Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  Q20  Mr Marsden: If you have said good things about it as part of your list of things in Ofsted, would that not improve the process as well?

  Mr Bell: This is interesting. Love us or loathe us, Ofsted is often seen as a policy lever. You are absolutely right; if Ofsted said that certain things are going to be inspected, that could act to galvanise the system on the grounds that what is inspected tends to get done. We have tried, under this new system of school inspection, really to strip out some of that specific detail but encourage schools to make the case strongly. My answer to your question, Mr Marsden, would be: if a school believes that outdoor education, field trips, visits to galleries and so on are making a difference to young people's education and enhancing what they are learning, that is something they have got to say. I have read a number of school inspection reports, not all 900 that have been published since September. Many of these reports comment very positively on the activities that the school has organised to take children or young people out. I do not think we can say enough about the value of children learning outside the school in this context.

  Q21  Mr Marsden: Finally, can I bring you back to another aspect of the curriculum on which you have commented, not specifically in the Annual Report as far as I am aware but in a recent lecture that you gave to Liverpool John Moores University, and that is on the citizenship side. You may be aware that this Committee is already looking at that. We had a very useful session with them the other week. In the lecture you gave you said, and I am quoting again from the report, that citizenship is marginalised in the curriculum in one-fifth of schools; it is less well established than other subjects and it is less well taught. You argued quite specifically a case for linking that with the teaching of history and I think geography as well. Do you think, not least given what has been happening in this country since July this year, that we need to give greater priority to citizenship teaching and that Ofsted needs to look perhaps more at that in its next Annual Report?

  Mr Bell: You are absolutely right that we have expressed concerns about it. Part of that is to do with the introduction of the subject. It is relatively recent, is it not, by way of introduction? I think my colleague Scott Harrison, who gave evidence to the Committee recently, was keen to make that point. I was trying to argue a number of things in the Roscoe Lecture at John Moores University: yes, citizenship is important and has to find a place in the curriculum, but I was not unmindful of the demands that teachers already face in what can be perceived as a crowded curriculum. That is why I gave some quite good examples of what schools were doing already to link other subjects of the curriculum and to be very explicit about what young people did. To answer your question directly "can we report on it?" we are very keen to report not just, as it were, on the teaching of citizenship as an academic subject, if you can put it that way, but also on the opportunities that young people have to behave as active citizens. Are there opportunities on school councils and the like? What opportunities do the children have to participate in activities like the Duke of Edinburgh Award or whatever? All those sorts of things are terribly important in generating a sense of becoming and active and participating citizen. We will look at it but not necessarily school by school, subject by subject, because of the new situation. This would be typical of Ofsted: where something is relatively new, we will say a bit more about it and hence the reason for taking the opportunity to use the public platform to try to generate a debate. I should say that I have been very encouraged by the reaction I have received on the back of that speech from quite a lot of head teachers who have said: "We do believe this is terribly important and we are pleased to hear you advocate strongly the role of citizenship". Not all head teachers share that view yet, but I hope they will see it as a central part of the curriculum.

  Q22  Chairman: Is it not the case that a school has to have the right leadership and the right team? I think we did a rather good report on the value of out of school education which came out earlier this year. I think the combination of your report, our report and Lord Adonis's reaction to that have all been very good, but we have to keep the pressure on. It is interesting that if you go to a well-known school, you will find that, despite the curriculum, they can deliver on good out of school education and good civic education. I know we have such talent here particularly in Robert Green. If you read his CV, you will notice his fingerprints are all over the curriculum. When the curriculum was introduced in 1988, he was the civil servant in charge. I wonder if we could ask him how he views developments in the curriculum since the time that he worked on it. Is it a barrier? There is a division in every school I go to with some saying that it stops them doing what they really want to do, and that is to teach, while others bound over it. What is your judgment, Robert?

  Mr Green: I remember 1987 as though it was yesterday, Chairman.

  Q23  Chairman: Remind us which Secretary of State that was?

  Mr Green: It was, as he now is, Lord Baker. I well remember the debate at the time and some members of both Houses were putting the point that the curriculum being set up then was not hugely different from the curriculum they remembered in their youth in perhaps the 1920s. There were a lot of issues, even in those early days, about the flexibility that existed in the curriculum. The thing that struck me, to fast-forward to Ofsted, is the way in which my colleagues find schools that are doing precisely what you and other Members of the Committee have said, Chairman; they are working within the National Curriculum but in ways that produce the right results across a much wider breadth than you would believe possible. I remember two or three years ago there was a report on the primary curriculum which demonstrated just that in relation to, as they then were, the national literacy and numeracy strategies. There were schools where this was not cramping the ability to cover whatever subjects. There is a bit of me that says, given the right leadership, the right understanding of what can be done and the right approach among the teachers, actually almost whatever the framework is, that the breadth of the curriculum can be delivered. I am going to duck much more detail on that. I feel quite encouraged that the National Curriculum has, from my perspective over that time, provided more clarity, more certainty, on all those issues. If you moved from one part of the country to the other you had no idea what you were going to get. That is a debate of the past.

