Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)



  Q1 Chairman: Welcome to you all. It is some time since we saw you, is it not?


  Mr Bell: Indeed it is, Chairman.

  Q2  Chairman: Of course, this marks the change in the date of the publication of your Annual Report. As we see you in terms of the fixed part of the calendar twice a year, that will shift things around a little bit. With the inquiry into the White Paper on special education, we will be seeing Ofsted as usual on a regular basis. Welcome and we have missed you. It is not that we have not been following you in the newspapers, although, on a touchy subject, I am going to bore my colleagues by repeating how disappointing it is that again this morning there is no television coverage. This is becoming fairly regular. I understand the broadcasting authorities are short of money and are cutting down on parliamentary exposure. This makes us very vulnerable as a parliamentary committee, especially as, for example, on Monday when the Learning and Skills Council were presenting, with a budget of £10.5 billion, we had not one member of the educational press here. It is nice to see some of them here today but not one of them was here when we saw an organisation with a budget of £10.5 billion and all the things that touch further education and so much else. I really wonder what is happening with coverage of education and skills, but we will return to that. I am sorry, Chief Inspector, but I had to say that. Let us get into the questions. May I open up by asking you to say a few words to tell us how you have been getting on since we last met?

  Mr Bell: Thank you, Chairman, and good morning. It is always a pleasure to be here in front of your Committee. I perhaps think it is more of a mixed blessing that so many members of the press are here today, but never mind. I would like to mention by way of introduction some of the current key issues for Ofsted. As you say, we are often in the news and being reported on. As you have commented, Chairman, this year marks a departure for the publication of the Annual Report, which is published in October and reporting on the academic year that concluded in July. I am sure you will want to ask us some questions about the detail of the Annual Report. It is also an important time for us because, since the beginning of September, we have introduced a new system of school inspection. I would like to indicate the amount of work that has been carried out with my colleague Miriam Rosen and her colleagues in bringing this new system to fruition. By half-term, over 900 schools had already been inspected under this new system. We have received quite a lot of positive feedback from head teachers on the new system. Many welcome the sharper focus of the inspection and the level of challenge involved, but very few seem to miss the long process of inspection that characterised the old system. In relation to our work on early years, we have also made some significant changes, a number of important and we think helpful changes. We have extended the maximum time between inspections of early years providers to three years, which enables the most successful providers to have a more light touch in relation to inspection, but also allows us to go back to those recently registered providers and those where the provision for young children is not as good. You will remember, Chairman, a couple of years ago that you were very concerned about the issue of publishing complaints so that parents had access to information about complaints. As you know, partly through the pressure that you brought to bear, we have moved to give that kind of information now routinely to parents when they are considering choosing a child care provider. I am also pleased to say that on the back of the Annual Report we were able to report an increase in the quality of child care provision. I think that is good news. It is a topical issue. Two of this morning's newspapers have front page stories in relation to child care, and it may well be that you want to come back to that later. As well as trying to promote improvement within education care and services in areas that we regulate, obviously we are concerned to improve our work as an organisation. You will know that under the efficiency programme we have brought about a major change to Ofsted's work. That has meant a very substantial reduction in our budget, which we are delivering. It has meant a greater focus on regional delivery as we move services out of the south of England. It has also meant a leaner HQ presence in London. I think that is all important, not just for efficiency reasons, but also for effectiveness reasons because we hope that it will enable us to develop our use of local intelligence in relation to schools, colleges, child care providers and the like. By April 2006, our new regional structure will be fully operational. We will have reduced the number of offices that we operate from 12 to 4 and the opening of our new national business unit in Manchester will combine to save nearly £18 million in our annual running costs. On top of that, the new system of school inspection has generated a further £15 million worth of savings. I think we are well on the way to the £42 million savings target that was set for us under the efficiency review. One final point: the Government has recently been consulting on proposals to expand Ofsted's remit. We strongly support the proposal to bring the work over to Ofsted from the Commission for Social Care Inspection and to incorporate the skills and experience of the Adult Learning Inspectorate into an enlarged Ofsted as a single inspectorate for children and learners. It is a challenge but we believe that we can deliver that, as we have done so successfully in other aspects of our work as Ofsted's remit has, as you know, grown over the year. My colleagues and I have always taken very seriously the comments and suggestions of this Committee because we believe in self-evaluation. We believe that our work should be evaluated in the same way that we evaluate the work of others. We look forward to this morning's session contributing further to that process.

