- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents



16 MARCH 2009

  CHAIRMAN: I welcome Christine Blower, John Dunford, Martin Johnson, Mick Brookes and Keith Bartley to our session today. As I said outside, this is a very important beginning of a new inquiry, which is one of the three that we have set ourselves to do this year—testing and assessment, the national curriculum and accountability. It really is a pleasure that you have responded to our request. I know that Christine has some difficulties today, so we are pleased that she has come to the first part of the session. After that, she will suddenly change places with John Bangs to allow her to get her train. That was by mutual consent, and we are very pleased to accommodate her.


  Q1  CHAIRMAN: The rest of you have to stay the whole time, and if Mick Brookes does not behave, we will keep him on after school. I am not going to ask you for long statements because we have your CVs, but if you could say whether we should get rid of an inspection system, make one fundamental change to it or what you resent most about it. Give us a starter, Christine.

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: My starter is that, at the moment, what we have is a system that is very low in trust and very high in accountability. We could of course ask to move to a system that is low in accountability and high in trust, but what we think is important is a system that is high in accountability and high in trust. Therefore, we should like to see the accent move from the existing Ofsted arrangements to a system in which school self-evaluation is meaningful and owned by the people in the establishment—the teachers—and is also meaningful to parents and students.

  DR DUNFORD: That was very good, Christine.

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: That is the bar.

  CHAIRMAN: Christine, you have astonished them all by your succinctness.

  DR DUNFORD: If we are pursuing, as I hope we are, a system of what I call intelligent accountability—accountability that drives behaviour in schools that improves the education of children—we have to look at accountability in the round. There are so many different aspects to accountability at the moment. The Secretary of State says that he wants to bring in a report card. If he does that, it has to be in the context of everything else. If the report card comes in, several other things have to go. I have some suggestions, but perhaps they can come later.

  CHAIRMAN: Can we come back to those in a bit.

  MARTIN JOHNSON: My plea in these opening remarks is that the Committee does not get bogged down in the detail of the various mechanisms that comprise our accountability framework. It is vital that the Committee maintain a focus on the big picture and how all the mechanisms fit together. The position of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is that of course teachers and schools need to be accountable, but at the moment we have too many overlapping mechanisms, which together are unbalanced. They reflect a system with power located in two places: overwhelmingly in central government and then at school level. The Government have found it necessary to reinvent new, improved local authorities. Crucially, they now have duties with regard to school improvement. For us, the logic is obvious. We need less accountability to Whitehall and more to county hall. We need to put local communities back in the driving seat and schools back under local democratic control. We need better integration of inspection and support. Since Parliament has located the latter with local authorities, it should locate the former there, too. Let me have a word, if I may, about accountability to parents. Parents are transient. Communities have permanence. Parents are overwhelmingly less concerned about a school than they are about their child in a school. We must try to ensure that parents can feel happy about their relationship with the school, while recognising that that accountability relationship is largely informal. Finally, to repeat what someone else has said, the kind of accountability mechanisms that we need might depend a lot on how we answer the following questions: what is the condition of public servants in our schools, and ought we to start from a presumption of trust or do they need the continued application of a large hammer?

  MICK BROOKES: Let me make three points. First, accountability systems have to be manageable, and there is such a stream of accountabilities for schools. Take local authorities for instance: there are not just school improvement partners and local authority school improvement teams—health and safety, human resources and all those things are coming to schools. There is a dimension between larger schools—I am not talking about secondary—that have a team behind them and can manage some of that, and smaller schools where there is the head. Every second that the head is taken away from that role of leading children and their curriculum and well-being is a second wasted. Secondly, accountability systems have to be fair and based on data that are based on the school's context. We have had quite a lot of debate about that. I agree entirely with John's coining of the phrase "intelligent accountability", but there must also be emotional intelligence. If the outcome of accountability is that we call schools silly names such as "coasting", that is not emotionally intelligent. I do not think that having a large letter on the front of the report card is emotionally intelligent either. It simply undermines morale in those places. That is not a good way of raising the standard of children's education.

