Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. May I welcome Sir Michael Bichard, David Normington and Ruth Thompson to this meeting of the full Education and Employment Select Committee. We are very pleased that you are here. A touch of sadness, Sir Michael, in that you will be leaving the Department and the Civil Service at the end of this month.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Two more weeks.

  2. May we welcome David Normington who is going to be your successor? We hope to have as good and productive a relationship with you as we have had with Sir Michael. Ruth Thompson, welcome to you also. We have a short amount of time and a great deal to cover. It is a particularly interesting time when we actually have a witness before the Committee who we know is going to retire soon. We have had other experiences when we did not quite know they were going to retire. I am going to ask you a very obvious question. When we met you last year we had quite an impressive impression of progress in many areas of what we are achieving, what the Government is achieving in educational policy. Could it be that within a short time of taking up your new appointment you might be writing articles in the national press totally reversing the warm and positive things you have been saying to the Committee in the past? It is going to be interesting to test you on this and say, today, are we going to get the absolute story or do we have to wait for two or three months to read it in the Telegraph or the Times?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, it is not my style either to change my position or to comment on people I have worked with and respected after I have left. You will not see any of that from me. You might see something about how I would like to see the Civil Service develop in the future, but you will not see anything looking back on what has happened in the past.

  3. It is a disturbing bit of our recent past experience that there we were, we had the Chief Inspector of Schools, who was a very important part of the monitoring system of our educational progress, who had given us one story in evidence over a number of years and then immediately we felt that we were not actually getting what seemed to be the full story from the Chief Inspector. Were you disturbed by that?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I was disappointed by some of the things that Chris Woodhead said. Some of them were a surprise, given what he had said when he had been in post. I am always disappointed when people go away and comment adversely on previous colleagues, so I hope I will not do that. I do have views about public sector management and about the future of the Civil Service and it is entirely appropriate that I should be able to make those views known and influence the debate. It will be a forward looking contribution rather than a backward looking contribution.

  4. May I just push you once more? I do not want you to get into personalities, I just want to get you on the drift of what Mr Woodhead has been saying since his recent retirement from the post. Which of the Chris Woodheads is the accurate one: the reports he has been giving to the Select Committee over the last two or three years about steady progress in meeting educational achievements or the sort of thing he has been writing since?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) You need to look at OFSTED's reports over the last two or three years and you will see a consistent and developing theme, which is that the quality of teaching in our schools has been improving, that the number of unsatisfactory lessons is decreasing, that the literacy and numeracy strategy is succeeding, and I believe it is succeeding, and all of those are absolutely right. I do not think comments that the previous Chief Inspector made after he had departed can detract from the overwhelming evidence which is there in OFSTED reports across the country.

Mr St Aubyn

  5. If we want to find out what Chris Woodhead really felt about his term in office, do you think we are better served by asking you these questions or by asking him to be a witness himself?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I was going to say that if you want to know what Chris Woodhead thinks you should ask Chris Woodhead not the Permanent Secretary.

Mr Derek Foster

  6. You and the Secretary of State in the past have spoken warmly about the synergy created by the Department of Education and Employment. Clearly the Working Age Agency, which is now going to be called Jobcentre Plus, rather complicates that. If some of the functions which are now the function of the Department for Education and Employment are hived off to a separate agency, is it possible to continue the kind of welcome synergies which you and the Secretary of State have spoken of?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Machinery of Government changes after the election are a matter for the Prime Minister and it is not really for me—and I would not dream of commenting on those at this point in time. I believe that the synergy to which you refer, although it is a word I remember we banned after two weeks in the merged department because everyone was using it so frequently, has been shrunk. There are many things which we would not have been able to do had we not had a merged department, not least of which is the bringing together of post-16 learning outside of HE in one body. That must not just be an administrative change, it has to lead to real improvements in the quality of teaching and service. There are many things we could not have done. Your question was: do you necessarily lose that if you reorganise? The answer to that is no, you do not necessarily lose it. It is very, very important that whatever the machinery of government after the election, the interdependence of education and employment, the links between them, is acknowledged and worked upon very, very hard. In a knowledge economy education and employment are the keys to economic success, but also to social justice. We must make sure that the bridges we built are maintained in whatever setting.

