Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 237-239)




  237. Good morning, Minister. Thank you very much for coming to the Committee. We tend to say, rather humorously, that this is a baseline assessment and if the Department does pretty rigorous things with teachers why should we not do them with Ministers because that is our job. You are here on the basis we really want to know what the Department aspires to do in this first year of the new Government and in something like a year's time you can come back and we can say "How are you getting on with what you put your hand to?" So, all our inquiries will be in that spirit. Can I ask a couple of more general questions, just because you have an amazing portfolio. The more I looked at it the more I thought "Wow, this obviously gives you very little sleep". Can I ask you a broad question because you are basically charged here, it says, with Departmental efficiency and effectiveness. If you are, could you tell me when the Education Bill is to come before the House and what is the guts of it? Everybody is saying "It is a bit of this and a bit of that, no real focus", would you say that is true or not?

  (Mr Lewis) First of all, can I thank you for giving me the opportunity of being here. I know it is not entirely a voluntary arrangement but I do look forward to our exchange this morning. No, I think the Bill—obviously it is subject to this legislative programme but I do not expect we will be waiting too much longer for the Bill to be introduced—will reflect, basically, much of what was in the White Paper which we published in September about our reform of the secondary education system, a very significant reform, as you know. Also, I think it will be in some ways an important Bill in terms of devolution of power and responsibility increasingly to head teachers and to individual schools, giving people on the ground, if you like, more opportunity to make decisions, to determine the development of provision as appropriate to their pupils. If you like there will be a strong deregulation element which will be a significant part of the Bill. We believe the time has come where educational institutions generally, but schools more significantly, are demonstrating consistently high levels of performance but to enable that to be sustained on a long term basis the next stage needs to be, as I say, to devolve more power and responsibility and flexibility to the people at that level, to make the decisions about how their schools are managed and how they are developed in a whole variety of ways. It will be from that point of view, I think, quite a groundbreaking piece of legislation both in terms of reform of secondary and the very strong kind of devolutionary, deregulatory elements to the Bill.

  238. Right. I think we take that as getting our sound levels. I will now ask you if there is anything you want to say in terms of an introduction to the Committee in general terms?
  (Mr Lewis) Okay. Thank you very much. I thought it would be useful to begin by saying I think my primary responsibilities cover the age group 13 to 19. I see myself as having a number of key overall objectives. Firstly, enabling young people to make sound choices about Key Stage 4, learning GCSE choices. Supporting all young people to overcome the problems which can get in the way of their studies during the difficult teenage years. Increasing substantially the numbers staying on in education at 16. Increasing and broadening the range of young people who feel they have access to higher education. Ensuring that young people who do not go into higher education at 18 and 19 have valued options to continue in quality training. Finally I think being the first, in a sense, Minister in a Department of Education for Young People, ensuring that we give young people a voice in the decisions that we make about the provision that we develop for them. It is quite, I think, an important and symbolic moment that that position has been created. We talk about customer focus services and I think education and learning are no different. We need to ensure those developments reflect the aspirations, the needs and the experience of young people. In terms of achieving those overall objectives, clearly I have specific policy responsibilities and I will very quickly go through those but I am sure you will want to probe me on those this morning. First of all, the creation of a new distinct 14 to 19 phase of education which I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss. Ensuring that the new Connexions Service—which is an advice, information, personal development service for 13 to 19 year olds up and running in certain parts of the country, 15 out of 47 partnerships—ensuring that we transfer what I regard as a very exciting concept into something which works in a very practical way in communities up and down the country. A reassertion of the importance and the value of youth services generally is another significant part of my responsibility, youth services which are co-ordinated or provided by local education authorities. I would like to see us do more on parental involvement and family learning which I think contributes towards raising standards but also brings adults back into education. I think we need to do more to ensure that pupils from ethnic minorities achieve the same sort of standards that other pupils are able to do. I also have responsibility for Educational Maintenance Allowances which, as you know, are being piloted at the moment which are about very much supporting 16 years old to stay on from a financial point of view but only 30 per cent coverage at the moment on a pilot basis. There is a Connexions Card which we are piloting which again is about enabling and supporting young people to stay on at 16. I also have responsibility more generally for area inspections and 16 to 19 provision which is about making sure that provision is co-ordinated and of high quality in certain areas across the 16 to 19 range. Looking at the new arrangements for sixth forms now that responsibility has been transferred to Learning and Skills Councils. Just finally I have, I think, two significant areas which are a post 19 responsibility. First of all, modern apprenticeships. Very importantly, we have just had the Cassels recommendations on Modern Apprenticeships. It is essential that we get our response as a Government right and we ensure that the modern apprenticeship is obviously in the future a valued and working option. Secondly, Millennium Volunteers, which is about getting young people to participate in citizenship and voluntary work activities and ensuring that young people are integrated and connected with our local communities. Finally, Chairman, where does all that fit together in a sense? Well, for me, it is about all young people, whatever their circumstances and whatever their background, having the chance to both pursue their dreams and to fulfil their potential. To me that is integral to us achieving our overall objectives of both a fair society, a socially just society but also an economically successful society. We need all of our young people to be doing well and feeling that they are given the chance to pursue the potential if we are to achieve our overall objectives for society.

  239. Thank you for that. Can I take advantage of the fact that you are in a unique position not only as a Minister but in terms of your background experience professionally and in terms of the very constituency you represent, this is not your responsibility but I think you are in such a unique position in the Department that you will have a view on this. We have asked all other Ministers about faith schools. Being a Member of Parliament for Bury and with your work in the Jewish community and your knowledge of that area I would like to ask you about faith schools. I was smiling when I looked at your CV because when I was researching the book on Harold Laski, of course, the famous Jewish Laski family in Manchester, there was a rumour that no-one was allowed to be run down or taken to hospital without the Laski family giving consent.
  (Mr Lewis) Not quite like that any more, Chairman.

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