Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 52 - 59)




  52. Lady Ashton, can I welcome you to the Committee. I know that you have not appeared before a select committee before and this is a new experience for you, but welcome to you and also welcome to your new role as a Minister in the Upper House. May I start the proceedings by inviting you to say a few words in terms of introducing your ministerial position and your aspirations for your time as a minister.

  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) As a member of Estelle Morris's ministerial team, my lead responsibilities include early years and childcare, primary education, special educational needs, school inclusion, truancy and discipline, and National Curriculum, assessment and performance tables issues for five to 14 year olds. I also lead on e-learning within schools, the schools building programme, protection of school playing fields and school governance. I am of course responsible for all education and skills matters in the House of Lords. In the next few minutes, I will attempt to give a necessarily broad-brush overview of what we are trying to achieve across this portfolio and my specific goals and targets. Our fundamental aim is to ensure that as many children as possible leave school with the education, skills and attitudes they need to make a success of their lives in the workplace, as citizens and within their families. This is partly about building a better educated and more highly skilled workforce, but it is also about helping the one in five children who live in poverty and their families, to use the opportunity which education offers to break out of the downward cycle of deprivation and social exclusion. We are also seeking to develop the schools' capacity to respond to the individual needs of every child, whatever their abilities and circumstances. We know that early years education can make a real difference to children's ability to benefit from their subsequent schooling, particularly the children from homes which are relatively lacking in stimulus and support. That is why we have provided nursery education for all four year olds and why we are working towards our goal of nursery education for all three year olds by September 2004. Alongside early years education, affordable quality childcare is a top priority for families. By March 2004, working in close co-operation with the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions, we will have created 900,000 new childcare places for 1.6 million children up to the age of 14. Our ambition is that every lone parent in the most disadvantaged areas who enters work should have access to a childcare place. The cross-departmental Sure Start programme is providing a range of support for parents to be and families with children under four living in disadvantaged areas. We are also working to develop more childcare provision that is integrated with nursery education, schools and other family services. I am particularly keen to help schools develop as providers of a range of services to support families between childcare. I am chairing the informal review supported by the Treasury and project managed by the Performance Innovation Unit (PIU) at Number 10. Supporting young children and their families so that children are ready to learn when they begin primary school is a critical part of our strategy. Equally, we are continuing to work with schools to increase the numbers of children who, by the end of their primary schooling, are able to read, write and use numbers effectively. Primary schools have achieved a truly dramatic improvement in the last four years in the proportion of 11 year olds reaching the standard in English and mathematics, which they need if they are to benefit fully from their secondary education. We are providing further support and investment to help schools meet the targets for next year, but it is not about hitting targets in itself, it is about realising the full potential of as many children as possible. There are still very considerable variations in the results achieved between schools including between schools with similar pupil intakes. Every child matters, which is why we are continuing our drive to get standards up overall. We are consulting now on new targets for 2004 including, for the first time, the target that 35 per cent of 11 year olds should reach level 5 in English and maths to ensure we are stretching the more able pupils as well as raising average levels of attainment. At the same time, we want to offer, develop and broaden the opportunities for primary schools. In particular, we are looking at ways in which we can extend opportunities for primary school pupils to learn a musical instrument, to do more PE and sport and to learn a foreign language. We are working with key people from education and business to develop and expand language opportunities in schools, colleges and higher education. This kind of enrichment is particularly valuable for children who come from relatively impoverished homes with fewer opportunities for wider cultural activities. The general drive in standards will benefit all children including those with special educational needs (SEN). The literacy and numeracy programmes and the secondary Key Stage 3 strategy include materials and support specifically aimed at helping teachers respond effectively to pupils with special educational need. We are working generally to spread best practice and SEN teaching and to promote further inclusion of children with special educational needs. The new revised SEN Code of Practice will help all schools on the outcomes. We are also committed to raising the educational attainment of children in public care. An important development was the launch in May 2000 of the joint DfES/DH "Guidance on the Education of Young People in Care". The guidance sets out specific steps to be taken by local authorities to secure improvements including designated teachers in schools providing all children with personal education plans and securing educational places for all children in care within 20 school days. We are continuing to develop school performance tables which set out the results schools have achieved at the end of Key Stage tests and the GCSEs. From next year, we will be publishing schools' Key Stage 3 targets results, that is for 14 year olds. We will also for the first time be including in the tables an analysis showing schools' performance in value added terms. In other words, the progress that pupils make between Key Stage 2 and 3 and between Key Stage 3 and 4 and we will piloting value added measures for Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 2. The addition of value added measures will offer parents and others a more rounded picture of what schools are actually achieving. Promoting good behaviour and tackling disruption in schools is central to securing high standards for our children. Poor behaviour is a key concern for teachers, parents and children themselves. Heads must be able to exclude children who are violent or persistently disruptive and we are consulting on proposals which require exclusion appeals panels to take a wider range of factors into account. It is important that decisions to exclude are properly considered as a last resort. I am concerned, for example, that black children are three times more likely to be excluded than others. Children's behavioural problems can most effectively be tackled if we intervene earlier and we are providing support for schools to promote positive behaviour from the early years onwards. At the same time, we are developing provision for children who are excluded and we are on track to meet our goal that all excluded children and young people are receiving a full-time education from September of next year. At the secondary stage, I am working with Stephen Timms on the development of "education with character" with the aim of building self-esteem, physical and mental health and social responsibility. The introduction of citizenships into the national curriculum has an important role to play as do PE and sports. Through the rigorous controls we have imposed, we are ensuring that school playing fields may be sold off only where local schools already have sufficient provision and where the proceeds are ploughed back into education. The Government have invested heavily in computers for schools and IT is now being increasingly used to help pupils across the curriculum. Nearly all schools are now connected to the Internet and we are on course to hit our targets for computer/pupil ratios: 1:8 in primary schools and 1:5 in secondary schools by 2004. The challenge now is to make progress not just with infrastructure but with content: quality, on-line teaching materials. I am also responsible for school buildings. For the last four years, we have been concentrating on addressing the huge backlog of repairs we inherited with 17,000 schools benefiting from major repair works. While the repair work continues, there is now an increasing focus on renewal and modernisation, thanks to the interim investment we are supporting, a total of £8.5 billion over the three years to 2003/4. We are also increasingly using the PF initiative to bring private sector expertise into the design, building and maintenance of school buildings and other capital facilities where this represents better value for money than conventional procurement routes. To ensure that improvements in the quality of school buildings are sustained, we are requiring all local authorities to develop asset management plans so that, from now on, maintenance and renewal work can be properly planned and prioritised in every local area. Finally, a word about school government. I know from personal experience the important and challenging role which school governing bodies play in partnership with heads. We depend on school governors to support and challenge schools on their values, their results and their use of resources. We are currently consulting on proposals to help governors more clearly distinguish between their strategic and the head teachers' executive responsibilities. We are also proposing more flexibility in the way governing bodies are constituted and operate and we are looking at which we can work with LEAs with others to improve support and training for governing bodies. As you will have gathered, I have a wide-ranging portfolio! The common thread running through my responsibilities is raising standards overall by better meeting the needs of individual children from the earliest stages and by action involved in the class room, and outside it, where there are wider issues to be tackled.