  KEITH BARTLEY: Our General Teaching Council's primary interest and purpose is to support improvements in teaching and learning in the public interest. In the context of this inquiry, we wish to examine how the accountability arrangements govern the work of schools and how the practice of teachers can be developed so that they support real improvements in practice. That is not in any way to dismiss the important function of scrutiny. Education is a major public service affecting the life chances of every child and young person, and it must therefore be held to public account. We believe that true accountability should do more. It should support improvements in practice, and it should give parents and pupils a very clear account of how schools and teachers support children's learning. We believe that there is real value in the school self-evaluation process, and that school improvement partners are making a genuine contribution to helping schools to reflect on their progress and their improvement plans. Inspection is also important, but one-off, episodic inspections can have only limited impact. If accountability is to serve the important purpose of scrutiny and make a positive impact on practice, a more sustained process of dialogue and external support and challenge is needed. Schools have many requirements on them to give an account of their work, and those requirements need to be both intelligent and proportionate. I welcome the signal given last week, by the Prime Minister, that public services will have greater freedoms to make decisions appropriate to their local context, and less central prescription. That might just create the space that teachers and head teachers need to be able to give a more meaningful account of their work to their most important stakeholders—the children, their parents and the community that they serve. If teachers can give a better, richer account of their work to pupils, parents and their peers, that will strengthen professional accountability for teaching and learning, and serve the public interest very directly.

  CHAIRMAN: Thank you for that—you were all pretty brief. I am not going to ask a second question. I'm going to hold my questions in reserve. Derek, will you open the batting.

  Q2  DEREK TWIGG: Good afternoon. I have a simple question: what should schools be accountable for, and what should they not be accountable for?

  DR DUNFORD: Schools spend public money, and it is right that they are held accountable for the efficiency and effectiveness—those are two different things—of the way that they spend that public money. Therefore it is right that schools are held to account for their examination results, for children's attendance and for how they spend the money and whether they have a good, well-managed budget. Then we get into the really difficult area that might come under the general title of children's well-being, which is the wider development of children. We accept a responsibility to encourage the wider development of the children. We are not just exam factories. Perhaps it would be helpful if we could work with the government, as a profession, to devise adequate measures whereby that wider role of the school could be part of the accountability system. What we must not do, particularly in that area, is simply hold people to account for what is measurable, because then we get into real difficulties.

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I do not think we are going to differ much on this. One of the significant difficulties that we in the National Union of Teachers see is that there are different accountability systems and they are therefore muddled, because you are using different types of accountability to draw different sorts of conclusion. So, I would agree with John that schools are essentially accountable for all the money that goes into them, but most importantly they are also responsible for all the children and young people and the whole community that is engaged with them. Clearly, we have to account for what a child experiences in schools—not just the results that they can demonstrably get, but, in a narrative sense, the fact that we have developed as much of their potential as we possibly can, given the time that we have with them. We absolutely have to be able to say that we can account for those kinds of things. Tiger Woods was described two years ago as the world's best golfer and the following year he was described as the most improved golfer. Those things are not inconsistent. You could be the best school one year and actually be the most improved the next. That is the kind of thing we are looking at. We are saying, "You really want to achieve the absolute most you can with what you've got." Some of that can be done by exam results, but a lot of it cannot. One of the problems with the report card, if it were distilled into a single letter or number, is that there is no narrative about what that means for the school in a particular area. When I give talks and ask people to evaluate them, I never look at what they have done by way of one to five—from "most boring" to "most interesting". I read the narrative comments, because there you can find out what you did well and how you could do it better if you did not do it particularly well in the first place. Schools are accountable for everything, but there have to be proper systems of accountability, which disentangle the things, one from the other, so that you are not trying to measure something by using a system that is unreasonable to achieve that result.

  MARTIN JOHNSON: I am largely in agreement. I would just like to add one small point. The question of what are the desired outcomes of schooling or education is highly contentious. It is a matter of philosophical debate, which, by its nature, is eternal. Only a totalitarian society would try to determine a definitive answer to that question. So, there is, in principle, some difficulty about describing comprehensively what we think the outcomes ought to be and, therefore, for what schools ought to be accountable.

