Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20-39)



Paul Holmes

20.  I have two questions relating to Key Stage 2 results but they are more linked to your introductory comments because they are more about how you are going to do the job as the new Secretary of State. You were saying at the start that you want to set ambitious targets and your predecessor in 1997 set ambitious targets when publishing Key Stage 2 results. He said if they had not been met by 2002 he would resign. Will you resign next year if those targets are not being met?

  (Estelle Morris) No, and I never said I would. I want to be judged across all our priorities with the new department and that is right. I believe we will meet our targets next year. Whether you now want to ask me about this year's performance as the next question I do not know.

21.  That is the next question.

  (Estelle Morris) I know what the former Secretary of State would have said, although I should not answer for him, that whatever happens, throughout all our political lives, literacy and numeracy was probably the best thing we did. It really changed things. I do think we have to be an adult society. I do believe we will meet the targets but if we were to miss them by a percentage or two I still think it will have been a huge success. We will get them, we believe we will get them. It is important to us that we get them. We do not want to fall back by a percentage or two but, whatever happens, I think they have been hugely successful strategies.

22.  This year's results showed a disappointing dip after an initial improvement and one question would be why, but the second one is: those results were due to be released in the week starting 17 September and obviously the specialist education press were waiting for that, but they got leaked the week before and appeared in the London Evening Standard on a Friday buried on page 26. Have you launched or will you launch an inquiry to see how that information got leaked in the week of course of Jo Moore's e-mail suggesting that that was a good week to bury bad news?

  (Estelle Morris) I have to go through the chronology of that. We planned to announce the results either the following Tuesday or the Wednesday which was the week of our White Paper speech. We did five conferences that week and I even made arrangements for my junior ministerial colleagues to be working from Newcastle as well as London. What happened was that we got information from the Evening Standard on Thursday evening, I reckon, when Mr Miles from the Evening Standard phoned us to ask for a comment on Key Stage results tests. The Independent had done an article previously on which they had done a phone-round on 100 or 200 schools and come up with a summary. I knew it was wrong. I knew the figures by then so I knew it was wrong. I did not feel happy to respond to that. What became clear when the Evening Standard gave us the figures was that they were right and they were too close not to have had access to them, so we took a decision, which I think was the right one, to put out a press release but we did not do so until the lunchtime edition of the Evening Standard was published just in case they did not go ahead and publish in the light of events previous to that week. The reason we did that was that I would have been in the stupid position of spending the weekend saying, "No comment. I will talk to you on Wednesday" and that would have been very strange. Given that Friday is a constituency day for Secretaries of State as well as other MPs it was not the most convenient day to do it but I think we acted rightly and properly in that and there was no alternative. I am not sure, but I will check and come back to you, that the Permanent Secretary authorised an official leak inquiry but I do know that we went through the system both with QCA and ourselves as to how the information could have got leaked. I do not know how it got leaked.

23.  So if you have carried out or if you do carry out an inquiry you will let us know?

  (Estelle Morris) I can drop you a line as to the status of that inquiry.[3] Let us be clear. What happened was that the figures were in the public domain five or six days earlier. They were figures that were always destined for the public domain. It was not as though as a leak it was highly sensitive information that put the nation at risk or that it was personal information. All that happened was that the Government ended up talking about it five or six days earlier than might otherwise have been the case, and we will go on talking about it.

Mr Shaw

24.  You said that the 14-19 policy development was going to be one of your key focuses over the next couple of years. In your opening statement you said that youngsters have never had to work so hard for their examinations. In the manifesto Realising the Talent of All you talk about building pathways more tailored to individual aptitudes and aspirations and so if we accept that young people, boys and girls, mature at different ages and so therefore their aptitude and their likelihood of success at examinations comes at a different time should we not be looking at allowing young people to take examinations at a different time, both those who might be in a position to take their exams early but, more importantly, allowing young people to take examinations beyond 16? What is quite clear to me is that if we are going to hit the targets of 50 per cent of youngsters going into higher education then the springboard for that needs to be further education. Success builds on success. Therefore would you perhaps in some of the different routes and pathways in future—I know you are looking to have a Green or a White Paper with various shoots towards the end of the year, beginning of next year,—be looking at allowing more flexibility because not all youngsters are ready at 16? It might be 17 or 18. Are you going to have a relative step change in the 14-19 agenda in allowing youngsters to take examinations at a different time?

