Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 619-639)




  619. I welcome the new School Standards Minister to our deliberations and say what a pleasure it is, I am sure, for you to be here! It was certainly a pleasure for us when we saw how quickly you responded to the invitation to join us. There was always a slight note of irritation because we had only just got through our baseline assessment and performance review of all the ministerial team, to find that the team had been changed rather abruptly. We wondered whether you would like to make a very short opening statement.

  (Mr Miliband) Thank you very much for inviting me. I was quite pleased that within two weeks of being in the job I had a request from the Committee to come along, and I am very pleased to do so. There is no reason that you should remember this, Chairman, but this is the second time that you have interrogated me; the first was as a callow 21 or 22-year old, fresh out of university, who wanted to get experience of Parliament and to understand how things worked. I came for a job interview the summer after I had left university. Let us just say that I hope you are more impressed today than you were by my performance 15 years ago!

  I hope I bring a very simple philosophy to the job that I have been given. I am convinced that there is talent in every child in the schooling system in the UK, and our job, as people working close to, and influencing education, is to develop a system that brings out the talent or talents of each one of those children. I attended the North-West Teaching Awards last week, which Lord Puttnam instigated. A newly-qualified teacher came up to the rostrum to receive her award. She said: "All I want to say is that a child came up to me in the playground yesterday and said, `Miss, I hope you win because you have changed my life'." The whole audience swooned. That really does explain what we are about. There could not be anything more important.

  I feel very privileged to have joined a department that is "on the up", a department with an outstanding Secretary of State with a very clear vision of the future of education and a passion for education. While we have a proud record of achievement, no-one in the Department is satisfied with where we are. I do not think we can be satisfied while a quarter of children leave primary school still unable to read and write and count well, and while just about half of people leaving school do not get five good GCSEs. There is pride in the Department and I have sensed in the last three and a half weeks a real ambition and a restless search to improve. We know that many of the children in schools could do much better.

  My title is "Minister for School Standards", but my overall concern, I suppose, is learning from 5 to 19. I just want to pick up four priorities and mark them, and maybe we can come back to them in the future at meetings and hold people to account in the four areas. The first is that I am concerned to make my contribution to further entrenching high achievement in primary schools. I think we have a very good story to tell in primary schools over the last five years, but I do not think we should be complacent. There are still a quarter of children who are leaving primary school unable to read and write and count well at level 4—and there are particular problems with boys. I also believe in an enriched curriculum. I went into a class in my own constituency on Friday, which is one of the most deprived schools in the constituency, and they were learning French. I think that that is a good thing and more should do that. The second area is reforms to change and reinforce the school workforce, all those who work inside schools and most notably teachers. This is about three things. The first is giving teachers more time to focus on teaching. That means support through extra staff, and through our efforts to cut bureaucracy; and secondly it is about more support for teachers. I have been very impressed by the experience of learning mentors and classroom assistants in some of the Excellence in Cities schools. The third thing is about leadership, about heads and senior teachers deploying all the resources at their disposal to maximum effect, to raise standards. I think if we can get the teaching and learning process right, we will go a long way towards getting everything else right.

  The third area that I am particularly keen to prioritise is the step change in standards in secondary schools to which the Government is committed. I think that is, first of all, about supporting diversity but it is also about collaboration between schools. I see diversity and collaboration going together in the secondary sector. Within schools it is about recognising the diversity of achievement that still exists and trying to do something about it. I am particularly struck by the problems of transition from primary to secondary and I think the flagship for this Parliament is going to be what we can do in key stage three up to age 14 to raise achievements substantially. The fourth area that I want to pick out is reforms to upper secondary education, notably the curriculum and qualifications where we have started quite a big debate and a very wide-ranging consultation on the Green Paper. Historically in this country we have struggled to combine rigour and breadth in academic education, on the academic track if you like, with depth and status on the vocational track (or what is called the vocational track although they do interact.) There are some big issues there that I am beginning to get my head round and want to pursue.

  Underpinning those priorities are big issues about funding, about tackling educational achievement in deprived areas, notably through Excellence in Cities, and through programmes for ICT, which has enormous potential in our schools—and obviously I have to be responsible for them.

  I would finish by saying that I feel genuinely privileged to be working in education at the moment. I think we have an historic opportunity to combine not just one-off investment but sustained year-on-year significant increases in investment with reform. I would say that there should be no monopoly of wisdom in this task. Those of us who are interested in education—and clearly you and your Committee are—are going to have to work together on this because none of us will get a chance like this again, of what we hope is onwards of a decade of significant investment. Have no fear, any good ideas you come up with I will happily pinch! We all have a responsibility to put our best efforts into making the changes that I think we all, from wherever we come on the political spectrum, want to see. I hope this can be the beginning of a serious dialogue. I look forward to learning from you and I am very happy to answer your questions today.