  Q3  Chairman: Chief Inspector, thank you very much for that. As your remit broadens, perhaps we can commission you to evaluate the performance of the Committee! I say that in a light tone but a serious one. We have an increasingly large remit for Ofsted, do we not, as you have just mentioned? I am wondering what you think about the way in which your remit has grown in the sense that we know that the reason you are getting an increased number of areas to operate in is because the Chancellor really is determined to reduce the amount of regulation. One of the ways he thinks that that should be done is to reduce to a much smaller number the number of inspectorates from 11 to 4. Consequently, you are getting a large number of other areas to inspect. Do you think that is the right way to do things or do you think we should evaluate much more carefully whether your role is really fit for the purpose of some of these new responsibilities?

  Mr Bell: That is not a new question for Ofsted to address. When the Government proposed to bring over the inspection and regulation of early years work, precisely that same question was asked. You know that over the last two or three years you have subjected my colleague Maurice Smith to a lot of scrutiny in relation to that work. I think we have delivered and done what it is that has been expected of us. It is a good question to ask: does our remit extend to such an extent that we become incapable of doing what it is that we are asked to do? We do not believe that to be so. We believe that not just for efficiency reasons but also for policy reasons it makes sense to expand Ofsted's remit. Take, for example, the work in children's social services currently carried out by the Commission for Social Care Inspection: it seems to me to make eminent good sense as the Government is trying to generate greater integration of services for children and young people at the delivery end to ensure that you have an integrated system of inspection and regulation. I think that seems sensible. It would be hard, would it not, for Government to argue that services locally should get their act together, if I can put it that way, if the inspection and regulation were seen to be incoherent and to duplicate effort.

  Q4  Chairman: You are not getting all of the children's services, are you?

  Mr Bell: We are getting all of the current work in relation to children's social services carried out by CSCI. That is the Government's proposal. Obviously it is the Secretary of State's decision whether that comes about. Adult learning is another issue that has provoked debate because people have asked if that is not a stretch too far for Ofsted to do that kind of work on top of its existing work. I have one or two comments on that, if I may, Chairman. There is increasingly again in policy terms greater coherence being pursued not just in the 14-16 or the 14-19 range but right the way across into the skills for life and developing of job opportunities. It is very striking: I met with a group of business leaders at an event on Monday morning that we hosted. As far as they were concerned, they do not recognise those artificial distinctions now between 14-16 and 16-19 and 19 and beyond. It is all about ensuring that our economy equips young people and adults with the sorts of skills that they need to be good, productive employees. Again, it seems to me the argument applies. If the direction of policy is moving, then the system of inspection and regulation needs to go with it. In both the case of CSCI and ALI, if that work does come to Ofsted, we will draw very heavily on the expertise that these organisations currently have. In both cases, we would draw upon many, if not all, of the inspectors of those organisations to do the business.

  Q5  Chairman: The logic of your argument, Inspector, is that you are going to go on and on increasing your empire. The logic of what you have just said about meeting with the business community is that you will eventually be going to higher education. From cradle to grave, Ofsted will be the inspectorate. Is that your ambition?

  Mr Bell: Ofsted, and certainly this Chief Inspector, is not acquisitive in the sense that we just want to grab everything.

  Q6  Chairman: You look like the British Empire at the height of colonial expansion. Every time we meet you, you have taken on a new territory.

  Mr Bell: That may not be the best of parallels when you think what happened to the empire. It is a good question to ask. Your premise was the Chancellor's budget statement.

  Q7  Chairman: We are going beyond that, Chief Inspector. I am saying is that this was not a decision made that this is good for education and for children's services. It was actually made by the Chancellor who said it is good to cut down the regulatory burden, so let us have four tidy inspectorates. It was not based on the good of the education service, was it?

  Mr Bell: The argument that I tried to advance this morning and the submission that we have put to the Department in response to the proposals is that there are good arguments in policy terms, in education terms, in care terms. I do not think we should underestimate, however, the efficiency argument. In the end, inspection and regulation is not part of the front-line delivery of public services. So we have got to make sure that it is done efficiently and it is done smartly. If we can do that by reducing the number of inspectorates, that seems to me to be a sensible way forward. One other comment, if I might, about this whole area; Ofsted recognises that reducing the number of inspectorates is not sufficient to modernise regulation. We have to do what Ofsted has been doing recently, and that is look at our inspection systems to make them more sharply focused, to make them more efficient and so on. The new school inspection system is a much lighter touch on schools. We believe you can have a lighter touch, smarter regulations and save money but actually continue to do a good job. I think that is the challenge for Ofsted if its remit is expanded after this consultation period.

