Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 75 - 79)




  75[1]. Sir Michael, can I welcome you and your colleagues to the Committee's proceedings. The Committee welcomes this annual opportunity to ask you a number of questions about the running of the Department and I hope you will agree to a wide-ranging question and answer session. Can I start the questioning by getting right down to it. The Annual Report is very attractively presented. How much value do you think there is in producing such a dense document, packed with this much information? It must take a tremendous amount of person hours to present this sort of document. How valuable has it been to present an annual document of this kind?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) First of all, Chairman, thank you for the compliments. I think how valuable it is rather depends upon the quality of the document. We have all seen departmental reports and annual reports which are so dense that no-one in their right mind would take time to look through them. We have tried to produce something which is a bit more accessible, and I hope we have succeeded. If we have succeeded, I think there is some purpose, because it does provide for interested parties—and no-one expects that every member of the public will read this—a clear statement of what we are about, what our objectives and priorities are, and I think the way we have produced it this year gives them some information on how they can access the Department. We do not, as I say, expect everyone out there to read this, but for people who have an interest in the world of education and employment, it is useful. I think it is also useful within the Department. It forms part of our business planning process. So, yes, I do think it is worthwhile.

  76. So you think it is a good discipline for your own staff?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think it is a good discipline and, as I say, it is a quarry of information for those outside.

  77. Does the process help you bring together the Department? There is a consistent voice out there which says this is really two departments still running relatively independently. One of my predecessors likes to return to this theme. I am reminded of BOAC and BEA, who joined as British Airways, and they still talked of those two camps 20 years after the merger. Is it rather like that in your Department, or does something like this help you come together as one integrated department?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The departmental report is in itself not really a process. I think the important process within the Department is the planning process, the process which ensures that each year we set our objectives, establish our priorities, monitor those during the course of the year, and I do believe that plays a very important part in bringing the Department together and in ensuring that everyone working in the Department knows what our key focus is. We have three main objectives in the Department. One is to raise standards in schools, the second is to create a learning society and the third is to get people into work as quickly as we possibly can. I hope if you talk to people across the Department you will find that the majority of them understand that. Are we a single department after what is now five years? It is always a continuing process. I prefaced my comments by saying that. You cannot achieve perfection in five years, but we are certainly as far forward, if not further forward, than I would have expected when we set out on this journey. If you look at some of the things we are now doing, setting up the Learning and Skills Council is probably the best example. That just would not have been possible with two separate, warring departments battling over vocational and academic education. That is just the tip of the iceberg. I believe we have made a lot of progress. If you look at the Department itself and the people in the Department, you will see there are some interesting scenes. Helen is an exception, but there are not that many people now on the school side of the Department who were in the old DFE/DES. An awful lot of the senior management in schools, including the Director General, came from the Employment Department, and obviously you will see the reverse is happening: a lot of people from the Employment Service are now working on the education side, which has brought a freshness, a focus on delivering on results that perhaps was not there before. So yes, we have seen many examples of the benefits of having this merged Department.

  78. We value it as an opportunity to have a document as an annual report that we can, on behalf of the public and Parliament, scrutinise you on.
  (Mr Shaw) On the report, we deliberately took account of comments which were raised last year in putting into the report a table on employment spending and the inclusion of case studies, and the Internet website address was a deliberate move to make it more user-friendly. I think it is something we would like to have continued dialogue about, because it is very long, and if there were things the Committee felt could be excluded, it would be helpful to discuss that in due course, as we prepare the next round. I am sure the things we have added in are right, but whether everything there is necessary is a proper question we should ask.

Valerie Davey

  79. I welcome that comment. Do you monitor, indeed, not just the comments on the last report but the queries and questions which come into the Department over the last year in various forms, whether e-mail, the telephone or snail-mail, to indicate the real interest that the public has, be they a governor, a parent, a member of the public, in order to direct the next report? I know that is only one facet of interest, but is that also monitored in between reports?
  (Mr Shaw) We feed that in, and we ask people when they draft the particular sections to take account of the views that they have heard so that we try and address those concerns. One of the reasons why we put in people's names was so that it could be a point of contact. Something we have recently done in the Department is to put together in Runcorn the Public Enquiry Unit and a Consultation and Correspondence Unit, and bringing those together in one place gives us a much better indication of where the public interest is at a particular point of time. I can mention one illustration of that. After the Secretary of State made his announcement about teacher training and the changed arrangements for allowances for teacher training, the Public Enquiry Unit had 1,000 calls within four working days, and that gave us a feel for the proportion of men and women, the type of questions they were asking, and we immediately fed that back to the Secretary of State. So putting this together is enabling us to feedback quickly to ministers where people's focus is at any point in time.

1   For Q 1-74 in this DfEE Funding inquiry, see HC761-i of Session 1998-99. Back

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