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- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


6 MAY 2009

  Q280  Mr Chaytor: Chief Inspector, our system is based on independent national inspection, but not all countries adopt that model, so have we anything to learn from systems of inspection run by other countries?

  Christine Gilbert: There is an organisation called SICI—I cannot remember its full title—through which we work with other organisations across Europe to look at this. My perception, having come to this fairly recently, is that other countries look to what we are doing and have moved, even in terms of self-evaluation and the use of data, in the way that Ofsted has, but that doesn't mean that we cannot learn from others. One of the early things that we did—about 18 months ago—was to have 24 hours away with the Scottish inspectorate senior management team, to see in some detail whether there were things that we could both learn from the way that we were approaching matters. I regularly meet the other Chief Inspectors from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, so there are things that we look at and learn from.

  Q281  Mr Chaytor: But from your point of view, what are the key advantages of a national inspection system as compared with regional systems, and of systems that are independent of government compared with those that are part of government?

  Christine Gilbert: We have not done a formal analysis of that. My feeling is that in this country, national inspection gives just that—a national, objective perspective. Although, as I said, we are charged now with securing improvement, we do not have a personal perspective on the judgements that we make. We have in-house evidence, and in this area we have a rich external source of evidence because we use a number of external companies to look at aspects of what we are doing. Evidence suggests that our work is much valued, but that has not really come through in the previous discussions with the Committee on this. Teachers and head teachers are telling not only us but the NFER and so on how valuable they find the inspection system and how much it supports them and supports improvement.

  Q282  Mr Chaytor: What are the key advantages of independence from government? Could you tell us specifically which areas of government policy Ofsted has exercised its independence over most forcefully? Where have you been most critical of a particular government policy over the years, not just during your own term in office?

  Christine Gilbert: I think independence is really important. It is often difficult to define it and draw a line, but if we lost our independence we would be seen as having lost our integrity. There is a great deal of public trust in us as a body that is apart from government. Only 4% of parents do not want inspection; there has been a very positive response from parents about inspection. Independence from government is very important, and it is important that we report to Parliament through this Committee. I would guard independence as it is crucial.

  Q283  Mr Chaytor: Can you give us an example of the exercise of that independence?

  Christine Gilbert: If you look at any of our thematic reports, you will find some comment on national policy and perspective. Some of that is positive and some is critical. I cannot think off the top of my head of one that was entirely negative. For instance, at the moment we are looking at the National Strategies. That report will have a number of positive things to say as well as a number of critical things.

  Q284  Mr Chaytor: Are there one or two major issues? Having critical things to say is not necessarily a powerful argument for complete independence. We are looking for a concrete example of where Ofsted has really used the independent position it occupies significantly to shift government policy.

  Christine Gilbert: At the most fundamental level, each year I produce an annual report. That used to be a state-of-the-nation report on schools but it now crosses all areas of the remit. Anybody in the Committee who sees the publicity linked to that would see that we make a number of fairly strong criticisms about what is going on. Some of those run for the entire year. I have now said for two years that the number of children going from primary to secondary school who can't read is far too high, and that we are letting down generations of children. A number of things in the annual report are fairly strong criticisms of government and would not be written in that way if we were an outpost of the DCSF.

  Q285  Mr Chaytor: If there is a strong case for independence from government, is there not equally a case for an independent appeal system for those schools or local authorities with a grievance against their Ofsted judgement?

  Christine Gilbert: We have, as you would expect, an internal process, but we also have an independent complaints adjudicator, who is appointed not by us but by the DCSF. In fact, the adjudicator has changed fairly recently. That is the final stage, but, after that, people could contact an MP and go through the parliamentary ombudsman and so on, so there is a process.

  Q286  Chairman: Right. Let's move on. In passing, Chief Inspector, how do you select which schools to inspect?

  Christine Gilbert: Can I pass that one to Miriam to talk about in detail?

  Miriam Rosen: At the moment, we have to inspect schools roughly within a three-year time scale, so we will bring forward a selection of schools for inspection in any given year, but not so that they can predict exactly when they are going to be inspected. That is quite important, so there is some flexibility. That is done by our schedulers without looking at a particular school and saying, "We want to inspect school X now"—it will just be scheduled once it is in the pot for the year. We are planning to move to a system whereby we have an annual risk assessment for schools. The inspection of schools that are performing well, that have performed well in previous inspections and for which all the indicators look good would be put back, so that they would be inspected once within a five-year period. Schools which were not doing so well would have their inspection earlier.

