Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)


8 MAY 2006

  Q120  Chairman: Do you blame anyone for that?

  Mr Smith: I think it is enormously challenging for teachers and parents in some of those environments, and I have worked in some difficult parts of Liverpool in Croxteth, Fazakerley and Speke, to develop an enthusiasm for school, peer pressure is extraordinarily strong and important to those groups of youngsters and, frankly, people in there are battling really very hard to try to engage youngsters in the educational process. That is where the frustration is. I am not sure that anybody has yet come up with a slick answer to how we might engage what might be called that long tail of under-performance in white boys in urban secondary schools. We wrote about this seven or eight years ago, a seminal report about education in urban secondary schools, and we find some of those problems remain. We have reported positively on initiatives, such as Excellence in Cities that we reported on at the back end of last year. There are areas where progress is made but, nevertheless, I think that remains a significant challenge for the educational system of England.

  Q121  Chairman: It is all going to be saved by the academies programme, is it not?

  Mr Smith: What do they say in the jargon these days? I do not think there is a silver bullet for this challenge that we face. The Government has been imaginative in taking a radical step in bringing forward the academies programme, and before that the Fresh Start programme. The Government is not short of seeking, not single solutions but contributions towards improvement in that area. As an inspectorate we welcome that and we report on it without fear or favour, as you have seen, and we will continue to do so with that independence from the Government. We will say when it is good and we will say when it is not.

  Q122  Chairman: Do you think it is the uncertainty of leadership that causes some of the problems? On Friday morning, did your heart not sink when you saw yet again we have got a new secretary of state, a new schools minister? Do you think that ministers should hang around rather longer? Is that part of the problem?

  Mr Smith: I take no view about that, Chairman.

  Q123  Chairman: You would in terms of management. If Ofsted changed its head and senior staff every year you could not run your organisation, could you?

  Mr Smith: Ofsted has had five chief inspectors since 1992.

  Q124  Chairman: That is a pretty good strike record compared with secretaries of state, is it not?

  Mr Smith: Of which there have been five since I have been on the Ofsted management board. I think we are more concerned with leadership and management in schools and in education authorities.

  Q125  Chairman: So the turnover of ministers does not matter?

  Mr Smith: Not from our point of view.

  Q126  Chairman: Do you agree with that, John?

  Mr Thompson: I think if the Chief Inspector said it was not a matter for him it is definitely not a matter for me.

  Q127  Chairman: I am determined to put you on the spot given your imminent move!

  Mr Smith: If I may just say that leadership and management of schools and institutions and local authorities is critical and we do judge that. We do have some interesting evidence about schools coming out of special measures back into the main club and how many of those had new headteachers or those who were very, very recently appointed just before the inspection. It is not an absolute, but the number I was looking at before I came to the Committee today was out of 78 schools that came out of special measures in the autumn term of 2005, only 25 did so with the same headteacher. Leadership and management is a significant issue in improvement of schools.

  Q128  Chairman: What about diversity of school population? Some of us on this Committee have taken a particular interest in how you get a more diverse and balanced population in school. Is that critical too? All of us have visited schools and I remember visiting an Islington school where the head said, "If I had 10% more of the middle class background pupils coming in" and that would have only risen it to 20%, "I could transform this school". Is it not important to get a more diverse population coming into schools where that is possible?

  Mr Smith: I need to be careful with this. Ideologically it would be beneficial to pupils if there were a more balanced intake or school population, however pragmatically the how of doing that is difficult. I have experience not just in the UK and I can remember this issue arising when I spent some time in the United States in Boston where they attempted to bus children across the city in order to create the racial mix that they were looking for and it failed quite dramatically.

  Q129  Chairman: Some schools that are banded in London have found it has given them the ability to transform the schools. We have had heads give evidence to the Committee in the past, not this present Committee but the Education Committee in the last Parliament, who said if it was not for banding they could not have changed the direction of their school in the right direction.

  Mr Smith: Miriam may have some experience from her old ILEA days.

  Q130  Chairman: Banding, Miriam.

