Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)


2 MAY 2006

  Q220  Chairman: We have mentioned the evidence that we took in Colchester. One of the things that came up there was the possibility of reserved places for service children. Presumably that would involve either sufficient funding for schools to be able to keep places open, or the rather brutal decision to say to a child in the catchment area who is not a service child, "No, you cannot come because we are holding this place open." Is there, nevertheless, any possibility of moving along the road of reserved places for service children, where experience suggests it might ease some of the pressures?

  Mr Touhig: I think, colleagues, you will realise it is very difficult. It is a worthy aspiration, but I can just imagine the difficulties we would have in representing our own constituencies if we found that a school had reserved five or six places on the possibility that some service children might move in and that local children would then be denied an opportunity. I do not have an answer. As I say, I think it is a worthy aspiration but I think it is extremely difficult in consequence. Indeed, in my own area, we discovered just a little while ago that one of my schools had almost half a class of children who, when they did the school audit, pre-audit, never turned up, and they turned up on the first day of term. So there are huge problems, I think, for schools and LEAs at the moment, and I am not sure that this would be the right way to solve it. It would help in terms of service families but I think there would be problems with the rest of the community.

  Q221  Robert Key: The question I want to ask is whether it would be possible to talk to the Department for Education and Skills about developing a policy of funding following the child. The Minister just said that he knows there can be problems if you have five or six children who might or might not turn up to a primary school. If only the problem were that small. Clarendon Junior School at Tidworth—which has given the Committee evidence, and I spoke to the head this morning—currently have 290 pupils on roll based on a budget set for the year for 242. That is a huge difference. They find it difficult to do any better. I was therefore pleased to see in the annual report and accounts of service children's education for 2004-05 that the Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) is now part of the system. Congratulations. This is really moving forward, quite clearly, but, even when you are flagging up service children and when the assistant education officer for data management attends the PLASC Conference and gives presentations and so on, still we have this huge variation that is going on. Given that relations appear to be developing positively with the Department for Education and Skills, would it not be possible to develop a new system where there is really no doubt, as far as the schools are concerned, that if an extra 20, 30 or 40 children turn up there will be funding for them—unlike the case facing Clarendon Junior School in Tidworth, where some 50 children turned up who were not expected?

  Mr Touhig: I think it is difficult. I sat on an LEA for 20 years and I understand the point you are making, but, as we recognise under our present system, every child brings a pot of gold into a school and if that child does not come to the school there is a gap. It is matter then to try to resolve the difficulties which you have referred to with the LEA (which has the head responsibility for the budget, although the actual use of the budget is devolved to schools). I think it is difficult. I recognise, though, that there is a problem there. In the ongoing discussions we will have with DfES I have no doubt this is going to figure, because nobody wants to see the education system disrupted in the way you have just described and as I have experienced in my own area, as a result of having people turn up who you did not expect to turn up.

  Q222  Robert Key: But the Treasury is still going to fund that child, whether the tax payer is going down the route of the Ministry of Defence budget or the Department for Education and skills budget. It just seems to me that we have an administrative problem here that needs sorting.

  Mr Touhig: I think you are right. In terms of the funding following the child around, I do understand the point. My very limited ambition at the moment is to look at children with special educational needs, as I touched on earlier, as a first step. But I recognise that it is a problem. I am sure we will have ongoing discussions with DfES, and no doubt, depending on the report of this Committee, that might persuade us that we should be doing something more.

  Q223  Chairman: If we were to come up with a system to solve that problem, you would find that helpful.

  Mr Touhig: We do not have the majority or all the best ideas. In the way our Parliament operates, committees like this make an important contribution to thinking about government policy on a whole range of things. Certainly I do not have a monopoly of all the right answers, and if this Committee can help us then that would be very useful to us.

  Q224  Mr Jones: Is the system not the problem, Minister? As I understand it, the money does follow the child, but, if the child attends after September, what happens is that you get the money but it will be a year later. The school to which Mr Key has referred will get the money, but it will be a year later. That is okay if you are in a normal school and you might get two or three kids coming throughout the year, but there is a specific problem where you have large numbers of service children, possibly arriving not conveniently on 1 September but later on. Would it not be a way to solve it with flexibility, in a sense, if that money were drawn down not at the end of the academic year, which it is, but to perhaps follow those children more specifically? Because, with the numbers which Mr Key is referring to, if you have large numbers like that, it will make a big difference to that school budget in that year. I understand why the present system works elsewhere, because in most schools the number of kids who turn up in the year are only very few, but if you get a large posting to an area it is going to affect the school budget.

