Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. My Director of Education in Surrey said that the fact that Surrey schools have had relatively low vacancy levels until this year is of little comfort to them in dealing with their current difficulties. What comfort can you give to Surrey and other education authorities that this September there will be an increase in the number of teachers available to fill this very large number of posts which have been made vacant.
  (Mr Normington) It is true that there is increased demand for teachers and in fact the extra money which is in the system is being used to create extra posts. Compared with last year it has created 7,700 extra teaching posts and that is part of the reason why demand for teachers is increasing. In terms of giving the Surrey Director of Education help, I would say a number of things. One is that we have more teachers training this year. For the first time for quite a lot of years it has turned up, so we have more teachers training who will be coming out this summer, so there is an increased supply. We are providing incentives for those who have left teaching for some reason to come back. About 12,000 to 13,000 return to the profession each year. We need to try to raise that number. We are also trying to persuade more teachers with incentives to come to take teaching posts as a second career and providing incentives for them. By the way, Surrey, along with most of the authorities in London and the South East are getting extra money which was given in the Budget to provide recruitment and retention incentives to schools with particular vacancies.

  41. On that very point they are saying that it will be difficult to prevent some schools from bidding up the market price for scarce staff because we are being asked to focus the additional funding on approximately half of our secondary schools only.
  (Mr Normington) As I understand it they are being asked to focus it on those schools which have the greatest difficulties in recruitment which seems to me to be the sensible way to focus the money.

Mr Pollard

  42. I want to follow on from this funding discussion we are having and there is no doubt that extra money is going through to the schools and they are all very grateful for that. I represent an area not unlike Nick's but in Hertfordshire. We are considerably bothered about the talk of the rejigging of the funding arrangements, particularly as regards area cost adjustments. We have been very pleased with the extra money but a cold wind blew through the other day when we were told that this was under review and that there was going to be a massive change with carloads of money going from south to north. That bothered us quite considerably. The idea of area cost adjustments is to reflect the extra costs involved in providing a service within these high cost areas and Hertfordshire is one of the highest in the country, not to cover deprivation; there is a misunderstanding about that in some areas. Could you comment on that?
  (Mr Normington) There is a proposition on the table in the Government's local authority Green Paper from the autumn to reform local authority funding and education funding is at the centre of that. It was a pre-emptive strike the other day from those in the south to raise this issue because there is no decision to shift money within the system. There have been no decisions on that funding Green Paper at all yet, it is still being consulted about. What is on the table in that funding Green Paper is a number of options but one is to say that there is a basic sum which is the basic cost of funding pupils' education across the country. Then that needs to be adjusted by deprivation factors and also taking into account the cost of high cost areas as in London and the South East. That debate will rage because obviously it is about how you distribute money around the system and I suppose it is the one thing which causes us the most correspondence in the DfEE.

  43. Could it be that the SSA formula itself is wrong in that authorities like Hertfordshire have to have area cost adjustments added on top to reflect the costs they have in providing the service?
  (Mr Normington) The area cost adjustment is part of the way in which local authority funding works. I would not want to say every aspect of the current standards spending assessment is right, indeed that is what is being looked at. Every local authority in the country has written to us at some point to say that the system operates unfairly against it. This is an argument which will rage over the next few months.


  44. May I shift just for a moment? You made some comment on higher education and one of the things we picked up when we were doing our inquiry into both access and retention is that now and then we do have witnesses before us who have asked what the rationale behind the 50 per cent is. What is the rationale? It seems to be plucked out of the air by you or the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister, but is there any logic? What is the logic of 50 per cent? Perhaps there is only 45.5 per cent of the population at any one time or at this moment who could benefit from higher education. Why the 50 per cent? I ask you this very seriously because a number of very well qualified people this Committee have talked to asked what the basis was for the figure.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think we can scientifically prove that 50 per cent is the right target. To some extent it is an estimate. What you can do is look at the current rate of participation, you can take a view on the demand for graduates in the future, particularly as we move into the cliché of a knowledge economy. You can take a view also of improvements in your education system and assess whether or not you are going to see an increase in the number of people who could take advantage of higher education. From all of that you have to make an assessment. Participation at the moment is over 33 per cent and over a period of time our belief is that we need to increase that. We are talking about 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds and 2010 is the year we have said; it is quite a long period of time. It seems to me, with the current state of our knowledge, not an unreasonable target to set but we need to keep it under review.

