Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 23 - 39)




  23. Can I welcome Nigel de Gruchy and Eamonn O'Kane to our Committee. I hope there is going to be no stopwatch on us, Nigel, because you may get five minutes less than the first witnesses because it seems to take time to warm up. We will have a defence ready if allegations are made. Can I welcome both of you to our deliberations and also say I presume this may well be—I think you are retiring in two months—Mr de Gruchy, a farewell and a hello to Eamonn who will be taking over from you. We look forward to working with you both in different roles, as I know you are going on to become Chairman of the TUC. Eamonn, welcome too. Can we get started. I feel very conscious that some people did not have a chance to ask a question of the NUT so I am going to give them a chance to bat first with you. Can I just open in terms of preparation and say is there a particular line that you feel there is a deficiency in, a weakness? Can I challenge you, in a sense, to say okay, over the first five years of this Government that is now in power, in terms of their educational policy, give us a couple of what you see to have been the strengths of that policy and a couple of the weaknesses?

  (Mr de Gruchy) I think the strength of the policy was that there was a clear commitment not just to supporting education but also to putting that in a more tangible form by way of additional resources. But that was rather a long time in coming, and on account of that teachers felt, I think, more demoralised. I anticipated there would be an escalating problem of excessive workload because when I saw New Labour when they were in opposition and all the plans they were announcing, I did anticipate there would be an even greater increase in workload than there had been under the previous Conservative Government since about the mid-1980s or, certainly, the 1988 Education Reform Act. I also noticed, for example, how Gordon Brown, before he became Chancellor, was encouraging the then Conservative Government to phase one of the teachers' pay awards, which was already modest anyway. So I was not at all surprised that things in the first year or two seemed to get worse because the promise seemed to be better but, of course, the delivery was simply not there. In some ways, I think, morale worsened unfortunately, certainly in the first two or three years of New Labour, but then to be positive and not to spend all our time looking backwards I think the situation is now changing, changing quite radically and changing for the better. To pick up on one or two questions which have already been asked of the NUT, I have said to Estelle Morris that I would be perfectly happy to switch over, if you like, to cross the Rubicon and begin to talk up teaching again as a valuable profession into which we should actively encourage our youngsters to join if there would be just one more change made, because the Government has, at long last, recognised two issues which we have been concerned about, frankly, for many, many years. One is excessive workload. I began my time as General Secretary of the NASUWT some 12 years ago now launching a campaign against excessive workload, and at long last we now seem to be making some progress. The other measure, which I am glad to see other people in the teaching world now agreeing with, is pupil indiscipline, which is a very, very big problem indeed. I am delighted (not delighted with the problem, of course) that that is much more widely recognised than it ever has been in the past. On those two issues of workload and indiscipline, the Government has at long last begun to show signs that they appreciate there are serious problems and are now beginning to do concrete and beneficial things about them. So I welcome that. The issue of pay, obviously, is always there. We are making some progress. Again, to go back to some of the questions that were asked earlier, it is simply not true to say that the teaching profession as a whole opposed the performance pay system. Certain unions had certain attitudes, but the NASUWT—and again this is not always appreciated as widely as it should be in the outside world—as far back as the mid-1980s developed a policy which actively advocated the linking of pay to appraisal, so you could therefore channel the major part of the resources into the most important thing, as you say yourself, Chairman, which goes on in a school, which is the quality of the learning and teaching in the classroom. Hitherto, too much of the promotion money was geared to rewarding people who left the classroom and began to take on an increasing role in management and administration—all very important things in themselves , but nowhere near so important as the quality of teaching and learning. The Government came out with the Green Paper at the end of 1998 The Future of the Teaching Profession and held out the possibility of gearing the pay system to better rewarding the good, effective classroom teacher. We welcomed that proposal, far from opposing it, although the Government did itself down by insisting that one particular criterion has to relate to pupil progress, which we thought was rather unhelpful. But, by and large, we have made that system quite manageable and, as you said, nearly 200,000 teachers have got through and therefore we are making progress. The one issue where the Government really did need to make some progress was on the question of indiscipline. If they could come up with some better ideas and more support for teachers and all those three problems were seen to be being seriously tackled by the Government, I told Estelle Morris I would be delighted to spend my last year as General Secretary of the NASUWT actively talking up the profession and actively encouraging youngsters to come into it.

