Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, it might appear slightly incongruous to be discussing today the lifting of an exemption from routine inspection that applies to certain outstanding schools and colleges at a time when Ofsted’s routine inspections are suspended in light of the coronavirus pandemic. In September last year, when the Government announced the intention to see the exemption lifted, we obviously could not have anticipated this situation.
The pandemic has highlighted the vital role that schools and colleges play in the lives of children and learners, supporting not just their education but also their well-being. I pay tribute to the exceptional hard work that has enabled leaders and staff to meet and overcome so many challenges. There will be much to do to make up for the lost education that has occurred because of the pandemic, and Ofsted inspection will play an important part in this through the challenge and support it provides.
Routine inspections are currently suspended, and we are keeping under review the timing for their resumption in the light of our response to the pandemic. When the time comes to restart Ofsted’s routine inspections, we believe, perhaps more than ever, that they should apply to every category of school and college. That is why this debate and these regulations are important.
As noble Lords will be aware, Ofsted was founded on a principle of universal inspection. The introduction of the exemption in 2012 represented a significant departure from this, but it was designed to reflect the need to increase autonomy and freedom and enable our best schools and colleges to focus on providing excellence, with Ofsted’s inspection being concentrated where it was needed most. That policy has borne fruit: standards have risen, with 86% of schools now rated good or better, up from 68% in 2010.
The principles of autonomy and trust in our best schools and colleges to educate effectively remain relevant today, but must be balanced against the need to ensure that inspection arrangements support improvement most effectively and offer an appropriate level of reassurance to parents, schools, colleges and the public more generally. Here, we believe, the balance has now tipped in favour of universal inspection. Many exempt schools and colleges have not been inspected for a considerable time, in some cases over a decade. Of these, some were judged outstanding under previous Ofsted inspection frameworks, which placed different expectations on them. This is starting to erode confidence in the outstanding grade.
However, this is not just about loss of confidence; it is also about the opportunity that Ofsted’s new education inspection framework presents in supporting improvement. The new framework, introduced in autumn last year, is a real step forward. It strengthens the focus on having a carefully considered and sequenced curriculum as well as making improvements to judgments on leadership, personal development and behaviour.
Removing the exemption now will mean that schools and colleges can benefit from having an independent assessment under Ofsted’s new framework, and that parents, students, schools and colleges can benefit from having the up-to-date rounded picture of quality and performance that only regular inspection can provide. Noble Lords will be reassured to learn that the sector has given its support to our proposals: in response to our public consultation, around 90% of respondents agreed with the removal of the outstanding exemption for schools and colleges, and around 80% agreed with our proposed approach to doing that.
I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its consideration of the regulations, which revoke the current regulations that provide the exemption, meaning that all outstanding schools and colleges will once again be subject to routine inspection. They also introduce requirements for when routine inspections of former exempt schools must take place. Specifically, the chief inspector will be required to carry out an initial inspection of these schools before 1 August 2026.
In some cases, where the initial inspection shows that outstanding performance may not have been maintained, there will be a follow-up inspection before 1 August 2027. However, thereafter, subsequent inspections must take place within the five-year window that applies to other schools. The timescales for college inspections are not prescribed in the regulations but, as a matter of policy, will follow a similar approach to schools. As I mentioned earlier, our intention is that the resumption of routine inspections for former exempt schools and colleges will align with the planned general restarting of Ofsted’s routine inspections. These regulations do not signal that resumption; they simply enable it to happen at the appropriate time.
