Education Committee

– in the House of Commons am 11:48 am ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Select Committee statement

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

We now proceed to the Select Committee statement on behalf of the Education Committee. I will shortly call Mr Robin Walker, the Chairman of the Committee, who will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement, which should be brief questions, not full speeches. I emphasise that questions should be directed, not to the relevant Minister, but to the Select Committee Chair. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 11:53, 25 Ebrill 2024

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make a statement on the Education Committee’s report on Ofsted’s work with schools, to which the Government’s response has been published today. The response from Ofsted was published on 11 March.

I put on record my thanks to the Clerks of our Committee for their brilliant work, to our expert advisers, and to all the teachers, leaders, inspectors, former inspectors and education experts who contributed evidence. Members of the Committee, as well as our witnesses, brought with them experience of the inspection process, both from the receiving end as teachers and governors and, in the case of my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond, as a former inspector. The pressures of local elections mean that many Members who contributed to the report cannot be in the Chamber today, but I am glad that we were able to make all of our recommendations unanimously, and I am grateful for the contributions of Members on all sides of the House.

Our inquiry was called in the midst of heightened concern about school inspection following the tragic events at Caversham Primary School. While the inquiry was not focused on that specific case and had to be careful to not trespass on the work of the coroner, which was ongoing for much of its duration, I pay tribute to the family of Ruth Perry for the dignified and thoughtful way in which they have sought to raise concerns and ensure that lessons are learned and reforms made. The coroner reported just before the end of the inquiry, and we included in our report a commitment to follow up on all of their recommendations, something that I know every Member of my Committee is looking forward to being able to do. We will be taking evidence from the new chief inspector before the summer.

The inquiry heard widespread agreement on the importance of an accountability system and the roll of an independent inspectorate, but also concerns about stress and anxiety experienced by school staff due to high stakes nature of Ofsted’s inspections. The report highlighted criticisms of how inspections are carried out and reported, the workload they generate and the complaints system. We heard concerns from current and former inspectors about the length and depth of inspection, and we took evidence on the impact of successive frameworks over time. The Committee heard that relations between Ofsted and the schools sector have become extremely strained, and that trust in the inspectorate was worryingly low.

We said in our report that the appointment of a new chief inspector provided a crucial opportunity to restore trust and, in that regard, our first recommendation was that in his Big Listen with the sector, His Majesty’s chief inspector must ensure that he listens to wide range of views, including those of teachers, school and trust leaders, governors, parents and pupils. In doing that, he must ensure that Ofsted is genuinely open to engage and willing to reflect on where it needs to improve.

We are glad that the process is treated seriously in both Ofsted and the Department’s responses. Ofsted said:

“We have done much since January 2024, but more—much more—is to come. We launched the Big Listen on Friday 8 March 2024. We want to hear from those we work with and those we work for. We know that we need to do more. Ensuring inspections are carried out with professionalism, courtesy, empathy and respect and conducting a listening exercise are not enough. Action must, and will, follow. We fundamentally believe that those actions should not be based on the views of…HMCI alone. That is why we are conducting a serious exercise to gather the views of as many people as possible, where nothing is off the table.”

The Department places welcome emphasis on that Big Listen in its response today. It mentions the process no fewer than 20 times in the space of 15 pages of response.

The inquiry heard serious concerns about the single-word judgment. The Committee has made recommendations to both Ofsted and the Department for Education to rethink the process, to consider serious alternatives and to look at what other jurisdictions do inside and outside the United Kingdom in that respect. As part of that, we encouraged them to use this process to engage in serious discussion about genuine alternatives. We also encouraged them both not just to focus on the overall judgment but to encourage schools and the Department to look at all the sub-judgments reached within Ofsted reports, and publicise those just as much as they do the headline judgment.

In its response, Ofsted was clear that that is within the scope of the Big Listen. The Department stressed what it sees as the significant benefits of the current system, but was clear that it is continuing to listen to the sector’s views and to look at alternatives to four single-word judgments, including looking at “various approaches taken internationally”. That in itself would represent a welcome shift from some of the language used during our inquiry, and a welcome acknowledgment of the need to look at alternatives.