Mr Shaw

  24. It is very encouraging to hear that you are going to talk up the profession and encourage young people into it. Obviously, when young people watch the news and all they observe general secretaries of the teaching trade unions doing is complain, complain, complain, I think it is hardly likely to send a message "This is the job for me! I am full of enthusiasm; Mr de Gruchy is complaining but I am willing to take on the challenge and go into the classroom." I think it does put young people off. You also mentioned crossing the Rubicon and working with Government. Can you tell us, what is your relationship like now with the Secretary of State? Can you pick up the `phone and say "Estelle, we have got a problem here"? Does she pick up the `phone and say "Nigel, how are we going to sort this out?" I do not want you to divulge confidential conversations—well you can do if you want—but do you have that?
  (Mr de Gruchy) I am not going to disclose a confidential relationship with the Secretary of State.

  25. A confidential conversation.
  (Mr de Gruchy) It does not happen very often, although to be fair I have to admit that the first Secretary of State who `phoned me up to suggest we have a talk and discuss things before press statements were made was actually Gillian Shephard. From that moment on, I think, things have got better between us, but there is plenty of room for improvement and plenty of room for improved dialogue between government and, perhaps, all trade unions not just in education but across the whole economy. I think that is beginning to take place now. Again, not to look back over times past and water under the bridge and all that, the very meaningful consultation we had in recent weeks over the drafting of the remit letter for the review body to consider a supplementary report on workload was very, very helpful indeed and has changed the atmosphere almost overnight, because we had a positive input into that letter. At the moment we are having meetings with the TUC unions, we are having meetings with the head teacher organisations, we hope to have meetings with the employers and meetings with government officials. We are going to do our best—and it is a tall order—to try to produce united evidence to the review body on the question of workload. I think the step forward which has opened up this possibility—and it is only a remote possibility at this stage, but nevertheless we are going to try—was the consultation that took place by Estelle Morris over the drafting of the letter. If more of that could happen then that can only be to the benefit of everyone: the children, the unions, the teachers and the parents.

  Chairman: I am facing industrial action on my Committee if I do not call Meg Munn immediately.

Ms Munn

  26. Thank you. I hate to give the impression I have not got anything to say. I would like to explore a bit more this issue about indiscipline that you raised, which is something that you say your union, in particular, has been concerned about for a number of years. My experience, as a governor in different schools, is that so much about pupil behaviour and management of behaviour which is clearly crucial to how children perform is around the school itself; the leadership within the school and how that is managed. What is it that you think the Government should be doing about this?
  (Mr de Gruchy) I agree with your analysis, and there is no doubt about it that teachers—although they do have to spend a lot more time there and that should not be forgotten—develop sometimes quite complicated behaviour management policies in order to cope with what is, obviously, an escalating problem in society. One should not forget, therefore, that teachers have to make additional efforts to cope with these problems. I agree thoroughly: you do need to have a good, strong head teacher and good, strong teachers as well. If they do the right things and, above all, if they have a meaningful curriculum to develop (and there are huge problems there, particularly in the latter stages of secondary education, and I understand the Government is going to look at that) then I think you have a very big chance of succeeding. Even in those situations, you will always, unfortunately, find one or two individual youngsters, most of whom have pretty appalling, sad and dreadful home backgrounds, who present problems with which any normal human being or professional simply cannot cope, and, in particular, at the same time, cope with such serious social problems and do all the thousand and one other things that are increasingly expected of teachers. In that situation you must be able permanently to exclude. We do not say "throw them out on to the streets", we must have alternative provision to which those youngsters could be properly referred and people could then begin to address their particular needs. In the first part of the Government's term of office, particularly the first four years, from 1997 to 2001, I think they had an unrealistic attitude to inclusivity; there were head teachers, there were LEAs ther were various people—EAZs—who took it as a matter of dogma, a matter of principle, that under no circumstances are we going to exclude any youngster. If you combine that with other aspects of policies which have been developed by governments over the years, particularly GM and things like that, which resulted in some schools having to fight very, very hard to get their fair share of youngsters, youngsters who were rightly excluded from school found themselves increasingly concentrated in a number of schools which may, in turn, have had their own weaknesses, and when you get a situation where, perhaps, half-a-dozen or so youngsters who are seriously disturbed and not properly dealt with, are allowed to remain in mainstream schools, inevitably they attract two or three youngsters each and you can quickly get into a situation—and I am not just talking about The Ridings, there have been several other schools that have got themselves pretty close to this situation—where it is very easy for that half-a-dozen or so impossible youngsters to escalate into 20, 30, 40 or even 50, and then you do have chaotic, failing schools. The problem has been developing for many, many years, and I think the government in its first term added to that problem, but I am delighted to say that the Government is taking a more realistic attitude. Again, I would like to think it was partly as a result of the pressure we applied, and I am pleased to see other organisations and other people applying the same pressure as well. I think there is a much more sensible focus upon those youngsters now, and I think there is a readiness to recognise that they have to be referred elsewhere. This is not an easy answer to give because there are some youngsters, frankly, for whom I have no idea (and I am pretty certain my colleagues recently in the classroom may share this view) how you tackle the problem. I do not think anyone knows, so difficult are some of the social problems that they bring. However, what I am absolutely convinced about is that we have to remove them from mainstream schools to stop them wrecking the education of others and making life impossible for otherwise good quality teachers, and then begin to try and do something for these most unfortunate young people.

