Josephine Gardiner on an MP's concern over public money being spent on the education of Service children in a largely uninspected independent sector
The Government's hands-off approach to the inspection of independent schools means that establishments of "extremely dubious quality" are being allowed to exist with the aid of large helpings of taxpayers' money, according to a member of the House of Commons education and employment select committee.
David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, claims that independent schools that would be condemned as failing if they were in the public sector are able to stay open because follow-up arrangements to bring these schools up to standard "have no teeth".
In a written reply to a parliamentary question from Mr Jamieson, chief inspector Chris Woodhead admitted last week that the Office for Standards in Education is planning "up to three" full inspections of independent schools in 1996-97. This compares with 13 in 1994-95 and 19 in 1993-94.
The OFSTED has no statutory duty to inspect the independent sector and Mr Jamieson claims that the inspectorate is now relinquishing all involvement with standards in private schools because "it has bent to producer pressure - the Government has been got at by its chums in the independent schools sector who have said: 'OK folks, let's pull these reports'".
"The Government's deregulation policies mean that it will be at least 700 years before all of the 2,294 independent schools receive a full OFSTED inspection," said Mr Jamieson, who is writing to the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, after Easter to demand a full explanation for the decline."The Government is quick to use OFSTED reports to highlight inadequacies in LEA schools, but seems rather less keen to highlight the fact that the Government is providing funds for inadequate independent schools. "
Mike Tomlinson, who is in charge of independent school inspections at OFSTED, said that the cutbacks on full inspections were due to "pressure on resources", but he emphasised that there were no plans to reduce the number of registration inspections. These are visits to all schools made at five-yearly intervals to ensure that the schools meet minimum standards necessary to remain on the DFEE's register of schools.
But Mr Jamieson claims that these are often no more than a formality - "float-in, float-out jobs" - and points out that there is no requirement to publish a report for parents on the inspectors' findings.
Mr Jamieson's interest in independent school standards derives from complaints from several of his constituents, parents in the armed forces who were unhappy with the quality of the private boarding schools listed as acceptable by the Ministry of Defence. The ministry provides a boarding school allowance for service personnel of up to Pounds 2,248 per term for each pupil, and the MOD's education wing, the Service Children's Education Authority (SCEA), gives parents a list of schools to choose from. Mr Jamieson says he has no objection in principle to the boarding allowance, but worries that "parents assume that this is a list of Government-approved schools that have been checked out; in fact, any tacky little private school can get on the list, including those that have had very poor reports, and these schools then receive public money. " The service boarding allowance costs the taxpayer more than Pounds 100 million a year.
A spokesman for the MOD confirmed that "the Ministry of Defence does not vet schools as such," and after checking that a school is registered, "the MoD applies no value judgment on educational performance or pastoral regimes". The Service Children's Education Authority has no legal right to enter schools on its list, and the Department for Education and Employment does not keep records on any school involved in the service boarding allowance scheme, regarding them as the responsibility of the MOD.
About 60 per cent of independent schools are members of the public schools associations such as the Headmasters' Conference or the Girls' Schools Association, and these associations run their own inspection system, which, according to Dick Davison, deputy director of the Independent Schools Information Service, is "rigorous and running in close consultation with OFSTED. . . it should be seen as a parallel system." He admitted however, that with the 40 per cent of private schools outside the associations (roughly 917 schools), the onus is entirely on parents to assess the school's quality.
Last December, the Observer published allegations about teaching standards and "sexual impropriety" at Quantock School, a small independent in Somerset. Many of the school's pupils have parents abroad in the armed services. Mr Jamieson asked the Secretary of State for Defence to explain how the SCEA had investigated the allegations. Last week he had a written reply from Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, who said that two OFSTED-qualified SCEA staff had visited the school on February 21 and had found "no obvious areas of concern. SCEA will continue to advise Service parents that Quantock school is suitable for attendance by Service children".
But the reply confirms that "SCEA staff visit independent schools by invitation to assess pastoral care arrangements for Service children; they have no statutory right of access." Reports on visits are "for internal use only".