Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 260-279)



  260. Can I just ask one further point to do with linking it in with areas of Government policy. Until very recently as a parent I was able to go to the post office each week and claim my tax free child benefit for my two youngest children in full-time education but the woman next to me in the queue at the post office whose children had left school at 16 and were now stacking shelves in the supermarket could not claim that child benefit. Do you think that is fair? Do you think that in any review the question of untaxed child benefit for parents with children in continuing education should be rolled into part of the equation?
  (Mr Lewis) I think we need to look at a coherent approach to making decisions about how we best spend finite resources to achieve the objectives that we set ourselves. That means that we have a fair and a transparent and an equitable system. There will always be finite resources and therefore there is a need to make those hard choices and there is a need to ensure there is consistency and coherence in terms of the outcome of any review such as that. I think there is a need to look at it in the context of all of the post 16 financial support that is made available, both to individual young people and to their families. I would make a very important point here. If you actually end up in a situation where young people gain an amount of money, and parents lose an amount of money, there is actually an issue there about what impact does that have on the family unit in terms of supporting and encouraging a young person to stay within education. I do not think it is quite as simple as sometimes some people portray it. They portray it as differentiating between the incentive to the young person and the financial incentive to the family unit. If the family unit or mum or dad or parents feel under pressure financially then they may not end up supporting the young person in the way we would want them to to stay in the education system. You have got to get that balance right.


  261. We are going to be coming back to the parental role which is part of your responsibility. I suppose what this Committee wants to hear is we know that in the new spending round you will have to politically work very hard to get your particular allocation from the Iron Chancellor. The fact of the matter is that this Committee hears all the time there are three key areas where you can break into the cycle of social deprivation, poverty, low educational achievement. There are three ways you have been working in the first four years of a Labour Government: SureStart, breaking in between nought and three, that crucial area, you have a pilot there which has not been rolled out, you have EMAs, that other crucial mid period, and then you have the temptation—I still do not think on very much evidence—that there is an unhappiness about student finance. If you do not make up your mind in the Department, I am sure you are not going to be effective campaigners with the Iron Chancellor to get much more out of him. You are not going to get the money for all three, are you?
  (Mr Lewis) My experience of discussions with the Department in terms of, for example, pre-Budget submissions is that we all look at our own areas of responsibility. We suggest what we regard as our priorities and then, as a team, the Secretary of State ultimately, in consultation with us, decides what she feels are the priorities in terms of submissions to the Chancellor. So my experience of this, Chairman, is that it is decided within the Department. We, as Ministers, all have a say, particularly in terms of our individual areas of responsibility, we even have the opportunity to comment across the board but ultimately the Secretary of State decides what goes to the Chancellor from our Department in terms of our definition.

  262. It is a mini Cabinet in the Department?
  (Mr Lewis) There is not a mini Cabinet, there is a very good team watch approach that Estelle Morris has fostered between Ministers.

  263. It is a mini-Cabinet in the sense how often does this group meet?
  (Mr Lewis) As Ministers we meet on a weekly basis which is great for morale and sharing information, as a team of Ministers. On a bilateral basis we meet where our policy areas cross over.

  264. Because you are in charge of the effectiveness and efficiency, I just wondered how many times you meet? You have away days, do you?
  (Mr Lewis) No, we have had one away day relatively early on in terms of the new team's development, we have not had more than that. I think what is important are two things, Chairman. One is that we work as a team, which we do. Also, where there are clear links, we have seen several of my colleagues and seen there are obvious linkages between decisions made in some areas of policy that you are not responsible for and other areas that another Minister may be responsible for. It is absolutely vital that we do not end up in a box making inconsistent policy decisions, that we have a coherence and that people like this Committee, people out in the education world feel there is a consistency of approach and a message coming out of the Department in terms of the policies.

  265. What I am trying to get from you is if you take three major areas of concern to this Committee—SureStart, EMA and student finance—is there not a great temptation in the way you are talking about the organisation in the past, the process for making decisions, that you will end up with a bit spent on all three and no coherent well thought through plan on what you said was credible and hard data? What comes out? Is it a mishmash or do you really come out with the right answers?
  (Mr Lewis) As the Minister responsible for effectiveness I am confident that we will reach the sensible and credible conclusions that this Committee would expect us to do. We all know, hon. Members know, that it is not crass to talk about very, very hard choices and finite resources. Every government has a finite amount of resources and what is different is this Government has put more into education in five years than was put into education in the previous 20.

