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Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2014

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to introduce a debate on the accountability of Ofsted, not least because Her Majesty’s chief inspector’s annual report was published today. Few issues can be more important for our country than standards and attainment in education. Ofsted plays, and has played, a pivotal role in trying to ensure that all our schools are stretched to demonstrate excellence in what they do, and that they are held to account publicly for their failures and shortcomings.

At the start of such a debate, one can do little better than to refer to the chief inspector’s conclusion in today’s report, in which he states:

“We are at a watershed moment in the history of our education system. As we near the next general election, no major political party is talking about reversing the trend towards the greater autonomy that our schools now enjoy.

I believe the time has now come to move away from the debate that has raged for the past five years about school structures and towards a sharper focus on what works in all schools, regardless of their model of governance or status.

The essential ingredients for success are no secret and have been well documented from time immemorial—strong leadership, a positive and orderly culture, good teaching and robust assessment systems.”

I want to concentrate on that last phrase. Without robust assessment systems, it is difficult for Ofsted to demonstrate that it is objective and consistent. Ofsted must be accountable publicly for its actions and judgments, and particularly for ensuring the factual accuracy of the data on which such judgments are made. Only then can we be sure that the assessments it makes are robust.

On 30 October this year, the National Audit Office published a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on oversight and intervention in academies and maintained schools. The NAO states:

“Our public audit perspective helps Parliament hold government to account and improve public services.”

As the report makes clear, it has been the policy of the Department for Education since 2010 that a maintained school with sustained or serious underperformance should normally expect to become a sponsored academy. A sponsored academy is directly accountable to the Secretary of State rather than to the local authority. The latest figures from the NAO show that there are some 4,200 academies in England, and that 17,300 maintained schools are still overseen by local authorities. Academies have been an important vehicle for improving standards. They have helped to ensure that the majority of schools that Ofsted rates inadequate improve by their next inspection.

As the NAO reminds us, however, 1.6 million of the 7 million children aged four to 16 are still educated at schools that are not rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Against that background, we must be concerned by the NAO’s conclusion that the Department for Education has not demonstrated that the £382 million of taxpayers’ money that was spent on oversight and intervention in 2013-14 is delivering value for money. The NAO states that

“the clear messages about acceptable standards of performance must be paired with more ways to spot problems early on and a demonstrably consistent approach to tackling underperformance when it occurs.”

Ofsted responded, in a sense, to those comments on page 25 of its annual report:

“We are also taking action to improve the quality of inspection.”

That is an implicit acceptance of the fact that, hitherto, the quality of inspection has not been sufficiently good. The report states that

“from next year, Ofsted will contract directly with inspectors, rather than through third party providers. This will enable Ofsted to take direct control of the selection, quality assurance and development of its inspection workforce.”

Having provided some background, I want to draw attention to what has happened to a secondary school in my constituency. In today’s annual report, the chief inspector states:

“Over 170,000 pupils are now in secondary schools rated inadequate, around 70,000 more than in 2012.”

On that basis, more secondary schools are becoming inadequate at a time when everybody is saying that we have to improve standards. My concern is that some of the judgments about whether schools are inadequate or good are extremely subjective.

Pupils at Ferndown upper school in my constituency are among that cohort of 70,000. When the school was inspected on 24 and 25 November 2010, it was rated good, which is the second highest of the four categories. In its report on that inspection, Ofsted stated:

“Ferndown Upper is a good school that has improved appreciably since the last inspection and has the capacity to improve further.”

The report also states:

“There is a rising trend in students’ attainment and the majority of students make good progress regardless of their background, starting points or special educational needs. Teaching is good and there is a strategic policy to ensure that regular and systematic assessment takes place in all subject areas.”

According to the report,

“examination results for 2010 show a continuing trend of improvement…there has been a significant increase in the number of students attaining five A* to C grades at GCSE, including English and mathematics. This figure has risen by 12 per cent since last year and is now above the national average.”

The report goes on to say:

“The school has worked hard to improve attendance and has put in place monitoring and support systems”.

It also states:

“The headteacher and his leadership team have a clear vision for the school. They are committed to driving through a range of improvements to raise standards and develop students as ‘confident, independent learners and responsible citizens’.”

Just over three years later, another Ofsted report was published. The school has the same head teacher and chair of governors, and, speaking as the Member of Parliament, there is no dispute among local people about the fact that the school, although by no means perfect, has not deteriorated but has improved during those three years. In the inspection of 9 and 10 January 2014, Ofsted rated the school as inadequate, which is the lowest of the four grades. Ofsted said that the school had “serious weaknesses” and stated:

“Achievement is inadequate because both past and current students have not made sufficient progress, especially in English.”

It stated that teaching was inadequate and that leaders

“have not taken the actions needed to improve teaching and achievement, particularly in English”.

The school was, understandably, incensed that it had been marked down in such an arbitrary fashion.

What has happened to the school’s GCSE results since 2010? What happened to the number of pupils receiving five A* to C grades in the period between the two inspections?

I do not have those figures in my head, but I have figures showing that, in the period since the inspection, there has been a significant increase in GCSE performance at A* to C. Those figures compare very favourably with many other schools in Dorset that are rated not inadequate but good. If in due course I look at the detailed material I have here, I might be able to answer the hon. Gentleman’s specific question.

The school and its governors decided to appeal against what they regarded as an inadequate conclusion to the inspection. The report was published on 19 March 2014, and when the head distributed it to parents, as he is obliged to do, he said that the inspectors had ignored various issues. He said that, although

“there remain areas for improvement, the Governors and Senior Leadership Team of the school share with the whole staff the belief that this inspection was unfair and deeply unjust…We knew and accepted that English had under-performed”.

He stated that the school was taking action about that, which is why the school was

“predicting…good results in English this summer”.

Indeed, the school did get good results in English in the summer of 2014, and the head expressed concern about predictions for the future:

“a point the inspectors seem to have ignored. Instead they focused on data from the last 3 years, including 2012, the year in which grade boundaries were suddenly changed leading to a national outcry. This directly contradicts their own guidance which urges inspectors not to focus just on the last 3 years but to take into account current progress.

