HL Deb 22 June 1999 vol 602 cc781-4

2.57 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy towards the use of lay persons as leaders of Ofsted inspection teams.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the registration of inspectors who conduct school inspections contracted out by Ofsted is a matter for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in England. He has opened a route for experienced lay inspectors with appropriate skills to progress from team member to team leader. To date, 16 lay inspectors have successfully completed the rigorous process of selection and training and are now registered inspectors.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. However, does she not agree with me that professional judgment is at the heart of any credible system of inspection? To use lay people without any professional experience of teaching, or any professional qualifications, to make judgments which can affect the future of a school. and indeed the careers of the teachers and the pupils within it, is an insult to the teaching profession and to HMI. Does she not also agree that to use lay people to make professional judgments is to take away from them the value which put them on the team in the first place; namely, that of being independent of professionals?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on this matter. I think that lay people can make a good contribution to inspections. I have to remind the noble Baroness that it was the previous government who introduced lay people to inspections. The 16 lay people who have become registered inspectors have been through a rigorous selection process. Rather more than a quarter of those who went through the process failed to make the grade. Those who have led inspections have been carefully monitored by professionals in HMI and have emerged with flying colours. The view is that the inspections they have undertaken as team leaders have been well conducted.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the Government's new policy of naming and shaming schools based on inspectors' reports aids much greater force to the point raised by my noble friend Lady Perry? The effect will be to damage future careers, particularly those of young teachers. Does the Minister accept that the principle of teams being led by lay inspectors casts doubt on the value of the inspection system as a whole? I accept entirely that lay members being a part of a team is different.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, we should keep this in perspective. Out of a total of 2,100, there are only 16 lay registered inspectors; they are a tiny minority. As I said, they are people who have all demonstrated a great deal of relevant knowledge and experience. As to the noble Baroness's comment about naming and shaming, that is not a term the Government ever use. Our policy is to put children first. They have only one chance of a good school education and it is very important that we work to raise the performance of schools that do not come up to scratch after inspections.

Lord Tope

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the survey commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which was published last week? It shows that 48 per cent of teachers feel that they do not gain anything professionally from dialogue with Ofsted inspectors. Can she explain to the House how the appointment of lay members to lead the inspection teams will increase the confidence that teachers have in those teams?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the evidence from the ATL survey does not in any way line up with other evidence we have. Our evidence is that nine out of 10 schools are satisfied with their inspections. Of course there is a minority of schools that are not. The Government do not wish to be complacent; we are working all the time to try to improve the inspection process. We are working with Ofsted—which of course has responsibility as an independent inspectorate—to do just that. I do not believe that there is any evidence that teachers have been critical of the small number of lay inspectors who have taken on the responsibility of being team leaders.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister tell us about the rigorous training of inspectors that she mentioned? Who conducts the training? How long does it last?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I shall have to write to my noble friend about who conducts the training. I think it is conducted by HMI and carried out by people who are already inspectors and who therefore have the kind of experience necessary. I shall also let her know the precise length of time. I think that it varies quite considerably, depending on the particular needs of those who have put themselves forward. I should say to my noble friend and to the House that the Government and Ofsted are not taking on any more lay inspectors as team leaders. We now have a sufficient number of registered inspectors for the foreseeable future.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the answer the Minister gave to the last question flies in the face of her earlier answer that the training is rigorous. If the noble Baroness does not know how long the training takes, who carries it out and to what quality, how can she say that the training is rigorous and of good quality? Secondly, perhaps the noble Baroness will cast her mind back to when the Bill was passing through the House. Does she agree that the intention was for lay members to provide an independent voice on inspection teams and that it was never envisaged that they should lead teams or replace, or substitute for, the professionals? Does she further agree that 16 people trained in this way brings them into the ranks of professionals but without their qualifications?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, again, the noble Baroness is not putting the matter into perspective. The contribution of professionals to inspections will continue. Where a lay team leader leads an inspection, there will be more professionals. This is to ensure that the number of professionals carrying out an inspection is adequate.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one person's perspective is another person's distortion?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, is it not the case that the professions in this country too often have it their own way in regulating their own professions? Would it not be in the interests of both good professional standards and the quality of education received by our children if there were a higher commonsense lay input into the inspection process rather than one which seems now to be pegged?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. However, we should have a balance between the valuable contribution that lay people can make and the professional background and experience of those who have worked in the education service in various different roles for a very long time. That is exactly what Ofsted is seeking to attain.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the report in The Times Educational Supplement of 27th December 1996 is accurate? The report states: OFSTED has confirmed that lay inspectors with 'significant experience' of school inspections will be invited to take a four-day training course next year, and that lay inspectors should be taking charge of some inspections by September". If that is accurate, does the Minister regard a four—day training course as adequate?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I never believe what I read in the newspapers, including The Times Educational Supplement.