  Q24  Chairman: How do you react to a comment from my youngest daughter, who has just graduated from Edinburgh University? The big difference between her experience at school and mine is that she says she never learnt any English history. She is really now as a graduate beginning to read English history because the curriculum never allowed her to read and learn about it. It seems an amazing comment that you can go through the curriculum in an English comprehensive school and come out feeling, although you have achieved in many ways, that you have never learnt about the history of your country.

  Mr Green: I would agree. I would also say, if we are going to be anecdotal, that I went to a very good grammar school and my knowledge of history from the school stopped with the industrial revolution. I observe my own children. I would say it is not true to say that they do not learn anything of English history by any means, but what is learnt is selective. I am not an expert.

  Mr Bell: From where did you say your daughter graduated?

  Q25  Chairman: She graduated from Edinburgh University.

  Mr Bell: I shall resist the temptation to make a comment about that institution.

  Q26  Chairman: I have two other children who graduated from Cambridge and Bristol, but never mind.

  Mr Bell: These are top grade universities compared to Glasgow, but that is another matter! In terms of English history, it is very interesting you raise that because I had a group of colleagues from within Ofsted who are history specialists just last Friday discussing the nature of the history curriculum. It is terribly important that children understand about the past in their own country. It is also important that children understand their own place. That is why children's understanding of geography, where they live and not just locally and how that fits in nationally and internationally is terribly important. Here I think you have an interesting tension. On the one hand, you are saying there should be greater flexibility within the curriculum, yet on the other hand we have to ensure there are some non-negotiables and that children must have those. That is right. There are some areas, for example in English history, where you would say we want to ensure that the school-based experience for children covers the following areas, but we give schools a lot of flexibility about quite how they do that. I will make one other observation. We talked about chronology. People often say that children have no understanding of chronology. I wonder how many adults have a good grasp of the chronology of history. It is quite an advanced and sophisticated concept to understand what happened when, what came after and what came before, but we need to do more to give children a better sense of what happened a very long time ago, what happened quite a long time ago, and what is much more contemporaneous or recent. That is a good debate.

  Chairman: I always recommend starting with 1066 and All That.

  Q27  Mrs Dorries: One of my daughters went through the comprehensive system and one went at a later stage to an independent school and is actually studying history at university at the moment. The daughter who was in the comprehensive school has never done anything pre-Second World War. My elder daughter says that that is a real handicap if you want to go on and study history when you go to university. I do not know any comprehensive school that teaches pre-Second World War history, and yet the independent sector does. Why cannot the state sector in the comprehensives do what the independent sector is doing? They have the same hours in the day.

  Mr Bell: The National Curriculum requirement is that Key Stage 3 children, 11-14-year-olds, cover English history as well as other aspects of European history. That obviously develops as children grow towards 16. It is interesting, however, that part of the debate on the history curriculum has been about the so-called Hitlerisation of the curriculum where you just seem to study European dictators endlessly. There is an issue about getting the balance right. If you go to primary schools, children often will be doing some very interesting work; for example, children at the upper end of the primary stage will often look at the Victorians and gain a very interesting insight into the life and times of Victorian England. I think there is recognition that it is terribly important that children understand more about the key events and pressures in our history. I would have to take issue with you if you say that no comprehensive schools do it because the national curriculum does require youngsters to study aspects of English history. The more interesting issue perhaps around this is that if history is not compulsory, as it is not post-14, what happens if children then drop history and say, "I am not interested in it; it does not matter to me"? Think of all the debates that we are having as a nation at the moment; they are all informed by our history. Very topical debates go all the way back to the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights and all those sorts of things through our history. It is terribly important that children do history but if it is not compulsory after the age of 14, then you can identify precisely the problem that you have described.

  Q28  Mrs Dorries: Even post-14, there is Hitlerisation in the curriculum. If they are studying at GCSE, it is still the Second World War and Hitler. There is not much of an incentive when they have done it all the way through to carry on doing it yet further.