  45. What I am asking is that you have been the Permanent Secretary over this period of time, have you not at any time either asked your Minister or he asked you on what basis the 50 per cent is agreed? Is it on the basis of some estimate which came out of Dearing? Is it out of international comparisons of where we should be? There must be some derivation or did it come from spin doctors who say that 50 per cent sounds like a nice plump figure?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) No, it does not come from whatever spin doctors are. Part of it is about whether you believe there are going to be more people capable of taking advantage of HE or what our competitors are doing and whether or not graduates are getting an economic return on their education. The demand for graduates is still high. We believe it will increase and in those circumstances 50 per cent over a ten-year period when the current performance will be at least 35 per cent actually does not seem an unreasonable assumption. We need to keep it under review.

Mr Allan

  46. What you have described sounds eminently reasonable.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am pleased at that.

  47. It is a very different picture from the one the Government is trying to get over. You suggested that demand will grow organically, that the economy will create a demand, that more people will have the school age dedication which makes them able to reach that. That is not how it is being sold by the Government. The Government is selling it by saying they will get 50 per cent of people through there. Certainly the perception which is coming through is that it is almost that they will get the 50 per cent through whether or not they are actually able to benefit from it.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think the Government would accept that and I certainly would not want to present it on that basis. Everything we have been trying to do in schools to drive up standards is about ensuring that we have more people who are capable of taking advantage of higher education and can make a contribution to our economic success. It seems to me that the two pretty obviously go together. If the media have been unable to make that connection, then I apologise on their behalf, but it seems to me to be a pretty obvious connection for me.


  48. We have had two quite significant reports out of this Committee this last year on higher education. The evidence which came through—you mentioned global competition across the university, global economy, global competition—is that perhaps our universities were not as big or as well managed. That was not the problem which came to us most often during our deliberations and the taking of evidence. The predominant one was how long we can continue paying university staff relatively low salaries—and I know I took this up with you a year ago and you will know of my interest in this and you will have even greater interest in a couple of weeks' time—the fact of the matter is that the evidence does suggest that we cannot any longer pay as little as we do in university salaries and continue to provide high quality competitive institutions in a globally competitive environment. Is that or is that not the case?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not want to go over the debate we had last year about this.

  49. The old debates are the best ones.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I accepted then and acknowledged then and I acknowledge now that there are some subjects where it is difficult to recruit, partly because the disciplines are under great pressure in our national market and in some of the cases internationally and in those disciplines, in those subjects, universities will need to pay more to compete. The Government have actually made available a significant increase in funding this year to universities, part of which is to enable them to increase pay. The issue has been acknowledged, something has been done. Whether or not it is enough, we shall have to wait and see.

  50. This is not just the Committee or the Chairman of this Committee being negative. This is the Chairman of the Committee saying we took the education part of this Committee to Manchester. We spoke to five university Vice-Chancellors. The Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University said he was doing all right, he was a research rich university, he had done very well out of this Government. The extra money for research had made his life very much more interesting and he had benefited a great deal. He turned to the teaching universities around the table and said they were the people who were struggling. That is the concern of this Committee that if we are going to provide good teaching, then we have to help those universities which spend more of their time teaching than researching. That does seem to be a problem and that is not what I said last year to you, it is a concern that this Committee in its deliberations found in terms of doing the hard work we did over the year.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) There is always a debate to be had as to whether or not Government has invested enough. Let us look at the facts and statistics in this current year. There is an extra £412 million going into higher education and that is 7.6 per cent which is one of the reasons why we produced an increase per student for the first time in 15 years. Next year another £268 million, another 4.6 per cent, the year after £300 million, five per cent. It is not as though there is no additional money going into HE, some of it has been targeted particularly at pay. I am quite prepared, indeed keen, to find common ground with you, which is around the fact that we need to keep this closely under review because we do need to maintain and protect our competitiveness. Once again I shall be looking forward to pressing this from a different direction.