  266. Minister, it is our job to make sure that money is not thrown at problems which does not get to the heart of the matter and that we get real results. What we are talking about here is a dreadfully under-performing nation in terms of a third of our population do not get education as far as this Committee can see and what we are so keen on is to make sure your Department is as an effective part of it as it possibly can be using those resources well. It is no good after a four or five year Government term to say "We spent all this money". Our job as a Select Committee is to make sure you spend it on the right things and not squander it.
  (Mr Lewis) I agree with that, Chairman, but I would say one of the major criticisms of the Department sometimes is we have targets and we have objectives. I think that what is important is that actually there is a rational and coherent approach to where we are going. If we look at it, there has been a significant expansion in the quality of child care and nursery provision. There has been a strong emphasis on literacy and numeracy. We are now moving into the early years of secondary where too many young people go backwards or stagnate. In addition to that we are doing something structurally about secondary schools. We are introducing the new Connexions Service at 13 which is about, as I say, dealing with young people's problems, whether it is careers or curriculum or family problems or health problems, whatever that might be. We are looking at keeping more young people in at 16 by ensuring we have access to that sensible and quality advice. We are using EMAs, we have got a Connexions card to support that. We have the 50 per cent into higher education and also the modern apprenticeship target. May I focus at all, Chairman, do you have the time, on the 14 to 19 phase?

  267. Can we come to that in a minute. We are going to come to that.
  (Mr Lewis) Right. The narrative is there is a logical sequential approach to what we are trying to do in terms of raising standards at every level and every stage of education for young people in this country which means that not only the brightest and the most able hopefully will be stretched but that young people who in the past have been left behind will be given the opportunities that they deserve and are long overdue, that is my answer.

  Chairman: That is a very encouraging answer.

Paul Holmes

  268. There are two very quick questions I want to ask on EMAs. One is you said earlier on if it was rolled out across the whole country it would be very expensive. Has the Government got a global figure for that?
  (Mr Lewis) I have not got that figure on me but I can ensure the Hon Member has that figure.[4]

  269. If you are undertaking the EMA as a genuine piece of research to see what works, it would be a nice change for us to get the policy on fact and not on whim. Have you got other alternatives, if you decide EMAs do not work, that you are considering? Why do you not do pilots on those alongside the EMAs to see if you can do some cross comparisons?
  (Mr Lewis) The answer is we are not at the moment considering any alternatives. There are, of course, other interventions which are specifically about supporting young people to stay in post 16, the Connexions card is one, the Connexions Service as a whole is another. Are we considering specific alternatives at the moment to Educational Maintenance Allowance other than the initiatives already in the public domain in terms of keeping young people in post 16, the answer is we are not.

  270. If you decide to drop the EMA experiment because it is too expensive, there is nothing to substitute for it?
  (Mr Lewis) The question, I think, Chairman, was are we at the moment actively considering alternatives to EMAs if we do not continue them and the answer to that question is we are not. The question about what would we do is, with all due respect, a hypothetical question because no such decision has been made and therefore to start speculating on alternatives would be completely wrong on my part.

Mr Turner

  271. In a sense this applies to a number of other pilot projects as well, like Connexions and the Connexions card and perhaps you can think of others, Minister. It might be said that the selection of areas for these pilot projects has been based more on political than research considerations. Can you demonstrate that assertion would be unfair?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes. I think the criteria that was used—and I was not the Minister responsible at the time—was largely related to disadvantaged areas, and there was no political determination whatsoever in the way that—

  272. I did not mean party political, I meant it is your political objective to benefit disadvantaged areas rather than a research-based criteria which would take a cross-section.
  (Mr Lewis) I am sorry, I thought you were saying party political. It is disadvantaged young people. As we know, EMAs are targeted; you have to be on a particular income to be eligible and to qualify for an EMA. What we have tried to do is have a controlled approach to the evaluation. So we have got areas which we feel are similar, which the department is aware of, where we have EMAs running in one area and not in another and the evaluation is comparing the outcomes in terms of two, if you like, areas with a similar social profile, in terms of where they have EMAs and where they do not have EMAs. That is the most credible way of judging whether EMAs are working.