I am disappointed, however, that this morning the Department appears to have gone further and ruled out changes to single-word judgments, prejudging the outcome of the consultation process and making any consideration of alternative systems academic. Ministers would be better advised not to rule out any changes. Both they and Ofsted would be right to ensure that feedback from the Big Listen and a wide range of comparisons can be taken into account before final decisions are made.

We are glad that both Ofsted and the Department have emphasised the importance of all judgments, and set out steps to improve the visibility of sub-judgments, as per our recommendation. In conjunction with that, the Committee said that DFE should reassess its policy of maintained schools that receive two “requires improvement” judgments being required to become academies. We also called on the Department to ensure that regional directors who decide academisation orders genuinely take into account the views of local stakeholders before making a decision, and called for an increase in its accountability to this House. DFE response said it keeps this policy

“under review and will have regard to stakeholders’ views.”

It also argued that presumptions in favour of academy orders are rebuttable, and that

“in each case the particular circumstances of the school, and the needs of its pupils, will be assessed in the round, in order to establish the best course of action.”

The Department confirmed:

“In line with civil service convention across government, Regional Directors continue to be available to give evidence if called before Parliament.”

However, it went on to say:

“Approval for their attendance before the Committee rests with the Secretary of State”.

I hope that my Committee or its successors will be able to hear evidence directly from them. Given the wide scope of their powers and their importance within the system, that is an important element of accountability.

The Committee also found broad agreement that inspections are not long enough to cover the full framework and give an accurate picture of a school’s performance. Given that there is finite funding, we accept that any increase to the length of inspections would require a decrease in their frequency, and we are clear that we do not wish to return to the previous exemption for outstanding schools, which stayed in place for too long. On balance, we recognise that there is a case to be made for a small reduction in the frequency of inspections to increase their value, length and depth.

In the short term, the Department should work with Ofsted to enable the inspectorate to reduce the frequency of inspections to approximately five to six years for good and outstanding schools, and three to four years for schools judged “requires improvement” or inadequate. That should be supported by better use of risk assessment to identify the schools most in need of inspection. Ofsted should use the additional resource released by that change to enable inspections to be carried out in more depth. In the longer term, the Department should support Ofsted in making a strong case to the Treasury for additional funding to carry out in-depth inspections. Funding for Ofsted should not be seen as being in competition with school funding, and any additional funding for the inspectorate must not result in less funding being made available to schools.

Ofsted has been clear that it wants to consult on the regularity and depth of inspections in the Big Listen, but it pointed out reasonably that changing the five-year timeframe is not in its gift, as it is set in legislation. The Department has rejected our recommendation that it should consider a reduction in the regularity of inspections to increase their depth, but it has acknowledged that it will work in partnership with Ofsted to ensure that it has appropriate resources to carry out its programme effectively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ofsted stated:

“We very much welcome the Committee’s commitment to supporting us in asking for additional funding for more in-depth inspections”.

As an example, we could inspect schools in greater depth by ensuring that every inspection is led by one of His Majesty’s inspectors, and that each inspection team has an additional inspector. That could provide a number of additional benefits; it would allow the team more time to look at a school’s unique approach, and allow for a dedicated focus on a national priority area in each inspection. Ofsted has costed that at £8.5 million a year, and we hope that Ministers will consider that proposal in future spending review discussions with the Treasury.

Another area of key interest for the Committee is multi-academy trust accountability. My predecessor as Chair, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, called on Ofsted to have a role in that. That was also called for in the “Beyond Ofsted” report by Lord Knight, and the idea has enjoyed strong cross-party support in this Chamber. The Committee argued that the Department for Education should urgently authorise Ofsted to develop a framework for the inspection of MATs, and set out plans for building expertise and capacity in this area. In its response, Ofsted stated:

“We welcome Recommendation 28, and the Committee agreeing with our evidence that inspection of MATs is appropriate and inevitable.”

The DFE’s response said that it

“continues to actively consider how we might strengthen” scrutiny of MATs. It added:

“This might include the role of Ofsted. We look forward to hearing views on this issue through Ofsted’s Big Listen”.