  Q8  Chairman: It is interesting that you did not refute the idea of doing the cradle to the grave service, Chief Inspector. Let us leave that to one side. The other question we always ask you, and which I must ask you before we share the questioning around, because it is a perennial is: how do you know you are doing any good to the educational system? Unlike many other countries, we have an enormous system of inspection. Whether you say it is fit for purpose, it is trim and scaled down and much more efficient and you save money, there is still a big reliance on inspections in the hope that this is going to improve what we get in terms of the education of our children. What evidence do you have that if you packed up tomorrow, closed down the operation and walked away, education would not be as good or better?

  Mr Bell: Chairman that, as you rightly say, is an issue that you have pushed us on hard. I think we have tried to respond, not least through our Annual Report this year, because there has been a whole section of our Annual Report looking at the issue of the contribution Ofsted makes to improvement. I can cite a number of examples, if you wish. Schools that previously had been failing, where Ofsted inspection had identified that and diagnosed weaknesses, have been monitored and helped, through the process of improvement so that they have come out of special measures and gone on to be successful. 60% of those schools previously in special measures go on to be good or better schools in their subsequent inspection. We know from the child care world where we go back and visit child care providers who have not been meeting the national standards, for example, that we see and have seen rapid improvements so that young children get a better deal. The college inspection programme we know has highlighted some weaknesses in the college sector. One of the good news stories in the Annual Report this year is the percentage of colleges that are now adequate and certainly the number of colleges that previously had weak curriculum areas that are substantially improving. In all of this, it is very important to make the point that Ofsted does not cause improvement. Improvement is brought about by those who work in schools or colleges or child care providers. Those are the people responsible for bringing about improvement. I think a good system of inspection and regulation by highlighting strengths, diagnosing weaknesses and preparing the ground, as it were, for improvement makes a difference. I would not sit here and over-state the contribution that Ofsted makes to improvement. That would be arrogant in the extreme and it would not properly recognise the work done by those managing the institutions.

  Q9  Chairman: You would admit that the politicians that set Ofsted up in the first place, various administrations from this one and this one, surely believe, or they think they do from talking to successive secretaries of state, that the reason we invested in Ofsted is because it would improve schools. That is what the politicians think, is it not? Is there not a strange problem here that at the heart there is a concern and a worry that in a sense you have to say things are getting better because, otherwise, why are you there? This is a world where the Government sets you up to improve standards to justify your existence. I do not doubt the professional competence of you and your team, you know I do not and that is a fact, but is there not a kind of inbuilt system in which you have to report improvement because otherwise why on earth are you there?

  Mr Bell: I think it is fair to say that Ofsted has never been a lapdog of successive governments. We say it as part of our rhetoric that we speak as we find. We report the evidence as we find it. That is more than just rhetoric. I think that is very important to the integrity of the inspectorate that it does so. The reality is that we have reported on improvements in the education system because there are improvements in the education system. Equally, we have not pulled our punches, Chairman, as you well know, when it comes to commenting on aspects of government policy where we do not think it is going quite as well as it might. I think Ofsted is important to have in the education system. It acts as an independent voice on how well things are going. I think it has been to the credit of successive governments, as you say of different political persuasion, that they have been prepared to allow Ofsted the freedom to speak as they find. I think we would be no use to you, Chairman, in helping to hold the education system to account if we were just here to say that things are getting better, irrespective of what the evidence is telling us.

  Chairman: We have limbered up. I was very rude in not welcoming Robert, Miriam and Maurice whom we all know well and Vanessa; I think this is the first time Vanessa has been in front of the committee. Now we are going to drill down a bit.

  Q10  Jeff Ennis: Given the reply the Chief Inspector has just made in terms of the fact that all Ofsted does is inspect schools, is not Ofsted the wrong acronym and should it not be "Insted"—the Inspection of Standards in Education"?

  Mr Bell: We said in our submission about the future of inspectorates that Ofsted is a well-known brand name. I often make the point that if you go into a school playground and ask, "Do you know what Ofsted is?" you are unlikely to get the answer, "It is a non-ministerial government department whose Chief Inspector is a Crown appointment". You are likely to hear, "Oh, that is the inspectors, is it not?" I think we are a well-known brand. It is a good suggestion but I am very nervous about changing a well-known brand.

  Q11  Chairman: Is that the same reason that every time I ask you to move to Huddersfield you say you will not?

  Mr Bell: Chairman, we do not want to become the "Consignia" of the education service!

  Q12  Tim Farron: This is a question about standards overall throughout the sector. Do you think that the DfES list of the 100 most improved schools is a helpful and true reflection of schools raising their standards?

