HL Deb 27 January 2004 vol 656 cc92-5

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any explanation for the rise in the number of schools placed in special measures by Ofsted.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, following extensive consultations, Ofsted introduced a new inspection framework last September. It is more precise and gives inspectors clearer guidance. The downward trend in special measures since 1997 was reversed last term. That may not be a permanent change but is possibly caused by the increased precision in inspection under the new framework. None the less, special measures judgments represent only about 2 per cent of all inspections.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. She has identified the issue of the introduction of the new inspection framework. The difficulty for schools is that, the rules having changed, they are now confronted with being judged by a different set of rules, and comparisons cannot be made. Does the Minister not feel that it is tough for schools previously regarded as having special weaknesses that have done their best to remedy them and would have moved out of that position under the old rules, but which are now hit by being put into special measures? Is it not a great disincentive to such schools to improve their performance?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as I said in my Answer, Ofsted carried out extensive consultation before introducing the new framework, so it came as no surprise to schools to see the new framework in operation. I am delighted that the amount of time that schools spend in special measures is decreasing. The amount of time has decreased substantially for both secondary schools and primary schools. It is clear that if you wish to ensure standards you need a solid and precise inspection framework, and I believe that this provides that.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some schools that have been awarded beacon status or made specialist colleges by the Government have been put in special measures by Ofsted? Either the Government are wrong about the quality of a school in that position, or Ofsted is. Which is it?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is not a question of either being wrong. When you introduce a more robust framework, it is possible that schools that previously would not have been in special measures would be now. A school may now go into special measures, for example, if it has around 10 per cent of unsatisfactory teaching compared with 20 per cent in the past. Equally, there are higher expectations of school leadership and management, all designed to raise standards for children and all to be welcomed.

Lord Dearing

My Lords, in view of the importance of good inspection to the well-being of education and in the light of what her colleague has said about the Green Paper proposing further substantial changes to the framework of inspection, will the noble Baroness consult the usual offices to see whether we might debate that Green Paper on the Floor of the House?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it is always open to noble Lords to table a Motion for debate. Perhaps I may suggest that the noble Lord would be doing the House a kindness were he to do so in order that we might debate the issue.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the cause of these seeming failures is not inadequacies in school budgets? What link is there between schools going into special measures and local authorities which have been particularly hard hit by the funding problems last year? Can the Minister give an assurance that the increasingly tight budgets being imposed on local authorities resulting in staffing cutbacks will not cause another rush of schools going into special measures?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we have seen no geographical or any other kind of trend here, and we are working on the basis of evidence gathered over one term. We have no evidence that this is related to school funding levels or staffing shortages. We shall reflect on the impact of any changes as we watch to see whether or not a trend does unfold.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the view expressed by Professor Joe Elliott, chair of educational psychology at the University of Sunderland, that UK pupils are probably the worst behaved in the world? If she thinks that there is any truth in the statement, will she say what needs to be done to ensure that good teaching gets across to pupils rather than being deterred by bad behaviour?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not know the work of Professor Elliott and I am not sure what to say about the supposition that we have the worst behaved pupils in the world. That is not my experience as an education Minister. We have debated before in your Lordships' House the issue of behaviour in schools and it is extremely important, but I believe that the vast majority of pupils behave well and that the vast majority of teachers teach extremely well. It is important to ensure, within the Ofsted framework, that we have strong leadership and high quality teaching, and that we address issues of bad behaviour where they are evident in schools.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that what lies behind the question put by my noble friend Lady Howe is that perhaps there is room to offer more help to parents to ensure that their children are supported in school, that they come into school ready to be educated and that while there they are supported and encouraged?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are slightly wide of the Question, but I would be delighted to debate at any point in your Lordships' House issues surrounding parenting, about which I know that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, are very passionate—with good reason. It is important that we support parents and that is why a key element of the Sure Start programme is to support the parents of young children, as well as ensuring that schools engage with communities and with the parents of their pupils.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that there must be something significant about the fact that she was not able to respond with a lusty and firm denial to the point put to her by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is nothing significant about that whatsoever.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister right to say that we have evidence from only one term on this issue? Figures cited in the Times Educational Supplement relate to the whole year of 2002–03 and show a very sharp upturn in the number of schools being put into special measures compared with the downward trend of the preceding five years.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am relating the inspection regime that has been brought in with the rate of increase. Between 1997 and 2002–03 the numbers decreased from 557 to 347. However, we are looking specifically at the new framework and at the rise in the number of schools going into special measures to see whether there is a causal or correlative effect.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, once schools have been designated, why are they now spending less time in special measures?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am delighted to say that it is because of the impact of the work done with schools to ensure that they are given the kind of resources and support to enable them to turn around. I would cite initiatives such as the Leadership Incentive Grant which are used to support schools in their teaching, leadership and management, enabling them to raise their standards as quickly as possible.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, is the Minister aware that schools are very concerned about the inconsistency in inspection standards, whereby a school which is given a good report for one year and has steadily improving results may be abruptly placed into special measures with a limited explanation? Security is an essential part of developing a school and I would suggest that the inspection service is not adequately providing that security. Perhaps the Minister would like to consider establishing an inspectorate for the inspectors.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, if a registered inspector judges that special measures are needed in a school, Her Majesty's Inspectorate always inspects again to ratify the judgment to ensure that it was correct.