Inspectors also appear to have ignored the wealth of opportunity that the school continues to offer through the wide variety of trips, activities, clubs and achievements that cannot be measured as easily as English results.”

He drew a contrast with the inspector’s report from 2010, saying that

“everyone who knows the school well would say that it is actually a better school today than in 2010!”

One of the concerns the head and the governors have is that Ofsted compared the school’s attendance and exclusions—the inspection was carried out not by Ofsted inspectors but by Tribal, a subcontractor to Ofsted—with secondary schools that were not comparable. Ferndown upper school has only years 9, 10, 11 and a sixth form, whereas the schools with which Ofsted compared it also have years 7 and 8. Obviously, in years 7 and 8, as national figures make clear, attendance is better and exclusions are fewer. Ofsted was not comparing like with like, which is a fundamental error.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Using the evidence of one school, he seems to be saying that there are concerns about standards within Ofsted. He just mentioned that the inspection was carried out by a subcontractor. Does he agree that the answer to improving the consistency and quality of Ofsted is to ensure that all inspectors are directly engaged, as Sir Michael Wilshaw has recommended in recent months?

Indeed, Sir Michael Wilshaw has recommended that, and I assume that the only reason he has done so is because in his experience there has not been such consistency and quality assurance under the old regime. I support his judgment on that, but it is no consolation for a school that has fallen foul of the old and inconsistent regime. Future improvements may lead to more consistency; indeed, the purpose of this debate is to try to find out what can be done to ensure consistency. So much turns on Ofsted’s judgment of a particular school.

What happens if a school is dissatisfied with an inspection? All it can do is appeal. Under Ofsted’s internal appeals process, Ofsted inspectors judge the work of other Ofsted inspectors. In the case of Ferndown upper school, a more junior Ofsted inspector judged the work of a more senior inspector, which I would submit is quite an invidious position to be put in—it certainly lacks the transparency and objectivity that we should demand of such organisations.

The school then appealed to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted, which deals with appeals against Ofsted. Unfortunately, the ICASO is effectively toothless because it cannot adjudicate on the important issues. The school made what is called a stage 4 complaint, which said, for example, that the inspectors who went to the school made notes and said orally to the school that they found that the pupils’ behaviour was good and that there were no examples of bad behaviour, but that they changed their judgment at a later stage in the process and said that they were concerned that there had been examples of bad behaviour.

Not surprisingly, the school said, “Well, let’s see where those examples of bad behaviour were noted by the inspectors at the time.” The school was told, “That’s all confidential information and it’s not available under freedom of information.” The school raised that issue with ICASO. The response from ICASO, which came through in the summer, stated that the complainant’s concerns relating to the Freedom of Information Act lie entirely outside ICASO’s remit, so it was not able to look at that. ICASO also said that it is not within its remit to overturn Ofsted judgments or to scrutinise its inspection criteria. Indeed, the only thing ICASO can do is look at the process, which is not really what we want in an appeals system.

Once a school has gone through that stage and had its ICASO adjudication, what can it do next? All it can do is send the matter to the parliamentary ombudsman. If ever there was the long grass, it is the parliamentary ombudsman—I am not insulting him, but the parliamentary ombudsman, again, can only consider administrative processes. Because of his work load, a complaint referred to the parliamentary ombudsman is unlikely to be determined for a significant period of time, by when the school will have a completely different cohort of pupils. That does not seem to be an adequate process of accountability. I would be interested to know whether the Minister—whom I am delighted to see in his place—agrees and whether he has any proposals for change, because the more emphasis we put on the regulatory and inspection process, the more important it is that it should be seen to be objective and above reproach. The trouble is that the consequences of such judgments feed into the school’s morale and the esteem in which it is held by potential pupils. That in itself can result in it suffering to a greater extent.

The school has now shown, through its results in the July exams, a significant improvement in the quality of its education. That is surely good news, but when one looks at the inspector’s follow-up letter, one does not get the impression that he is as pleased as the school is with the progress made and the way in which it is now outperforming many other schools in Dorset in the exam league tables. That raises another issue: because the school has a grade 4 assessment from Ofsted, while comparable schools in Dorset have grade 2 assessments—that is, good—people immediately reach the conclusion that it is less good than the others. However, because of when those other schools had their inspections, we may well not be comparing like with like.

That is one of the problems, which we know is not unique to Dorset or to Ferndown upper school. Evidence from throughout the country shows that Ofsted will quite often fail to see things in a school that are going badly wrong. Just to show that the debate is not purely about the Christchurch constituency, I will refer briefly to what happened at Saltley school and specialist science college. The International New York Times had an exclusive interview with the former principal of that school who talked about “harassment” from the local board over courses. He referred to the “relentless criticism” that he faced from a “Muslim-dominated school board”—he being a Sikh—and spoke about how he was eventually forced to step down as principal.

We now know that that school was the subject of an emergency report, “Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the ‘Trojan Horse’ letter”, which was published in July 2014 and made severe criticisms. In a statement issued to Parliament yesterday, the Government drew attention to the gross inadequacies of Birmingham city council in dealing with those and other issues and they have proceeded, as near as they can, to put Birmingham city council under special measures. At a time when the Government are talking about the importance of devolving even more power to local authorities, that finding shows that one of the largest local authorities—I think Birmingham has more children under its control than any other local education authority—is severely lacking.

One might ask, “What do Ofsted think about Saltley school and specialist science college?” It was inspected on 9 and 10 May 2013 and under every category—achievement of pupils, quality of teaching, behaviour and safety of pupils, and leadership and management—it was marked as good. The report said that the school was “good” and that:

“Students made good progress from their low starting points,”

and so on. It also said:

“The new head teacher and senior leaders have accurately identified strengths and weaknesses in the school and have continued to improve teaching and raise achievement.”

We now know that that was substantially wide of the mark, yet does anything in Ofsted’s annual report explain how it was able to produce that inspection for Saltley school on 9 and 10 May 2013, when just over a year later, in July 2014, it became clear that what was alleged to be a really good school was far from that?