  Mr Touhig: Colleagues may be aware of course that DfES is in consultation at the moment on funding schools in England. We have been asked to contribute that. We were looking at basic funding mechanisms, including changes to pupil numbers, and this consultation thing is due to end shortly and will impact upon the next CSR. So there is a lot of thinking going on in this area at the moment. We will be playing our part, and I have no doubt that if this Committee refer to it in its report then that might well figure in the deliberations that will come towards the next CSR about funding schools.

  Q225  Linda Gilroy: I wonder if those considerations include looking at the very substantial extra sums of money coming through the personalisation agenda. It is something like one billion pounds which is attached to the implementation of the White Paper and the Education Bill. That will make it even more important, if that money is to some extent able to follow the pupils, that it does so in the case of service children. If you are not already looking at that, then presumably you might do so.

  Mr Touhig: There is an area that does interest me in particular; that is, whenever extra funding is allocated for schools, of course in England it is decided that funding will go directly. As the Chancellor announced in his last Budget and so on, in the devolved administrations that can vary. I am looking to see what might be done for our service schools. It is a matter that does particularly interest me. We will have to have discussions with other colleagues across government on that.

  Mr Wadsworth: I have a comment on Mr Key's point about the money following the child. As I think you know from the CVs, my background was in local authorities. What we have been discussing for the last 15 minutes is really an LEA funding policy issue rather than MoD, DfES or whatever, but to talk about the money following the child makes an assumption, I think, that there would be a standard unit cost, per capita cost, whatever, per child across the country. Otherwise, you are playing shops almost, are you not, between moving money from one authority to another? The concept is fine but I think it has deeper ramifications than we may have covered in the last ten minutes.

  Brigadier Brister: May I follow up on the point Mr Key made about PLASC? An important point within that is that service children are not identified as a particular category within that system.

  Chairman: That is something we will certainly come on to because we want to probe that in some detail, partly as a result of what came up at Colchester. We have had quite a bit of discussion about CEAS. Linda Gilroy has some more questions about that.

  Q226  Linda Gilroy: I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about how the CEAS works across the piece. You have described some parts of it but if you could perhaps give us a more holistic version of that as a starting point.

  Brigadier Brister: The CEAS role is to assist service parents with every aspect of their children's education in terms of giving advice and support. They support families worldwide with educational issues. This can be done through the telephone helpline that we have. We also produce and issue information packs on various aspects of schooling, particularly, for example, school admissions, appeals and special educational needs, and, indeed, where necessary individual consultancies on a range of issues. They also have a quality assurance role in looking at the boarding schools which service people send their children to and claim continuity of education allowance. They provide advice and guidance there in terms of boarding. They produce advice and assistance on all aspects and everyone has to have a form signed by CEAS before they can claim continuity of education allowance. On admissions, I think I have said enough, and you would not want me to repeat what I have said on that. Special educational needs is an absolutely key area for CEAS. They maintain the MoD register of special educational needs; they produce advice to families who have children on that register at the time of posting and other issues revolving around the retention of quarters if necessary; they put parents in touch with schools and local authorities in the area to which they are moving; and they can call and initiate case conferences for those children and then represent the family at the case conference and on a tribunal as well if necessary. CEAS is mentioned in the SEN code of practice and we engage with DfES to try to get note taken of the special circumstances surrounding service children. I think I have probably said enough in terms of liaison with DfES and at regional level as well. CEAS is also represented on the SCISS partnership—SCISS, as you were briefed on down in Colchester. We have had some notable successes in liaison in terms of special mention for service children in the DfES Admissions Code of Practice. I have mentioned the SEN Code of Practice. In terms of moving schools, we have produced a moving school pack which we send to parents. Between April 2005 and March 2006 we sent out more than 4,000 copies of this pack. I have brought a pack with me, if you would like a copy.