  Mr Bell: Certainly, and attention is being given to that, particularly if you go on to do A-level history, because then, in a sense, you can do it again. Attention is being given to the content of the curriculum. Nobody would argue that we should not look at the impact of the European dictators on our history. That is absolutely central to our understanding of the twentieth century, not least our understanding of our own nation in the twentieth century. The danger is it that just becomes content that is done time and time again and it just does not motivate youngsters to do it time and time again.

  Q29  Dr Blackman-Woods: I have a couple of questions about further education. I note that you conclude in your report that the overall quality of provision is notably better this year than last. However, when you actually read the report, a number of problems are identified: too many students failing to complete courses, particularly in key skills; cramped conditions; problems about the 16-19 curriculum specifically; and problems with recruiting staff with the correct skills and recent commercial and industrial experience. I suppose my questions to you are: how worried should we be about FE? Is there really improvement? Can you convince us of that?

  Mr Bell: In some ways I am pleased you put the question that way. Although we have commented on improvements that we have seen, you are absolutely right to highlight some of those more structural and longstanding issues around further education. In headline terms, the number of inadequate colleges has dropped. It is important to make the point, and I do not want to underestimate it, that the final year of the inspection programme did tend to look more at stronger colleges because they had been pushed to the end of the inspection cycle. It is important to say that, and that is not to underestimate the improvements. The sorts of issues that you describe are very real and relevant. Coming back to the discussion, because it is fresh in my mind, with the business community on Monday, I was quite struck by national organisations in the private sector saying that they found the pattern of provision very uneven. In one area they were making tremendously good relationships with the local college, which was very flexible in offering the right curriculum to serve the employers' needs, and in other parts of the country the same employer, because of its national business, was finding that the college was not doing that, right the way through to one employer saying, "We now do much of that training in-house because we cannot rely on uniformly good quality from the further education sector". I think it is a real concern if there is such unevenness in the quality of further education. National employers are not going to be very interested in a sector that cannot guarantee them the quality of skills for training that their employees need. That is important. You highlighted another important issue in relation to attracting suitably qualified staff. We mention in the report that construction, for example is one of the weaker curriculum areas. I do not think that is unrelated to some strength in the economy. People who have those sorts of skills can make a very good living doing the job. Therefore, coming in to be a further education lecturer is not always a particularly attractive proposition. I know that some further education colleges are looking for people who are perhaps a bit older and who may not want to do the front-line work, as it were, in bricklaying or painting and decorating; they are trying to encourage that cohort of people to come to work in the further education sector. That remains a major concern. I cannot help thinking that if you do not get the right quality of staff with the right level of skill to teach the students that will undermine confidence in the further education sector. We know from our evidence that that has a direct impact on the quality of teaching. Significant issues remain in further education. Of course, we await the review being carried out by Sir Andrew Foster. It will be very interesting to see what direction he charts for this sector. That is terribly important. I made some comments last year which quite a lot of people took exception to that the percentage of failing colleges is a national disgrace. I did not say that because I hate the sector. I just see the sector as so important that we cannot afford to have a further education system that is not firing on all cylinders. That will help not just our economy but, as we know, many adults to get a second chance where the compulsory education system has failed them first time round.

  Q30  Dr Blackman-Woods: I absolutely agree with you about the importance of the sector. In fact, the Prime Minster opened a new FE college in my constituency last week. That is critical to delivery of the Government's skills agenda and the 14-19 curriculum. From the comments that you have made, how can we be sure that these colleges are going to continue to improve and that that new college is going to deliver on its curriculum? There is another point I want to pick up from your report. You hint particularly at the curriculum not engaging the 16-19-year-olds. That is the group we absolutely have to engage. What can the colleges do to improve?

