Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640
MONDAY 19 DECEMBER 2005
MP, RT HON
MP, AND MR
Q640 Chairman: Before welcoming the
Secretary of State can I give my regular homily to the press.
It is wonderful to see so many people from the press here, but
where were you when we did prison education? Where are you when
we ever do the skills of this nation with a £10 billion budget?
It is nice to see you here anyway. Can I welcome you, Secretary
of State, and Minister of State, Jacqui Smith, and Stephen Crowne
to our proceedings? This is the final of our oral evidence sessions
on the White Paper. We are very pleased that we have had the opportunity
to do almost a pre-legislative inquiry into the White Paper. I
think it benefits everyone concerned that Parliament gets this
ability to scrutinise the White Paper. We have had almost everybody
who has an opinion, certainly every sector, in front of the Committee.
As agreed, Secretary of State, if you would like to make a short
opening statement we would be happy to listen to it.
Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Chairman.
Let me use this opportunity to say a few words about the White
Paper as I have so many keen listeners to this event. First of
all, over the past eight years we have seen a tremendous improvement
in our school system. We have got the best ever results at age
11, at age 14, at age 16 and the best A-level results that we
have ever seen in this country. In fact, this year the results
increased very substantially in every single one of those areas.
As well as that, schools in the most disadvantaged areas are making
even more progress than the average, so they are tending to catch
up with the others. However, despite that, despite the record
investment we have put in, despite the workforce reform and the
extra 30,000 teachers and 100,000 support staff, despite the fact
that we have halved the number of failing schools, there are significant
challenges in the system that we need to address. One thing I
am always struck by is that we have one of the lowest staying
on rates at 16 in the entire industrialised world. We also have
a situation in which 44% of children still do not get five good
GCSEs, and if you include English and maths the picture is even
starker. In fact, only 26% of kids with free school meals get
five good GCSE results and that is something we need to tackle.
We need to tackle it not just by tackling failing schools but
also by attacking under-performance across the board in the system.
One in four schools, according to the Chief Inspector, is under-performing,
is coasting, and we as a nation need to tackle that gap, not just
to create a fairer society but also to create ultimately a more
competitive society. In this White Paper we have set out a range
of measures that are intended to boost standards in our schools.
We talk about personalisation, tailoring lessons to the needs
of the individual child so that it is no longer the case that
a child can arrive at secondary school and fall back in the first
few months compared to where they were at the end of primary.
In fact, if they arrive without the basic skills they need in
literacy and numeracy we say in the White Paper that there should
be small group or indeed even individual teaching to make sure
that those children catch up with their peers so that they can
access the rest of the curriculum. We have set out very strong
proposals on discipline, including a new right to discipline which
was proposed before this Government came to power and rejected
at the time but we are determined to press on with that. We propose
a tougher failure regime which says that where a school is in
special measures for a year and has not shown significant progress
radical options ought to be considered to make sure that those
children are not let down by the system. We particularly focus
on these under-performing schools and giving local authorities
and others tougher ways of driving up performance in coasting
schools and we try and draw parents more and more into the process
of learning because we know that what happens in the home is equal
to, if not more important than what happens in the classroom.
We also want schools to be able to draw on the energy and expertise
there is out there in the community and that we have seen from
experience can make a real difference to improving school standards.
I am talking about the voluntary sector, the charitable sector,
business foundations, educational foundations, universities, further
education colleges. I think every school ought to have the opportunity
of having involved the energy there is in the community that could
be harnessed to raising school standards, not just on a transient
or temporary, ad hoc basis, but we ought to be able to bind that
energy into the school system to promote school improvement. That
is what the trust school system is about. It is about devolving
power as much as possible to the front line, devolving resources,
which we have done since 1998, but also allowing schools to work
with their external partners in a more permanent relationship
in order to improve school standards. Most of all this White Paper
is about those pupils who are not being well served by the system.
It is about tackling disadvantage and educational disadvantage
in particular. What it is not about is reintroducing selection.
