- Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)


8 JULY 2009

  Q420 Mr Chaytor: In which case, it is only the most assiduous newspapers, such as The Independent, that will take the trouble to go through the report cards of every school in the country to extract the data and put them in league table format.

  Mr Coaker: Yes, but what I am saying is that the information is still available.

  Q421 Mr Chaytor: But the Government are not going to make it easy.

  Mr Coaker: We are not deliberately trying to make it difficult either. We are trying to say that this is going to be a different way of looking at what a school is about. We are not about trying to hide information, or about pushing it away. I would rather say that the information people can use will still be made available.

  Q422 Mr Chaytor: But by and large, you would accept that most newspapers will print things that are easily available? They are less likely to construct league tables based on hard work.

  Mr Coaker: It depends. If people want that information, it will be available. As I have said, standards and examination and SATs results are important, but so are other things alongside them.

  Q423 Mr Chaytor: Can I ask about the relationship between the report card and the framework for excellence report card, which is also being piloted as of this September. It is conceivable that an individual school may get a very good school report card, but a very weak framework for excellence report card. Is the framework for excellence report card to be used to deal with the long-standing problem of inadequate small sixth forms?

  Jon Coles: It is certainly true that an individual school with a sixth form might get strong performance for one of the indicators and be much less strong for the other. That is already the case with Ofsted reports, which can and do differentiate between the quality of a sixth form and the quality of the rest of the school. We are piloting those things together, and the framework for excellence has had a long period of piloting in FE—although it will only be piloted in schools from this September—but as part of the pilot we need to align those two things in a sensible way. But it is certainly true that the framework for excellence may very well identify, in an otherwise good school, a weak sixth form, and lead to action to deal with it if that is the case. Equally, of course, it could find quite the opposite and lead to a better focus of action on the 11 to 16 part of the school. That is absolutely possible.

  Q424 Mr Chaytor: The division at 16 is logical in one sense—I see the point of that. But isn't the reality that when the diploma system is fully in place, the real dividing point is 14? If the original diploma model means that students might have to take their diplomas partly at their own school, partly at a neighbouring school and partly at a local college—increasingly from the age of 14 students will be on an apprenticeship scheme that will take them to their local college as well—what are the practical problems of completing the school report card for students who may spend most of their week away from the school at which they are officially registered? How are those students' achievements reflected?

  Jon Coles: The starting point for that is that the home institution—the institution with which the pupil is registered—is the one that is held to account for their performance. That is certainly the right model at the moment because you want the home institution to be taking responsibility for making sure that the individual pupil gets the quality of education that is their right. If they are putting on and arranging courses in other institutions for that student, they have a responsibility to make sure that they are not just washing their hands of that child, but that they are making sure that the child is getting a good quality experience. They are still the people who are responsible for making sure that that is the case. That is the right model. On the whole, as things stand at the moment, models of diploma delivery are leading to people being out of their home institution for one or one and a half days a week. The overwhelming balance of time for almost all students in the country is still with the home institution. Obviously, it could be the case—we don't know this—that the model will evolve further to a point at which people are actually spending the bulk of their time outside their institution. At that point, we would need to think further about whether the accountability system needs to evolve to reflect that change in practice. At the moment, I think we're on the right case.

  Mr Coaker: I also think, David, that the alignment of the school report card, the framework for excellence, and the interrelationship to which you allude is something that we are going to have to look at very carefully during the pilot to see how you actually align them. Jon is right in saying that it is the home institution. But you can see it is a challenge. When we talked about initial teacher training last time I was at the Committee a couple of weeks ago, a similar issue arose about the movement of teaching and non-teaching staff between different institutions. The fluidity of the system will raise these sorts of challenge and we will simply have to look at how best to align those two systems in a way that is non-bureaucratic, fair to both institutions and fair to the individual.

  Chairman: You can hardly say that without a smile.

  Mr Coaker: I am smiling, but you have to start with that aspiration.

  Q425  Mr Chaytor: Pursuing the question of possible contradictions, the report card will also include the summary of the most recent Ofsted report. What happens if there is a sharp contrast between the assessment on the report card itself or the rating that goes into the report card, and the judgment of the most recent Ofsted report? Would it be more useful to have a summary of the past two or three Ofsted reports?

