Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)



  440. Do you think it needs to be tackled?
  (Mr Normington) In the sense we want to improve schools, I do think it needs to be tackled, and I think it is being tackled through some of the things the Government is doing on greater diversity in the secondary sector. That is some of what that is about. Getting really effective headteachers is a really important part of that.

Geraint Davies

  441. Following on from Mr Gibb's point, I agree with this thing about ethos, but I should say the head of a very large comprehensive school where I originally went, Mr Haynes was his name, tracked the performance of children who were from owner-occupied houses versus non-owner occupied houses and found that on average something like 50 per cent from owner-occupied got 5 O-levels, as they then were, and the figure was 10 per cent from the other group, and he found if you applied those figures to any school he could predict outputs within a couple of percentage points. Does that suggest to you, and have you any other supporting evidence, what is paramount in the attitudes of schools is not the whole school environment perhaps, although that is clearly important, but the social background in the first place, and does that not make it much more difficult to meet the challenging targets you have for higher education given you have to get them through these hoops of GCSEs and A-levels?
  (Mr Normington) I think the danger with that is that it becomes an excuse and I do not think that is acceptable. It is clearly the case in, let us say, a secondary school which has pupils from mainly the lower socio-economic groups with perhaps a lot of single parent families, a lot of social problems, that barriers to achievement there are greater, but you can do it. Effective headteachers in good schools can do it. They can overcome that. It is tough but it can be done.

  442. Let me focus in on this a bit. You will know that of the adult population something like 1:5 is functionally illiterate and 1:4 is functionally innumerate, in the sense they cannot work out the change if they buy a few groceries and they cannot cope with the Yellow Pages. Given a background where parents are functionally illiterate and innumerate, do you agree that obviously that is a massive hold-back on the performance of those children?
  (Mr Normington) Of course, if they are disadvantaged.

  443. Would you also agree that when you combine that with a trend towards project-based work in A-levels to be done at home, which inevitably of course is done by middle-class parents themselves, that those two factors combined are conspiring to ensure failure amongst those people from more deprived educational and social backgrounds?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know. It might be the case. I do not think we have any evidence of that.

  444. Do you not think it is obvious that if a large proportion of the points for A-level is on the basis of work at home, and in one case the parents have a tendency for poor literacy and numeracy and in the other they have not, and there is no tradition of going to college or further education, no provision of books at home, maybe overcrowding, constant television and all the rest of it, the simple fact we rely so much on at-home project work inherently discriminates against the socially deprived?
  (Mr Normington) It does not have to be at-home project work, it can be project work done in all sorts of places. What I do agree with is that support from the family all through education is a great assistance, and if you do not have that support you are disadvantaged.

  445. Therefore, in terms of the rational targeting of limited resources to deliver our widening objectives, do you not think more should be done at an earlier level in Education Action Zones, or whatever it is, to work with children to raise self-esteem and indeed the self-esteem and ambition of their parents?
  (Mr Normington) I do, and I do actually think you have to work on the parents from the year nought.

  446. Do you think it is worth reviewing, as we have just discussed, the level of project-based parental help that is factored into a child's success?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know whether any work has been done on that.

  447. Perhaps you might like to do some.
  (Mr Normington) I will certainly look at that.[13]

  448. I do think this is of critical importance. Are you aware of certain schools playing the A-level market? What I mean by that is, looking at statistics and finding where it is easier to get higher grades—I am thinking of private schools obviously where there is a tendency to play this game—and perhaps finding the authorities which do a range of A-levels and cherry-picking them according to outcomes. Are you are of that?
  (Mr Normington) Do you mean—

  449. What happens is that a school would send their maths A-levels to one authority, Wales or wherever, French A-levels to the Oxford authority, and so on, and they do this on the basis of the statistical probability they will get higher grades and the net output is they get higher A-levels than if they just used their home authority. Are you aware of that?
  (Mr Normington) I personally am not aware of it.

  450. It is happening and it is delivering results. Would you be surprised if I tell you that I spoke to a headteacher who taught A-level history and had pupils who he estimated would manage to get a D grade A-level who then got an A grade partly as a result of that?
  (Mr Normington) I would be surprised at that, yes.