  MICK BROOKES: I absolutely agree with everything that my colleagues have said about the necessity for public bodies to be publicly accountable. I do not have a problem with that at all, but we have to try to find a system of accountability that does not spawn huge bureaucracy. Let me give you a quick example of that: financial management in schools. Nobody at all that I know has a problem with schools—of course—being accountable for the money they spend. Indeed, the standards described by that scheme are admirable, but when it gets into the operational aspects and into the hands of some local authority and other accountants, files full of evidence need to be produced showing that you are doing it. It seems to be an accountability under which you are guilty unless you can prove yourselves innocent. I think that is the wrong way round. There should be greater trust, as has already been said, in the professionals who are being held to account and, in a sense, because they are professionals, we should be taking their word for it.

  KEITH BARTLEY: I will not go over ground previously covered. I should like to return to my opening thesis that accountability should support improvements in practice. If that is accepted, it follows that accountability mechanisms governing schools must be fit for that purpose. There is no doubt that accountability is made more complex by our wider aspirations for children and young people, which are derived from the Every Child Matters framework and outcomes. That framework implies accountability in multiple directions, but for different practices and occupations within a school and beyond. It also implies that there should be accountability for outcomes that are harder to measure—for example, pupil well-being. It is a challenging framework of accountability. I want to give one small example of the kind of tensions that a teacher can experience between the different elements of our current accountability framework. The high-stakes accountability of published tests and exam results can lead to schools targeting resources on specific pupils within schools—I am talking about grade boundaries—and that can actually legislate against the ethical commitments of many schools and teachers to promoting equality for all. Some real tensions exist within our current framework.

  CHAIRMAN: Derek, you can carry on, but I warn our witnesses that I am not going to call each one for each question, because if I do we will be here all day. I will take a couple of responses to each question, so they should indicate fast if they want to speak—it is like "University Challenge"—and I will take the first two. Is there anyone here who was not a trade union leader when we first invited them—apart from you, Keith?

  Q3  DEREK TWIGG: From what you have previously publicly stated and what you have said in some of the opening statements today, you like being accountable to parents, but are not keen on being accountable to Ofsted and are even less keen on being accountable to the government. That is a bit of a provocative statement in a sense, but my point is this: to what extent should you be accountable to government—Ofsted—because you seemed to suggest in your comments that inspections should take place at local authority level and that schools should be more involved in self-assessment? Forgive me if I have got your views on that wrong, but I wonder what you feel in terms of where you should be and how you can be accountable to government within the sort of scope we have just outlined.

  CHAIRMAN: That is to John, is it?

  DEREK TWIGG: John and Martin.

  DR DUNFORD: First, I do not agree with what my colleague Martin Johnson said about shifting accountability from central government to local government so that there would be 150 different kinds of accountability. I do not think that that would be progress at all. We will probably find that, in a sense, schools have ownership of the accountability system to parents, and that they decide what kind of surveys they are going to do—pretty well all of them now do surveys. Accountability systems where you have some ownership of how things are done can be effective as they feed into school improvement. What schools find difficult with the Ofsted and central government stuff, of course, is that, inevitably, it is being done to them and they do not have ownership of it, but the problem is not whether it should be done. I think everyone would accept that central government allocate the taxes and that we have to be responsible to them for what we do. Ofsted is one arm of that accountability. I do not have a problem with that at all, but there is some problem with the methodology.

  Q4  DEREK TWIGG: What form should that accountability take?

  DR DUNFORD: We could go into that in some detail. Regular Ofsted inspections are a perfectly acceptable form of external accountability provided that that links up with a school's self-evaluation. We want quality assurance.


  DR DUNFORD: Quality assurance combines internal self-evaluation with external checks. Okay, Ofsted is the body that does the external checks, but that is a proper system of quality assurance, and that is what we should be seeking.

