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Secondary Education: Ellesmere Port

Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

The quality of education in my constituency is of huge importance to me; I am sure that the quality of education is of importance to every hon. Member. I passionately believe that good education is key to opening up opportunities in life, particularly in places such as Ellesmere Port, where in parts of the town, significant challenges face our young people. Such challenges mean that we cannot afford to have anything but the best. When I have seen what I believe to be consistent underachievement in our schools, I have not been reticent in demanding change. I want to reach a point where Ellesmere Port’s three secondary schools offer excellent education, so that parents in the town feel they have a genuine choice about where to send their children, and feel confident that whatever school they choose, their children will receive a quality education that will enable them to make the most of their talents.

One of the first things any parent will consider when choosing their child’s future school is its Ofsted ratings, and I will spend the majority of my time this evening addressing the experiences of two local secondary schools with Ofsted. Those two schools are the Whitby High School and Ellesmere Port Catholic High School. They both received Ofsted inspections last year within a few days of one another, and they were given ratings of “requires improvement”, and “inadequate”. To say that was something of a surprise is an understatement, as both schools are well regarded locally. The Catholic high school went from “inadequate” in 2013, to “good” two years later, after the appointment of the current head, Mrs Vile. That prompted the then chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, to say of her:

“Exceptional teachers have transformed schools that not so long ago were in desperate straits.”

In June 2015, senior inspector Joan Bonenfant said of her:

“Outstanding leadership provided by the inspirational, dedicated headteacher has been the impetus to rapid improvement.”

Mrs Vile also received the Cheshire Headteacher of the Year award a few years ago.

Whitby school’s last two section 5 inspections prior to the most recent one saw it achieve good ratings in both, with an additional section 8 inspection of personal, social, health and economic education being judged “outstanding”. The head’s—Mr Heeley’s—time at Whitby high has seen the school previously receive “good” or “outstanding” ratings; he has been the head for nine of his 16 years at the school. He has worked in schools for over 30 years, 20 of them in senior roles. He has served on numerous working groups to support education. He has been a local authority adviser. Whitby High School is over-subscribed and well respected in the area. The school outperforms many schools classed by the Department for Education as “similar”. In 2019, the school’s position within the Department’s similar schools data placed it fourth out of 19 schools in the local authority area—hardly a failing school.

I mention those achievements because, first, I do not believe that these heads have both suddenly become bad heads overnight; their records show that they have the skills, the vision and the leadership needed to produce well-run schools. Secondly, the first reaction to a poor Ofsted rating is often for the headteacher to consider their position. I know that both heads did that after their inspections, but they both retain the confidence of their governing bodies, the parents and myself.

However, such is the impact of Ofsted inspections that many heads see their careers ended because of a poor inspection. I am not saying that every one of those heads is beyond criticism, and yes, maybe some deserve to go, but we are talking here about careers of maybe 30 years, ended because of an inspection lasting a couple of days. It is because the outcome of Ofsted inspections has so much impact that ongoing concerns about the lack of reliability and consistency of inspection teams and inspectors can no longer be overlooked, especially as, in the experience of the two schools I am talking about, those inspections may not really be a fair reflection of the head’s ability, the journey that the school has been on, or the real challenges that schools face. Critically, when a school feels that it has been unfairly treated during an inspection, it has, in my opinion, no effective way of challenging it, regardless of what Ofsted might say.

I am very glad to be able to be in the Chamber for some of this debate. May I reinforce some of the concerns that my hon. Friend is voicing? Concerns about Ofsted have been raised by headteachers in my constituency, including from schools rated “outstanding”. There is a need for a serious look at how Ofsted’s systems are working, to keep the confidence of schools and parents.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I shall go on to speak about some of the wider implications of my schools’ experiences. I believe she is right; we are hearing similar stories throughout the country. I would like to hear what the Minister believes should be done about that.