  (Estelle Morris) It works both ways. Some will want to take it earlier. I think we will want to do that and we want to do that as well. We will want different routes and pathways. You made a lot of interesting points. The physical maturity of children is an issue. Some of them feel adults but emotionally their social development is not always as quick as their physical development. I am conscious that with older adolescents sometimes part of the disengagement with school is that they do not feel that school is the place they want to be. That does not mean that they do not want to learn. What I want to look at is all the places where you could learn, such as FE colleges and so on. I want to have far more flexibility in that. I think that the decision as to when children take exams is a professional one for teachers to take. I want them to do that but what I would not want to stop doing is the snapshot at 16 as to where young people are. I think that is important. If the question was partly, if they take exams at 17 can they be excluded from our performance tables at 16, I would not want to do that, but I think that snapshot at four or five points in the school system is important. I think increasingly we will want people to come back to learning to take qualifications and maybe—and it is not something I have addressed in my mind as yet—the flexibility of learning and places to learn will also be reflected in making sure that children can take exams when it suits them best, and that is early and perhaps later but not getting rid of that snapshot of children at 16.

25.  So that snapshot will be the GCSE?

  (Estelle Morris) The snapshot at the moment is all the exams taken at 16. We already include in that the vocational exams as well, GNVQs. Next year we are piloting the first vocational GCSEs and we will want to have them in our table as well.

26.  If we are going to tailor things individually between 14 and 19, it is always after 16, the GCSE, that things happen. If we are going to make the radical changes and have more individual pathways and, as you say, it must be more appropriate for youngsters to clear the GCSEs and get on with other aspects of their educational career, if that stands and you are enthusiastic about that, why not allow youngsters to take their examinations afterwards? Can there not be some other measurement of attainment at 16?

  (Estelle Morris) Most people take a set of exams at 16 but some do take it afterwards. Teachers' institutions every day are exercising that judgement. You put an interesting point and there is clearly some logic to what you are saying in that more flexibility means more flexibility right across the system. Flexibility is a different word than wetness, softness, lack of rigour. One of the huge drivers to increasing educational attainment in the education system has, I believe, been the publication of performance data. How ever we work forward that agenda I do not want to not publish performance data. There is a logic in what you say and I would not want to put myself in a position when, having consulted on 14-19, somebody comes forward with some decent suggestions on that and we have closed our ears and eyes to doing anything about it.

27.  So you are willing to discuss that?

  (Estelle Morris) Yes, but can I say what I have not said, because I am conscious that most politicians get into trouble for what they have not said. I have not just said that GCSE is not important; neither have I just said that GCSE is not an important thing at 16. I know the background to that and I understand that. I need the accountability, I need the performance data, the nation needs them, but we do want flexibility. Let us see how it goes. I bet you will invite us back after Christmas to discuss the 14-19 report, Chairman. I will log that down.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, you ought to know that one of the things that we are looking at is the 14-19 and FE sector. It is something that the Committee did before I became Chairman, but it is something we are going to dust off and bring up to date quite rapidly. Can I just tell colleagues that I want to pack a lot into the last minutes we have, so please let us have short questions if possible.

Mr Chaytor

28.  Very quickly, if I may, on the performance data, am I right in thinking that next year the Key Stage 4 performance data will be published with a value-added methodology for the first time?

  (Estelle Morris) When we publish performance data this year we will publish performance data, value-added data for our Key Stage 3 pilot which is 200 schools. We have got the position that they will have two sets of information: straight national and value added. What that means is that the following year—I will get round to answering your question, but trying to work out the answer as I go along—next year, when we for the very first time publish Key Stage 3 data it will be value added for every single school.

29.  Which year is Key Stage 3?

  (Estelle Morris) 2003 for Key Stage 4. Pilots this year for 2003. Logic tells me that we need another two years to get to Key Stage 4 value added, but I may be wrong on that. It is all about when the children who have got the achievement number work through the system. Beyond the 2003 Key Stage 3 data, all of which will be value added, it is a bit muddying to say that the kids have got to be treated as Key Stage 3 then, if they do not get to the Key Stage 4 until two years later. If I have got that wrong and there is a flaw in my thinking, I will let you know.[4] What I can assure you is that it will be published wherever we can, as it is very, very important. That is part of the partnership of schools; they do not think they get credit for working in difficult circumstances, but because we aim high I do not want any school to think that their children cannot achieve five GCSEs. My best guess is probably 2003/2005.

30.  I have a very brief supplementary. Will the value-added data for Key Stage 3 and 4 then be used as one of the criteria for determining what constitutes a good school in respect of greater autonomy?

  (Estelle Morris) Yes, certainly.

