HC Deb 03 December 2001 vol 376 cc137-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

10.31 pm
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I am grateful—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Do not stand in front of an hon. Member who is addressing the House.

Dr. Kumar

This debate is about an Ofsted inspection of a primary school in my constituency. It is not about challenging the bulk of the findings of Ofsted's inspection of Belmont school, nor about education policy. I fully support the Government's aim of raising standards through monitoring and inspection of schools and helping those that need improvement. The debate is about what I, the head, the teaching staff and the governors of the school believe is an inherent flaw in Ofsted's inspection structure—a flaw that was inserted by the legislation that gave birth to Ofsted.

Belmont primary school is overseen by Redcar and Cleveland local education authority. It has 362 pupils on its roll and a well-respected head teacher, Colin Linthwaite. At the time of the inspection, a high percentage of the school's pupils came from outside its designated catchment zone; the figure has now reached 47 per cent. It is an improving school with continuing good results at key stages 1 and 2. I cannot stress too much that the school is one that I know personally as a Member of Parliament: I have visited it many times and I know that it possesses the indefinable but unmistakeable air of a happy school.

Belmont primary school was visited by Ofsted in March 2000. It was not a happy inspection. Before it started, there were concerns that the registered inspector had not made contact with the school until prompted to do so by the head. There was also concern about the fact that the contractor and quality manager of West Yorkshire Inspection and Consultancy Services took part in all the pre-inspection meetings. At those meetings, I am told, he was seen to be taking on a greater role than his duties as quality assurance manager warranted. It then became known that the contractor and quality assurance manager was married to the registered inspector; Mr. and Mrs. Charlton were husband and wife.

At first, it was thought that they would overcome the possible conflict of interest by acting professionally but, in the view of many in the school community, that did not happen. Comments by the contractor and quality assurance manager contributed to heightened anxiety among staff and the head. For example, there were comments on the accuracy of financial information submitted about the school—clearly a serious issue. Only later, after the head asked for the figures to be checked by the local education authority auditor, did the contractor accept that there were no problems.

Such incidents led the school community to feel that the team came with a pre-determined agenda. Things did not get much better during the inspection itself. On one occasion, a class was interrupted so that feedback could be given—an incident felt by many staff to be unprofessional and inconsiderate. Only later was the head told that, in fact, it was not an observed lesson. If it was not, why was the detailed feedback based, one must assume, on a short viewing by an inspector? Some classroom visits were very brief indeed, many less than half an hour. A number of members of staff felt intimidated; one was observed in the morning in class, then interviewed during dinner time, to the extent of an inspector waiting for her outside a toilet, then twice after school.

During the inspection, Mr. Linthwaite raised the issue of the quality of school statistical information that was requested. He pointed out that it was skewed by reorganisation and that the Goldstein report, commissioned by Ofsted, stated that inspectors should not look simply at figures in the abstract, but seek to quantify their social and demographic background. Knowledge of the report was denied both by the inspector and the contractor and quality assurance manager. When pressed on that, I am told that the contractor said that his wife's judgment should not be questioned; he spoke about his wife, not the inspector.

After the inspection, the head teacher was told that the school had serious weaknesses. It was also made clear that the school community could not challenge the judgments. The attitude of the contractor and quality assurance manager were perceived as hostile. On one occasion, a feedback meeting involving the governing body was subjected to what can only be described as a unilateral attempt to suspend the meeting by the contractor and the quality assurance manager. Those present felt that he was attempting to avoid detailed questions being put to his wife; the incident was a telling symptom of the problem.

The final report and the oral feedback did not mention strengths in many areas of the school's curriculum, nor did they focus on its capacity to improve. Negative comments were made in the inspection report about staff turnover, which did not acknowledge that some staff had left because they had been promoted elsewhere; others had retired on the ground of ill health; and that the school had a legacy of problems with falling rolls. Finally, sweeping statements were made about unsatisfactory teaching despite the fact that 83 per cent. of the teaching was seen as satisfactory, good or very good". The school community was unhappy about those issues. It accepted that there was room for improvement and that no one is perfect, but was concerned that the report was biased and concentrated on negatives. That view was rooted in the perceived conflict of interest between the contractor and the quality assurance manager and the registered inspector, which centred on the fact that they were husband and wife. At that point, the school community began to consider resolving those issues through the Ofsted complaints procedure. The head teacher, obviously worried and concerned, came to see me at this point, and I urged him to press his complaints through the Ofsted procedure. Accordingly, the head wrote to Ofsted to raise the concerns on which I have elaborated.