  Mr Bell: It is one measure. I think an important point to make when we look at school inspections is that we do not just report on the attainment of pupils. The statutory basis of inspection of course is to report on the standards achieved, the quality of education, leadership, management ethos and the like. You can get a measure of improvement by looking at value-added data and absolute achievement. For me I think the more important question to ask is "do schools improve over time?" rather than "are they most improved just from one year to the next?" because a single year's measure can be a bit misleading. Therefore, I think from our point of view it is better to see what progress a school is making over a number of years. Head teachers and teachers will often say, "We had bad year because of the cohort of young people", or whatever. It is an important measure but it has to be treated with some caution. I would rather look at the progress a school makes over a number of years rather than just one year.

  Q13  Tim Farron: I would not disagree with you and you are probably guessing what I am driving at. The analysis of that league table suggests that the most improved schools in terms of pupils gaining five A-C grade GCSEs have a poorer performance in English and maths. As you go down the list of 100, the better the performance at English and maths becomes. What do you think that suggests?

  Mr Bell: I think it is absolutely right to give greater priority to the English and maths measures that the Secretary of State is proposing when you are using those measures of success. Referring back to the business event this week, it is interesting that employers do think there are many aspects of our education system that have prepared young people better than they have in the past, but they still have a degree of unease about the basic English and maths that many young people attain when they leave school. Putting that in a more prominent position in the measure of school success and school performance is a thoroughly good idea.

  Q14  Tim Farron: That is absolutely right, I am sure. One thing to be drawn from the league table is that there is a link between an increase in provision of GNVQs and a decrease in the provision of science and languages. What is happening here is that schools are, as many of us believe, sacrificing standards or being encouraged to sacrifice standards in order to meet a fairly false target culture.

  Mr Bell: You always have to keep an eye on the accountability measures and whether they start to distort performance. To some extent I think one could say the same of Ofsted. If people know they are going to be inspected, do they start to behave in different ways and do those ways get further and further away from reality? One of the reasons we moved to shorter notice of inspection was to try to get away from the sense that people were only behaving in a certain way because Ofsted was coming. If you gave them 10 weeks' notice, they were more likely to behave in that way. I think it is terribly important to have good, clear, sharp measures of accountability of school performance. We must not go back to a time when that sort of data was not available. You have said, Mr Farron, that it is really important you keep that under review because if you get to a point where the accountability measure starts substantially to distort reality, then you ask yourself: in whose interests is this? I would make one other comment, however. The English and maths issue is absolutely right. Many young people, however, who follow the GNVQ route have gone on into education beyond 16 and have picked up courses that are appropriate to their needs. I would not dismiss it but we need to keep under review the accountability measures and any time they start to distort behaviour, that it the time to have a look at it again.

  Q15  Tim Farron: I would not disagree with that. The motivation behind the offering of the GNVQ by schools is the concern.

  Mr Bell: I would be the last person to say anything other than that accountability is a high stakes business in the education world. The success of schools measured by Ofsted inspection or by performance and tables and so on is high stakes, and people do look very carefully and hard at how well they are doing. In many schools across the country the move to greater accountability has driven real improvement in performance because people have not just been prepared to sit back and say, "Oh, well, these children achieve what they achieve. There is nothing we can do about it". Accountability has driven expectations, but we need to keep an eye on the accountability measures which might then get out of step with reality. To be fair, I think that is what the Government has done in saying, "Let us now ensure that the English and maths measures are central to the judgment of performance of schools and individual youngsters at the age of 16".

  Q16  Mr Marsden: Chief Inspector, I would corroborate from my own experience in Blackpool the beneficial impact that Ofsted inspections have had. One of my schools which has been in special measures has just come out of it. Obviously that is very pleasing. One of the aspects of that school coming out of special measures I believe is the new leadership that was provided in that school. I wanted to ask you how you think Ofsted makes a particular contribution to the improvement of leadership in schools.