  MARTIN JOHNSON: I was referring to the balance of accountabilities. Of course schools need to be accountable to government—after all, the government are the ultimate paymaster—but the question is who needs to know what. Where I differ with my colleague is that I do not think that a national agency is best placed to do what we might call school improvement activity because it is difficult for a national agency to understand local context and to be sufficiently present in a school to understand what is going on in that school. Ofsted often says that it takes snapshots, but what we want is an agency that is capable of acquiring continuous knowledge and understanding. From there, I agree with what John was saying. The national government need to know about system performance, so we need Ofsted, or an agency doing the same job, to collate the findings of local inspection and to seek trends. One thing that Ofsted does, which I think almost everybody welcomes, is its thematic investigations, which are generally high quality. Ofsted needs to paint the national picture for the government, which is a slightly different function. The same thing goes, for example, for pupil attainment. National government need data that you can provide through a sample test; locally, much more knowledge is needed.

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: On the need for accountability nationally, we urge the Government to re-establish the assessment and performance unit, because there is scope for ensuring that the system does the things that the taxpayer might reasonably expect it to do. That could be done through the APU, through sampling and so on. You might venture the view that to test every single rising 11-year-old is a cruel and unusual punishment if you are just trying to find out whether there are particular trends in reading, writing and mathematics, and we agree that there is a specific way of doing that. It is absolutely true that schools must be accountable, and they should be externally inspected, but I concur with the view that the way to do so is through rigorous and robust self-evaluation that is not a tick-box—the self-evaluation form, or SEF—but is all the things that John MacBeath, who was then at Strathclyde, did for and with the NUT. That was about rigorously looking and engaging with the whole school community, saying, "This is a picture of what the school is doing and some ideas about the weaknesses and where we should go." That should then be moderated by an external agency, which we could call Ofsted if you really want to.

  CHAIRMAN: Do you want to come back, Derek?



  Q5  MR HEPPELL: I am starting to get a picture—well, I think I had a picture anyway of people's views from the written comments.

  CHAIRMAN: Not prejudice, John?

  MR HEPPELL: No. I have a slight worry. I wonder whether there is an objection to the external evaluation—external exams, if you like—or to the way that performance is reported. You mentioned that one letter—one star—was not a way to report it. What are the views on that? How does the way that performance is reported affect schools?

  MICK BROOKES: The Ofsted framework is a pretty good shot at describing what a good school looks like when it is working well, but we are concerned about the framework's operation, and how it is used and, sometimes, misrepresented. Let me reference it again: at a school where everything is going extremely well but there is a problem with boys' writing, the mechanistic way in which the framework works says, "If boys' writing is a problem, therefore leadership and management can't be very good either," is a set of nonsense when everything else in the school is going well. There is a specific problem, but one blip should not describe the whole process. You are quite right: it is about the way a decent framework operates. I know we are going to talk about quality assurance later, so I shall save that until then.

  KEITH BARTLEY: I wanted to respond directly to your question about what we measure and hold schools accountable for. Our advice to this Committee, in its previous inquiry, was very much that the high-stakes testing system—when one set of tests is used for so many different purposes—causes the real problem. We need to find a way of broadening the things that are measured and how they are measured, but not, in any sense, to move away from reporting them. I want to make that very clear.

  Q6  MR HEPPELL: I see a difference between what the Government say and what comes from you. When the Government talk about putting stuff down to the community, part of it goes to local authorities, and extra responsibilities are being given to them, but I think that the Government's aim is to get down to communities and parents. Part of the worry for me is that Martin is quite dismissive about parents. Someone said—I have forgotten who it was, and I might have read it—that parents come and go, but schools are important for us, for parents and for their individual children. What do you do to ensure that parents are involved in the process if you do not have the sort of system that we have now?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: The point is that we are saying not that there should be no external inspection, but that the system that we have will not necessarily result in teachers finding it a satisfactory experience, or provide the best information to parents. When we sampled the views of our members, most of them responded that Ofsted judgments were fair but, equally, they are concerned that those judgments are now extremely data driven and do not give a well-rounded picture of what the establishment is doing. If parents are interested in a school in the round, they are interested not only in what the GCSE results are, but in all the other things that the school can do. With much shorter inspections—I would not for a moment claim that our members want to spend a lot of time being observed—it is absolutely the case that people sometimes believe that there is no sense of what the whole school does, because some departments or people are not seen. If I were a parent looking for a school for my child, I would want a much more narrative understanding of what this or that school does. We do not believe that the current Ofsted arrangements manage to do that.

