Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-77)



  60. One final question. We heard concerns from the evidence presented by your predecessor Mike Tomlinson that no one yet inspects supply teacher agencies. They account for some 20,000 teachers in this country. I am a governor of a private school. We can talk to the head and say, "Look we are not having Bloggs. He is shocking. Tell the agency we do not want this guy any more." The agency will agree to that. Then they will send Bloggs off somewhere else and then somewhere else and then somewhere else. Mike Tomlinson said to us that he had been having some conversations with the Secretary of State about this. Is that something you are going to pick up?
  (Mr Bell) First of all, OFSTED has not been approached formally about that and I have not had a conversation about it yet.

  61. Do you have a view on it?
  (Mr Bell) I think OFSTED has demonstrated over the years that it has been able to take on new inspection responsibilities, so the principle of having a new inspection responsibility is fine. I would look carefully. I am not altogether sure, to be frank, what it is we would be inspecting if we had responsibility and how we would inspect it. But please do not interpret that as—

  62. Oh, come on, Mr Bell, I think you are playing too much of a straight bat here. For instance, you would inspect the agency: "How many times has Bloggs been rejected from various schools? What have you done about it?" "We have not done anything about it." "That is not good enough. What sort of training do these people have? What sort of assessment have you done?"
  (Mr Bell) I will be frank with you, I am not ruling out having to look at it, but, back to the principle of local management, I think there is an interesting issue here about the decisions that individual schools make. Because the decisions that individual schools make, in the end, will determine whom you employ. Clearly that is not carte blanche for the—

  63. That is just free market, sort of laissez faire, we will not have any intervention; in which case, what is the point of OFSTED?
  (Mr Bell) No, I am not suggesting that at all. What I am saying is that, as always with these issues, you have to think through all the implications because there are, as you cited, thousands and thousands and thousands of supply teachers.

  64. 20,000.
  (Mr Bell) Right, 20,000 supply teachers, and, yes, you might be able to get the information you have described, the paper information, but there will be issues about: Should inspectors then inspect those teachers in situ? Because the judgments that are made about teachers in routine OFSTED inspections are based on classroom observation. We also have an issue about feedback.

  65. If you were head teacher and you knew OFSTED was coming in, you would make damn sure that Bloggs was not there teaching the children at your school on that particular day.
  (Mr Bell) I am sorry, within your own school?

  66. Yes. If you had a shortage, you would say, "Look, I have got OFSTED coming, send me the finest teacher you have got. I want Mary who came here last year. She is excellent. Send me her."
  (Mr Bell) I hope head teachers would not do that just for OFSTED inspections; I hope they would want the best teachers—

  67. Come on. That is naive. You do not think that schools prepare and ensure that they are on their best run.
  (Mr Bell) No, I think I said to you earlier that schools will obviously want to present themselves in their best situation.

  68. So they are certainly not going to have my mate Bloggs there, are they?
  (Mr Bell) I am happy to look into your mate Bloggs, actually!

  Mr Shaw: Will you inspect him? That is what I am suggesting.


  69. Jonathan makes a very important point. Can we separate these two issues. You are, I think, disappointing the Committee at the level at which Mike Tomlinson did in the last session we had with him. We clearly want to get some grip on the teacher supply agencies. That is different from assessing—which we can see is difficult—each teacher. What we are suggesting is that we want good supply teaching agencies—and we are not against supply teachers or these agencies. There are certain methods that could be employed, vetting and much else, of the quality of the agency, that we believe OFSTED could quite easily do. That is different from saying, "This is impossible to do because we would have to check every supply teacher working in a school." That is a different case.
  (Mr Bell) One of my reasons for caution is not trying to play a straight bat but actually there are other responsibilities held by other arms of government for the regulation of employment agencies. I am just cautious at sitting here and saying, "Yes, it is a great idea to inspect supply teaching agencies," when I am not entirely sure (i) what the responsibilities are of other local government departments for the regulation of employment agencies, and (ii) what value OFSTED would bring to the process if it took on inspection responsibility. You did say, and I said earlier, Chairman, that I wanted the judgments that I made to be based on evidence. I think all I am saying is that I am happy to look at the issue but I am not automatically thinking this is very straightforward, that it is very easy. That is all I am saying.

