Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



  Q80  Jeff Ennis: One final question, Chair, on pupil referral which is referred to on page 24 in the annual report, paragraph 98. It says, "The quality of accommodation in units continues to improve. However in 12 of the 38 inspections the accommodation was unsatisfactory, and in two it was poor overall. This limited the curriculum opportunities for the pupils, particularly in PE, food technology, design technology and practical aspects of science." Is not the fact that we seem to have these PRU users as sort of a second-class level of education. Is that not having a bad perception, shall we say, in terms of the efficiency of PRUs within the whole school setting?

  Mr Bell: I think it is very important to say that Pupil Referral Units have to exist to provide for those youngsters who cannot be educated in mainstream school. There is no argument about that. Often that provision does seem to sit at the margins of the rest of the system, and in some cases quite literally at the margins where you are in a hut somewhere on a school campus or elsewhere.

  Q81  Jeff Ennis: Absolutely. They are in many examples in isolation?

  Mr Bell: Absolutely, and I think that is where the very specific point relates to quality of accommodation, because if you are in a hut somewhere you do not necessarily have access to specialist accommodation. What quite a lot of local authorities are trying to do now is to ensure that PRUs are more hooked into local schools so that the youngsters concerned can get access to the facilities that they require, but it is always going to be a difficult one. Those youngsters are in PRUs often because they have not behaved well enough to stay in the mainstream school, and there are issues often about enabling those youngsters to get back in and use the facilities that other youngsters are using, but clearly if you are out in a hut somewhere you are not going to be able to access the specialist accommodation.

  Chairman: Chief Inspector, I am sorry that has been brief, but we are coming back to that. I quickly want to go through the Schools White Paper and the Education Bill. I know that Roberta has a high question in questions coming up now, but do you want a quick one on this?

  Q82  Dr Blackman-Woods: One of the key features of the White Paper is the importance that is given to parent's involvement, particularly, I think, the assertion that parental involvement increases standards or helps to do that. Is there in your opinion evidence to support that?

  Mr Bell: We often comment in the most successful schools about parents who are well engaged in their children's education, and that would not come as any great surprise to you. It is interesting, it is very currently in my mind looking at one or two school reports of schools in difficulty, that it is not necessarily the case that parents are not interested, although that can be the case. It may be that the relationship between the home and the school has broken down. Parents have got an absolutely central role in taking an interest in what their children are doing at school and supporting the school, but actually it is a two-way relationship. Sometimes schools do not always make themselves as open and as easy and as accessible to parents as they might, so I do not think this is either all about the right of parents or all about parent bashing: the truth is that children do best when there is a really good, strong, positive relationship between home and school. It was ever thus.

  Q83  Dr Blackman-Woods: But it is uneven, is it not, parental involvement? Is it your experience that parental involvement is less in more disadvantaged areas?

  Mr Bell: I have never subscribed to the view that parents in more disadvantaged areas are any less interested in education than parents elsewhere. I think the vast majority of parents are interested in how their children are doing at school. They do not always necessarily engage with the school in the same way. Some parents are more articulate and make their views known much more strongly to the school, get more involved, and therefore I think one of the added challenges for schools in serving disadvantaged communities is making sure that parents feel welcome and it is easy to access. It is always easy, is it not, at primary level: because the relationship is different between parent and school when the child is younger. Parents generally, in one way or another, have a greater connection: the tradition of the school gate. It is much more common for parents to be gathering round the school gate than it would be in a secondary school. I think it is fair to say it is tougher in some schools where parents may not want to engage as much with the school, but I never believe it is because parents just do not care. Some parents do not care, of course, I just believe that the vast majority of parents do care and want their children to do well, particularly when their children are young.

  Q84  Dr Blackman-Woods: I think my question is really if parental involvement and engagement is necessary to drive up school standards and you do have less of it in the more disadvantaged areas and in the weaker schools, then in giving a greater role to parents are we not just extending that disparity or can more be done to increase parental involvement and engage schools in schools that are currently failing?

  Mr Bell: We must not say that schools that are certainly in disadvantaged areas do not have parental engagement and therefore are weaker. We know that some schools do the most fantastic things to engage parents, even in what we might describe as the most auspicious of circumstances. I do not think it drives it apart. I think to say you are going to give a greater role to parents in the education system is not about driving a greater gap, it is about saying to all schools, "You have a responsibility to engage with your parents" and encouraging parents to get involved. In the end you cannot force parents, you cannot force parents and march them up to the school gates and say, "Get in there and listen to what the head teacher has to say". In some of those circumstances the school has to go out more perhaps than just expect the parents to come to it.

  Q85  Chairman: Chief Inspector, Roberta's point surely is that if people like the Sutton Trust can still say, "The real tragedy of our school system is that 30% of kids have never seemed to have had the education opportunities and still do not get them", is just parent-power going to deliver it?