  Mr Coaker: The summary of the last Ofsted report is the right thing to do because you want the most recent information available to parents. As you know, some schools are changing quite dramatically. Going back a couple of Ofsteds ago may unfairly reflect on the school's improvement, which the most recent Ofsted report would show. Even though the most recent Ofsted report would show it, there will almost be an aspersion cast, because of where the school was a year or two ago. It is important that the latest Ofsted inspection is there—it is an important part of the report card and of the information that should be available to parents when they make their judgment.

  Chairman: We are going to drill down on Ofsted.

  Jon Coles: May I make one other comment on this, in passing, which is important. The fact that it is going to act as the risk assessment for Ofsted is really important in that context, because if you see a sharp decline in the report card, that would obviously be evidence for Ofsted to say, "We should go and have a look at what's going on in this school." Aligning it as part of that process is quite important.

  Q426 Mr Chaytor: Finally, on parental perceptions, how will the system guard against what might be described as the inevitability of schools with active and well-informed bodies of parents and with energetic head teachers mobilising parental perceptions through the report?

  Mr Coaker: That is a reasonable point to make but, frankly, it was made when Ofsted went out to get parental information to inform its inspections—people were saying that in some schools, you'll get the school mobilising parents. What happens is that one indication comes in, and you make that judgment against the whole range of other judgments about a school. Clearly, when it comes to parental perception, the way it is done and the way it is looked at is something that needs to be tested in the pilots to ensure that you don't get that skewing of opinion that you might have if it was done in the way that you suggest.

  Q427 Chairman: Minister, before we move on, you have to admit that it is going to be a difficult job, once a child gets to 14, to track his or her well-being as he or she goes off to FE college or to diplomas on different sites. It is going to be much easier to do this in terms of a standard secondary and primary career, but it is more difficult when you get to 14 to 19, isn't it?

  Mr Coaker: To be fair, that probably is the case, but if something is difficult or challenging, or you wonder how it could be done, the fact is that if it is the right thing to do, you have to press ahead with it. I think it is the right thing to do. It is challenging, as you say; it is more challenging in those circumstances, but none the less, it is something that we should pursue.

  Q428 Chairman: Does it seem that the softer end—parental and student satisfaction—becomes more difficult? Will it become more difficult, in terms of the softer data, when you're polling people about what they think of the experience? That will be much more difficult across a number of institutions.

  Mr Coaker: Yes, but not impossible, and not something that is not worth doing, notwithstanding the practical problem you raise.

  Q429 Mr Timpson: We have touched briefly on the role of Ofsted and where it fits into the chain of accountability, but the prospectus that we've seen appears on the face of it to be a joint publication. It has Ofsted written on it—indeed, even the report card example you have has Ofsted written on it—but it is meant to be an independent regulator. Isn't there a worry that if the Government are going to be deciding the aspects of performance that will be on the report cards and how they are measured, and if that will be informing Ofsted in deciding whether a school under the risk assessment, or its inspection, is underperforming and needs to be inspected, that is compromising the independence of Ofsted?

  Mr Coaker: Ofsted is independent—it is important that we put that on the record; and I am sure that Christine Gilbert will go on that independence, as she should. It is not a case of compromising independence but of trying to work together in order to improve accountability and improve the way that the system works. As I have said, in the production of the prospectus that we have before us, we have worked closely with Ofsted. The inspection regime will stand alongside it and will be a part of it, but will be separate from it.

  Q430 Mr Timpson: But it won't be separate, will it, if Ofsted is looking to the school report card to help inform it of its own decision on inspection? Surely, all Ofsted should be doing is relying on its own inspection regime and ignoring what the school report card says, because that is something that the Government have set as a measure of performance. That is something that Ofsted should not be involving itself with.

  Mr Coaker: It will be one of the ways in which a risk assessment or something indicates to Ofsted that there may be a problem. There will be other things that it uses, of course, and the inspection that then takes place and the way in which Ofsted operates in looking at a school and coming to a judgement about a school, looking into the processes that take place and the qualitative judgements that it makes, will be completely independent in coming to the conclusions it wants to make about that.