  273. Disadvantaged youngsters may be fewer in number but equally, or, perhaps, relatively even more, disadvantaged in rich areas than in poor areas. Does your pilot project take account of that?
  (Mr Lewis) Yes, as far as I am aware there are some areas in the pilot with very different social profiles. Yes, I think the majority are in deprived areas but it is not exclusively in deprived areas. Of course, there are pockets of deprivation in areas that are regarded as affluent, if you look at all the social indices, and that is one of the issues that has been raised by many Parliamentary colleagues where EMAs do not apply. They have asked that question. At the end of the day, clearly, one of the reasons why we have got to make our minds up post the pilot is because it is not justifiable to maintain a situation where only 30 per cent of the country, from a geographical point of view, has coverage. I would accept that, in the future determination, there must be a strong recognition of the fact that there are—and I think this is probably a comment on our funding system generally and not just in terms of EMAs or education—areas which are regarded by the indices as being affluent and relatively successful, yet within those areas there are significant pockets of deprivation, yet we have very few levers which allow us to recognise that, which is a major problem within the system. So I would accept the basis of the point you are making in terms of getting it, in the future, beyond the pilot, and making sure we take account of all that.

  Chairman: I think Andrew is getting nervous because the last time we had a minister here he slipped through the Committee that EAZs were at an end, so I am just wondering if quietly we might see the end of EMAs.

Valerie Davey

  274. Can I move on to something you have mentioned which I feel very positive about, and that is the Connexions Service, which I think is a way of supporting and helping young people coming through when they are 13+ and not having as wide a vision, perhaps, of their own future. Have we any indication yet that the groups which have been set up are achieving that support? Secondly, the advisers are clearly the key elements. Are we going to be able to monitor their professionalism across the country as it is rolled out? Thirdly, I was particularly interested in your concern that young people's voice itself should be recognised and heard. Will it be in this area because you have taken a lot of time to say how important the middle-class vote was and middle-class parents at the last election in indicating government policy? How do we get young people's voice heard in this area of work where there is really no one shouting for them at a general election?
  (Mr Lewis) First of all, effectiveness. There are 15 Connexions partnerships, out of 47, that are now up and running. Forty-seven will be up and running by the end of 2002-03. Twelve of those 15 began life, if you like, up and running properly from 1 April this year; three began in September. The early evidence, because, as you know, there was also a pilot phase for a twelve-month period prior to April—and it is very, very early evidence—is that for a very significant number of young people who have benefited from the Connexions intervention (predominantly a personal adviser intervention) the feedback is that it has made a significant difference and has been a real support, and that they felt it has been a different relationship with an adult adviser than previous relationships they feel they have had with people in a school setting or another setting. I think that is very, very encouraging, but it is too early. If I may say to the Committee, one of the difficulties we have sometimes in this country is we set up new structures—whether it be Connexions partnerships or Learning and Skills Councils—and within days or weeks or months people are (not the Committee, I hasten to add) casing aspersions on them and undermining them and saying "They are not working". I think we have got to learn to give structures a chance to work before we make credible and sensible judgments about them. Otherwise they will not work and we will end up in a situation where we actually set up things that fail. So that is a general point. The early evidence is good in terms of the young people's view of the partnerships. I think the other absolutely essential issue is if Connexions is going to work you have to have on the ground the partners signed up to work together, whether it be youth services or social services or careers advisers or schools; you have to have a commitment. I was at the launch of a Connexions partnerships recently where the Chair stood up and he said "The definition of partnership is the mutual suppression of mutual loathing in the pursuit of government money". The Committee may be familiar with that. That was not part of the evaluation we have had, but one of the things the evaluation has highlighted is that where it is working well it is because the partners are genuinely engaged in working closely together, and where there is still some way to go it means that we have got to persuade, engage and get the active support and full participation of all the agencies in each locality to make it work. The early feedback is okay, but one of the things I am absolutely clear about, as the minister responsible, is that with it being a totally new service and a really exciting vision, it has all the potential to be one of the most radical developments for young people in a generation, but, also, if you do not respond to early evidence in terms of evaluation and intervene to put things right where they are not working and to change things around slightly or to moderate things, then we will miss a wonderful opportunity. I regard that as a part of my responsibility as a minister, to spot what is working and what is not at an early stage, to intervene and to make sure—and I do not mean in a heavy-handed way I mean in a way where we need to adjust policy or if we need to support development in a different way—that an exciting concept becomes a reality on the ground that makes a real difference on a day-to-day basis to young people's lives. In terms of personal advisers, you are absolutely right that integral to the success of Connexions will be the quality, commitment and the training of personal advisers. We have a combination, we have some people who are working within existing services—whether it be youth work or social work or careers advice—who are fulfilling, I think, excellent roles as personal advisers. We also want to recruit people from outside of those professions. There will be a significant number of PA jobs being advertised up and down the country, so we want to recruit new people in. The sort of people I would like to see come in are some people with life experience and maturity, who have been in different professions or have disappeared from the labour market for a while to bring up families and want to go back in. Also, if we are talking about credibility and engagement with young people, would it not be nice to get some young people actually employed and working as personal advisers? In terms of the qualifications for this work, we have the Personal Adviser Diploma, which is a training course which people have the opportunity to take, and there is also a more basic, if you like, top-up course for those people who may have many years of experience as a youth worker or a social worker. Ultimately, we want to create a high-quality qualification and status for that qualification.