  7. I agree with that entirely. The question then follows: why did we all argue so strongly that education and employment belonged together if really the synergy—I use that word which you banned—can be created through some other mechanism? Why do we have a Department of Education and Employment if those synergies can be maintained if it is broken up, or could have been created if it had never been created in the first place?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is sometimes easier in some settings to maintain connections and relationships than it is in others, but it is not impossible in other settings and there may be other considerations which the Prime Minister needs to have regard to. It must be a matter for him. My point is that whatever the machinery, we must make sure that we optimise those links.


  8. David Normington has had a very key role in making the education and employment merger work. Could we perhaps ask David if he would like to come in on this?
  (Mr Normington) Similarly you have to make any organisational structure work. Wherever you draw the dividing lines, there is always another organisation that you have to work with. We have to work very closely with the DSS now and if the dividing line is drawn in other places, then you have other kinds of organisational synergies which you have to create. I think I am saying to you that providing you know what your objectives are and you work hard at those objectives and they are shared between different kinds of organisation, you can make different kinds of organisational structures work. We have put a lot of effort into creating the DfEE. Personally I put a lot of effort into it and it will be disappointing if it is broken up, but you can make different kinds of organisations work.

Mr Derek Foster

  9. In what I might call the real economy, we are always coming across superb organisations which have worked extremely hard at teamwork and have in the course of that improved their productivity, their quality, their customer service and then some other organisation, very often the City, which has different shareholder values will come and destroy it. Could it possibly be that enormous effort has been employed in getting this department working successfully together, creating a sense of teamwork and effectiveness and high productivity, high morale from the staff? Would it be destructive if someone came along and changed the consideration? If so, how long would it take for that new configuration to bed in and achieve a certain kind of results?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Personally, I am someone who is quite reluctant to change structures, because actually what matters is the way people behave and the values rather than the structures. If you are going to change structures you need to take that into account, but actually some people will spend a lot of time trying to carry on behaving in exactly the same way in the new structure and you have a couple of years of disruption. Clearly the Prime Minister will take that into account. I am proud, we are all proud, of what the DfEE has achieved. You must not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not actually proposing that it should be changed or split up. I shall be very, very sad because it has achieved a huge amount and it has delivered certainly as much as any other department in Government. That is not to say that a new organisation will not deliver too, well led.

Helen Jones

  10. You did tell the Committee in 1996 that the links between education, employment and training were so strong that not to have them in the same department risked marginalising employment. Is that still your view?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I cannot say to staff that I am going to guarantee that there is not going to be a machinery of government change, so they should not heed what they are reading in the press. What I am saying to staff is that what has changed since 1996 is that employment and education are now centre stage. They were both separately marginal and marginalised previously. That is no longer the case. Therefore if there is a reorganisation then it will be built around those two functions and it will be a reorganisation from a position of strength. That has changed.

  11. I understand what you are saying and there will be some sympathy for that view on the Committee. However, if the two are split, how would you ensure that the links you have said are so important and so valuable in the knowledge economy, the links between education and employment, are kept at that proper level, are maintained and that our education system is preparing people for the real economy as well as doing all the other things it has to do? How would you make that link if they were in two separate departments? Do you have any suggestions for us?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is quite difficult to answer some of these questions because you are hypothesising on what the reorganisation would be, but I shall try nonetheless. There are things that clearly you can do in terms of management teams meeting and working together, there are things you can do in terms of joint planning, there are things you can do in terms of joint targets and joint budgets. These can be—not always are but can be—very practical ways of working closely together. A lot of it at the end of the day will come down to the personalities of the two Secretaries of State and the two Permanent Secretaries and whether or not they get on. One has to be realistic about this, but if there is a will and if the personalities are okay, then there are things you can do, which we are beginning to show with some of the joint working we are developing, to maintain the link.