  Mrs Rosen: Certainly when I taught in the ILEA there was banding. If we go to Ofsted's evidence there are schools with all sorts of intakes which are successful schools and I would point to that as saying I do not think it is reasonable just to look at the intake of the school and say this is why the school is not being successful because we know that schools with different intakes have been successful in the past. If you now look at the CVA data that there is in the PANDA, this enables comparisons between schools with similar cohorts of children, so we are able to look at that and ask if this school is making reasonable progress given the children that it has got. Indeed, we find that many schools are making good progress with the children that they have got and others are not. I think we should stick with that evidence.

  Q131  Chairman: Do you measure or take into account the velocity of travel of students, the turnover? Professor Alan Smithers pointed out schools to us that not only had an enormous turnover of students, and teachers do not know who they are going to be teaching from one month to the next, but also students do not know who is going to be teaching them from one month to the next. That rapid turnover surely must have an influence on the ability of schools to deliver a decent education?

  Mrs Rosen: Undoubtedly some schools have a much greater challenge than others and both mobility in the pupil population and amongst staff are going to have an effect. Of course, some of the initiatives that have gone into schools to try to help them raise standards are targeted at schools in the most difficult circumstances. Maurice mentioned Excellence in Cities and the schools on the whole that have had the funding for that and the extra resources are schools in extremely difficult circumstances. Yes, it is more difficult for some schools.

  Q132  Chairman: What do you do with a school that is coping very well but suddenly find, as happened with a school in my constituency as well as schools in other parts of the country, they have a large number of pupils from Eastern Europe, from Lithuania, from Poland, who do not have English as their language? That puts a very great strain on the school, does it not, and the system takes a long time to provide extra resources to cope with that?

  Mrs Rosen: Undoubtedly it does put extra pressure on the school and each school will have to respond according to its individual circumstances. Often a local authority will try and help reasonably quickly, I would have thought.

  Chairman: That is enough from me. Let us get on with the questioning.

  Q133  Dr Blackman-Woods: I want to return to light-touch inspections for just a moment. I was Chair of Governors at a school that piloted this new system and I have to say that we were very pleased with it. I wonder whether a bit of rigour was sacrificed in terms of the new system. Are you confident that weaknesses in any school are not being missed in this new system?

  Mr Smith: I would be happy for Miriam to chip in, although I suspect I know what she is going to say. I would contend that there is no sacrifice of rigour. What I would put before you is something that Miriam has touched on, and we may discuss in more depth over the period of hearing, which is the advent of CVA, the contextually value added data. If I can just refer back to the Chairman's comments about mobility of pupils. CVA data does now take into account the mobility of pupils. This is an added arrow in our sheath in terms of making judgments about schools and it also takes into account ethnicity which would also cover the Chairman's comments. With the increasing level of sophistication of data we can make different choices about how weightily we inspect a school but we can be assured in terms of our judgments. This is not to say that it is entirely data driven because, as the Chairman said, then there would be no need for Ofsted. There is a need for Ofsted but it can afford to choose its methodology in accordance with far more sophisticated data on pupil attainment that we have available. Miriam may want to support and continue on that.

  Mrs Rosen: The point is the methodology is very sharply focused on the central nervous system of the school and on exactly how effective the school is. In order to get at that the inspector will look in advance at both the data and the school's self-evaluation and see how well those add up. We will then target the line of inquiry very sharply. You do not pick up on everything that is going on in the school but hopefully you pick up on any discrepancies. Also, the inspector would always make sure they talk to pupils, and pupils are an enormously rich source of evidence for what is going on in the school, and parents too would have the opportunity to contribute if they wanted to. Of course we use well-trained, highly experienced inspectors. We feel there will be no lack of rigour in these new inspections.

  Mr Smith: Can I just add one technical point. In the past, up until this round of inspections, we relied upon the school inspection programme largely to make our judgments about what we call subjects. If you looked at an old school inspection report for a big secondary school it would have English, maths, science, history, geography, art, the whole thing would be about 40 pages long. We have changed our methodology in that respect and in relation to the subject areas we do not do that any more. We do that in a different way through what we call a survey programme, and I am happy to go further into that, which enables us to make the inspection much shorter.