  Q227  Linda Gilroy: Yes, please.

  Brigadier Brister: SCE, with some input from CEAS, have produced a deployment support pack. Then, finally, in terms of research, CEAS have commissioned an NFER study into the attainment of service children. At the moment, NFER have looked at all schools with a mobility issue, if you like, and that has been completed and they are now looking at a set of schools with service mobility. But what we can't get done properly until we have the entry on PLASC, as it was, is to actually get proper empirical data on how service children perform within the state system back home compared with others, because they are not singularly identified. In summary, their role is to help service parents as much as possible with all aspects of children's education.

  Q228  Linda Gilroy: Thank you very much. Referring back to the Minister's statement that he wants to do more for SEN children, the issue which seemed to come through in the evidence at Colchester fairly quietly was that service families are sometimes unwilling to seek help in case it is viewed as a sign of weakness. Have you been looking at that? What could be done about it?

  Mr Touhig: Anecdotally, when I have met with the Families' Federations. I do not think we have had evidence to that effect, but we have raised it, and certainly anecdotally there are comments about that. On the wider issue, there is one serious area which we have to address, and that is the huge problems caused to service families who have a child with learning difficulties and the added burden that has on them. It is really stressful and very hard indeed and we have to be very proactive in seeking to resolve that.

  Q229  Linda Gilroy: Do you want to put any more flesh on the bones of how you might set about doing that? I know you have said it is aspirational at this stage.

  Mr Touhig: It is aspirational. I recognise that every LEA has its policy on special educational needs and so on, and every child when moved has to be re-statemented and examined and so on, and that causes huge difficulties. Then there is the issue of making sure, if there is a statement in support, that the school is in a position to provide maybe one-to-one support. It just seems to me that we have to look at a way—that one area, as Mr Key was suggesting earlier—in which the funding does follow the child. Even within the present system, in my own experience—and perhaps colleagues have had the same experience—I have had situations where a child has got support in the primary school, has moved to the secondary school and the support has stayed in the primary school: the money has not followed the child through the system as it works. That is the one thing I am looking at. We are obviously involved in much discussion with our colleagues in DfES and I recognise that there may be financial difficulties for us in trying to meet that aspirational aim of mine. The numbers are not large, but the youngsters are hugely disadvantaged if we cannot give that extra help and support.

  Chairman: As the subject of statementing has come up now, let us concentrate on this. David Burrows, is there anything you want to ask?

  Q230  Mr Borrow: Minister, you mentioned about children having to be re-statemented. Is it not possible in discussion with the Department for Education to arrive at a system where if a child has been statemented in Germany, for example, and then returns to the UK, they do not have to go through that process all over again, because as the Minister has mentioned this is particularly disruptive for service families to keep having to go through that process.

  Mr Touhig: It is hugely difficult. To us sitting round this table it seems common sense, but as a young lad my mother used to say to me, "Son, in life you will find that sense is not common." I think we have to recognise that there is a problem here and we need to address it. But we cannot do this on our own within the MoD, we have to work closely with DfES and the local authority associations in order to try to deliver this.

  Brigadier Brister: We always, and quite rightly, because they are the most needy, zero in on those children who are statemented, but of course the issues are also faced by children who are on school action and school action plus. These are also children with special educational needs. They too suffer from mobility and have the same issues of concern that they feel they have to start again. We should not restrict any examination of this just to those who are statemented, I would suggest.

  Q231  Chairman: It is not restricted either to those who are coming from, say, Germany. It applies to children moving within the UK.

  Brigadier Brister: Yes.

  Q232  Chairman: Neither is it restricted to service families either. It is a wide issue but there is a larger proportion of children with service backgrounds who are eligible for statements. Is that right?

  Mr Touhig: We do not have any evidence of that.

  Brigadier Brister: It is anecdotal. You heard it in Colchester. I am not aware of any evidence that would actually support that. I am sorry, I am repeating myself, but we are back to PLASC.

  Chairman: Yes, it brings us back to the PLASC issue. Robert Key.