  Jon Coles: It is worth adding that Ofsted has produced its own revised version of its inspection process and framework. By doing that, it wanted to have a way of deciding which schools should be inspected on the five-year cycle and which should be inspected more frequently, and to have a way of judging the risks and deciding which of the schools are at risk of going downhill and which we therefore ought to go and have a look at quickly. What Ofsted has said is that assuming we get the design of the report card right, it will use that as the basis of its risk assessment, but that does not mean that it will constrain itself to looking only at the report card as evidence; it might choose to look at other things as well. We have worked very closely with Ofsted, and I think that we have a much better product because we have worked with it and taken its educational advice. This is a joint consultation, which means that Ofsted is saying that it is serving its purposes as well as ours. Clearly, if at any point Christine decided that it was not serving Ofsted's purposes and would not work for it as the basis of its risk assessment, I am sure she would say that she would not use it as the basis of her risk assessment, because that would not be the right thing for her to do.

  Q431 Mr Timpson: Could I ask that you take away and consider the fact that some people will view Ofsted's involvement in the creation of this school report card—the ultimate contents of which have been decided by the Government—and Ofsted's reliance on that to inform it of its own independent inspection, as leaving both Ofsted and the Government open to the charge that Ofsted has been taken under the wing of the Government and is simply acting as their poodle in the way that people within government would want it to?

  Mr Coaker: We certainly will take that away. The Committee will come forward with its report about accountability, and we will look very carefully at the recommendations that the Committee makes. Obviously, if that is something of concern, it is something that we need to consider as well, because we do not want to compromise the independence of Ofsted—that is not the intention. Our intention is to work with Ofsted to produce a better product.

  Q432 Mr Timpson: Just one final question, if I may. Jon, you touched on the new inspection framework that is rolling out in September 2009. One of the changes of emphasis within that is that schools that are already performing well have to be able to demonstrate ongoing improvement in order to maintain their inspection grade. That leaves open the scenario in which you have a high-performing school with a grade 1 that is going to have to try to show improvement, but cannot get any higher. How do you envisage their being able to show that they are significantly improving, to avoid their grade going lower?

  Jon Coles: This is a moment when I might pray in aid myself the independence of Ofsted, because obviously it is its inspection framework, not ours. I think that what Ofsted is saying is that every school, no matter how good, ought to be improving and looking for continuous improvement. It is the sort of Japanese production-line model that, no matter how well you are doing, you ought to be looking to improve your processes and continuously improve. It is not saying, "You must be looking to improve your inspection grade", but that "You must look to be improving teaching practice and processes, and your processes of developing staff and monitoring the attainment and progress of children and young people. You must be looking to extend the areas in which you are excellent, and to identify the subject departments that are perhaps slightly weaker than others and look to improve those". There is no doubt that what Ofsted is doing is again raising the bar on the expectation of what is needed in the system, but that push towards continuous improvement is a very positive thing. You are absolutely right that the way in which that is then judged by inspectors, sensitively and taking care to look at the context of the school and at what it is doing, is absolutely crucial in getting that right. What you do not want, of course, is a school that is the most outstanding school in the country but struggles, therefore, to demonstrate that it is improving, and is marked down for that. What you do want is that most outstanding school in the country to be looking always to be stretching and improving itself, to be identifying where it is weaker and to be improving in lots of areas. That is what it is trying to achieve.

  Mr Coaker: Briefly, the striving for continuous improvement, even when you are excellent, is what keeps you excellent. Jon was saying, Ofsted is independent in that sense, but I think that that is what they mean—the continuing drive to do even better, even when you are doing exceedingly well, is what keeps you there. You will know, Edward, from your own constituency, as I do, that some of the best schools, which are right at the top of their game, are still always looking to see what more they can do.

  Q433 Chairman: We did see one of the top schools in New York, which could not get above a B in its school report card.

  Mr Coaker: That is because of the limiting judgment.

  Q434 Helen Southworth: In terms of the opportunities that might be brought in by the school report cards and accountability to local people and pupils' parents, what are you expecting to be able to do in terms of indicating responses for children who find it difficult to achieve in school because of challenging circumstances? That could be because of long-term conditions, or it could be children who go missing or who have challenging family circumstances.

