Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, if all the people concerned, including parents--we do get complaints from parents--felt, as a result of a number of incorrect comments made during an inspection, that an inspector was not up to the job, who would have the power to dispense with their services?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I shall come to that point in a moment. I was talking about the serious accusation that Ofsted deliberately lied.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt again, but I did not say that. I said the opposite. I went on to say that there should be a full explanation. That seems obvious to me.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I, too, shall look at Hansard tomorrow, but the noble Lord said, "That was a lie".

Lord Dormand of Easington: No.

Baroness Blatch: I was listening very carefully and wrote the words down as the noble Lord said them. If I heard wrongly, I shall not hesitate to apologise to the noble Lord.

Many generalised comments have been made, but there is a poverty of specific comments. My understanding is that when the LEA made the

25 Oct 2000 : Column 402

complaint, Ofsted was banned from going back to the school, but there was a thorough investigation of the procedures used by the inspector in question and the way in which she conducted her business in the school. The complaint was not upheld.

There was also considerable disquiet on the part of Ofsted and of the inspector herself about the unprofessional interference with the inspection by the LEA's inspector. The independent Ofsted complaints adjudicator thoroughly reviewed the case and concluded that it was not necessary or appropriate to reinvestigate the complaint. That is important. However, having said that the case did not need further reviewing, the independent adjudicator said that it was unnecessary for the words of the chief inspector to be communicated to the complainant and that the wording of Ofsted's response was implicitly threatening. Ofsted and the chief inspector had no hesitation in accepting that criticism and made a fulsome apology, which has since been repeated. The apology was not an admission of defeat; it said that the inspector had come to a legitimate conclusion. Ofsted accepted that such comments did not present a non-judgmental opinion of the chief inspector.

After the first review, the second review by the adjudicator and a further look by the legal department at the whole affair, it was further said that there was no basis for a claim that the chief inspector had acted ultra vires. However, he offered a second fulsome apology, even though he was not involved in the inspection in question and the complaint related to a particular inspector.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, asked what was to be done about inspectors not performing. That is the responsibility of the chief inspector, if proven, but there is a complaints procedure to be followed. A school should raise properly detailed complaints initially with the inspection contractor. If it is unable to resolve its concerns, it should then write to the registrar at Ofsted, setting out in detail the grounds for the complaint. If it involves criticism of a contractor, registered inspector or team member, Ofsted will invite them to respond and will use any monitoring information available to reach a considered view. After inquiries have been carried out, the complainant will be sent a full response and, in appropriate cases, Ofsted may take further action on the inspector. If the complainant is dissatisfied with the way that his complaint has been handled, Ofsted has an internal review procedure operated by the competition and compliance team which reviews the handling of complaints to ensure that the procedures have been properly followed. If the complainant remains dissatisfied, he may ask for the case to be considered by the Ofsted complaints adjudicator, an independent, external arbiter.

All of that was done. But I must say that the complaint lacks some real detail. Certainly, it brings in all the other schools, again unnamed. It certainly lacked specific detail. But it was reviewed a first time; it was reviewed a second time by the independent

25 Oct 2000 : Column 403

adjudicator; it was looked at again by the legal people. I understand that it is now to be considered by the Select Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, painted a desperately gloomy picture. She seemed to be saying that the low morale in schools is all down to Ofsted. I find that extraordinary. The picture is not that gloomy at all. I believe that Ofsted has done a very good job. I agree with the noble Baroness that where there are complaints, they should be properly and independently considered. Teachers should have confidence in the system. The DfEE should certainly take all complaints seriously.

I was disturbed to hear the Minister--not the Minister in this House--suggest that the complaint should be taken to the ombudsman. If he was properly advised, he should know that that was not possible. The noble Lord, Lord Dormand, is absolutely right to say that the ombudsman does not have jurisdiction to look at the matter. But perhaps the DfEE should have taken greater note of the complaint. If it really felt that there had been an injustice, it could perhaps have done something to make the LEA feel that its complaint had been taken seriously.

Indeed, I believe that it was incumbent on the DfEE, if it had faith in the Ofsted way of dealing with the complaint, to say to the LEA in Durham some of the things that I have said today: that the complaint had been looked at properly the first time, a second time and that, indeed, the legal department had looked at it a third time. It would have been helpful if the DfEE had said that.