I have sat down with the headteachers from both schools on numerous occasions to talk about these inspections and heard from them at first hand about the appalling, horrific way in which inspections have been handled. I have heard about the devastating impact that that has had on staff morale. Good teachers have felt compelled to resign as a result of the findings, prompting expensive, time-consuming recruitment processes. Their replacement may not be a better person.

I have heard how those heads, with a combined total of over half a century in education, with long-standing, impressive track records, feel that they have been traduced. When I suggested to the heads that being a headteacher had many similarities to being a football manager, they agreed. The similarities are there for us to see—chronic job insecurity, being judged by one’s results when it is not a level playing field, and a focus on one’s last performance, rather on the progress that one may have made under that leadership. As many football clubs find, replacing the manager does not necessarily mean that performance on the pitch markedly improves.

What struck me most, and compelled me to act, was that both heads were relaying to me extremely similar experiences. I would go so far as to say that the similarities were concerning and striking in equal measure. The first major concern they both had was the apparent predetermination of their inspections. At Whitby, the head was informed before 9 am on the first day that the inspectors regarded the school as requiring improvement. How can judgments effectively be given before the inspection has begun or evidence has been obtained? Likewise, at the Catholic high school, the opening statement from the inspectors at 9 am on day one of the inspection was that the school results were inadequate. The first question they were asked by the inspectors was whether they were an academy. I think that is a very odd question to ask at the start of an inspection. Both heads, both very experienced people in education, feel that the inspections were predetermined, and that, at the very least, they were carried out in a manner designed to justify an already formed opinion, with much relevant evidence and information apparently being disregarded throughout the inspection. There were also disputes about what some of the staff said to the inspectors during some of the interviews. In some instances, comments that were disputed were used as evidence to justify inspectors’ judgments. Indeed, there were disputes of such importance that some staff felt their words had been misquoted or taken out of context and, as a result, they felt compelled to resign.

There were also distortions of the evidence given to the inspectors. For example, reference to a “large cohort” was in fact one student. This was pointed out in the official complaint, but the evidence was withheld from the headteachers, despite numerous freedom of information requests. There was also a serious concern raised through Ofsted’s complaints procedures about a potential conflict of interest regarding one of the inspectors. This concern was disregarded without further comment. As is normal, both inspections were led by one lead inspector, but it seemed that major decisions were being made by another inspector. Inspectors refused or were reluctant to meet relevant staff, despite being asked to by the school, and in their complaints to Ofsted the schools expressed their general concern that the inspections were carried out in a hostile and aggressive manner. Those concerns were simply dismissed.

There was also a question about why the inspection proceeded in the way it did at all, certainly at Whitby, where the pre-inspection analysis had identified that the school would receive a one-day inspection in February 2019. This fitted with its progress scores for two years being positive, with a two-year improvement. Nobody has been able to explain why this was changed to a two-day inspection and who made that decision. It displays a total lack of accountability and openness. A significant number of schools had better inspection ratings but had worse progress scores. Of course, the heads challenged this inconsistency but again have not been given a satisfactory explanation. They were right to challenge this and to say that consistency, reliability and justice should be cornerstones of the inspection regime.

I understand that an inspector from one of the inspections has been the subject of other complaints or concerns, resulting in at least one headteacher resigning, at the highly successful Bramhall High School. This was a high-profile resignation from a well-respected headteacher, who had spent some of her career in Ellesmere Port. She had successfully transformed a number of schools and this was a very sad loss to the system. We have to ask ourselves: how is forcing someone out of the profession with that track record helping the education system? Of course, I understand that heads will take poor judgments personally, but they are not alone in feeling unfairly treated. I do not normally have parents contact me after an Ofsted inspection, but I have had plenty here. They obviously feel there has been an injustice. The governors also feel the judgments are wrong, and both the diocese and the director of education at the local authority have said that these were the harshest inspections they had ever seen.

The schools know they are not perfect—no school is—but they know where improvements are needed and what is needed to deliver them. The inspection regime offers no practical help to address these issues and there is not a specific external budget they can call upon to deliver the improvements. I ask the Minister: when a school is told it is not up to the required standard, other than replacing the person at the top, what can realistically be done to drive improvements identified as being needed?

