Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Bell, I welcome you to this your first session with this Committee. We hope and know that this is going to be a long and positive relationship with you in your new appointment as with your predecessor and we hope that will continue. We would normally have a number of set questions to ask you but you were only appointed a week ago—you took up your appointment on 1 May—and so these are early days. We did want to see you to get a feel for what your vision in the job is and how you see it and I wondered if you wanted to make a short opening statement.

  (Mr Bell) Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I am looking forward to working with the Members of the Committee in the months and years ahead. I am very aware of the responsibility that falls upon my shoulders. I believe that the post of her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools is a distinguished public office and I will carry out my duties carefully and faithfully. You will understand that I have been spending the first couple of weeks really just getting to know the territory; I have been sent a lot of briefing papers; I have been asking lots of questions; I have been talking to lots of staff; and I hope to get out and about to meet OFSTED staff around and about the country. I am also clear too that there are things that I have to learn having had a local government and education background and not having worked here in Whitehall. So, there is quite a bit to learn there, but I am looking forward to that very much. I am very aware of OFSTED's role and responsibility. I have a clear understanding of what I think are my key responsibilities. I think my first and prime responsibility as Chief Inspector is to maintain and manage the inspection programme. That is the first responsibility of HMCI. I am very aware of course that we have some quite significant challenges. We have a wide range of inspection responsibilities going all the way through from early years right up to inspection of colleges and teacher training. So we have to manage those responsibilities very carefully. The second key responsibility I have in this job is to manage and lead OFSTED as an organisation and it is an organisation which has undergone quite significant change in the last 18 months or so. If you move from an organisation of 500 people to an organisation of 2,500 people and you take on a whole range of new responsibilities, that is a big organisational challenge and I am very aware of the work that we still need to do despite the success, I think, in the main of the transition from local authorities to OFSTED. So, a big leadership and management task at OFSTED. Thirdly, it is a very important role of the HMCI to build and maintain good relationships with stakeholders wherever they are. That does not mean in any sense that the independence of HMCI needs to be compromised, but it does mean that HMCI has to work well, whether it is with teachers, parents, Members of Parliament or the media, and that is an important task for me. I think those are my three major priorities for my post as HMCI. As far as the role of OFSTED is concerned we have this historic role of in school inspection which, despite OFSTED being still relatively young—there has been a inspection of schools for 160 years and there is a continuing mission to inspect schools. There are obviously new responsibilities in Early Years which we have to consider and there is the continuing and very urgent task of contributing to school improvement and OFSTED has an important role in that respect as well. I think that is a fairly clear understanding of my responsibilities and those three tasks will keep me busy for the years ahead.

  2. I think that is plenty to start with. Would you have been put off applying for this job if this Committee had had a role in appointing you?
  (Mr Bell) I think that when you apply for a job, you make an assessment about the appointments procedure in advance and if you are uncomfortable with that, you would not apply. My view is that I have been through all sorts of different kinds of appointment processes and I suppose that if this Committee had had a role, it would not have put me off.

  3. Do you worry at all about the fact that it probably cost several thousands of pounds to make the appointment? Some of us looked at the procedures for appointment, which we know have to follow on a certain course, but here we have a great department, Education and Skills, which presumably knows a lot about human resources, and yet they outsourced the appointment procedure at great cost, whereas one would have thought that, with a job like this, you would only have to put it on an Internet site and get all the applications one wanted.
  (Mr Bell) I suppose I was only the innocent victim, so it is really not for me to comment on the appointments process! My own experience of appointments is that you try to gather information from a variety of sources. You might do a psychometric test, you might do interviews, you might use references and so on and that seems to be a pretty standard process now in the selection for senior appointments.

  4. You are quite fond of outsourcing, are you not? Your history in your last appointment was that you quite vigorously used private sector relationships to deliver service.
  (Mr Bell) First and foremost, Mr Chairman, I was a servant of the elected council and it is very important, whether you are working for a Conservative controlled authority, a Lib Dem authority or a Labour authority, that you carry out the policies of the council. My view was pragmatic in the sense that there was a big challenge that faced my previous employer with respect to investment and in our view it was a very effective way of securing private sector investment for the public good. The other point I would make is that in the particular areas that we looked for partnership working with the private sector, we believed there was expertise that we could draw upon. It seems to me that it was not about public sector bad, private sector good; it was about making an intelligent decision about where the expertise would be best found to deliver the Council's objectives. I think that would be my view and, I hope in this job, I certainly will not have any ideological perspective about what goes on in the education system. It is a case of making judgments about what works.

