- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)


6 MAY 2009

  Q300  Fiona Mactaggart: Talking about conflict of interest, there is an element in which people perceive Ofsted as a judge in its own court when there is a complaint about an Ofsted report. On how many occasions, following a complaint from an inspected school, has Ofsted changed its judgement about that school?

  Christine Gilbert: Interestingly, I was just looking at the last complete year, which was 2007-08, in which there were about 300-odd complaints. About 3 or 4% of those would have been upheld, and slightly more partially upheld. Of the 3 to 4% of complaints, about 30 will be upheld in some way or another. Are those figures right, Miriam?

   Miriam Rosen: We would have to check those figures.

  Christine Gilbert: They are roughly right. I can send you the details.[6] One of the things that I have done as I have talked to schools up and down the country is tell them not to suffer in silence. They are to use the responses that the contractors issue at the end of each inspection, but they are there to complain if they feel that an inspection has been conducted badly or if the judgement is wrong and so on. We use them to learn about what we are doing and to improve.

  Q301  Fiona Mactaggart: Let me give you an example of what the complaint process means in practice for a school in my constituency. In a previous report, it was identified as a very good school. It was then inspected in December, during Eid. In Slough, we have two different mosques. You never quite know when Eid is going to be, because one has it on one day—as you will know from Tower Hamlets—and another has it on another day. The school was slightly disrupted at the time of the inspection, and it felt that that had not been taken into account at all, and that there were areas of assessment that the inspectors had done that were just plain wrong, so it challenged the inspection. We are in May and the inspection was in December. As far as I can work out from talking to the head teacher, we have not got the next bit of the review; it is still happening inside the private company that conducted the inspection. The process seems to be a bit like the way in which the police conducted things before we set up the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which gave an independent element to such investigations. Eventually, we will get to a more independent level, but at the moment the investigation of the report still does not include any element outside the original inspecting body.

  Christine Gilbert: The time scales do not seem right to me. It seems as though we are out of time with those, and I will look at that case and write to you separately.[7] There is a process in which the contractor looks at the complaint and it then goes to a second stage. Only about 10% move on to that stage. There are not many complaints, and not many of those handled at the first stage move on to the second stage. We take them seriously. You will have read about the case of a school in Lincolnshire—it was much reported—in which I voided the inspection because of a number of factors. We do take the inspections very seriously. The response that we get from schools is that they are surprised at how seriously we take them. The vast majority—way over 80%—think that our judgements are right and fair.

  Q302  Fiona Mactaggart: I am sure that in most cases they are. I do not doubt that, but I am concerned that in the present system—I think that your plans for more classroom observation will improve it—it is possible to get it just wrong. If it is possible to get it just wrong, even if that is for only a small minority of cases, there has to be an independent, transparent process of challenge. You know, Chief Inspector, just as I know, that this is a big secondary school with a confident head teacher who has been in place for a long time. He knows that his school is good, and his local authority knows that his school is good. He has the confidence to challenge. A small primary school will probably just think, "Let's get on with teaching the children rather than complain." There has to be a simple, straightforward way to get something properly examined, rather than this process, which seems to be full of, "Well, there was no one else there, so you have to take my word for it." That is part of the tension going on in this particular dispute, and I imagine it goes on in many.

  Christine Gilbert: I don't pick that up. As I said, people write to me, and then the letter is either dealt with informally or goes through the complaints process. I had one yesterday where they are still not agreeing, but we have looked at the thing in great detail and so on. There is a process beyond the initial contractor. This has not even got to that stage.

  Q303  Fiona Mactaggart: No, it does not appear to have done so. It went to your officer or whatever, it was sent back to the contractor and the contractor has responded. We have gone through all that. As far as I can work out, the school is now putting its case for the next bit. That seems very laborious, and not very satisfactory, because the school has not had its inspection report published yet. I think that it has had an impact on the self-confidence of a school that the local authority and I rate quite highly. We have secondary modern schools in Slough, and that secondary modern is doing well.

  Christine Gilbert: I am surprised that it has not had its report published, because one of the complaints that I get is that we publish the report while the complaint is going on.

  Q304  Fiona Mactaggart: Maybe it has been published, but then the school is even more depressed by a report that it thinks is wrong. I suspect that it is wrong, too. I do not think that that is a school that has declined in quality. I have fairly good relations. I used to be a teacher, and I used to educate teachers. I think that I can tell whether schools are sustaining quality, although not in the kind of detail that an inspection ought to be able to. This is one that I feel confident on. I do not think that the process is sufficiently swift, I do not think that it is sufficiently transparent and, above all, I do not think that it is sufficiently independent. Of the three reasons for inspection that you declared, two involve accountability: accountability to parents and accountability to Parliament and Government. We have to expect accountability from you. One of our witnesses suggested that the motto for Ofsted should be "Never apologise, never explain". I am not following that route, but I think that in the minority of cases—I accept that it is only a minority—where there is real reason to challenge inspection findings, there needs to be greater transparency so that we can make sure that "Never apologise, never explain" is not seen as the slogan for Ofsted. I do not think that you have got there yet.