That leads me to the so-called stuck schools. In January, Ofsted published research and analysis on stuck schools—schools graded as less than good consistently for 13 years or more. As of August 2019, 210,000 pupils were in stuck schools, which means that two cohorts of children have spent all their primary and secondary education in so-called stuck schools. Ofsted acknowledged its role in this and highlighted the need for inspections to provide judgments that schools could actually use to help them to make improvements, but is it not an indictment of our system that so many children’s entire education has been blighted by the failure to drive up standards? During those 13 years, the Ofsted inspection process has failed to lead to any tangible improvements. Surely that tells us that the approach that inspectors currently have is not necessarily the right one.

Going back to the schools in my constituency, last summer, I went with the heads to meet the Ofsted regional director to raise our concerns, which we were promised would be looked into. Following this meeting, unusually, both schools were quickly revisited by different inspection teams as part of a section 8 NFD—no formal designation—inspection and monitoring visit. The resulting reports following those visits painted a very different picture of both schools. So different are the comments that it has to call into question how both schools could make such rapid improvements in a few short weeks.

Of course, the original inspection ratings remain in place. The subsequent inspections could be viewed as a sop to brush under the carpet the concerns raised about the initial process. Those concerns were at best subject to a cursory investigation by Ofsted. No member of staff was interviewed. Given that part of the complaint was about the hostile attitude displayed, there were clearly matters about which teachers should have been questioned. I think that was the minimum required. The response from the regional director of Ofsted to the complaint was anaemic and showed the problem with an organisation investigating itself.

The heads understandably remain dissatisfied with the response. After all, they would not let their own pupils mark their own homework. They asked the professional association, the Association of School and College Leaders, to arrange a meeting with the national education director of Ofsted to discuss their concerns further. His response was to decline, saying that as the association had already met the regional director, there was nothing to discuss. I know that it is possible to complain via the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service for Ofsted, but ultimately the service cannot overturn inspectors’ judgments, so the result of the inspections—which the heads consider to be flawed, predetermined, and not at all an accurate reflection of their schools—remains on the record.

It is my strong view that Ofsted’s complaints process needs to be urgently reviewed and changed. A new and more rigorous process needs to be introduced, with limited bureaucracy and an independent hearing to redress complaints that are upheld. During that process, schools’ reports should not be published.

Such is the crisis of confidence the current inspection regime is engendering, a grassroots organisation, the Headteachers’ Roundtable, has issued a call to “Pause Ofsted”, as has happened in Wales, while a review takes place to ensure that schools’ accountability systems are fit for purpose. The call has been supported by the National Education Union’s leadership council. Paul Whiteman, the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said that

“significant reform of inspection is needed”,

and the NAHT’s national executive committee will be discussing the call from the Headteachers’ Roundtable at its executive meeting in March.

Headteachers are saying that the current regime fails to take into account the individual circumstances of their schools, and I am sure both heads in this case would say that their experience was an example of the systemic disadvantage faced by schools serving poorer communities. Ofsted has known about the issue for a number of years, but has failed to find a way of addressing it effectively. Knowing the effects of high-stakes accountability on retention, especially in those same schools, we must ask ourselves whether the current system is exacerbating those disadvantages, and whether such public flagellation is really the best way to improve school performance.

School leaders’ and teachers’ jobs, and sometimes their whole careers, can be ended because of Ofsted’s inspection grades, so the watchdog owes it to them to be consistent, fair and transparent when deciding its ratings. It has been said that the high-stakes nature of the inspection system is preventing schools from getting on with improving the lives of their staff and students because they must always give priority to what might be looked at in an inspection, such is Ofsted’s all-pervading influence. Some people have even called the inspection regime pernicious. That is not a word to be used lightly, and it is one that should cause us to question seriously whether the current balance is right.

What some call the pernicious impact of an unfavourable inspection can often lead to a head quietly leaving and the system losing a good school leader. How does that help the school to improve? Is the balance between accountability and capacity building wrong? We know that recruiting and retaining the best staff is a challenge at the best of times, so hearing that one of the biggest reasons for people to leave the profession is the impact of an inspection should give us cause to question whether that balance is right.

