The Work of Ofsted - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 315-319)



  Q315 Chairman: Christine Gilbert, may I welcome you to this session of the Committee? You might not be a banker, but you still draw a good crowd, so welcome to the proceedings of the Committee—I only say that in light of tomorrow morning's session of the Treasury Committee, which was much publicised over the weekend. It is a pleasure to have you here. As you know, on the last occasion we met to discuss your report, we were understandably concerned, particularly with children's services. Although that will be part of the agenda today, we want to get a broad balance. Of course, you know that we were going to have a seminar on school accountability last Monday—a week today—and you can guess that it was postponed because of the difficulty that the participants had in getting here. This session would have flowed nicely from that. Some of the broader questions today will be asked because we are getting in mode for considering the third matter—as you know, we have looked at testing and assessment; we are writing a report on the national curriculum; and the next pillar of the three pillars of education reform is school accountability. We normally give those participating a chance to say a few words to open the sitting. That is your right and privilege at the moment.

Christine Gilbert: Good afternoon everyone. I am pleased to have another opportunity to discuss Ofsted's wider remit, to highlight some of the important matters revealed by our recent annual report and to answer your questions. However, before doing so, I thought that it would be helpful to touch on a key issue that we talked about last time we met—the new comprehensive area assessment, or CAA, as it is called. The details of the CAA are about to be published this week. It will give local people a much better picture of how well or otherwise their local services work and the overall quality of those services for local people. From April, it will replace a number of existing assessments and reviews, and it is the result of joint work between Ofsted, the Audit Commission, and the inspectorates of health, adult social care, police, prisons and probation. It is going to draw on a wide range of inspection evidence from all inspections in the local area. The intention is that the CAA will provide local people with a straightforward, rounded and independent assessment of the quality of life in their area and of the prospects for improvement. The focus will be much more on outcomes for local people, rather than on an assessment of their council. Where improvements are needed, they will be what is described as "red flagged"—just as particularly good practice will be highlighted. Crucially, the new CAA reports will assess how well local bodies are working together, which, as we have seen in recent tragic cases, is particularly important in the delivery of services for children and young people whose circumstances make them vulnerable. Although the new system marks the end of joint area reviews and annual performance assessments—APAs—it will not replace existing Ofsted inspections of local settings, institutions and key services. Instead, we hope that it will build on the strength of existing Ofsted inspections by making better use of the data that we collect and the judgments that we make in the 2,500 inspections that we undertake each week. So, we want information that is collected once, but used more than once. In the area of child protection, we must be particularly vigilant. I can confirm to the Committee that there will now be an annual child protection inspection in every council. That will involve unannounced inspections, which will complement the three-year full inspections that we are introducing in relation to all safeguarded and looked-after children. At the same time, our school inspections are being further improved to ensure that inspectors spend more time in classrooms observing teaching and learning. In particular, there should be a focus on, for example, how one child is making progress or how a teacher is working with different groups of pupils in the classroom. We are also currently piloting the no-notice inspections that I spoke to you about in earlier meetings. We will further develop that proportionate approach, which means closer monitoring of schools and colleges that are satisfactory. By the same token, it is right that the best schools and colleges have less frequent inspections, although their performance will be monitored to detect signs of slippage. With the new CAAs and our refined approach to inspection, I am confident that we will have a much better picture of local services than before and be in a much better position to bring about improvement, not least in the safeguarding of children and young people. I hope that you welcome those developments and look forward to taking your questions on them and on other things.

  Q316 Chairman: Chief Inspector, that all sounds most interesting. How long had those reforms been planned?

  Christine Gilbert: The plans for the revision to annual performance assessments and joint area reviews were published last September, and we have been consulting since then. The school inspection survey was published around last March.

  Miriam Rosen: Yes, we consulted through to August.

  Christine Gilbert: At the moment, we cannot tell you exactly what the proposals are for the school inspection survey, because we are still piloting in a number of authorities. So the answer is for quite some time.

  Q317 Chairman: Did you make these changes because, heaven forbid, you listen to what some members of the Select Committee say, or what Ministers say? What is the impetus? Is it the Secretary of State phoning you? Where does it come from?

  Christine Gilbert: Absolutely not. The impetus came from the creation of the new organisation. I was appointed six months before the new organisation was established, and the reorganisation and so forth was well under way by then. I decided that it would be foolish to up-end what had been planned. It was really important that users and providers experienced business as usual, so for the first year we made minimal changes to the inspection regimes. As the first year went on, we set up a project inside Ofsted, to look at the different systems that we had—we had 39 different inspection and regulatory systems operating—to see what coherence we could find across them without straitjacketing. We looked for the best practice in each of them and produced a document, which is internal but which will also be on the web, called "Ofsted Inspects". That document contains a number of core principles that we try to apply to all our remits. It is an ongoing process, and each system is looked at in detail. We were most concerned that those providers that had inspections from different areas experienced them as one inspection. There might have been inspectors with different specialisms, but they would appear at the same time in what we would call a common inspection visit.

  Q318 Chairman: What I am trying to get at is how do you become a listening and learning organisation? How do you pick up discontent out there? I have relayed some of the discontent that I have picked up in schools; for example, people say that the inspection is now too short. Someone, even today, said that their child's school had had only a day's inspection, which seems rather short. If you hear something like that, at what level of policy direction do you take it up? Where is it considered? Where are these decisions made? I am trying to get a feeling for how you cope with that.

  Christine Gilbert: We would consider those things within Ofsted. I go out and about around the country and come back with anecdotes, which people then say are either exceptions or contain the germ of something. We listen hard to what the Committee says, and we listen to what the different organisations that we meet regularly say. That is one thing that we have been really keen to do, when we go out to consultation. On the school inspection proposals, for instance, we could have been completely satisfied with the 1,700 responses, but when we analysed them we found that they were mainly from professionals—from within schools, from heads and so on—and that the minority were from parents. So, we organised some groups with parents, to talk to them. We are really conscious of what we were required to do by the 2006 Act—focusing on improvement, listening hard to users and obtaining value for money. By users, I mean children, learners, parents and employers—that is what the Act says. We probably focus more strongly on the first two requirements than the third, and we have listened really hard. One thing that I have been keen to say is that we learn from anything that we can, so if people are not happy with how they are inspected, they have to tell us about it. I really want to hear what people say, so that we can build it into improvement for the future.

  Q319 Chairman: Some of my colleagues on the Committee were rather surprised when I wrote the foreword to a recent collection of essays from Civitas. They would not normally expect me to do that, but I decided to do so after reading the essays and thinking that they were good. Have your people read that and absorbed it?

  Christine Gilbert: Yes, I read it. I did not think that some of the essays were as good as others.

  Chairman: That is the way of such collections. My colleagues are always keen to get in on the questioning. Over to Andy on the Ofsted remit.

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