We welcome the change in tone in this response. When the former Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb, gave evidence to the Committee during our inquiry, he appeared strongly opposed to MAT inspection. We have pressed the urgency of action in this space, and it feels like it is a step closer. Given the large and growing role that MATs play in the school system, we continue to believe that mechanisms for their accountability need to be stronger.

I welcome the acceptance of our recommendations 1, 2, 9, 15, 17 and 27 by Ofsted, and its commitment to exploring recommendations 1, 3, 5, 10, 13, 20 to 22 and 24 and 25 through the Big Listen. The one recommendation that Ofsted rejected was for an independent review of the challenges for inspector retention, but it did so on the basis that it feels that it already knows the answers to those challenges, and that a review would not be good use of taxpayers’ money, which we can understand.

We welcome the respect that the Government have shown to the Big Listen through their response, but recognise that many will not be satisfied by conversations and will continue to call for more urgent reform. The Government’s response highlights important changes, including for those schools rated inadequate purely on the basis of safeguarding. Those can be rapidly re-inspected, which is certainly a welcome change. There are hopeful signs about the new chief inspector’s intent, but the Committee will continue to hold him and the inspectorate to account for how they deliver.

I want to give Members the opportunity to respond, so I will conclude by saying that what our Committee heard overall is that Ofsted is needed and plays an important role in the system, but it needs to change. We will continue to hold the Department and the inspectorate to account for the change that we need to see.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I thank the Chair of the Education Committee for bringing forward this statement, following the Committee’s much-needed inquiry and report on this issue. In the report, he rightly extends his condolences and gratitude to the family, friends and colleagues of Ruth Perry, all of whom have contributed to this report at an incredibly difficult time. Labour welcomes the findings on Ofsted single-word judgments, but the Government seem to have defended the indefensible in their response. The current system is high-stakes for teachers and low-information for parents. Like his cross-party Committee, we believe that it must be reformed.

Further to the Chair’s comments, does he agree that the Government should look again at the response that the Committee received from those across the sector, who overwhelmingly want to reform the system, just as Labour considered the sector when setting out our plan for report cards, which has been welcomed by the former chief inspector? Similarly, on inspection of multi-academy trusts, the Government seem simply to have ignored a recommendation that Ofsted’s chief inspector has called “inevitable”. Will the Chair therefore outline what conversations he has had with Ministers on the issue, and any further work that his Committee might do in this area?

Finally, the Committee’s inquiry did not appear to extend to inclusion being part of Ofsted inspection frameworks. Labour proposes to ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities have access to clear information, and that their parents understand their child’s school in that regard. Will the Chair and his Committee look at that? I thank him again for the thorough and timely work that he and the Committee have undertaken, and for the light that it has shed on this important and pressing issue.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her response. She raised some important points. I expressed my disappointment that the Government seem to have ruled out our recommendation that we move away from single-word judgments and explore alternatives. It is important that the Big Listen is a proper process of listening and engagement, and that it can reach its own conclusions. I am more inclined to agree with what was said in Ofsted’s response about nothing being off the table.

There is an extremely strong case for MAT inspection. That case has been heard by those in all parts of the House; it is a reflection of the maturity of MATs and their huge contribution to the school system, which the Government’s response acknowledged, that we are having this debate. There was a significant move forward in the tone of the Government’s response on that. I welcome the fact that they are actively exploring the options. Of course, that needs to be done proportionately, and we need to ensure that it does not increase the burdens on any school. I am sure that can be worked through by the Department.

I have some sympathy for the idea that inclusion needs to be considered. In previous Committee sessions— I know this happened under the previous Chair—we tested that idea in many respects, and some previous recommendations of the Committee have been fed into the framework, such as the recommendation that no school should be rated good or outstanding for performance unless its performance for special educational needs pupils was good or outstanding. It is important to acknowledge that some progress has been made on that front, but I believe that balancing attainment and inclusion is always important, throughout education, so that was an interesting contribution. Of course, because that is not part of Government policy or the current framework, it was not within the terms of reference for our inquiry.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Ceidwadwyr, Harlow