I give that as another example of Ofsted’s inconsistency and lack of accountability. When parents who were thinking about sending their children to Saltley school and specialist science college looked at the Ofsted report, they must have thought, “This is brilliant; this is fantastic.” Yet just over a year later, they would have been ashamed about having made that judgment.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that the increasing numbers of educational practitioners who it is hoped will be on Ofsted teams from now on will decrease the likelihood of his experience being repeated in the future?

I certainly hope so, but whatever system is in place—this is the essence of the debate—there needs to be some means of appeal, if needs be, into the substance. In such situations, conciliation and discussion is much better than formal, adversarial appeals processes. Ultimately, there must be a way for a school head to engage with an inspector or a group of inspectors and say, “Sorry, you’ve got this wrong.”

One of the difficulties in the case of Ferndown upper was that the moderation process was not allowed to be developed early on. It was said that because the school had been assessed as grade 4, it needed to be dealt with first by the inspectorate before the concerns expressed could be moderated. We need a system that ensures that where schools feel they have been judged incorrectly, they can have that put right in a timely fashion, because there are implications for their viability. In this debate we are talking about publicly funded schools, but if we look at how inspection processes can affect commercial organisations, we can see that the consequences of an unjustly bad report may be disastrous for their viability.

I am delighted that other people have come along to participate in the debate. When we get to the conclusion, I hope that the Minister will set out exactly how we can improve Ofsted’s accountability to teachers, parents and pupils—everyone involved.

Nothing I have said is designed to detract from the importance of ensuring that we have the highest standards in our schools. Standards have been improving, and a lot of credit is due to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), who will respond to the debate, as well as the previous Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and the current Secretary of State for being vigorous in saying that we must try to move away from a culture in which producer interests prevail to the disadvantage of the consumer. I am all in favour of these reforms, but they would be even better if we could get more objectivity into the way Ofsted is held accountable to the public, to the Secretary of State for Education and ultimately, through the Secretary of State, to this House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this important debate. He has made a compelling case for ensuring the accountability of Ofsted. He has given a number of examples where it has fallen short and made arbitrary and subjective decisions.

Of course, Ofsted inspects not only schools but whole children’s departments and the protection and care of children. I will talk about a report that Ofsted produced on Manchester city council’s children’s department on 1 September, but first I want to reiterate what the hon. Gentleman said: inspection and monitoring are vital parts of public services. They are necessary parts of the accountability process, and it is important that we get them right and understand what is happening.

It is also important that the metrics are right. I will give just one example of how difficult metrics can be. When the Conservative Government in the early ’90s brought in metrics to measure the performance of planning departments and introduce a level of accountability, they said that planning applications should be determined within 40 days, and if they were not, the department concerned was seen to be failing. I was leader of Manchester city council then, and our average time for turning applications round was about 43 days. We were very pleased with that, because there were very few appeals against our decisions. As a lot of work was put in beforehand, the decisions were often better and all parties were happy. However, an arbitrary metric misguided the public as to the competence of the department.

One also has to look at who the inspectors are. My guess is that people do not start out life deciding to be an inspector of planning or an Ofsted inspector. Ofsted inspectors probably start off in child protection of some sort, as a social worker, or as a teacher. Sometimes they become inspectors because they have not done so well, or have failed, in those professions, and sometimes it is because they want more money, but my experience is that as a result they often have a jaundiced view of the inspection process. One has to be wary, and aware that that is a possibility, when looking at how effective these inspections are and what the accountability should be.

I will talk about Manchester’s children’s services department, but I want to place on the record that this is not a defence of that department. I have been concerned about a number of areas; I have written to the council; and I have published statistics that did not show the council in the best light with regard to what happened to referred children, because often they were not dealt with quickly enough, and in some cases they were not dealt with at all.

I have expressed public concern about referred children. I knew of a number of cases where the culture of the department had inhibited the fostering and adoption of children: the process was too lengthy; people had not turned up on time, or at all, to interview potential foster parents and adoptive parents; and interviewers often asked questions that were intrusive and—to my mind, and the minds of the potential foster and adoptive parents—irrelevant. So this is not a mindless defence of Manchester city council’s children’s department from an ex-leader of that department. It is really a case of asking whether we understand more about what is going on in the children’s department after Ofsted’s inspection.

On 1 September, Ofsted said in its report that for

“Children who need help and protection”

the service is “inadequate”. Similarly, it said that for

“Children looked after and achieving permanence”

the service “requires improvement”. Adoption performance was judged “inadequate”, and

“Experiences and progress of care leavers”

also “requires improvement”. Finally, it said that “Leadership, management and governance” were “inadequate”. That is not a glowing report. It was produced by eight inspectors over a period of about five or six weeks, and it must have been quite expensive.

Having complained about the department previously, I went to the report with some interest, but I have to say—this is the core of my contribution—that I was extremely disappointed. The department had had inspections in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The 2013 inspection was on fostering, the 2011 inspection was on adoption, and the 2010 inspection was on safeguarding looked-after children. Those inspections produced two “good” ratings and one “adequate” rating, so they were not cause for concern. However, as there had now been a report giving an “inadequate” rating, I wanted to look at numbers, to see exactly how the service had deteriorated during the period in question.

Although there were some numbers in the report, they were absolute numbers, telling us how many single assessments had not progressed, for example—there was a number in the report for that. However, that was not compared with any of the previous reports, and the comments were generally things such as “slow”, “quality of care record keeping: not good”, “could do better”, “too long to get help” or “too many children waiting for help”. Not only were there not absolute numbers but it was not possible to compare the numbers in the report with those in previous reports.

There was one particularly odd thing. It was not really a metric, but a comment that too many of the looked-after children did not go to good schools. The report did not say how many of the schools in Manchester were good and whether it was possible for all the looked-after children to go to them.