  27. I am quite concerned, again, perhaps, about saying "We must be allowed to permanently exclude some children"; not the concept that there are some children who are very difficult to manage in school, precisely for the reasons you have explained, but given that most of the children who get to that situation are known about as having problems, surely the emphasis needs to be on earlier intervention and other more innovative ways of looking at allowing those children to learn. To be permanently excluded is so devastating and very difficult for that child who has already got problems.
  (Mr de Gruchy) I could not agree with you more. In most cases you can see the problems not just in the primary school, you can see them before they get anywhere near a school. You get problems now with youngsters arriving in nursery education who are completely out of control on day one; you cannot blame that upon incompetent teachers or poor management; that is obviously home background—or lack of home background, perhaps—and the earlier we can identify those problems, get hold of those youngsters and try and do something for them, obviously that is for the better. What I think is exacerbating the situation is when schools, under pressure from certain people, come under pressure to retain those youngsters, when it is totally unrealistic to expect normal human beings to be able to cope with those problems and, at the same time, all the other things.
  (Mr O'Kane) Just to follow up the question you asked about what could Government do, one of the things the Government has recently recognised in the White Paper, which I think is very welcome, are the proposed changes to the Independent Appeals Panels which consider appeals against permanent exclusion by schools. What the Government has suggested there is minor, in one way but, I think, will have significance, which is that the appeals panels should not allow minor irregularities of procedure (and I do mean minor irregularities of procedure) to nullify the original decision of the school. That is sensible, as we have had examples where, quite frankly, ludicrous decisions have been taken by Independent Appeals Panels sending pupils back into schools with a consequent effect on the moral of the school. The second thing they suggest is that the appeals panels also have in their membership people with recent classroom experience. I think that is equally important, because frankly sometimes these appeals panels are staffed by people whose experience of school today is non-existent or is based on some sort of nostalgic view of what schools were—or, indeed, if I may say so, some sort of ideological view of what schools ought to be. I do not think that relates to the reality. The third factor that the Government suggested, which, again, is very welcome, is that the appeals panels should take into account the wider interests of the school and balance that against the individual interests of the child. That is a difficult balance, but as colleagues will know we have been faced with difficult court cases in which the decisions of Independent Appeals Panels have been resisted. Schools have recognised that they are unworkable and, obviously, others—parents, grandparents, representatives of pupils—have taken legal action in order, as they see it, to protect their interests. As judges keep pointing out, these are entirely inappropriate things to be brought out in a court; these are issues for the internal operation of the school. In answer to your question, that is something the Government has done and which we certainly welcome.