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report, and I welcome the recommendation on Ofsted supervision of MATs, but may I turn to careers advice in schools? My first ever speech in the House of Commons—my maiden speech—was about trying to encourage more schools to encourage students to do apprenticeships, as well as to go to university. While much progress has been made on this issue—we are in a very different world in 2024 from that of 2010 —there is still much more work to be done, including on informing students in all schools that there are great T-level offerings, and great apprenticeship offerings as well. Does he agree that Ofsted needs much tougher measures on ensuring that schools encourage students to take up all the apprenticeship and other skills offerings, so that students have choices other than going to university?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My right hon. Friend knows more about this issue than almost anyone else in the House, and has made a huge contribution to the debate on skills. He is, of course, absolutely right about the importance of careers advice, and of signposting people towards vocational opportunities in schools. This was the subject of an inquiry and a report that he as Chair bequeathed to me when he moved on. It was about careers education, information, advice and guidance. In that report, we made recommendations that Ofsted should align its work on personal development and its work in this space with the Gatsby benchmarks. The work he did on putting those benchmarks more prominently in our education system, both as Chair of the Select Committee and subsequently as a Minister, was vital to the success of that process, so I congratulate him on that. We absolutely think that needs to be part of this role.

Our one wariness was that we did not want to recommend a huge slew of things that Ofsted should be adding to the inspection process or framework, because we did not want to increase the workload or pressure on teachers and leaders. All these things need to be looked at in proportion, but there is absolutely a place for ensuring that schools provide the right careers advice and range of opportunities to students.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

I thank the Chair and the Committee for their excellent work on this very important matter. I also pay tribute to my constituent Ruth Perry, who was an outstanding headteacher. The events at Caversham Primary must never be allowed to happen again. I also commend the work by Julia Waters, Ruth’s sister, and local campaigners and heads in the Reading area, as well as others across the country, who have listened and called for Ofsted reform. I offer my wholehearted support for an end to the single-word judgment, and for wider Ofsted reform, as mentioned by my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on our Front Bench. What steps does the Committee Chair believe the Government should take now, given their unfortunate announcement this morning? Does he believe that the response from the Department for Education and Ofsted so far has been remotely adequate, particularly the suggestion about using a former chief inspector to mark Ofsted’s homework, and continuing to ignore concerns raised by him and the coroner about this serious matter?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has engaged on this issue, and for rightly championing the interests of his late constituent and her sister, who has engaged with this process in good faith throughout. She has had meetings with the Secretary of State and the new chief inspector of Ofsted, and I know that she is not satisfied that the Government have gone far enough. I urge the Government and Ofsted to ensure that the Big Listen is a genuine process that takes nothing off the table, and to respond in depth to the feedback on that.

It is absolutely legitimate for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to raise concerns about the independence of the person appointed to look into this matter, but I point out that other organisations, including the National Education Union, not notably a friend of Ofsted, have praised the appointee for their independence. This matter will have to be considered carefully. It is vital that the process is seen to be conducted independently of both the current and former management of Ofsted, and that it offers genuine insights into what went wrong at Caversham and how that can be put right. It is important to acknowledge the changes in both the Ofsted and Government responses today—the steps already taken to provide better support to headteachers, and the change in the approach to schools that are rated inadequate on one factor, which will get the opportunity to be reinspected. It is also worth putting on the record that subsequent to inspection, Caversham Primary was rated good, which shows that that approach can and should work.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Ceidwadwyr, Southend West

As a member of the Select Committee on Education, I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent statement, and for the fantastic report on which it is based. I also thank my hon. Friend for being a brilliant Chair of the Committee. It was an almost impossible job to take on, given the big boots he had to fill. I see the former Select Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon, in his place; he literally put the words “degree apprenticeship” into the “Oxford English Dictionary”.

