Education Bill

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Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister for addressing those issues. It has been a useful debate and has highlighted what is likely to be an extremely bureaucratic process. The Learning and Skills Council will possibly, although not necessarily, pay the employer and provide some funds to the school. The LEA will keep the prime responsibility, as will the school. The school will then have to pay the employer, or possibly not. Clarification is needed and I hope that

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the Minister will reflect on that and perhaps give us written assurance on those points.

I failed to raise one issue and I should be grateful if the Minister could respond. One of the great problems of implementing the scheme in rural areas is that there are often no employers or significantly fewer employers than in large urban areas. Increasingly, the cost of travel to placements becomes a major issue. Would the Minister give an assurance that the travel costs for students attending work placements under the scheme will be met by the LSC and not fall on to schools' budgets?

Mr. Timms: I will answer the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

Mr. Willis: I do not want to sit down before the Minister can respond. Subject to his response, I will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Timms: Let me just respond to both the hon. Gentleman's points. I do not agree that this needs to be a bureaucratic arrangement. It should be possible for local arrangements to be made and for the most appropriate arrangement to be put in place, rather than heavy-handed, central prescription about how all this can work. It does not need to be bureaucratic and I hope that it will not be.

I recognise the importance of travel costs. The Government certainly do not intend to introduce a scheme that imposes unreasonable costs on those taking part in workplace learning. We need to address that when we spell out more fully how the arrangements will work.

Mr. Willis: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Willis: I beg to move amendment No. 556, in page 100, line 5, after '1996', insert—

    '(11) The powers of the Secretary of State and the Chief Inspector under this section shall not be exercisable with the consequence that a school at which pupils of compulsory school age are registered shall be subject to inspection as part of an area inspection and to inspection under section 10 of the School Inspections Act 1996 at intervals of eighteen months or less.'.

This is another important amendment and I hope that the Minister's response will provide some clarification. We all accept the need for effective inspection. It makes an important contribution to raising the quality in schools, colleges and work placements. The amendment attempts to ensure that schools, colleges and work placements are not over inspected. The Bill introduces for the first time into the 14-to-16 sector the ability of the adult learning inspectorate to inspect parts of compulsory schooling. It also enables area inspection, as introduced by the Learning and Skills Act 2000, to come into play. Ofsted inspections take place once every four years—six, if it is a light touch inspection—or more often for a school in special measures. Under the current regulations, Ofsted accept that after section 10 inspections, primary schools should be exempt from a second inspection for a minimum of nine months. That is written into the organisational framework. Why is that not extended to the secondary sector?

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The amendment would prevent the over-inspection of schools. One of the problems of area inspections, by definition, is that they inspect a particular type of course in several institutions simultaneously to establish parity of quality and other arrangements. That is right and reasonable. However, in practice, particular institutions—such as further education institutions—that offer a plethora of different courses could undergo an area inspection, in which Ofsted and the adult learning inspectorate carry out inspections on different courses every day of the week, 365 days a year.

The amendment would avoid the same situation arising in schools. If the Bill is successful, and I hope that it is, we may find in certain schools that many key stage 4 pupils are involved in such an approach to their education, training and learning. They might be involved in different schemes, from motor vehicle mechanics to engineering, or from transport to tourism, all of which could be subject to area inspections. The amendment would ensure that Ofsted, area or ALI inspections do not take place unless an 18-month interval separates them. If that interval is not observed, the life of the school is disrupted.

We are not opposed to the proposals, but when an area inspection examines an engineering course, part of which might be offered in a workplace, it cannot inspect that part of the course without considering other systems in the school. That creates a burden on the whole school, because it has to meet the inspection's requirements. That is the purpose of the amendment, and I trust that the Minister will support its tenor, if not its wording.

A concern arose during the individual learning accounts debacle. I do not want to cause any embarrassment, but it was good to see the Department admit that it was of its own making. [Interruption.] Such an admission is not embarrassing: it is good for the soul. Before work-based training is accepted, we must ensure that the placement is right, rather than inspecting it after the training has started and finding faults. Will the Minister assure the Committee that sufficient powers will exist to ensure that the placements are inspected before young people begin them?

Mr. Timms: The aim of Ofsted—an aim shared by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—is to prevent over burdening schools with inspections. Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector, has done a good deal to reduce the burdens associated with inspection, and is looking for ways of taking it further. In 2001, Ofsted carried out a review of those burdens with my Department's standards and effectiveness unit. I believe that the nine-month period for primary schools was one of the results of that review.

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Mike Tomlinson recommended that, after a section 10 inspection, schools should be guaranteed a period during which there would be no other inspection visits.

The period for secondary schools is 12 weeks. That is shorter than the time for primary schools because

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Ofsted needs to carry out thematic inspections. Since there are fewer secondary schools than primary schools, if it is carrying out a thematic inspection, it is not possible to offer the same length of time as for primary schools. However, the aspiration is one that Ofsted shares, and it will be doing what it can to avoid any difficulties.

The chief inspector fully recognises that the extension of the scope of area inspections to include provision from age 14 must not result in a significant increase in the overall inspection burden on secondary schools. Schools will be visited during area inspections only where it is necessary to enable inspectors to obtain the evidence that they need, and that would not otherwise be available to them. Those visits will be as brief as possible, and certainly much shorter than the full section 10 inspection.

During consultations last autumn on the future arrangements for school inspections, Ofsted suggested that section 10 inspections of secondary schools in an area might be linked to provide evidence to feed into subsequent area inspections, avoiding a second visit to those schools. That is an idea that Ofsted will be exploring further in the coming months.

The problem with the amendment is that it would constrain the ability of inspectors to do their job effectively. In some instances there might be very good reasons why an 18-month interval between a section 10 inspection and an area inspection would be undesirable. It would not, for example, be right for inspectors to have to delay an inspection of a school that was causing concern simply because there had been a recent area inspection, which may have looked only briefly at the school in question.

The aspiration is one that the chief inspector and I share. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that the arrangements for area inspections, as with school inspections more generally, will take account of the need to keep the burdens on those being inspected to a minimum. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the firm 18-month gap suggested by the amendment is too inflexible, given some of the circumstances that would undoubtedly arise from time to time.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister for responding so comprehensively to this amendment. I am also grateful to him for recognising that there is a genuine issue about over inspection. I support his view that the last chief inspector—who, having recommended that LEAs should be privatised, is now going to Hackney to head up a privatised LEA—has done a great deal to move towards a much more sensible arrangement for inspections. With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment by leave withdrawn.

Clause 172 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 173 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 174

Inspection of LEAs: rights of entry etc

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I wish to ask a few questions about subsection (2) of the proposed new section 40 of the Education Act 1997. The notes on clauses refer to the need to allow access to the premises of the local education authority for inspection. Is there a distinction in law between the premises of the LEA and premises of the local authority? As we know, certain functions of many LEAs are undertaken by different parts of the parent local authority; for example, personnel functions, which relate directly to the provision of the education service. Does the clause include rights of access to those premises and records?

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