I wrote to Ofsted and asked if it could produce the comparative tables that would enable me to see if the department had gone backwards or forwards, and to see what the situation was that had justified the change to “inadequate”. Ofsted replied to me within about a fortnight; I have no complaint about its speed of response. The response was from Jo Morgan, Ofsted’s regional director, north-west. She said that it was not possible to produce those tables and she gave the reasons why. I will quote from her letter:

“The recent inspection differs from previous inspections as it has a different methodology. It is therefore not possible to make any direct comparisons between judgements. The current single inspection framework is an unannounced universal inspection. It is conducted in a three year cycle and judges local authority services for looked after children, alongside the arrangements to protect children. Ofsted acknowledges that the ‘bar’ has been raised in two ways. Firstly, ‘good’ is now the minimum acceptable standard. The new framework sets out the criteria for ‘good’ in respect of the protection of children, the care they receive, and the arrangements in place to lead and manage services. Any local authority that is unable to provide evidence that the characteristics of good are in place will be will be deemed to ‘require improvement’. The second aspect of our raising the ‘bar’ relates to our explicit and unrelenting focus on both the experiences of children, young people and families and the difference that the help they receive makes to their lives and life chances. Whilst it is recognised that this methodology presents a challenge to local authorities, our priority remains the contribution inspection can make to the help, protection and care of vulnerable children and young people.”

The philosophy behind that is sound, but if the local authority and anybody interested in what is happening are to know whether those serious criteria are being met, they have to be able to measure things and put numbers on them, but the letter and the report make no attempt to do that. Therefore, when Ofsted says that the methodology presents a challenge to local authorities, I would say it makes it impossible for them to know, other than in terms of a generalised report, why they are succeeding or failing. Unless a percentage or a rate of improvement is given for the speed at which children are assessed when they are referred to the local authority, or for the number of children placed in foster care or accepted for adoption, it is difficult for the authority to know what is happening.

Ofsted is failing in terms of inspectors’ basic task of enabling those who want to hold it to account to do so. One does not have to be too cynical to say that in Rotherham, Rochdale and, previously, Haringey, and a number of the other terrible situations we have seen in many of our towns and cities where children were not properly protected by the local authority, the police and others who should have been looking after them, Ofsted had given virtually all the local authorities involved a clean bill of health. After Rotherham was given a clean bill of health, we found that 1,400 children had been abused. From memory—I did not look it up—Haringey had been given an excellent rating before the baby P case.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Does he share my hope that the Minister will be able to explain how Ofsted was held to account for its manifest failures of judgment in those cases?

I am looking forward to the Minister’s reply to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution and mine. After those awful events, I am led to the conclusion that, when Ofsted raises the bar, as it puts it, without giving quantified criteria, it is engaged in an exercise that is about not inspection and the accountability of child protection services, but the protection of Ofsted. If Ofsted says that Manchester city council or some other local authority is inadequate or requires improvement, and something terrible happens—I sincerely hope it does not—Ofsted is not to blame, whereas it clearly could be blamed for the reports it gave on the authorities I mentioned earlier. What we are seeing is not an inspection regime that helps us to understand whether our children are being protected, but one that puts out a lot of propaganda for its own protection. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I wish to make a short contribution, and the title of the debate enables me to do precisely that. I want to raise a matter on behalf of a constituent.

The debate relates to the accountability of Ofsted, and we all hope that Ofsted inspectors do their work in a fair, constructive and objective way. However, occasionally, judgments can go awry, and they sometimes have a serious impact.

A constituent submitted concerns to Ofsted about her son’s school and his treatment in that school. She was assured by an Ofsted inspector in writing that Ofsted had not revealed to the school that she had made a complaint. However, she has had sight of official documents showing that Ofsted did make the school aware that she had been in touch with inspectors.

I would like to ask the Minister specifically how my constituent and I can challenge Ofsted about its behaviour, which is unacceptable, a complete breach of trust and contrary to the whole notion of whistleblowing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing the debate and on his thoughtful and important contribution, in which he sought to outline the experience of a school in his constituency of going through the Ofsted inspection process.

I intervened on the hon. Gentleman earlier about the school’s exam history, and it would have been helpful had he been able to tell us a little more about it. Perhaps the Minister knows the details and can tell us whether it was a factor in Ofsted’s judgment. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman raised some important issues.

The hon. Gentleman made the important point that, in making serious judgments about the quality of schools, we should not forget the wider aspects of schools or the wider curriculum. I certainly agree that no school should be able to be rated as outstanding unless it has a broad and balanced offer for its pupils, including an excellent cultural offer. Perhaps we need to think more about that, and I might say more about it later.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Trojan horse affair in Birmingham. I do not intend to go through it in any great detail again today, but it would be useful if the Minister told us his view of what has happened since the Trojan horse affair, and of how Ofsted is inspecting schools in the light of the newly introduced need to teach British values in the aftermath of that affair. If he could update us on the Department’s view of how that is going, that might benefit the House and would certainly relate very much to Ofsted’s accountability, which is the subject of the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on his contribution. He expressed concerns about the quality of inspections of children’s services in Manchester. He made some important points about safeguarding and the failure of inspections sometimes to pick up problems with safeguarding children. Those are serious issues, and the Minister will have taken those remarks on board and will want to say something about them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who was born on the same day as me, although she looks a lot younger. She raised a serious constituency issue, which should be the subject of a formal complaint. I am sure that she, as a constituency MP, will take that up directly, but it would be useful to hear the Minister’s response.

As many Members here know, I used to be a teacher, so I have been through the process of being inspected, albeit not under the current dispensation. I can tell Members, and any teacher will agree, that it is not necessarily a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary experience. I absolutely accept that inspection forms an important part of the process. Before the Minister starts looking up how I did in that inspection, let me say that I was perfectly happy with how it turned out.

We should acknowledge that inspection is a stressful process and that head teachers, teachers and even pupils and parents can find it stressful. Although inspection is an extremely necessary process and must focus forensically on ensuring that children are not being failed in our system—a principle that the Opposition absolutely support—we should bear in mind the human side of things when schools are inspected.

