Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)



  100. They appear to be voluntary. You have got ALIS and ALPS listed here. Would not the simplest solution to this problem be to have a system-wide value added system?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We are looking at the various systems that exist at the moment. We have done a pilot recently on post-16 value added and we are consulting on a system that could be introduced more widely. I think it has been well received, people are enthusiastic about it, but value added systems are not easy to introduce and to convince people about. We have had some problems in schools, as you know. This is a very important area and I agree with you that is exactly where we should be moving because that is the way in which you celebrate the good provision that is going on in colleges that are dealing with some of the most disadvantaged people.

  101. They are not easy but I would have thought this was probably the easiest sector in which to apply it. You have had GCSE results inwards and A-level results outwards and therefore you can at last assess the cohorts in centiles of the population.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Except there is a very wide range of qualifications in this sector and, as I said, because it is quite difficult to follow students as well—

  102. I take that point.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Because we do not have this tracking system, it is actually quite difficult to do.

  103. Presumably most colleges—although not all—will have known the qualifications of the students they take on?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Within the college, yes. I think I am agreeing with you. I think this is a very important area.

  104. They will have the qualifications, hopefully, of all those who leave in due course. If ever there was (a) an appropriate and (b) a relatively straightforward area for application, this would be it.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think we would accept that.
  (Professor Melville) I think it is worth saying we are well advanced with this. One of the proposals for the new Learning and Skills Council was to use it as one of the proxies for funding besides post-coding. That is those who come in with the lowest qualifications need more support to achieve where they are going. The tricky thing, as Sir Michael indicates, is that even at 16 we have quite a lot of students who are moving from non-standard qualifications into things like BTec programmes and so on, so there is not a clear way of measuring what might be called the number of points gained in all programmes. But on the straight A-levels you are absolutely right and on the GNVQs that could be done, but it would only cover a proportion.

  105. You should have some measure of academic ability in and out I would have thought. You know what percentiles of the population score at particular grades in particular qualifications.
  (Professor Melville) If I can give you an example of an adult coming in who may have a degree in classics but is doing an IT course, it is quite difficult to assess what the starting point is.

  106. As they say, "Hard examples make bad law". Both of you are finishing in your current roles so I thought we might give you an opportunity to give some comments in a wider context. Can I start with you, Sir Michael, and answer this as wide or narrow as you like. You have got five years' experience. How far has education in England improved in that time and what do you think will happen in the next five years to carry on that improvement?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think we have seen some really important improvements. If you look at the issue of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, then the independent tests are showing there has probably been the first real improvement since the War in standards. That should mean that 11-year-olds are in a better position to take advantage of secondary education. The problem we have got at the moment is that they are tending to slip back when they go into secondary schools in that three-year period and we need to address that. I think that is a real achievement. In terms of achieving a learning society, I do think that the work we have been doing in FE has led to improvements. I think the sector is unrecognisable compared to what it was in 1992, so I think we have seen improvements but we have still got rather a long way to go and of course our competitors are moving pretty quick too. That is why we need to continue to set stretching targets and that is why one or two of those targets at the end of the day might not be met. That is not an acceptance that we are not going to meet levels 2 and 3, but some of them may not be met.

  107. Are there any key areas that you want to point out for reports coming up in the next few years for your successors?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We have got to maintain our focus on literacy and numeracy and the basic skills in education in primary schools. We have got to improve the quality of provision in all of our secondary schools. There are some brilliant ones, of course, but not enough yet and that three-year period from 11 to 14 is so important. Those are important areas. We have just produced the education paper on how we deliver greater excellence in secondary schools and a more diverse system focused on the individual so that the individuals can make choices. I think the area which we have grappled with for probably 20 years is the quality of vocational qualification and the "parity of esteem", as it used to be known. I think again we have made some progress. Modern apprenticeships are a big step forward. I think with vocational GCSEs and A-levels and foundation degrees we are beginning to produce an alternative pathway into higher education for people who want to take it, towards quality qualifications. Sometimes in the past we have sought to defend and to market qualifications that employers and individuals knew were not really of high enough quality. I am optimistic that that is improving. That is a key area for us to maintain our attention. I think one of the things we probably have improved on recently, and I am using this as a peg to move beyond just education, is I think we are probably better at delivering initiatives like literacy and numeracy. I think we have learned to manage projects more effectively and to focus on results more effectively, but I think that is still an area not just in education but generally in government that we need to give a lot more attention to. I do not think our project management skills are yet good enough. I do not think our business planning systems are yet strong enough. I am afraid I will probably annoy people sitting on my right and left, but I do not think we have enough people in positions where they are able to draw on conclusions about performance who have ever delivered anything, and we need to ensure that we have got more people in those positions who have had experience in operational delivery and operational management, and that is still not the case. Looking beyond education we still have quite a long way to go in terms of successfully delivering the policies of whatever government is in power.