A 2017 report by the National Foundation for Educational Research on teacher retention and turnover found that the most important school-level factors associated with leaving the profession and moving school were Ofsted ratings and school types. Analysis of the percentage of teachers leaving the profession in 2010 and 2014 showed that the lower the Ofsted rating, the higher the proportion of teachers leaving the profession, and that the rate of leaving the profession was highest in schools rated by Ofsted as “inadequate”. As for the probability of teachers’ moving school, the analysis showed that lower Ofsted ratings were associated with higher proportions of teachers moving to different schools at both primary and secondary levels, with a particularly high rate for schools rated “inadequate”. Taken together, those patterns show that “inadequate” schools have much higher rates of staff turnover than other schools. Ofsted has become too all-encompassing for many of them.

The Ofsted framework has become the means by which every aspect of school life has to be considered. “What would Ofsted say?” is all too often the key question asked by those making strategic decisions in schools. As we have heard, its power is all-pervading, and its judgment is final, even when—as I believe I have set out here—there are serious questions to be asked about its methods.

It is more than 25 years since the current accountability system of Ofsted inspections and school performance tables was introduced, so this seems an appropriate moment to undertake a systematic review of the system to ensure that we have in place the best means by which to continually improve all our schools. Accountability cannot be an end in itself. It should and must lead to improving schools, particularly those serving our most disadvantaged communities. I cannot see how the inspections that my local schools had to endure have helped them to improve. They know the areas that they need to work on; what they need is support and extra capacity, not quick headlines and blame.

I know that those ratings cannot be changed. However, I urge the Minister to give serious attention to the many and widespread concerns that have been raised about Ofsted, and to consider urgently how we can introduce a system that allows legitimate concerns to be independently and transparently examined.

I should like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this important debate. I know that he is particularly passionate about supporting schools in his constituency, and he has raised these concerns with the previous Secretary of State and with the Department in the past. I also know that he shares the Government’s ambition that every state school should be a good school, providing a world-class education that helps every child and young person to reach his or her potential, regardless of background. Since 2010, the Government have worked hard to drive up academic standards in all our schools, and we continue to provide support to those schools that require it most. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that some schools are still on a journey of improvement. Those schools continue to benefit from the Government’s commitment of support and they are the focus of the Government’s school improvement objective.

We have introduced the English baccalaureate school performance measure, consisting of GCSEs in English, maths, at least two sciences, history or geography and a language. These subjects form part of the compulsory curriculum in many of the highest-performing countries internationally, at least at the age of 15 or 16, and they ensure that young people keep open the widest opportunities for the next stage of their education. Since the EBacc performance measure was first introduced in 2010, the proportion of pupils entering it has increased from 22% in 2010 to 40% in 2019, but in Cheshire West and Chester, the hon. Gentleman’s local authority, 48% of pupils entered the EBacc. The Government’s ambition is that 75% of year 10 pupils will start to study GCSEs in the EBacc combination by 2022, and that 90% will by 2025.

High standards have been a key focus of our reforms since 2010, but we recognise that there is still work to be done and we remain committed to ensuring a sustained improvement in standards in our schools. While the proportion of secondary school pupils eligible for free school meals in Ellesmere Port is similar to the national average, rates vary among schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He raised the issue of Ellesmere Port Catholic High School. As he knows, it was inspected in March 2019 under the old Ofsted inspection framework, and it was found to be inadequate. When a local authority-maintained school is judged inadequate by Ofsted, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to issue an academy order to convert the school into a sponsored academy. Each school is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and we work with trusts, sponsors, local authorities and dioceses to find the best plan for the school and give it a fresh start with a strong trust as soon as possible.

