Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40-59)



  40. Yes, I apologise.
  (Mr Miliband) Which is a significant difference.

  41. Quite so. Let us hope they are re-grades though.
  (Mr Miliband) Let us hope that they get the appropriate grade at the end of it. That is a procedure that happens every year and as far as I know the appeals against marks are proceeding according to plan.

Dr Iddon

  42. Minister, what do you see as the role of a school science technician being? In view of the recent proposals that you have published on the role of support staff, how do you see school science technicians playing in that new arena?
  (Mr Miliband) I think this is important. What I would say is that teachers are better able to do their job and students are better able to learn when they have got technical support from other adults in the classroom and outside the classroom. My vision of the future of the teaching force is that teachers are leading teams of professionals, in this case including technicians, better to serve the students who are in the classes. It is striking that, of the five priority areas that we proposed in our proposals two weeks ago for additional staff, two are directly addressed at technicians, for example, priority two, assisting classroom teachers with higher level tasks directly associated with teaching and learning. That seems to me a good description of something that technicians do. Priority four is providing technical support, particularly relating to ICT, but none the less including technicians more generally. We hope that there will be an expanding cadre of technical support in schools. We are working with the Royal Society and the other bodies to ensure that there is proper delineation of the roles of science technicians and that will be available to local authorities and to schools as they begin to judge the sort of people that they want to recruit. The money will be in the hands of the headteachers and we are hoping to create a much more transparent and supportive framework for that hiring practice.

  43. Are you aware that a school science technician spends an inordinate amount of time in the background, in the prep room, getting the experiments ready to take into the classroom and that if that is the role that you see for science technicians in the future, and I agree with you that that would be an ideal thing for them to be able to go into the classroom and help the teacher in the classroom, the difficulty is that they are so few in number that they are worth their weight in gold and unless we have some method of recruitment and training for school science technicians we are never going to achieve what we want to achieve?
  (Mr Miliband) Obviously I do recognise that they work outside lessons and then come back. I think that a clearer delineation of the different roles of technical support staff will help schools and help heads. The other thing is that there is a massive culture change going on. Two or three years ago there was huge caution in schools about the prospect of other professionals coming into the classroom. I think the experience of learning mentors tackling behaviour problems, language specialists but also thinking laterally about the role that technicians have played for many years is beginning to change the culture and heads now, when they have more money in their budget, are thinking about recruiting more teachers (and, as you know, the Government is committed to hiring 10,000 more teachers in this Parliament) and are also thinking, "How can I get other staff into the school?". Just to pick out one thing, yes there are recruitment issues. The Roberts Review highlighted the prospect of undergraduates playing a bigger role and also graduates, once they leave university, playing a bigger role. Those are two things that we are pursuing actively because they are obvious sources of technical expertise to help in schools.

Mr Dhanda

  44. Can we expect anything concrete and, if so, what sort of timetable, about the re-structured roles of technicians, if there are to be any, and also are we going to be looking to address their pay because at the moment they are on about £9,000 a year if they are doing their current role?
  (Mr Miliband) On the former, the consultation on this document on developing the role of school support staff closes on January 22. I am delighted that the General Secretary of the Secondary Heads Association has written to every secondary headteacher in the country saying, "Get on with it. You have got the money in your budget. Start hiring the additional support staff, including technicians", so I would say that, in terms of the formal processes, in terms of making progress, it can happen now because more money is being devolved into school budgets for them to make choices that will best help their school. In relation to pay, this is not a nationally negotiated pay system. However, I do think that the framework we are developing with the Royal Society and others will make much clearer the different skill mixes and levels that are required at different levels of technicians and that will bring to the attention of heads and others the implications for pay. We have said clearly that we want more heads to recruit more higher level teaching assistants. Some of those will be technicians. From where they appear on the ladder of qualifications and skills they will have to be paid a certain amount to get them in and it will be at the local level that you find the recruitment works.