I want to talk about the report’s recommendation 28. The Committee strongly recommended that the process for multi-academy trust inspections be delivered urgently. That recommendation was also made by predecessors and others, and was indeed was accepted by Ofsted. I am pleased about the change in tone from the Government and that they are “actively” considering this, but does my hon. Friend agree we need to go further? Does he agree that, given that MATs are now the biggest part of the education system, we need to go beyond “actively” considering? We must accept these recommendations, and the MAT inspection regime should be delivered urgently.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Victims and Sentencing)

A long time ago when I was a teacher at Radyr Comprehensive School and Nickie Aiken was a pupil there, we were inspected. It is a necessary part of the system but can be very challenging for all concerned. I very much welcome the—if I may use a single word—outstanding report from the Select Committee today and I am very disappointed that the Government have not accepted its recommendations. One is about extending the length of time before schools that are given an outstanding rating are re-inspected. Some years ago the Government had to row back from allowing schools rated as outstanding to go uninspected for as long as 15 years, with the result that on re-inspection more than 80% were downgraded. As we have heard over and again in the Chamber, that was a statistical fix to make it look as if there were more outstanding schools in the country. Is the hon. Gentleman confident that if the period were extended we could avoid leaving schools with a previous outstanding finding to languish uninspected when there are in fact problems in those schools?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, as he often does. When I became a Minister in the Department, one of the first questions I asked officials was whether that exception was still in place and whether if it was we could end it, and I was relieved to discover that my predecessor my right hon. Friend Nick Gibb had already removed that “outstanding” exception. If he had not done that, I would have done so, because I share many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the length such findings were in place. That was clearly a mistake and it built up pressure in the system, which was deeply unfortunate in some circumstances. We have now gone back to a five-yearly cycle.

What we were querying was whether we could be more risk-based in our approach. All schools should be inspected on a regular basis, but we made the argument for good and outstanding schools to be inspected slightly less regularly, and for those which require improvement or are judged inadequate to be inspected more regularly, so that they have the opportunity to turn themselves around quickly.

I understand and respect the reasons why the Government might not think that that is appropriate and feel the need for a level playing field. They rejected that [art of the recommendation, but we anticipated that they might do so and therefore also recommended that they needed to help Ofsted make the case to the Treasury for the funding necessary to do all the inspections properly, particularly for schools in need of a turnaround—schools which know they need to improve and which need the resource and support of an in-depth inspection that engages with teachers across the board. That is the case we were making and I read the Government’s response as a partial acceptance of that case, albeit not one that puts us at any risk of returning to a situation where schools languish uninspected for long periods of time.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Ceidwadwyr, Harlow

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This House is both the best and worst workplace in the world for those with a disability or disadvantage. The reason I raise this is that constantly lifts do not work, buttons do not work in lifts, doors do not work properly and toilets are always out of order and take months to fix. Just below the Chamber on the lower ground floor there are toilets that have been out for almost six months on end and no one ever seems to be there doing anything to fix them. This is not acceptable any longer.

I have been here for 14 years and, while every single member of staff is incredibly kind, especially the Doorkeepers, I find it incredible that things have got worse over the past 14 years in terms of doors being shut, lifts not working, buttons not working, lift doors not working, toilets being out of order, and people who should not be using disabled toilets using them. We do nothing about it, yet we publish press statements saying we are inclusive and diverse employers but that means nothing to anyone. So may I urge you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and the other Deputy Speakers to look at this issue with the Serjeant at Arms and get these facilities fixed once and for all so that people with disadvantages can go about their business without having to worry about doors being shut and toilets being broken and the other things I have mentioned?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, it might be appropriate to raise those matters with the Administration Committee as well, but I will certainly ensure that his comments are fed back. The Deputy Serjeant at Arms is present, and I am sure that he will be one of those feeding it back. I am very sorry to hear of the experiences that the right hon. Gentleman has described. Of course it is right that those facilities should be in good working order, and that there should be proper provision for people with disabilities.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

We really should not be having too many points of order at this stage, but I will take the hon. Lady’s point of order if it relates to something that has just been said.

Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Llafur, Wirral West

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Following what was said by Robert Halfon, I wanted to add that I have recently noticed that additional security doors have been introduced around the estate, and they require a pass to be swiped. There is nothing to enable blind or partially sighted people to understand that, and in an emergency it could cost them their lives. Could this be added to the list of things that you will feed back, Madam Deputy Speaker?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I will certainly add that to the feedback that we will give.