  Mr Bell: The Chairman made the point earlier about leadership in management in the schools sector and that leadership being able to make things happen quickly. The same would be true in further education colleges. You can visit, as I do, further education colleges up and down the country and meet principals and senior staff who just are so attuned to the needs of the local economy that they can turn things round really fast. If a new employer comes into the area, all of a sudden, something happens. There are good jobs for young people in car manufacturing in the East Midlands and the further education colleges are very much up there with their mission in making sure that the young people come through with the right sorts of skills. This shows something about the quality of leadership in management and responsiveness to the system. There is something too, is there not, about the sorts of qualifications that young people get. We have about one quarter of a million young people doing apprenticeships. It seems to me that that is an area which is ripe for further expansion. I visited an aerospace manufacturing company in East Anglia recently and talked to some of the apprentices. I got a real sense of craftsmen and crafts-women taking enormous pride in learning a skill, going through an apprenticeship and coming out at the other end. We would not want to point the finger at the colleges and say that they just need to raise their game. We need to ensure that the infrastructure of qualifications and courses is relevant and appealing to young people. There is some encouraging evidence that that is where we are going as, for example, in the proposals in the White Paper on 14-19 education on developing specialised diplomas. I am finding employers are very positive about that. They see that as a positive development; they will have a lot of influence in constructing those diplomas and making sure the content is right. They believe that this is a way to engage quite a lot of young people. We have talked at this Committee before about the middle group, not those in the most difficult circumstances, not those in the A-level stream but the middle group of youngsters. Traditionally our education system has not always done a good job for them and they are precisely the sorts of youngsters that I think could benefit substantially from specialist diplomas. I am quite hopeful that we are going in the right direction in terms of the further education strategy as well as in further education colleges.

  Q31  Dr Blackman-Woods: I am wondering if the problem we are having, in a sense, is about rediscovering and rebuilding vocational education. You comment that about one-third of work-based learning is unsatisfactory. Clearly that too is very important if we are going to skill the workforce. I wondered if you could comment on that.

  Mr Bell: Perhaps collectively as a nation we took our eye off the ball there. It is easy to criticise the education system and ask why it stopped doing one thing or the other. A lot of employers probably did not pay enough attention to work-based learning. Everyone is on the ball now. I am struck by the extent to which employers are talking very positively about investing in training and development opportunities for employees and working with their skills. We have to keep the school/employer dialogue going. At our business breakfast the other day one head teacher of a secondary school—

  Q32  Chairman: You are obviously very impressed by these business breakfasts you have?

  Mr Bell: I was not sitting at their feet worshipping. It was good that there was not that old, dare I say it, rather stereotypical, "Well, you are all to blame for this. We are perfect in the private sector. Why can you lot not get your act together?" It was a very intelligent discussion about how together we need to make a difference. Employers have a responsibility. It is all very well pointing the finger at the schools system and saying that it should do this, that and the other, but employers, surely, for their competitiveness, need to be investing heavily in training and development. They will want the most highly skilled workforce to be able to lead successful companies in the future.

  Q33  Jeff Ennis: On the issue of FE, how big a problem do you think the current funding gap between schools sixth forms and FE colleges is impacting on the malaise in FE at the present time?

  Mr Bell: Generally speaking, school sixth forms, as you know, do a very different job. In the main, and particularly sixth-form colleges, schools sixth forms to a large extent will tend to focus their attention on the level 3 students; in other words, those students going the A-level route usually into higher education; further education does a different job. It is always difficult to get into these conversations about funding gaps. We are about to announce in December the outstanding further education colleges that do a cracking job with the resources they have and get on with it. School sixth forms do not always do a universally brilliant job, even with the money they have. Although the money is important, going back to leadership in management, we know that is often what makes a difference. This is going to become a more acute issue if we look at a greater movement of students between schools and colleges. We know there are quite a few young people who are going into college-based courses 14 plus, 14-16, and there is good encouragement for that as an opportunity. If we are going to meet the ambitions of the Government's White Paper on 14-19s and all those specialised diplomas and we are going to ensure that youngsters get the right training and development in education, no individual secondary school on its own is going to be able to provide all that is needed across 14 specialised diplomas. You are going to get into sharper partnership with further education. How that is going to play out in the funding system, Mr Ennis, I am not sure yet.

  Q34  Jeff Ennis: You seem quite relaxed about it.

  Mr Bell: I am not relaxed about it in that sense because I think it will become a more acute problem. The challenge may be for the Learning and Skills Council in how it funds that collaboration. You may have heard in evidence put to you previously that in the main most secondary schools and most further education colleges want to collaborate for the sake of the education training on offer to the youngsters, but they will often say that sometimes there are practical difficulties in doing it. One of the tasks under the 14-19 reform is to find funding mechanisms that will drive collaboration. The Government's ambitions for 14-19 education will not be met by institutions working isolated one from another. You cannot do that and so we need to look at the funding system, which naturally tends to focus on individual institution funding. We need to find ways of making sure there is collaboration in the system.

  Q35  Mr Chaytor: Chief Inspector, last year you were inspected in a fashion by the Institute of Education. The report you jointly published listed 18 issues for consideration. They were not exactly recommendations but issues for consideration. How many of those 18 have you considered and what is the result of your consideration?