One of the sad things about discussions of Ofsted is that they are very much based on the headlines we tend to see in the newspapers when things such as the Ofsted annual report are published. Very few people read beyond the headlines and into the detail of what the chief inspector says in his report. People tend to take up political positions on what has been said, but Sir Michael Wilshaw made some extremely sensible remarks in his commentary on the annual report, some of which are things we have known for a long time, such as that for a school to be outstanding it needs great leadership. It is also necessary for it to have great middle-level leaders; and that depends on the great senior leadership. We could do a lot more to strengthen the role of middle leaders, particularly in secondary schools. Sir Michael said in his report today that he is concerned that they are not making progress and that more children are being taught in schools rated inadequate. The necessary things include good leadership and good teachers, effective and accurate assessment, and dealing with such things as low-level disruption.

As a former teacher I do not think it is really possible to teach without first creating a quiet, orderly environment. Beyond that, many things are possible and teachers can move on to all sorts of innovative and interesting activities; but it is and always has been the starting point—the basis and foundation of the craft of the classroom. I would not go as far as saying, as we used to when I was teaching, “Never smile until Easter,” but it is necessary to establish the proper quiet and orderly environment in a classroom if a teacher is to teach effectively and make sure that learning happens. I understand why Sir Michael is concerned about low-level disruption; about the stretching of able pupils; about many schools’ failure to do enough to narrow the gap between disadvantaged pupils and those from better-off backgrounds; and—topically, after the Government’s announcement today—about the current poor careers advice in schools, which is almost universally accepted, except by the Department for Education, to have worsened significantly since 2010.

Perhaps the Minister will expand a little further on today’s announcement about the new careers company—particularly why it was not put out to tender and how the choice was made to give a particular sum of money to a particular individual and group to run it. I should be interested to know what thinking was behind that. Was it to do with the time it would take to get that done before purdah, or was there a genuine operational, strategic reason for doing things in that way instead of by the normal governmental tendering process? The Public Accounts Committee might be interested to know about that.

Sir Michael Wilshaw also talked about governance not being strong enough. We all need to listen to that, and to address the issue. He also flagged up a severe concern about teacher supply. I know the Minister is interested in that, and he noted the 17% fall since 2010 in the numbers entering initial teacher training. I should be interested in his view of Sir Michael’s remarks. Does he agree that teacher supply is an emerging issue, and if so what will he do about it?

Under the present Government there have been problems relating to the proper relationship between the Department for Education and Ofsted. Indeed, there have been accusations of an attempt by the Department to politicise Ofsted in the current Parliament, not least because of the sacking of its chair, Sally Morgan, and the memo from senior advisers to the former Secretary of State suggesting that it might be right to sack Sir Michael Wilshaw. Those revelations have led to accusations by people speaking on behalf of the Schools Minister—he is here this afternoon—of a Government attempt to politicise Ofsted. The report of 9 October in The Guardian said:

“A Liberal Democrat source close to schools minister David Laws said: ‘The fact is that, Gove, Cummings and others around them have been deeply disappointed by Michael Wilshaw’s refusal to play ball. This is almost certainly what lay behind their previous attempt to politicise the inspectorate.’”

So that is confirmation from the Schools Minister, or rather his spokesperson, whom he might perhaps want to identify—it might have been him; I do not know, but whoever the source close to him was, I am sure he would like to tell us—that the previous Secretary of State and his advisers have been involved in an attempt to politicise Ofsted. Of course, that is a dangerous path to take, so when the Minister talks about the accountability of Ofsted, perhaps he will tell us how he valiantly fought off the attempts in his Department to politicise it, who was involved in them, and what he is doing to rein in that tendency in the Department.

That is not to say that Ofsted is a perfect organisation, as anyone would admit. Concerns are frequently expressed to Ministers, shadow Ministers and others. We have heard in the debate some of the concerns about the way Ofsted inspections are carried out. We need to think about how to move on and reform it. It might help if I say something about Labour policy on Ofsted. The Opposition recognise that school inspections play a crucial role in upholding standards in schools, but we oppose the Government’s attempts to politicise Ofsted, which the Schools Minister has complained about, because they would ultimately undermine the integrity and independence of the schools inspectorate. National systems of inspection and accountability should be collaborative rather than confrontational—an issue that perhaps contributes to some of the concerns expressed in the debate. Otherwise, the effect of inspection could too often be to narrow children’s educational experience.

We need to prevent that from happening. We want schools to be innovative; we do not want them to operate in an accountability framework that makes them fear innovating, developing new pedagogies and using new technologies. Of course they must meet the requirements on standards, but we do not want an atmosphere in which schools always play a conservative part. We want innovation and we need pedagogies to be developed. We need to use and unleash the talents of teachers in what Ofsted called in 2010 the finest generation of teachers we have ever had in this country—albeit one dreadfully undermined by the Government’s disastrous policy, with which I understand the Schools Minister also disagrees, of allowing unqualified teachers in schools.

Labour believes that the role of the schools inspectorate needs to be examined. In government we will ensure that the inspection process is more collaborative and that school improvement involves schools reviewing one another, and monitoring by the middle tier. We have talked about creating directors of school standards to clear up the muddle that has occurred since the present Government’s piecemeal, rapid and politically motivated timetable of academisation. What Sir Michael Wilshaw said today about the obsession with structures, rather than the things that really matter for school improvement, was extremely helpful. The name over the door does not matter. What matters is the quality of leadership and teaching in a school, not the name and title. An end to a Government-favoured brand of school will be a positive step forward, and I am glad that Sir Michael said what he did.

On that point, does the hon. Gentleman accept, on behalf of the Labour party, that there should not be an obsession with being for or against academies, free schools or maintained schools, but that we should look at each school on its merits?

Yes, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s proposition that each school should be considered on its merits, but we should be creating a framework of fairness within which schools of all types and denominations can operate, with a fair and proper admissions procedure, an effective admissions code and a stronger adjudicator on admissions, to ensure that schools are operating together in a collaborative framework. We do not believe in using naked market forces to drive schools out of business. We believe in weaker schools being helped by stronger schools in the system and insisting that such collaboration must happen, because ultimately that is how an increase is standards is achieved. That is what happened under the framework of London Challenge, for example, through a collaborative approach, rather than relying on creating an over-supply to drive schools out of business and, ultimately, putting pupils in ever-failing and declining schools over time and ruining their lives with an obsession with market forces. Unfortunately, that certainly was the philosophy of the previous Secretary of State and some of his closest advisers.

