I beg to move,
That this House has considered Ofsted school inspections.
It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the honour of holding this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I am delighted that we are joined in the Public Gallery by the headteacher of Bishop Stopford School, Jill Silverthorne, and the deputy head, Damien Keane, who recognise the importance of the issues I wish to raise. I am grateful to them for travelling to London today.
May I start by praising the Minister, who is one of the Ministers I hold in the highest regard? He has a distinguished record in education. He was shadow schools Minister from 2005 to 2010. He was a Minister in the Department for Education from 2010 to 2012. He had his second coming from 2014 to 2021 and his third coming on 26 October this year. That is 15 years of Front-Bench experience in opposition and in government. We are very lucky to have him as schools Minister. He cares about the subject and I am grateful to him for being here today and for his genuine involvement in this issue.
I wish to raise the recent Ofsted inspection of Bishop Stopford School in Kettering, which resulted in a downgrade from “outstanding” to “requires improvement.” May I declare my interest, as one of my children attends Bishop Stopford School? However, I raise the matter not because of my child, but because I think a genuine injustice has been done with this inspection.
Bishop Stopford is a non-selective secondary school and sixth form with academy status in Kettering. Located in the Headlands, the school has 1,500 pupils. At the heart of all it does is a Christian ethos, and its core values are faith, responsibility, compassion, truth and justice. That provides stability for pupils in an ever-changing world. In the light of that ethos, the school’s aim is quite simple:
“to provide the highest quality education for every student.”
The Minister has seen the school’s pupils in action. The school’s brass band performed at the Music for Youth Proms in London, in November. Students were outstanding in the performance in every respect—behaviour, attitude, performance, kindness to each other and helping staff. They did the school proud in every way possible and were tremendous ambassadors for the school. Yet Ofsted’s view is that personal development at the school “requires improvement”.
The Ofsted inspection was done on 28 and 29 June 2022. The overall recommendation was “requires improvement”. Quality of education was “good”. Sixth form provision was “good”. Behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management were graded “requires improvement”. I am very concerned about the way in which the inspection was carried out. From the information I have received, I believe not only that the correct procedures were not followed, but that the inspection team deliberately set out to engineer a downgrade in the school’s Ofsted rating from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”. That is the equivalent of one of the highest scoring teams in the premier league being relegated straight to the conference.
I support rigorous Ofsted inspections of schools, which raise school standards. Until now, I have had every confidence in Ofsted’s abilities to inspect schools in line with proper process and to challenge them where improvements can be made, but I have to tell the Minister that it is my strong view that this Ofsted inspection has gone wrong. It should be quashed, and a fresh inspection undertaken with different inspectors. I know that this is a serious request, and I do not make it lightly.
The evidence I have heard from the headteacher, the deputy head and pupils at the school is compelling. I believe that the inspection team sent in by Ofsted went rogue. In effect, Ofsted has sent in an educational inspection hit squad with a pre-arranged agenda to downgrade this faith-based school, whatever it found on its visit. In interviews with pupils, the inspection team disparaged the school’s Christian ethos. One year 7 boy was asked, “Do you think this is a white, middle-class school?” A year 10 girl was asked, “Do you feel uncomfortable about walking upstairs when wearing a skirt?” I ask the Minister, are these questions appropriate for an Ofsted inspection?
Furthermore, the new downgraded rating for the school was leaked by Ofsted to the local community in breach of Ofsted’s own procedures.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his initiative and assiduousness on behalf of the school. I am shocked at the allegations that he has made, and I see the problems there among those of a certain faith group. Does he feel, as I do, that this inspection has increased anxieties and stress among the teachers, parents and others involved? He has asked for the whole thing to be done again, and that is probably the best thing to do, because what has happened is clearly wrong.
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is a Christian gentleman. He understands the importance of a Christian ethos in schools, but it seems that some Ofsted inspectors do not share those values. In this case, it seems that they have deliberately set out to downgrade the school, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that is having a devastating impact on the teachers, pupils and parents, who feel that the inspection has gone wrong and that they have all been treated extremely unfairly. It appears that, unable to criticise the school’s educational achievements, inspectors have pursued an agenda against a top-performing school with a Christian ethos by engineering criticisms of the behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management criteria.
I thought that this matter was so serious that it should be brought to the immediate attention of the Department for Education, so I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor on 11 October. I am afraid that I do not think that Ofsted can be relied on to judge its own homework. The deficiencies in the inspection of this school are extremely serious. In effect, no one is inspecting the inspectors, and they can basically do what they like.
On the same day, I wrote to Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, yet all I received was a one-page letter from the assistant regional director of the east midlands on 20 October saying that they noted my concerns but that nothing else would be done and that they would just go along with the complaints process in which the school was engaged. I do not regard that as satisfactory, when a Member of Parliament has raised genuine concerns.