The letter of complaint was initially sent on by Ofsted to the contractor, asking him to organise a response from his wife. Given that the nub of the complaint was the relationship between the two, that was seen as perverse by many in the school community. The official reply from Ofsted dismissed those concerns and stated in a letter to Mr. Linthwaite on 9 June 2000 that Mr. and Mrs. Charlton were professional people with extensive inspection experience and that in its view, the independence of the inspection was not compromised. As that response came from the people involved, it was hardly surprising. The famous phrase, "They would say that, wouldn't they?" springs to mind

On the other issues of substance in the complaint about inspection procedure, Ofsted argued that it recognised Mr. Linthwaite's concerns but could not act on them. It stated: Where there are conflicting accounts of events from both parties, OFSTED is unable to determine what actually happened. It continued: It is because OFSTED attached equal weight to both versions... it is unable to come to a definitive view. If that principle were applied throughout the judiciary, it would make every judge redundant overnight.

The reply led the head to take the matter to the second stage of the complaints procedure. He wrote to the Ofsted complaints adjudicator, making the same points and posing the issue of the long delay in the response to other detailed matters of concern. The adjudicator, Mrs. Elaine Rassaby, was, by contrast, far more thorough and critical of Ofsted.

In an adjudication dated 4 March this year, Mrs. Rassaby agreed with Mr. Linthwaite on a number of issues. She felt that the comments made by Ofsted about the relationship between the registered inspector and the contractor and quality assurance manager was, to say the least, unhelpful. She stated that Mr. Linthwaite had not been given a full substantive response by Ofsted. In her view, by basing its reply to Mr. Linthwaite solely on the registered inspector's response to the complaint, it had prevented objective assessment of the substance of the complaint; and the comment that the inspector and contractor were professional people with extensive inspection experience was merely an observation. It was, in the adjudicator's opinion, inappropriate and irrelevant to the substance of the complaint.

The adjudicator recognised Mr. Linthwaite's concerns about the relationship, and his view that the relationship denied him fair consideration of his complaints by the contractor. However, she also thought that the existence of the complaints procedure in itself would serve to prevent collusion between any two parties, by an act of commission or omission. In her final recommendation she stated first, that Ofsted should apologise to Mr. Linthwaite, and secondly, that account should be taken of her concerns that Ofsted's response was based on the views of the inspector. Finally, the adjudicator declared that the comments that Mr. and Mrs. Charlton' s professional experience and history should be enough were dismissive and inappropriate.

Ofsted's response came in May 2001. Barry King, from the office of the chief inspector of schools, replied in a detailed and thoughtful nine-page letter to Mr. Linthwaite. Many issues were dealt with and some resolved. On some Issues—the conduct of the inspector and the contractor in pre-inspection meetings; the conduct and attitude of the inspection staff; and the contractor's attempt to close a feedback meeting with the governors—Mr. Linthwaite's complaints were upheld.

However, the crucial issue of the relationship and potential conflict of interest between the contractor and the inspector was ignored. Mr. King stated that Ofsted's view was simply that there is no requirement for the contractor to be independent of the Registered Inspector, and indeed the contractor and the Registered Inspector may be one and the same person. He went on to say again that any suspicion of collusion could be dealt with through the complaints procedure. I must say that that reply contained no thought about the fact that the simplest way of removing the suspicion of collusion would be to issue a direction to split the responsibilities so that no such conflict of interest could occur.

Mr. Linthwaite came to see me, seeking to take a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman. I was happy for that to happen, as I was convinced of the rightness of his case, but I had an uneasy feeling about the outcome on the basis of the comments of the inspector of schools. The ombudsman replied on 3 October. He felt that he was constrained by the rules governing his own responsibilities from taking the matter any further. However, in his letter to me, he stated: I see the strength of Mr. Linthwaite's argument that a complaints procedure that requires a complaint about a registered inspector first to be put to the contractor for the inspection who may even be the same person as the registered inspector cannot be seen to be fair and impartial I believe that that is a telling comment from a person at the head of the final stage of any grievance procedure affecting the citizens of this country. He went on to argue that while he recognised the concerns, the following stages of the Ofsted complaints procedure should ensure that justice was done—but why not consider a direction that simply removes the problem in the first place: the separation by Ofsted of the role of the contractor from that of the registered inspector?

