Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 148-159)




  148. Good morning, Minister. We are delighted that you could come to talk to the Committee. And, as is our custom, we are going to invite you to make a brief opening statement before we ask you some questions?

  (Mr Timms) Thank you, Chairman, very much. Thank you for your invitation. I am delighted to be here. I lead within Estelle Morris' team on six areas, I pick out secondary education, the 14-19 phase of education, area-focused initiatives like Excellence in Cities, on school staffing, on school funding and local education authorities; and the context in which my work is taking place at the moment is of unprecedentedly large and sustained increases in spending on education this year, next year and the year after. It does mean, I think, that the Education Service has an historic opportunity now, and one that I think we must make the most of; and the extra spending needs to bring about tangible change for the better, that parents and pupils and teachers can see. One of the best parts of my job, over the last six months, has been hearing from secondary teachers how the children reaching their schools now from primary schools are coming not just with better test scores, as a result of the Literacy and Numeracy strategies, but that they can read and write better, they are more articulate, more confident, much better prepared to make the most of a secondary education than used to be the case. I think that is a remarkable achievement on the part of the teaching profession, one of immense importance for Britain's future and one we can build on now at secondary level. Within a few weeks, we will be publishing the Education Bill, and it will be my responsibility to take that through the House of Commons. On secondary education, we have set out our programme in the White Paper, published in September, and the way I would characterise our goal is to establish a modern and effective comprehensive system that commands the confidence of every community in the country. One of the most alarming things I learned when I joined the Department in June is that we have fewer 17 year olds in education in Britain than is the case in any other OECD country, except for Turkey, Mexico and Greece. I do not think there will be any dispute that we need to do better than that, and I am confident that we can; in particular, I think, to rekindle the enthusiasm about learning that too many youngsters lose in the early years of their secondary education, and that is an important part of the change that we are seeking to bring about. That is the ambition that I see at the heart of my work, and I will be delighted to discuss any part of it with the Committee this morning.

  149. Minister, thank you very much for that. We are particularly interested in meeting you because of your past experiences as a Minister hotfoot from the Treasury. If you do get into difficulties, if you have a very difficult problem in your job, where do you look for instruction, counselling and guidance; do you look to your Secretary of State in Education, or do you look to the Chancellor?
  (Mr Timms) I suppose it depends what the problem is. We have, I think, established a pretty effective team within the Department since June, and Estelle, of course, has been in the Department since the election in 1997 and has a very long track record of working in schools before that, so she is a very effective leader of the team, and when difficulties arise she is the person that I discuss them with. I hope that my experience in the Treasury, which is a fine institution, by the way, is experience that will be valuable to the Department, but I am very committed to my current job and working with my current colleagues.

  150. But, if you are sitting where we are sitting, there does seem to be an indication that it is Treasury Ministers we should be inviting before this Committee, or even people advising Number 10, because there does seem to be decision-making and string-pulling in Number 10 and in the Treasury rather than in the Education Ministry?
  (Mr Timms) I think what I would argue is that the Treasury has done its job, the Treasury has delivered this unprecedentedly large series of funding increases for education, and that is what we need, and our job now is to deliver, given the extra sums that we have at our disposal, and, as a ministerial team in Education, I think we are probably in a better position than any comparable team in our Department in the past, because we do have these extra sums available to us. On Number 10, it is the case that the Prime Minister takes a very, very close interest in education, and he has made it very clear that it is his number one priority for the Government; but I see that as a source of strength for us and an indication that we have the whole commitment of the Government behind us. I certainly do not have the sense that what we are doing is being interfered with, quite the contrary, and I see that we are being supported.