Given the strong public support for the proposals, the benefits that a return to universal inspection will bring and my reassurance that, in deciding when to resume the routine inspection of outstanding schools and colleges, we will of course remain sensitive to the impact of the pandemic, I hope that noble Lords will also be supportive of these regulations. I am sure that we will all wish to ensure that all schools and colleges can benefit from having an up-to-date picture of their performance once the exemption is lifted and routine inspections return. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall limit myself to speaking about the inspection of schools. This is an issue that has been debated for many years, and now we are in unusual circumstances with Covid-19, which could influence how inspections are carried out when they resume. Years ago, when I was a teacher and school governor, the role of inspections was discussed intensely. One argument was that too much inspection could cause disruption to teaching and the running of schools. It made staff nervous and encouraged them to prepare specially for inspection visits. In theory this should not have been necessary, but it was a huge distraction. The future of a school could depend on an inspection report. As such, we moved to the current system of inspections every five years, with exemptions for outstanding schools, unless there were concerns about a particular school.
Today’s amendment regulations remove the exemptions and require these outstanding schools to be inspected routinely every five years. What are the arguments for this? First, schools can change rapidly due to factors such as a change of head teacher, substantial turnover of key staff or change of intake. Secondly, Ofsted’s frameworks for inspection have expanded in relation to, for example, greater emphasis on the importance of pupils’ emotional and social development and relationships within schools. In June 2019, Ofsted’s chief inspector called for the exemption for outstanding schools to go, with Ofsted stating, in relation to the 2018-19 academic year, that:
“Only 16% of outstanding primary and secondary schools inspected this academic year retained their top Ofsted rating”.
I have recently spoken to educationalists who believe that schools should not be inspected in the midst of Covid-19 until all pupils have attended school for at least a full year because schools should be focused on providing a safe environment for pupils and staff. Managing schools at the moment requires constant vigilance and adaptation in accordance with circumstances. They should not be distracted from this by Ofsted inspections, and Ofsted should not be expected to carry out its usual duties. The focus should rather be on providing safety and a productive educational experience for pupils in school and those in remote learning.
However, Ofsted could make visits to schools when they return, identifying good practice in some aspects of a school’s offering, such as the use of pupil premium funding and a broad and balanced curriculum, including the arts, humanities and foreign languages for all. Such inspectoral reports could be turned around quickly and serve as models of good practice for sharing with other schools. Ofsted inspectors could also visit parents who are home-schooling during Covid-19. They could assess the needs of such households: computer availability and online lessons, for example. Home-schooling is not, generally, well regulated. Good practice and limitations during a difficult time could provide valuable experience for sharing. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on these concerns.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness suggested when she introduced these regulations, they are not something that most of us would find objectionable. Indeed, most of us would say that they were not before time. In a regime where inspection is supposed to be a good thing, it is something of an anomaly that schools can go a decade without being inspected. I suspect there would be almost universal agreement on that.
The real question is: what are the inspections going to achieve? The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, touched on one or two of the things I was going to mention. What is the process? What are you examining? If we hope that schools are not just exam factories, what else are we doing here? What of the outside bits and how are they being addressed? We really must call this to the attention of everybody involved. We need to know what else we are getting out of this. Exams are nice and easy to assess—pass or fail, grades at a certain level, done. They are rubber-stamped and you move on. However, there has been a growing consensus that we have put too much attention on this in recent years. Can the Minister give us some idea of what else we are doing and what else will be inspected?
My particular interest is in special educational needs. I do not know if, after all these years, I still have to declare my interests, but I will. How are we dealing with this? For instance, given the most recent situation, how are we learning to use computers better? Many people who have special educational needs will in later life—after school—mitigate their downsides by using computers. How good are we at making sure that people are introduced early on to using this type of technology? There is no one set way of doing this. How are we looking at it? How have we worked it through? This is directly relevant to the recent experience of people having to work online.
I welcome the main thrust of these regulations. If you are going to have an inspection, it should be regular and no group should be removed. The idea that somebody has got to the top once and is not inspected again is a bit like saying in a sport that, once you have got promoted, you can stay there. It does not work. Standards can slip. Can we just have a look at what else comes here?
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. In welcoming warmly this new instrument to ensure that all schools are subject to inspection in the same way, we recognise the continuing value of inspections as a whole. I want to associate myself warmly with the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington. However, although we welcome this instrument, we would also welcome the further postponing of Ofsted and school inspections, including the Section 48 inspections of schools with a religious designation, throughout the pandemic period.