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the case for that change. One school has been affected by the issue, but there may be others. I do not intend to pass judgment on the outcome of the inspection. Some issues of injustice have been noted by Ofsted and they have been taken up with the West Yorkshire inspection and consultancy services. In that sense, the issue of the outcome of the inspection is finished. The action plan proposed by the school and the local education authority has worked and the school is once again going forward confidently and successfully, but the central area of concern remains: the perceived issue of a compromised process. Quite simply, making a statutory split between the contractor and inspector would allow the inspection process to go forward confidently and without the perceived taint of conflict of interest that was so evident at Belmont school.

I believe that the relevant legislation—the School Inspections Act 1996 and the Education (School Inspection) Regulations 1997—need amending, and that a simple statutory instrument could achieve that and would not be objected to by any Member of Parliament. Such a measure could prevent the issue from arising again, perhaps in a form that threatens the cohesion of a school so badly that it becomes a failing school through a self-fulfilling prophesy. No one wants that to happen and the remedy is in the Minister's hands. I thank the House for listening

10.48 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) on securing this Adjournment debate, which deals with an issue that is clearly of close personal interest to him, as well as to a significant number of those whom he represents. I commend him for the very measured way in which he presented his case to the House and for the very supportive role that he has played throughout, which includes the fact that he alerted me to his concerns ahead of the debate.

I was very pleased that my hon. Friend acknowledged the important role that school inspections play in the drive for higher standards. It is vital that Ofsted is able to do the job that we all want it to do: inspecting, reporting and providing expert advice that is underpinned by the evidence of its inspections.

It is also important that Ofsted has the full confidence of those it serves and that it is properly responsive and accountable to them. It is always worrying when teachers or others feel that they have not had a fair deal from an inspection, or that the conduct or reporting of an inspection did not meet the high standards expected.

Ofsted is a separate, non-ministerial department and, like other such departments, it is required to have procedures for handling complaints when they arise. It is important to recognise from the outset that Ofsted is the regulator of the contracted-out school inspection system. It is independent of contractors and those whom they employ, such as the team who inspected Belmont primary school.

To put this evening's debate in context, between 1 September 2000 and 31 August 2001 Ofsted dealt with 188 complaints of which four were upheld and 24 partially upheld. Out of a total of 4,448 inspections, that suggests a relatively high satisfaction rate or at least a low rate of complaint. Nevertheless, it is important that those who complain receive a fair and effective response.

As my hon. Friend said, Belmont primary school was inspected in March 2000. It was not a happy inspection. We have heard this evening that several complaints were made about various aspects of it. They have been carefully investigated through Ofsted' s internal complaints process and, more recently, by its independent adjudicator.

That the process took some 13 months is, of course, worrying and Her Majesty's chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, openly acknowledged that and offered his sincere apologies for the unacceptably long delay.

Although the delay was unacceptable, it was also uncharacteristic. The average time that Ofsted takes to investigate and respond to complaints is around 30 days, and 95 per cent. of complaints are tackled in the three-month target period. The case that we are considering is clearly exceptional.

Ofsted has acknowledged the problems and taken action to ensure that that sort of delay is not repeated. Procedures have been modified, and some changes have been made to the organisation. Ofsted has recently put a new look complaints section on its website. Early in the new year, it intends to publish revised complaints procedures which reflect some of the lessons that have been learned from the case.

As my hon. Friend said at the close of his remarks, he initiated the debate partly to ensure that others do not suffer similar problems. I hope that he will welcome the changes. He drew our attention to the quality of Ofsted's initial response to the various complaints. It was perceived as dismissive and inadequate. That perception was at least partly confirmed by the independent complaints adjudicator, Elaine Rassaby, when she examined the case. In the adjudication sent on 4 March 2001, she suggested, among other recommendations, that Ofsted should reconsider the original complaint in the light of all the available evidence.

Ofsted did that, and wrote substantively to Mr. Linthwaite on 11 May 2001. As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was a comprehensive nine-page reply. Ofsted acknowledges that its initial response in June 2000 was somewhat mechanistic and not as thorough as it might have been. Consequently, some aspects of the complaints that were initially rejected were later upheld.

The case demonstrates the value of the Ofsted complaints adjudicator as an independent reviewer at the end of the internal complaints process. My hon. Friend acknowledged that Elaine Rassaby's intervention was helpful to his constituents. The debate provides an opportunity to pay tribute to her for her work as adjudicator since July 1998. She reaches the end of her term at the end of the month. She has successfully established and developed the post and hands it on to her successor in good shape. Her successor is likely to be in post in January and, for the first time, will be appointed by the Secretary of State rather than Ofsted, in line with Elaine Rassaby' s proposal, and for three years rather than one. That will enhance the independence of the post.

