Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 342 - 359)



  Q342  Chairman: Can I welcome Gillian Windass, Professor John Adams and David Butler to our proceedings. We are very grateful when witnesses can appear before the Committee at relatively short notice. You will know we are in something of a hurry to get an evaluation of the Education White Paper because it seems to us that we want to produce our report in time to have some influence on the eventual Bill that will come before the House. We will be winding up our evidence next Monday with the Secretary of State coming before the Committee. It is very timely. We have two sessions today, I think you are aware of that, so we will rattle through the questions. I get my team to ask brief penetrating questions and I would ask you to answer fully but not too lengthily so we can get through as much as possible. Can I remind my team, if you ask a lead question you do not have to ask all three witnesses to come back. Professor Adams, you are sitting in the centre so I am looking at you, do you want to say anything to open or do you want to go straight into questions?

  Professor Adams: It is entirely up to you, Chairman. Are you comfortable with who we are and who we represent?

  Q343  Chairman: Why do you not say who you are. We have been very well briefed, we do know who you are, that is why we invited you, for your long experience and great knowledge. Can you give me two minutes of what you think the big challenge is in the White Paper?

  Professor Adams: My name is John Adams and I represent the National Association of School Governors which was formerly called NAGM, which you might know from that name. We have been in existence since 1970. We are an entirely apolitical and voluntary body. My immediate feeling about the White Paper, having read it carefully more than once, is that there are a number of things which we would welcome in the Paper. There is a continuation of a number of reforms in education which we have supported and some of the early information given in the White Paper is very much to the point. There have been dramatic changes over the last decade or so. We welcome the emphasis on parental involvement, and particularly on parental responsibility which is in the White Paper. We see the governing body as the natural vehicle for the expression of parental concerns about their school and we welcome that. We welcome particularly the emphasis on personalised learning, the whole area of individual attention and the recognition that the dispersion between the performance of the best and the worst schools, using that shorthand, has narrowed but the dispersion between the best and worst pupils, using again a very particular shorthand, has not. A personalisation agenda, trying to attack that, I think is extremely important. We welcome some additional funding, I do not know if it is going to be enough for the personalisation. We are delighted with the six paragraphs devoted to governance. We are very pleased with our six paragraphs, not much out of a paper of 110 pages but there we are. We are also pleased—and in a sense this is a slightly strange thing to say—that the White Paper does not quite live up to some of the hype which was around shortly after the election, in particular we were anxious that no additional organisation or institution was set up within schools to represent parents. While the invitation to establish parents' councils is there, and of course they exist in many schools anyway, there is not I hope, an intentional clash, between the aspirations of parents on councils and parents who are school governors. Those are things which we welcome. There are some fairly well documented contradictions in the paper—and they have been discussed in the press and elsewhere—particularly concerns about the emphasis on parent power and things like, within trust schools, a reduction in the number of elected parents, there seems to be some dissonance between them, the emphasis on the importance of community and a number of proposals, like bussing, which seem to be antipathetic to the community. Finally, I would say, I do not think we are naïve, one would expect a White Paper to be polemical but it does seem to read as a research-free zone. There is a great deal of assertion and perhaps even anecdote masquerading as case study. When we read things like "parents will welcome proposals for schools to acquire trusts" my thought is: is that an aspiration or an injunction? "You will . . . ". There are a number of things like that which appear to be entirely unsubstantiated and give a flavour of an aspirational document and nothing else.

  Q344  Chairman: Gillian Windass, would you like to introduce yourself and give us a thumbnail sketch?

  Ms Windass: Of course. I represent the National Governors' Council which is the other main governors' organisation although shortly in to the New Year we will be joining to become one governors' organisation.

  Q345  Chairman: You are merging?

  Ms Windass: We are merging, yes. Our main concerns, not surprisingly, are very similar to those John has outlined. Again, we welcome the emphasis on personalised learning and the teaching and learning aspects of the document, and the statements on school discipline and behaviour. We do have concerns that much of the document has very little evidence in terms of the idea that every school would wish to become self-governing or become a trust school and that this would improve teaching and learning. There is no evidence provided in the document to substantiate that fact. Trust schools would not necessarily improve things and they would definitely reduce the elected parental representation on the governing body where in the rest of the document we are talking about increasing parental influence. We are quite happy that governing bodies should be engaging and consulting with their parental bodies and that should have been happening already. The fact that is going to be a new statutory duty, I do not think particularly worries us one way or the other because we think effective governing bodies should be doing that already. We also welcome the fact that in the six paragraphs which we talked about where governors were mentioned, specifically, governors will be encouraged to undertake induction training. We think it should go further. There are some very serious responsibilities that governing bodies have and we think that all governors should undertake mandatory induction training as a start.

  Q346  Chairman: Thank you for that. David Butler?

  Mr Butler: I represent the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations. I think John's opening remarks were very germane and I will add a couple of points to that rather than rehearse many of the similar responses. Not surprisingly, there is a lot in the White Paper that we would welcome and we are certainly very pleased to see a substantial amount of discussion on parental involvement in education. I feel slightly like a second class citizen in respect of my two colleagues here who managed six paragraphs, we managed one, in terms of mention of PTAs. I think the thing that gives us a cause for concern in the White Paper is that there is a great deal of talk about parental involvement in education and there is research evidence to substantiate the effect that can have on attainment. What we are concerned about is the substantial mention in the paper of parental authority over the managerial process of education. I am not aware of there being research evidence to support that.

