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Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), but I have to shatter the illusion that no one objects to the Bill's provisions. I do object to some of them, particularly on inspection regimes and self-evaluation. It is terribly important to maintain a rigorous and independent inspectorate of our schools and I have serious concerns about the Bill in that respect. I share the view of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) about the behaviour of the Secondary Heads Association at its recent conference. It reflects badly on their profession and if those heads cannot even set a decent example, it will make it more difficult for them to maintain discipline in their own schools.
I am continually struck by the cycle of decline in British education, which predates this Administration, but still flourishes, despite a lot of rhetoric to the contrary, under new Labour. How does the cycle of decline work? Those with an egalitarian viewpointalas, they still dominate policy making in the education worldintroduce a reform, for example the AS-level as a component part of the A-level exam, in order to create an over-arching exam that blends two different ability levels. That over-burdens A-level students with too many exams, so to tackle the problem, they propose sweeping away external assessment at 16, replacing it
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with more self-evaluation and teacher assessment. Thank goodness the Secretary of State has rejected that proposal.
Another example was the introduction of GCSEs in the mid-80s. Again, it was an overarching exam to encompass both CSE and GCSEs with grades ranging from A and now A* to G. Predictably, grades D to G began to be regarded as fail grades, so it was then proposed to return to separate level 1 and level 2 qualifications within the Tomlinson diploma proposalsessentially a return to the old distinction. The worst clauses in the Bill propose making more of such reforms.
Ofsted was established in 1992 to tackle the very real concern that Her Majesty's inspectors were insufficiently robust in their opinions. There were concerns about the rigour and quality of their inspections. They were, as it was said at the time, the dog that did not bark in the night, and were too close to the Department of Education. That was why Ofsted was established as a non-ministerial department with, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, Her Majesty's chief inspector directly accountable to Parliament. I share his concerns about where that accountability rests under the Bill.
It soon became clear that Ofsted's reports were rigorous and led to many schools having to reassess their quality of teaching. Most inspections were carried out by independent inspectors who were trained and registered as Ofsted inspectors, but were sub-contractors. My concerns about the Bill are that it means smaller inspection teams, led by an inspector, and that the chief inspector will be able to amend its reports. It also proposes to reverse the requirement to tender for contractors in respect of each inspection and removes the requirement to maintain a register of authorised inspectors. All that looks to me like a move to take inspection back in house, and to return, in other words, to the bad old days of HMI and the days of the curious incident of the dog in the night.
I am concerned by the notion of the short, sharp inspection. Of course, over the years the bureaucracy of Ofsted inspections has increased, with schools being required by the Department and local education authorities to produce volumes of paper as preparation for an inspection. That was never the purpose of the rigorous inspection envisaged in the 1992 legislation. It is right, therefore, that the Bill introduces a shorter notice period for inspections to prevent that bureaucratic nonsense from occurring.
It is not right, however, to reduce either the number of inspectors or the length of the inspection. Inspectors will, under the Bill, as the Secretary of State has confirmed, take no more than two days and will have smaller inspection teams. We are told that the inspectors will focus on the school's own self-evaluation evidence. As Lord Filkin said in the other place, schools will feed in their self-evaluation evidence to the inspection team, then inspectors will engage with the schools in a professional dialogue examining the evidence in support of the self-evaluation. Yet because inspectors will see little actual teaching during their inspections, there is little that the inspections will add to the sum total of knowledge about the school, other than in reprinting already available exam result data.
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"The framework which has been piloted in the current year for the light-touch inspections smacks too much of bureaucratic ticks in boxes".[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 December 2004; Vol. 667, c. 1133.]
So the cycle of decline will continue. Every form designed to deal with the over-bureaucratisation of Ofsted inspections, which was never intended, has been hijacked now to emasculate the rigour and independence of those inspections. That matters hugely. In our system, schools are, in practice, unaccountable. The only real accountability were the Ofsted inspections and reports that received widespread local coverage.
If a local parent is unhappy with the policies of his or her children's school, there is very little he or she can do. For example, if the head teacher of a comprehensive decides that all English lessons should be taught in mixed ability classes, who should local people lobby if they object? Do they lobby their Member of Parliament, who can then raise the matter with the Secretary of State? No. Questions of whether or not to stream are, it seems, matters for the professionthe head teacher and the governors of a particular school. Do parents raise the matter with their local councillor so that he or she can raise it with the council cabinet member responsible for education or with the director of education? No, and for the same reason.