Dr Iddon

  45. But is it right, Minister, that different local authorities in different parts of the country should pay school science technicians such very different rates? That is the experience we saw. Some people were doing it for the love of doing it rather than for the pay that it gave. You would be lucky if you were earning £9,000 as a school science technician. Would it not be better if we had at least regional salary scales if not national salary scales for these staff?
  (Mr Miliband) The experience of regional pay scales has not been productive. We think that LEAs have a tradition of negotiating at their level that is sensitive to local labour market situations. The reason there are pay differences is there are different pay pressures and different recruitment pressures in different parts of the country. Obviously it is in the interests of the schooling system, the education system, to have as many people of the appropriate and, if possible, the highest possible quality. We think we will get a better match by putting the pound in the hands' of local heads. I do not think it would be sensible to have a free-for-all, that is why LEAs have an important role and generally set rates. From a school's point of view it wants to get the best possible person, and many of them, for the appropriate amount of money. We all know how much extra money is going into schools, the DfES has put an ordinance on how much money we put into separate pots of money at the centre with a cash flap for central progress. The choices are going to be there for the professionals to think: how do we best support teaching and learning in our schools?

  46. We are leaving it to the market?
  (Mr Miliband) We are leaving it to local organisations. Peripatetic and technical support is somewhere where LEAs have traditionally had a role, that is not the market, that is them playing an appropriate role in the schooling system.

Mr Heath

  47. I am not absolutely clear, are you saying that any enhanced role or recognition of the responsibilities of a technician will be linked inevitably with classroom times, with direct pupil contact time?
  (Mr Miliband) No.

  48. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of technicians.
  (Mr Miliband) I did not explain myself properly when somebody else asked me earlier. What we are saying is high level teaching assistants working under the direction of a teacher have an increasing role in our schooling system. When we say the direction of the teacher that obviously includes pre-class time, the sort you just described, as well as in-class time but it is up to the teacher to decide how he might best use the technician.

  Chairman: Okay.

Mr Dhanda

  49. You mentioned some of the extra money that has gone into school laboratories, which is appreciated; however your Report does not talk about how the value has essentially been measured; can you talk about the evaluation of that extra money for school laboratories?
  (Ms Dallas) The evaluation of the money given to the LEAs—we are talking about £60 million over the last two years, ring-fenced funding for laboratories—will come about through our scrutiny of local authorities Asset Management Plans, because that will tell us the effect of the investment on the schools where that funding is directed, and then following on from that whereabouts in their LEA they propose to invest future money in different schools for different purposes.

  50. How can we be sure that that money is being spent on the areas we want it to be spent in?
  (Mr Miliband) There is a really important principle here, £60 million for science labs, the capital budget is three billion. Of that three billion schools and LEAs will decide the relative priority of science in their area. It will be different in my area from yours.

  51. I do not have a problem with it being different from area to area. In terms of feedback and evaluation, that is a key area, that is not actually mentioned in this Report?
  (Ms Dallas) The LEAs have done their own evaluation and it is up to them to make future decisions about where to invest large sums of money that come to them. There is no reason why there has to be central intervention in LEAs decisions about where they see the poorest conditions of laboratories.
  (Mr Miliband) I hope we will see the results in more people doing science, higher standards of achievement in science, because those are the things we want to see at the end of the day. I share your wish to see improvements in the science labs, however it is obvious from the two figures I quoted the biggest improvement is not going to come from the 60 million pocket it is going to come from the allocation of the three billion that goes towards science. Do you see what I mean?

  52. I do. I must also say that the Report goes on about a number of matters, one of the things it says in recommendation 62 is, "We will be working with our partners to develop interactive, flexible and user-friendly resources for schools to help in assessing their needs and procuring the accommodation and equipment necessary to teach science in the classroom of the future". It will make it much easier for all of us if the language was a little bit simpler. If can you explain to us what it actually means that would be really helpful?
  (Mr Miliband) What it means is that every LEA is developing an asset management plan to upgrade the quality of its capital resource, that is an important document, above all, in helping focus LEAs' attention on which aspects of their capital they want to tackle. In the end the proof of the pudding is going to be in the number and quality of science education that goes on.

