Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 194-199)


2 MAY 2006

  Q194 Chairman: Good morning. Welcome to this inquiry on the education of service children. Minister, thank you very much for coming in front of us. I think we have met everyone on your team, but would you like to introduce everybody and say word in a second or two about them.

  Mr Touhig: Yes, indeed. Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to come to give evidence to the Committee. It is a fine morning, a morning when I am prepared to admit I am the Minister responsible for the Met Office but I am sure that will not interest your inquiry this morning. We are very pleased to be here, to help in your inquiry. I have with me David Wadsworth. I think you know David as the Chief Executive of Service Children's Education and some of you would have met him when you were over in Germany. We also have David's curriculum specialist Kathryn Forsyth; Brigadier Tony Brister, the Director of Educational and Training Services of the Army; and Liz Cassidy the Command Secretary for the Adjutant General's Headquarters. In addition, should you give us some questions on which we need further support, I have the support behind me of Olivia Denson, the Children's Education Advisory Service; Chris Baker, the Director General of Service Personnel Policy; and Lieutenant Colonel Steve Richardson of Service Personnel Policy (Families), Assistant Director for Families. They are going to support us this morning to answer your questions.

  Q195  Chairman: Thank you very much. We have a lot of ground to cover because of the importance and the wide-ranging nature of the subject we are dealing with. We understand you need to leave by 12.30 and we will therefore finish by then. If you could all keep your answers as concise as possible and if we could keep our questions as concise as possible, that will help us to get through the ground we need to cover. Minister, the first point for you is that it is a wide-ranging issue and you are responsible for some aspects of the education of service children, but we know that some of the aspects of it fall under the DfES. I wonder if you could begin by setting out your responsibilities in relation to service children's education.

  Mr Touhig: My role within the Department is very much the people's minister, because I am responsible for everything from veterans to families' accommodation, to education, defence medical services and so on, so my responsibilities will cover the whole range of services that we deliver through our educational services. The Secretary of State, of course, takes total responsibility, but I have the day-to-day responsibility. I work closely with colleagues within the Department in order to ensure that we do deliver equality of education—a tremendous opportunity for our young people, sometimes in difficult circumstances. I read very much with interest the evidence you took down at Colchester from the youngsters themselves. I thought they were making pretty powerful points about the kinds of disruptions they get to their lives as a result of their parents being posted and so on. I keep quite a close interest in this whole area.

  Q196  Chairman: How does your responsibility mesh with the responsibilities of the DfES?

  Mr Touhig: We have a working relationship, as you know. The responsibility for the education of our service children remains with us but there are areas of importance and collaboration where working together brings mutual benefit. This is very much on a case-by-case basis really, where we think it is appropriate, where we can get support and encouragement. As an aside, I know you have an interest from your inquiry so far in special educational needs. I have a passion about us doing something better for special educational needs and, indeed, have been talking to my officials about the possibility of a statementing passport. That would involve DfES very much. It is a vision—it is no more than that at this stage—but it would clearly involve the very close collaboration and support of other departments, DfES in particular, to do that.

  Q197  Chairman: We will certainly come onto that issue. Linda Gilroy will be very interested in pursuing that suggestion.

  Mr Touhig: Thank you.

  Chairman: The disruption that faces service families is central to the problems that you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis and David Borrow has some questions about that aspect.

  Q198  Mr Borrow: You have mentioned that you were concerned about the disruption to family life caused by postings. Is there a minimum notice period that is given to parents? To what extent does the MoD take that disruption into account when planning the movement of personnel?

  Mr Touhig: Of course, as your own evidence so far has shown you, it is a turbulent time for families when a posting occurs and families are uprooted and moved and so on. The Services aim to give the majority of personnel a minimum of four months' notice of a move. As you will appreciate, for operational reasons that is not always possible, but that is the target to which we work. The Defence Estate, which is also within my responsibility, has set a target of 15 working days' turnaround to allocate service family accommodation on receiving any application up to four months before a move. The address will be confirmed 28 days before the move. If no service family accommodation is available then substitute accommodation will be found. Our ambition is to give at least four months' notice of a move, but, as you will appreciate, it is not always possible to do that.

  Q199  Mr Borrow: On the question of the addresses—because that is one of the issues that has been raised by parents with the Committee—even when the date of posting is known, a key thing for placing children in school is having a UK address from which to apply, or at least the anticipation of a particular address. Is there any way in which the period of knowledge prior to the posting when an address is known could be extended, in order to make it easier for parents to apply to particular schools for their children?

  Mr Touhig: I am certainly conscious and the contact I have with the Families' Federation certainly indicates that it is a problem and an issue for them. If I may address very briefly for a moment my wider agenda, my wider vision for the Department, in a sense. My responsibility is to say we value our service men and women and their families and will do everything practical in our power to demonstrate that. One of the things I am seeking to do, as an aside, Mr Chairman, is to make sure that all service families before posting have details of the accommodation they are going to move into, again to try to underpin how much we value our people. I certainly recognise, and I am sure my colleagues here do from the constituency work that they do, that problems are caused to service families if at short notice a deployment is necessary and this impacts most on the children. As I say, we do have a target of four months. We will offer a temporary accommodation address if that facilitates, so that at least families will know they are going to that particular area and that will help them start doing the search for schools. Tony, would you want to add to that?

  Brigadier Brister: Sir, you have really said it all. We understand the importance of an address. It is key, as you say, to being able to get into a school, therefore we do have these targets. Whether the time can be shortened is a matter on which I cannot comment because it is outside my area of influence, but there is certainly an awareness of the need to give people an address as soon as possible. As I think you know—this became clear when you were at Colchester—school admissions is one of the key issues for service families when they move. Moving is a very stressful time and for families it is quite clear that the most difficult part of a move is the issue of children's schooling and what they can do about it. There are packages in place to help with moving. Particularly as far as the schooling side of it is concerned, as I think you know we have been in touch with DfES to get special note taken of service children's needs in the DfES admission code of practice. We give families advice and assistance with moving school. We give them advice through all sorts of means from telephone to meetings. As far as admissions are concerned, we will support them with appeals, if they need to do that. We will help them with the appeal letter and we will support them at the appeal hearing if someone is available to do that. Indeed, people from CEAS, for which I am responsible—

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