On the specifics of this case and, in particular, the concern at the heart of my hon. Friend's speech that the husband-wife relationship between contractor and registered inspector prevented fair consideration of the complaints, Elaine Rassaby expressed the view that this concern was properly addressed by Ofsted's complaints procedures. Those allow dissatisfied complainants to refer their concerns to Ofsted and finally to the Ofsted complaints adjudicator. My hon. Friend noted that the parliamentary ombudsman also felt that the ability to refer complaints to Ofsted should ensure that justice is done.

My hon. Friend suggested that it would be helpful to ensure a clearer separation of functions between inspection contractors and registered inspectors. The role of contractors is defined by Ofsted and is a contractual matter rather than being set out in legislation, so such a provision would not require a statutory instrument or other measure of that kind. So my hon. Friend's suggestion is, in the first instance at least, a matter for Her Majesty's chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson. I know that members of his staff are paying attention to this debate and will report back to him on its content. Having listened to my hon. Friend's concerns, I want to make it clear that I will also ask the chief inspector to consider my hon. Friend's suggestion and write to him directly with a response to it.

On inspection judgments, it is important to note that complaints which questioned the objectivity and rigour of the inspection were not upheld. The judgment that a school has serious weaknesses is not taken lightly. It is arrived at as a corporate decision, after extensive consideration of evidence gathered both before and during the inspection from a variety of sources, including discussions with the head teacher, staff and governors. It was Ofsted's view, following careful scrutiny, that the key judgment of the inspection team—that the school had serious weaknesses—was secure and supported by the evidence that had been gathered.

My hon. Friend noted early in this debate that the school had been told that it could not challenge the inspection judgments. Ofsted's view is that when complaints are upheld which have a bearing on the judgments in an inspection report, Ofsted's procedures allow for action to be taken. For example, an addendum may be added to a report and, in extreme cases, the report may be withdrawn, reissued or even declared null and void.

There is, however, no formal appeals system against inspection reports and judgments; nor is it our view that such a system would be appropriate. The then Education and Employment Select Committee, in its detailed examination of the work of Ofsted in 1999, considered this matter and reached the same conclusion that we did. Such a system could undermine the inspection process and lead to lengthy disputes between schools and Ofsted, which would then distract staff and governors from the priority task of developing and improving educational provision at the school.

This last point leads me to something that is easily lost in the discussion. 1 am talking, of course, about the impact of inspection on children and their educational opportunities. As I have already mentioned, the inspection of Belmont in March 2000 found that the school had serious weaknesses. As a result of that judgment, challenge and support mechanisms were triggered to help the school to tackle its weaknesses and to develop plans for improvement.

I was particularly encouraged to learn that evidence gathered during a monitoring visit to Belmont in July this year showed that the school was making good progress in addressing its key action points. I understand that the visit by HMI found improvement on all five issues raised in the original inspection, that progress was not just satisfactory but good on every one of the five and that the HMI visit uncovered no unsatisfactory teaching at all in any of the lessons that were viewed. My hon. Friend has confirmed that optimistic picture this evening, and I know that those improvements will be appreciated by the children and their parents. They are also a tribute to the staff at the school.

On the evidence before us, it is clear that mistakes were made in this case. Apologies have been offered and procedures re-examined and improved in the light of this case, and I think that that is right. Ofsted has an important job to do and high standards are expected of it.

Inspection is, above all else, about helping schools to improve. It encourages schools to build on their strengths and to address their weaknesses. The judgment that a school has serious weaknesses is intended to spur that school into improving the education that it provides, with education authority support.

The news that Belmont is making such good progress is heartening. I know that a great deal of hard work will have been put into achieving that. The school can expect a further inspection next year, because schools identified as having serious weaknesses are reinspected after about two years. I trust that Belmont will then be able to shed the "school with serious weaknesses" label, move on to be recognised as achieving continuous improvement, and play its full part in achieving our aim—and my hon. Friend's aim—of making a first-class education available to every child.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that lessons have been learned from this episode. I am grateful to him for drawing the matter to our attention and for the work he has done in following it for nearly two years. I also hope that he and Belmont parents, pupils and staff can now look forward to making further progress in the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.