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Ofsted: Annual Report 2012-13

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the remarks about “lucky children” made by the Chief Executive of Ofsted during the launch of that organisation’s Annual Report 2012–13.

My Lords, I am delighted that the chief inspector has focused attention on “lucky children”. Although 78% of schools are now good or outstanding—compared to 68% when we came into office—there are still too many unlucky children. Many of them attend schools up and down the country that have been failing for years and which we are now turning into sponsored academies. The performance of sponsored academies far outstrips that of other state schools. For instance, sponsored academies open for three years improved their GCSE results by 12% versus 5% for local authority schools. The Government’s extensive programme of reform is aimed at ensuring that all children are lucky enough to go to a good school.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that heartening reply. Would he also join me in welcoming the chief inspector’s finding that children’s success in education is determined not by their background but by the quality of the school they attend and that lucky children are simply those who attend good schools? Does this not offer an end to the climate of low expectations for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, which for too long has bedevilled their opportunities?

My noble friend is quite right. When the new chief inspector came into office, one thing that I thought he did very well was to abolish the appalling low-expectation term “satisfactory” and set much higher expectations for schools. It has clearly been proved through the academies programme and other schools that setting higher expectations for our children does work.

My Lords, the report implies that increased testing of children may improve attainment. Many teachers and educationalists believe and state that excessive testing takes time away from teaching. Do the Government agree?

Assessment, as opposed to testing, is obviously crucial to ensure effective accountability and to work out whether pupils are making progress, which is an issue that I know Ofsted is very focused on. We have held a public consultation on proposals for key stage 1 assessment, whose results have not been published. As far as key stage 3 tests are concerned, we have no plans to reintroduce key stage 3 tests but we expect all schools to be able to demonstrate to Ofsted, through whatever assessment mechanism they use, that their pupils are making progress.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that, while the use of the word “lucky” is good shock tactics—and, possibly, good politics—the primary responsibility of Government, and all of us who are involved in education, is to improve the quality of schools and teaching and to take luck completely out of the picture?

My Lords, in view of the difficulties often experienced in recruiting governors for schools, especially but not only in disadvantaged areas, what more can the Government do to encourage people to take on that role and to reduce the bureaucratic pressures that governors so often face?

The right reverend Prelate is quite right to focus on governance. I put that right at the top of my agenda when I came into office because it seems to me that, whether a school is maintained by a local authority or is an academy, the key decisions are often made by the governing body, so we need to raise the quality of governance. Last year, we focused governors’ responsibility on three key functions: on setting the school’s strategy and vision; on holding the head teacher to account for pupils’ progression and for the performance management of the staff; and on money. It is important to focus governors on a limited number of tasks, but we are also dramatically beefing up recruitment, including by working with business to recruit more business governors.

My Lords, the chief inspector highlights as a key challenge that pupils do not see English and other school subjects as relevant to their daily lives. Would the Minister agree that lucky children are those who have early exposure to the world of work and make the link between lessons and future aspirations? If so, what steps are the Government taking to support and enhance careers advice throughout primary and secondary schooling?

I agree with my noble friend that this is very important. It is essential that schools work closely and engage with their local businesses. Many excellent models are emerging up and down the country—I am continually coming across new ones—including: the Business in the Community business class, which aims to work with 500 schools; the Ahead Partnership in Leeds, which runs a very good organisation called “Make the Grade” that builds partnerships between businesses and schools; and Inspiring the Future as well as a number of other models that are emerging. All schools should allow their pupils a window on work through engagement with their local business communities.

My Lords, the progress of schools in London, particularly sponsored academies, was particularly marked in the report. What lessons will the Government take from the London experience of introducing sponsored academies with very strong leadership, good teaching and strong governance, also backed up by the framework of the London Challenge? I draw attention to my entries in the register.

The noble Baroness makes a good point, and I am grateful to her for her work as chair of Ofsted. There are two lessons from the point she made. One is that school-to-school support is the key model. We are focusing the academy programme on a regional, school-to-school cluster basis—whether that involves national chains operating regionally or local schools supporting local schools. Those are the absolute key things that we learn from the London Challenge and the academy focus. It has to be done on a local basis.

My Lords, at the same time as publishing his report the inspector also said that grammar schools are acting as a brake on social mobility and there should be no more of them. Do the Government agree with that as well?

The Government are prepared to approve expansion of grammar schools but we are not in favour of new grammar schools.