Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
BICHARD, KCB AND
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
(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 collegesalthough
not allwill 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
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
(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
(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
(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 educationthe 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?
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 indicatedand this may have been a complete distortion
of what you saidthat 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
(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 departmentageing,
some of the issues we have talked about todaythey 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
Mr Williams: You did what I wanted; you gave
an answer. Thank you very much.
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 clichéwhether 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.
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
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
(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 thinkand it is probably an unfair questionthe
Government have got it right on tuition fees and student loans?
119. That is probably beyond the touchline.
(Sir Michael Bichard) Try again.