  Mr Dhanda: That is far more easily understood in the way you said it. Thank you.

Dr Iddon

  53. We saw some excellent science laboratories. I have to say that the best we saw were at Westminster School round the corner here in Smith Square. You might expect that! In my own personal meandering about schools I have seen some pretty grotty science laboratories, in many cases the fume cupboards do not work. There is a complete shortage of glassware work, there is a shortage of everything. I am a bit disappointed to hear that we are not going to try and evaluate how much money we need to plough into school science laboratories, we are going to leave it to the local authority to do that. Some local authorities are excellent and they will do that, will they not, but other local authorities need to be driven to do that. I have another concern, I am very pleased to hear that we are going to allocate three billion pounds for buildings, whether new or maintaining existing ones, such as science laboratories; that is good news. I would encourage you to ensure that quite a bit of that money goes down to the science laboratories. My question is: are you going to assure us this afternoon that quite a bit of that money will go outside the specialist science colleges, into the schools that are not getting extra money in many ways and that are really suffering?
  (Mr Miliband) I can tell you that every asset management plan is audited for quality to make sure that it is not just a few boxes that are being checked, it is actually a serious document. In the guidance priority is clearly given to science labs. I think that should reassure you, it reassures me, that there is a big push going on, that a significant proportion of the money does get spent on science labs. I always welcome feedback from the frontline, but the asset management plans give sufficient authority to science and our guidance gives priority to science. I agree with you that there are grotty science labs but I have also seen some improved in the last five years. The sums involved are large, they are in addition to all of the other running costs, three billion a year comes up to five billion a year on capital by 2005-06. That is big money.

  54. Are you saying that your Department will be monitoring that that money is actually going in to improve science laboratories all round?
  (Mr Miliband) We monitor the asset management plan, that it conforms to the guidance we have given. If an asset management plan came forward that had no priority towards science labs we would ask a pretty serious question about it. We need to be convinced that every science lab in the LEA was of such a brilliant standard we do not have to spend any money on them.


  55. This Committee's experience was that the £570 million that went in to cancer services did not actually get through, and that was admitted by the Department.
  (Mr Miliband) Where did it end up?

  56. It paid off deficits in health authorities and it had to pay for wage increases. The money did not get to where the Government thought it was going.
  (Mr Miliband) Let me go back and check on the extent of any underspend on New Deal for Schools and other capital budgets and drop you a line to see if that provides any reassurance or alarm on the state of spending.

Mr McWalter

  57. I would just like to pick up on something you said earlier which I think reflects something that I and the Committee unanimously would wish to contest, it relates to the answer you gave earlier about GM crops. You seem to suggest that what the science curriculum was about was learning the technical stuff and then they could all have little discussions about it somewhere else; some good schools might provide scope for people to do that. What we have said in our Report, for instance, a quotation from Ralph Levinson, "an emphasis on evidence and an emphasis on argument could be one way forward". What we are trying to do is to get people to think differently about the way science is delivered so there is more emphasis on the students' own interests and them being able to shape their educational experience more effectively. We think that the awarding bodies do not take responsibility for what we regard as a satisfying assessment system which prevents that kind of interaction from happening. If they are not doing it then we are asking you, will you?
  (Mr Miliband) To respond, I do not think we do have a difference. I did not articulate myself sufficiently clearly. The unique contribution of the science teaching is to give young people the facts. That does not mean, let me finish,—

  58. That is a source of conflict, we do not accept that.
  (Mr Miliband) You have not heard what I have said yet. That does not mean that science teaching and science classes are restricted to giving them the facts. Science lessons can have excellent debates as well as getting technical issues across; however those technical issues and debates can be pursued in other lessons as well.

  59. Should they not be integrated into the assessment procedure and the student's experience?
  (Mr Miliband) The assessment procedure must test the full range of` knowledge and skill that exists in a young person. The science class is not restricted to those technical issues. I hope there is debate in science classes as well as technical discussion, but the unique contribution of science is it can arm young people with the technical knowledge as well.

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