  5. That was not a question to trap you. You will find that this Committee is not against private sector partnerships, we are very keen that those private sector partnerships actually work for the public good. We have just come through a report published last week on individual learning accounts which said a lot about that, but you say in the interviews I have read that you are going to be your own man which is refreshing; we would not have expected you to be the same as any of your predecessors or copy their way of working. However, in terms of taking a radical view of what you do, there are several voices saying that the role of the Inspectorate really ought to be run down because if things are working and if schools are improving, this is the time to vigorously cut back on unnecessary inspection, and there are voices saying that certain parts of the Inspectorate ought to cease functioning in parts of the Education Service. What is your view on that?
  (Mr Bell) First of all, I am glad that you made the point about independence; I think that is terribly important and I have said already and I will say again that I do not think this job is worth doing unless you have the freedom and independence to speak out vigorously and frankly about what is going on in the education system. As far as inspection is concerned, I am a believer, as in most things, in evolution rather than revolution and I think that if we look at how the inspection system has evolved over the past 10 years, we have come to what I think is a reasonable position in the sense that we are now consulting on a new framework for September 2003 which emphasises even more the need to have inspection proportionate to risk. I think it is important to make the point that the inspection burden, if one even wants to use that word, is going to be for many schools in the future once every six years and it does not seem to me that that is unreasonable. I have to say that I believe strongly in independent rigorous inspection and nothing that I will do in my time as Chief Inspector will compromise that position because whilst independent inspection has a role to play in assisting school management and helping schools get better, that is not the only purpose. The other very important purpose of independent inspection is to secure public accountability. Those are not diametrically opposed reasons for doing inspection, but they both stand together, and whilst there are those who can say they are improving the evaluation that schools are doing themselves, that is good and I believe independent inspection can contribute to that, we must retain independent inspection as a way of securing accountability for the billions of pounds that we spend on education.

  6. What do you say to people on governing bodies and teachers and others intimately involved in education and delivering an education service about what they feel about inspections? The Inspectors come in; it puts a great deal of stress upon their staff. Then the Inspectorate comes in and makes a judgment of their school over a very short period of time. They do not really get a positive voice saying, "This is how you will improve. This is how you will get better." In a sense, they feel that it is a judgmental exercise rather than an exercise trying to move them on to a better stage. They feel that there is not that positive element coming out of the inspection. What do you say to those critics?
  (Mr Bell) The first thing I would say, Mr Chairman, is that I suppose I am unique now in that I am the first Chief Inspector to have been subject to two OFSTED inspections. So I suppose I understand what it is like to be on the receiving end. I think there will always be a degree of stress associated with inspection because it is an important moment in the life of any institution. I think, as my predecessor said in evidence to this Committee, we are trying to manage that process and OFSTED has a role to play in managing the process and schools have a role to play in managing the demands of inspection. I think I might want to challenge perhaps the underlying assumption in your question which was that the inspection has not really contributed to the improvement, the Inspectors come in, make a judgment and leave. I think inspection does contribute to improvement because it does provide that external eye on how the school is doing. Good schools can utilise that knowledge from external Inspectors to contribute to their own improvement. I do think it is important to keep a distinction between inspection and advice, for the very simple reason that the proper responsibility for improving schools rests with governors and head teachers and teachers. It does lie with Inspectors. It would seem to me confusing and it actually would muddy the waters about who was doing what. I think one could argue that over the years of inspection, we have contributed in many ways to the improvement of the education system and I think that my predecessor's most recent annual report highlighted some of the very significant improvements that have been brought about. I am not suggesting and he certainly did not suggest that there was a simple causal effect, but certainly I think inspection has helped to drive up understanding about school improvement and good schools are using that knowledge to improve themselves.