  Chairman: We will be hoping to see you at the parliamentary university group.

Mr St Aubyn

  51. The numbers going to university from poorer homes virtually doubled in the ten years up to 1997. In the first three years at least of this Government the numbers stood still or in fact slightly declined. Do you think there is any connection between this and the new system of student support which the new Government introduced.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not have access to your statistics.

  52. They are in the Select Committee report and they come from UCAS.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) My statistics suggest that the number of younger students, by which I mean under 30, coming from non-professional homes has not changed greatly over the last 20 years. I am not sure of your definition of poorer families.

  53. Those from the non-professional families are much lower numbers.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) There has never been a significant increase in the number of children from those families.

  54. The Dearing Report, in its section on access, which I think is section 6, actually says the number from the poorest homes doubled and also showed that the proportion coming from less well off homes, the percentage, virtually doubled. That is the source of the statistic up until 1997.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I need to refresh my memory of Dearing because I think one of the concerns I have about the system generally is that we have not seen more young people from non-professional families going to university. Of course there was a debate at the time as to whether or not tuition fees and changes to student support were going to make that even more unlikely. The Government's view was that the only way you were going to get an increase in poorer family representation in universities was to expand provision and move towards some higher target. The target is now 50 per cent. In order to achieve that expansion, you needed some injection of new resource, which is what tuition fees and student support have achieved. It is a question that we shall have to keep an eye on as to whether that does turn out to be the case.

  55. Is not the big impact the abolition of the grant and replacement by a system of loans which have to be repaid not at the same threshold level which the Government inherited, but a new lower threshold of £10,000. Why was that figure of £10,000 ever chosen?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That is a matter of judgement but you are right to say that is the key. It is not the tuition fees but the student support arrangements. The Government need to keep an eye on the perception of debt and whether or not that becomes a disincentive to the people, from whatever class, going to university.

  56. Just for the record, there was no scientific or evidential base on which the figure of £10,000 as income threshold for repaying loans was based, it was simply a judgement by the Minister at the time.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) With all of the information and evidence available. There is no scientific judgement you can make that it should be £10,000 rather than any other figure.

  57. Is there a rationale you can summarise for the Committee or give to the Committee in writing as to why £10,000 was, in the view of the department, the right figure to choose?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The Government were looking for a figure at which it seemed reasonable that people should be expected to repay some of the loan and that was the figure they chose as reasonable.

  Mr St Aubyn: No more basis than that.

  Chairman: Just a nice round fat figure.

Mr Allan

  58. One specific point on that access question. It seems to me that the critical test is whether you are actually seeing fresh faces coming into the higher education system in constituencies like the Secretary of State's over in Sheffield Brightside. In mine, in Sheffield Hallam, I have no doubt people are still going in in large numbers. It has been difficult to get those figures. Do you in the Department look at the figures down to that kind of detail where you can actually see whether there is a change in time from specific geographical areas where you know it is likely that there has been no history of university attendance? Do you make those available in any way?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The figures must be available on a sub-regional basis but I do not have them[1]. I shall look to see whether we have them available but the figures I am basing my conclusions on are, I accept, national figures. May I just say that if that is going to change it will only change if we have in Sheffield Brightside, as I am reminded most days of the week, an education system which is delivering higher standards. That is what the whole of the school improvement programme and all the other things we were talking about is there to achieve.

  Mr Allan: I do not disagree with that. There has been some reluctance for the very localised figures; the sub-regional would not help if you wanted to look at the two sides of Sheffield. There has been some reluctance to release that because of perceived market sensitivity and seeing who is going where is perceived as a market sensitivity question.


  59. We also now know with some great clarity since last November where students come from on a post code basis. We recommended in the Education Sub-Committee report that the premium for taking children from the lower social and economic post code areas should be raised from five to 20 per cent. It sounded along the grain of what you were saying that you quite approve of that. Are we going to see the department embracing that recommendation quite soon?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Not within the next week, no. There is a live debate around that and I am often told by Vice-Chancellors that that is the thing that would change the participation most. It is a more complex issue than that but I am sure a new Government of whatever colour will want to have a look at that.

1   See page 13. Back

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