Key policy decisions, such as the degree of setting or streaming, which directly affect the quality of teaching in a school, are totally outside the democratic structures of the state. The only thing parents can do is to become a governor of a school. Most simply do not have the time to take on such obligations. In any case, there is real doubtI know of no examplesas to whether a parent-governor would be able to change key policies, such as whether the synthetic phonics programmes referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) are used to teach reading in primary schools or whether streaming should be reintroduced in a comprehensive.
Mr. Francois: Before my hon. Friend moves on from governors, may I put one point to him? One reason why many schools are having difficulty finding governors is that where schools themselves have had to deal with much more paperwork in recent years, that has rolled on down to the governors who have had to deal with more, too. The time involved in being a governor seems to go up and up. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is increasingly a deterrent to parents serving as governors in schools?
I agree totally. The responsibilities involved in becoming a school governor are very onerous. It is understandable that people shy away from
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taking them on. Even among those who do take them on, many find themselves having to lean on the head teacher of a school, which is not what is meant to happen. They are meant to be independent of the head and responsible for the head's conduct. In practice, though, even the chairman or chairwoman of the board of governors tends to lean too much on the head teacher.
Perhaps it does not matter if our state schools are unaccountable for their performance. Perhaps the British state education system is the envy of the world. Perhaps the public are wrong when they consistently put education in the top three of their concerns. Perhaps parents are wrong to be concerned about the quality of their local schools. After all, Ministers are fond of citing the programme for international student assessment study of 2000, which showed British 15-year-olds fourth in science, seventh in English and eighth in maths among all the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. They also cite the progress in the international reading literacy study report, showing us third in reading.
Perhaps, however, it is just always in the interests of Education Ministers, of either party, to trumpet the achievements of our education system and overlook its deficiencies. They overlook the fact that 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read the dosage on an aspirin bottle, compared with 7 per cent. in Sweden. They overlook the fact that 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot add 50 and two, and that 17 per cent. of 11-year-olds leave primary school unable to read at level 4 while 37 per cent. cannot write properly.
Perhaps it is in the interests of the education establishment to overlook the fact that in all OECD international studies in which Britain participates, we have a much lower participation rate than other countries have. In fact, the 2003 PISA survey was interestingly omitted from the Secretary of State's speech; perhaps that is because that survey had such a low participation rate36 per cent. of the schools in the sample refused to take partthat the OECD refused to include the results in the tabulation. Had the figures been included, the UK would have ranked eighteenth out of 41 countries. PISA 2003 is consistent with previous international studies, such as the trends in international mathematics and science study, which put England twentieth out of 41 OECD countries. Ministers use only PISA 2000 and PIRLS, which most critics believe are inconsistent and probably flawed, on the basis of even lower participation rates in the case of the 19992000 PISA study and the type of questions asked.
The Bill is consistent with the general direction of education policy in this country since the late 1950s. As that approach gained strength over 50 years, so standards of education gradually declined. Attempts to reverse the decline have sometimes led to improvements, but the tide gradually turns again, and we are seeing the tide turning now for inspections. The literacy hour is regarded as a huge success, resulting in a rise in achievement, with standards rising from 56 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 in 1996 to 77 per cent. now. But Professor Timms, of Durham university, who has conducted standardised reading tests over a large number of primary schools throughout those years has shown that there has been no significant improvement in literacy over that period, merely better teaching to the tests.
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I do not believe that any Administration will be able to tackle the root problems with our education system until it is prepared to engage with and challenge many of the fundamental tenets of education orthodoxy that dominate policy making today. We need more accountability, not less, which the weakened inspection system introduced by the Bill will produce. We need to move away from assertion-based policy making to evidence-based policy. Ministers need to advise themselves that the current national literacy strategy approach to reading is the best that we can provide for our children. They need to look at the Clackmannanshire study, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred. They need to talk to the proponents of synthetic phonics, to visit the schools that have transformed their teaching of reading and to talk to the heads of those schools to hear what they have to say about what they have achieved and how. They need to see what change is needed and to ensure that it is delivered in our schools. An Ofsted inspection system that reduces the quantum of information from schools, which will be inevitable with a light-touch, two-day inspection, places more of an onus on Ministers to research the issues and to look at research. For example, research from Kulik and Kulik in the United States shows dramatic improvements in educational attainment from streaming at secondary school level when the curriculum is tailored to the ability grouping.
Until the Government are prepared to tackle those issues, we will see no real improvements in educational attainment in this country. Reports will be published, there will be spin about statistics, and exam grades will be inflated to prove that standards are improving, but we will see no genuine improvement in standards. We will see more Bills like this one, more reports like the Tomlinson report and, above all, British school leavers will fail in the international job market to command the income and living standards that a more rigorous education would have granted them.
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