  12. You mentioned previously the success you thought had been achieved with the 16-Plus agenda from having the two in the same department. Could you give us any other examples of successful policies you think have come from the integration of education and employment?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) If you look at the way in which some of the policies have been implemented, you see some huge benefits. If you take literacy and numeracy, which David has been responsible for, I think he would say that actually having some of the people from the Employment Department—and David Normington came from the Employment Department—maybe with more experience in terms of delivery and following through and completion is one of the reasons why the literacy and numeracy strategy has been more successful than some of the previous attempts to deliver national education strategy which has not always been covered with glory. If you look at the Schools Directorate now, you will see a large number of people who have not just come from the old Department of Employment, they have come from the Employment Service, well within the Department of Employment. There are actually very few people in senior management positions there who came from the old Department of Education. What you have seen is our being able to bring together different skills, creative skills, delivery skills, in a way which has been very, very helpful. What we have managed to do is perhaps move away, and it may be a caricature but there may be some truth in it, from a Department for Education which was small, quite introspective and very policy orientated. We now have the broader view and put a higher emphasis upon delivery.

  13. Do you think some of that cross-fertilisation would be lost if it were split into two separate departments?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It need not be, but one of the things I should like to think the Civil Service could do better would be to encourage more mobility between departments. There is a lot of talk about mobility between departments. I do not see as much of it as I should like let alone bringing people in from outside. It is not necessarily going to be lost but it needs to be worked at harder.


  14. I want you to try to put yourself here on this side of the Committee. You know what our job is. We hear you saying some very interesting things about what has been to you the excitement of the department being seriously more centre stage, as you described it. We are sitting here listening to what you say at a very difficult time of change. Whether we have had progress or not some of us on this Committee might disagree about, but the fact of the matter is that from our point of view we see rumours of a major change in the department, perhaps a total reordering of the work of the department, we have you as Permanent Secretary baling out, we have the Chief Inspector of Schools baled out, we have the Secretary of State making it very clear that he is baling out. For a successful department which has achieved so much over the last four years, it is quite a disturbing scenario for members of this Committee to realise that all the main actors are disappearing off the scene. Is this because you have done such a fantastic job that you are hanging up your gloves as a group or is there a deeper concern?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, there is not a deeper concern at all. I cannot speak for the others and the Secretary of State is going to be here next week. I have decided to go because I actually do believe that six years is probably the right time for someone to lead an organisation. If you go on much longer than that you lose the passion and the energy and the organisation actually feels in need of refreshing. That is why I left. I said to the Cabinet Secretary some time ago that I was going to go on my next birthday which would have been in January next year. It seemed foolish to be around for five or six months if there is an election, when the new Secretary of State of whatever party deserves the right to know the person who is advising them is going to be there for the rest of their term. It just seemed the right time for me to go. I have to say I had regard to the fact that I have some very, very able people—I shall spare his blushes—who I think were pushing and rightly pushing to have their chance. Leigh Lewis who is now Chief Executive of JobCentre Plus and David are just the people to take it forward. What pleases me most about going is that I know that although they will do things a bit differently, although they may even have a bit more energy, they do actually share the same management values and leadership values that I have.

  15. What you have not been saying—and may we ask you to use us as a sort of confessional—is what you have been saying to David and Ruth and others about what the challenge is now for the department. What are you saying to them? You are handing over. What are the targets we now go for?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The challenges for the department in policy terms for the future are certainly around secondary education which David has been closely involved in and where the Government has set out its thinking quite recently; certainly in terms of seeking to achieve full employment and building on—you may want to challenge this and discuss it—the success of the New Deal. There are challenges in the world of HE, which are about increasing access, protecting quality and delivering a sector which is capable of competing on what is going to be an increasingly global stage. We have concerns right across everything we are doing about public sector recruitment. We do have, if not a crisis, problems in terms of teacher recruitment, but it is not just teacher recruitment, it is also ensuring that we have people who can deliver our Government child care strategy. Wherever you look across the public sector, particularly in inner cities, there are issues there. Finally, I hope that they will carry on—and I am getting bored with the term modernising government but what we are talking about is—transforming the way in which the department and the Civil Service work. There is certainly a lot more to do there.