  Q7  MR HEPPELL: Is Ofsted supposed to do that? Are there not other mechanisms for parents to get that broader stuff? Every school must do a profile, and if I were looking for a school for my children now, I would probably visit it and ask to see what information it could give me. My experience is that schools often do that. They sell their big picture rather than just their results. Is there really such a problem?

  DR DUNFORD: Surveying parents' views is not a problem, because schools have made huge strides in self-evaluation in the past three or four years, and parent surveys are part of that self-evaluation. Many schools use commercial companies to run the surveys for them, so they are efficient, and the schools receive a lot of cross-referenced feedback and can benchmark parents' views of the school—there are many similar questions—against parents' views of other schools so that they know how well they are doing with the parents. The extent to which pupil surveys have increased in the past two years is significant. About three years ago, we had a big increase in parent surveys as part of self-evaluation, and there has been a similar increase in pupil surveys in the past year or two. Schools are carrying out surveys because they want to, and they use the information as part of their self-evaluation. As Christine says, that is fed into the self-evaluation form, which is then fed into the Ofsted system. That is the best way of getting views. We may not do that with every parent every year, but we do a sample at least, so you get a run of views, rather than just the spot check that Ofsted has. You can say, "Here are the parent views over the past three years," and that is very powerful.

  MICK BROOKES: There is a separation between individual parents and schools being held to account for individual pupils' progress. The answer for parents is, "For goodness' sake, go in and see." Schools' information streams and the opportunities for parents to find out how their children and young people are getting on are much improved. The other issue is how to know how well a school is doing. There are results to be seen, but part of that is the parental community view. There is an interesting split: in individual schools, more than 90% of parents—even according to Ofsted—believe that their school is doing a jolly good job, but when it comes to the general public, that drops to about 54%. I go back to fairness and ensuring that we have a system that describes what schools are doing well, but in a simple way.

  KEITH BARTLEY: Can I bring in some evidence from parents that comes from research that we have done and that has been replicated elsewhere. There is the issue of choosing a school and finding out about schools to make that choice, but there is also a sense of engagement, and that is the point that Mick was just starting to raise. Schools that are the most effective in engaging parents with what their children are learning, and know how that learning can be supported, are the schools in which parents have the clearest understanding of what is going on in the school. That, therefore, delivers a form of accountability that certainly, for me, matches that sense of which one promotes improved practice and improved outcomes for children.

  Q8  MR HEPPELL: One final thing relates to the CVA measures and the value-addeds. You were saying before, "How do you know if a school is doing well?" From the layman's point of view, I would say that that is where it starts. If it starts with a very bad intake, you would not expect it to improve by too much. How important are those measures in terms of assessment generally, and for parents to try to evaluate them?

  MICK BROOKES: Tracking pupil progress is obviously important throughout the system. We are saying that if you are going to track pupil progress, it should be by the same sort of scheme at the end of foundation, at early primary, at late primary and in secondary. Therefore, tracking pupil progress is very important. CVA is a good idea in itself, but it does not work, for example because high-fliers coming in at year 7 are unable to make anything more than flat progress in terms of CVA scores. The same is true of children with special educational needs; if they are coming into a school that is below average, there is a very good reason for that. This notion of two-level progress is a good scheme, but the way in which it is being used does not properly follow the concept.

  Q9  CHAIRMAN: Martin, you were named in a question. Do you want to come back?

  MARTIN JOHNSON: Let me go back to the previous point about parents. I am sorry that I did not make myself clear in my earlier remarks. I subscribe to what was said, particularly by Keith and others. The point I was trying to make was that parents are much more interested in their own child than they are in the school as an institution. For reasons that have been explained, the relationship between the parent, the child and the school is vital in terms of the child's progress, but that has to be through informal mechanisms. For example, in the case of younger children, it can be through conversations between the teacher and the parent or carer who is picking up the child at the end of the day. That is accountability.