As we all know, these are exceptional times and there are extraordinary levels of pressure for all, meaning we must adopt a unique approach, tailored to the circumstances. I note that where schools have been exempt for a long period they could well have a heightened sense of stress about the reintroduction of inspections, simply because it is an experience they have not had for a long period.
Considering the well-being of those working in schools should be of primary importance, all the more so given that head teachers and schools are already experiencing unusually high levels of pressure due to the pandemic. This unprecedented environment of stress and difficulty for teachers must be acknowledged by the Government in the choices they make. Therefore, I urge that consideration is given to further postponement of the resumption of the inspections regime. This would communicate an apposite awareness of the circumstances schools are facing and a necessary level of care from the Government by valuing the welfare of teachers, supporting them in their work and alleviating any undue stress.
Does the Minister agree, especially at this time when there has already been so much pain, confusion and stress caused by the pandemic, that our politics must be compassionate? We must look after those educating the nation’s children by adopting a supportive approach for schools. I ask the Minister how the skills and expertise of Ofsted staff will be used to support schools known to be most in need of improvement so that, when inspections recommence, those schools are at least operating satisfactorily and with a vision that they can become outstanding themselves.
My Lords, I declare my interest as editor of the Good Schools Guide. I congratulate the Government on their decision to bring forward this regulation. In a system with a lot of leeway given to individual schools and multi-academy trusts, inspection is a crucial way of checking on problems and of spreading good practice. The inspection corps can do neither as well as they should unless they see outstanding schools regularly, because that keeps them up with best practice and gives them a yardstick against which to measure other similar schools that are not doing as well. It gives them a fund of experience and anecdote with which they can encourage schools that they are visiting that could be better schools.
I hope that, in time, the Government will consider moving back to the old—I mean very old—system of annual, informal visits from inspectors. Things move fast. The requirements and the interests of education are not best served by four-year intervals between inspections. We are coming up to a period now where schools will have been through the shock of Covid. In various ways, they will have had to have dealt with online learning. There may be a lot of learning and a lot of change to come from that. Not to have the benefit of an experienced inspector’s visit for four years is a great waste of that opportunity.
When the Government encounter things they would like schools to come up to speed on—for example, the exemptions under the Equalities Act or the proper inclusion of black history in the curriculum—again, four years is a long time for the country to wait before the Government know whether these things are being performed, carried out or taught in the way in which they would hope.
I also think that a system of light-touch inspections—just a day or half-a-day’s visit—would give parents much more confidence in how their school was going. It would mean that small wobbles in otherwise good schools were dealt with easily, informally and quickly without the whole weight of an inspection team descending on the school. We would need fewer big inspections, and I would hope overall it would be a cheaper system.
My Lords, the arguments for and against this regulation are finely balanced—more finely balanced than some of my colleagues have suggested. When I was Minister for Schools, our principle of action was intervention in inverse proportion to success. There are so many problems that we have to confront in the education system and there is such a big problem still in the English education system of the long tail of chronic underperformance that the arguments for investing finite resources—and good inspectors are a finite resource—on schools that are clearly successful does not seem to be worth while on a cost-benefit basis.
Having said that, when I was Minister we inspected all schools and I can hardly complain that the present Government moved to a system where they exempted a whole category of schools from inspection. I supported that move at the time, as it was the direction of travel in which we were moving. It is not the case that you do just one or the other. You can tell pretty well from data what is happening to school in terms of standards. It sounds as if this decision is now firmly taken, but these things are constantly under review, particularly in this crisis.
However, I would have preferred it if we did not move to a wholesale system of devoting Ofsted resources to clearly successful and outstanding schools and did so only either when the data gave cause for concern or, crucially, where there are parental complaints. Parental complaints are always a good guide to when there are issues in a school that need external intervention. I simply say that to the Minister to bear in mind in the next iteration which will come with these regulations.