Paul Holmes

  28. Looking at one particular aspect of behaviour, one MP in the last few days suggested that the educational under-achievement of Afro-Caribbean males was down to failures of predominantly white, female teachers who could not handle their particular problem. An Afro-Caribbean academic countered by saying that from his research he thought it was down to the anti-school street culture of that particular group of people. What would you say to that and, more importantly, what we are going to do about it?
  (Mr de Gruchy) I think it is dangerous and wrong to view these things in terms of race, because it is more a question of home and social background and, perhaps, economic circumstances. I know this is a problem, but if you look at all the groups who are excluded or over-excluded, as the case may be, it is not just a question of one particular minority being over-excluded, it varies quite considerably. Youngsters, for example, who are taken into care, youngsters of travellers and people like that are over-excluded as well. Some ethnic minorities are less excluded than white people, and I think the common thread running through all that is more a question of economic circumstance, because youngsters coming from poor backgrounds tend to behave in certain ways and economic deprivation is not limited to one particular racial group. So I do not think it is at all helpful to look at it in terms of race.

Mr Shaw

  29. If we have a case where a particular group is under-performing and there is concern that Afro-Caribbean boys are under-performing and concerns that there are higher proportions of ethnic groups in prison, surely we should recognise that there are particular aspects relating to that group , and in this instance it is a racial group, and try to understand what are the complexities that, perhaps, the profession have not got to grips with. We need to understand more. Perhaps there needs to be better relationships between home and the school to understand the complexities. Surely race, in this instance, is relevant.
  (Mr de Gruchy) Not necessarily. I would still say (and I am not an expert in this area at all), just from a common-sense point of view and a limited amount of knowledge, that economic circumstances are more important and it so happens that certain ethnic minorities are more economically disadvantaged then white people generally. Therefore they tend to be the ones who might be misbehaving or under-performing.

Ms Munn

  30. It does not happen with black girls, it happens with black boys.
  (Mr de Gruchy) There again, I think that is a common problem across boys and girls of all races and all economic groupings.
  (Mr O'Kane) There was an interesting conclusion, Chairman, in a recent study which I think has not been given nearly enough publicity, and that was the PISA study (the Programme of International Student Achievement) that was carried out by the OECD countries into the achievement levels of 15-year olds in literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific knowledge. Britain came seventh, in maths came eighth and in science came third out of 31 countries. I wish this was made more public. This does reflect extremely well on our education system and as an antidote, I think, to much of the pessimism that prevails commentary about educational work. The point that they made very, very forcefully was that better outcomes in terms of educational achievement is linked very closely to reduction of inequality of opportunities. In other words, the more opportunities you produce for children to progress and the more you bring together the social differentiations in society, the better chance you have of achieving a higher average outcome of educational achievement. That may seem to many of us a fairly banal observation, but frankly that runs counter to much of the argument that you find associated with streaming and differentiation in schools. The OECD report really does bear close scrutiny because it relates, in a general sense, to the point—whether it is race or whether it is class—inequality of opportunity does hold back the whole development and improvement of educational outcomes in general. That is clear from the OECD report. It seems to me to be an absolutely powerful driver of education policy in this country, and I hope and think the Government are intending to make a lot more of this. The press do not exactly trumpet it forth because it is good news and that never plays well, but it is a very powerful message for teachers. It is a fascinating report, actually. It concludes, for example, that one of the Government's, perhaps, favoured nostrums is not quite as effective as they might imagine; ie, they conclude there is no link between ICT and education outcome, which comforts many of us, I think, with a slightly more cynical view of the impact of ICT on learning.

Mr Shaw

  31. Surely that is because we have not developed the full potential of ICT. The Government is talking about seeing broadband expanded so that schools can use it, so that there are real benefits from ICT rather than some of the inadequate forms of ICT in schools at the moment.
  (Mr O'Kane) That is a fair point.


  32. If we are going to talk about ICT, I think it would be fair to give Nigel de Gruchy a chance to—
  (Mr de Gruchy) On ICT?

  33. It is something that goes with it in terms of the Government's approach to these things, taking the stress out of teachers' lives and giving them a chance to teach, rather than be distracted by other duties, and that is classroom assistants. There has been a lot of controversy about whether you did or not discourage classroom assistants. What is the union's view about using classroom assistants to take pressure off teachers so that they can teach? Did you say what was reported?
  (Mr de Gruchy) The answer to that is no. Can I refer you to the public statements I have made, because one of the greatest ironies is that it was an off-the-cuff comment anyway responding to Estelle Morris in a seminar. I prefaced my remarks by saying that I welcomed the better use that was increasingly being made of classroom assistants, but I was making the point which I think has also been echoed by one of our NUT colleagues earlier that originally these assistants were brought in and were helping to ease the workload, but as they took on an increasingly professional role so their work was expanding and, in some instances, I had anecdotal reports that teachers are going back to the more mundane tasks of clearing up afterwards and putting up the displays for which the classroom assistants were originally engaged. I welcomed their increasingly professional role in schools but I was simply warning the government that it was not going to be a cheap option, and we are seeing signs of that, and then I used that rather unfortunate phrase. It was not meant to relate to anyone at all actually. That is why no one responded at the time. Presumably, had I said what I was reported to have said, Estelle Morris would have jumped right down my throat, and she did not and nor did the other journalists, actually.