  451. That is happening. I think there are issues there about universal standards. Mr Gibb and others have talked about declining generic standards but within that there is a bigger tapestry of varying standards. Obviously, it is the case that the actual questions are different in different exam boards, but in the case of mathematics, which is perhaps slightly more objective than some of the subjects, is there any evidence to suggest that in any given year some exam papers are a lot easier than others? Or have you not looked at that?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There have been studies of whether or not the overall difficulty of mathematics A-level papers has gone up or down or remained the same, which is rather a different question from the year-on-year fluctuations to which your question refers, but I am not aware—

  452. No, I have asked two questions. One is the range of different authorities offering different exams but then the trend changing over time.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I am aware that there have been allegations of variations between different exam authorities. I am aware that some schools do indeed, as you put it, play that game.
  (Mr Normington) We have a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, whose role is to try and audit the standards of what are now only three examining boards. There used to be many more and the scope for variations in standards was much greater I think. We do not just sit back here. This is what the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is about, trying to maintain standards and maintain standards across the three boards.

  453. I asked at the last hearing about colleges phoning up to make up their numbers and saying if anybody has got three Us they could get in. I notice in the Report there were various expected benchmark drop-out rates for different organisations. Can I infer from that—I think it is Figure 11—that in the case of Thames Valley, whose benchmark is 15 per cent drop out, but they actually achieved a 21 per cent drop out, it means in some sense they are funded in such a way that there is a presumption of a 15 per cent drop out? Do you see what I mean?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I see what you mean. We do not fund them on that presumption but it is true, given the prior education and qualifications of the students they admit and the mix of the subjects which that university offers, we would expect them to achieve a figure of a 15 per cent drop out rate, whereas in fact it is worse than that at 21 per cent. You will recall that in the not too far distant past the Funding Council took quite draconian action against Thames Valley University because there were concerns established by the QAA about its standards and quality.

  454. I do not think this is in the Report but in terms of the balance of so-called female and male subject propensity—boys do more science and girls not in mixed schools—would you agree that there is a much higher propensity for girls to do science in single sex schools, and girls do better educationally in single sex schools, other things being equal?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) There has been some recent research which suggests that.

  455. If our objective is educational output in terms of higher education, would that point towards more single sex schools so girls do better? I know boys are not very happy already because girls already do better, but I do not mind that.
  (Mr Normington) I suppose it might point to that. I do not think the Government is about to go down the road of promoting single sex schools.

  456. Can I ask something about benefits for single mothers in higher education? I am not sure whether there has been a change. You mentioned a change. Are you happy now that single-parent mothers who want to go into higher education do not lose more benefits than they gain when they go into higher education, or are they essentially being discriminated against? Has it improved?
  (Mr Normington) It has become quite a lot better. I am happy that we have in place a much better package now.

  457. So theoretically, taking a single-parent mother who, for argument's sake, is on benefit from the state, and say she is working in Tesco's, she is looking after her child, she wants to move from stacking shelves to get a degree and add value to her productivity; if she moved from that working families tax credit into university, would she not face an enormous reduction in her income?
  (Mr Normington) She might do. I am right at the limits of my understanding of this, I am afraid.

  458. It would be interesting to have a note on this. Obviously there would be different variations. I am talking about someone on minimum wage or on working families tax credit, the lowest level of employment, versus income from being a student. Also I would like to compare people who are not employed. Hopefully it means that people are not going to be worse off . I would be interested to know if that was the case.
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) What I can say is that recently students of that kind have moved from a position where really the kind of financial support they were entitled to was extremely uncertain—essentially it was through hardship funds—to a situation where there now are entitlements in place, but whether it removes them from that kind of poverty trap, I am afraid I do not know.
  (Mr Normington) They can now retain some benefits, as well as getting the childcare grant, but whether it deals with your specific point, I do not know.[14]


  Chairman: You have the people in your Department for Education and Skills who perhaps could provide a note on that.

  459. It would be interesting to know what the relationship is, and whether it is putting pressure on other departments to provide much more for people who could be getting value in that way. I think Mr Steinberg mentioned earlier that you have to have English and maths O-level to go to university. Is it still the case that places like Oxford still discriminate against people if they do not have a foreign languages O-level or GCSE?
  (Professor Sir Howard Newby) I do not know for certain, I have to say. My belief is that they do not, but I simply would have to check on that.[15]



13   Note by witness: We have no knowledge of any UK research into this issue. Recent review of the research literature on homework did find one American study into this issue. UK research has examined parents attitudes to their children's homework but has not explored the extent to which they over-assist in their children's project work. Back

14   Ev 50-51, Appendix 1. Back

15   Ev 53, Appendix 2. Back

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