Valerie Davey

  16. I am pleased that you said earlier on that you are looking forward and not back. Clearly we have the lessons to have learned from where we have come from. If you take those lessons and project them, you have said what we should be doing but what are the things we should not be doing perhaps? What are those things whereby we have learned the lesson and we do not go down that path again? Are there any rows which the education and the employment department or departments ought to be aware of?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That is a big question to ask without notice. There are some areas where we need to reflect upon the extent to which we are prescribing and intervening. There have been very good reasons why in certain areas we have prescribed quite strongly from the centre, not least around literacy and numeracy. One of the most difficult decisions you have to make in public administration is when you centralise and when you devolve. When do you prescribe and when do you give discretion? As officials, we as often get that wrong as we get it right. It is something you have constantly to be asking yourself and naturally politicians need to ask themselves as well. There is no coded message there. I am sure the Secretary of State will say exactly the same thing. We do need to keep asking ourselves about that balance. I am sure we need to be concerned about levels of bureaucracy and that is not just in schools but it is right across all of our sectors. Our task ought to be to support and facilitate and we need to be concerned if processes become excessively bureaucratic or are actually developed into something which is excessively bureaucratic. It is not always bureaucratic when it leaves the department, but sometimes it is pretty bureaucratic when you are on the receiving end in a classroom or in a lecture theatre and that is something which I am just beginning to learn from a slightly different perspective now. We need to ask ourselves constantly whether we have the balance right and whether or not the bureaucracy can be reduced. We are reducing bureaucracy in schools, there is absolutely no doubt about that in terms of reducing the amount of paper which is going out and in terms of simplifying things like the Standards Fund. That is something where we really have to keep up the pressure.

  17. May I follow that up with one specific? Do you think we have learned, in terms of external and self-inspection, self-evaluation?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) In my view self-evaluation is always important. I should always want to encourage institutions, whether we are talking about schools or universities, to start from a base of rigorous self-assessment and self-evaluation. The history of education in this country is that that has not alone been sufficient and that some external inspection and challenge is necessary. I believe it still is necessary and I believe it still is necessary and will continue to be necessary.

  18. I am really asking where you think the swing of the pendulum on that particular issue is.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I was going to go on but I stopped myself making a slightly banal comment about it being a matter of getting the balance right. This is not the first time I have said this, but I do not believe you ever achieve quality, which is what we are about, quality and education just from inspection. You do not achieve quality just by telling people where they got things wrong. You actually have to help and support them to get it right and you have to develop within institutions a real sense of commitment to quality and continuous improvement. You need challenge but you need ownership and you need self-assessment and evaluation.

Mr Allan

  19. First on the issue of universities, you referred to quality education in universities. The figures quite clearly show that there has been a significant drop in the unit cost funding in universities since before this Government changed, since 1995-96; it was something like £5,310 to £4,810 at present, so quite a chunk has dropped off between 1995-96 and the projection for this year and the coming years. Is that a problem? Is it the fact that the Government is now being fair to universities and were simply paying over the odds before, or is there something about the political priorities here which we should be picking up, where the schools are deemed to be a politically higher priority than higher education and that therefore it is safe either to cut or not increase higher education funding?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) You will remember that at the time of the Dearing report the recommendation which was accepted by Government was that the reduction in unit funding should be no more than one per cent a year. In actual fact since then it has been less than one per cent a year on whatever price base you use, until this year when there has actually been an increase in unit funding, just under one per cent, but that is the first increase in some 15 years. It is not right to say that it is a constant story of reduction in unit funding: there has been an increase. Has HE had a poor deal compared with schools? Any Government has to have some priorities and primary education was a priority, New Deal was a priority. The Government also introduced tuition fees for the first time and that was a major change in terms of funding for HE. There is a general feeling in HE, which is of course made up of autonomous institutions, that they should be given some scope, some freedom, some time to develop and that is what they have been given. The future for HE does raise questions about how we are going to compete on a global stage when our universities are very much smaller than, for example, most American universities. Do we have decision-making processes in place in enough of our universities to ensure that opportunities are grasped when they arise and that threats are dealt with quickly when they arise? The answer is that a number of our universities have made very significant changes to their governance systems but not all of them. There are also issues which the Secretary of State has drawn out around equality and that is not just a marginal issue. One must ask if only 10 per cent of your professorial staff are women whether or not you are liberating all the talent which is available to the HE sector. There are big questions to ask in terms of the future of HE in a global setting.

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