However, my bigger concern is that all this is beside the point at the moment. We are in the middle of a crisis, where no inspections are taking place, as the noble Baroness said. It is not the case that the school system will get back to normal, as we had all hoped, in a month or two; it now looks like it may not get back to normal for another year. Meanwhile, inspections closed down entirely in that period.
The issues at stake are significant and urgent. I will make some suggestions to the Minister. It is always important to understand what went wrong in the past and what we can get right in the future. In my view, a fundamental mistake was made in March and April in closing the school system down. Legally, all state schools were closed in March. That was a fundamental mistake. I am not just saying that in hindsight; I said it at the time. It might have been the case that some schools could not operate physically—although, as it happens, I think it was a mistake to close all schools physically in March and April—but there should have been the expectation that schooling would continue as near to normal online. That did not happen in the beginning.
The Government have corrected that now with the continuous learning provisions, which mean that where schools cannot continue physically there will be online learning, but at the moment Ofsted is playing virtually no part in this process at all. My concluding suggestion to the Minister is that Ofsted should play a part in this. It is producing some guidance, and I understand from reading the new regulations that have been issued that it is monitoring the performance of schools in online learning. However, I do not think that this is enough if we are to be in this situation for many months. I will make three specific suggestions to the Minister about what Ofsted should be doing over the coming months while we are still in the Covid-19 crisis.
First, Ofsted should be not just giving advice, but grading all schools by the quality of their online learning, a good deal of the assessment of which can, by definition, be done without needing to visit the school, although I think some visits to schools would be perfectly appropriate in this instance. Secondly, it should be highlighting best practice for the provision of online learning away from school, including best practice in use and provision of IT, and the provision of wi-fi where that is not available. Thirdly, it should be not only highlighting best practice, but naming the best schools in the country in provision of education during the coronavirus pandemic so that other schools can imitate them. In my experience of education, imitating the best is the best way of levelling up.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, with whom I strongly agree on some things and strongly disagree on others. I strongly disagree with his suggestion of further grading of schools, but strongly agree with his suggestion about the sharing of best practice.
It might seem strange that a Peer from a party that wants to abolish Ofsted should welcome a statutory instrument ending exemption from Ofsted inspection for some schools. I speak today to do just that, for the assumptions behind the exemption were an illustration of the deep faults and failure of the philosophy that has underpinned the operation of Ofsted, and, indeed, our entire education system, for decades. At the base was the assumption that schools were competing against each other in league tables, chiefly for exam results, but also for the Ofsted ratings that were closely related to them. Schools that managed to get those results, aided by their ability to perform and show themselves to the best advantage for a day or two, could clear the bar of outstanding and then be assumed to be in a special category, able to run off into the sunlit uplands away from Ofsted.
Meanwhile, their peers that did not do so faced the regular descent of the terrifying ordeal of the inspection. I speak as a former school governor, so I have some experience of this. The price of so-called failure was often the forced loss of local control, or at least the need to fight hard to fight it off. Moulsecoomb Primary School in Brighton, which I follow closely through my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, whose interest in the matter is obvious, conducted a poll in which 96% of respondents were opposed to forced academisation, yet still the push continued.
This ranking and testing has been and continues to be profoundly damaging, while also—as the statutory instrument implicitly acknowledges—failing to recognise that things can go wrong in a school very quickly. Parents have been encouraged to compete, to use their knees and elbows to get their child into a school based on this magic talisman of “outstanding”, which has very little meaning and often reflects the socioeconomic circumstance of the pupils.
Of course, as several other noble Lords have noted, Ofsted is an institution with its own problems. As the Accountability Commission noted, inspectors were being spread too thinly, judgments were often dubious and reporting unreliable. It is built on competition and is widely judged to be unfit for purpose.