We will ensure that there is more collaborative work on school improvement, involving schools reviewing one another and monitoring by the middle tier; we have talked about creating directors of school standards, as well as the national inspectorate. We will ensure that early years settings and primary schools are judged against how well they develop children’s knowledge, skills and qualities through a broad and balanced curriculum, alongside tests in English and maths. We have already called for Ofsted to have the power to inspect academy chains and we are committed to monitoring its role. That confirms what I said to the hon. Member for Christchurch: we want the same treatment for all schools, so that, as well as inspecting local authorities, which may have responsibility for groups of schools, Ofsted can inspect not just individual schools in an academy chain but the operation of the chain itself.

I hear concerns that schools in some academy chains have less autonomy and are given directions from head office about exactly what they have to do. That head office is sometimes in a remote part of the country, far away from where the school is operating. Those schools’ policies are being determined from far away and there is little accountability in the system, so inspecting academy chains is important. I hope the Schools Minister agrees. We were not able to persuade the previous Secretary of State or the current one to permit that, but Sir Michael Wilshaw has asked for it and we support it. I hope the Schools Minister confirms that he supports that, too, because he seems to support an awful lot of what we say nowadays about schools and education policy, in contrast with his colleagues in the Department for Education.

Does the Minister agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw, who said today that in the last couple of years 70,000 more pupils are being taught in inadequate secondary schools? If so, what is his policy response and how should we deal with it? Obviously, if that is so—I have no reason to believe that the chief inspector of schools is wrong—there needs to be some policy response. It is not adequate simply to say, “Our academisation programme and our free schools policy will solve all problems”, because we know that is not true. What are we actually trying to do to put that right? It is a challenge to all of us, if such a process is occurring.

I recognise the improvements made by many schools in recent years, under this Government and the previous one, and their raising of standards. That is to be celebrated and commended but it is down, principally, to the hard work of school teachers, school leaders, governors and others, probably far more than to politicians and education policy makers, who often have little experience of the front line—the classroom—and more experience of policy think-tanks. However, if over the past couple of years 70,000 more pupils are being taught in inadequate schools, the Government should be concerned about that and should have something to say about it. I hope that the Minister has.

Will the Minister update us on what is happening about accusations that the Inspiration Trust in Norfolk was given prior notification of inspection? As has been said, this system has to be fair across the country and everybody must have the same notification—or no notification—of inspection. I am sure that Members would be grateful for any information the Minister could provide to update the House.

Will the Minister comment on the following, from an article in The Guardian on Tuesday 9 December?

“In September 2013, an Ofsted stipulation that inspectors should ‘consider the food on offer at the school and atmosphere of the school canteen’ was introduced, following pressure from organisations including the Jamie Oliver Foundation. But this August, it I was quietly removed, in a streamlining of inspection guidance. Ofsted’s latest consultation on a new inspection framework, which closed last Friday, has also omitted to mention school food.”

I know the Minister has a genuine interest in this subject. Can he shed any light on whether there is to be a dilution of the inspection of the quality of school food?

What does the Minister think of the following remark by Sir Michael Wilshaw in the annual report?

“The proportion of secondary schools in which leadership and management are judged inadequate has…doubled over the past two years.”

Again, that should be of direct concern to the Department. Does the Minister agree with and recognise Sir Michael Wilshaw’s observation? If so, what is his response and what does he intend to do about it?

Minister, before I call you, although I am sure there could be a temptation to go into the wider education debate, I have to remind you that the parameters of the debate are the accountability of Ofsted and we have to keep to those.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I will certainly follow your wise advice, in spite of the temptations of the shadow Schools Minister to draw me off into all sorts of other areas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on raising this issue, giving us an opportunity not only to address the issue of his local school, but to reflect on the accountability of Ofsted and the appeals processes that our schools inspectorate operates under. He has also, as he said, given us an opportunity to touch on issues arising out of Ofsted’s annual report published today, within the constraints of the debate.

I think that, by and large, Ofsted does a difficult job well, and most hon. Members would recognise that. It is a job that is necessary. Few of us would want to go back to 30 or 40 years ago, when the oversight and accountability of the school system was much weaker and, as a consequence, there was a risk that underperforming schools could continue, failing their local communities and young people for long periods. We certainly do not want to go back to that. Ofsted is a good organisation and the current chief inspector is one of the best we have had. Of course, the Government will reflect carefully on the annual report and the comments the chief inspector made today on its launch.

I should also say, as I believe the chief inspector said on the “Today” programme this morning, that Ofsted carries out some 30,000 inspections every year, not only of schools but in other settings. The chief inspector will be the first to acknowledge that when carrying out inspections in such a number of settings, there are bound to be imperfections in a small minority of cases. It is important that we ensure that, where there are issues, those are taken seriously and dealt with. Of course, we need to make sure that the overall quality of the inspection process is as high as it can possibly be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and others who have participated in this debate have pointed out that the judgments made by Ofsted are important and have big consequences for people’s livelihoods, schools’ reputations and the decisions parents take. In fairness to parents and schools, it is therefore important that we get those judgments right. If we err on the side of generosity in any judgment, that has serious consequences. We could end up with schools not doing well enough and failing their local communities for long periods and, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) mentioned, what is important in the schools system is even more crucial in safeguarding. We should be fair to all those involved in that important work, but we should be rigorous in our inspection to ensure that vulnerable young people are not at risk.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because I did not know he was going to raise issues on children’s services and safeguarding. I am not the lead Minister on that issue in the Department; the Minister with responsibility for children, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), will have been particularly involved in the oversight of some of the services in Manchester and elsewhere, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman following the debate to follow up on some of the points he raised.