  620. Thank you for that, Minister. I remember that 15 years ago and, if I remember correctly, I could not afford you rather than—
  (Mr Miliband) I am sure that is not true!

  621. Of course, you will know that we have another connection in that I was taught by your father at the London School of Economics, which you did not have the privilege of attending of course. Can I push you on something that interests me, particularly because I have always been interested in management and the process of government and how one manages a department. When you became a Minister a very short number of days ago I would be interested to know what the job description was or, if you did not have one, what you thought it was?
  (Mr Miliband) What I discover you get when you come into a department is a list of things for which you are responsible. Sometimes it seems to resemble more a list of problems than a list of solutions. That is what you are presented with. My philosophy is that the job of a Minister is to provide clarity about three things: firstly, the values that you bring to bear; secondly, the objectives that you have got; and thirdly your priorities. As a Minister, if you can articulate and communicate your values, your objectives and your priorities you will go a long way towards giving the sort of steer to a department that it needs. It is not the job of a Minister, as we all know, to micro manage the Department. We have got 4,000 outstanding officials doing that for us. Our job is to try and add some value. I think the value is to help the Government be a government rather than be an administration. That is the way I distinguish it. That is why when I talk about clarity of values, objectives and priorities, and that is what government is about, that is to what I am trying to contribute to.

  622. Do you worry that your predecessor was only in post for 11 and a half months? Here we are trying to run an Education Department because it is a very challenging job. Yes we have had remarkable continuity in terms of the last Parliament with a Secretary of State that stayed the whole course of the Parliament. As you walk down (as I know you have done many times now) what I call the "corridor of remembrance" in the Department for Education where all those photographs are, what is worrying is the short length of time many of those Ministers stayed in post. Does it not concern you that some Ministers only spend 11 and a half months in the job? Surely, you cannot make an impact on a department in a meaningful way in such a short time?
  (Mr Miliband) Certainly sitting where I am, I completely agree with you. Certainly eleven and a half months is a short time. I agree with your basic point. It does take time to figure out what is going on. I have certainly set myself the task of using my first couple of months in post, firstly, to build up relationships with you and with the profession and, secondly, to figure out what is going on in my patch. One of the strengths of the last Parliament was that at the Secretary of State level and at the junior Minister level there was genuine consistency from people given a chance to do the business. It sounds self serving, but I hope I get the chance to make a difference. In broad terms, it is clearly right that you want to have a good shot at it.

  623. Can I push you on that a bit. You were in the position until fairly recently before the last Election where you were one of the people presumably giving advice to the Prime Minister about moving the corners of the ministerial teams around. Some of us are quite surprised that here you are in the House of Commons in this much less influential job than the one you had before. Sometimes in the Select Committee we would have liked to have interviewed you before the last Election in your last job but we have never been successful?
  (Mr Miliband) I always stuck to being a policy person and did not deviate too far out of that. There is an awful lot of nonsense written about the power of advisers. Politicians, especially Prime Ministers, are much better informed about what their colleagues are doing than the outside world gives them credit for and they pay far more attention to what is going on in Parliament than to what others may be doing outside. I think that the record of the Government since 1997 suggests that it is taken seriously and on length in office- it is important to give people a chance to play themselves in and to do their best.

  624. But, Minister, I have got to push you a little bit on this. You would agree, would you not, that if you were going to say who were the four most powerful people influencing education policy in our country, you would not take the senior four Ministers in the educational team?
  (Mr Miliband) In any government where the Prime Minister has said education is his number one priority, the Prime Minister certainly counts in the top four influences on education policy, and I think that is a good thing, not a bad thing. The two most important people are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister and that is how it should be. We should welcome the fact, those of us who are interested in education, that the Prime Minister does take an interest and that is important for the status of the Department and the status of the issue because he obviously believes that it is absolutely critical to the long-term future of the country and I think that is a good thing. Dialogue between a department and the centre of government is absolutely essential. I am pleased to say there is a lot of dialogue.

  625. This Committee is delighted at the Prime Minister's commitment to education and the Chancellor's commitment to education, we agree with all that, but do you not think it would be refreshing for a Committee that is charged with holding the Government to account to also be able to interview not only you but sitting beside you or following on, Mr Adonis. Would that not be refreshing if you were interested in public parliamentary scrutiny?
  (Mr Miliband) I am sure I am right in saying that you will have not Mr Adonis but the Prime Minister himself certainly in front of you, Chairman, in the not-too-distant future. I will not choose a metaphor, but you will have the real thing there, and I am sure that is going to the top. I would have thought that is a good place to start.