  151. It is not your area, Minister, but some would say that there is a bit of a mess in the Education Department at the moment in the higher education world, because it does seem that there is string-pulling from Number 10, a commitment to look again at student finance, and with the Treasury saying, yes, there are difficulties with graduate tax, and so on. That is one area where it does not seem to be seen as you all working together; it looks, from this Committee's point of view, as if everyone is at sixes and sevens and at odds?
  (Mr Timms) As you say, it is not my area, but there is a review going on, and there is careful scrutiny of the various aspects of the question that is taking place, and no doubt people have different views on that. I think what is important is, we have seen a very significant increase in the number of people going into higher education this year, nearly 5 per cent, I think, which is very encouraging, and, of course, the higher education target is actually quite a big driver of the work that I am doing, the ambition to get 50 per cent of our young people into higher education by 2010, of 18-30 year olds, that is quite a big driver of the work that I am doing, as well as of the higher education work and the student funding issues that are being looked at, at the moment.

  152. That leads nicely to the first substantive question, in the sense that what we are finding is that, in a sense, what HEFCE is telling us, nearly everyone who gets two A levels, or equivalent, can get into university now; the real problems is, your area, there are not sufficient candidates with the right qualifications coming through. So it is this crucial area, 11-14, 14-16, whichever bit of your empire it is, that seems to be letting the system down. You have done some very good work, we can see, up to 11, there is no doubt about that, most of us on this Committee would agree, but it is this intervening period in which children seem to lose their interest and motivation. What are your priorities for tackling that problem?
  (Mr Timms) First of all, I agree with your analysis, and I think that is underlined by the statistic I quoted at the beginning, about fewer 17 year olds in education here than almost anywhere else. I think we do need a transformation at the secondary level to follow on from what, as you say, has already been achieved at the primary level, and we have set our strategy for accomplishing that task in the White Paper. And I think I would identify five priorities there, or five themes. Firstly, the establishment of high, basic standards that we will expect every school and LEA to meet, with the commitment to provide support to make sure that achieving them is manageable. Secondly, an improvement in the quality of teaching and learning, focusing, to begin with, at Key Stage 3, at the 11-14 pupils, because there is evidence of youngsters coming through primary schools and then some of them slipping back once they have got into secondary school; we need to address that and make sure that the pace that has been achieved at primary school is maintained and sustained. Thirdly, the value of a diverse secondary system, rather than a rigidly uniform one, and one that is characterised as well by partnership and by innovation. Fourth, a new focus on the 14-19 phase of education, seeing that as a coherent whole, and trying to get away from the idea that 16 is the point when your education finishes, but encouraging people to think much more about what happens through the whole 14-19 phase. And, fifth, the fifth theme in the White Paper is a new commitment to supporting teachers, making sure that their workload is manageable, making sure that they get the support and development that they need to do their jobs well. So I think those are the five strands which, when we see those through, will accomplish the transformation that we are looking for.

  Chairman: Right; we will be carrying on with that and a variety of other questions.

Mr Shaw

  153. Talking about Key Stage 2, there was a dip this year; have you got any theories as to why that happened, and have you got any strategies to tackle that? Because when you talked in your opening statement about children coming through to Key Stage 3, the Numeracy Hour, Literacy Hour, and how teachers were saying what a big difference that had made, what has happened this year?
  (Mr Timms) There was a slight dip, and we remain committed, of course, to achieving the targets for next year. But I think there may have been perhaps a little bit of a loss of focus, in some areas, on achieving continuing improvement in those Key Stage 2 results.

  154. Whose loss of focus; teachers'?
  (Mr Timms) I think, in some LEAs, there may have been a little of a loss of focus; certainly we are redoubling our efforts to ensure that the focus on achieving the targets of Key Stage 2 is maintained. And we remain very optimistic that we will achieve those targets, but it does need a good deal of work still, on our part, on the part of LEAs and on the part of schools.

  155. So there is a loss of focus by the LEAs, that you would attribute to a dip in Key Stage 2, we have gone up and then down and it is the LEAs' fault; that does not really sound credible, does it?
  (Mr Timms) No. I would not want to overstate—

  156. You have got to be careful not to blame the teachers, because you want to support teachers—
  (Mr Timms) I think, if I remember rightly, on numeracy there was no change, and on maths there was a very slight fall. So I would not want to overstate the significance of what happened; but it clearly is important that we ensure that the sustained focus that there has been is maintained, through to the achievement of the targets next year, and beyond that as well.