I return to my first point. I believe that Ofsted has served the country well. The system for dealing with complaints should be sensitive. We should continue to build up the confidence of the teaching profession, parents and governors in the work that Ofsted does. My statistics are two years out of date, but looking at the number of inspections and the percentage of complaints, on balance, I give Ofsted a fairly good report.

That is not to say that one should be complacent. If there has been serious wrongdoing, I do not know what else the system can do to deal with it. This matter has been looked into three times already. It is now for the DfEE to say either that it is satisfied with what Ofsted did or that it is dissatisfied. If it is dissatisfied, this is the forum in which that complaint should reside.

7.53 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to the Front Bench. I believe that this is the first occasion on which she has spoken from the Front Bench.

I want also to thank my noble friend Lord Dormand for initiating this debate. Education is this Government's highest priority and Ofsted has a central place in carrying forward our agenda for raising standards in schools. Ofsted and regular school inspections are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch,

25 Oct 2000 : Column 404

said, now a well-established part of the education landscape. I rather accept what she said. This debate is specifically about a particular complaint by the local education authority in Durham and I am not sure that I shall be able to answer all the much more general questions which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked.

But I repeat that Ofsted is now an accepted part of what we do to maintain standards in our education system and the debate has moved on from whether external inspection is necessary--that argument has been won--and is now about how inspection can continue to develop and improve so that it can play the most effective possible role in raising standards.

I would like to say something first about the particular case that my noble friend has drawn to our attention and then turn to the wider issues of status and accountability that he has also raised.

The case in question dates from as long ago as 1997. It seems to me to demonstrate very well the role of the Ofsted Complaints Adjudicator, Elaine Rassaby, who reported in some detail on the case in her first annual report, published in September 1999. In going through this case, I shall repeat one or two of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but it is important that I, as the Minister, should do so for the record. The adjudicator made some specific recommendations, and secured an apology from Ofsted to the local education authority about some aspects of its handling of the case. More information was made public and internal procedures were changed as a result. This suggests to me that the complaint has been taken seriously and has indeed contributed to that process of improvement and refinement that I mentioned.

As we have heard, the authority's initial specific complaint was about a registered inspector's behaviour in one school. Elaine Rassaby concluded that that had been properly investigated, although the fact that the authority specifically requested that the school involved should not be contacted clearly made detailed investigation very difficult.

The adjudicator did however ask Ofsted to be clearer about the reasons why special measures--a serious judgement of school failure--had been mentioned by the inspector as a possible outcome when the final report did not justify that. Ofsted wrote to the LEA with an explanation of how the weaknesses identified in the report justified early consideration of special measures.

The second complaint was a more general one about the inspector's conduct in other schools. Durham LEA asked for a general investigation to be held and wanted information about how many other complaints had been made. Ofsted did in fact carry out that wider investigation. But it did not tell Durham LEA. Elaine Rassaby thought that to be an error of judgment, and did inform Durham that that wider investigation had been undertaken.

25 Oct 2000 : Column 405

On the issue of sharing information about numbers of complaints, Ofsted was bound by the code of practice on access to government information. Elaine Rassaby suggested it should again make that explicit to Durham LEA. That has been done.

The third strand to the complaint arose out of the registered inspector's response to the initial complaint. A counter allegation was made of improper conduct against a local authority inspector who visited the school at the time of the inspection. The local authority inspector was also a registered inspector. Ofsted wrote to the local authority inspector to ask for a response to those allegations. When that response was received Ofsted concluded that it was not possible to come to an authoritative view of events and no action was taken against the local authority inspector concerned.

Elaine Rassaby agreed that it was proper and necessary for Ofsted to investigate this counter allegation. She stated that the language in which those representations were sought, which included HMCI'S view--that if the events took place as alleged it would represent an unacceptable intrusion--was "unwarranted and implicitly threatening". Ofsted accepted her adjudication; an apology has been offered; and internal procedures were modified.

I believe that all this shows that both the complaints were fully investigated, and that not only were the complaints about Ofsted's handling fully investigated by Elaine Rassaby, but that investigation had an evident effect: Ofsted accepted that mistakes had been made; apologies have been offered and practices amended.

We are being asked to investigate that handling again. Indeed, the local education authority has sought to have an investigation carried out by the Select Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration as well as by the Government.