Valerie Davey

  7. We have asked about the nature of the appointment but, from your perspective, why did you apply?
  (Mr Bell) That was a question I was asked at the interview.

  8. I am sure it was! I would love to know.
  (Mr Bell) I will have to think again. Perhaps going back to some of my opening remarks, I actually think that this is an extremely distinguished public office and, I think with some passion, it is a real honour to hold this position, but I also felt that it was an opportunity to have some influence on the education system. It is interesting, when you look back on my career, I suppose your levels of influence move from being a teacher influencing directly a group of children through to deputy head and head where you influence a school, then in a local education authority and you feel that you have some influence there, and then perhaps to Chief Executive with wider influence to a post like this, which I think has a great opportunity to influence what goes on in the education system. So, partly it's just a great honour to be appointed to a post like this but also a sense that it can influence very profoundly developments in education in this country.

  9. I am well aware and I think everyone around this table is aware that it can influence and therefore we would like to know where you are coming from. I understand, looking at your career up to this point, exactly what you said, the public nature of it, the servant of the council you have mentioned, the pragmatism, the need to re-organise, you had 500 to 2,500. What about your education side? Where does your education passion come from? What is your education philosophy? How are you going to influence in terms of the education? Just leave aside the fact that you are almost certainly a very good manager. What about the passion that is going to influence this service?
  (Mr Bell) If I could just come in at that from a slightly different angle. The key responsibility that I have as HMCI seems to me to be reporting on the evidence that OFSTED finds and that is the basis on which I will speak out. Clearly, I bring to the job lots of influences in my own life, in my own background and education, but it is probably invidious to suggest that I have a particular passion for this area of activity or that area of activity because one of the nice things about having a slightly varied career is that I have had the chance to be involved in education across the whole range of dimensions. I suppose that if you want a passion, I was one of a generation of young people whose parents had no experience of higher education, were given opportunities to go to university and just the sense that education is an important route and way forward and I think that is what drives me; I think that is what makes education worthwhile, that it can offer people life-enhancing opportunities that they have not had previously. I did say last week that one of the things that concerns me about our education system is that whilst our standards appear to be rising across the system as a whole, we still have this stubborn gap between the best performing and the worst performing schools, if one measures that by educational attainment, and it seems to me that it is a real passion to try to do something about that gap.

  10. Did you enjoy teaching and do you like children or have you left it in order to do the other thing?
  (Mr Bell) No, I very much liked it. I think it goes back to what I was saying about having influence across the system. I think you can enjoy working with a class of children and some of my happiest moments were thinking about particular incidents working with particular children. You can also get quite a buzz in having an influence on the education system elsewhere.

  11. We all know that.
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely, and I think it is not either/or, either you are a teacher or you are something else. I think you can have that influence and passion, but it is very important that I do not sit in an office in London, that I do get out and about and I go and talk to head teachers and teachers and visit schools like I did yesterday. That is something that I have committed myself to on a weekly basis, to visit at least one school.

Mr Baron

  12. First of all, I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am married to a Scot from your part of the country, but can you tell me what English schools can learn from Scotland.
  (Mr Bell) This is where I use a degree of discretion and say that perhaps I do not want to go there and I will give you a very good reason why. I have been out of the Scottish education system for 17 years and I think it would be quite inappropriate for me to make any comment because it would really be based on nothing more than what I read in the newspapers.

  13. I think you are evading the question, Mr Bell, but evading it very well! Let me move on. There is perhaps a popular perception that Scottish schools are somehow better than English schools. Holidaying in Scotland quite frequently, I pick that up. Why do you think that is? Are they better in your view or not? I know that you have been out of the system for a little while but you have taught there.
  (Mr Bell) I must say that when I came to England in the mid-1980s, I did not notice the dramatic differences that I think I was led to believe. I just did not notice those differences. I think it is always important to stick to the facts because of course there is that great tradition of the notion that it was part of the reformation of Scotland that there was a school master in every parish and so on and that is fine, that is great, that is part of the history and culture of Scottish education, but that is very different from saying that that makes a difference to what is going on in schools today. I am being quite open with you, Mr Baron; I think having been away for 17 years, I am genuinely not in a position to make sensible comparisons.