Jeff Ennis

31.  I have three brief questions, Chairman, if I may. The first one is a general question to do with specialist schools, Secretary of State, and the continued expansion of the specialist schools programme. There are a lot of critics of the government policy on specialist school status, in that all we are actually doing is creating a two-tier comprehensive system. What is your answer to that question?

  (Estelle Morris) I think the process of change is difficult, and that is what we are going through now with reshaping secondary education. I suspect it will take this Parliament and beyond actually to get the shape of secondary schools the way that we want. I do not believe it is a two-tier system. I think that schools naturally play to their own strengths; they know that they are the same as other schools, and they value that sameness because that is part of belonging to a family, belonging to a group and belonging to a service, but they also value the things that make them different as well. In the structure of our schools I want to do both of those things. If I was saying to you that I will cap the number of schools that can be specialist schools, I think the Government would be vulnerable to the charge of two tiers. We are not saying that. I think that one of our most important statements is that over time we want every school which aspires to specialist school status and is ready to take it on to be able to do so. That is why I say that in terms of the period of getting from where we were in 1997, which was 181 specialist schools, to where we would like to be in 2005 and beyond—we are now at 685, we will be at 1,500 by the end of this Parliament—I think that process is difficult, because some are moving at a faster rate than others, but for lots of reasons that you either choose to ask me or not, I think that specialist schools are central to what we want to do.

32.  Secretary of State, 7 per cent of specialist schools used the option to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude. Do you think that number is about right? Should it be expanded? Are you keeping it under review? What are your views about that?

  (Estelle Morris) We were not counting it, but we are now counting it, because everyone is very interested in it. It is 7 per cent and falling, because as we introduce more schools into the system the number stays the same but the percentage goes lower. What is true is that most of those schools that choose to exercise selection by aptitude did so probably prior to 1998. I cannot say to you that nobody has introduced it since then, but it has been very few, so the percentage will actually fall. I am not getting worked up about it, to tell you the truth. It is not worth worrying about it. We are certainly not setting a target. I think that is a decision if that is best left to local areas to do. The example I would give is that I do not think we will ever get to the stage where there are, say, too many specialist sports schools. We shall never probably have quite as many as the specialist technology colleges. There are only likely to be two or three in a City. I do not want to take away the right of the head teacher to give a chance to a child who excels in sport but does not live in their immediate catchment area, I do not want to take away their right to be able to make that decision, but neither will I do anything actively to promote selection by aptitude or anything else. It is part of the rules, I am not going to change them and it is not the most important part of the specialist schools initiative.

33.  Changing the subject slightly, a lot of the schools initiatives depend on bringing in funding from the private sector, which I would support in principle, but obviously in some areas that is easier to achieve than others. In some of the deprived parts of the constituency that I represent they are having great difficulty levering private-sector funding. Is there enough flexibility within the machine actually to make allowances for deprived areas to receive private-sector funding?

  (Estelle Morris) I have visited your constituency, Mr Ennis, and it was for me a really good day out to see the education and actually see what is happening. You are moving into a hugely challenging area in terms of the structure of training which is taking place at the moment. You have got there in a way, a partnership from the bond with the private sector, so it works. I may be wrong on this, though I like to think I am right, but my feeling is that if you work in a poor area it is not that business does not want to partner you, it is that life is tough if you work in a tough school and you do not have the time to go round chasing money. I think it is that way round, because I do not want to say to business, "You're only prepared to support schools in the leafy suburbs", because I do not think that is true. I think many of them, particularly the work that is done by Unilever in Tower Hamlets and things like that—there are examples all over the place—are good at choosing tough schools. So I would say two things. I want to relieve those schools from having to spend their time getting the private-sector money. That is why there is a lot of money centrally at the Technology College Trust which can be accessed. There are two things I have done. I always make sure that I have asked the Technology College Trust to let me know, of the money that they give out centrally to schools for sponsorship for specialist school status—they are about to tell me, I have not got the figures—what the free school meals figure was for those schools. I want to make sure that if I skew it in any way I skew it towards those schools that have the most difficulty. The last thing is, I am keeping my eye on the sponsorship money. I do not have the feeling at the moment that it is too high, and I want to make schools make those links with industry. Money is one of the levers for doing it. I will keep my eye on it, and if there is an insurmountable problem I will want to come back on that.