  108. Thank you. That is very interesting. Professor Melville, any observations on your time and what is coming in your area?
  (Professor Melville) I think we are at a situation with further education which we could not have dreamt of because it was something spread around the country of which we had virtually no knowledge. In fact, we probably have more knowledge on further education than almost any other part of education now. And we have got a fair funding system, or at least a transparent funding system where people can judge its fairness and comment on it. We are assessing the whole of it together and we are moving towards improving that assessment through inspection, so in a way debates in committees like this have moved on from why are you not doing it to how you are doing it and what it is able to produce. We are at a stepping off point to reach some of the things that have proved intractable for this country in education—the basic skills issue, the seven million that we now need to tackle. I think we understand all of that a lot better. We are very poor, relative to other countries, in the whole of the skills area at the intermediate level. We are good in HE and we have had significant improvements in primary and secondary education, the whole of that area of level 2 and 3 making colleges more responsive to what is needed. We are at the point where we know enough about it to move forward. In a way this Funding Council, which has had a short eight-year life, has been the process of bringing that together. Of course, we have had a massive expansion. I think if one can have a most satisfying statistic it is that nearly a million more people every year benefit from further education than did so in 1993, one million more every year, year-on-year. I think that has to be good for individuals in terms of an inclusive society but also good for the country, too. If I were to reflect on what funding councils can do, I think we have shifted our expectation of them. They were set up to take things away from close control by local authorities. We have to accept that was the situation. I think we have come round to believing that you need the benefits of a central body but you still want that close observation for a number of the players in the business, and that is why we have moved to a Learning and Skills Council to provide a greater ability to respond. Many of the difficulties we have discussed here have been associated with precisely the structure that was created in the first place. We have stepped back and put sticking plaster on that perhaps to try to put more resources into some of these more acute problems. I believe we have learned enough about audit and inspection to be able to do that better in the future. I guess one of my big regrets is that far too much of what is said about further education relates to that very small percentage, the one per cent, that causes the great scandals, the colleges that we name in this room over and over again, whilst we have absolutely tremendous achievements. Today's hearing has been very good in that we have been able to talk about some of the tremendous achievements colleges have and I think will continue to have in the future.

  Chairman: Mr Williams?

Mr Williams

  109. Sir Michael, when you walk out of this door you are going to suffer withdrawal symptoms, I suspect, because you are now in your eleventh year as a regular witness to the Committee. The first was in a singularly difficult Department which no-one has ever been able to rescue from the status of having its accounts qualified. You have now been in a Department where life has been somewhat less traumatic, I suspect, from that point of view. What are your views retrospectively on the way in which this Committee operates? The reason I ask that is because I spoke recently, as you have done for some years, to the Civil Service College and I gather you had been speaking there. I suffered a follow-up question because they cannot keep quiet and I gather you indicated—and this may have been a complete distortion of what you said—that this Committee helped to engender risk aversion within the Civil Service. Is that your view and, if it is, how do you think this Committee could differently conduct its inquiries?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That has never been at the top of my list of criticisms of this Committee nor indeed of the National Audit Office. If you want my list of criticisms I am happy to give them to you. I think it is unfortunate that we have been unable to give the focus to the issues that run across government that we ought to. The issues that really concern the people out there do not fall within the ambit of one department—ageing, some of the issues we have talked about today—they range across departments, and I do not feel (you may well disagree) that the NAO nor the Committee have given enough focus to those sorts of issues. It is not very often that you have two or three Permanent Secretaries from different departments here to talk about issues. I missed one recently when we were going to have a discussion on obesity which would have been, I am sure, worthwhile. But I have not sat here very often with other Permanent Secretaries, so that is an issue. I do not believe that we put sufficient focus on the quality of the basic management systems. One of the things that surprised me really is that I often feel that people do not really take much concern in whether or not I manage the Department efficiently. We talk about particular aspects, but I am very rarely held to account as to whether or not the Department has a clear sense of its strategic direction, has good business planning systems in place which could add value and make a difference and hold people to account. Those sorts of systems are not really assessed by the NAO, reported here, you do not hold me to account for that. Yes, I think there is a point about the extent to which we encourage people to manage risk rather than to avoid it. We work in a democratic system. There is a limit to how far you can do that, but I think we should be thinking together about how we can encourage people to manage risk, to be more creative. I think that does require a Committee like this sometimes to draw attention to examples of good risk management which have still however led to something going wrong because if you are creative and if you manage risk sometimes, with the best will in the world, it will go wrong. You have now drawn me and I shall probably regret it but those are some of the things that I feel. I think the Committee could sometimes ask a few more questions about the policy process, not about particular policy issues because that is difficult for you, but just how well has a particular policy been developed, to what extent have outsiders been involved in it, to what extent has the risk really been managed and assessed, to what extent have contingencies been taken into account. Sometimes we just seem to take the policy process for granted.

  110. We have obviously been hiding our light under a bushel because we have now taken to producing wider ranging reports, but I recognise it is a relative new innovation.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is relatively new.

  111. I think that has been very valuable and we have issued clear views in relation to risk, that we are not averse to risk being taken as long as the risk is properly understood, properly assessed and properly managed. I just wanted you to have a chance after 11 years of confrontation and anguish before this Committee to say anything you felt that would possibly be advantageous to us in our future activities.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not know whether it will be advantageous to you but I hope you do not feel I ducked the question.

