Skip to main content

School Inspections: Funding

Volume 837: debated on Wednesday 17 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the concerns expressed by the board of Ofsted, at its meeting on 20 September 2023, that the reliability of school inspections will be compromised if funding is further constrained.

My Lords, Ofsted, like all public services, is expected to operate efficiently and effectively to provide the best value for money for taxpayers and use its resources to best effect in providing high-quality inspection. Sir Martyn Oliver is very much focused on that, and I understand that he has already taken action internally to prioritise Ofsted’s resource on inspection activity. We will continue to work closely with Ofsted to ensure that it continues to deliver effectively in future.

I thank the Minister for that response. Sir Martyn Oliver has become the new chief inspector, but the Ofsted chair, who voiced the concerns mentioned in my Question, is still in her post, so there is continuity at the top of the organisation and that concern remains. In its response to the Education Committee’s report on Ofsted last month, Ofsted highlighted that it has taken on considerably expanded roles and responsibilities and yet its funding is now some 30% lower in real terms than it was in 2010. How do the Government expect Ofsted to adequately carry out its primary responsibility of school inspections without sufficient resources? The organisation itself clearly believes that to be the case.

As I said in my initial response, Ofsted, like any well-run organisation, has looked at where it is spending its budget and has refocused that. The Government have given it additional funding for the uplift, particularly in school inspections, that has been expected. Obviously we work very closely with Ofsted, and I cannot comment on any future spending review.

My Lords, as I am responsible for 44 university technical colleges, I have received lots of Ofsted inspections, and I am glad to say that 85% resulted in good or outstanding ratings but 15% were rated as failing. I do not resent it; I do not object. Ofsted has told us what we have to do better. Any education system in the world requires an independent inspectorate. That is what Ofsted is, and it should be supported.

I thank my noble friend for his remarks. I agree that we have a system in this country with high autonomy in our schools. We trust our school and trust leaders to deliver for our children, but with that autonomy goes high accountability.

My Lords, there is a principle that what gets inspected gets done. Can the Government say whether, if inspections are not done properly, we might be doing things badly? We have got to ensure that there are enough resources if we have a system of stick and carrot.

I take the noble Lord’s point, but there is not a lot of evidence to suggest overall that inspection is not done well. There is significant quality assurance of inspections, and, during 2022-23, an overall judgment was changed in only 0.6% of state-funded school inspections.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I, like the noble Lord, Lord Baker, have been “Ofsteded”. Moving on from his question, while I feel that Ofsted’s methods and judgments need changing, because it does a vital job it is vitally important that it is valued and that the people who work for it are made to feel valued.

Again, I can only agree with the noble Lord. I was reflecting on the new verb that has entered the lexicon of being “Ofsteded”—we will leave that. This is important. The work that Ofsted is doing with the Big Listen, in talking to parents, teachers, school leaders and children, will, I hope, go a long way to ensure that trust and confidence is achieved—and that therefore, at the end of it, the institution and those who work for it are valued.

My Lords, one of the key functions of an Ofsted inspection is to make sure that no one is employed who has a criminal record relating to harming children. Sadly, there are over 80,000 adults currently barred from working with children. When Ofsted discovers that a head teacher and senior leadership team are not doing proper employment checks, what resources are then available, either from Ofsted or elsewhere, to ensure that that senior leadership team is immediately retrained to ensure they do those vital employment checks?

It would be up to the trust, in relation to an academy, or the local authority to address those specific weaknesses. The department has led on the development of a framework of professional qualifications: leadership qualifications for heads, executive leaders and senior leaders. All those frameworks are clear about the role of leaders in complying with the law in relation to safeguarding and statutory guidance. As my noble friend knows very well, that statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, is extremely clear on recruitment practices, DBS and wider appointment checks, but also on referrals back to the Disclosure and Barring Service if someone is dismissed or removed.

Ofsted reports have seen a sevenfold increase in references to sexual assault since 2017. Mentions of safeguarding issues have doubled and mentions of sexual harassment have risen from zero to 106. How are the Government ensuring that the regulator is able to identify where safeguarding problems exist on a regular basis if further funding is constrained?

The fact that Ofsted is identifying more issues of this type reflects a few different things. Clearly, as in society more broadly, sadly, we do not know whether some of these issues are increasing in volume or whether we are just getting better at identifying them. For the safety of children, it is crucial that Ofsted identifies them, but it is even more important that the schools identify them, and do so early, because Ofsted inspections are periodic and children need to be safe every day.

My Lords, the old HMIs used to be viewed by schools as critical friends and were welcomed. Teachers facing an Ofsted inspection now do so with dread, because they fear that they will be criticised above all else. Is there any chance that Ofsted could go back to being friendly in its inspections?

I think we have to be a little careful with that kind of generalisation. Like with any inspection, one may well be apprehensive or nervous ahead of it, but 90% of our schools are now good or outstanding, so the outcome for the vast majority of schools is a very good result. I remind the noble Baroness that Ofsted inspectors are almost all either former or serving teachers, head teachers and senior leaders.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. I do not think that “Ofsteded” becoming a verb is cause for mirth; it is cause for great concern. I do not recognise in the comments of the Minister the statistics from the survey by the National Education Union, in which 62% of teachers said that Ofsted had affected their mental health. To quote Nick Wigmore, a primary school teacher from Rochdale:

“Ofsted turns up every four to five years to provide one-word judgements … It’s a system that doesn’t work”.

Given that there are huge problems with teacher retention and mental health issues, do the Government acknowledge that this is something they need to consider very seriously? I should declare an interest, in that it is long-term Green Party policy to abolish Ofsted.

I think the noble Baroness has heard from other noble Lords who are much more expert than I am of the value of Ofsted. In relation to one-word judgments, it is extremely important that parents have a simple and clear understanding—the noble Baroness rolls her eyes, but it is true. Parents value it. I commend to her the research on parent opinions about the value of Ofsted reports; they value those judgments, and it is important that parents are recognised in this.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are certain areas in which we need more regulation within schools? I particularly draw to her attention the fact that we now have more obese children than when the Labour Government were in power, with very little review taking place of the regulations that govern school meals. When will we see any possible change in that area?

Sadly, in most of the developed world there are more obese children. I am not sure there is a direct correlation with who is in power. As he knows—I thank the noble Lord for taking the time to meet the other day—this is work in progress.