What is needed instead is a co-operative, supportive, continuous process of local and regional sharing of best practice. Every school has great aspects that it can share with others. One might be strong in maths, another strong in sport, another great at supporting pupils in difficult circumstances. If we think about the current situation with Covid-19, each school will have its own particular problems, but many will also have identified solutions that could be—[Inaudible]—will recognise these widely varying and often quickly changing strengths and weaknesses.
Rather than anxiously scanning league tables and thinking about whether they can afford to move house, parents should be able to look as a matter of course to their local school, at the centre and part of their community, and see the children attend it. Those schools should be working together for the best results for every pupil in the area, not being pushed to expel or force out difficult pupils. This would be of great benefit, particularly to the most vulnerable.
The Minister said that schools would benefit from an updated picture of their performance. I respectfully suggest that every school knows its own strengths and weaknesses far better than any outside inspector—so, indeed, do teachers for individual pupils. They do not need an outside test to do that, which is why I take this opportunity to ask the Minister to consider cancelling the 2021 SATs in the light of Covid-19, as the More Than a Score campaign is asking, as well as introducing alternative assessment systems for GCSEs and A-levels next year in the difficult circumstances that we will clearly face.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction, clarity and brevity, and for a helpful Explanatory Memorandum. The inspectorate has been a ubiquitous, necessary and often feared power and presence for many generations. For context, I refer to the great Education Reform Bill—the GERB, as it was called—from the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. From at least the time it became an Act, the curriculum and the inspectorate have been central.
I declare my interests. As a young person I headed a department, using chalk and blackboard. As a full-time regional official at a teachers union I served in three administrations, with responsibility for schooling and collaborating with the inspectorate, and sanctioning two special schools. I also chaired a diocesan board for schools. I never saw an inspector in my class or in my school.
With hindsight, the inspectorate should have been more robust and more active. It valued its independence. It perceived itself as a favour elite; it was superb, it wrote well and it cared. It had a low profile. Today, in a society of rapid social and economic change, the inspectorate is vital—and there is Covid-19.
I shall instance, again for context, an example of the impact of an inspection. It was of a good primary school in a working-class area. The head teacher was lively and a genuine leader. There were local problems but they were overcome. An inspection was scheduled but it was quite some weeks away. The prospect got on top of the professional staff—it was all they could think of. It was a blight. One experienced and highly regarded female class teacher in her 40s told me tearfully of her apprehension. The prospect terrified her and, without a doubt, psychologically she was broken. It was saddening to behold. In this sort of situation, an inspection can be counterproductive. This person was a valued staff member but so very obviously distressed.
Deploying the inspectorate requires constant revision, and clearly the Minister has that in mind. But I pose the question: who is for the children? It is “time irredeemable”, as the distinguished Lady Plowden once said in her caring report. The inspectorate is for the children; the head teacher is for the children; the conscientious parent, one hopes, is always for the children; and clearly the Minister is. One might therefore argue that the forces are balanced and that the Minister has decided.
Perhaps I ought to declare an interest, as my schools were inspected by Ofsted four times. I found the experience both rewarding and supportive. I welcome this SI. I never quite understood why we disapplied Section 5 for outstanding schools. Was it a reward for becoming outstanding—to set them apart from the others—or was it, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, suggested, to free up inspectors’ time? I can understand saying to outstanding schools, “Next time, you will have a lighter-touch inspection”, but now we have schools that have not been inspected for over a decade and, as we know, schools change. We owe it to parents, pupils and students that the schools are improving all the time and providing high-quality education.
The daughter of a friend of mine was appointed head of maths at an outstanding school. She was an experienced maths teacher. She tried to bring in much-needed changes to the syllabus but was constantly thwarted by cries of, “Well, no. We’re an outstanding school”. Needless to say, when it was inspected, it went into the “needs improvement” category. In September, Ofsted introduced a new education framework with a stronger focus on a broader, balanced curriculum for pupils and students. The outstanding schools should be the exemplars of change. If they are not inspected they cannot do that.