  34. Would you agree with Doug McAvoy that you see classroom assistants as having a career progression into the teaching profession?
  (Mr de Gruchy) Quite possibly so, and that is what we welcome. I said to Estelle Morris, because of the SMF speech and the pamphlet she produced, that the NASUWT had a completely open mind and we were very willing to sit down with Government and examine the roles of teachers and the roles of all sorts of classroom and other assistants in schools to take the situation forward. We are delighted that the working party on remodelling (as it has been called) has been set up as a result of various things, including the Pricewaterhousecoopers report. In fact, only yesterday afternoon that particular group had its first meeting. Eamonn is obviously representing the Association on that working group and we are delighted with the establishment of that group and we want to work positively with everyone better to define teachers' roles so that we can concentrate on the most important task of teaching in the classroom and get the appropriate support. At the moment, as the Pricewaterhousecoopers report has shown, teachers do spend far too much of their time on purely admin, clerical jobs—the proverbial photocopier. Teachers spend so many hours trying to make those things work and doing all sorts of other things, and it is high time that was stopped to allow teachers to concentrate on their proper professional role. So we are more than happy to play our full part.

Valerie Davey

  35. I would like to follow this up. We have heard from the NUT earlier and you have endorsed their welcome, but who is analysing all this research into the value of the added adult in the classroom on the learning process? When the previous group went to Switzerland, the bonding of one teacher with a small group of children was seen to them as of supreme value, and the intrusion of other adults was not welcome. We are saying these other adults can come in. What evidence have we got—who is analysing all this research?
  (Mr de Gruchy) It is a good question, actually, and at the moment no one. I think there has been one piece of research which makes that very point, that there is no demonstrable link between the employment of classroom assistants and improved standards. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that they can reduce workload, particularly if they are employed for admin and clerical duties. You are right to point out that at this stage we are uncertain as to whether the role of classroom assistants in a more professional role actually leads to an improvement in educational outcomes. That needs to be further examined, and we are obviously prepared to do so.
  (Mr O'Kane) There has been some research, I think, by the Open University that looked at the impact of classroom assistants and came to these rather surprising conclusions that while it may have helped to alleviate pressures on teachers the jury was out as to whether or not it actually improved standards. On the other hand, as our colleagues from the NUT pointed out, in the numeracy and literacy strategy there may well be evidence that they have been helpful there. I think it is a fair conclusion to say that that has not yet been proven, but I do believe that the whole role of teaching assistants is a crucial one and, in fact, it is not, in that sense, new. There was a document produced by the DfEE, as it then was, in late 1998 when Estelle Morris was a Minister, which looked at the role of teaching assistants then and, in fact, coined the phrase "teaching assistants". It pointed out that their roles were increasing and they were being more closely involved in the pedagogic function. This is particularly true in special schools and the linkage with early years education; there is a close linkage there. It comes back to the point that the Chairman made earlier on, that this area becomes grey. That is perfectly true. It will be necessary to clearly think about what functions, what duties and what responsibilities do fall specifically on teachers and on teachers alone, and what they manage in terms of the work of other people. I do not have any illusions that this discussion will be quite a difficult one; I think it is a necessary one and I think teachers will recognise it is a necessary one. The other jobs that people describe going on are fairly easy to distinguish, and I do not mean that in a dismissive way at all, but they can I think be easily analysed. It is this grey area where I think we will see intense, difficult, but, nonetheless, constructive, discussions in this very working party that Nigel referred to.