  Q287  Chairman: How do you get a good mix? If you don't get a representative mix, your annual report on what is going on in schools is distorted.

  Miriam Rosen: Yes, and what I didn't say is that of the good and outstanding schools or those that we think are likely to be so judged, a fifth will be inspected each year on a random basis. Otherwise, as you say, we would have a biased annual report.

  Q288  Chairman: Yes, that is what they say about something else that you will know about, Chief Inspector, wearing a different hat. If health visitors go to severely challenging families only, they have nothing else to judge things by. If they don't go to average families, their world view is distorted. Does that apply to you, too?

  Christine Gilbert: It is important to have a really close fix on what "good" looks like. Also, we try to do this in our survey reports because it is important for people to see what other schools, colleges and so on really achieve. We are taking a much more focused look at some of that. I think I sent copies of Twelve outstanding secondary schools to each of you. We are doing one on primary schools and one on special schools in the autumn.

  Chairman: Let's drill down on the purposes and outcomes of Ofsted inspections.

  Q289  Mr Stuart: What do you think is the main purpose of Ofsted?

  Christine Gilbert: There are probably three. Going back to what I said to the Chairman, I think it is important that we inspect to secure improvement. Ofsted was established in 1992 as part of the parents charter, and the information that we provide to parents is absolutely fundamental. I am talking about information not only on the school that their child is at, but on the schools to which they are considering sending them. Thirdly, we have to report to Parliament and the Secretary of State on the state of education in terms of minimal assurance and in terms of how public money is being spent. Essentially, Ofsted is about those three things—I know that they are not clearly distinct from one another.

  Q290  Mr Stuart: Is there a danger that because you are inspecting to secure improvement, you will become another stakeholder, and you will want to see apparent standards rising, rather than being an entirely independent evaluator of the system without a stake, necessarily, in how it responds to your information?

  Christine Gilbert: That is a real danger, and we talked about it a lot when we established our strategic plan for the new organisation. We could present improvement—it would not be securing improvement—if inspectors took their foot off the pedal and became more generous in their judgements. It goes back to the question about independence. It is really important to be independent; it is important to report frankly and fearlessly about what is being seen in schools; and it is important to have integrity about the judgements being made.

  Q291  Mr Stuart: Thank you for that, Chief Inspector. You said last year that you thought standards in schools had stalled. Is that still the case? Is that in the primary sector, the secondary sector or both? Can you give us an idea about when standards stalled, if they still are stalled?

  Christine Gilbert: That was part of what I was saying in the point I made earlier about the annual report. That was something that the Government would not have liked us saying. I cannot tell you until we have done the annual review for this year, and we are embarking on beginning production of that report. I was most concerned about the stalling of literacy and numeracy. I was talking about the fact that—certainly for the second year, if not for the third; I have been involved in only three reports—20% of children are still going on to secondary school unable to be fully literate or numerate. That struck me as a real concern. I was persuaded very early on. I was initially very opposed to the national literacy and numeracy strategies, but what I saw in Tower Hamlets, and the way that they were being implemented, absolutely transformed my view of them. In the early days, in areas such as Tower Hamlets, they were transformational. As time has gone on, they have needed refreshing and have needed to take a different approach.

  Q292  Mr Stuart: Any new initiative will tend to be pioneered with enthusiasm and tend to make a positive difference. It's the old problem, isn't it? That of "Turn the lights down in the factory and productivity goes up, then turn them back up months later and productivity goes up."

  Christine Gilbert: To stick with the Tower Hamlets example, it is not that progress would have been unlearned. Some of the principles of the approach to national literacy and so on are absolutely fundamental and focused on the basics, and children were completely liberated by being able to read and write. That has gone on, but I want it to go on up and down the country. The figure of 20% is just too high, because most of those children will therefore not be motivated when they go to secondary school. Many of them are bright, eager children who have somehow lost their way. So, a focus on literacy, for me, is absolutely paramount.

  Q293  Chairman: Where did you get that 20% statistic from, Chief Inspector?

  Christine Gilbert: We got it from the Key Stage 2 results.

  Q294  Chairman: Last night, Nick Gibb, who used to be a member of this Committee, said it was 40%. If that is true, you might as well resign, mightn't you? If it really is 40%, we have achieved nothing in the 17 years of Ofsted.

  Christine Gilbert: The 20% figure is the one that I complained about being the same. Certainly for two years running, we did not seem to have made an impact. We had done a number of things to focus on literacy, and in fact maths and numeracy too, so you will have seen the substantial report that we produced on maths, which has been enormously well received up and down the country. We have a number of dissemination activities related to that. We have a very big report coming out on literacy and so on. We are making judgements and we are using inspection to try and find out more about them, because we are privileged, in many ways, to see things going on in classrooms in schools up and down the country that other people do not see.