  53. Thank you, Minister. That was very interesting; it covered almost everything including the kitchen sink! The Committee will want to ask you some specific questions. Most of the people on this Committee would consider you as an unknown quantity; you have never been elected to Parliament; you are someone who arrived with, in a sense, looking at your CV, not a particular educational background and some members of the Committee will be concerned to know what your passion is, what you care about and where you really want to make your mark. We heard about your official capacity, you have ranged right across your responsibilities very competently, but you did not actually come through as to what you want to do yourself during this given period. What do you really feel strongly about? What is the mark that you want to make?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I do not have a strong background in education in the traditional sense, I have never been a teacher. I am a parent and a step-parent; I have brought up five children. I have been a school governor for seven years and the chair of governors for two and I have chaired a health authority where one of the largest pieces of work that I was involved in was on children's services. My background, if you like, is in a public policy sense looking at the impact of government policies on the ground. That is my passion. I am about delivering. I have been on the receiving end of governing policies for 20 years working through business in the community on economic development through other work that I have done in terms of `How does it impact? How do you make it real?' and recognising that sometimes policies, as they impact on the ground, seem almost contradictory with what they are trying to achieve. So, I find myself at the other end of that telescope and hope that my contribution will be to make sure that we value our teachers, that we value our schools and our governors and we value those who deliver on a daily basis for our children; we support and help those who are struggling to do that; we recognise that every child matters. I am passionate about the inclusion agenda in the best possible sense, that where children are included in mainstream school when they are able to be, that they have the best opportunity, that they benefit from that education but, as importantly, that every child benefits from being in an inclusive school. I believe that our children have one stab at education and it is our job to make sure that it is the best possible one.