  Christine Gilbert: I will look into the case and get back to you.[8]

  Q305  Fiona Mactaggart: Will you look at whether you could have an independent adjudication system much earlier on?

  Christine Gilbert: We are looking at reviewing complaints for September. What I will do is check what we are proposing to see whether that would have addressed what seems to have gone wrong with this case. There is an independent complaints adjudicator at the third stage, as I said.

  Fiona Mactaggart: But by then, a number of schools have lost the will to live and think that it is not worth pursuing. If you had that independence early on, I believe there would be much greater confidence in what happens in Ofsted.

  Q306  Paul Holmes: Can you just explain a bit more about the independent adjudicator who comes in at the third stage? Who are they and where do they come from?

  Christine Gilbert: As I say, there was a change in the summer, when the contract came up for renewal. I guess that the thing goes out under ordinary advert and the appointment is made through the DCSF, which interviews and appoints people. We enclose details of the complaints process and at every stage when we write, we explain what the next stage is. Certainly, we have not had much experience of the new adjudicator yet—I have just seen the first coming through—but the previous one looked at cases in enormous detail and had very positive responses about the way that she had gone about things, even when she did not uphold complaints. She used to issue a questionnaire about how complainants thought that she had handled the case, and so on.

  Q307  Paul Holmes: How comparable would you say that adjudicator is to the Local Government Ombudsman, a Central Government Ombudsman or the IPCC? Are the adjudicators as independent as those bodies?

  Christine Gilbert: They are certainly independent from us and we wouldn't dream of interfering with the process; the previous adjudicator would never have allowed us to do that either. We have the option of accepting or not accepting the recommendations that she made. Actually, when I was chief executive of a council, even when we got something back from the ombudsman, you would be foolish in those cases not to accept the recommendations. I suppose that, because they were published in an annual report, I feel that the Local Government Ombudsman would have had more clout. That is going back to the point that has been made about real independence and being seen to be independent.

  Q308  Fiona Mactaggart: And the Local Government Ombudsman has an independent capacity to investigate in some cases, don't they?

  Christine Gilbert: They are going to have that capacity; they will have new duties in terms of individual complaints, and so on. However, I have been talking about the independent complaints adjudicator, and it would be at the final stage that, if a complainant was still not happy with the process, they could go through to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. I understand that that is the route, not the Local Government one.

  Q309  Paul Holmes: But in terms of clout, for example, the ombudsman on Equitable Life has again really had a go at the Government this morning, saying that they are ignoring her report and criticisms. There is nothing really like that with Ofsted. As someone who taught in Derbyshire for a long time and as an MP in Derbyshire, from time to time I get head teachers or teachers, who come to me from all over Derbyshire, saying, "How do we complain? We cannot complain. Where do we go from here?" They still perceive the process as being very internal and that there is nothing they can do. If Ofsted says, "Well, tough," that is it.

  Christine Gilbert: We have really tried to publicise the complaints process. I think that I might have said this before to the Committee, but initially people seemed nervous about complaining, in case it led to another inspection sooner than they would have wanted. I have tried to tell them that that wouldn't happen. So, we have really tried to say that the complaints procedure is here, so please use it. As I say, we actively use the complaints and their outcomes to learn about what we are doing and we feed those lessons into what we are doing.

  Chairman: Let us move onwards and upwards. Derek, you wanted to ask about the frequency of notice of inspections, and I will call Andy on this question too.

  Q310  Derek Twigg: Good morning to you, Chief Inspector. What hard evidence do you have that inspection of struggling schools leads to real school improvement?

  Christine Gilbert: Inspection?

  Derek Twigg: That inspection of struggling schools leads to real school improvement.

  Christine Gilbert: The evidence of schools being placed in the category of concern is really strong and has been strong for a number of years. If you look at the speed with which schools now go into special measures and come out of special measures, it is quicker than it ever was. In our surveys of head teachers, schools in special measures come absolutely at the top of the list on how effective the support from Ofsted has been. They say that they find the monitoring visits very helpful, not just in keeping the pace of progress going, but in helping them to be sharper about assessment, evaluation and so on. Our evidence shows that, as does the work done by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

  Q311  Derek Twigg: So you have figures on the number of struggling schools you have inspected and where they are today, a year or two after the inspection?