  DR DUNFORD: We do not want to see contextual value added being given a bad reputation because it is not used in the right way. We regard CVA as being better than value added, and value added being better than raw results, as a way of judging the performance of a school. None the less, the formula changes every year. There are all sorts of things about it. It is norm referenced, which means that your exam results can get better, but your CVA score can go down. You might lose two pupils from a particular ethnic minority and that causes your results to go down. It is a black box that most people do not understand. Your score moves and you do not really understand why. What CVA can do—with any statistic you have to take confidence intervals into account—is tell you that those schools in which the whole confidence interval is above 1,000 are significantly better than average schools. The ones that fall entirely below 1,000 are significantly worse than other schools. What you cannot do is use CVA scores to put schools in order and say that, necessarily, 1,002 is better than 1,001, because that is not the case.

  CHAIRMAN: Derek, a quick one?

  DEREK TWIGG: Got to go.

  Q10  CHAIRMAN: No disrespect to you, but they are both on a statutory instrument Committee. They are going, but they say that they will come back, so make a note of when they come back. Ofsted developed the Tellus surveys. How effective and useful have they been?

  DR DUNFORD: They are voluntary, fortunately, because if they were compulsory, we would be very worried about them.

  Q11  CHAIRMAN: Why?

  DR DUNFORD: The nature of some of the questions can be a problem. If you ask a question about bullying without defining what you are talking about, you get some very peculiar answers. We would not be happy about the extension of the Tellus survey.

  CHAIRMAN: Do you agree, Christine?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I think it might be useful for the schools to be using them but, as John says, we have more than enough to do without making compulsory things that are currently voluntary. Schools are presumably using them where they find them useful.

  CHAIRMAN: Excuse me. We are having a slight problem with yet another member of the Committee who is serving on another committee. He is only going out for five minutes. Sorry Christine, could you repeat that?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I am concurring, pretty much, with John, in the sense that we certainly would not want them made compulsory given that schools have very large numbers of things to do at the moment. If schools are finding them useful, I am sure they are using them. There is no big lobby from the NUT to make them anything other than what they are.

  DR DUNFORD: I might just add that, on the whole, schools do not use them. Ofsted does the survey, uses them and produces a picture of whatever is in the local authority area, but individual schools do not, on the whole, use the information very much.

  Q12  CHAIRMAN: Christine, you are going to change over soon, aren't you? What do you think would happen if Ofsted was magically disappeared? Would school standards plummet?


  Q13  CHAIRMAN: What would happen?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I started teaching in 1973, and we have never not had inspection. People will tell you that education used to be a secret garden and that no one knew what was going on, but I do not think that was ever really true in the schools that were really interested in their communities. I think that what would happen is that there would be rather fewer stressed teachers. One of our findings from the survey is, unfortunately, that newer and younger teachers find Ofsted even more stressful than some of their colleagues who have been around for longer. That is counter-intuitive, as one would have expected that they would have been used to the idea. I suspect that if we did not have Ofsted, but did have an inspection system that looked at making sure that they properly evaluated school self-evaluation, we would be decoupling school improvement from the very punitive aspect of Ofsted, and we would therefore have schools that were certainly happier places to work in, and that had more ownership of their own development. At the moment, much of what is done has to be done, as opposed to people buying into it, so I think that school self-evaluation is definitely what we would want to be looking at.

  Q14  CHAIRMAN: So you do not want to abolish Ofsted, but are you thinking of a golden age? Would you go back to HMI and all that?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I think it is important to have an inspector of schools, yes, and I think that it is important that there is an inspectorate that can publicly give an account of what is going on in schools, but that has to be a proper and genuine account that is based on the experience of colleagues in schools. One of our big problems with Ofsted is that it is separated from the support for school improvement. Going back to what was said at the beginning, if we are talking about accountability that builds on the best that schools are doing and that improves things for schools, you need a system of inspecting schools that does that, not a system where, as soon as they come in, people's feeling is, "They're looking to see whether we're going to go into a category." That is a great concern among a lot of teachers.

