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House of Commons Hansard
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Ofsted Inspections (Schools’ Rights of Challenge)
09 February 2016
Volume 605

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the right of schools and academies to challenge the timing and format of school inspections; to appeal against the outcomes of such inspections; to make provision about increasing accountability and quality assurance within the school inspection system; and for connected purposes.

I apologise in advance, Mr Speaker, for my lacklustre demeanour. I recently had a bout of winter vomiting, and I am concerned that I have more to worry about than projecting my voice.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of schools, as Ofsted used to be called, has a long and distinguished history stretching back to the days of Queen Victoria, when inspectors such as the great poet Matthew Arnold fought against the scourge of philistinism in British society—a term, incidentally, he invented. Historically, it has always been torn between its twin and not always compatible roles of supporting school improvement and ensuring that state-funded schools abide by whatever standards and rules are currently laid down by the Government of the day.

We are now witnessing an interesting period of Ofsted’s development. It is a huge multimillion pound organisation, with 1,000-plus permanent employees and a remit stretching not just over the entire school system but over nursery, pre-school, out-of-school provision and sundry aspects of childcare. The varying and occasional pronouncements and opinions of the head of Ofsted, whether delivered with the self-effacing modesty of Sir David Bell or the misguided arrogance of Chris Woodhead, are treated as though they are the ex cathedra announcements of a pope. Unlike other HMIs toiling away for the public good, the head of Ofsted is guaranteed celebrity status. For schools and providers, Ofsted is critical. Preparing for Ofsted—pleasing or pacifying Ofsted—is hugely important. It casts a long shadow over the entire school year. Its verdict can determine a school’s reputation, future funding, governance, the professional careers of its staff, ownership and very survival.

I do not, at this stage, want to minimise the very real role that HMIs have, and have had, in school improvement. However, we need to flag up that as a country we are almost unique in currently having such a heavy duty, high-stakes, expensive and unaccountable public body policing our schools. It is also worth pointing out that many of the countries we seek to emulate—in terms of pupil progress, whether in science, technology, engineering and maths, PISA ranking or whatever—lack such a cumbersome and encumbering apparatus.

The considerable amount spent by the Government on Ofsted is a mere fraction of the amount that schools spend in trying to ensure and protect themselves from a perverse or unfair judgment from Ofsted. Again, as a nation we are an outlier here. Unsurprisingly, good teachers and heads who fear an errant verdict are diverted or stressed. They leave the profession early, or, in the worst cases, pass up opportunities for promotion. We do not have a collegial, peer-reviewed model of school improvement. Instead, we have what can become, at worst, the teaching equivalent of the Spanish inquisition, where careers go up in flames at the mere whiff of educational heresy.

I recognise that inspection has a valuable role in education, but the way we currently do it in England, via the bloated bureaucratic beast that Ofsted has become, is clumsy, poor value for money and unaccountable. Critically, there is no independent appeal on matters of substance. The Bill seeks to give schools powers to contest an unfair judgment by appeal to independent regional panels. Where disagreements remain, it would give a school the right to table its response for inclusion in the final Ofsted report. Currently, even lodging a legitimate complaint is seen as futile and positively risky. Very few schools actually do it—it is about as good as arguing with traffic wardens or traffic cops. We need to change this top-down culture and address the imbalance of power. We need a cultural change.

It is not as though Ofsted has never been without flaws. In 2015, Ofsted dismissed 40% of its inspectors for reasons undisclosed. It is not as though it has never been arbitrary. The current head of Ofsted summarily announced recently that schools would be graded inadequate for allowing full veils—that was just his decision—and a nursery was downgraded from outstanding to inadequate simply for emailing a picture of a happy child to its parents.

Worse still, it is not as if judgments are wholly impartial or immune from political pressure—or the suspicion of that. I do not suggest that that is systematic, but it can happen. It is a known fact that the Government want all schools to become academies, and that the head of Ofsted worked for an academy chain. He sought to inspect academy chains but, to be fair, he has been blocked from doing so by the Government. The only antidote to the suspicion that free schools and academies get an easy ride is more transparency and the possibility of challenge, as there is not a straightforward read-across from the data collected to the verdict reached.

I have with me two Ofsted reports on two schools in Liverpool, both in tough, challenging areas, and both with similar scorecards—virtually identical in every respect. Notre Dame Catholic College is rated good by Ofsted. The Savio Salesian College in Bootle is said to require improvement. Oddly, the apparently inferior school has appreciably better results in English than the so-called good school, and its maths results, too, are better in places. Ironically, the head of Notre Dame has been invited to take over Salesian school based on the Ofsted judgment. To add to the irony, I taught in Savio Salesian High in the early ’70s under a saintly headmaster called Father Maurice Gordon, an Oxbridge graduate who, on stepping down as a successful head did not become a consultant—not even an Ofsted inspector—but timetabled himself to teach remedial maths to hard-to-reach pupils. He fostered a glorious sporting tradition, and numbered among his alumni Jamie Carragher and the deputy leader of the UK Independence party.

I know absolutely nothing of the college in its current incarnation, but my suspicion, based on the evidence provided on Ofsted’s website, is that Ofsted has little reason to be confident in its verdict, hence the need for the right to challenge. Ofsted verdicts shape the destiny of schools, and determine their structure, ownership and very survival. Not to have the right to challenge such a fallible system—it clearly is such a system—is not only demoralising but fundamentally unjust.

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The Question is that the hon. Gentleman have leave to bring in the Bill. As many of that opinion say “Aye”. It would be helpful if the promoter of the Bill declaimed with enthusiasm.

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My enthusiasm is undiminished, Mr Speaker.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That John Pugh, Mr Clive Betts, Norman Lamb, Tom Brake, Kelvin Hopkins, Greg Mulholland, Mr Mark Williams, Steve McCabe and Fiona Bruce present the Bill.

John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 March 2016, and to be printed (Bill 131).