Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)




  20. If I can interrupt there, I think what Ms Munn is pushing you to is a little bit of the flavour of the question from Val Davey about passion. There are people who passionately believe that the publication of tests at seven do a great deal of damage to these sorts of schools and many schools and, as you know, in one part of the country, the publication of the test results at seven have ceased. Do you think that is something you might look at least favourably or not?
  (Mr Bell) The publication of examination test results is a matter for Government to determine.

  21. In your terms of reference, you are going to be giving advice to the Government.
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely, but what I would say, again going back to Ms Munn's point, is that part of the role of OFSTED is to secure that public accountability. So, with regard to people not thinking it is a good school, one of the best ways in which that perception can be countered is on the back of the evidence that OFSTED finds at a local level and I am sure we all know examples of schools that have been able to publicise good OFSTED reports as a way of indicating, "This is what we do in our school." It might not be the same as the school down the road, they might have a different approach to inclusion, they might have a different approach to this or that, but this is what we stand for, and I would have thought that the publication of OFSTED reports is a very powerful way of providing that information and it seems to me that Inspectors coming in from outside and providing recognition to teachers and to pupils in most schools is far better than that message not being available at all.

Ms Munn

  22. You used a very interesting word there which was "inclusion" because that is precisely what this school is about, it is about inclusion. Are you, as Chief Inspector, going to raise the importance of how well schools are doing on inclusion alongside the issue of how they are achieving in terms of results?
  (Mr Bell) I had my first conference yesterday with head teachers in Tameside and I was asked about the issue of inclusion and I side-stepped it simply because I think it is an area where I want to look forward at the evidence that OFSTED has already gathered. It is a very, very important policy issue and therefore OFSTED has an extremely important role in reporting. I just held my fire yesterday and perhaps you will forgive me if I hold my fire on this one because it is a very serious issue and I think it is one that I want to study within OFSTED.

  23. I shall have that question next time.
  (Mr Bell) I shall prepare for it.

Mr Chaytor

  24. Earlier, you drew the distinction between the role of OFSTED as simply reporting the evidence and the accountability and the role as an institution that could help school improvement, but you said primarily your role was to inspect and report back the evidence. Then you made plain the role of OFSTED in schools in Special Measures and taking schools out of Special Measures. Do you think the balance between the pure inspection role and the school improvement role needs to shift?
  (Mr Bell) My initial thinking is that it does not because the key responsibility that I have and the key responsibility OFSTED has is to inspect and to report on what it finds. I think, as I suggested earlier, there are lots of ways in carrying out that role OFSTED can contribute to school improvement and I think we should not actually underestimate it. I think that to some extent it has been a little unfortunate that people have drawn the sharp distinction between inspection on the one hand and improvement on the other and in fact OFSTED in a number of ways that I can cite has contributed to improvement. I think the balance is about right. However, OFSTED, as you know, has a formidable amount of information, not just on schools but on other institutions, and we have to look at how we can make best use of that information because that might be helpful to others in understanding how we can bring about school improvement. So, first of all, I would not want to suggest that OFSTED does not have a role now and has never had a role in school improvement, it has, but I would want to just be clear that the key role of OFSTED and the clear role of the HMCI is to inspect and report on what is found.

  25. You also said that the report of the former Chief Inspector made the point that there was no causal effect between generally a rise in standards and the extension of OFSTED's role, but another way of looking at it is that one of the phenomena in our system at the moment is the widening differentials between schools and that good schools are getting significantly better and that the gap in achievement is widening. Is there an argument that says that the OFSTED system has contributed to that because you are focusing on school achievement and, at the end of the day, the parents who are looking at schools are going to want to see the Key Stage 2 test results and not at the fine print of the OFSTED reports.
  (Mr Bell) I think it goes back to my earlier answer to Ms Munn that I think it is important to state that OFSTED reports cover more than just the examination achievement within a school, so I—