  Mr Bell: I cannot tell you offhand. We have certainly considered them all because that report was very important to us. I can give you one or two practical examples of things that we have done. For example, that report concluded that we should have a much more risk-based approach and that we should use the evidence from data to drive our inspection programmes more intelligently. Since September 2005, we have had a much lighter touch inspection system. The data that we are using is driving what we inspect and how we inspect. Our risk-based approach to inspection is not just around schools. We are doing it in early years, in teacher education and so on. For me the most striking recommendation was to make better use of the intelligence that we have gathered. That was one of the key recommendations we have dealt with. One or two comments were made at the beginning. It is really important for Ofsted not to be seen as complacent. If we are asking everyone else to keep their work under review, we do must do that too. We are doing it. Perhaps I could write to you afterwards and tell you specifically what we have done under each of the recommendations. I can assure you, Mr Chaytor, that we have acted on all of those recommendations. We were not going to commission that work and then not deal with the recommendations.[1]

  Q36 Mr Chaytor: Could we ask you specifically about the recommendation that suggested you should be linking inspection more closely with the promotion of improvement. In your annual report I do not see any reference at all to the school improvement partners that the Government is introducing as the criteria for school improvement?

  Mr Bell: I think it is very important to repeat the point I made. We have tried very much to address in a thoughtful way in this report the contribution that Ofsted makes to improvement, and one of the criticisms that we received after the publication of the report that you described was that people were saying, "That was Ofsted doing it to itself." You know, "This is all a bit cosy." We are now working jointly with the National Audit Office to bring, in a sense, that independent edge to our work, and we are actually at the moment looking with the NAO at a project so we can more properly and accurately measure the improvement effect within Ofsted. I would want to always add the cautionary comment that I added in response to one of my answers to the Chairman: we do not cause improvement directly. Others who are working in schools, colleges, day-care centres and the like bring about improvement. We need to be clear about the improvement effect, and that is why we think it is important that we draw upon the expertise, and I think everyone would expect that the National Audit Office would have no axe to grind on this; they would want to look very carefully. I would say, however, if you look at reports published by the National Audit Office—I think they are due to publish one on schools in difficulty—if you look at the one on secondary education, if you look at the one on child-care, the National Audit Office is often very complimentary of the contribution that Ofsted makes to drive improvement in the system. We believe that we are on the right lines, but we want to utilise the rigor of the NAO to help us answer that question more sharply. Are we doing all we can to bite on improvement? Schools improvement partners—that is a Department for Education and Skills initiative—we are talking very much with the Department about how we can compliment the work. For example, the White Paper flags the possibility of a lighter touch, an even lighter touch in the best performing schools in the inspection system. A great idea; absolutely right. That would, I think, allow us to free up inspection resource and probably the Department to free up the work of improvement partners to concentrate their activities in the schools that most require improvement. That seems to be an intelligent use of inspection data and judgments to drive the work of the school improvement partner. I can assure you that we are working very closely with the team responsible for school improvement partners to make sure that we compliment each others' work. In the end, we are all interested in driving forward improvement in the system. I think we have all got different roles to play in making that happen.

  Q37  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask one final point linked to that, because to me the most interesting line in the report is the one that said: "In the majority of schools pupils do not have a good understanding of how they can improve their work", and you identify assessment as a general . . . To what extent do you think that the weakness of assessment for learning is the result of our national obsession with a centralised curriculum, a prescriptive curriculum, a huge amount of testing and the focus on assessment of them?

  Mr Bell: I must admit, Chairman, I have never made that direct connection.

  Q38  Mr Chaytor: Fifteen years after the launch of the National Curriculum pupils do not have a good understanding of how to improve. That must say something?

  Mr Bell: We have commented . . . .

  Q39  Chairman: Perhaps Miriam wants to come in on this, because she is very experienced in this area, is she not?

  Mr Bell: Chairman, I will defer immediately to my colleague.

  Mrs Rosen: First of all, I would like to say that, although assessment remains the weakest area of teaching, it has nevertheless improved, and we have charted that improvement over the years. However, yes, it is the weakest part of teaching still and it is, as you say, assessment for learning which is the weaker element, because that is how teachers help pupils to identify what it is that they need to do to bring about improvement; so it is crucial. It could be that the understandable focus on assessment for learning has distracted from the need to improve assessment for learning. We have produced good practice in this area, it is something we comment on in individual school reports, it is something we comment on on survey reports, so we have produced a lot on which schools can draw, and so have strategies. The national strategies have put a big focus on this, and we put a focus on it when we are inspecting.

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