Since March, Covid has caused the suspension of inspections, with the situation kept under review. The date of January 2021 for the resumption of inspections is very optimistic. Whatever date is chosen, does the Minister agree that, with everything the schools have been through, they need a period of readjustment to normality? What about the problems they have faced, such as isolation perhaps, as we have heard from other noble Lords? If these inspections are to be carried out, perhaps they need to be light touch and peer to peer—to be supportive, to help the schools. In the old days we would have local authority school advisers and school inspectors who would be in schools now to support those local schools. Sadly, that does not happen unless, perhaps, you are in a multi-academy trust.
It will, of course, take six years to inspect all outstanding schools, but their safeguarding practices for their children and young people in many cases will not have been checked for 10 whole years. It is very important that it should not take six years to do this. Will the Minister give us an assurance that safeguarding will be checked as soon as is practicable? By the way, will she tell us why Ofsted inspectors are not routinely required to carry their DBS accreditation when visiting schools?
The Ofsted inspection system has been very important to our school system. Most independent schools are now inspected by Ofsted, but a number of private schools are inspected by the ISI or SIS. The Chief Inspector of Schools has been asking for greater powers to check on private schools, and the DfE agreed to limited monitoring activity. In the case of schools inspected by the ISI, there were only 17 reports; and by the SIS, six reports. The SIS has now closed down, but the ISI monitors more than 1,000 larger private schools. As the schools themselves pay for that monitoring, some might argue that that is a vested interest. Does the Minister not think that now is the time for all schools, including private schools, to be inspected by Ofsted as well?
Finally, I reflect on the fact that if you ask teachers about Ofsted, only 18%—and that includes teachers from outstanding and good schools—agreed that Ofsted was a reliable and trusted arbiter of schools. That was down from 35% the previous year. On those figures, if Ofsted were a school, it would be put into special measures.
My Lords, Labour supports these regulations, as they reverse the legislation that was incorporated into the Education Act 2011 that we opposed at the time. That we are considering them at all today is down to the persistence of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who then spoke for the Opposition on education. In Committee on the then Bill he said:
“I would have thought that something as important as the exemption of categories of school from Ofsted inspections would, at the least, deserve to be treated as an affirmative order”.
He convinced the Government, who introduced their own amendment to that effect.
My noble friend also said then, in respect of the amendment that was being made to the provisions of the Education Act 2005:
“I have considerable concerns about this. The fact is that not all outstanding schools remain outstanding”.—[Official Report, 20/7/11; col. GC 472-73.]
That point has been echoed by many noble Lords today. Again, my noble friend was right. The National Audit Office found that, as of August 2017, 1,720 schools had not been inspected for six years or more, with 296 not having been inspected for more than a decade. My son’s school proudly proclaims that it is Ofsted-rated outstanding. In my experience it remains outstanding, but that is something of which Ofsted is unaware, because it last inspected it in 2008—three years before my son was born.
According to Ofsted’s most recent annual report, 17% of outstanding schools have not had a full inspection in the last 10 academic years—which would be the equivalent of 765 schools. Tellingly, of the 305 schools that Ofsted has re-inspected, 80% were subsequently downgraded, with 74 rated “requires improvement” and 14 rated inadequate.
These regulations are overdue and it is no surprise that the consultation found 89% in agreement for both schools and colleges. But there are wider issues regarding schools. The four Ofsted grades are not defined in law. The framework for inspection belongs to HMCI and there is no direct accountability about what it contains. HMCI “decided” to delay inspection of free schools from the second to the third year after its establishment some four or five years ago. HMCI could not exempt academies in perpetuity; that could be done only by regulations. However, our main objection to the original legislation still stands—regulations can exempt schools from inspection.
