Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 101-119)


8 MAY 2006

  Q101 Chairman: Can I welcome Maurice Smith and the team: Andrew White, Miriam Rosen, Dorian Bradley and Jonathan Thompson. You do look a formidable team. Apart from Miriam there is a good front row here! Can I apologise—it was not your fault but ours—that we had to postpone the last meeting due to the programme that we had involved with the White Paper and the new Bill. Sorry we were thrown a little off course by that. Now we are back on course and we do feel that, yes, we have had you come to us on particular inquiries like the Special Educational Needs Inquiry, but not on the full remit of Ofsted. Today we want to get to grips with a number of topics. You have got the whole team to answer the relevant questions. Maurice, do you want to say anything to open up this session? We usually give you a chance to get us going.

  Mr Smith: I have some short opening remarks, Chairman, if you will bear with me for a side of A4. It is my pleasure to appear in front of the Committee again and I welcome the opportunity to account for the work of Ofsted. I would like to introduce two or three of the key issues that we feel we face. First, we have implemented significant changes to our programmes and frameworks of inspection over the last two terms, or the last year in the case of early years. In September 2005 we introduced a new lighter touch school inspection framework and we are pleased to say we have received very positive feedback from schools and other stakeholders. Many believe it has reduced the costs, the stress and the bureaucracy associated with inspection. Despite the shorter notice and the lighter touch, there is no doubt that the process and judgments made are just as rigorous. By the end of March 2006, that was the first two terms, 3,700 school inspections had been completed and nearly 60% of schools were judged good or better. We are not complacent. We are constantly reflecting as an organisation and looking at new ways to continue to lighten the weight of inspection. In this term we have been developing and piloting a proportionate school inspection model which will provide an even lighter touch to the best schools and target resources where they are most needed. In relation to our work in early years, we welcome the proposed changes to the way that we regulate and inspect childcare and early years education and the development of the early years foundation stage outlined in the current Childcare Bill. We have recently reviewed our processes for determining the suitability of individuals working with children. We remain confident that our verification and decision-making processes mean that no person who is unsuitable to provide childcare can be registered with Ofsted. Secondly, and briefly, we have concluded our Improving Ofsted programme. We have reduced our estate, our premises, from 12 offices to four. We have created a national business unit and contact centre in our Manchester office for the more efficient handling of customer contact and the early years' regulation processes. In doing so, we have reduced our staffing from our agreed 2004-05 baseline by approximately 20%. We have made almost 400 staff redundant but we have worked hard to offer displaced staff alternatives either elsewhere within Ofsted or redeployment to the Civil Service or other parts of the public sector. These fundamental changes to inspection regulation and to the structure of Ofsted will deliver savings to the public purse of £42 million a year from April 2007, 20% of the total running cost of Ofsted. On that date, subject to the passage of legislation, there will be the creation of the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, still to be known as Ofsted. Currently we are discussing whether any further efficiency savings will be required by the Better Regulation Executive's influence. Obviously this will continue to bring challenges but I am confident that Ofsted will deliver. Chairman, my colleagues and I take very seriously the comments and suggestions of your Committee and the importance of our own self-evaluation. We look forward to this afternoon's session contributing to that self-evaluative process.

  Q102  Chairman: Maurice, thank you very much for that. It was remiss of me not to have mentioned that, young as you appear to Members of this Committee, we hear on the grapevine that you are going to be retiring at the end of this year as Chief Inspector, is that correct?

  Mr Smith: That is the proposed course of personal action.

  Q103  Chairman: Okay. We will be very sorry to see you go. John Thompson is moving across to the Eden Project with all the trees and the glass across the way to DfES.

  Mr Thompson: I am. Tomorrow I will be the Director General of Finance at the DfES.

  Q104  Chairman: From tomorrow?

  Mr Thompson: From tomorrow. No doubt I will see you in that new role.

  Q105  Chairman: I am sure we will be seeing you in that role. That will be a reunion for you, will it not?

  Mr Thompson: Yes.

  Q106  Chairman: Andrew, this is your first performance in front of the Committee, is it not?

  Mr White: It is, Chairman, yes.

  Q107  Chairman: Welcome to you. Dorian, you have been hiding from us since 2000.

  Mr Bradley: It's been far too long.

  Q108  Chairman: Welcome back.

  Mr Bradley: Thank you.

  Q109  Chairman: Let us get started. Maurice, when you talk about the lighter touch of Ofsted, it is not light enough for some people, is it? Some people would like it to be no touch at all and rather than having Ofsted, which even slimmed down is still a pretty big bureaucracy and takes a lot of taxpayers' money, even some of your greatest friends would say you have done the job, there has been intense inspection, a good regime, there has been a great deal of improvement, and some people would say there has been an improvement but it has not been up to Ofsted, there is a view that Ofsted should gently fade away now and the money put into school improvement directly. What do you say to those critics?

  Mr Smith: I think one of my teaching trade union colleagues suggested that Ofsted should do itself out of business and, indeed, if it was not for the—

  Q110  Chairman: They said that about the National Health Service. In 1948 they confidently believed that the NHS would eradicate illness and there would be no need for it any longer.

  Mr Smith: Thereby lies the point, does it not? Our view is that Ofsted has a broad portfolio of work. We have lightened our touch in terms of school inspection and we are proposing, if we can, to lighten it further, but that does not mean to say all aspects of our portfolio are subject to that lightness of touch. Indeed, the new functions that are to be placed with us may require much more weighty consideration. I do not think Ofsted as an organisation is going to go away. The second point I would make is I do believe however light or heavy our programme is, or however proportionate, parents of children in school in this country still wish to have a degree of external scrutiny of the school process and it is Ofsted's role to provide that external scrutiny, as was its role when it was established in 1992. I do not think that has gone away. That is something that the public and parents expect and deserve and it is something we still wish to provide whilst the statute enables us to do so.

