Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)



Mr Jenkins

  140. I noticed, Mr Normington, from one of your answers that you were quite confident that you would reach your targets in eight years' time. In the main those children are now ten years old. You must have a lot of confidence in the SATs results that you have had in the last few years and that you can do the same thing with secondary education that we have done with primary education in the last few years.
  (Mr Normington) I am very pleased indeed with the progress we have made on SATs results. What I actually said in answer to the previous question was that I was confident we had in place a lot of policies that were going to move us there. I was not absolutely sure that we were going to hit a target eight years out, I cannot be sure, but I was confident that we had policies in place to tackle that. For 2010 most of those pupils will be coming out of primary school this year.

  141. I think you will find the ones who are now ten years old are not going to make it, they will be conditioned for failure. Mr Steinberg said that it is partly the family, and certainly, as you suggest and recognise, that is a major challenge for any government and not just the schools. I know I have seen it in my own locality where we have made some tremendous improvements but it is hard work and requires extra resources and specialist staff to overcome the problems, working with families.
  (Mr Normington) I agree with that. Just to say, though, that the biggest achievement in literacy and numeracy is not the overall improvement, it is the closing of the gap in some of the areas which never improved. If you go a few miles from here to Tower Hamlets, some of the biggest improvements in literacy under the Literacy Strategy are there and they have almost got to the average. That suggests that you can reverse what people think of as irreversible decline. It is something important.

  142. I only wish that in my area we had the same sort of funding and financing that Tower Hamlets have. With regard to your comment on Oxford and Cambridge about the numbers from schools, I do not see them widening participation because the youngsters were going to apply to some other "red brick" university if not Oxford and Cambridge, because basically their belief is that they need clever youngsters to maintain their grades, to maintain output, to maintain their status.
  (Mr Normington) They set very high standards in terms of A-levels and therefore if you do not get those A-levels you are going to have more difficulty getting into them. This is really Professor Newby's territory.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I believe very firmly that no university or institution should abrogate its responsibilities towards widening participation. Having said that, I think we have to recognise that achieving the target will not mean that each institution will itself achieve it at the same rate. The whole purpose of the benchmarking exercise is because of different subject mixes and different patterns of recruitment of different institutions, and because of the different entry requirements which institutions set. What we need to do is to ensure that every institution is working up to and beyond its benchmark, which will not mean that each institution is admitting the same proportion of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

  143. I see from Page 5 that Bristol, which is a rather progressive institution, when it analysed the intake and output, saw quite clearly that students from the lower performing schools who did not have the grades that they normally accept have done very well.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, the University of Bristol is very aware of its reputation as being the kind of institution that perhaps students from lower socio-economic backgrounds would not normally aspire to, and it has been making very strenuous efforts to overcome that perception by working very closely with schools and by a very active and aggressive programme of school visits and the mentoring of some schools to encourage those schools who have not traditionally put forward students to Bristol to do so.

  144. Something which Oxford and Cambridge might like to adopt as a strategy?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Indeed, and we have been urging those two institutions to do that and, in fairness to them, they have adopted more and more of those kinds of action plans. They, too, are now identifying the schools which have not traditionally sent students to Oxford and Cambridge and are working closely with those schools to raise aspirations within them.

  145. Some of the universities and colleges say that the widening participation premiums do not cover the costs. What plans do you have to monitor costs and adjustments as necessary?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) We recently commissioned KPMG to undertake two studies for us to try to identify what the additional costs are because we also believe that the premium does not cover the full additional costs of all these activities. The reports which we have received indicate that there is a wide range of costs between different institutions depending on the actions they are taking, so we have gone back to KPMG and asked them to do some further study. We are reviewing the premium. I am in no doubt that at the present level it is not sufficient to cover additional costs and once we get a much more accurate estimate of what those costs are, I fully anticipate that we will raise the premium to take account of that.

  146. We have got Educational Maintenance Allowances to encourage youngsters to stop on post 16. Have we had any information back? Are they a success? Are they working and what plans do we have to roll this out?
  (Mr Normington) They cover about 30 per cent of the country at the moment. We are beginning to get evidence that they are raising staying-on rates post-16 significantly. We have not quite got to it yet, but it is beginning to have that impact, and this will be an issue that we will have to discuss with the Treasury and Chancellor in the Spending Review, using the evidence we have.