  Q295  Mr Stuart: In 2006, you said that one in eight secondary schools was judged inadequate and that more than a third were no better than satisfactory. In front of this Committee in February, when asked about how many schools were rated satisfactory now, you said that in the secondary sector it must be about 30%. So, it appears that in three years nothing has improved. Can you tell us why you think that might be? Do you have any thoughts on Government strategies on rooting out inadequate, unsatisfactory schools?

  Christine Gilbert: We definitely think that there has been some improvement, and I can send you the figures after the meeting.[5] There has been improvement in that time, but we cannot be content that children and young people are ever attending schools that we think are inadequate. That is what concerns me. Though I think that Ofsted, in many ways, has its greatest impact in schools that are failing, we want to stop them failing and we want to stop them going into that position. One thing we are going to do from September is go back to more schools that are satisfactory. At the moment—we introduced this about 18 months ago—we go back to about 5% of schools that are satisfactory but have one or two areas that might generate concern. That has gone down very well and has led to real improvement between the time we make the judgement and the time we go back. From September, we are going to go back to more satisfactory schools—those that seem to have a poor capacity to improve—so we think we will be going back to about 40% of satisfactory schools. We think that if we go back and do the monitoring visit, it will be more preventative than waiting for the school to go into special measures.

  Q296  Mr Stuart: One of the Government's policies to try to tackle failing schools is the National Challenge programme. Some of those schools were judged outstanding by Ofsted before they were suddenly and peremptorily announced as being in the National Challenge, with all the stigma and opprobrium that came with it. Did you wonder why you were wasting your time when the Government pulled the rug on both your inspectors and the schools?

  Christine Gilbert: The Government were looking at straight exam results. We look at test results, but we do not rely entirely on them, so our inspection reports were judgements across a whole range of things. I did go back after the disparity and look at the reports. In those schools we had judged outstanding or good, inspectors felt secure that improvement was happening and the capacity to improve was evident.

  Chairman: Graham, have you finished?

  Q297  Mr Stuart: I have one more question. In 2007, you said that you had received numerous complaints over a three-month period about inspectors passing judgement on schools without actually sitting in on classes. At the time, you said you were stunned by those disclosures. How many complaints have you received in the past year or two? Are you still receiving them?

  Christine Gilbert: I don't remember any letters of complaint, but as I said to the Chairman at the beginning, we have been consulting on new proposals for school inspection—essentially, for evolution from the current system. I have been up and down the country talking at various conferences, and this is a constant refrain—teachers, interestingly, complaining that they have not been seen by Ofsted inspectors. Though I am smiling, we have taken this very seriously and the system that will be introduced from September, although we have not fine-tuned the detail, will put far greater weight on observation of classrooms, teaching and learning.

  Mr Stuart: Thank you.

  Q298  Chairman: I am going to call Fiona, but before I do, there is a little thing that sparked my interest. The Government employ private contractors to run National Strategies, don't they? Are they the same people you use to get inspectors?

  Christine Gilbert: I think they use Capita, don't they? I imagine the point you are going to make is about conflict of interest.

  Q299  Chairman: Yes. The whole world is using major contractors—Capita, CfBT, we all know the names. Do any of these interlock?

  Christine Gilbert: Not with the National Strategies, although I think there are other issues with the National Strategies. The issue of conflict of interest was a major part of discussion through the contract. We used a process called competitive dialogue. A number of the people bidding for the contracts also provide services. I will give you a specific example: Serco provides services to Walsall and has the contract for the Midlands area. That is right, isn't it Miriam?

  Miriam Rosen: Yes.

  Christine Gilbert: This was discussed through the awarding of the contracts, and each contractor had to have processes in place—Chinese walls—to avoid that. Various systems are in place, and as we speak, protocols are being worked out. Over and above that, although the focus of the three contractors will be regional, they will also have a national dimension to their work. The services, institutions and settings that we inspect are not neatly located in the regions that Ofsted has chosen to divide up the country into. For example, Serco will not be inspecting Walsall, but one of the other contractors will. Therefore, we have a number of arrangements and protocols in place. I don't know whether you want to add to that, Miriam.

  Miriam Rosen: I think that covers it. We will make sure that when a contractor is running services in an area, they don't inspect it.

5   See Ev 142-43 Back

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