Two question and answer sessions last Wednesday showed the strengths and weaknesses of our parliamentary system. Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs was in the latter category and showed, above all, that he does not know how to ask a parliamentary question. Reading out some he’d received by email was not a bad idea in itself, but he had not anticipated any of the answers, and had prepared no supplementaries. David Cameron smilingly batted each of them off in turn. It was the easiest ride of his political life.
Kelly Tolhurst (C) and Kate Hollern (Lab) made good points about health issues and received straight answers, but some other backbench questions were pointless. We don’t need to hear a weak joke about Corby, not Corbyn, so that an MP can get his constituency’s name on television, and above all do not need these questions asking the PM to name his engagements. I timed this farce at just under twenty seconds, which, multiplied by the 600 or so people present represents a waste of three hours of human life. David Cameron might as well have said, “I refer the HM to the identical answer given by John Major twenty-three years ago.” This is one for Mr Speaker to sort out.
The strength came in the Education Select Committee’s 90 minutes with Sir Michael Wilshaw, and was led by five Conservative MPs, Lucy Frazer, Lucy Allen, Suella Fernandez, Michelle Donelan, and Caroline Nokes. Caroline Nokes is in her second term, the others, including my MP, Lucy Frazer, in their first.
Neil Carmichael, in the chair, has created an excellent working atmosphere that allows the committee- including SNP member Marion Fellowes – to operate as a coherent unit, acting in the public interest.
As a result, Sir Michael had to deal with succession of well thought-out questions, backed by research. Marion Fellowes was particularly effective on Ofsted’s problems in recruiting a specialist to lead children’s social services, leading a somewhat needled Sir Michael to comment that “Sometimes there are disagreements in term of approach, and those people who find working for Ofsted uncomfortable, need to move on.” He had earlier said that heads of children’s service were not likely to lose their jobs over poor educational standards, but would do so over child protection and safeguarding. I may not be alone in thinking they should never have to choose between the two.
Primary schools were not putting the same emphasis on science, said Lucy Frazer, as on subjects assessed in national tests. Just over half of 260 primary teachers surveyed by the CBI had said that science was declining in importance, and many schools were not giving it recommended two hours per week. Sir Michael’s first reply was that Ofsted looked at whether schools were offering a broad and balanced curriculum, but he then said that, if he saw that “outcomes” were poor in science, then obviously the inspectors would discuss this in their initial conversation with the head in the morning of the inspection.
This is, though, impossible in primary schools, as there is no evidence of outcomes, and the inspector – who is expected to spend a third of the day in this conversation – will have had no opportunity to see any work. Seventy-three per cent of primary reports, continued Ms Frazer, made no mention of science. There was a similar exchange over languages, and here Sir Michael’s reply was hesitant. “Where a one-day inspection showed a weakness,” he said, “We would call in a stronger team… not a stronger team…one with more numbers of inspectors…so when that happens we will look in greater depth at the curriculum…”
As far as I know, Ofsted has only done this in the second round of Trojan horse inspections in Birmingham. Full inspections of individual schools have not taken place since 2005. Sir Michael’s chief operating officer, Matthew Coffey, whose experience lies in vocational and further education rather than schools, said that Ofsted was concerned with “the quality of teaching across an institution” rather than “any particular subject”. Subject inspections used to happen “many many years ago” – ie prior to Labour’s 2005 changes – where you had “a huge team”. In fact, a primary team would have had from four to six inspectors – not my idea of huge. “The world has changed, ” continued Mr Coffey, “and it’s (now) a very small snapshot”.
The world and Ofsted have both changed, and in Ofsted’s case not for the better. “We inspect everything that moves,” said Sir Michael, and the cost of doing that has been a sharp reduction in quality. The proposed one day with an HMI, with the first hour and a half spent in discussion over coffee in the head’s office, is less than we used to spend on a pre-inspection visit, which also involved a discussion with parents and governors. Having said that Ofsted had a good range of specialists, Sir Michael could not give any figures, but promised to provide them. I think he and Mr Coffey were happy to hear the bell.