  Mr Bell: That is a very good question. I think we do it at the micro level and we do it at the macro level. At the micro level, in a sense we do it the way you have described: the identification of weaknesses in a school, often of course around leadership and management, leading to a diagnosis of what needs to be done, frankly, often leading to changes in the leadership in management, and then that leadership in management becoming very focused on what has to be done. You will know that one of the characteristics of the school in special measures is that members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, my full-time staff, will monitor the school's progress during its period in special measures. Almost universally that is welcomed by schools and is seen as a very important help to the head teacher in understanding how well the school is doing and pinpointing what needs to be done next and so on. At the level of the individual institution, we provide that kind of support. Even in a sense in the less dramatic circumstances where a school is not in special measures, we are providing comment, as part of the statutory basis of inspection, on leadership in management. At the macro level, one of the things that inspection frameworks, the mechanisms by which we hold schools to account, do is to lay out the criteria that helps us to come to judgments about leadership in management. Over Ofsted's history, the publication of inspection criteria has been very useful to schools themselves in looking at what constitutes good managements and leadership and what constitutes satisfactory leadership management. I think schools have used that. In a sense, if you publish that nationally, it drills down. The other things that we do at the macro level are overview surveys. For example, in the Annual Report we comment on the state of leadership and management in schools in England, but we also provide themed reports. For example, we provided a report on special measures four or five years ago on leadership in managements for schools in special measures. We are trying to distil our national evidence and make it more widely available.

  Q17  Mr Marsden: You also said, and again I would concur with this, that Ofsted of itself has not got a magic wand and the work is done in schools by the people in schools. I would accept that. Self-evaluation, self-criticism if we can use a Maoist phrase, is an important part of that process, but in the past when you have come before the Committee you have been a little bit sceptical about that. When you came in March, you said that you were uncertain about whether schools do have that capacity. We also have a situation where the NUT and various other people who have given evidence to us on this still have some concerns that there is not enough in the structure of Ofsted that either supports or encourages self-evaluation in schools. How would you respond to those points?

  Mr Bell: We do comment in this year's Annual Report that whilst self-evaluation has improved, it is still not universally of a high standard. I suppose I have to repeat what I said earlier in the year that there is more to be done. It is interesting, all the same, that the recent changes, not just the most recent changes to the inspection system but the changes that really came about in 2003, put greater emphasis on self-evaluation. What we are seeing are more and more schools becoming comfortable with the concept of holding their work to account.

  Q18  Mr Marsden: Are your inspectors comfortable with the concept? In the past, there have been criticisms that individual inspectors have thought this is all a big airy-fairy and they have brushed it under the carpet.

  Mr Bell: That is a fair observation. However, I would say I have always found it somewhat ironic when people have said, "Self-evaluation is terribly airy-fairy, wishy-washy and it is all about giving yourself a pat on the back". I think it is the opposite; I think it is tougher. The quality of self-evaluation is a very interesting insight into the leadership in management in a school or a college. Far from it being easy; I think it has given sharpness. In fact I think inspectors recently, as we have used self-evaluation more and more, have become very comfortable doing it. You commented on the unions and others saying, "Are we quite there yet?" No, we are not, and we need to do more. In fact, Ofsted will be working with the Department and hopefully drawing upon ideas from the unions to give more guidance on self-evaluation. The one observation I would make is that we need to be careful that this does not become an industry. We want self-evaluation to be done well at school or college level, but there is just a danger that it all becomes terribly paper-based and bureaucratic. We have made all of these reductions in school inspection and we are all very comfortable with that but all we have done is displace work by making elaborate school-based self-evaluations. We have been very clear to schools: you do what you think is right in your circumstances. Ofsted is not there to judge the process; we are there to judge the outcomes.

  Q19  Mr Marsden: I do not think this Select Committee is in the market for stimulating the activities of management consultants on self-evaluation. I think we would agree with you on that. Can I move you on to another part of your Annual Report? You have talked positively in the Annual Report about curriculum flexibility and you have made comments in that respect. You also say, and I refer to paragraph 65 to do with secondary schools, that in subjects such as geography, history and art, fieldwork and visits to museums and galleries should provide opportunities to enrich and have a profound effect on pupils, but many schools appear to use outside visits and others are finding it difficult. We have had a submission from the Real World Learning Partnership that makes precisely that point. Do you think that the pressures of core subjects and other things are causing real problems for schools in this respect? Given that you recognise that out of classroom learning is important, is that something you could give particular attention to in your inspection process?

  Mr Bell: The comment exactly as you describe it in paragraph 65 is interesting. What we picked up, and I think we have had this conversation at the Committee previously, is that quite a lot of that has to do with the perceived risks. In fact, the final sentence in that paragraph makes the point about perceived risks. I have taken quite a bullish attitude on that. We published a report a year or so ago about outdoor education and the fantastic value that that brings to young people. It is so important. I was in a junior school in Merseyside last week where the year 6 children were talking about the field trip that they have done just at the beginning of the school year. That gave them a chance to get out and to get to know the teachers in a different environment. I do agree, Mr Marsden, that it is really important to try to encourage schools to do that.

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