  Chairman: Minister, we will come back to that later.

Jonathan Shaw

  626. You have talked about bolstering the teaching profession, as we had heard from Lord Puttnam. I do not know if you are aware, Minister, but in a week or so Chris Woodhead is delivering a lecture entitled "Dear David" with lessons for the new Minister of State. I do not know what pearls of wisdom he has got for you and whether that might include how to get on with 15,000 grumpy teachers, to whom he referred, or how you develop positive relationships with the teaching profession. I want to understand the tone that you are going to adopt in terms of the teaching profession. If you were to be instructed either by the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State to deliver a lecture entitled "Dear Chris; lessons that we need to learn", what three things might you point to?
  (Mr Miliband) The most important thing for the teaching profession is that it is seen and it behaves as a profession with the support as well as the pressure that goes with being a profession. I am giving a speech tomorrow about the teaching profession and I want to highlight three aspects that I consider to be important to professional status. Firstly, you have got to have the time to focus on your core tasks. Secondly, you have got to have the support—and I think that goes for everything from the IT to the staff rooms that allow you to behave like a profession. Thirdly, you have got to be well-led. When that is underpinned by a continuous professional development that is about keeping up your skills, you are close to being a profession. That is what we are searching for in the teaching profession. The Government side of the bargain is clearly to put in money and resource, but it has got to make sure that it is getting professionalism for that. That is the sort of relationship to which teachers will respond. In my experience they are ready to have high expectations of themselves and of their pupils if they are given the support that allows them to put their ambitions for their kids into practice.

  627. Anything else?
  (Mr Miliband) That is for starters.

  628. You mention teachers using information technology. There is concern about the level at which teachers and schools understand perhaps the possibilities of broadband and all that entails. Rather than it being an integral part of teaching, it is very much seen as a bolt-on and kids go into the ICT suite once a week and get a couple of hours. Do you want to flesh it out a bit in terms of your vision of how you see IT being used as a more integral part of education?
  (Mr Miliband) My hunch is that it is built into the governing class because of our age that we are always behind the times when it comes to the transformative power of new technology and we consistently under-estimate how much potential it has got as a servant of professionalism rather than as a replacement for professionalism. After 1997 the Government tried to invest in the hardware but also the software and teacher training that goes with it. The message I get from the ground is that while the hardware is very welcome and the software is improving and the development of the curriculum online is welcome, we have not got the teacher training right to make use of the technology we have got, and that is something that we need to work on. I asked a head teacher last week in Liverpool, "Shouldn't we be looking to a future where every kid has a laptop?" and he said, "That is old now. What you should be thinking about is every kid having a palm top and the computer suites being there as back-up." He had built a new computer suite and I said, "Is it sensible to take them out of the class?" and he said, "You have got to get the best of both worlds." I have got to spend some time looking at that seeing what is possible but I think there is enormous potential in ICT. For example, I have seen kids doing lessons and being corrected as they go along, which is very impressive. I think the idea that ICT helps children push on at their own pace and stretches them is good. I think you can do a lot more with it. Am I a techno expert? No, I am not, and that means that I have got to tread quite carefully.

Valery Davey

  629. You came in and you have talked about passion for education and you have talked about young people, so you get full marks for your opening comments from me. You then went on to talk about values and the step change needed at secondary level and again full marks. Can you explain a bit more the values that you expect young people to leave school with?
  (Mr Miliband) I think we want them to be ready to be citizens as well as employees. That is a glib way of putting it but it is basically what I believe. We want them to understand what it means to be a productive member of society as well as a productive member of the economy—a productive member of the multi-cultural, multi-faith country that we are, a country that is proud of its history but is changing quite fast. That is what citizenship is about. We are not going to get it overnight. There is the introduction of citizenship in the curriculum, but citizenship is taught not just in a module a week; it is taught in the way of the ethos of the school, the way pupils treat each other and the way the class is organised. It can sound soft but it is important. I think it is about scholarship but also about a wider sense of who we all are and what our role is in society. That is one reason why I am interested in the creative side of education. In my experience the schools that do best scholastically are also doing best in out of school activities, the arts and music and all the rest of it. I think that is important to education. I hope it is something we can push. There is some joint work going on with the DCMS on arts and education and music and education. I am terrible at music—I have got no ear—but I think it is really important.