  Mr Bell: As far as I understand it, Chairman, nobody is arguing that just parent-power is going to deliver it. It is improvements to the education system that gives more children the opportunity. It takes a range of things to happen for children to get the opportunities that they want, but surely we should all continue to worry away at how we get more parents engaged: because, as I said a few moments ago, children are more likely to succeed at school where there is a good partnership between home and teacher.

  Q86  Tim Farron: I will try and compress my questions into one or two. The White Paper is fairly clear about providing Ofsted with additional powers and responsibilities. In particular, with regard to special measures through the LA you appear to have the power to replace heads, managers, governing bodies and to suspend budgets. I guess my questions are these: did you ask for those powers, were you not consulted over those powers and either way do you welcome them?

  Mr Bell: Just to be clear, Mr Farron, the powers that you describe still really reside with the local authority.

  Q87  Tim Farron: Indeed?

  Mr Bell: What the White Paper is saying is that if schools do not make sufficient progress quickly enough, then a range of alternatives should be considered; and that was something that I was consulted on and something that I advocated. Our experience is that that first year, first few months, frankly, after a school goes into special measures you need to see some pretty rapid change and improvement. Despite the press stories, it was not the case that failing schools would close after a year. That is not what has been proposed. What has been said, and it is absolutely right, is if a school that is in special measures is not starting to make significant improvement quickly, then more remedial drastic action can be required. The Chairman and others, I think, on previous occasions have lamented the fact that some schools had been in special measures for years on end, and rightly too they should lament that fact because that is children year on year not getting a decent education, so I think faster intervention on the backs of schools that are failing is really important, but all of those intervention powers—replacing the governing bodies, suspension, suspending delegations and so on—will continue to reside with the local authority.

  Q88  Tim Farron: Moving on quickly to admissions processes, what sort of role do you expect to have in scrutinising the admissions procedures of the increased number of schools who seem likely to gain control of their admissions processes?

  Mr Bell: We have never had a role in that area, although a couple of years ago the Chairman invited us to give some evidence on what we had found on admissions policies. I think in a sense that landscape is crowded enough, because obviously the ultimate responsibility in terms of dealing with appeals rests with the schools adjudicator; it is not appropriate for Ofsted to get involved in that either at a local or a national level. I think in our previous programme of local education authority inspections the issue of admissions would come up, and, of course, that was why the Chairman invited us to look at it, but that is not something that I think would be appropriate for us.

  Q89  Tim Farron: You do not think they should?

  Mr Bell: I do not think we should do that, no.

  Chairman: We move now to teacher training, childcare and local authorities as our final topic.

  Q90  Jeff Ennis: Focusing firstly on Early Years education, David—I forget how long it is now that the responsibility for inspection of that was taken away from Children's Social Services, and I have asked you this question the last couple of times you have been here—there were transitional problems. The computers that were originally allocated to the inspectors were not of the best standard and we changed the working practices from working in teams within children's social services departments to working to some extent in isolation. Have all these teething problems now been totally resolved and is Early Years inspection totally integrated?

  Mr Bell: It would be a fool that would sit here and say, "I have no problems, Chairman." Those major problems that you described, for example inadequate IT systems and so on, have been addressed, and we know from the feedback that the staff give us that that has been dealt with. I think there continues to be an issue. Some people adapt more easily to being home-based than others. Of course our old inspectors, both on the Early Years side and on the education side, are home-based. I think there is a particular chance for managers in keeping in touch with people, making sure that people do not feel isolated, but I will not pretend that some people still feel uncomfortable. On balance though most of the colleagues that I speak to up and down the country when you go out with them say that actually there are quite a lot of benefits in being home-based, but that bit of isolation you always have to keep your eye on.

  Q91  Jeff Ennis: So you feel that that inspection regime now is more focused on the job in hand than it was previously?

  Mr Bell: If I might, I would like to ask Maurice to comment on this.

  Mr Smith: I think it has always been focused on the job in hand, and I think the results of our inspection programmes show that we deliver our inspection programmes, we deliver to timescales in terms of registration time and we deliver to timescales in terms of responding to complaints. On the home-based issue, if I might add, I have a direct take on this because I speak to my staff on a regular basis. It was 50:50 on day one, 3 September 2001. I would have said by Christmas it was 75:25 against. I would say by now it is 95:05 in favour. The vast majority of colleagues really enjoy that privilege now. They have adapted to it. Some who really were never going to have gone. It is a big success story, and to our colleague here, I would add that, of course, we now face that further challenge if we are given the rolling responsibility from other inspectorates.

  Q92  Jeff Ennis: One final question. In paragraph ten of the report it states, "The quality of education remains at least good in most private, voluntary and independent nursery settings." How does this judgment compare with Ofsted's findings on maintained nursery provision?

  Mr Smith: One of the difficulties of this is about measuring apples and oranges: because we are measuring two distinct groups of children. Those children who are in the maintained sector, largely speaking, are in the reception class and at the end of the foundation stage. Those who are in the private long-term independent sector, though not absolutely the case, are usually at the beginning of the foundation stage and therefore the measures available to us are less so. I do not think that we would make a distinction between either the mainstream . . . .