We abolished once and for all any new selection by ability in
1998 in primary legislation. There is no way in which that could
be reintroduced through the current proposals. In fact, if you
look at the White Paper, and I know there has been widespread
discussion on this which is why I am using this opportunity to
correct some of the misunderstandings that are out there, the
only changes to admissions proposed in the White Paper are, one,
that we have said that we will bring in new regulations to make
sure looked-after children are given priority in the system, no
matter what the status of the school, and also that when the schools
adjudicator takes legally binding decisions those decisions apply
for three years rather than the current situation of one year.
Those are the only changes that are proposed. I think that as
a result of measures in the White Paper we will end up with a
system that will target more resources at disadvantaged areas
and schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils in
particular. It will give every child the individual support and
teaching that that child needs. It will promote social ability,
it will promote equity and it will promote a fairer and ultimately
more competitive society as well.
Q641 Chairman: Thank you very much,
Secretary of State. We will go straight into questions. Why is
it, Secretary of State, that this particular White Paper has seemed
to cause such confusion? As I said, this is the last of the evidence
sessions. We have had people come here who have said, "This
is the greatest thing for local government ever. It is expanding
our role. With Every Child Matters we will take this commissioning
role", and the next bunch of people that sit where you are
sitting now come in and say, "This is the end of local government
as we know it in terms of a real purchase on education".
We have the same in terms of the broad range. I think I speak
for the rest of this Committee when I say we have never known
such a degree of misinterpretation and interpretation of one White
Paper. Can you explain to us why you think that is?
Ruth Kelly: I guess the people
you have been taking evidence from are not primarily dealing with
the measures on personalisation, on discipline and now on better
parental engagement and so forth. They are probably looking at
the proposals that we put forward on the new relationship between
schools and the local authority. Let me deal very briefly with
that. We do two things in this White Paper. First of all, we accept
and indeed promote the idea that we should devolve as much power
and resources to the front line as we can and we use the vehicle
of the foundation, self-governing school to do that. That is not
a new concept; that is already there. It was there in the five-year
plan which was introduced last summer and we use that as the basis
of the proposals that we are suggesting. At the same time, because
we are proposing more devolution to the front line and giving
every school the opportunity to have the devolution that currently
foundation schools and voluntary-aided schools have in the system,
we are moving up to the strategic level some school improvement
powers and other powers that are rightly, I think, at the level
of the local authority. I see this as a new settlement between
schools and the local authority. It is appropriately devolving
where schools are in the best position to make judgments the powers
that they should have but also at the same time bringing up to
the local authority the necessary strategic powers and I think
because we are trying to do the two things to create that new
settlement people have read different things into the White Paper.
Q642 Chairman: But when one reads
the White Paper there are at least two distinct styles. Parts
of it seem to give heart to people in local government and parts
of it depress the people in local government. Bits of it seem
to encourage the view that we are going to do something as a Government
about a fair admissions policy. Others suggest that there is a
great deal to be done. It is an extraordinarily poorly written
piece of work. If I were still in my old university job I would
have put, as you did on an undergraduate essay, "Some good
stuff in this but go away and give it overall shape and form".
You must read this, Secretary of State, and think about how it
was produced. There are too many cooks in this document, are there
Ruth Kelly: Not at all and I am
sorry you do not think it is very well written. What it does do
is try to give, rightly, I think, maximum powers to the front
line within a very clear framework in which they operate, and
that framework is in terms of admission, resources, et cetera,
with a clearly articulated role for the local authority. When
resources, and power to some extent, are being devolved to the
front line people naturally ask themselves the question, "How
will that be used? Will that be used to the benefit of pupils
or will it somehow be used in some other manner which is not to
the benefit of pupils?". All our experience to date shows
(a) that schools take sensible decisions, but (b) that you have
got to get the framework right. If they operate within a sensible,
strategic framework you get the best of both worlds and that is
what we are going to try and do in the White Paper: set out that
framework in some detail.
Q643 Chairman: But you would recognise
the criticism I am articulating from people who have sat where
you are sitting, that it is a puzzling document because many people
read into it different things. However clearly articulated you
say it is, a lot of the people who have given evidence to this
Committee do not think it is clearly articulated; they are all
over the place about it. They can understand that the Government
started off, and you started off, trying to reach those pupils,
the 25%, one in four, who were not achieving to their ability.