  630. I applaud all of that. Do you think the Department itself in looking for specialist schools and in some of the other policies which seem to accentuate the academic is giving a good lead to get those values? In other words, you cannot expect young people to achieve or to emulate the values you have talked about unless the Department itself is sharing those values. Do you think the Department shares the values you have described?
  (Mr Miliband) I think it is very, very important that the Department of Education does accentuate academic standards. We have to be about excellence across the curriculum. I think that is really important. I do not see a tradeoff between excellence and creativity and values. If we get into that tradeoff we have got ourselves into a very bad position. The extension of specialist schools to include computing schools and the further roll-out of a wider range of specialist schools is encouraging. It would be interesting to see what response that gets. The challenge we have all got is to make sure that within the school and out of school as many children as possible have access to the range of opportunities which at the moment only a minority do. I think the specialist schools can contribute to that and the fact that their mission has to include outreach to children from other schools and the rest of the community is very positive. It has always struck me as very odd that we invest in the schools estate, for example, but that it is not used for half the time. I do not know if it is something the Select Committee has looked at. Coming into Government as an adviser in 1997 I would have thought that was one of the simpler things to sort out; it turns out to be very, very difficult. After school, weekend, holiday schools—for the children we are talking about who are not going to get the breaks at home they desperately need that sort of opportunity. Depth in one area of the curriculum can widen opportunity rather than restrict it.

  631. There are other members that want to come in obviously, but the policy (of the previous Government, I hasten to say) of local management of schools brought about competition and you could not get the kind of financing in the community that we are talking about. I am not asking for a response at this time but I am asking you to recognise that Government policy has got to enable the kind of things which you are talking about. It is alright talking about these values for children but the Government has got to share them.
  (Mr Miliband) If the Government believes something it has got to try and do something to put it into practice. Just as in primary schools we want the basics plus, in secondary schools we want high standards plus.

Paul Holmes

  632. You are talking in glowing terms of the possibility of schools having lots of access to computers, including palm tops, and that would revolutionise the way teachers deliver the curriculum. Certainly no school in my constituency in Chesterfield could remotely dream of seeing that on the horizon. No school I ever worked in in Derbyshire could ever dream of seeing that on the horizon. The school I last worked in up until last year had to make £100,000-worth of cuts in their staffing and budgets for books, etcetera. How do you explain this gap between what teachers and many parents on the ground see and what we are hearing from Government about all the resources and money going into education?
  (Mr Miliband) I took the precaution of checking out the figures for the constituency you represent. According to our figures, there is £900 per pupil extra going into schools in your constituency and I do not think anyone disputes that. How does one explain the fact that life is still tough at the sharp end? One, we were digging ourselves out of a deep hole. You and I would agree that the £120 per pupil real terms cut in education between 1992 and 1997 was disastrous for the country. Secondly, historically we have underfunded education in this country and not given it the position it needs. So have we got further to go and do we need continued investment in education? The answer is obviously yes. What we have got to convince teachers of is that we are going in the right direction and we want to work with them. When they hire an extra 200 teachers, which is the figure in your part of the world, that is a step in the right direction, not an indication that everything has been sorted out, but that the direction of travel is right. The direction of travel is about more teachers, more support through learning mentors and classroom assistants and more support through ICT.

  633. What about the uneven way money sometimes gets distributed? Two specific examples. I know two urban areas—Sheffield, where I grew up and went to school and Chesterfield, where I have lived all my working life and I have children at school and I taught there. A lot of the money through initiatives like Excellence in Cities goes to where it is very badly needed in inner city areas in Sheffield—and my old school recently was getting money from that fund—but there are parts of Chesterfield and lots of constituencies which are just as deprived but which do not qualify for the money from the Excellence in Cities scheme, so you get a very uneven flow of money. Some areas are really starting to benefit and lots of other areas do not qualify for various reasons.
  (Mr Miliband) You are raising a very legitimate point because getting your funding formula right is essential. It is much easier to review it than to please everyone. Fortunately we are now at the review stage so I can say that we are looking pretty carefully at the issue but it is very difficult to get it right. I think I am right in saying that something like £1 in every £5 that goes through the EIC schools budget is linked to deprivation. On top of that there is about £1 in every £10 (or a bit less) that is linked to government programmes to try and target areas of the country that have got particular need. I think Excellence in Cities covers about 58 LEAs so it is quite wide-ranging. Does that mean that there is still rough justice in that? Yes it does. Does it mean we are trying to do something about it? Yes it does. That is the purpose of the review of local government financing. Do I hope it will be better after that review? Yes. Will we have solved all the problems? Probably not. That is an honest answer for you.