  Q111  Chairman: Do you have any evidence to base that last remark on in terms of 360 degree consultation with all of your stakeholders, including parents and teachers? Is it not a fact that all good and efficient organisations do consult regularly on how people evaluate them? Do you do that? Have you done it recently?

  Mr Smith: Yes. We do it almost all the time, I might say.

  Q112  Chairman: What are the teachers and parents telling us?

  Mr Smith: The head teachers are telling us that they appreciate the new school inspection programme and benefit from it more so than the previous programme. Parents tell us that they like to receive their school inspection report and they also tell us in the early years field, for example, that they are appreciative of having those reports in the public domain.

  Q113  Chairman: Is that an overwhelming view or is it 52/48?

  Mr Smith: I think we were 75 on the headteachers' side in terms of schools.

  Q114  Chairman: What about parents?

  Mr Smith: I would have to dig out the parent figure for you, if you do not mind me saying.[1] We also get some response from our website which is one of the most popular websites; more popular than Manchester United we are told. It is hit, which is the expression I believe, many times by parents trying to find out about the provision that they wish to send their children to.

  Q115 Chairman: So they value it as a source of knowledge?

  Mr Smith: Yes. We do some other work on what parents use to choose whatever provision they are looking for, whether they are choosing provision from primary to secondary, or entry to primary school, or entry into the childcare market. All of our market research suggests that the Ofsted report is a key component of that decision making.

  Q116  Chairman: Can I ask your colleagues, when you think about the job, and some of you have been in place for quite some time, do you still have the same degree of confidence that Ofsted is improving standards, improving what happens in schools, as when you started? How do you feel about that?

  Mrs Rosen: Yes, absolutely. If you are thinking about the impact of Ofsted, over the years we have had a significant impact in terms of improving schools that have gone into special measures, improving the quality of initial teacher training, improving the quality of local authorities and of colleges through our inspection programmes. I completely accept the point that Ofsted is not the only contributor to improvement but surely the inspection regime has had a lot to do with that. We are now thinking about making our inspections even more effective by making them more proportionate to risk so that we can target what are really quite scarce inspection resources at those providers which need the most. That is in terms of schools where we are hoping to move towards a lighter touch for the best schools, but to continue the frequent monitoring for the schools which need us most which are in special measures or have a notice to improve. For colleges as well we want to move to a lighter touch for the best. In fact, we moved to a differentiated system this autumn thereby providing better value for money. The same is true in initial teacher training where we have already moved to a differentiated training programme. The best providers get a lighter touch and we are still looking in more detail at those that have more problems. Throughout our inspection systems we are looking to provide better value for money but still stimulate improvement where it is needed.

  Q117  Chairman: John, how confident are you? Are you going to slip over to the Department tomorrow and whisper into David Bell's ear, "We could save a lot of money if we got rid of that bunch I have just been working for"?

  Mr Thompson: I am afraid I would not, Chairman. I am fairly convinced that we are adding some significant value to the system. I have personally been on several inspections and when you are out there working with professionals in the system you can see the value that is added. I would also say from personal experience that my son's secondary school has just been inspected and he had a letter from the inspectors which he thought was excellent because it gave him some views, as a consumer of education, about his school. He thought that was valuable and if we had not been there then possibly he would not have got that.

  Mr Smith: We did some work in the early years sector on stakeholder views of our inspection programme as recently as February 2006, so perhaps Dorian would like to mention that.

  Mr Bradley: We surveyed about 1,200 providers in February this year. Those providers were inspected last November and we asked them what they thought of our inspection work. 96% of them stated that our report made clear any actions or recommendations that were needed to improve the quality of childcare. The interesting thing is to see what they do. I do not want to drown the Committee in data but if I can give you one or two figures that point towards the positive impact that Ofsted has. Of the providers we graded unsatisfactory in the last inspection programme, about a quarter of them in the new inspection programme are being graded as good or better. Of the ones we graded satisfactory, about 37% of day care providers and over 50% of child minders have moved from satisfactory to good. I think those are clear indications that Ofsted's work is being picked up by providers and the local authorities and other agencies that work with them to improve the life chances for children in Ofsted registered childcare.

  Q118  Chairman: As the new person on the block, Andrew, how long have you worked for Ofsted?

  Mr White: I have worked for Ofsted for nine years, Chairman, so I have got a view of Ofsted's history. One of the strengths of the organisation is that it is self-critical. The inspection process we had in schools nine years ago would not be right for now, it would be too heavyweight for today. One of the strengths of the organisation is we are extremely self-critical because that is our role that we offer externally. Currently we are looking across our range of inspection regimes to see where next and it is a question you would rightly demand of us.

  Q119  Chairman: If you are all doing such a good job, Maurice, if there are deficiencies in our educational system, what are the main reasons? Who is holding up further progress? What frustrates you about the system that seems to be stopping the rise in standards across the piece even in the more difficult schools?

  Mr Smith: I think it is important to state that there has been a rise in standards although that rise occasionally plateaus across the piece. If you just deal with schools alone from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4, over a period—I have been engaged with Ofsted for 10 years, Miriam for 13 years and Andrew for nine—we have seen a rise in educational standards. What frustrates me, and I am sure it frustrates my colleagues, is what might be described as a longish tail to educational progress. What frustrates me—I do not want to characterise it too generally—is 13-year-old boys and above in difficult schools who seem to lose any track or ownership of the educational process and vote with their feet.

1   Data not available. Back

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