  Mr Williams: You did what I wanted; you gave an answer. Thank you very much.

Mr Leigh

  112. Talking of the policy process, who is right, Sir Michael, Chris Woodhead or David Blunkett?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) On what?

  Chairman: I think I would offer the witness protection on this.

  113. We have had a number of articles appearing in Mr Woodhead's name which have, I suppose, in broad terms accused the Prime Minister and David Blunkett of not being as radical as they might be against vested interests. Without asking you to stray too much into high politics, which I know you do not want to do, this is an opportunity for you to talk something about the policy process, is it not, of how governments can deliver their objectives against vested interests?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am happy to talk about it. I think there are two issues here, one, how do you develop policy and, two, how do you deliver it, and my argument has been for some time that good policy has in the past been regarded as policy which was clever and politically safe, whichever Government was in power, and now we need a wider definition of "good policy". It needs to be focused on issues which matter to people out there rather than just bits of issues that happen to be in your department. It needs to be well-presented and communicated. It needs to be properly researched. It needs to be based on evidence, and we have not always covered ourselves in glory in the way in which we have developed policy. I think it needs to involve more outsiders at an earlier stage than sometimes we have. I know that often people say you cannot to that; I think sometimes you can do that, because people are responsible enough to want to be involved. I think the way in which you develop policy does have an effect on how good the policy is. You then have questions about how good you are at delivering policy. That is why I made the point earlier about the need for project management skills within government. Governments over the years have never really shown that they value good project management skills. It has never been the way to get to the top in the Civil Service and that is why we have not got any project managers. There are very few project managers and it is very difficult to get them. You have got to train them, value them, pay them, and you have got to give them a career path. Maybe there are occasions when we could be better at delivering policy than we have been because we have not always had the skills. I do not think that is anything to do with a disagreement between Chris Woodhead and David Blunkett. When Chris Woodhead was Her Majesty's Chief Inspector I thought he was fairly complimentary about the way in which the education system was improving. The number of poor lessons was decreasing very significantly and that is exactly the situation. So clearly he has had a chance to reflect upon that and no longer agrees with his advice.

  114. Just take one issue which I am quite interested in which is more freedom for heads of schools to hire and fire staff and, dare I say it, to select and deselect pupils. I know we cannot have a long discussion about the policy aspects of that, but if we were talking about project management, say we were talking in terms of a minister who wanted to promote that sort of policy of more freedom for heads, how has the project management round that policy taken place historically and how should it take place?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We have devolved a lot more responsibility to heads and we are beginning, at least, to provide opportunities for heads to develop management skills. There are some brilliant heads out there. You and I know that. When you visit a school you know pretty quickly after you walk through the door - it is almost a cliché—whether it is going to be good because you meet the head and you know whether or not you have got somebody there who is managing and providing leadership or whether you have got someone who is surviving and moving the deckchairs around. There are some brilliant heads but we have not given them enough support or aspiring heads enough support to develop the leadership and management skills. We do have issues around bureaucracy and the burdens that we are placing on heads and schools and we are trying to do something about that, but it has always struck me that the really good heads, the good leaders do find ways of rooting out poor teachers and poor performers. They have been able to deal with that. The good local authorities have been able to deal with that. It is the same in my business in the Civil Service as in any organisations; there are some leaders who will always tell you why they have not got the power to get rid of poor performers and do things and there are other people who just find ways of doing it. That is the difference between good and bad leaders.

  115. Can I ask you one last question on something that is dear to my heart because I have three children at Church schools. Can you say something about what you have managed to achieve in increasing the numbers of Church schools. Presumably you accept that they out-perform on virtually every measure and they are hugely popular. What is your personal view as to how we can increase the availability of Church school places which are usually hugely over-subscribed?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The Education Paper we produced a month ago makes it clear that it is the Government's intention to increase the number of Church schools and I hope that will encourage those who—

  116. I know about intentions but leave aside the politics, intentions and all the rest of it, just from your personal experience within the bureaucracy now, how much resistance have you found to this? Have you been able to take the process forward? That is what I am more interested in.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not think there is resistance to it. There is a clear focus on achievement of standards and outcomes. In a sense we have all changed. It is not just the bureaucracy and one political part. There is a stronger emphasis now on standards and achievements and a better understanding that it is not just individual children that will benefit from higher standards, it is our economic success that depends upon it, and if institutions or particular kinds of institutions can deliver that then we should support them and we should encourage them.

Mr Steinberg

  117. Before Mr Leigh mentioned Woodhead I was going to express my deepest sympathy to you for the time you have had over the last five years—
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I have enjoyed every minute of it.

  118. Having to put up with Mr Woodhead, nursery vouchers, the assisted places schemes, grant maintained schools. You have had a rough time but you have come out of it quite well actually.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Thank you very much!

  Mr Steinberg: At least you have had the last four years where it has been reasonable. Changing the subject totally to higher education, one of the biggest problems that my post bag at the moment shows is student financial support. Do you think—and it is probably an unfair question—the Government have got it right on tuition fees and student loans?


  119. That is probably beyond the touchline.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Try again.

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