Mr Shaw

  14. You have said that it has been 17 or 18 years since you left Scotland but, in those 17 or 18 years, you have worked in Newcastle and you have worked in Bedfordshire. What do you think the people of Newcastle and the people of Bedfordshire would say about David Bell?
  (Mr Bell) I hope they might say that I had some influence in what went on, whether it was in the Education Service or whether it was local government more generally. I think there is a contrast however between being a Chief Education Officer and being a Chief Executive. Chief Education Officer tends to be a more public role because people will seek your views on all sorts of issues; you tend to be out and about; you are visiting schools; you are doing all sorts of things that are very visible. As a Chief Executive, you are much more behind the scenes and, from my perspective, it was one of the interesting contrasts between doing that much more up front job than doing that job behind the scenes. So, I am not sure that public awareness of Chief Executives is quite as great as public awareness of Directors of Education.

  15. You might be saying that they had not heard of you! You perhaps were not there long enough for them to hear of you! In Newcastle, you talked about your influence. Could you point to three things that you are very proud to have achieved as the Chief Education Officer in Newcastle?
  (Mr Bell) When I took over as Chief Education Officer in Newcastle, the Education Service had been through some fairly difficult times and there was a real question in my mind as to whether I wanted to stay around or go off and do something else because it was the time when local government re-organisation was coming and there were obviously lots of opportunities for prospective Directors of Education. However, I decided to stay and I think I chose to stay because there was a lot of commitment and a lot of enthusiasm and quite a lot of people were saying, "Look, stay because there are things that we can do here." I think what we did primarily was to get people really focused on the difficult task of raising standards in an inner city area and by no means is that finished business. I think that one of the things I achieved there was generally getting schools to face up to the fact that performance in inner city schools and the background of the youngsters was not an excuse that you could make. You could not say, "These youngsters are from inner city areas and you just have to expect this, that or the other." We worked very vigorously to ensure that we had very few schools going into the special measures, or with serious weaknesses, because, for me, that has always been a passion as, whilst one uses the terms in the general sense, "special measures", what that actually means is that Inspectors have judged that the school is failing to provide an acceptable standard of education. So, that was very important. I think secondly we were ahead of the game on a number of issues, particularly to do with literacy. It is my view—and I am sure it is commonsense and always has been commonsense—that if children and young people do not have the basic skills in literacy, it is very difficult to do anything else because that really is the building block for future success. We got ahead of the game and undertook a number of literacy initiatives in Newcastle; we were one of the national pilot schemes for what became the national literacy strategy; we were involved with the national literacy project; we were involved in all sorts of ways to really ratchet up, really focus schools, but again it was no easy task because, at the same time as all that was happening, we were finding that children were coming in to school with more and more difficulties. So, on the one hand you were trying to improve literacy standards and hoping to see a better performance at age 11; and on the other hand you were recognising that the difficulties children were bringing were even more profound as time went on. I think we did that. Thirdly—and I am pleased to say that OFSTED commented on this—I felt that we really did make a difference to the organisation that had an impact in schools, that schools really felt that there was a good partnership between the schools and the LEA.

  16. You have been quite modest because you have not sat there saying, "I did this, I did that." Is that the tone that you will set for OFSTED? As the Chief Inspector, you will see to the influencing, as you put it, working as a team and the bringing of people together in order to tackle some of the things that you have referred to rather than being a figurehead who goes in and kicks butt to bring about change.
  (Mr Bell) I actually do not believe in heroic leadership in any organisation; I do not believe in heroic leadership if that means that it is all down to one person. I think one of the real secrets of leadership is actually making other people feel that they are contributing to leadership and that is the style which I hope to bring to OFSTED as an organisation and I have already made that clear in some of my early presentations to staff. I also think it applies generally because if you look at good schools and other successful organisations, they have been able to build that leadership capacity across the institution. Yes, the head teacher, if one thinks of schools, is an important factor, there is absolutely no argument about that, but if you talk to other successful head teachers, they are probably successful because they created a leadership culture and a leadership team. So I think that is important. I think I can do all of that and I hope speak from the basis of the evidence that OFSTED finds and hopefully engage in constructive and sensible dialogue because OFSTED needs to be a confident, outward-looking organisation that can take criticism, but, at the same time, retain the independence of the post and I think that is an important balance. I happen to believe that if you get the personal style right, perhaps what you say on the basis of the evidence is then more powerful because people really will respect what you are saying because you are speaking from what you found.