  147. Can you give us an assurance that it is not just retention for the sake of retention that is occurring, but that we are progressing with regard to advancing their education while they are there.
  (Mr Normington) Yes, it is really important that it is both the quality of the further education, which is for many of these students of high quality, and that it is leading to improvements in outcomes. The Government is about to produce a Green Paper on the 14 to 19 phase which will address this issue and look at how you encourage students to stay on and attain more.

  148. If I were to stay on as a young person, when I come to the decision-making as to whether I am going to go into further education or not—and you alluded to this example you are simplifying it and doing a good job—would there be any chance of me getting some sort of compact from some education authority which says, "This is what you will be entitled to if you took this path. If you continue with your studies and work hard and if you do well, this is what we are going to let you borrow, this is the support you are going to get", as a written document? For many of these families there is no-one in the family who can read it or understand it or have any perception about education and even some of the schools lack the time and ability to deliver this.
  (Mr Normington) I think there is a need to improve the information available. There is a very good booklet produced now which explains the system very clearly and under the heading of the Government's Excellence Challenge, in the work it is doing to encourage students and children to think about university, one of the themes of that is to explain the system more clearly. We need better advice coming through the system, better advisers in the system and, again, the development of the Connexions Service, which is trying to integrate and improve the advice available to children earlier so that their choices are informed, is a very important part of that. So it is about raising aspirations, it is about better quality provision, it is about better quality advice, and it is about financial support.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) That word "compact" that you use is a very apt one and it is one that we have encouraged higher education institutions to adopt in their work with schools and colleges. That compact exists also in the form of universities and colleges offering that kind of advice to schools in their area and even in some cases offering that kind of incentive. More and more universities are working with schools and colleges, usually locally, to say "we will work with you, we will offer a place to those students who can come through to give them an incentive to raise their aspirations provided they achieve certain educational attainment along the way."

  149. I am not sure from the fact that I spent 14 years in further education before I had a real job, that is right. One of the things I noticed in the Report on Page 15 is that you discourage universities and colleges when processing applications from taking into account the postcode that will attract extra funding. How can it make sense to pay institutions a premium to encourage them to widen participation and tell them to take no notice of it?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) The issue of the postcode premium, as I said earlier, is under review. The postcode premium is only introduced as a proxy to try to identify where institutions might be incurring additional costs for all the reasons we mentioned. I think we are satisfied that it has very significant weaknesses and we are reviewing it to see whether the funds we put in through the various premia can be better channelled to achieve the end that we have specified.

  150. It is strange that you have got a premium there and you tell them not to take any notice of it when they are conducting their interviews. Universities are trying to get as much money in as they can.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There is a dilemma here, I think. We are very anxious to ensure that the interview process is not distorted by factors which are extraneous to an assessment of that student's educational potential. On the other hand, I take the point that you are making, which is one of the reasons why it is under review.

  151. If I can remember back, and if I were this young 18 year old looking for a university course or a particular institution—and it says on Page 12, Paragraphs 2.7 and 2.8 that young people doubt the personal benefits of higher education (and some do have some doubt)—I would think "Do I commit three years of my life, not make any money and finish up with a debt? What is in it for me?" I would not know which institution or necessarily which course to go onto and yet we tend to break these courses down as to what the pay back is on various courses. It might seem right to go on a media studies course now but in three years' time the world might be awash with media studies' experts and there will not be a job. I am sure there will be jobs as engineers because we have a lack of engineers. We seem to have a very materialistic approach to this investment of time and money, and yet we do not seem to think of education in itself as being a good thing.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think there are two reasons for that. The first is even at the point when they are thinking of going to university, one of the questions students ask more frequently now than ever before, in my experience, is, "What is this going to mean to me in terms of my career prospects?" The other reason is I think we have recognised as we have moved more and more into a knowledge-based economy that higher education is a means to an end rather than being an end in itself, and the two ends which are often referred to in public debate are, first of all, higher education as a means of improving our global economic competitiveness and, secondly, as we have been discussing, higher education as a means of addressing the social inclusion problem.