Jeff Ennis

  36. There is an Education Bill wending its way through the House at the present time. What do you perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill, and are there any major omissions from the Bill that you would have liked to have seen included?
  (Mr de Gruchy) I think we have circulated some of you with our views overall about the Bill. Frankly, we do not see a great need for it. The Secretary of State says the driving principle is the need to have power to innovate. There has been so much innovation in the last 20 years we have innovation fatigue. We certainly do not see that as a top priority. The top priority is the sort of thing we have been talking about this morning: the need to recruit and retain teachers, the need to release them to get on with the job of teaching and to raise standards. There are some good aspects of the Bill (although we have yet to see some of the details) because in some areas having increased flexibility is long overdue and the promise of increased flexibility over the National Curriculum—particularly in the 14-19 range, which has been the subject of some debate for the Government—is a very, very important area, although it does not feature very significantly in the Bill. Again, we see some common sense in freeing up some aspects of pay and conditions. They are far too detailed at the moment, for all sorts of interesting reasons, and there is, perhaps, a need to have a flexible approach. The review body has had to deal with too much detail. We need a parallel committee to deal with details of things like appraisals and threshold standards rather than putting them through statutory documents. We do not see any need for schools to be allowed to opt out of the national pay and conditions of service; we think that raises all sorts of problems. By and large, we think it is an unnecessary Bill. I think it reflects the preoccupations of individuals who become specialist advisers here there and everywhere, and their preoccupations seem to find their way into revisions of legislation which we think are not particularly helpful. We do wish the Government would listen to a broader audience about what are the chief concerns.

  37. What about the faith schools issue?
  (Mr de Gruchy) Again, we have made our views very clear about that. I think it was a mistake for the Government, or perhaps for the Prime Minister, to give a sudden emphasis to these faith schools at this particular moment in time. You cannot have some religions being allowed to have their schools while others are not. Therefore, if good cases are made out by particular groups then I think that is irresistible. On the other hand, I do not think it is wise to actively encourage them, given all the other difficulties that can accompany faith schools. We say to Government "Proceed with great caution", and I do think there has been a change in the Government's attitude. It is quite subtle, but I was relieved to hear the Secretary of State saying that they are only going to accede to new faith schools after they have consulted the whole community.


  38. The Minister of State went out of his way to re-emphasise faith schools only this week on the Today programme. As we have got Eamonn here, and he has special knowledge, can we hear his view on faith schools?
  (Mr O'Kane) Here I was treading very carefully! The view we take, as Nigel says, is quite a straightforward one. The fact is that we have in this country, for good or for ill, the existence of denominational schools (which I think is probably a better description of them). They exist for historic reasons. The big decision was made in 1944 to finance them from the state, and that was done. The previous Conservative administration, I think, in a little-noticed move at the time, when it introduced GM schools, changed the basis on which these schools could then be financed, with 100 per cent financing if they chose to become grant maintained, and that broke the dam. It disrupted the 1944 agreement, which I think has consequences even now. As Nigel said, in the situation we now have, particularly in some of our cities where faith schools can be identified with specific communities and where that can lead to tension, to encourage their further proliferation is a step fraught with danger. Therefore, while no one can, I think, seriously argue for the abolition of denominational schools, nevertheless their continued expansion is something that has to be thought through extremely carefully. In particular, I thought the Church of England Dearing Report, which argued for a rapid expansion of Church of England schools, was ill-thought out and should not be implemented. In fact, when the Church of England then argued that such schools would be open to all faiths, I then ask the question "In which case, why do they exist?", because if they are open to all faiths that is exactly what a community school is and should be. For the Church of England then to assert "We can open to all faiths but we still have a Church of England ethos" I think it is reasonable enough to ask the question "Why then should the state subsidise the propagation of a particular ethos as opposed to another ethos?" I think this does raise a question which I hope will be seriously addressed, and I hope the Church of England will think again about this proposal.

Mr Chaytor

  39. The former Chief Inspector of Schools, of whom you were very critical, stated that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers. How many do you think there are?
  (Mr de Gruchy) I am surprised to be asked that question, because it was a silly statement at the time. It was not based on any scientific evidence whatsoever. Even if it were true, I think the figure now is so negligible because, frankly, it is impossible for anyone to survive unless you are pretty competent in schools these days. There are so many levels of accountability, you are going to be sussed out pretty quickly. I do not think it is a significant problem these days.

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