Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  60. Who does in your Department? Does anybody in your Department?
  (Mr Normington) It is pure speculation, is it not, because, on the whole, those children do not go to those schools.

  61. I think it goes to the fundamentals of the state education in our country, what kind of ethos and philosophy schools are practising, and you are saying one is as good as another. Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Normington) I am saying I want schools of the highest ethos. I think to compare those schools is a hypothetical case because we do not have many children from poor backgrounds going to Eton. Eton is highly selective.

  62. What about Bradford Grammar School?
  (Mr Normington) It is a highly selective school, is it not?

  63. I am talking about its ethos and philosophy. Do you think a child in social class V would thrive in the ethos which Bradford Grammar School practises?
  (Mr Normington) It might well do. The ethos of a school is very important. The ambitions of the school and the ethos of the school are very important.

  64. Why are applications to Oxford and Cambridge so low amongst classes IIIM, IV and V? Is there an element of inverse snobbery by some of the teachers at those comprehensive schools?
  (Mr Normington) I am not going to follow you in saying that. We have said that there are not enough applications. That is the main issue in terms of Oxford and Cambridge from those groups. It might be to do with the attitudes in those schools. It is just as likely to be from pupils and families who do not believe that Oxford and Cambridge are for them.

  65. So you think all schools are pushing for their brightest children to apply for Oxford and Cambridge?
  (Mr Normington) No, I do not think they are. That is one of the things we have to tackle.

  66. Are you proud of state education in this country?
  (Mr Normington) I think it can be better.

  67. Do you think it compares well to other developed nations in the west? Or do you not know that?
  (Mr Normington) No, I do know that. I think that we have just had the evidence from a study of 32 countries which shows that we are very high up.

  68. Where? What position?
  (Mr Normington) I think we are 4th, 7th and 8th out of 32 in English, science and maths for 15-year-olds. If you look at that report, there are only two other countries in each of the categories that are significantly ahead of us.[2]

  69. Which are those countries?
  (Mr Normington) As I recall, and I am not going to get this the right way round, it is Japan and Korea and Finland and Canada. Those are the four.

  70. So will you be examining the methods of teaching in those countries to see what we can learn?
  (Mr Normington) We are looking at what we can learn from those countries, of course, but it is the best performance this country has ever had in state education. It is a remarkable performance. It really is a remarkable performance.

  71. So you are satisfied with the state system in this country?
  (Mr Normington) I cannot be satisfied with it. What that Pisa Report, OECD Report said was that while we were succeeding to a very great degree compared with other countries, the big issue here was the gap between the attainment of the lower socio-economic groups and the higher socio-economic groups. That was the fundamental issue we had to tackle here which is what you are saying.

  72. Exactly. Can I refer you to an article in The Times in December. It is an article written by David Mattin who is a graduate of Cambridge who went to a comprehensive school. I could have written this article based on my own education. Thousands of people in Britain could have written this article. There is nothing special about the article. He went to an average comprehensive in a commuter town, not an inner city comprehensive. He said: "At this school, to work hard, to show deference to teachers, or to admit to any academic ambitions meant social death. My friends and I had to learn to fit in. For us, school was a project in becoming something we were not. By year nine, aged 14, none of us was a child any more. Cheek towards teachers had turned into aggression. Teasing had turned into verbal abuse and physical violence. . . Peer pressure meant that almost everyone had given up any desire to achieve academically or to learn anything: no one wanted to be seen as bright." Is that your view of how comprehensive schools in this country are across the country?
  (Mr Normington) No.

  73. It is not?
  (Mr Normington) You will find that, of course, in some places but that is not—

  74. How widespread would you say this ethos was in our comprehensive schools?
  (Mr Normington) You will find that in some places. I do not know how widespread it is. The whole focus of our efforts in schools at the moment is to raise standards in secondary schools—

  75. If you do not know how widespread this kind of attitude is in our schools, how can you say you are going to raise standards? This article resonates with a lot of people in this country.
  (Mr Normington) I agree with you that that is so.

  76. How widespread is this? Is there anybody in your Department who knows?
  (Mr Normington) We do the secondary sector a great disservice if we think that is widespread. There are some parts, particularly in our cities, where that is the case.

  77. This is a commuter town, this is not a city.
  (Mr Normington) There are some places where that is so. We do have a problem in some places with a boys' culture which is anti-learning. I think that is a social problem in this country which we have to tackle as well. Of course, one has to be realistic about what one is facing and the challenge one is facing, but I do not think we should talk down the secondary sector.

  78. I want to know how you are going to tackle this point. You do not know how extensive it is. You do not think it is that extensive. I am sure people reading the transcript outside will be interested in your view on that. How do you intend to tackle this problem in this commuter town or is it only inner cities that you are dealing with?
  (Mr Normington) If you take the 200 schools which have fewer than 25 per cent of their pupils achieving five A-C GCSEs, we have an individual plan with extra support for every one of those schools to get them above that level and to improve their performance, and some of that is about improving behaviour and ensuring that the school has an ethos of discipline and good behaviour because if you go into any school, unless the school is ordered, unless it has good discipline, you will not find an environment where children learn.

  79. It says in this article: "The teachers were resigned to the idea that teaching was a battle against the disruptive pupils for the benefit of a few. They were for the most part a dedicated staff, invariably of mixed ability. But some of them never learnt to control a class. Once a timid young female teacher was reduced to tears by the sexual insults hurled at her by my class. She was shouted at, interrupted and ignored during all her lessons, but continued anyway, shouting over the noise. . . But most struggled to get any work at all from the pupils. And they did not hear about bullying from any of us." This is an appalling indictment of schools in our small towns around Britain, is it not?
  (Mr Normington) There are some schools like that.


2   Note by witness: The Organisation for European Co-operation and Development's report Knowledge and Skills for Life (December 2001), found the UK performance was significantly above the OECD average - 7th highest out of 32 countries on the reading literacy scale, 8th on the mathematical literacy scale and 4th on the scientific literacy scale. Back

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