Last year’s Labour manifesto set out our policy to replace Ofsted and transfer responsibility for inspections to a new body designed to drive school improvement. This is not the place for detailed analysis, but we believe that the current grading system is flawed and often counterproductive. For instance, it is not appropriate to attempt to summarise everything about such a complex organisation as a school in a single grade and the current system encourages unhealthy competition between schools, one result being those garish banners that some display—no matter how dated—to advertise their status. Of greater concern, getting a poor grade often makes a school’s task in improving that much harder, as recruiting staff and pupils can become more difficult.
More generally, schools with favoured intakes are far more likely to get good or outstanding grades than schools with challenging intakes. That was a finding of the 2016 Education Policy Institute study of school inspections.
The Explanatory Memorandum accompanying these regulations seems unduly optimistic in stating that routine inspections will recommence in January 2021. It also outlines the mixed-model approach for the resumption of inspections of hitherto exempt schools and colleges, which are not due to be completed until August 2026. That represents an inordinate delay in addressing what the DfE itself has identified as an existential defect in the current system. If that is a staffing issue, it needs to be addressed to allow these inspections to be completed much sooner. The memorandum is silent on the question of costs associated with the introduction of these regulations. Indeed, it states:
“The impact on the public sector is minimal”.
That impact should involve employing additional Ofsted staff, in that case, to ensure that the anomaly of the outdated status of some schools is ended as soon as possible. I invite the Minister to comment on that point in her reply.
My Lords, I am grateful for the thoughtful and helpful insights given during this important debate, and I hope to cover many of the comments that have been made this afternoon.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for her comments and for agreeing with us that the time is now right for lifting the exemption. On the point that only 16% of those outstanding schools that were inspected in the academic year 2018-19 retained their Ofsted rating, it is not surprising to see such a drop because Ofsted inspects such schools specifically based on its own risk-assessment tool and from looking at the performance data. In those inspections, Ofsted should be targeting those schools with an outstanding rating where the data suggest that they no longer provide outstanding education.
On the point about school inspections that the noble Baroness raised, noble Lords will know that routine inspections are currently suspended. We are taking time and will look carefully, bearing in mind all the circumstances, at the appropriate time to resume those inspections. We will continue to look at how the pandemic has impacted on schools. When those inspections resume, it will be part of Ofsted’s inspection framework to inspect remote education as well, although that is not part of the visits that it is doing currently.
The noble Baroness also asked about Ofsted making good practice visits to schools. During the autumn term, inspectors have been visiting a sample of schools to gather information about how schools have been managing the return to full-time education, including how they are managing remote education and delivery of the curriculum. These visits are designed to be a collaborative process, and Ofsted will use those visits to produce certain thematic reports, which will be published.
As I hope noble Lords are aware, Ofsted has outlined that it will visit every inadequate school during the autumn term, because of course it is particularly important for us to know how those weak schools have been faring with the effects of the pandemic. It might also be useful for noble Lords to be aware that there has been an offer of support to the weakest schools, in terms of operational capacity, from national leaders of education. Hundreds of schools have taken up that offer.
We are sensitive to, and take into account, the poorest rating of schools, and the new framework will outline a broad and balanced curriculum. The new framework is not just an educational assessment, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned; it is also about personal development and behaviour. As most noble Lords will be aware, although a school is given one overall grade, the Ofsted report grades the school on four different factors as well, and the report includes narrative.
On the issue of safeguarding, it is important to remember that the exemption has not removed any of Ofsted’s rights—and obligations, actually—to go into any school, on a no-notice inspection, where it is aware of any safeguarding issues. That was also the case during the pandemic, when that was the only reason that Ofsted could go into schools.
On the points about home education made by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, it is important to make a clear distinction between children learning their school curriculum at home and those who are electively home educated. Noble Lords will be aware that we had a consultation on the latter.
On the issue of the long-standing interest raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, it is important to remember that the exemption never applied to special schools or AP because of the particular issues involved. There is also that broad framework. I hope that I shall have addressed his points about computers.