  26. Do prospective parents read the fine print of OFSTED reports or do they focus on the headline results?
  (Mr Bell) I am not sure of the exact figures but I understand that we have one of the most visited websites across the Government net and I think there is a real sense in which people do now look at OFSTED reports. I think there is a common currency about OFSTED as well; I suspect we probably have one of the best known brand names in the public sector. You can go into any playground in the country and, whatever people think about OFSTED, they know of OFSTED and they know about OFSTED. So I think there is an understanding and awareness that there is information about schools around and I think that parents are using that information to make choices. I would reject the view however that OFSTED has contributed to those widening differentials. I think what OFSTED has done is report what has been happening in schools and I think it has been right to highlight that gap in achievement, but I do not think that OFSTED can be seen as the cause of that widening gap.

  27. I just have one further question in terms of OFSTED's relationship with teachers because by focusing on the inspection and the evidence base at a point in time, there is a criticism that says this makes teachers feel threatened and does not enable teachers to feel a sense of ownership in the evaluation process and therefore evaluation is something that is done to them and is something that they have no involvement with. Is that an inevitable part of the system or do you think that could be changed to encourage more self-valuation of those teachers?
  (Mr Bell) On self-evaluation, it seems to me that any organisation, whether it is in education or elsewhere, whether it is in the public sector or the private sector, worth its salt keeps asking itself the question, "How are we doing?" and it brings to bear different evidence to see how it is doing. I am just slightly concerned that we can almost raise self-evaluation up as some sort of industry when in fact good organisations have always done it, they have always asked how they are doing and how they can get better. And lots of schools do it. I think one would have to say that the vast majority of schools will look at how they are doing it and ask how they can get better. They will do it in different degrees and in different ways, so I do not think there is this sharp distinction between self-evaluation on the one hand and external inspection on the other hand. With respect to the perceptions of teachers, with regard to where we are now in the inspection system, particularly in the light of the new framework to come from September 2003, I do not think a strong argument can be made that the inspection approach is burdensome. If we are talking about many schools to be inspected once every six years and other schools once every four years and only those schools that really have the most difficulties being inspected more frequently than that, I do not think that is overburdensome. I am not complacent, however. I think it is important that teachers respect the findings of OFSTED inspectors. We had examples earlier of where teachers have welcomed that external critique of what they are doing, but I always think the role of the Chief Inspector is very important. One of my predecessors from a number of years ago, talking about HMIs but I think it could be applied to inspectors more generally, said, "Inspectors should be nobody's trusty bedfellow." I think there is lot in that, actually, that the respect in which you can be held is very much dependent on your willingness to speak out, to speak out on the things that are going well in the education system and give proper recognition but also to highlight the difficulties. I think that over time the Chief Inspector speaking out on that basis will help teachers not just to see inspection as something that is happening to them in their own school but also as something that is contributing to educational development nationally.


  28. Mr Bell, if you speak out on issues based on the evidence, this Committee will be delighted. We do hope you will not speak out on the basis of how you feel that morning.
  (Mr Bell) It is a very serious point, Mr Chairman, and, to be honest, what sets the Chief Inspector apart, surely, is the evidence that OFSTED collects and gathers.

  29. That is exactly what we want. It is better to speak out on the evidence as he sees it and not to be kowtowing to the department or anyone else, or even to this Committee. We want to know the truth based on the evidence.
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely.

Mr Simmonds

  30. Can I pick up on one of the points you made in answer to Mr Chaytor's question. You talked earlier about team work, you talked earlier about people not getting into a situation where you were having "heroic leadership" (to use your phrase). Certainly one of the perceptions of the teachers in our constituencies to whom all of us speak is that the OFSTED process is stressful—as alluded to by the Chairman earlier—and, indeed, disruptive. I wonder whether you would agree with that. The comment that you made earlier perhaps would not agree with that. I would like to know why, because that is certainly not the perception. How does that fit comfortably with the ethos you were talking about earlier?
  (Mr Bell) I think it is fair to say, as I suggested earlier, that inspection is in most cases likely to be stressful because it is an important moment in the life of the organisation. Colleagues in schools, teacher training institutions, colleges, wherever, want to be doing their best. They want to ensure that the strengths of their institutions are identified. That brings a degree of stress with it and I am quite happy to admit that I felt that stress when OFSTED came to visit me.