We understand that that is where you started. What is worrying
some of the people, not all, who have come before this Committee
is that they do not really understand how that is going to be
Ruth Kelly: Partly that is a question
of how the debate developed and the fact that this was used as
an opportunity to portray the Government as bringing back grant
maintained schools, and that created a huge confusion in the public
perception because these are precisely the opposite of grant maintained
schools. Grant maintained schools were schools that were bribed
to opt out of the system, that were allowed to select by ability,
and that did not have any accountability to the local authority.
They were outside that framework entirely. If you try and characterise
these schools as grant maintained schools then clearly you are
going to create confusion because they are not. They are schools
which are part of the local family of schools, which are locally
funded by the local authority according to the local funding formula,
which operate within the local authority school improvement programme
but have the flexibilities that currently voluntary-aided schools
and foundation schools enjoy. If somebody deliberately attempts
to characterise them in a different fashion then clearly that
is going to create confusion.
Q644 Chairman: So you are going to
be happy if this Select Committee comes out with some proposals
to improve this White Paper?
Ruth Kelly: I am always interested
in what the Select Committee proposes, Chairman, as you know.
Q645 Chairman: Last time we met,
if you remember, you said that you would hold back the introduction
of the Bill until you had seen our recommendations and I understand
you have kept to that.
Ruth Kelly: We are proposing to
publish the Bill in February so, Chairman, if you produce the
Select Committee's report before that we shall study it with interest
Q646 Chairman: We shall.
Ruth Kelly: and I am sure
it will come to the conclusion that it is a good package of measures.
Q647 Mr Wilson: Secretary of State,
you will have seen a lot of reports over the weekend and also
this morning and I seek some clarity from those reports. Who was
correct: the Prime Minister, who believes that these education
reforms would be better for all children, or the Deputy Prime
Minister, who thinks it will create a first and a second class
Ruth Kelly: The Prime Minister,
the Deputy Prime Minister and I all share exactly the same values
and the same objective, which is to raise standards for everyone
in the system and particularly to help those children in the most
disadvantaged areas who are being let down by the system. I am
personally convinced that the package of proposals I have set
out in my introductory comments does just that. Clearly I have
a job to do to persuade you, Chairman, your Select Committee members
(and I look forward very much to your report) and others that
that is the case, but I think this is a very strong set of proposals
that will do that.
Q648 Mr Wilson: I notice that you
skirted round my question. The Deputy Prime Minister was pretty
clear, and I believe the quote was verbatim, that he saw these
proposals developing into a first and a second class education
system, which is very different from what the Prime Minister said
today. Can I ask you again: do you recognise those concerns that
the Deputy Prime Minister has with this White Paper?
Ruth Kelly: I recognise the concerns
but I am completely convinced this will not create a two-tier
system; in fact, the reverse. The proposals in the White Paper
are designed to help those schools that are under performing and
to lift standards so that everyone has the chance to achieve to
the full extent of their ability, and that is what the ability
to bind in external partners does; it is why we are promoting
personalised learning and good behaviour and so forth. Our whole
track record since 1997 has been about raising standards across
the board but particularly in disadvantaged areas. If you look
at the track record of academies, for example, over 37% of children
in academies are on free school meals. That is more than double
the national average. That is where we have targeted resources,
that is where we have targeted effort and it is where we have
seen the biggest improvement. If you look at the London Challenge,
which was to tackle specific difficulties of education in London,
again, we have seen those schools, some of which were very seriously
under-performing in 1997, catch up and now London is out-performing
the rest of the country at five GCSEs. I ask people to look at
our track record. I ask people also to look at the White Paper
and say, for example, and I know that Mr Chaytor asked me about
this at the last evidence session, that the Schools Commissioner
should look to target those schools that need it most in disadvantaged
areas through the trust school policy. Actually, that is what
the proposals in the White Paper are all about.
Q649 Mr Wilson: If that is the case
is the Deputy Prime Minister just mistaken or is he misinformed
about the proposals you are making?
Ruth Kelly: I do not agree with
him. I think this is a good set of proposals that will help the
most disadvantaged children in the most disadvantaged areas as
well as contribute to rising standards across the board.
Q650 Mr Wilson: Is there anybody
else in the Cabinet, apart from the Deputy Prime Minister, that
does not agree with you?