  275. I would just say that completely contrary to wanting to undermine, I celebrate what is happening in Bristol. Please come and see good practice, Minister. You will be very welcome.
  (Mr Lewis) Can I answer the question on young people's voice, which is very important? I know you are one of the most supportive MPs in terms of Connexions, and we are grateful for that. On young people's voice, the first thing I would say is that it is important that we genuinely involve young people in the development, the shaping and the evaluation of this service, and that we do not do what we have done in the past, which is talk about involving young people and consulting young people and we go through the motions and do it in a tokenistic way. So we need to make sure there is a credibility to the fact that they are involved. Some of them, by the way, have been involved in going on personnel training courses and then interviewing personal advisers. That is an interesting and significant breakthrough. The final point I would make is that Connexions is a universal service, so it is important that it involves and provides an opportunity for all young people to be involved in the shaping, the design and the evaluation. However, the most difficult and complex engagement with young people is with young people who are disengaged and disadvantaged. Therefore, you need to be—and this is one of the issues about the future of youth services in this country—imaginative, innovative and credible to get to those hard-to-reach young people and find new methods and approaches that we have never used before and not try and repeat the same old methods that have failed.


  276. Just on that point, Minister, we can see from the briefing we have received from your department a suggestion that the money for Connexions is coming on stream but many of us, in terms of our constituency responsibilities, are appalled by the run-down of youth services generally and by the amount of money in provision that is on the ground in the service. What is the relationship between increasing money for Connexions but with little hope that we are going to get a youth service budget or deliver it through local authorities on the ground? Do you see that as a problem?
  (Mr Lewis) I see it as an opportunity, Chairman. Just talking about local authority youth services, whether they be directly provided by local authorities or funded by local authorities through voluntary organisations, what we have seen in recent years, undoubtedly—not everywhere but in most parts of the country—is a significant run-down in terms of resources and, also, I think, increasing questions I have to say about quality and standards. The two have gone together. You could say this is all about money but I do not think it is all about money. Some of it is about money and when LEAs have to make difficult choices about either putting money in schools or putting money into youth services, schools will win every time. What I have tried to do since I became the minister is build on the work that was put in place by my predecessor Malcolm Wicks in terms of what was described as the "transforming youth work process". What this was, effectively, was consultation with the youth service sector to say "Youth services have been run-down, they are not working and we really need to reassert the importance of and reassert the value of both the youth work role and the status of youth services." We have done a whole consultation with the sector, very detailed, very lengthy, and I have to say we have more opportunity now than we have had, I think, for ten years to do something positive about youth services, because the sector—the professionals—are very much working with the Government and feel that the Government is listening at last and cares about their service. What we have outlined, Chairman, in terms of youth services is that we will be addressing the following issues in the next few months (and this is as a result of the transforming youth work consultation): first of all, a common planning framework and quality standards for youth services, so that is absolutely clear; a review of qualification training and a national introduction of management training for youth workers; a clarification of the potential relationship—strong integral relationship—between the development of the Connexions service and youth work services provided by, until now, local education authorities, and, perhaps most excitingly of all, the specification of what adequacy and sufficiency means in terms of youth services. If you like, that is the equivalent. In Wales they have chosen to put youth services on a statutory footing. We believe the specification of adequacy and sufficiency is every bit potentially as powerful because what it does is, for the first time, clarify exactly what is adequate and sufficient in an individual area in terms of what we would expect from youth services. You have the OFSTED inspection option in terms of youth services (they now inspect these services) and the Secretary of State under existing legislation does have a power to intervene to suggest a local authority has got to improve its youth services. It is very difficult to use, though, because we have no baseline for them to judge adequacy and sufficiency. In terms of resources, we have just introduced a new development fund, if you like a Standards Fund, in partnership with the sector over the next two years, which will be specifically targeted at raising standards and capacity in local authority areas.. So there will be money given for specific targeted purposes to raise standards and improve the provision, and that is separate to the money that comes through Standard Spending Assessments. We believe it is about £300 million, which is a lot of money. Even within SSAs now, they should be being spent, to a large extent, on youth services. What I am trying to say to you, Chairman, is that if you add that to the development of Connexions where there is significantly more money going into Connexions than was going into the Careers Service, for example, if you look at that as a plan, as a vision, for the next three or four years, I am very optimistic that as Connexions rolls out we can do something to reassert the importance and value of youth services. By the way, all the evidence from the Northern towns which you referred to earlier, Chairman, demonstrates the difficulties of the Northern towns and demonstrates that one of the problems is youth services. As we bring all of that together I am more confident and optimistic that we can reassert the importance and the value of a youth service infrastructure within each community, because it is no good us talking at national level about aspirations unless people in their local area, as the Chairman said, feel that those services are available. I am very optimistic that we can do that.