  152. Higher education would lead to better qualified parents to bring up the next generation. It raises expectations for society as a whole. It is not all about materialistic goods and how competitive we are. All we have done is walk on one step from the old secondary school as producing factory fodder. It is just better-qualified factory fodder, is it not?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I have spent all my life in education so I believe passionately in the vocation of education. I would also add that it happens that there are an awful lot of other benefits to students going into higher education than the two I have just mentioned, whether it is improved parenting, improved stability in family life.
  (Mr Normington) We will not persuade them at the point when they are taking these decisions. I do not think that will be the way—

  153. Try selling them a dream; it works sometimes.
  (Mr Normington) 35 per cent bigger incomes.

  154. No, no. Some people actually do get qualified and they do not work for a big income and a lot of these people work in the public sector on low money providing a career helping people in what they believe in. I notice that only half of the universities and colleges provide specialist training for their recruitment staff, only half have got written strategies for the selection of students. There is an absence of written criteria for these students. We have no statistics in place or very, very few statistics. We do not know whether interviews are helping people. When do we start getting some standard entrance criteria put in place for what is a publicly-funded body so that students have a fair and equal chance, no matter where they go, and that they understand the system?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I think it is very important we establish good practice which all higher education institutions must abide by when it comes to their admissions procedures. Following this report, it is the determination of my Council to do precisely that. We would then, through the funding mechanism we have, seek an assurance from all the institutions they are abiding by those criteria. It is very important that there are no obstacles placed in the way of any student who can benefit from higher education from doing so by virtue of admissions procedures which deter some of those students from entering higher education.

  Mr Jenkins: Maybe you should look at FE recruitment or admissions policy, they have been far in advance for many years.

Mr Osborne

  155. If I could question in a slightly different territory. There is always the disadvantage going later in the hearing that you let some of the juicy territory go by and my colleague, Mr Gibb, has certainly got stuck in there. In paragraph 10 of the Conclusions in the Report, it says, "The Department and the Funding Council have increased the element of overall funding allocated to recognise additional costs of widening participation progressively from just over 50 million in 1997-98 to just over 200 million in 2001-02." Was there any single impetus for that big increase?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) Yes, it was because, as we moved from a situation in which only a very, very small proportion of the 18 to 21 year olds in the country were in higher education to one where a much larger proportion were in higher education, we became aware of the fact that the increases from those of poorer socio-economic backgrounds were nowhere near as great as they were from those from professional managerial backgrounds. In other words, we became aware of the fact that the gradual expansion of the sector in the late 1980s and early 1990s had not produced a commensurate expansion in the numbers going into higher education from poorer socio-economic groups.

  156. There was not a single event which made you think, "We ought to put some more money into this"?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, it was the kind of analysis I have described.

  157. I am thinking of a single event, which was the enormous political row over Laura Spence. I seem to remember, and unfortunately I did not do all my homework before this meeting, a whole load of Government initiatives which suddenly appeared in the months after that. Can you assure me that the Laura Spence row had nothing to do with the thinking on how much money was going into those programmes?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) No, I do not think I can give you that assurance in all honesty. What I could say is, first of all, a number of these programmes pre-dated what became known as the Laura Spence Affair, and what I would say is that the case of Laura Spence clearly brought to public attention the necessity to address this problem vigorously and with some despatch.

  158. You say with great candour you could not in all honesty say that—and I am not necessarily getting at you because this is how politics works, things come up and as a result departments get their act together—but what were the Department's and the Council's responses to the Laura Spence political row? Were there any specific initiatives which were dreamt up or accelerated?
  (Mr Normington) Neither of us were there at that point, but if you look at how the money is spent some of the increase is in disabled students, very little of it is addressing the issue of widening participation at Oxford and Cambridge specifically. There were a whole range of things going on. To answer your question directly, I would have to recall precisely when it was and look at the initiatives around that time, but what you see—and actually it is in Figure 11 on page 13—is there was an increase in that money going on from 1997-98 right through that period. That line goes like that (indicating); it is increasing year on year.

  159. But you would accept it did have an effect on the Department's policies?
  (Mr Normington) No, I would not.


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