  31. Do you think that is constructive?
  (Mr Bell) Just to go on, I think it is very important, however, that that does not become completely unmanageable. I think it was very interesting that one of the first acts that my predecessor undertook was to write to all the schools and say when an inspection is coming, we do not want specially prepared schemes of work, we do not want specially written lesson plans, we went to be able to see the school as it is. I think OFSTED has a role to play, and I think I could give you—perhaps this is a subject for further discussion later—examples of how we have tried to reduce some of the bureaucratic overload associated with inspection. If it is only once every four or six years, I think that can be overplayed anyway. But also I think we would want to say that the inspection regime is there to support the school and is not there simply as a bureaucratic imposition from outside. I think the stress is there; I think it is about managing it. I also thinks schools and head teachers themselves have responsibilities, because I guess that when you speak to teachers and head teachers in your constituency you might get very different experiences of how the school is prepared for inspection. It is about keeping it in proportion, it seems to me. It is difficult to be scientific on this point.

  32. You seem to be defending the status quo of the inspection process. I know you have only been in the job for a very short space of time. I wonder whether you have had any thoughts as to how you might like to change the inspection process that you have already thought through.
  (Mr Bell) I have been consulted throughout the preparation of the draft framework on which we are consulting at the moment. As I said earlier, I think there is real virtue in evolution rather than revolution in this area. Given that we have had two full cycles of inspection, we have had 10 years' experience, I am not sure there is a persuasive case to be made about throwing all of that up in the air. If teachers and head teachers and others are saying, "We want some stability," then surely there have to be very, very good reasons for changing the system that we have. I am not persuaded that there are very, very good reasons. I think we have made some important changes or are consulting on some important changes at the moment, but I think that there is no argument for moving dramatically away from what we have at the moment.

  33. Do you think changes are necessary, for example, when situations arise where OFSTED inspectors have gone into a college where in fact there are no students taking a particular course as evidenced to this Committee by John Taylor, Principal of Sheffield College?
  (Mr Bell) I do not know the specifics, so I cannot comment. I am obviously happy to look at the case that you have cited. Clearly there are things that we can always improve, but I am not persuaded that we need to change the system fundamentally. We could always sit and cite examples. I can cite examples of things that happened during the inspection processes to which I was subjected and say, "OFSTED did not quite get that right," but I think you keep that in proportion and you feed that back and you ask OFSTED to consider what it is doing. That does not seem to me to be an argument then for throwing the whole inspection system out.

  34. One of the other criticisms that many teachers put forward about the OFSTED inspection process is the fact that for many of the inspectors actually it has been a very long time since they were actually in the classroom. I wonder whether you have any views on that subject and whether it is something you would like to change.
  (Mr Bell) I think that is a very interesting issue. We consulted on that when OFSTED put out its recent consultation document last year, Improving Inspection, Improving Schools. There was a suggestion there, which I support, that we should get more serving teachers and serving head teachers to join inspection teams. I think that is a good suggestion. It is quite interesting that in the feedback to the consultation, not surprisingly, teachers and head teachers have responded and said, yes, it is a very good idea. The inspection contractors, who are making use of inspectors, were slightly more cautious, really for two reasons. One was that sometimes teachers and head teachers have to pull out at the last minute. Fine. I mean, that is the nature of having your first loyalty to the school and it seems to me that that is not a substantial criticism. The second criticism made I think is a more interesting one, and that is that if you are only inspecting very occasionally—and most serving teachers and head teachers who are only doing it on an occasional basis are only going to do, say, one or two a year, if that—the contractors felt that you do not always get necessarily the inspection quality. Now, please do not misunderstand me, that is not to suggest that head teachers or teachers are of an inferior quality to other inspectors that do it more regularly, but I think common sense would tell you that—


