Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Second Report


The new Department

Given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families is a new department which from the outset has laid out its overall aims for the next ten years, we considered it important to look at some of the general issues raised by its creation and the way in which it is setting about its work.

While joint working across Government is of course not new, the extent to which the DCSF is involved with other departments is possibly unique. There are two areas where it has sole responsibility for policy and funding—early years and 5 to 13 schooling—but on everything else it has joint responsibility and varying degrees of control. On 14-19 education it has joint responsibility with DIUS, but sole responsibility for funding. On matters such as child poverty and health the funding and policy levers are largely in other people's hands.

We welcome the new Department's focus on children. Our main concern is about how well the various parts of Government will work together. The problem with joint responsibility is that it might mean no effective responsibility, with each part of the system doing its own work but with no-one ensuring that it does all add up to coherent policy and actions. The DCSF has been given the leading role, which appears to be an acknowledgement that ultimately someone does have to take decisions. The challenge for the Department and for the Secretary of State will be to ensure that they are able to lead and to require decisions to be made.

All children's services are now co-ordinated by one department. Education, which was formerly the responsibility of one department, is now split between two (DCSF and DIUS). The main issue of overlap between the two departments is 14-19 education, and as yet neither department appears to have the lead role. Given the importance of 14-19 Diplomas, clarity over who is responsible is vital. We ask the DCSF to set out each department's specific responsibilities towards Diplomas. The success of the Diplomas is vital to improve levels of attainment. We shall be taking further evidence on progress in implementing Diplomas later in the year.

The issue of how well education, health and other services work together at the local level is one that we will want to monitor, as it is crucial to the success or otherwise of the government's plans. The mechanism for achieving effective joint working at the local level is the Children's Trust, and we plan to undertake an inquiry into Children's Trusts later in the year. The extent to which the DCSF is able to achieve effective joint working will be the main determinant of whether the aims of these policy initiatives will be achieved.

The work of the Committee

These new structures present challenges to us as well. It will clearly be our main task to hold the Secretary of State accountable for how well these new arrangements work, given his key leadership and co-ordinating role, but scrutinising children's issues will now mean scrutinising the work of several different departments, including Work and Pensions, Health, Justice and the Treasury. We have decided to invite the Secretary of State, his opposite number at the Department for Work and Pensions and a Treasury minister to give evidence jointly later this year on the issue of child poverty. We hope that this will both provide an opportunity to see how well these different departments work together to achieve one of the Government's most challenging policy objectives, the halving of child poverty by 2010, and demonstrate our determination to pursue scrutiny of children's issues across Government.

The Children's Plan

The Children's Plan sets out objectives, but does not say which are the main priorities and does not have a timetable for action for the Plan as a whole. This lack of priorities and the absence of a timetable for implementation are weaknesses which need to be rectified, otherwise the Children's Plan runs the risk of being simply a wish list rather than the mission for the Department of which the Secretary of State spoke. If it does not do so before, it should use the progress report later in the year to set out in greater clarity when it hopes to achieve some of its main policy proposals. In order to keep track of progress on the Children's Plan, we intend to take evidence for the Secretary of State again when the progress report is published.

Every Child Matters has provided the Government's policy framework for children since 2003. Many changes have sprung from it, for example combining education and children's social services in Children's Services departments in local authorities. The Children's Plan, however, is not based on the five ECM outcomes, but on a new set of strategic objectives. It is not clear why the ECM outcomes could not be used as basis of the plan. If there is to be long term planning it is important to stick to objectives. The way in which the DCSF sees the ECM outcomes being linked to the objectives in the Children's Plan needs to be clarified as soon as possible, and the new strategic objectives need to be maintained for the long run. The fact that there are now three sets of indicators that the Department is using— five Every Child Matters outcomes, six strategic objectives and five PSA objectives—is unsatisfactory. The Department needs to be clear both for the sake of its own work and that of the wider children and families workforce which objectives it is primarily working towards.

Public Service Agreements

The Chancellor's 2007 Pre-Budget Report and Comprehensive Spending Review outlined new arrangements for securing effective public services and efficiency. There are to be fewer Public Service Agreements and targets, though the overall system will be retained. As far as Children, Schools and Families are concerned, the new performance framework requires all the departments contributing to the achievement of a PSA to "share" a Delivery Agreement which will be developed in conjunction with "delivery partners and frontline workers". Under the 2004 Spending Review, the DfES had five headline objectives, and 14 indicators in total which were used to assess progress towards those objectives. Under the 2007 Spending review, the DCSF again has five headline objectives, but 26 indicators. For the DCSF at least it appears that the pressure to achieve targets will not be reduced.

In order for there to be confidence in targets and goals, the basis on which they have been formulated must be made clear. For that reason we ask the Department to set out in its annual report or in the response to this report the basis on which the targets for indicators under the new PSA objectives have been determined.

The new Department needs to be explicit how it intends to drive improvements in services for children and families. In particular, Ministers will need to spell out how their desired outcomes will be hastened and delivered by the various different performance drivers currently in use. In some cases, there may be conflicts between 'choice' as exercised by parents and the demands of PSAs. In addition, there are still tensions between the Government's desire to secure collaboration and co-operation between institutions, and financial incentives and performance requirements which stimulate competition. These two policies need to be carefully managed. Where competition is introduced it is important that it does not lead to fragmentation of provision.

Schools' Funding

The schools' funding system was reviewed in the run-up to CSR 2007. However, it was decided that no reform was to be made in the immediate future: it is proposed to continue with the "spend plus" method of allocating Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) for the three years from 2008-09 to 2010-11. During this period, there will be a further examination of the subject with a view to possibly developing a new formula for allocating DSG between authorities from 2011-12 onwards. We will want to be kept informed of the review of schools funding as it goes through its different stages. With funding growing more slowly in the current CSR period than in the previous one, decision on calculating and distributing schools funding will be even more critical. The changes in funding to the 16-19 sector, and the implications for 14-19 funding, will also need to be examined carefully.

Efficiency and productivity

When he was Chancellor, the Prime Minister set efficiency targets for the public sector following the publication of the Gershon Report in 2004. The DfES was expected to achieve a total of £4.3 billion of savings by 31 March 2008. According to Chapter 2 of the previous Department's Annual Report for 2007, the former DfES was "on course" to deliver the £4.3 billion total and also to cut 1,960 civil service posts (over the period October 2003 to 2008). We are keen to see the detailed assessment of the achievement or otherwise of the Gershon targets in order to establish how much more effectively the education and children's services systems are operating. We will also wish to see how the new efficiency targets in schools are monitored and the extent to which they are achieved.

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Prepared 24 April 2008