Ms Munn

  17. I want to come on to explore a little about this issue you talked of before regarding the gap between best performing and worst performing schools. I went into a school in my constituency on Friday, Myrtle Springs, which has not long come out of Special Measures and indeed they were very complimentary about their last OFSTED inspection which they found helpful and supportive in moving them forward, but some of the issues they said is that if you look at their results, the number of children getting five As to Cs et cetera and if you are judging them on that basis, they are not going to get there in terms of what they are doing just because of the nature of the children who are coming into that school.
  (Mr Bell) I just have a couple of observations about that. I think despite perhaps the controversy of the Special Measures approach, it has had a very profound impact on a number of schools over the last 10 years that really were not performing well by any measure. So, I think it has been an important contribution, difficult though it has been in many cases, which OFSTED has made to the improvement of education. Interestingly of course, an OFSTED inspection is not simply about the raw performance data in school; it is not just about, `how is a school doing in examination terms?'; it is giving you a more better and rounded picture. If you look at schools that have been in Special Measures, they have not been in Special Measures simply because there has been below average examination achievement, they have been in Special Measures usually for a variety of reasons. I think in a sense the opposite applies in that where schools are doing well in many areas, that will be recognised by OFSTED and I think that the debate about schools in challenging circumstances has to recognise that. Where a school has a particular percentage of examination passes, that gives you one indicator of how the school is doing but of course there are other indicators of how the school is doing and I think that, over the time, OFSTED has actually been good at identifying where schools are doing a lot to improve performance, but somehow that performance is not moving as rapidly as the school would like.

  18. I suppose what I am saying to you is that that is fine at the individual level of the school and, as I said, this school feels positive about the process, but what they are saying is that certain things happen as a result of this overall message about getting high performance schools. One thing they said they could have done in order to improve was to change the children and some schools do that, you get rid of the difficult case, you move them on and the like. They also find that because they are doing well with some children who have been struggling, that the LEA is in a position where it says, "Myrtle Springs did well with a child who had these sort of difficulties" and then they are in danger of putting in too many children who need that extra support. What I am asking is, in terms of your role giving out the messages about best performing/worst performing schools, how can you help schools like that which are doing a good job, their OFSTED report will say they are doing a good job, but they are not going to be producing high figures? How is the message you are giving going to change the perception generally?
  (Mr Bell) I think you have highlighted one of the ways in which that happens by the inspection itself because presumably from what you have said the inspection has recognised the rounded achievements of the school, particularly if it is a school that has come from Special Measures. I think there will always be this tension between the micro and the macro. The micro-message that OFSTED can give about what an individual school is doing and how well it is doing I think reflects the kinds of improvements that you have described. At the macro-level, it is very important that the Chief Inspector does speak out on the basis of the evidence that has been found and I think Mike Tomlinson did that very clearly on the issue of the gap between worst performing/best performing schools. I think what Mike Tomlinson's report also did however, even in national terms, was put that in the context of improvements in all sorts of areas, leadership and management, teaching quality and so on. So, I think it is about speaking from the basis of the evidence that OFSTED finds and highlighting where there have been improvements as well as continuing to identify where there are pressures in the system.

  19. I still do not think I am quite getting to the point. I am saying that we all want standards to be raised in education, that is something we are all behind, but what you hear time and time again is that the downside of that is that it has these often unintended consequences which affect individual schools and individual children which results in, "That is a good school, we are going to send our kids there" or "That school is not doing very well" and therefore, at the school which actually is doing very well but is not producing the results, the children get labelled, it becomes a vicious circle, it is seen as not a good school to go to and therefore the children cannot be any good, although in any value added measure they are actually doing very well. Do you want to counter that?
  (Mr Bell) I suppose that, as a local government officer, I know all about dealing with the local press and perceptions that there might be, say, in the media, but again I would start—

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