Although it is a priority to improve standards as quickly as possible, it is also important that time is taken to ensure that the right solution is found for the school and its pupils, parents and community. In the case of Ellesmere Port Catholic High School, we are continuing to work with the diocese of Shrewsbury and the local authority to identify a strong sponsor. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, in the case of voluntary-aided schools, the diocese has an essential role to play, in line with the memorandum of understanding on Church schools. In the interim, school improvement support from Loreto Grammar School is being funded by the Department. Whitby High School is a local authority-maintained school that was inspected in February 2019, again under the old inspection framework. It was found to require improvement, and it is now receiving school improvement support.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Ofsted. Of course we always continue to keep these issues under review, but as the independent inspectorate, Ofsted plays a vital role in providing a rounded assessment of school and college performance. That role has helped to raise standards in our schools. Ofsted is directly accountable to Parliament, and the vast majority of inspections go without incident. Ofsted has, as he said, a quality assurance process and a complaints procedure to deal with those rare instances when things do not go according to plan. As it is an independent organisation, I always say to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have concerns that they should raise them directly with Ofsted, as he and the school have done.

I want to touch on the Government’s support programme. When a school is put into “requires improvement”, we offer it a whole raft of school improvement measures to help to address the concerns raised by Ofsted. The Government have launched a number of programmes. For example, we fund 37 maths hubs to spread evidence-based approaches to maths teaching, including the new Cheshire and Wirral Maths Hub, led by Our Lady of Pity RC Primary School and Alsager School. Part of the maths hubs’ work nationally includes delivering our £76 million teaching for mastery programme, which aims to reach 11,000 primary and secondary schools by 2023. The programme focuses on building a deep understanding of mathematics throughout primary school and into key stage 3.

The Government’s commitment to supporting young people across the entire curriculum is recognised by other funding. For example, we have put nearly half a billion pounds into funding a range of music and cultural programmes, including music and education hubs. We also launched a four-year computing programme supported by £84 million of Government funding. Through a National Centre for Computing and a national network of 34 computing hubs, we are supporting schools to deliver the reformed, knowledge-rich curriculum.

The hon. Gentleman rightly focused on secondary education, but I want to take the opportunity to recognise the performance of primary schools in his constituency, which is reflected by Ofsted’s judging the majority to be good or outstanding. In England, phonics performance has significantly improved since we introduced the phonics screening check in 2012. At that time, just 58% of six-year-olds correctly read at least 32 of the 40 words in the check. In 2019, that percentage increased to 82%. One of the Government’s top priorities is giving all young people the best start in life—even before they begin school. It is why we are committed to improving access to early years education and supporting parents to improve their child’s life outcomes.

Five academy trusts operate in Ellesmere Port and Neston, and only seven primary and secondary schools are academies within the five trusts. That equates to just 20% of schools in the constituency. At secondary level specifically, there are only two academy trusts: the Frank Field Education Trust and Neston High School, which is a single academy trust. It is clear that schools’ appetite nationally to convert to academy status remains, with the number of academies growing from 200 in 2010 to over 9,000, including more than 500 new free schools. Today, more than 50% of pupils in state-funded schools study in academies. As the hon. Gentleman will know, where an academy is underperforming, the Department will move to intervene and assess the trust’s capacity to improve standards.

We have a range of school improvement offers, including a programme offering support to schools meeting certain criteria involving their Ofsted judgment and key stage 2 or key stage 4 outcomes. Such schools receive free advice from a national leader of education to help them identify and access school improvement resources, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency contains both providers and recipients of that support. The offer is supplemented by emergency improvement funding, which supports schools facing unexpected challenges. The emergency school improvement fund has directly funded support for two schools in the Ellesmere Port and Neston area, benefiting both Ellesmere Port Church of England College and Ellesmere Port Catholic High School. In total, funding activity worth over £155,000 has been provided by local effective school leaders.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for this issue. He has raised some important concerns, which have been raised with Ofsted, and I hope he accepts that we have heard them and we take them seriously. I hope he also understands that, when a school requires improvement, a raft of support, including funding and advice from local experts and experienced headteachers, is available to help that school secure a good or outstanding rating at the next Ofsted inspection.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.