  35. Is this the same argument as that which says, "Don't go to a surgeon who only does two of those operations a year"?
  (Mr Bell) I think the inspectors were raising a very real question. It is interesting because, I would have thought, if you are on the receiving end of an inspection, the fact that somebody is a serving teacher or head teacher is of no comfort to you if they are not very good and are not competent to inspect. It seems to me it is a difficult one, so we have to think again about how we address this. We are committed and we were committed during the consultation process to try to get more serving teachers and head teachers, but I think we also have to be mindful of those concerns.

  36. Did you say you were an advisor on the consultation process before you applied for this job?
  (Mr Bell) No. I was consulted after I was appointed and I just cited the consultation process.

  37. To follow on from Mark's point, one of the criticisms is that schools do prepare and they do shift staff around and they try to present—and this is not a criticism—the best aspects of the school. People say, "Well, there was a time when an HMI called into a school in the midst of its ordinary busy day and got a snapshot." Is there not something to be said about an inspector that has that as part of his armoury? Not that it is shifting or rejecting the present process but as a system where that snapshot is still taken.
  (Mr Bell) Chairman, I often think there is a golden age that people cite of inspections.

  38. We hear about golden ages in this Committee.
  (Mr Bell) I think people cite that golden age because under the old system you might be inspected once every 200 years. That is why people were very keen to have an inspector drop in on them. The legislation we have at the moment as far as section 10 inspections are concerned would not allow us to do that, because we have to consult with the appropriate authority, usually the governing body, in advance of inspections. Putting that aside—and it is very important—I think it is not quite as attractive as it might at first seem, because I think that if you had that drop-in inspection approach there would be interminable arguments about just how typical it was, what was seen. I really do. I think you could always imagine schools saying, "The inspector dropped in and of course we had three classes out doing this . . ." or "Somebody was out on work experience," or, "It is the wrong time of the year because years 12 and 13 were out," or whatever. I actually do not think it would give you a better picture of the education system. I think what you have said is very important, however, that in the early days of inspection the lead-in was so huge that really you could have reinvented yourself in that time. I think the lead-in time now, of between six and 10 weeks, is about right, and I think if we stick with the spirit of what Mike Tomlinson said in his letter to schools, "Don't do all these lesson plans; don't do all these schemes of work," I think we are trying to give out that signal to find the school as it is. The other thing is, do not underestimate actually the capacity of inspectors to get beyond some of the things that might have been done to impress them. These people are quite astute and can find out what is going on.

  39. It is going to be your job to make sure your inspectors are of a high quality and maintained and the ones that do not make the grade are shifted out. We have talked about schools very much this morning, but we have had evidence from the FE sector where they believe they are over-inspected. They have so many different teams of inspectors marching through their FE sector that they really cannot get on with their job. Indeed, we can supply you with the transcript of the evidence we took where an FE principal said, "These are the numbers of inspections I have had in a typical year." In a sense, both improving the quality of the inspectors is going to be down to you but also working well, so that you are not treading over the same territory in a negative way.
  (Mr Bell) I think that is fair enough—and I am sure college inspection is something to which we can return at a later stage if you wish. I think what I would say is that despite some of the criticisms that have been made—with some of which OFSTED obviously would take issue—there has been a very clear recognition of the new focus of the OFSTED inspections in the colleges, with a very clear focus on the experience of the learner. I think it has been an interesting shift from the FEFC type of inspection to that which OFSTED is doing. I think that has been an important principle. We also have, of course, a programme to inspect all colleges. As I talked about the evolution of inspection arrangements in schools over time, that is conceivable in the future once we have done a full cycle of all the college inspections. There are issues which we have looked at, we have talked to colleges about, but the important principle is that we are very much, through inspection, looking at the experience of the learner. Surely that is what inspection should be doing.

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