  634. If, say, there are seven secondary schools in my constituency and by the next Election three of them get specialist status or people status and the extra money that goes with that, how can that do anything other than have a bad effect on the other four schools in the area who will start to lose the aspirations of parents and pupils to the schools that have this status and specialisms?
  (Mr Miliband) I have got one school in my constituency out of five and I do not think it is leading to low expectations on the part of the other schools. Our challenge is to have high expectations across the board and to spread the benefits of specialism where they are adopted to individual schools and to encourage every school to be working towards the development of an ethos or specialism that marks it out and gives it a sense of drive and extra purpose. The biggest form of two-tierism is between good schools and bad schools and that is what we are trying to tackle. I think that specialist schools are showing themselves to add value to the education of their own pupils across the curriculum—and we could maybe come back to that—and increasingly to pupils from other schools. That is the answer to the three or four other schools in your constituency. We want them to access the specialism and themselves work towards their own distinctive ethos and specialism.


  635. Would you agree, Minister, that whoever said it, in whatever place, and you were closer to that place than you are now physically, when they talked about "bog standard", that was very offensive to a large number of heads and teachers and indeed parents and pupils? That sort of description in a sense was very damaging, was it not? As you have just said, the other schools are not bog standard and the other schools that do not get specialist schools status and extra resources may be very fine schools indeed, not bog standard at all.
  (Mr Miliband) I hope they are. I cannot remember who it was that said three or four years ago "we want every school to be excellent or improving or both", but any school that is improving will have a sense that it is going in the right direction, that it has a dynamism about it and it gives hope to pupils and to parents. The comprehensive debate in the 1960s and 1970s focused on who came in the school gate, which was a very legitimate thing to do given the legacy of the 11 plus, but comprehensive education to me is about more than that. It is about a breadth of opportunity that serves diverse needs and that has to happen within schools and between schools.

Mr Simmonds

  636. Can I ask a question about funding. Is it your view that more funding should go directly to schools and certain local education authorities?
  (Mr Miliband) I think that certainly the percentages have been increased from about 80 per cent when we came into office to about 86 or 87 per cent now and it is due to rise by an extra couple of per cent. We are moving towards a new role for local education authorities which is not running schools but adding value to the efforts of schools, be that in relation to transport or special needs or music tuition or school improvement. But it is not about running schools. I think LEAs have an important role where the OFSTED process is showing very good practice as well as not so good practice. We have all learned a lesson from where we were 20 years ago. A greater proportion of funding needs to be in the hands of the front-line and that is the purpose of the increased delegation and the purpose of the direct grants that the Chancellor announced in three successive budgets because we have always known, I think, that the head of a school is the most important influence on the performance of that school. If we are confident that we are getting the right people into headship and the right people into senior management it gives them the power to make as many decisions as possible. In the primary sector, especially where you have got smaller schools and they have not got all the systems they need to do all the back-up, they need LEA support. It is a balance but a different balance than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

  637. Do I understand you to be saying from the answer you have just given that you think more money than currently should be going directly to the schools?
  (Mr Miliband) More money will over the next two or three years; it will rise by one or two per cent and I think that is a good thing.

  638. So the process of local education authorities perhaps controlling and influencing, as they do certain sections of funding to be going to schools will diminish as time passes?
  (Mr Miliband) In quantum terms the amount of money spent by LEAs will reduce. One of the most important things coming out of the local government finance review on the education side will be that schools money and LEA money will be separately bracketed so it will be very transparent how much there is for LEA functions and how much there is for schools. There is a second issue which is how do LEAs distribute money to schools, firstly, how do they passport the whole thing through and, secondly, how do they distribute it between schools, and that is something LEAs have to do.

  639. One of the great complaints that schools particularly in my constituency say to me is that they welcome the additional funds being put into education but they do not like funds coming down from LEAs or central government with strings attached that might not necessarily be appropriate to that particular school's needs. Do you have a view on that? Would you like to see that changed?
  (Mr Miliband) The balance between prescription and freedom is one that we are always searching to get right. Let me give you an example. When we first brought in the Standards Fund in 1997-98 it had literally dozens of different strands and schools were understandably perplexed/furious about having to dance to the different tunes for different strands of money. I am pleased to say that the Government listened to that and has rationalised the Standards Fund down to five or six strands of money. It is always going to be in the nature of central government that you want to get some leverage to achieve change at the front line. That is probably a good thing. Excellence in Cities, for example, has really promoted the development of learning mentors. There are now 80,000 more support staff—learning support and classroom assistants—than there were five years ago. Would that have happened if money had simply been delegated to schools? Probably not, certainly not in that quantity. Is it a good thing that we have got that degree of support? Yes. Do heads themselves recognise what that contribution can be? Yes. So it is an evolving process. I do not think one can be too rigid about it.

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