Mr Baron

  70. One of the number one priorities or concerns in my constituency is teacher workload. During your tenure of office, what is going to be your intention? How are you going to tackle this subject?
  (Mr Bell) I think there are two dimensions to this question: (i) What role does OFSTED play in teacher workload? and (ii) What role does OFSTED play in reporting teacher workload? We have undertaken a whole range of different arrangements to try to reduce teacher workload. I am not sure if these have been given to the Committee already, but I am happy to provide those in written form, all the examples of areas where we have tried to reduce the bureaucratic burden[1]. I think the other observation to make about the bureaucracy issue is that if schools are only being inspected once every four or once every six years, it is probably hard to make an argument that in the day-to-day life of the school that is an oppressive burden. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what role can OFSTED play in reporting on it, I believe is an issue that the Committee has raised before with my predecessor—certainly you asked my predecessor to consider the issue and report on it. It is an issue on which we will be reporting. I think we have a role to play in reporting. In fact, we have asked inspectors to cite examples of where they see bureaucratic burdens. Again, it is back to the issue of what goes on in individual schools, because I am sure your experience would suggest that in some schools the bureaucratic burden does not seem to be an issue because of the way it is managed internally, and in other schools it appears to be more of an issue. Perhaps, again, this is where OFSTED can be helpful. Using the Chairman's example of reports where we cite good practice, we can cite examples of what is going on, but we do want to be able to report generally. I hope in the annual report next year we will be saying something about teacher workload and bureaucratic burdens.

  71. I may even see it in Birmingham as well. But it is a real issue in schools.
  (Mr Bell) Absolutely.

  72. You are suggesting that perhaps it is not so much of an issue. What priority do you attach to this? At the end of the day, if you stop teachers teaching, then it does affect everything they do.
  (Mr Bell) It has been quite interesting through the last week hearing people say, "This should be a priority" and "That should be a priority." I think I am now up to about 300 priorities! It is a serious point. I think there are lots of issues at which OFSTED needs to look. I think we will report on it and it is something we will talk about in the annual reports. To that extent, it will have priority. I think the fact that we are taking it seriously and trying to take steps to reduce bureaucracy shows that internally to OFSTED it is a priority. Also, of course, that information that we gather will be very helpful in advising publicly what is going on. I have already commented, in a report that we will be publishing later this year, on national initiatives, which I think may raise issues about some of the bureaucratic burdens that can be associated with national schemes. To give you another example, in a report we will be producing quite soon there will be a report on planning in the primary school that, I think, may raise some very interesting issues about how planning can be effective without being over-bureaucratic. So I think there are a number of examples which demonstrate that we do take this initiative seriously, and they were partly in response to concerns that had been raised at this Committee with my predecessor.

  73. Do you think—and I know it is very early days and we will await your report—there is too much interference from the centre in the running of schools?
  (Mr Bell) It is interesting. In the interview I gave for the Times Educational Supplement last week I made the point that actually you often find in organisations that, where people have a will to make things happen, they do not let outside influence, bureaucracy or whatever, get in the way; they actually make them happen. I think that is why I am slightly cautious about saying there are too many regulations—you cannot do this, you cannot do that. I think successful institutions often just make them happen because they manage the demands and pressures on them. Having said that, of course, it makes your job harder if it is just one thing after another coming down on you. I do not think OFSTED really has the evidence to say there are too many burdens, there is too much interference, because OFSTED could argue—rightly on the basis of the annual report—that we have seen significant improvement in leadership and management and surely a significant improvement in leadership and management suggests that people are able to manage at local level and make a difference at local level. But I think the OFSTED reports that I have cited that will be coming out later this year may help our understanding of what schools think about particular issues where there could be an argument that there is too much central direction or interference.

  Chairman: I hope you will bear in mind that this Committee, when we are not sitting in Committee, sit in the House of Commons' chamber and listen. There was recent legislation on special educational needs and I was sitting in that chamber thinking, "Yes, here we are, all in favour of legislation, but it will look like red tape bureaucracy when it is delivered to the thousands of schools." So we do realise that there is a balance in these things.