Before coming back to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I will respond briefly to my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who raised concerns about information that her constituent gave Ofsted anonymously to inform the inspection of a school. I am sure that the chief inspector would take the same view as me and her—that information given anonymously should be treated in that way; the source of that information should not be revealed to the institution being inspected. I am concerned to hear that there may have been an instance where privacy was not respected. I will look into that. I will see the chief inspector shortly, and I will raise the issue with him and ask whether he can look into it, if my hon. Friend can give me the details—in confidence, of course—of her constituent and the circumstances.

I will pick up on a number of the points that the shadow Schools Minister raised, but specifically on accountability and the situation in Norfolk, I can update him and the House by saying that the fresh independent review ordered by Sir Michael after questions were raised about the earlier inspection is under way. We expect that review to be completed by the end of the year.

I will touch on the annual report, and then I will comment on Ofsted’s inspection and appeals process. I will then touch on Ferndown school, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned. Today’s annual Ofsted report on schools provides a timely reminder of the importance of Ofsted’s inspection work. Earlier today, the chief inspector announced that good and outstanding schools now account for 81% of all schools inspected, up from 68% in 2010. We should all acknowledge that that is a significant increase. In spite of some of the concerns about secondary schools, that is the highest proportion of good and outstanding schools at any time since Ofsted was set up. Primary schools, as the chief inspector mentioned this morning, have done particularly well, with 82% now good or outstanding, which means that 190,000 more pupils are in good and outstanding primary schools than last year. That is 700,000 more than in 2012, and we should celebrate that.

The report also shows that schools are responding positively to inspection. Two thirds of schools that were previously judged as requiring improvement secured good or outstanding on re-inspection this year. There is also positive news on the performance of pupils from lower-income backgrounds. The disadvantage gap, particularly in primary schools, is closing rapidly. All that means that more than 1 million more pupils are in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. While much of the credit for that must go to hard-working individuals in schools, we believe that inspection is also contributing to the improvement in the system.

The shadow Schools Minister mentioned the less encouraging recent statistics for secondary schools. Significantly more work needs to be done to ensure that improvement is maintained in the future, rather than schools remaining at existing levels. The percentage of secondary schools graded good or outstanding is up from 68% in 2010 to 71%. The number of pupils of secondary age being educated in schools in the secondary sector classed as requiring improvement or inadequate dropped from 1,073,000 to 793,000 last year, which is encouraging.

The inspection and regulatory functions of Ofsted are vested in Her Majesty’s chief inspector, who is primarily accountable directly to Parliament. He appears before the Education Committee at least twice a year, giving evidence on the work of Ofsted and on his annual report. He is also subject to other parliamentary scrutiny. As recently as last month he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee, so there are many parliamentary opportunities for the work of Ofsted to be examined. The Education Committee can also conduct inquiries specifically into Ofsted and its work. In April 2011, the Committee conducted an inquiry into the role and performance of Ofsted. The report from that inquiry concluded:

“Ofsted’s independent status is broadly valued by inspectors, by professionals, and by the public, and we strongly support the retention of that status.”

As the Department for Education is the lead policy and ministerial Department covering Ofsted’s work, the Secretary of State for Education meets the chief inspector regularly, as do I, to discuss the work of Ofsted.

Every year Ofsted conducts approximately 6,500 school inspections and 30,000 inspections of all settings. It has a massive job of work to do. As part of its procedures, Ofsted sends out a feedback questionnaire after every inspection. The latest figures for the second quarter of 2014-15 show that 93% of respondents said that they were satisfied with the way an inspection was carried out. That is against an overall response rate of 71%, which indicates that in the majority of settings, there is contentment on the effectiveness and fairness of the Ofsted process. As good as those figures are, there is no room for complacency.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that Sir Michael takes particular interest in the quality of inspectors’ work. He recognises—I believe he has said this publicly—that more needs to be done to ensure that all inspections are delivered to a consistently high standard the first time around. That is why he appointed Sir Robin Bosher, one of Ofsted’s directors, to take direct responsibility for inspection quality and the training of inspectors. As a result, Ofsted has put in place more stringent quality checks and monitoring of inspections and reports. It has also invested more in the training of inspectors, in place of having detailed written guidance documents. I know that Sir Michael is working hard to ensure quality and consistency, and I am confident that he will tackle any underperformance in the inspection work force. He is prepared to take tough action where necessary to remove inspectors, or to require additional training where inspectors fail to meet his high expectations.

Looking ahead—my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned this—Sir Michael has announced that he will bring the management of inspections, including all inspector training, in-house from September 2015. As part of the programme, Ofsted will change how it sources and selects additional inspectors, and how it trains, contracts with and performance-manages them. Much of that is currently arranged through contracts with three inspection service providers: Tribal, Serco and CfBT. Under the planned changes, however, all complaints will be handled directly by Ofsted.

Another important step in trying to improve the quality of inspections is making more use of serving practitioners—something to which Sir Michael Wilshaw is committed. The latest figures from Ofsted show that 56% of school inspections include at least one serving practitioner, which could be a head teacher or a senior leader from a high-performing school. That is up from just 15% in 2011, so there has been a massive increase in the involvement of serving practitioners. Many of them are also national leaders of education and play a wider part in the overall leadership of the school system.

I will briefly turn to how the Ofsted complaints procedure works. I appreciate that this might seem unnecessarily detailed, but as it is at the centre of my hon. Friend’s concerns, it is important for me to set out just what the process looks like and to consider whether it needs any change.

Ofsted has a clear, published complaints procedure. During an inspection, those with concerns are strongly encouraged to raise issues with the lead inspector as soon as they arise. If a complainant feels unable to raise concerns directly with the lead inspector during the inspection, they can contact the Ofsted helpline directly. If concerns have not been resolved, a formal complaint can be raised with Ofsted within 10 working days of the incident of concern. If the concern is about an inspection, the complaint should be made no more than 10 working days following the publication of the report. When Ofsted receives the complaint, it will investigate and send a written response to answer the agreed main points of concern within 30 working days. It does not normally withhold publication of an inspection report or withdraw a published inspection report while it investigates complaints unless there are exceptional circumstances.