Ruth Kelly: I am not going to
get into Cabinet discussions. We are all united in the fact that
we want to raise standards for all children and particularly those
in disadvantaged areas. I think this White Paper does just that,
although, of course, I listen to what you have to say and we will
continue the discussions. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding
about what is in the White Paper. When I hear, for instance, commentators
on radio and TV programmes and so forth saying that somehow this
is about bringing back academic selection, they are just plain
wrong. We outlawed in primary legislation academic selection in
Q651 Mr Wilson: Do you think that
this whole matter that has flared up in the papers this weekend
is more to do with some Cabinet ministers and MPs trying to move
the Prime Minister along to the exit door than to do with education?
Ruth Kelly: It is funny you should
say that. I think what people are really concerned about is education.
People joined the Labour Party because they were concerned about
education. It is probably the single biggest reason why people
got involved in politics. If you look at the composition of the
Labour Party there are a lot of teachers and people who work in
the field of education. This Government has made education their
single biggest priority. I am not at all surprised that there
is a heated and at times emotive debate on these issues; it is
right that there should be so, because we have got to get these
reforms right and we have got to continue to make the progress
that we have seen over the past eight years.
Q652 Mr Wilson: There was also some
reporting this weekend about the White Paper not being a White
Paper at all. Somebody called it a discussion document, somebody
else called it a White Paper with a large tinge of green to it.
Where do you stand on that? Is it a White Paper or is it open
to a lot more discussion?
Ruth Kelly: It is a White Paper.
You talk about policies in White Papers to colleagues and to local
authority leaders and to other people with an interest in the
field. That is how we have always conducted business. There are
some areas, for instance, in the White Paper where we specifically
ask questions. What powers do local authorities really need to
carry out their strategic role effectively is a classic example
of that, and there are some areas where obviously the detail would
normally be left to a later stage. I do not think there is any
doubt that it is a White Paper.
Q653 Mr Wilson: Let me explain in
a bit more detail why I asked that question, Secretary of State.
The Times today reported that the Prime Minister is going
to use the Report from this Committee to water down his plans.
I do not know if you have seen that. Do you think that is true?
Ruth Kelly: I have said very clearly
that I think we have got a strong package of proposals that will
help raise standards in schools. Of course it is right that we
engage in a process of explaining those proposals, explaining
what is in the White Paper, what is not in the White Paper, clearing
up any misunderstandings, responding to people's concerns and
listening to what they have got to say. That is the normal process
of government. I think we have got a very strong package of proposals.
Q654 Mr Wilson: So you think there
will be any watering down as a result of the discussions that
you have had so far?
Ruth Kelly: We are still at the
stage of explaining what is in the White Paper and what is not
in the White Paper and listening to what people have to say. We
have not even got to the stage of a Bill yet. I think we have
got a very strong set of proposals. I am personally completely
convinced that they will make a big difference to our school system
and help to raise it to the next level. Also, in my discussions
with, for instance, local authority leaders and others, I think
people are increasingly coming to realise the potential for transformation
that is in the White Paper. Sometimes there is naturally, when
something is published, a tendency to say, "What is the worst
possible outcome for this? What could this possibly do that might
take us back from where we are at the moment?", rather than
a tendency to think, "What are the opportunities that this
opens up and the potential that is opened up in the system by
taking through these reforms?". In recent conversations with
local authority leaders and others I think the mindset is changing
and people are starting to concentrate on the opportunities that
this will bring to school improvement.
Q655 Mr Wilson: Can I briefly turn
to the Minister for Schools? This goes back to the confusion that
the Chairman mentioned earlier on. You have had a very junior
PPS resign about these reforms, I believe. Did you not discuss
these proposals with him before he resigned, because he was there
back in October and there was November and part of December? How
come you suddenly discovered that he did not like them?
Jacqui Smith: What he said to
me in his resignation letter was related to his position on the
parliamentary committee vis-a"-vis his position as my PPS.
I think he has made his views well known since then and I think
it is probably up to him answer that rather than I.
Q656 Mr Wilson: He says that the
reforms will disadvantage poor children. That is his view. How
do you respond to that?