  54. In terms of another concern, we on this Committee had a very far ranging inquiry into Early Years[1], in fact we just recently had a debate in Westminster Hall[2], and we care very much about that and of course the Government have been very loud in their proclamations of success on that strategy in Early Years and the amount of money that has been spent on Early Years. There is a sense, when one is looking at the Government's new programme and the ministerial dispositions, that there is almost a feeling that perhaps they have done that now, that they can allow that to drift up to the House of Lords and that you will look after it like a night-person/watchman, whatever you want to call it. We would in fact take that as a kind of pushing down the scale of priorities. Many in this Committee are really concerned because we believe in cutting that link between deprivation, poverty and educational deprivation. We think that certain of the initiatives that were introduced in the first four years in the last government, like Sure Start, were very much seen to be the way forward, yet here we have a situation where your responsibilities in the House of Lords means that you are much less accessible to the House of Commons and there is a feeling that the Government are now getting on with 11 to 14 year olds and other years. We are very concerned, for example, that the roll-out of Sure Start is slow, the underspend is great and our concern would be that the enthusiasm in the first four years is not continuing.

  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I love the idea of being a night watchman/person; I spend a number of nights in the House of Lords so I suppose that is applicable. I understand that and I think there is always a difficulty being a Lords Minister that you do arrive from a different world, as it were, but I would not want anyone in the House of Commons to feel that I was inaccessible to them but, more importantly, the fact that we have announced this informal cross-cutting review on childcare is actually very much to signal to people that we take this even more seriously. It seems to me that, if you look at the Sure Start programmes, with 437 programmes already designated with 200 running, with an underspend largely because is takes longer to roll out the programme, not because the money has not been allocated, that we have a model which s working extremely well but, by any definition, that model cannot have universal coverage because it simply is not designed in that way, it is designed very specifically to reach particular communities and rightly so. If you look at all the work that is going on in childcare and I have been talking to a number of childcare organisations asking them what their problems are and where they see the future, what we have are a number of areas of some difficulties. Recruitment into childcare, particularly getting men into childcare, is difficult. You may have seen the adverts that we have been running lately, for which I believe we have won an award. There are issues about the capital expenditure required and so on for the private nurseries. My ambition for childcare is that it should become mainstream. I take a much longer perspective than perhaps ministers have thought to do about seeing where we think childcare might be in the future and the purpose of the review—and it is, as I say, an informal cross-cutting review chaired by myself and supported by the Paymaster General with the Minister of State for Women and the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions with responsibility for children supported by the performance and innovation group who are project managing this for us from Number 10, that is a fairly inclusive group, I would argue, and the purpose of that is to examine where we have reached and to start to think about beyond the comprehensive spending review into where childcare goes because I have said that my ambition is to develop childcare into the mainstream. It feels still—and we have done a huge amount—that is still peripheral particularly for working women, and I am one, with children of school age, and I have them, we are wholly dependent on the quality of the childcare that we can provide them. For many women, that is something that is not a guarantee. It is something that they have to be constantly looking at, constantly unsure about their future and we want to make sure that childcare is a very important part, both from an educational perspective and from the working life of the country's perspective.