  Q93  Jeff Ennis: So you would be using different quality measures?

  Mr Smith: No, we would be using the same measures but the children are at a different age, at a different stage, usually. I think our submitted position is that we would not make distinction between the maintained versus the PVI sector—and it is between nurseries and childminders effectively—except to say that which is good quality is good quality in whichever sector it is; so you can have good quality child-minding, good quality PVI foundation stage, good quality maintained, but you can also have poor quality in each of those sectors as well.

  Q94  Mrs Dorries: You mentioned the stories on the front of two newspapers today. Could I ask you, were you consulted on that? Also, one of the things that alarms me is that it actually talked about babies and toddlers and having the same legal force as is in place for the national school curriculum. Do you think that baby rooms and toddler rooms and nurseries are places for Ofsted inspectors to be and were you consulted on childcare?

  Mr Bell: We are already in those places.

  Q95  Mrs Dorries: Is it appropriate?

  Mr Bell: I think it is. If a parent in a sense entrusts their child to another setting, whether that is a childminder's home, or a day nursery, or whatever, I think parents want some reassurance that what is going on is safe, the children are being well looked after and what opportunities are appropriate for them, and that has been the case really all the way through, long before Ofsted got involved, and this is why there was always registration and inspection of day-care providers. What is different, of course, when Ofsted took over is that you got a national system against 14 national standards, and I think it is important that those standards are judged. I think interestingly, if one looks at very young children, it is even more appropriate to look at their safety, their security, their well-being, the range of activities in the day for them, and some children do spend a lot of time in day-care provision, so I do not think that is inappropriate. I think we may need to pause for breath. This morning's newspaper headlines had a really good edge to them about children being lined up in highchairs and taught how to read at the age of two and a half. I do not think that is quite what is being proposed. We are talking with the Department about how we take that forward. The departments properly, ministers properly, are responsible for the new curriculum, if I use that generic word, for children under five, and clearly we will have a role in regulating and inspecting against this, but I would just caution against assuming that this is going to be the heavy hand of the state imposing its will everywhere. I think parents do want a degree of assurance when it comes to the care of their children, in a sense, being done by others, and it is right to keep that in mind. I would certainly not want over-regulation and over-heavy regulation of young children, but I certainly would not want no regulation either.

  Q96  Mr Chaytor: Were you consulted on the proposals in the White Paper to establish trust schools?

  Mr Bell: Chairman, I am delighted that the Committee feels that I should be consulted on all of these major issues of state. These issues are discussed with me as Chief Inspector, of course they are, and I think you would be appalled if they were not; so I was consulted in the sense that officials and ministers shared their emerging ideas, quite properly, and quite appropriately. In the end it is for ministers, properly, quite appropriately, to decide what was in the White Paper, but I can assure you, this Chief Inspector is not left out on the sidelines and nobody ever talks to him.

  Q97  Mr Chaytor: Is there any evidence in your annual report on the relationship between local authorities and schools that would substantiate the argument to stop local authorities being direct providers of schools?

  Mr Bell: I am not sure our annual report would be the right place to look for that. We would judge individual schools according to the quality of the education that they provide. We would look, as we did historically, at local education authorities and what we provided. The actual relationship, the constitutional relationship, if I can put it that way rather pompously, is not really a matter that we would comment on. What I would say, and I strongly take this view, I think we should give as much autonomy as possible to individual institutions who know the pupils that they serve, the students that they serve, to in a sense drive their own destiny, but it is clearly a policy matter about the actual relationship between the local authority, quite properly. It is for the Government to determine what that really should look like.

  Q98  Mr Chaytor: But the assumption of the White Paper is that local authorities do not have the capacity to deliver the next phase of continuous improvements in schools. Does your annual report or your evidence-base substantiate that assumption?

  Mr Bell: Local authorities, since the inspection programme, have improved, but if you look at judgments on local authorities in the annual report, we are talking about them in the main being satisfactory or better. I think we are moving into a phase of education reform that is going to make significant demands on everyone in the system, and I would not necessarily conclude, therefore, that local authorities are absolutely up for everything that is going to be done. My understanding reading the White Paper is that local authorities will have a different role under the proposals.

  Q99  Chairman: Is it really a different role? We had the senior officer from Hampshire the other day who said the White Paper will not make any difference. They have had a commissioning role in Hampshire for a long some time. They do not see themselves as a provider, and so is not some practice really there already?

  Mr Bell: Yes, and I think the Government, as far as I would see, would acknowledge that the best local authorities have started to move into that kind of commissioning role. I think it is a bit of a stretch if somebody has argued, "This will make no difference. We will continue to do what we are going to do." There are clearly quite radical ideas, for example, about groups of parents who have a right to approach the local authorities and say, "We believe there should be educational provision in there at the moment." The local authority is judge and jury on that one. The notion in the White Paper is that there would be an access to the schools commissioner who would have the responsibility for saying ultimately, "Actually there is a demand for places in this area. I am sorry, local authority, actually you are not providing." So I think it is a different role to what has happened historically.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 18 July 2006