There is a second, appeal stage to the complaints process. If a complainant remains dissatisfied, they may appeal to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch mentioned. The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution has been appointed by the Secretary of State to undertake that important role. If complainants are not satisfied with the outcome of the adjudication service review, they can contact the parliamentary ombudsman. That is quite a prolonged process, and I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments about the ombudsman’s potential role and the time that such things can take, but it is relevant that in 2013 only 12 cases concerning schools were referred to the independent complaints adjudication service, which is a small proportion given that Ofsted inspects approximately 6,500 schools a year. That suggests to me that the number of schools that are seriously concerned about the quality of their inspections is relatively small.

Might not another explanation be that schools realise that ICASO cannot really do anything? All that it can do is look at the process rather than the substance.

It might be that my hon. Friend would seek to put that construction on it, but that is unduly pessimistic, not only because the appeals process has previous stages, but because a body that seeks to escalate a complaint to the independent complaints adjudication service can seek to raise concerns about the substance—although they may appear to be addressed to the process—if it feels that aspects of the inspection process have not been respected. I will return to that with regard to the school mentioned by my hon. Friend in a moment.

The independent complaints adjudication service also reported that it saw an improvement in the quality of Ofsted’s complaint handling from previous years. All but four of the general recommendations made to Ofsted were accepted fully, with the others being accepted partially.

I know that my hon. Friend has exchanged correspondence with the chief inspector and Ofsted’s south-west regional director, Bradley Simmons, about the inspection of Ferndown upper school in January 2014. My hon. Friend is concerned that the school was graded inadequate, with serious weaknesses. I note that the inspection reported several areas of concern, including that students were not making enough progress, especially in English, that work set was not suitable for the least or most able students, that progress was too slow for students eligible for the pupil premium, for boys and for students with special educational needs or disabilities, that fixed-term exclusions and persistent absence figures were too high and impacting on the progress being made by those pupils, that sixth-form students were not making enough progress and that leaders, including governors, were not tackling weaknesses quickly enough.

As Schools Minister, I cannot comment personally on all those judgments, as my hon. Friend will understand. However, I can reflect on the data and what they indicate for the school. At the time of the inspection, the proportion of students gaining five good GCSE passes, including English and mathematics at grade C or above, had been significantly below the national average for three years. It was 47% against 58% in 2011, 49% against 59% in 2012 and 50% against 60.6% in 2013. As I understand it, the school has a lower than average number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in receipt of, for example, the pupil premium. GCSE English language passes at grade A* to C were 69% against the national average of 82%. Attainment was significantly below the national average in nine curriculum areas, and above in just two. Just 59% of students made expected progress in English against 69% nationally. I will not comment on the precise judgments in the Ofsted report, but we should reflect on the fact that data do suggest that the school has performance issues and challenges.

On accountability, I know that the school followed Ofsted’s published complaints procedure. The head teacher complained about the outcome of the inspection. His complaint was investigated by the inspection service provider, Tribal, but was not upheld. He requested that his complaint be elevated, and a further investigation was undertaken by Her Majesty’s inspectors to ascertain whether the original had been fair and thorough. The outcome of the original investigation was validated. The head teacher then took his complaint to the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted. The adjudicator reported that Ofsted had

“addressed the complainant’s concerns in significant detail and in a fair and reasonable manner”

and went on to say:

“I do not find that I can provide any advice or make any recommendations to further improve Ofsted’s practices for dealing with complaints in this instance.”

Picking up on some of the concerns that the school raised about being marked down for attendance, I understand that the investigation into the complaint found that inspectors had considered the school’s own attendance data alongside those available nationally. That is correct procedure. Inspectors should use RAISEonline as a benchmark and should ask questions as necessary. The response to the school’s complaint mentioned there being no national comparison data on attendance rates for sixth forms only.

On that point about no data being available, that is not correct. Does my right hon. Friend accept that?

The response to the school’s complaint mentioned there being no national comparison data on attendance rates for sixth forms only, but attendance data are available and show that, although improving slightly recently, persistent absence has risen for girls and for some students with special educational needs. It has fallen for students eligible for free school meals, but remains seven points above the national average as in 2013.

Attendance is not a separate judgment and does not alone determine the behaviour and safety judgment. A school cannot be marked down for its attendance statistics alone, and this particular school was not. Behaviour and safety were judged not to be inadequate, but to require improvement. My hon. Friend is concerned that performance data should be correctly assessed in a local context, but while local comparisons are important, Ofsted makes comparisons on attainment and progress against national data, taking account of pupils’ prior attainment. That is clearly set out in the inspection handbook, so it should not come as a surprise to any school. If one looks at the attainment data, it is clear that the school has some questions to answer about its performance against comparable national figures.

I understand that Ofsted has undertaken two monitoring inspections of the school, in May and September, since the original inspection. The first visit found that the school was planning appropriate action for improvement, supported by the local authority. The second visit judged senior leaders to be making reasonable progress towards the removal of serious weaknesses. However, it also found that school leaders lacked rigour and urgency in their approach to improving the school. While recognising improvements, Her Majesty’s inspectorate found that

“the school lacks a consistently rigorous and relentless focus on improving the achievement of those students who could, and should, do better, regardless of their background, ability or starting point”.

We should expect all schools to serve the interests of all pupils.

It is important to remember that, for the vast majority of schools, the current inspection system works well. I would, however, encourage any school that feels that its inspection has fallen short of normal expectations to raise its concerns with Ofsted at the earliest possible opportunity, as many have done. However, the chief inspector’s decision must be final if inspection is to remain credible. Without that, every school that disagreed with the judgment would seek to challenge the outcome of its inspection, delaying critical action to start to bring about improvement for the children at the school who, after all, will not get a second chance.

I hope that I have demonstrated that there are many stages in the process of scrutinising an Ofsted decision. In fact, the only way that we could really meet my hon. Friend’s requirement for an additional degree of scrutiny would be to have another school inspection service. There is no evidence at present that that would be value for money given the overall level of complaints. We will, however, keep a close eye on the issue and seek to improve the quality of inspections in future.