At this point we come to the wider issues raised about the accountability of Ofsted and why the Secretary of State in particular cannot be called upon to investigate its activities, which, after all, are those of a separate government department. As my noble friend said, the status and accountability of Ofsted are central to this evening's debate. It is vital that Ofsted is able to do the job that we all want it to do: inspecting, reporting and providing expert advice underpinned by the evidence of inspections. It is also vital that Ofsted has the confidence of those it serves and is properly accountable to them.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that the LEA has a vital role in supporting the work of schools and raising standards. It is for the LEA and the Standards and Effectiveness Unit in the DfEE to follow up what the inspectors say, not for the inspectors to follow up and inspect their own advice. It is a long-standing and fundamental principle that school inspectors have independence in matters of professional judgment. They need to be able to speak out openly and honestly about the strengths and weaknesses which are identified through inspections.

25 Oct 2000 : Column 406

Inspectors have a responsibility to act in the wider public interest, and that is reflected in the title of Her Majesty's Inspectors. The principle of independence is widely recognised as essential for school inspectors and, therefore, underpins the status of Ofsted.

When Ofsted was set up in 1992, this House felt strongly that it must be allowed the maximum independence and not be in danger of being seen as the poodle of the government of the day, of whatever complexion. I took part in those discussions in 1992. I believed then that it was right, and it is right now. Ofsted was to secure its independence and be made a government department in its own right, headed by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools for England. The chief inspector is both head of a government department and a statutory office-holder who is neither a member nor a servant of the Government. His role is, and must be, distinct from those of Ministers and civil servants, and the mechanisms by which he is accountable reflect that.

The chief inspector is appointed by Her Majesty by Order in Council and can be dismissed only by Her Majesty on grounds of incapacity or misconduct. In response to my noble friend, it is not true that the chief inspector is not accountable to anyone. He is directly accountable to Parliament for the management of his department and the public funds which are allocated to it. In practice, that accountability operates principally through the Education and Employment Select Committee which has taken a close interest in Ofsted's work.

The issues of status and accountability were explored by the Select Committee during its detailed inquiry into the work of Ofsted in 1998-99. The committee published its report in June 1999 and the Government considered its conclusions very carefully before responding to them. We believed then, and we continue to believe, that the chief inspector's role as non-ministerial head of department gives him the status and accountability required, and we have no plans to change that.

I believe my noble friend is aware that Durham LEA has written to the Select Committee about the issue. The Select Committee has the power to consider it and to ask questions about it. These and other matters could be discussed when the chief inspector appears before the Select Committee on 1st November. The complainant has also written to the ombudsman. However, as noble Lords have said, because the complaint was made in the name of the local authority the ombudsman has no powers to investigate it. I confirm that he can act only on complaints from individuals. I am sure your Lordships accept that it would not be appropriate for the head of one department to investigate complaints about the work of another. It would not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to investigate complaints about Ofsted. It is for each department to have robust and transparent procedures.

Ofsted's complaints procedures reflect its statutory role to oversee the contracted-out school inspection system and ensure that the work of inspectors is of the

25 Oct 2000 : Column 407

necessary high quality. It falls to Ofsted to consider complaints arising from school inspections and to identify and take appropriate action. Complaints can lead Ofsted to monitor an inspector's performance, require him to undertake training or, in extreme cases, it may result in the withdrawal of his registration.

Ofsted's complaints procedures were reviewed and strengthened in 1998, taking account of the Cabinet Office's guidance about effective complaints-handling in public sector organisations. The most significant change was the appointment of an external complaints adjudicator. Elaine Rassaby took up that post in July 1998. Her role is to provide an impartial view--I stress that--where a complainant is dissatisfied with Ofsted's handling of that complaint or the conclusions reached by Ofsted. She reviews the handling of complaints and, where possible, seeks to broker agreements between Ofsted and complainants. She also advises Ofsted about how its handling of complaints might be improved. As we have already seen, she was very active in the case before us this evening.

On the evidence before us, I believe that the case that we are being asked to investigate has already been investigated very thoroughly and with a useful outcome. I do not believe that it casts doubt on the procedures in place or the accountability of Ofsted and the chief inspector. I believe that the independence established in 1992 remains appropriate and necessary. At the same time, we have had a good, open debate on an important issue, for which I thank my noble friend. I hope that we can move on and that the file on this particular complaint can now be closed.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page