Jacqui Smith: I think he is wrong,
for all the reasons that Ruth has spelt out. At the heart of this
White Paper is not only what we can do to continue the progress
that Ruth has outlined with respect to some of our schools in
the most challenging areas but also, in terms of the proposals
on personalisation, in terms of the underpinning of discipline,
in terms of the way in which we will reach out to parents, all
of those things are likely to shift resources in to support most
those young people who are most disadvantaged in the system.
Chairman: It is disappointing, with all this
passion about education, that we wrote to every back bencher asking
for their comments on the White Paper and I think we are getting
to ten responses. It is a little disappointing but we have had
a group of back benchers who have written a piece that we will
take as evidence to the Committee.
Q657 Mr Chaytor: Secretary of State,
what is indisputably in the White Paper is new proposals over
discipline and behaviour and you have now set a new rule whereby
parents will have to supervise their children for five days if
they are excluded from school. Are you really saying that a single
parent, working as a cleaner in the House of Commons, for example,
will have to take a week off work to supervise their excluded
son or daughter's school work and then, if that child absconds
from her own view in that week, the parent can then be subject
to a fine?
Ruth Kelly: Jacqui may want to
come in on this as she has been leading on this but let me just
deal with it. I think, and I do not think I am alone here; I think
the vast majority of the British population will probably think
this as well, that parents are responsible for their children,
that they need to know where their children are and that they
are being properly looked after and supervised. If a child is
excluded from school and they are without supervision and they
are found out on the street, I think the parent is responsible
for that. It is quite a simple principle. They ought to have made
alternative arrangements and ensured that somebody was supervising
their child at home.
Jacqui Smith: I think that is
precisely the issue. The proposals that we are putting forward
are not that you should necessarily be at home looking after your
child but that, as Ruth said, you should have responsibility for
the whereabouts of your child for the first five days of the period
in which they are excluded. I think it is also worthwhile noting
that, of course, we are also proposing, in a considerable improvement
over the current position, that from day six of a fixed term exclusion
there should be responsibility from the school and, in the case
of a permanent exclusion, from the local authority for providing
full-time education for that young person, but I do not think
it is unreasonable to expect a parent whose child has been excluded
from schooland this is not a minor issue; I think it is
right that parents should take considerable responsibility for
thisto make arrangements or take time off in order to ensure
that their child is at home, is doing the work that the school
has set, is not out and about causing more trouble, because frankly
that is not going to be any good for that young person either
in terms of their reintegration into school.
Q658 Mr Chaytor: But you are clear
that it is the parent who is being punished by losing a week's
wages and will be subject to a fine if the child leaves the home
during that week or is in a public place?
Jacqui Smith: No. What I am clear
about is that it is the parent's responsibility to ensure that
their child is not out on the street but is being supervised somewhere
and is doing the work that the school has set. That may not necessarily
mean that the parent has to take time off work. It may be, depending
on the age of the child, that you ring up to make sure that they
are still at home. It may be that you make other arrangements
for somebody to supervise their whereabouts. I have to say that
the alternative is that somebody else should be responsible for
that child's whereabouts during the first five days and I am not
sure, in the circumstances that a child has been excluded from
school and given that we are also bringing forward the point at
which the school's responsibility or the local authority's responsibility
kicks back in for that child, that we should make somebody else
responsible in those five days rather than the parent.
Q659 Mr Chaytor: But if the local
authority's responsibility starts now at the end of five days
why not on day one?
Jacqui Smith: In some areas of
the country where we have got the behaviour improvement programmes
local authorities have found ways to bring forward provision from
day one. That has been, of course, with considerable additional
funding from the Government. There is also a question, when you
are thinking about whether or not that five days is reasonable
over and above what the funding implications might be, as to whether
or not it is also reasonable for parents to take some responsibility
for what has happened to their child in having been excluded from
school and that there is a period of time when the child is removed
from the school. Quite often for head teachers that is quite an
important part of the punishment, that the young person recognises
that they have done something that was serious enough to warrant
them being out of school for a period of time. I think the balance
is about right on that.
1 Ev 167 Back
Note by Witness-The policy is not that the child should
be at home during their first five days-it is that they should
not be in a public place. They can be at home, at neighbours,
at a relative's place for example. Back