Let us look at the quality of education at the school. On the Department’s latest unvalidated educational attainment data, Bishop Stopford School ranks 106th out of all 6,761 secondary schools in the country and is in the top 1.5%. Let us look at the key headline measures of educational attainment. On the EBacc scores, in the data comparing Bishop Stopford School with schools that Ofsted has rated “outstanding” since September 2021, the school is the highest performing non-selective school. Some 94% of the school’s students entered for the EBacc, which is massive. In Northamptonshire, the second highest school is at 79%. The national average is 39%, and the Government’s ambition is 75%.
On progress 8 scores, which show how much progress pupils at this school made between the end of key stage 2 and the end of key stage 4, out of 3,721 selective and non-selective schools with a progress 8, the school is No. 115, which is in the top 3%. On the attainment 8 scores, which are based on how well pupils have performed in up to eight qualifications, there are 3,768 non-selective schools, and Bishop Stopford School is 110th, which is in the top 3%. On the basic five GCSEs, including English and maths, Bishop Stopford School is at 70%. Of the 126 schools ranked as “requiring improvement”, Bishop Stopford School is fourth, with the range 0% to 96%. Of the 52 schools rated “outstanding”, the school is 27th, with a range of 45% to 100%, and it is fifth for the non-selective mixed schools in this category.
In terms of the number of pupils who stayed in education or went into employment after finishing key stage 4, of all the selective and non-selective schools previously rated as “outstanding”, Bishop Stopford School is ranked 16th in the whole country. Of non-selective mixed-sex schools, it is fourth in the whole country, with 98% staying in education or going into employment. Ofsted partially recognises this educational record:
“Most pupils enjoy attending Bishop Stopford School and value the teaching that they receive. The school is ‘unapologetically academic’ and leaders have high expectations of what pupils should achieve.”
Yet Ofsted only gave the school a “good” rating in this area.
The mantra about making a judgment about the quality of education is explicitly stated as depending on the three Is: intent, implementation and impact. In essence, this assesses whether a school is clear about what it wishes to achieve with its curriculum, how well that intent is implemented and what its impact is. The only way this can be easily measured is through the empirical data: results, destinations and attendance. The impact of the school’s curriculum is, once again, abundantly clear in this validated data.
If the school is enabling its young people to be so successful and to progress to high-quality destinations, there has to be a disconnect somewhere. If the school is performing so poorly, as the report suggests, how could it possibly generate outcomes that can only be described as excellent, even among the schools Ofsted has judged to be “outstanding”?
The school has followed the Ofsted complaints process, and it got a reply dated 9 November from the senior regional inspector. The school complained about the judgment on quality of education. Ofsted said that a common area that needs to be improved is using assessment to adapt teaching so that identified gaps are addressed. It said:
“modern foreign languages and the mathematics curriculum are not as securely embedded as other curriculum areas”,
and the complaint was not upheld.
The school complained about the judgment on behaviour and attitudes. Ofsted acknowledged that
“behaviour was calm and orderly around the school.”
In its report, it said that the school deals with low-level disruption when it occurs, yet in the inspection on the day the Ofsted inspectors said that there was no low-level disruption. The inspection team had a particular concern about bullying and the use of derogatory language. In this case, the grade descriptor that needed to be considered was:
“Leaders, staff and pupils create a positive environment in which bullying is not tolerated.”
The inspection team said that that criterion was not fully met, and the complaint was not upheld. Parents are in disbelief that the inspection team could come to that conclusion.
The school complained about the Ofsted judgment on personal development. Ofsted said:
“inspectors considered how the Christian ethos and wider curriculum supported pupils’ personal development”,
yet the inspection team raised the Christian ethos only twice, both times negatively.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Surely the aim of the equality, diversity and inclusion statement should be to ensure schools are abiding by the necessary equality regulation in legislation. I am concerned that, in some cases, Ofsted appears to take it beyond its original intention by judging schools against its own ideas about what life in modern Britain should be. Does my hon. Friend share those concerns?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those concerns. I do share them, as do pupils at the school. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the pupils who engaged with the inspectors. They were expecting the inspectors to ask about the curriculum and their academic studies, but they were probed particularly about the Christian ethos. One pupil, very maturely, responded: “It is not so much about Christianity as about Christian values.” That was a very mature and sensible response.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really powerful and interesting speech, and I thank him for securing this debate. Does he agree that it would be more sensible if Ofsted inspections were not so narrowly focused on academic achievement? Although that is important, and the school clearly has a fantastic academic record, Ofsted should have a more holistic approach and look at things such as how schools work extremely hard to build social and emotional resilience in children and young people and to create a happy and healthy learning environment, which gives pupils the skills and values they need to be well-rounded citizens?