  Mr Coaker: One of the things that we are looking at is the whole issue of contextualisation, of trying to look at the context in which schools are prey to some of the more difficult and challenging circumstances that some schools have compared with others. What we are trying to do is to devise a system that allows that to happen in a way that does not reward poor performance or does not have people saying, "Well, what do you expect around here, we can't achieve anything?" There is avoiding that, but also allowing us to devise a system that shows where a school is making sufficient progress despite some of the issues that it has. One of the things we shall do with pupil progress—not with pupil attainment; there will be no contextualisation for that—is that there will be this contextualisation in which we try to look at some of the indicators you have mentioned, some of the issues around poverty and ethnicity, and some of the other issues, to see what impact they have on a school and in what ways the school has made progress despite that. One of the ways that we are looking to do that is to give credits to a school—in terms of taking account of that, credits would add to a school's overall score. Clearly there is a lot of technical detail, which I would not pretend to be able to explain to the Committee. Certainly, the idea of trying to take into account some of those factors will be welcome to many schools that make fundamentally excellent progress in difficult circumstances, and that sometimes feel they are not adequately accepted or acknowledged.

  Q435 Helen Southworth: In terms of the particular examples I gave—long-term conditions and children going missing—they can happen irrespective of the challenging circumstances. Will this be an opportunity for Ofsted to inspect the support that schools give for children with long-term conditions, for example?

  Mr Coaker: Certainly Ofsted would, or should, look at how a school tackles any of those issues, whether special needs or children with learning difficulties, or how they deal with children not at school—missing or not attending. All those things it would take into account in coming to an overall judgment about a particular school.

  Q436 Chairman: You have certainly put an interesting gloss on this, both of you. Some people might say that Ofsted deeply resents this new intrusion on a job that it thought it was doing perfectly well. There is a minor voice coming out of Ofsted, which we picked up, that seems to be sulking a bit about this. This is Ofsted's job—accountability, inspection and telling parents. All these things that you want the school report card to do, Ofsted could say, quite justifiably, "We do that. This is a question mark over our existence. We are going to be peripheralised by this." That is true, isn't it?

  Jon Coles: No, I don't think it is. Can I just say that we have produced this report card absolutely jointly with Ofsted.

  Q437 Chairman: Well, perhaps you shouldn't have. I thought Ofsted was supposed to be independent. I thought Ofsted should have had the guts and the courage to say, "Look, we don't like this. We think we weren't consulted enough. Where's the evidence base for it?" Why is Ofsted in this cosy relationship? What is the point of having Ofsted? Why do we not get rid of Ofsted if it is so cosy with the Government and doing all these nice little joint policies?

  Jon Coles: I think that Ofsted are completely free to say that they do not wish to use the report card in the way they have said they wish to. Where we have worked together with them is on the design of the report card, and their educational advisers are absolutely invaluable in doing this properly. I am sure that if they felt that they resented it and did not want to do it, that is what they would be saying, because they have the independence to say that. Of course, it is absolutely vital in the system that we have an independent inspectorate which can comment independently on schools, on government policy, and so on, and they do that absolutely freely.

  Q438  Chairman: They don't, Jon—come on. Sitting where we sit, we do not see that. We see quite a comfortable relationship between Ofsted and the Department. I know it is not popular to talk about rocking the boat, but they do not want to rock the boat, do they? It is hardly Chris Woodhead in charge at the moment, is it?

  Mr Coaker: No, but it is somebody who works hard and does challenge us and will challenge us, no doubt, in the annual report.

  Q439 Chairman: We have not seen any challenge with this. You have picked this up in a year. A year ago, no one had ever heard of it, then someone scratches his or her head in the Department and we have suddenly got this fashion. You have introduced it and I would imagine that many people in Ofsted were saying, "What on earth is this all about?"

  Mr Coaker: We think that the role that Ofsted plays in looking at the process that takes place in schools—observation and a lot of the qualitative work that they have done—is significantly different to a report card, which is outcome-based and data-based. The way that Ofsted drills down underneath that is of huge importance and significance.

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