  Q134  Dr Blackman-Woods: We might come back to the survey programme and what is happening to subjects later on because I think that was one of the perceived weaknesses in the new system.

  Mr Smith: It was.

  Q135  Dr Blackman-Woods: If I can just pick Miriam up on one point. How critical is the quality of self-evaluation in terms of the overall assessment because you seemed to be flagging it as being fairly critical?

  Mrs Rosen: Good schools are good at self-evaluation, they know themselves well. We are only using the very light-touch inspections for the very best schools, we are not expecting to use this methodology with all schools. There is a very high likelihood that those schools which we select for one of the very light-touch inspections have pretty good self-evaluation. Where that is not the case there is still the data to help the inspectors probe. For us to have gone into a school on a very light-touch inspection, the data will be favourable and it will be pointing us to a school which has done well in the past and we have also got the previous inspection report. All the indicators have to add up favourably before we would select a school for one of the very light-touch inspections.

  Q136  Dr Blackman-Woods: Are you going to reduce the inspection burden further on high performing schools? Are there any dangers in that?

  Mrs Rosen: We have no intention of moving to less than a day's on-site inspection otherwise I think it would be very difficult for us to get the evidence we require. There is quite a lot of evidence from the data but all the things to do with pupils' behaviour, their personal development, the Every Child Matters agenda, are not going to be picked up through the data and we feel we need a minimum amount of time to assure ourselves and parents that those things are going well in the school as well as the progress in the attainment of the pupils.

  Mr Smith: It is quite interesting that we have started a similar sort of process in our college inspection programme. I know that was not your specific question but it is quite interesting to note we do these one day annual assessment visits to colleges and we make a decision as to where to go next. I think your question was about the rigour and would we pick up a poor school in a short inspection? Answer: in 11 of these visits last term in colleges the recommendation was that the next full inspection be earlier than currently planned. We do feel we have the skills and the capacity with the data, with the one day visit, and if we felt the school was not up to snuff we would be back.

  Q137  Dr Blackman-Woods: Moving on to schools that are labelled satisfactory. It may be fair to categorise what the Government is doing as waging war on coasting schools, certainly the Education and Inspection Bill pays a lot of attention to them, but it is language that Ofsted have used to describe what you are going to do to satisfactory schools. Do you think that is appropriate language? Is it going to get the backs up of the professionals you have to get on board, or do you think it does not matter?

  Mr Smith: I have not used the expression "waging war" and I would be surprised if my colleagues had.

  Q138  Dr Blackman-Woods: I think there have been some press releases that have done so.

  Mrs Rosen: I am not aware that we have used that language, "waging war". We appreciate the need for some of the schools which are currently judged to be satisfactory to make faster progress. Part of our proposals for moving to proportionate inspection is that some of those schools should be targeted for a return visit quite specifically to follow up on the issues identified in the previous inspection report and to stimulate faster improvement. Our consultation document has received a reasonable number of responses that are very favourable in terms of lighter touch for the higher achieving schools and generally favourable in terms of returning to some Grade 3 schools as well. Most of the respondents to our consultation were headteachers. Of course, what we do not know is whether they were headteachers of higher achieving schools or Grade 3s that we might potentially be returning to. We have talked to some heads of those schools to find out what they think. What they are telling us is that they would welcome a visit, because a visit would be seen as helpful, but they do not want just a telephone call, they do not think that would be a very helpful way of monitoring. We have had some responses through our consultation and, like Maurice, I am not aware that we have declared that we are waging war.

  Chairman: I have seen your press releases, you are at war with satisfactory schools.

  Q139  Dr Blackman-Woods: You do not think satisfactory is good enough is what they said, which is good, I am pleased you have said that.

  Mr Smith: That was a slightly different point. I stand to be corrected if I have used the words "wage war" but I have no recollection of using them.

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