Valerie Davey

  74. We have talked and inspection is easiest on those things that are more easily measured, so it might be said that unless young people have literacy and numeracy there will be other things that they cannot access. One of the other things we talked to your predecessor about was combatting racism. Those areas are rather intangible. The actual values which young people share, we trust, when they grow up in communities. I have to say that it is not the burden of bureaucracy which concerns my schools; it is how to have, across their communities, not just their schools, a set of common values which are shared. How in your OFSTED inspections are you going to move on to these less easily tick-boxed policies? How are you going to move into these areas that are crucial in fact for our society?
  (Mr Bell) I think, again, it is fair to say that really from the beginning of the inspection arrangements there has always been a focus on the values and the ethos of the school. I think many people have commented that it has been one of the virtues of the inspection process. Going back to the earlier conversation, it is not just the examination achievement of the school, it is about the values and the ethos. I think that is often evidenced in a number of ways, is it not? There has to be evidence in the policies and procedures, but there is also evidence, for example, in the extent to which different approaches are celebrated, perhaps at assembly, or in whether there is a strong positive culture in the school which recognises what goes on. I think that has always been there. Interestingly enough, if you read the OFSTED report which I cited earlier on the achievements of the black Afro-Caribbean countries, it is very interesting that you think, "This is about good schools. This is not about good schools that are only good in that area; this is about schools that value the learning there, that have high expectations, that are not prepared to tolerate failure, that do have clear policies and expectations, where teachers are well prepared," and so on. So, interestingly, I think you can handle some of the specific values/concerns (if we put it that way) by just good effective management and leadership, taking account of the particular things that you need to do. Another thing I would point out to you in terms of not just what goes on in one individual school, the LEA inspection framework now includes an evaluation of the extent to which the authorities are carrying out their responsibilities with respect to race relations. That is an important issue, it seems to me, because that is about looking at the area-wide approach. I guess that in the particular issues cited it is not just about what goes on in any one individual institution; it is very important that we as an inspectorate try to understand what is happening at the authority-wide level, to see whether there has been an impact on people's understanding.

  75. The evidence, sadly, on the specific one which we were given by Mike Tomlinson, is that approximately 40 per cent of the LEAs inspected in 2000-01 were unsatisfactory in terms of combatting racism.
  (Mr Bell) That is right.

  76. My next question is: That is the evidence, so what can OFSTED or anyone else do about that?
  (Mr Bell) First and foremost, where that evidence has been collected, it is the responsibility of the LEAs. In those authorities where it has been judged as unsatisfactory, it will be one of the key issues that the authority has to pick up. I think the responsibility properly is back with the authority to deal with the issue. I guess there are a number of ways in which the authorities can do that, but I think it is not really OFSTED's responsibility. If OFSTED have found the evidence and made a recommendation, it is then the responsibility of the authorities to pick it up.

  77. I think there is a fundamental problem there—and it is not just about this issue, it is about everything—that says: The inspection comes along, makes its decision, and leaves it to somebody else to follow it up. If you go back, X years on and it is still like that, do you just walk away again and say, "Of course it is their responsibility. They now have to so do something about it. We have told them what the evidence is"?
  (Mr Bell) I suppose, not just in LEAs but in schools, we do report on what has happened and how the school or, in this case. the local authority has moved on since the last inspection. I think what we have found in schools, and I think we have increasingly seen it in LEAs, is that most of the issues that are identified in the first round of inspections are then picked up. I struggle to think of a specific example of the issue you have described, where it was identified in the first inspection, given that we have only started the re-inspection or the second round inspection programme, but I think for most authorities, as with most schools, the key issues for recommendations are really the heart of any action plan in taking the organisation forward.

  Chairman: Mr Bell, it has been a very good session. It has been an opportunity for getting to know you getting to know us and we getting to know you. I hope you have the message loud and clear that we will be cantankerous and awkward bunch of people but also pretty well intentioned. On the one hand we want you to do everything; on the other we want you to base it all on evidence. Finally, we want you to be innovative and challenging—we do not want you to be just a safe pair of hands—and we watch this space with interest.

1   First Report from the Education and Skills Committee, session 2001-02, Ev 49, Appendix 18; and OFSTED review: Reducing the Burden of Inspection, May 2001.  Back

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