Paul Holmes

  157. You talked, in what you just said, about setting targets for schools that were achievable and helping them to achieve that, but the Headteachers Association recently recommended to their members that they just ignore the Government's targets, because `they are unrealistic, they have been plucked out of the air without consultation and that schools should just get on with doing the job and ignore those targets'. What would you say to that?
  (Mr Timms) I would make a number of points about targets. First of all, let me just talk about the targets that I was particularly referring to, which is the floor targets that we have set in the White Paper, which are a new mechanism, and actually an idea that came out of a review that was carried out in the Treasury when I was there, about how we can make sure that our public services, all of them, are delivering well in every part of the country, and that in areas of disadvantage, where we have traditionally had problems in that area, they are achieving acceptable performance, a good level of performance there, as well. So we have said, in the White Paper, that we want every secondary school in the country to be achieving at least 20 per cent of its youngsters with five good GCSEs by 2004, rising to 25 per cent by 2006; also, by 2004, that we want every LEA in the country to be achieving at least 38 per cent of its youngsters getting five good GCSEs. Now those are demanding targets, there are quite a number of schools and LEAs at the moment that are not meeting those standards, and we will need to move in resources and support to assist. But I think it is very, very important—it goes back to the point I made right at the start about our ambition—that we should have a system that commands the confidence of every single community in the country that those targets should be met; and I think our proposals in that area have been widely welcomed. In terms of the recent discussion that we have been having with schools about targets, and LEAs, those discussions are continuing. I think it is important that we meet the targets that we have set. I know that in some areas there has been a sense that we were asking rather a lot, and there have been some fairly lively discussions around them, but I think we will find that people will sign up to the targets that we have set and that we will also be seeing them achieved.

  158. So you think that the Headteachers' judgement, that they expressed recently, is wrong?
  (Mr Timms) I am not exactly sure what the Association said about this, but certainly discussions are continuing. And I do not think there is any dispute that it is right that we should set ambitious goals for our schools and that all of us should work together to achieve those; and I think that once these discussions are concluded that is the agreement that we will reach.

  159. You also said about looking at the authorities in the areas who are not achieving in the targets, that you would make sure that extra resources and help went into those areas. How systematic would that be? At the moment, you have got a fairly piecemeal system of different centres, Excellence in the Cities, specialist schools, etc., etc., but that leaves 50/60 per cent of schools out of the system, not getting enough resources. In Holland, for example, they would give a child from a more deprived background 50 per cent extra funding to that child's school, a child from an immigrant background they would give nearly 100 per cent extra funding to, but in England we do not have that sort of a system, we live in a very piecemeal way at the moment. So how systematic would these extra resources be to areas that are having problems reaching your targets?
  (Mr Timms) I think we will be taking a fairly systematic approach, and I suppose then there will be three strands. Excellence in Cities, you have mentioned; there are 1,000 schools now covered by Excellence in Cities, so that is quite a big programme, which is benefiting the schools across the country that face some of the biggest challenges, and all the feedback I am getting from schools and LEAs about that is that that is working very well, and the evidence is pointing in that direction, too. That is the first strand. Secondly, though, I think, to achieve the floor targets that I described, we are going to need to look very, very carefully, really school by school, at individual schools that are facing the biggest challenges. We made the point in the White Paper that there are 41 schools with fewer than 10 per cent of their youngsters getting five good GCSEs at the moment; so to get all of those above 20 per cent and then 25 per cent, and the others who at the moment are between 10 and 20 as well, is quite a demanding task, and we are giving extra targeted support to that group that has got the biggest challenge, but also all the schools that are less than 25 per cent at the moment are getting some extra focused help, too. And I suppose the third strand here is the review we are carrying out of the LEA funding system. As you know, we have made a commitment that from 2003 we will introduce a new system, and that will certainly need to take into account the levels of need in each LEA, and therefore will be able to reflect the separate needs in schools as well. So I think the system increasingly is being attuned, in funding and support terms, to the needs of individual schools and individual pupils.

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