Jeff Ennis

  55. Continuing on the theme of Sure Start, you mentioned in your opening remarks the cross-departmental nature of Sure Start delivery, do you see that as a strength or a weakness?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I think it is a strength and I say that because I come from the outside where, when I was chairing a health authority, I worked very closely to develop the county I was working in the links between health and social care. It does seem to me that joining up services on the ground, going back to my point about delivery, makes a huge difference to the children in families and that, for too long, we have had a situation where people are having to refer to two or three different government departments each dealing with different budgets and different personnel. If we join it up to national level, what you are able to do then is engender for people the ground that sets off being part of one process and, when you are looking at children who you are trying to support and parents to be who are trying to support, you need to bring in all the professionals to work with them together, so it is strength. It is not always easy because it is something that we all have to work to do, whether that is locally or nationally, but it is important.

  56. You also mentioned the fact that the current situation in terms of underspend for Sure Start programmes is because of the scale, it is a new project and rolling it out etc nationally with 400-odd places. Do you see that underspend very much as a temporary transitional situation or can you assure the Select Committee that there will be no underspends in future years?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I would expect it to be transitional. As you know, my colleague Yvette Cooper is chair of the Sure Start group and takes responsibility therefore and I would not want to speak on her behalf on this, but the anticipation is that Sure Start will develop as a model. Often when you are trying new things in any form of life, in my experience, it takes a while to get the model correct. The point about Sure Start is that it is very much delivered at a local level, so pulling together the individuals to make it work takes a little longer and I think that has been the fundamental problem. I imagine that that would get easier but it will be one of the things that we will look at in the review and I will happily come back and report further on that to you.

  57. Finally on Sure Start, you mentioned that fact that it is a new programme and there will be hiccoughs and what-have-you. How can you ensure best practice and the strength of best practice given that it is such a new scheme?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I think one of the ways is to be sure about what we have done and to be clear about what we have discovered. Two things will be inevitable: one is that it works differently in different areas because there are different needs, different children and different families, but there will be common themes that run through that and we should make sure that we learn the lessons of those. The second thing is to make sure that the model is capable of being developed in areas that are not designated as Sure Start areas. I am very keen that we have a way of understanding in terms of the process, bringing people together, so that any local authority could develop a Sure Start model of its own to build on what has already been achieved.

Mr Shaw

  58. Minister, on the issue of underspend on Sure Start programmes, you are right in saying that the programmes perhaps take longer to get up and running than first anticipated, so therefore they lose money because they have not spent it. When the projects are applied for, they are costed and, included in that cost, is the capital and they lose some of them, so they are not actually able to purchase, on occasions, the sort of capital for buildings that they want and, from my understanding, there is quite a lot of inflexibility within Sure Start to allow to swop from revenue to capital etc and there is no rollover and so Sure Start programme will say, "This is the building that we want, this is going to meet the needs" and the Government approve it but because of delay they lose that money and then they actually have to reduce their plans. Do you agree with that and what are going to do about it?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The way in which the Sure Start programme is worked through is, as you know, the responsibility of a steering committee of which I am a member but am not the chair, so the detail of this is not so much in my remit. I am responsible for it in terms of that I am a member of the DfES team and therefore sit on the committees, so forgive me if I cannot be as specific as you would like but that is only because it is not within my remit. What I am very clear about in terms of what we are going to look at in the review is to make sure that we address exactly those issues. My belief is that they are working very hard to make sure that programmes do not suffer because they are delayed. As to precisely what the detail of that is, I would need to consult my colleague Yvette Cooper and come back to you on that.

  59. But you will come back to us on that.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed.[3]

1   First Report from the Education and Employment Committee, Session 2000-01, Early Years, HC 33-I and -II. Back

2   HC Deb, 18 October 2001, vol. 372 cols. 307WH to 348WH. Back

3   Ev. p. 37. Back

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