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for making that very sensible point. That is right. The school clearly has a Christian ethos. I am not saying that all the pupils and parents are Christians, but this is about Christian values and the key themes I mentioned at the beginning, which we surely all share: responsibility, compassion, truth and justice. Yet it seems that this inspection team regards those values as inappropriate for a school because they are Christian. The parents and I find that outrageous.
The pupil said that when they responded to the inspector’s question, “The inspector shut my comment down. He made me feel silly, embarrassed and a bit stupid.” Pupils described the interaction with inspectors as “intense”, “uncomfortable”, “tense” and “awkward”. Those are the pupils themselves telling me about their experiences with the inspectors. Something is not right here, and I want the Minister to take that on board.
The school complained about the judgment on sixth form provision. Ofsted said:
“Inspectors spoke to groups of students. They raised the point that they were well prepared for university, but other routes were not as well covered. While I agree that there is no statutory requirement for work experience, it was clear from the evidence that preparation for the wider world of work was not as secure as other areas of students’ wider development.”
That was Ofsted’s comment. However, 98% of pupils go on to education or go straight into employment. Nevertheless, this aspect of the complaint was not upheld. The school also complained about the overall inspection report, the overall judgment, and the inspection process, but all those complaints were not upheld. All the points that the school made to Ofsted were dismissed.
The breach of confidentiality point has not been addressed by Ofsted in any satisfactory way. Ofsted said to the school:
“It was explained that unless you were able to provide any further evidence, we would be unable to look into this any further.”
Yet the headteacher gave Ofsted the names of two local schools that had heard of the downgrade before the report was published. A serious breach of confidentiality has not been investigated properly and has effectively been dismissed.
On the comments about
“a white middle class school”
“walking upstairs when wearing a skirt”,
“There is no record in the evidence of the exact line of questioning from the team inspector that you referred to. Having spoken to the team inspector, they cannot recall asking the two questions that are cited.”
I have to say to the Minister that I spoke with the pupils involved and they confirmed what was said, so clearly something is not right here.
The headteacher wrote a measured letter to parents to reassure them on the back of the publication of the report, stressing the school’s outstanding academic performance. He said that
“student performance last summer was outstanding”,
and that that was based on the Department for Education’s own statistics. He went on to say:
“GCSE results place us in the top 3% of schools nationally. A Level performance data is still provisional, but with 43% of grades awarded at A and A*”.
On behaviour and attitudes, the headteacher rightly said:
“External visitors to our school almost without exception comment on the impressive behaviour and engagement of our students. On the inspection days themselves, students’ behaviour was exemplary, and the five members of the inspection team unanimously agreed that they saw no low-level disruption during the inspection.”
That is not what the report said. He went on to say, rightly:
“Unfortunately, this detail has not been included in the report, but we will be sharing with students that we were immensely proud of the way they conducted themselves and upheld our core values in the inspection—and continue to do so.”
I have to say to the Minister that since the report was published 500 parents have been in touch with the school to offer their support and basically they say that they do not believe what Ofsted is saying and do not respect the downgrade to “requires improvement”. However, I think there is a wider agenda going on here, because although I believe that Bishop Stopford has been picked on, recent information has come out that more than four fifths of “outstanding” schools inspected last year have lost their top grade after the exemption from inspection was removed. Also, the chief inspector herself said that the outcomes from the first full year of inspection since it was scrapped:
“show that removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better.”
A fifth of schools, including Bishop Stopford, dropped at least two grades.
The Minister will know that schools rated “outstanding” were exempt from reinspection between 2012 and 2020. The exemption was lifted in 2020 after Ofsted warned that over a thousand schools had not been inspected in at least 10 years. Ofsted itself has said that 308 of the 370 previously exempt schools had a graded inspection that resulted in a downgrade, which is 83%: 62% became “good”; 17% fell to “requires improvement”, including Bishop Stopford; and 4% fell from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. This is a power grab from Ofsted, saying to the Government, “You must let us inspect all schools all the time.” I am not sure that is appropriate, given the level of distress it can cause to excellent schools such as Bishop Stopford when an inspection goes wrong.
On behalf of the school, parents and local residents in Kettering, I ask the Minister to quash the report and send in a fresh inspection team. Let us have a proper inquiry into the leaking of the downgrade. If quashing is not possible within the Minister’s powers, can we have a reinspection of the school at the earliest opportunity? I would not want that grade hanging over the school for potentially the next 30 months. At the very least, can we have a meeting between the Minister himself, the chief inspector, the headteacher and myself as the local parliamentary representative, so that local concerns that the inspection went wrong can be relayed in the clearest possible terms to Ofsted?
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate, and I thank him for his kind opening remarks. This important subject deserves scrutiny and discussion in the House, and I have valued the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friend’s insights in his well-constructed speech.
