Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640 - 659)



  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.[1]

  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 not?

  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 delivered.

  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 education system?

  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 1998.

  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.[2]

  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 school—and this is not a minor issue; I think it is right that parents should take considerable responsibility for this—to 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

2   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

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