Valerie Davey

34.  Secretary of State, I want to come back to Key Stage 3. Parents in Bristol certainly, I am sure throughout the country, whatever the statistical evidence this last summer, will endorse what you said earlier that the attainment had increased at the primary level, there is no doubt, and they are very pleased. They then look at the secondary perspective, and all the statistics seem to indicate a trough when we come into secondary years. I know you have done some Key Stage 3 pilot work, so I have two questions. First of all, is there any evidence from that that the methods being used are being successful, and have we anything that we can use as good practice? Secondly, to get those primary results we put in quite a lot of central directives in terms of literacy and numeracy hours, extra staff training and a lot of money. Is that the kind of agenda we may need for Key Stage 3?

  (Estelle Morris) Yes, we will want to take the best of literacy and numeracy, but secondary schools are very different organisations and they are far more complicated. Let us just take Key Stage 3 English. Traditionally in primary schools one teacher has got a relationship all the day with the children. English is taught in English lessons, it is also taught right across the curriculum in secondary schools, so it is far, far more complex, so we have to be different as well. We will put money in each year, and in terms of our decisions about allocating resources we will prioritise it in the same way that we did Key Stage 1 and 2 literacy and numeracy. Where we are at the moment is that every school now has begun their training on English and Maths, literacy and numeracy at Key Stage 3, and the feedback is good. The feedback is very good about the quality of training. I think our next challenge is how they use that back in school, because what we are doing at the moment is we are training two or three people for them to come back into schools and train others as well. Also we will be looking to OFSTED who are monitoring this for us, both the initial training and how it is implemented, to guide us in future. All I would ask of the Committee is that I think we are taking on a huge thing here. 30 per cent of children perform less well at the end of year 7 than they did at the end of year 6. If you look at the spread of results over Key Stage 3 from 1997 till now, some of them have dipped, and it cannot be right. That is about where you put your strong teachers in secondary schools, it is about the levers we give secondary schools to perform well, because there has been no lever to perform well at Key Stage 3. So we will move quickly, but we do want to give secondary schools some element of choice as to how they implement it in school. So what we are saying is, "You've got to do it in year 7, but you use your judgement about whether you do it in this year's year 8 and this year's year 9, you pick out the best things." So we will get good practice, we are at the start, but it has got the elements of project management and evaluation and the degree of financial support that literacy and numeracy had.

35.  Do you think that perhaps the liaison between primary and secondary is as good as it ought to be?

  (Estelle Morris) Yes.

36.  So you are saying that it is a new, complex situation. It certainly is for children going from Year 6 to Year 7, is it not?

  (Estelle Morris) Yes.

37.  Perhaps there is not going to be enough learning, dare say it, between secondary and the primary sector from which the children have come. Parents now see their children attaining well at 11 and their aspirations, like yours, have increased. That is brilliant, you need to satisfy it. Is there anything else we can do in that liaison work?

  (Estelle Morris) The table tells us that, and the children are actually saying, that when they get to Year 7 they are going back to Year 6 in the primary schools, and I have had this from teachers who are saying they do not teach at the same level, it is slowed down, they are doing the same things over again, all the same, at the secondary level. I do not want to be over-critical of secondary school colleagues but, as I said—and I say this as a sensitive secondary school teacher more than a Secretary of State—the feeling amongst secondary schools was that they cannot learn from primary schools, and that it is in the secondary schools where the real subject teaching starts. They can learn an immense amount from their primary school colleagues, they really can. I think they have taken that on board during recent years and have done it. Can I just say that one of the two things I am interested in is that the kids move and everything changes—the shape of the day, the buildings, their own particular maturity begins. We do not make it easy for them, do we? We do not make it easy for young adolescents to remain engaged in learning. I think we have got to look at it from their point of view. There are some schools which are taking some initiatives, which I am particularly interested in, in moving the primary school teachers into Key Stage 3. There is a school in Haringey that employs on a one-year or two-year contract some teachers from their feeder primary schools only to work in year 7. What they do—it is actually one of our Fresh Start schools in Haringey—is the kids have got the pastoral continuity, they have that, and the teachers teach the children to give them continuity, but they train staff so that they have got somebody there all the time who can work with the staff. So I have probably been over-critical of secondary school teachers, but I do think it has taken them a few years to wake up to the fact that it is not just about making children feel comfortable and socially at ease when they come there, it is about academic attainment as well. We have got such a long way to go on that.