  Q15  CHAIRMAN: Christine, when we had the previous Ofsted Chief Inspector, who is now the Permanent Secretary, he used to say, "School improvement is nothing to do with us; we go in, we inspect, we make our report and then we walk away." But the present Chief Inspector says that she is into school improvement, and that Ofsted should be concerned with it. Which do you prefer?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: I certainly think that it is important that what goes on in schools is about making sure that schools improve. Whether they improve from being very good or satisfactory, it is important that they improve. Whatever system of accountability you have, it has to be clear for what you are accounting, and how that accountability is going to mean that you are now going to do things that improve your practice and the outcomes for the children and young people. So, absolutely, Ofsted should have responsibility for talking about how everything being done in the school that is good could be done better, and how everything that needs improvement could be improved, rather than simply saying, "This needs to improve. Thank you and goodbye; we'll see you again in three years."

  Q16  CHAIRMAN: A lot of money is involved. Is Ofsted a good use of taxpayers' money?

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: One of the things that we find when we talk to our members is that, generally speaking, however stressful they find the Ofsted experience and however much they do not really want it to happen, they do, in large part, agree with the outcomes for their school. That is more likely to be the case if they are getting something halfway decent than if they are put on special measures, but in general terms they do. That is what you would expect. You would hope that schools were sufficiently reflective that, when an outside agency came in to look at them, it would find the same things that schools find for themselves. That would be much more widespread and positively felt if the engagement were about looking at what schools were saying about themselves, with proper engagement about that, and talking about school improvement, rather than this ongoing fear that something could be going wrong. Of course, we are all absolutely well aware that the fact of observing something changes its nature, so there may be a sense in which the shorter inspections are not doing the full job that you would want done, but to do that full job, you would have to be doing it on a basis that was much more collaborative and much more about seeking improvement than finding fault.

  CHAIRMAN: I will come back to those broader questions and put them to rest of you guys a little later. Thank you, Christine.

  CHRISTINE BLOWER: Thank you very much, Chair. I apologise for having to leave.

  CHAIRMAN: We now welcome John Bangs to the hot seat. Annette is going to lead us in the next set of questions.

  Q17  ANNETTE BROOKE: I think we have reached the point at which everybody accepts that an inspectorate or a system of inspection is desirable, so my questions are how can we make it effective and how can we improve it. First, could we make Ofsted more independent, and if so, how? I shall ask John first, because he has made a comment on that.

  DR DUNFORD: There are two specific ways in which I would like to see that happen. First, the Ofsted complaint procedure should be independent of Ofsted, so it should even have a further degree of independence. In relation to Ofsted's independence, the most important thing that happened when it moved out of the Department and became—in inverted commas—"more independent" from it, was that the Department lost the professional voice within it, and its policy making has been much the worse as a result of that since 1994. Prior to that, staff inspectors were always involved in policy-making discussions in the Department. Ofsted needs to be independent in another sense, because it needs to stand between the Government and the profession. I come back to a point that was being made earlier: it is as important for Ofsted to report on the effectiveness of the system and the Government's policies as it is for it to report on the effectiveness of the individual schools. We have moved from HMI, which did most of its work on the effectiveness of the system and very little on the effectiveness of individual schools—they only came about once every 20 years—to a system where it has shifted too much the other way and is now focused entirely on the effectiveness of the individual schools, and you hear Ofsted say very little about the overall effectiveness of the assessment system, or whatever it may be. We need to move to a position in the middle, where Ofsted reports without fear or favour on both those things equally.

  JOHN BANGS: I was listening carefully to Christine's reply—

  DR DUNFORD: She's your boss.

  JOHN BANGS: I know. That's why I was listening carefully. The current Chief Inspector tries to be as independent as possible. It is the scope and range of what she evaluates that has been trimmed and that really worries me. There are three studies that Ofsted should have been conducting, but has not been doing. A study on the school improvement partners is currently being carried out by York Consulting and Making Good Progress is being evaluated by PricewaterhouseCoopers, as was the academies programme. All those high stakes government initiatives are not evaluated by Ofsted. I find that extraordinary. We have this kind of Delphic conversation when the teacher organisations meet the Chief Inspector, about why we would have to ask someone else that and all the rest of it. I think it is for the Committee to ask questions about why Ofsted does not take on those key government initiatives. As I said, the Chief Inspector tries her best. The institution is a non-ministerial government department accountable to the Crown. I do not think that you can go much further than that, but what ought to be embedded is reporting to Parliament. You have an informal arrangement, Chairman, but as the Chief Inspector is accountable to the Crown, it should be formalised such that the conduit and accountability are through Parliament, through the Select Committee. The arrangement should be formal as well as informal.