  Q233  Robert Key: Chairman, I was very concerned when I read the quinquennial review of the SCE dated 1 May 2003—which is still of course very much live. The recommendation at paragraph 8.8 is that Service Children's Education should seek legal opinion on the avoidance of legislative challenge under the UK Disability Discrimination Act on the grounds (as explained under paragraphs 14, 17 and 18) that SCE is unable to provide for the inclusion of all service children who may be disabled in some way here, and that there are limitations of funding leading to possible legal challenges under the Disability Discrimination Act. It may be unfair to ask you to answer this off the cuff, but it is very relevant. I would be grateful if you would update the Committee with what happened following that recommendation that you should seek to avoid legislative challenge, because I think it is something that a lot of people would be very interested in hearing about.

  Mr Wadsworth: Mr Chairman and Mr Key, there probably is within that recommendation a slight over-reaction, but nonetheless it was true at the time that we were not able to admit every youngster with particular types of special educational need. I have to say that there has been a sea-change in the last ten years in SCE—so we are talking about overseas commands here—inasmuch as there was a time when we by no means could have been described as inclusive. I think that has changed virtually totally now. Post the data you are talking about there, we have put a massive investment into special educational needs, into the training of teachers, and into the support functions. We have a support team now going around schools; we have the psychologists and the social workers as well. That picture has totally changed. It remains the case, though, that in some of the more isolated detachments there may be youngsters whose special needs would be catered for but maybe in the UK in a special school or in a special unit, where we still cannot do that. Often it is not so much the unwillingness or inability of the education service but sometimes it is the other support that the family would need with that youngster because of his particular problems, medical, psychological, or whatever it is.

  Q234  Chairman: I have one final question on statementing and then we will come back to Linda Gilroy to pursue further issues about CEAS. My question on statementing relates to something that you said minister; namely your aspiration to move towards a passport of statementing for children, which sounds, to me at any rate, a very, very worth aspiration. Do you have any concrete plans to put such a thing in place or even to discuss that with the Department for Education and Skills? If so, what is the timetable?

  Mr Touhig: The intention of discussing it with the Department of Education is one of the things that came up just after I was appointed over a year ago. I have asked officials to scope some work to see how this might be achieved. This will lead to discussions with DfES. I do not have a timeframe at the present time. We are due to have the Families' Federation meeting quite shortly. I am sure it is going to be raised again. I am conscious that I would like to push ahead with this as quickly as possible. If it is not possible, then let us see what else we can do, but this seems to me to be the sensible approach. If it helps the Committee, we do encourage service families now to register any child with us if they have any special needs, and, once registered, of course we take into account that fact and any posting location of service and so on and so forth and try to make sure the proper support is there. But we recognise that there is a gap. Certainly from the evidence you have thus far taken and in my time as minister of the Department, from the families' point of view there is a very keen worry about children with special educational needs.

  Q235  Linda Gilroy: What assistance in the form of travel allowance information is given to service families travelling from overseas to visit UK schools before they are posted to the UK? Or should I be asking: Would you consider making such allowances more available or available?

  Brigadier Brister: As far as I am aware, there are no financial allowances to come to the UK in advance to see schools. At the moment, as far as I am aware, that is not under consideration either. So that answers your question. I look behind me—and I am correct.

  Q236  Linda Gilroy: Does the minister have any observations on that?

  Mr Touhig: No, not at this stage. Again, on face value it seems a good idea. There are all sorts of practical problems why it might not be achievable, but I do not doubt, Mr Chairman, if it figures in your report, that we will respond and it might trigger us looking at it.

  Chairman: It sounds as though it might well.

  Q237  Linda Gilroy: In general terms, is the service adequately funded?

  Mr Touhig: I believe so.

  Brigadier Brister: There are financial allowances to help parents with children who have special educational needs to visit schools prior to a posting, I should have said, but for the remainder there is not.

  Q238  Linda Gilroy: Is that proactively communicated to the parents who it might concern?

  Brigadier Brister: With SEN, I am sure it is. Once we get a child registered on the MoD SEN register, then every effort is made to help them in every way.

  Mr Touhig: We do have a review of remuneration taking place at the moment, Chairman, the Committee may be aware of it, and this could well figure in that review.

  Q239  Linda Gilroy: The Minister would repeat that CEAS is adequately funded?

  Mr Touhig: Yes, I believe so.

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