On the sharing of best practice, which many noble Lords mentioned, edtech has been a real focus during the pandemic. The department opened a fund to enable those schools that did not have either Google Classroom or Microsoft Education to use one of those platforms. There are about 50 schools that are edtech demonstrator schools, which are the best of the system and provide school-to-school support, so that we share best practice. Noble Lords will have heard me mention numerous times that some of our best academies have come together to provide the Oak Academy, which has been made available as a free resource during this academic year, providing some of the best teachers, so that any school can access that resource.
As the right reverend Prelate said, compassion is of course at the heart of what the Government are trying to do in all their response to the global pandemic, and the supportive approach that he outlined is the nature of Ofsted’s visits. These are visits to schools; they are not inspections resulting in a grade. The school is sent a letter, which is then published and which is useful. As I said, there will be thematic reports.
On Ofsted’s role, which a number of Lords including the right reverend Prelate touched on, Ofsted’s support when no inspections were happening was invaluable. Ofsted staff were redeployed, particularly as part of react teams in the department and in local authorities. Numerous Ofsted inspectors went in and back-filled for local authority children’s services during the pandemic, so they have shown that they are flexible and have given the support that we would have wanted them to provide in relation to the pandemic.
I appreciate the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who is right that much of Ofsted’s response to inspecting outstanding schools was based on exam and performance data—Progress 8 and Attainment 8—which was part of its assessment of risk. There is a new framework, which was widely consulted on and welcomed by the sector when it was introduced last autumn, but an outstanding Ofsted grade will be based on the old framework. To retain confidence in the grades that we have, they all have to be on the same framework. I have outlined other reasons but that reason—to maintain confidence in the system—could also stand alone.
There is widespread confidence in the system. Ofsted has done small focus-group sampling of parents, but it is common knowledge that Ofsted is a well-known brand. Apparently, when certain people were educating at home, they gave themselves an Ofsted grade in their front windows. Parents look to it because it is independent of the department and schools. It is important that we know about the quality of education and safeguarding from an independent agency.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made some suggestions. Yes, we had the initial response to the pandemic, but the Prime Minister has made it clear that schools will be closed as a last resort in lockdown, because it is important to keep education going, and for children’s well-being. Best practice is shared online, as I have outlined. One of the positives of the pandemic in the education sector was a breaking down of the walls between maintained and academy schools, and between different academy chains. There was widespread sharing of best practice—exemplified by Oak Academy, as I said—across the system to make sure that all children got the best education that they could in the circumstances.
I therefore dispute the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. There is confidence in Ofsted and it serves a great purpose. Yes, some schools are stronger in particular subject areas so, as noble Lords will be aware, particular schools are teaching schools for maths or English—the beacon that other schools can go to and get the best resource. There is no contradiction between having a local school and having, within the system, a focus on excellence in education. Parents and children should have that choice within the system. She mentioned SATs. We want them to continue, because they are the best way to know whether children are catching up and to have a baseline for figures. She also made comments about forced academisation. Some 75% of sponsored mainstream academies are good or outstanding. I look at the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, because I think that the system began under him. It is not a panacea for all situations in all schools, but it has been shown to be a major tool to improve some of our most difficult schools. We will not cancel the standard assessment tests.
I shall answer the noble Lord, Lord Jones. We appreciate that an Ofsted inspection is sometimes stressful for teachers but there is only half a day’s notice now, so we hope that any stress is for a limited time.
I welcome the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Storey. There are always safeguarding inspections, so no school has been exempt from those during this period. The ISI is now in a joint working relationship with Ofsted so, in terms of the monitoring that he outlined and Ofsted’s statutory duty in that matter, we are satisfied that they work well in a constructive relationship where they share best practice. Of course, Ofsted inspects a proportion of independent schools; not all the schools are inspected by the ISI.
To the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I say that there is an honest assessment by Ofsted in relation to the quality of education, behaviour and leadership, and a strong focus on the curriculum.
I am aware that time is running short and I may not have answered precisely or particularly the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but I will address any further related matters. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.