  Q347  Chairman: Can I ask you, to open up the questioning, in terms of how you are finding recruitment to become a school governor it seems to me over a short number of years the role of the governor has become far more demanding than ever before. I speak to governors who tell me what an enormous commitment it now is in time—not just time in meetings but time outside of meetings—because they play quite a substantial role, a very important role, in the management of the school. Are you finding it difficult, across a range of schools, to get governors who can give that sort of time and commitment?

  Professor Adams: We, as organisations, do not recruit.

  Q348  Chairman: No, but you know.

  Professor Adams: I think the pattern varies a great deal across the country. In some areas it is not at all problematic. In the area where my school is based there is not a problem at all in getting school governors.

  Q349  Chairman: That is where?

  Professor Adams: In the City of York.

  Q350  Chairman: There are very intelligent people in Yorkshire.

  Professor Adams: I am sure you are right. In other parts of the country it is difficult and there is, for example, a government agency tasked specifically with recruiting, in particular, business governors to governing bodies in schools where they find it hard to recruit. You are quite right, I have been involved in school governance now for eight years and, indeed, I did speak to this Select Committee looking at governance under a previous chairman. Then I think I said the biggest issue in my mailbag was the additional workload and responsibilities, and that was in something like 1999. It has not diminished, quite the reverse. It is a major issue. My real concern is how little school governors are willing, for obvious reasons, to pay for professional advice and support when in a large secondary school they are managing a very substantial business.

  Q351  Chairman: With this greater emphasis on professionalism of the role, has there been a widening of the gap? When the duties were lighter I have a feeling, but I have no evidence of this, that the cross-section of people who were attracted to becoming governors was broader in terms of social dimensions. With these greater responsibilities, is there not a tendency for you always to be looking for pretty much middle-class professional types and you are getting rather further away from your average parent, for example?

  Professor Adams: There is a school of thought out there that says what we need on our governing body is a solicitor, an accountant, et cetera. I think that has always been the case. I do not know of any research evidence—and since I made remarks about the White Paper I should not slip into anecdote myself—to suggest that trend or view.

  Q352  Chairman: Does anybody else want to come in on that?

  Ms Windass: I would reiterate what John said. I do not know of any research evidence which suggests the governing body representation is now being skewed in a particular fashion. Again, I think it depends where you are in the country potentially and how effective, in some cases, your school is at engaging with its local community and parental body. That has a big impact. The better the school is at engaging with its local community the more people are likely, from all walks of life, to want to be on the governing body and involved. I think that has the biggest impact.

  Q353  Chairman: Professor Adams, in terms of the range, you have mentioned eight years a couple of times, in terms of the drift of the number of green papers and white papers we have had in education, where do you place this one? Is this the continuation of a trend or did it come out of the blue? Where do you see it in terms of building on previous white papers and previous policies the government has put before you?

  Professor Adams: Certainly it did not come out of the blue, we did know about this. Clearly, a white paper was going to emerge after the General Election. What I think it has been extremely useful for both organisations have been discussions with ministers and senior civil servants prior to the White Paper being drafted, that was very useful. If you want a candid answer to your question, my feeling is that this White Paper will not change very much. The vast majority of schools will just carry on much as they are and they will not opt for trust status they have not up to now.

  Q354  Chairman: What do you mean they have not up to now?

  Professor Adams: They could have adopted a trust, they have not done so.

  Q355  Chairman: They could have become foundation schools?

  Professor Adams: Yes. My guess is there will not be any dramatic changes as a result of this. One or two individual schools, of course, in particular circumstances but I do not think it will be a seismic shock to school governing bodies around the country.

  Q356  Chairman: Do you go along with that, David?

  Mr Butler: I think I would agree with that. There is a clear aspiration in the White Paper, and it is an aspiration which we have seen in a number of comments which have come out from DfES ministers about the desire and wish to involve parents more and more in various educational processes but I am not so sure this will lead to this overwhelming rise in parental involvement.

  Q357  Chairman: You can see the Government trying to find a dynamic, something that will drive on change. Heaven forbid that there should be a change in the global party governing the country. You can see here is a political party in Government wanting some dynamic that will carry on in terms of promoting change. It seems to be coming through the White Paper as much from my reading as that should be individualisation of learning, individual schools with greater freedoms. You do not think that is working or will work?

  Ms Windass: I do not think the White Paper provides trust schools with particularly more freedoms than many schools have already. Becoming an admissions authority, becoming an employer, they already exist for foundation and voluntary-aided schools so there are no great new freedoms which are offered in the White Paper, those freedoms were available already to schools. As John said, schools could already become foundation even before streamline route to foundation was introduced in September. Schools could have gone down that route if they had wanted to, and not very many did. I do not think there is very much in the White Paper from our point of view that will persuade schools that they want to adopt those freedoms.

  Q358  Chairman: Here you are, commenting on a White Paper passaging as a Bill, many people are getting extremely excited about it, and you do not think it is going to make much difference in the long run.

  Ms Windass: In terms of the structures of schools, as we said at the beginning, there is no evidence provided in the White Paper that changing your structure is going to improve the standards of teaching and learning which is the most important thing.

  Q359  Chairman: What did you say to the Secretary of State when you were consulted by the Department? Did you say "Look, Secretary of State, we share your problem that 25-30% of children in this country do not get the education they deserve but you will not get it this way, we know how to reach those 25-30%"? Did you give her a positive steer on that?

  Ms Windass: We reiterated what we are saying here: structures will not necessarily make a good school.

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