  Chairman: Moving on a little, we will have the last bite on this particular section from our new Member of the Committee, John Baron. We would be at full complement today, Minister, but two of our Members are, in fact, on the Special Standing Committee on the Adoption and Children Bill, so they have sent their apologies.

Mr Baron

  277. Minister, very briefly, we have a number of initiatives within Connexions at varying cycles of development and assessment. As the Minister responsible for effectiveness, how are you ensuring that there is, if you like, joined up thinking between the various initiatives to make sure that you give taxpayers value for money and that we are seeing a co-ordinated approach to the various initiatives across the board?
  (Mr Lewis) Can I just respond to the Connexions point, as it is important to remember always that Connexions is a universal service, it is not a targeted service in the same way. So although there will be differential levels of support depending on the needs of young people—because some young people need a lot more support than others—Connexions will be a universal service. The point that the honourable Member makes is absolutely correct. It is important that we join up all these initiatives and that there is a consistency of approach; that they re working together towards exactly the same objectives. What I am trying to do, in terms of my efficiency and effectiveness role in the department, is create various specific initiatives. One is to look at customer focus across the department. I talked earlier about young people, but we have a whole range of customers; we have parents, particularly, as well as young people and then we have all the people on the front line who we expect to deliver quality education and learning opportunities. I have established a group within the department which is looking at the department's whole approach to customer focus and making sure that we get that right. We are also looking at the relationship with our partners—all the intermediary bodies that we expect in communities up and down the country to deliver the Government's objectives, priorities and resources—to make sure that our relationship with them is right, is consistent and is appropriate. If it is not, the Government can set down all the frameworks it likes, the objectives and make the money available, but if the people through whom it is being filtered and who are expected, at the sharp end, to be the interface with the learning institutions, the schools and the colleges, are not right then it is going to undermine and dilute all that we are trying to achieve. So customer focus, ensuring that we have a strategic and much higher quality approach to the way we interact with partners and, also, as I said earlier in response to the Chairman, making sure that ministers where they have areas which either link or have cross-overs meet on a regular basis—senior officials too—and make sure that we look at things as a ministerial team.

  278. Thank you for that. One further point: do you look, also, at the voluntary sector at all in trying to make sure that their part aids effectiveness and efficiency?
  (Mr Lewis) Very, very much so. My whole life, prior to entering Parliament—when I had a life—was working in the voluntary sector for a while when I left school. So I am a great fan and a passionate believer in the importance of the voluntary sector. I believe the voluntary sector is often innovative, it is at the sharp end, it can make a real difference in a way that statutory bodies cannot and do not. They are certainly in my areas of responsibility. If you think about Connexions, for example, and youth services, the engagement of the partnership with voluntary organisations is absolutely essential to us being able to deliver what we want to deliver. They are often more in touch with young people and more comfortable with young people than statutory organisations.

  279. How are you actually undertaking that? We all know there is a wealth of experience out there, but how are you crystallising it for the benefit of young people?
  (Mr Lewis) I will give an example. In Connexions we have made it clear that the Connexions partnerships will be expected to spend a significant proportion of their money on services provided by the voluntary sector. From January we are going to be making resources available to allow voluntary sector staff, in terms of replacing the lost time and funding, to train to become personal advisers. So I would say to you that it is basically about ensuring that in all the guidance and in all the requirements you set out for the services that you are responsible for you always insist that partnership with voluntary organisations is central to that and, more to the point, you define—if you can—without being prescriptive what you mean by a partnership. Too often what happens is that statutory agencies produce draft strategic and policy documents, say to voluntary organisations "You have got two days to respond", produce the final document and say "This was a partnership document produced by statutory and voluntary agencies locally". That is not partnership. Partnership is about voluntary organisations, in my view, being there at the beginning, shaping and developing services. For example, the voluntary sector is represented on all Connexions partnership boards.

  Chairman: We are coming on to a rapid-fire half-hour, the last half-hour, where I am going to push you on short answers, because I want to get through some very important topics, starting with the funding of sixth forms.

4   Ev. p. 81. Back

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