  Christine Gilbert: Yes, we have that.[9]

  Q312  Derek Twigg: I would find it useful to have that—perhaps you could provide it. On the frequency of inspections, would you like to say a few words about your concerns over them being every five years rather than every three? You look at SATs and GCSE results to see whether there is a decline in the figures. If someone got rid of the Key Stage 2 SATs, how could you determine whether a primary school was getting into trouble, particularly if you had not inspected it for five years? Have you been asked about your views on removing SATs? What are your views?

  Christine Gilbert: No, I have not been asked my view specifically. Miriam sits as an assessor on the expert group. My view depends on what would replace Key Stage 2 tests, were they to be removed. The Key Stage 2 results mark the end of an important phase of education. A few minutes ago, Miriam described the system that we will use to select schools from September. Those results are important. A dip in the results, particularly over two years, would start to ring warning bells for us. It would be difficult if there were no SATs results, but it would depend on what replaced them.

  Q313  Derek Twigg: So you think that having data on the performance of children at that age is essential in giving an indication of the quality of the school and whether an inspection should be done?

  Christine Gilbert: I think that it is important to have that at that stage, yes. I was very relaxed about the removal of Key Stage 3 tests. I am not so relaxed about the removal of Key Stage 2 tests.

  Q314  Derek Twigg: Okay. When inspections go from every three years to every five, how can parents be reassured that the school has not got into trouble? For example, a head teacher leaving could affect a school's performance. As a former head teacher, you know that the head is a very important person for the future of the school. What will parents be able to do?

  Christine Gilbert: Interestingly, when we began the consultation, it was parents who we were most concerned about. Although there was a very good response to the consultation, parents were not as strongly represented as head teachers, governing bodies and so on. Parents were very nervous. At that stage, we were proposing six years. We have done two things as a result of that. Even before we went out for consultation formally, we picked up the anxiety of parents about six years being far too long. That is why we came up with the notion of having a health check at the three-year stage. That would be a formal Ofsted-endorsed document that referred to the previous inspection result, as Miriam mentioned, and to key sets of data.

  Q315  Chairman: Is the health check paper-based or based on a visit?

  Christine Gilbert: Generally, it would be paper-based. Some of the information might have been influenced by a survey visit, because we write a very detailed letter to the school that is placed on our website, and often on the school's, about what we are seeing. Essentially, it would have been data. We think that there would be text to accompany that. To some degree, the data would be overtaken by the score card, so initially, when the end of Key Stage 3 and the score card were announced, we thought that we would not be doing it, but the time frame is such that we think we need to do it. Parents were telling us that six years was far too long for their child to go through the school without any inspection, so we came up with that notion and discussed it with a number of parental focus groups, which were positive about it. They still felt that six years was too long, which is when we came up with the proposal to move to five years.

  Q316  Derek Twigg: But if there were no test results for 11-year-olds, how would you go about the health check?

  Christine Gilbert: We had not done any detailed thinking about that. As I said, we would need some information about what is going on with the school. It would depend a lot on what was replacing test results. I do not think that people are saying, "Nothing at 11," but there seem to be a number of debates about what would replace test results, which would be very serious for us.

  Q317  Derek Twigg: My final question is about the no-notice inspections. My local authority has generously offered itself up as one of the first authorities, which has gone down really well with head teachers. On that specific issue, a lot of head teachers have told me basically that they should be there when the no-notice inspection, which is such an important event, is about to take place. They worry that there might be a school trip and that half the school will be away. I am sure that that practicality will come out in the early inspections, but a large number of people being out of the school is a real concern that has been expressed to me by head teachers.

  Christine Gilbert: When we consulted on this, one of the reasons why we put no-notice inspections in the consultation document that we issued is that parents, often of looked-after children, were keen to have no-notice inspection. There was a strong reaction against it by head teachers. We piloted it—we have got another half-term of pilots to go—but it is interesting that the head teachers who have experienced it have been generally positive about it. It has not produced insurmountable difficulties, even though there have been some difficulties. Parents have complained about it. They are saying that they did not know the inspection was on and that it was over before they knew about it, and so on. Governors have complained about it because they have not been able to get into the school. We are going to have to evaluate the pros and cons before we come up with a proposal for what we are going to be doing for September.

  Q318  Derek Twigg: Is there any early indication at all from the early pilots that no-notice inspections are showing anything different from normal notice inspections?

  Christine Gilbert: I don't know that we've got enough numbers in the pilots to give you a proper answer to that. I don't think we have, have we Miriam?

  Miriam Rosen: No, I don't think we can make that comparison.

  Q319  Chairman: How many have you done?

  Miriam Rosen: We did 17 inspections last term that were fully no-notice.

6   See Ev 141 Back

7   See Ev 141-42 Back

8   See Ev 141-42 Back

9   See Ev 139-41 Back

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