achieving those. Equally, I think that there are clear signs of improvement in the standards being achieved, notably in literacy and numeracy, despite this year's results, but there are clear signs of improvement in those aspects of the schools' performance, and the picture is similar at secondary level. So that is one factor we have to bear in mind. The second is that we will have inspected all schools twice, at least, and we therefore have a considerable amount of data, and an increasing amount of data, about the performance of schools and the work in schools, and that has to be taken into account. The third thing that is mentioned is that more and more schools are developing and using systems of school self-evaluation, which are increasingly becoming more robust and more objective. Now if you set those three things together and say those therefore must have a bearing upon the views you take about what inspection does, and the weight of inspection that you apply, I think it would be foolish if I were not to take account of those three factors, and I am, in the proposals we have put forward. I do not think school self-evaluation is a replacement for external inspection, I simply think that what we move to is a system in which those two play a much more complementary role, and one builds and feeds from the other in the way that it should. So I think there are factors which cause us to say, `yes, we can reduce the burden,' and they are factors, I think, which we should be very pleased about, within our system, because they are real and significant improvements.

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