Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. Would you accept—and I know this is a subjective issue—that students, like yourself, who have left home and gone into digs have a more enriching, fulfilling experience than those who stay at home, or would you have preferred to have stayed with your parents?
  (Mr Normington) Personally I would have preferred to leave home—

  41. I will not tell your mother!
  (Mr Normington) It really does vary. It really has to be about the individual. I would prefer it if the individual had that choice and that, if they wanted to, they felt they could have the support to go and study away from home. It depends on their circumstances, but I would prefer that.

  42. Finally coming back to expectations, self-esteem and these issues, how important do you feel it is to get, as it were, role models from communities who are traditionally under-represented to be encouraged and financed to go back to communities and say, "Look, I came from this community, I did it, you can do it?" To what extent is that happening or is it just lip service?
  (Mr Normington) I know that is happening with schools. I have seen it happening with schools. I have seen schools actively using their success stories, particularly from under-represented ethnic minority groups going back into schools saying "we made it". It is really powerful. I have seen it a lot in schools.

  Chairman: Mr Gibb?

Mr Gibb

  43. I was interested in your comment that really the whole problem is based on prior attainment, and that is overwhelmingly the most important factor. The Report says at 2.4 that "lower academic attainment at age 18 accounts for most of the lower participation in higher education." What you are saying tallies directly with the Report. I am interested in understanding why it is that children from social class V have lower educational opportunities prior to higher education.
  (Mr Normington) For a whole set of reasons. Basically because they are going to schools where they do not achieve as much, for a whole set of reasons. They are often from communities where they go to schools which have traditionally not got very good GCSE results and therefore rather fewer pupils go on to A-levels. Some of this starts back in primary schools, which is why the Government has made such an effort to raise attainment in primary schools and to close the gap between primary schools because some of the falling behind of children from poorer families starts there.

  44. Why is it just in areas like this that the schools are poor? Why? Is it because children from social class V have an average lower IQ than other social groups? That is not my perception and I do not believe that is true of society. So why is it?
  (Mr Normington) I do not believe that to be so. There is a whole range of factors, some of them are social factors, some of them are about the families you come from and the aspirations those families have, some are about the quality of the schools in those areas, some are about concentration of deprivation in those schools, the fact that you have more poor children. It is a range of those factors.

  45. Why should a concentration of poor children, given that they have the same average IQs, be a factor? I do not understand. I have had lots of these conversations with teachers and heads and I can never understand why it is.
  (Mr Normington) I am not myself going to accept that argument because the whole basis of this Government's approach and the policies we are pursuing is to tackle that.

  46. If you do not know why, how can you tackle it?
  (Mr Normington) I think we believe it is possible.

  47. I can see it is possible but why? This is an intellectual discussion we are having. Why? What are the reasons?
  (Mr Normington) I have given you some of the reasons.

  48. No you have not, I am afraid.
  (Mr Normington) Some of it is about the low aspirations of the communities in which those schools are and the low aspirations of the schools themselves and sometimes the concentration in those schools of teachers who do not believe that you can raise the attainment of those children.

  49. So it is the low aspirations and expectations of the teachers in those schools?
  (Mr Normington) Not just the teachers.

  50. Who then?
  (Mr Normington) It starts with what happens in families and with the parents.

  51. How do we get out of this vicious cycle? Do we not do so at the school level where they spend seven hours a day throughout the year?
  (Mr Normington) School is a very important influence on that. I was going to say I think we have shown with the emphasis on really good teaching of reading and writing and building up good practice in those schools that you can make good progress. I think we have begun to break the myth that you cannot raise the aspirations of those young children.

  52. Do you accept the view, which is my view, that the fact that the intake of a school comes from socially deprived areas is no excuse for poor attainment of GCSEs at secondary education level?
  (Mr Normington) That is what I believe.

  53. Do you think there is something wrong with the ethos of secondary schools who do protest that their intake is the cause of their problems? Is something wrong with the philosophy and ethos of those comprehensive schools?
  (Mr Normington) I am really reluctant to say that those schools are not trying to improve.

  54. That is not the question. Is there something wrong with the ethos and philosophy?
  (Mr Normington) There are all kinds of barriers which those schools have to overcome in order to raise achievement. It is not as easy to raise achievement for those children because there are family problems, problems of poverty, problems of housing, problems of disruptive families, all of those things.

  55. Now you are saying intake is a reason for low attainment.
  (Mr Normington) I am saying that it is possible for those children to attain but the barriers to their attainment are greater. I am saying that particularly applies in secondary school. I am saying that in primary school it is possible to make progress faster.

  56. Now you are saying that the intake does affect the achievements of the school because they have all these barriers that only exist in socially deprived areas. Is that what you are saying? I really need to understand this because it is an important point.
  (Mr Normington) I understand that. By the time the children are entering secondary school, some of the children from these lower socio-economic groups have already fallen behind in their levels of attainment and therefore there is already a catch-up to be achieved in the first years of secondary school. Many of the secondary schools have an intake which has already got lower levels and therefore there is a big job of catching up. I think if we measured some of the attainment of those schools in taking them from a lower base forward, we would say they are not doing too badly.

  57. So there is a problem in ethos and philosophy of primary schools in this country in those socially deprived areas?
  (Mr Normington) In some cases I am saying that is so. It is a very complicated set of issues. I have admitted one factor is the ambitions and aspirations and beliefs that you can do it, in schools, in communities, and in the parents of the children, which need to be raised.

  58. If you could take a group of children of mixed ability from those socially deprived areas who go to schools in those areas and put them into Eton or Bradford Grammar school or any school that has a traditional ethos, they would perform better or worse?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know. I do not think I know the answer to that.

  59. You must have a view. You are the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Education.
  (Mr Normington) But I do not know the answer to that.


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