38.  Secretary of State, we are coming to the last minutes of this enjoyable session. I think we would be remiss if we did not ask you two connected questions. If we are a little bit tight for time I know we can go on a bit longer, but there is a time limit to this session. Some of us on this Committee, certainly the ones who served on the last Education Sub-committee of the Education and Employment Committee which did a long and thorough inquiry into higher education both in terms of access and retention, have been rather concerned about what seems to be a change of mind on the Government's part. In a sense, most of the evidence that we took during those inquiries suggested that the bulk of people in higher education were very pleased that there is a new basis for student finance—not that they thought everything was right about it, but that we had moved from a situation where in percentage GDP we were spending about the same amount as our industrial competitors, but in our case before the changes about 40, even 45 per cent was going on student support. As the Committee heard the evidence, if you believe that our universities have a major role as regenerators of their regions, their towns and their cities, a major role in continuing research to be globally world class, and even, as many of us said, if there was a priority it might be that you paid university teachers slightly better (but I have a special interest in that). If you have those other goals, though, it seemed to many of us that you would move into a situation where you could liberate yourselves from that real tie and do some exciting things with higher education expansion, not always applying that 40 per cent, draining away the student support. Do you believe that if we are going to come out of this system and are going back to the old system, it would seem enormously expensive and a drain on our resources?

  (Estelle Morris) No, it will not, because at least the rules remain the same. I think my predecessor was absolutely right and incredibly brave to make that move towards students contributing to their own education. It has to happen. Quite honestly, we have a choice. If we go back, we do not reach our expansion figures, and the expansion figures are not just something that would be nice, they are absolutely essential. Those are the hard choices that we face. So that will be the fact. What I think has happened is that it is the perception rather than the reality. If we want to move to the 50 per cent target, we have to look at what the barriers to that might be. I am actually quite comfortable that half the students did not pay fees, and I am relatively comfortable that with the payback rate when you are in work not when you are out of work—with marginal rates of interest, I think that it should be okay. However, I think what happened was that there was a perceived fear of debt, and families sometimes from a class background who have spent a lifetime avoiding debt. What seemed to be asking them a lot was actually to say, "Invest now. We promise you, you will actually get a higher income in future because you'll have a degree", because it was too many years for them to be sure about making that decision. So what I wanted to avoid was that their perception of debt would start affecting the way they behaved and they would not apply to university. The reason that we are doing a review is to make sure that that does not happen. To be absolutely clear, whatever we come up with will actually mean a continuing contribution from the student families and the student; there is no other way of getting round that.

39.  Has the Department been receiving evidence, from HEFCE or anywhere else, that young people from deprived backgrounds were being put off by that sort of view? We thought it was too early. Even up to June the hard data was not coming through. Indeed, when we made our recommendations in the first inquiry into access, we very strongly recommended to the Government, given the 5 per cent premium for universities, to go down the supply chain to find out where there was an under-performance in education or in a region and to build partnerships with schools. We thought that a 20 per cent premium would have been the real way to energise the system. On those two, have there been any movements, or will there be any movements?

  (Estelle Morris) On the figures in terms of the social class applications to university, I am told—I have not actually got the figures, I am told this, but I have not seen them, so I may have to qualify this—that of the over 5 per cent extra who have applied this year, that does not show a drop-off in those coming from a lower social class background. On the record, the increase in applications to Scottish universities is 1.6, that is over 5 per cent, which is an interesting reflection on the debate that took place in the last few months about attracting them.[5] It is extremely complex, but what you get from teachers, what you get from head teachers and what you get from students is this growing nagging fear that their perception of debt is about to affect the way that they behave, and I do not want that to happen. In terms of promoting access, I know what we have to do most. What we have to do most is increase attainment at 18, because what is true at the moment is that most of those getting two `A' levels are going on to university, but there is the disproportionate effect that 70 per cent of the middle classes go to university and almost 17 per cent of the working classes go to university.[6] Park that and look at qualifications. That is where I want to go on that, but I will look at the whole of the relationship as to how we use HE. The last thing on that is that we have got a responsibility to raise the attainment level, but the universities have got a responsibility to make working-class children understand that places like university are suitable for kids who have never had anyone in the family go to university before. I cannot do that, the teachers cannot do that. HE have the key to that, and that is my major speech on HE that I am about to do.

3   Supplementary memorandum, page 15. Back

4   Supplementary memorandum, page 15. Back

5   Note by witness: The latest UCAS figures show an increase in accepted applicants for the 2001-02 academic year across the UK of 5.5 per cent. The increase in accepted applications from Scotland to Scottish universities is 2 per cent, compared to the increase in accepted applicants from England to English universities of 5.9 per cent. Back

6   Note by witness: The position is that 17 per cent of those from lower socio-economic groups go into higher education, compared to 45 per cent from higher groups. Back

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