Duty free Ministers

Bev HughesBev Hughes on why Ministers are failing children and families by exempting schools to inspectionfrom Ofsted

As the Commons breaks for summer recess this afternoon, the Lords will this evening debate the government’s decision to exempt outstanding schools from further inspection by Ofsted. Currently, the Chief Inspector is required to inspect schools in England at least once every five years and this tends to be the timetable for outstanding schools, with others reviewed more frequently.

However, the Education Act 2011 now enables the government to exempt specific categories of school from the Chief Inspector’s duty to inspect. The regulations debated tonight are the first to be made under this new power, exempting from any further routine inspection those that receive the highest grading (currently, an ‘outstanding’ rating). In future, such schools will not be inspected again by Ofsted unless they request an inspection, in which case they will have to pay.

Ministers’ arguments to support this change appear to be two-fold. First, that exempting outstanding schools from future inspections reduces, in their parlance, the ‘burdens’ on such schools and second, that it will enable Ofsted to target resources on the less successful.

For many years now, under successive governments, Ofsted have moved towards a risk-based proportionate approach in determining the frequency and depth of inspection, with successful schools inspected much less frequently than others. So risk assessments already enable Ofsted to target resources.

Exempting schools entirely from routine inspection, and for schools to know they are henceforth exempt, is not simply an extension of these developments. It is a change of a completely different order – wrong in principle and likely to have all sorts of adverse consequences.

Government has an important role to play in the delivery of our major public services and a duty both to the public generally, whose taxes pay for those services, and to those citizens using the services. As a principle, the government should be the guardian of value for money and quality.

That is why we have inspection of hospitals, GPs, police services, children’s homes, care homes. It would surely be unthinkable if, say, excellent hospitals or care homes were allowed to be completely exempt from future inspections. Why then do Coalition Ministers think exemption is acceptable for schools?

There are also a number of practical consequences to this exemption which will have adverse effects on children.

First an outstanding rating is not a guarantee of continued excellence in standards of achievement. Outstanding schools decline. The 2010-11 Ofsted Annual Report reveals 40% of the previously-judged outstanding schools had declined at their subsequent inspection, threeto a rating of inadequate.

Second, Inspectors need to see the full range of performance in order to benchmark individual schools. If the outstanding ones are progressively excluded from the inspection regime, there is a danger that inspectors’ expectations will drift downwards over time as they lose touch with the very best practice.

Finally, inspections cover more than just the quality of teaching and learning. They have a vital role in telling us how well schools are addressing pupils’ wider well-being. Exam results cannot tell us how well, or indeed if, a school is teaching personal, social and health issues, how extensive its extra-curriculum activities are or how effectively a school is actively implementing good safeguarding policy and practice.

Exempting schools from inspection is a retrograde step and in pushing it through, Ministers are failing children and families.

Baroness Bev Hughes of Stretford is Labour's Shadow Children and Education Minister in the Lords

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