  CHAIRMAN: A good point. Mick?

  MICK BROOKES: I agree that this Chief Inspector is far more interested in how Ofsted can make a difference in schools, and how the inspection team can leave the school with an agenda for improvement, rather than condemnation, and I welcome that. We will get on to that. I do not think that there ever was a golden age. There has to be an inspection system, and the key thing that I would like to see is quality assurance in respect of the people who do the work. A complaint was made about the behaviour of an Ofsted inspection which we think was contrary to the code of conduct, and the response to the head teacher was, "I was not there, therefore I cannot tell", which, quite frankly, was a ridiculous response. We wrote back and asked, "Are you tracking that inspector across a number of schools to find out whether there are similar complaints, as we have done?" The current quality assurance of teams that inspect schools is not good enough. Having said that, there are some extremely good teams out there as well, and it would be wrong to condemn all of them because of the behaviour and actions of a few.

  Q18  ANNETTE BROOKE: One of my other questions, apart from establishing whether inspection should be independent, was about quality. What do you think could be done to address the problem of variability between teams?

  KEITH BARTLEY: I would like to go back slightly to reinforce the importance of independence, because it starts to link across to your question about variability. It is vitally important that we have independent, authoritative, secure and robust voices offering commentary on the effectiveness of both national policy and its local translation into practice. That is very important indeed, and I would say that coming from independent public corporation, wouldn't I? However, there is more to it than that. The whole notion of variability could in part be addressed if Ofsted were to bring schools more closely into the improvement process. It is already starting to experiment with that. For example, school leaders could become more a part of the inspection teams, and better understand the means by which inspection judgments are arrived at, particularly drawing on the link between school self-evaluation, its inevitably truncated form of expression in the national service framework and the outcomes and inspection. The improvement circle and, therefore, one of the issues around variability would be better addressed by bringing schools more closely into the system.

  Q19  ANNETTE BROOKE: Dr Dunford, I am interested in how we can improve quality.

  CHAIRMAN: Hang on. Martin has been more patient, so Martin and then John.

  MARTIN JOHNSON: You are very kind, Chairman. Thank you. I am a bit heretical on this independence question. I think that Ofsted is too independent. Its strapline is something like, "Ofsted—never apologise, never explain". I know that this Committee tries very hard to hold Ofsted to account, but it is not accountable enough. On variability and quality control, Ofsted itself has been working very hard on quality control for at least a decade, and probably longer, but has not cracked it. That suggests to me that the problem is not very amenable to solution, and I think that there are all kinds of reasons why that is almost inevitably true. It would not matter that there was some variability in judgment if it were not for the fact that we have a national reporting system with very high stakes. Quite honestly, we are now in the situation where schools describe themselves as "`outstanding' (Ofsted)" or "`good' (Ofsted)" as if that were a description of their school. That is how schools behave these days and it is frankly ludicrous, because that is no better at describing the complexities of the strengths and weaknesses of a school than a single grade on a report card. I am sorry to return to my hobby horse, but if inspections were more local and the stakes were lower, the variability would not matter so much.

  DR DUNFORD: Specifically on Annette's question, there is room for variability between inspections, but not for variability between standards of inspection—if you understand what I mean. According to the state of the school, the nature of the inspection might vary. If you have an extremely good school with rigorous self-evaluation, you require a different kind of visit from the inspector than that required by a school that is in real difficulty and not doing very well. Some of that variability is being built into the system and we are hearing—and it sounds good—that the new inspection framework coming in next September will involve more of an inspection with the leadership of the school and that, at the end, it will determine recommendations that are much more rounded and connected to the kind of support that is needed for the school to move forward, which was the point that Christine was making. At the moment, we do not have any kind of a coherent interrelationship between external inspection and support. Indeed, we do not have any kind of coherent system of school support at the moment and we desperately need it. If a school is judged by Ofsted to be in trouble, dozens of different bodies come piling in to "support" the school, and that feels like more pressure, not support.

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