We all share an ambition to ensure that every pupil in every school across the country receives the education that they deserve—one that helps them to achieve academically, and more broadly prepares them to thrive and contribute to the world beyond school. Ofsted, as the independent inspectorate for schools, has a distinct and central role to play in supporting that ambition. Ofsted school inspection serves a range of purposes. It provides an independent and rounded assessment of a school’s quality, which gives key information to parents and informs their choices. It gives recognition and validation to effective practice where it is seen, and prompts self-improvement. It also offers assurance to the wider community about standards. It triggers intervention where necessary, and provides evidence to the Government and Parliament about the quality of the education being provided across all our schools.
The value of Ofsted, and the root of its credibility, comes from its independence. That does not mean that Ofsted operates in a vacuum. It is, after all, an arm of Government. Critically, Ofsted can inspect and report without interference. That must be carefully guarded. His Majesty’s chief inspector is responsible for the conduct and reporting of Ofsted’s inspections. No Minister, Committee or Member of this House can amend or overturn the professional judgments of the inspectorate. That enables Ofsted to fulfil its mantra of reporting “without fear or favour”.
I appreciate that on occasion the situation can seem difficult and frustrating, especially when Ofsted’s findings are challenging or disputed. That independence and responsibility, which Parliament has chosen to bestow on His Majesty’s chief inspector, is a key safeguard for the system and it is worth preserving. I am acutely aware, as is His Majesty’s chief inspector, that independence places an onus on Ofsted to ensure that all its inspections are conducted to the highest professional standards. It has a strong responsibility to produce inspection judgments that are fair, evidence-based and accurate. That is at the heart of this afternoon’s debate. It is also the focus of the chief inspector and her inspectors, and rightly so. Given my hon. Friend’s specific concerns about the inspection of Bishop Stopford School, I will request that he get the opportunity to discuss them directly with His Majesty’s chief inspector.
Turning to the approach that Ofsted takes more generally to ensure that inspections are high quality, I remind the House that Ofsted’s school inspections are conducted under a framework that is grounded in research evidence. That framework took Ofsted two years to develop and involved significant engagement with the sector, leading to over 11,000 consultation responses. The widely supported proposals were implemented from September 2019. Of course, covid interrupted that, but Ofsted has been able to resume its full programme of inspections since September last year, and it conducted around 4,600 inspections in 2021-22.
The new framework sees a shift of focus towards the importance of curriculum, the intent of that curriculum, how it is implemented and, importantly, the impact that it has on pupil attainment and achievement. However, alongside the focus on the quality of education is assessment of a range of key aspects, such as the behaviour and attitudes of pupils, how the school is supporting pupils’ personal development, and the quality of the leadership and management of the school, including whether its safeguarding arrangements are effective. Taken together, Ofsted’s framework provides for an effective assessment of whether pupils are benefiting from a rounded inspection.
However well trained the expert workforce, and however good the framework, it is right that quality and consistency are checked. Inspection is not a tick-box exercise; it requires professional judgment to balance a wide range of evidence and form an overall assessment. The lead inspector plays a key role in this and must ensure that inspections are carried out in accordance with the principles of inspection and in line with Ofsted’s code of conduct for inspectors. Beyond that, though, Ofsted monitors the quality of inspections and the work of Ofsted inspectors through a range of formal processes.
I do not want to gloss over the one in 10. Nine out of 10 inspections are regarded as a good experience by schools, but I do not want us to pretend for one moment that every single inspection will be a happy experience. It is disappointing when those who experience inspections at first hand come away with negative feelings about the conduct or reporting of an inspection. Where there is dissatisfaction, schools are encouraged to raise their concerns with the lead inspector as soon as possible during the inspection, so that any matters can be resolved before the inspection is completed. In those circumstances, both the concerns raised and the actions taken will be recorded in the inspection evidence.
Once a school has received its draft report, it will have the opportunity to raise any comments or concerns about the inspection process and findings, which Ofsted will consider—I know that process was undergone in the case of Bishop Stopford School. If, despite the process taking place, the school feels that its issues have not been resolved, the school, on receiving its final report, can submit a formal complaint to Ofsted, which will put the report’s publication on hold while the complaint is thoroughly investigated. It is worth noting that across Ofsted’s work on schools and beyond, which amounts to over 30,000 inspections and activities each year, only around 2% lead to a formal complaint being received.
I want to conclude be reiterating my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I hope that the comments I have made about the inspection process and the importance of maintaining the independence of Ofsted in its work, and the fact that he will be having a meeting with His Majesty’s chief inspector, have provided him with least some assurance. Schools have every right to expect that inspections are of the highest quality, and I know that HM chief inspector, her staff and her inspector workforce are fully committed to meeting this expectation and strive every day to that end.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Ofsted school inspections.