Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questins 20-39)


9 JANUARY 2008

  Q20  Mr Chaytor: Are the projections a matter of public record?

  David Bell: There is no reason why they cannot be given to you, because we ask local authorities for projections in relation to primary-age pupils and secondary-age pupils. Of course, within the CSR that has just been agreed for the coming three years an assumption was made around change in the demographics because of some reduction in pupil numbers that it projected. We have to do that kind of projection for all sorts of reasons; it is not just to do with budgets but with other kinds of planning where you need to have a longer-term assumption in the assessment of pupil numbers.

  Ed Balls: For example, the spring Green Paper set out the policy on education to 18 for consultation and projected the numbers of young people that we expect to be in the 16-18 category over the next decade and then split them between likely projections for school, college and apprenticeships. On education to 18, in the period 2013 to 2015 when the policy kicks in, we are envisaging needing perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 more school or college places but 100,000 more apprenticeships, because we think that is where the take-up is likely to come. So there, clearly, we have been publicly projecting and I am sure that we have done that in other places too, but I do not think that we necessarily publish the figures systematically. I am happy to provide a note on that as well.[2]

  Q21  Mr Chaytor: On productivity, you mentioned earlier that rising standards are not necessarily equated with rising productivity in education. Is there a need to redefine the nature of productivity in public services, or are you just reconciled to the fact that conventional measures of productivity are not as relevant to public services as they are to industry?

  Ed Balls: As I understand it, and I should know more of the detail on this area, the Treasury conducted some work, which I think was carried out by Professor Atkinson from Oxford University two or three years ago and was commissioned by the Office for National Statistics to try to update the way in which we measure public sector productivity. The old saw, or the old joke, was that in the old ONS numbers the productivity of the fire service was measured by the number of fires that it put out. Therefore, there was no incentive for the fire service to spend any money on fire prevention, because if it prevented fires it did not put them out and consequently it appeared to be less productive. That is the kind of old-style way of doing things that, hopefully, we have changed. I am not saying that the ONS is measuring productivity in the wrong way for education; what I am talking about is the conclusions that you draw from those measurements. It seems to me that you would expect it to be harder, more expensive and more intensive to raise standards as performance improves, because the 20% of children who are not getting to Level 4 at Key Stage 2 now in primary schools will need more intensive support to get to that level than the first 20% or the average needed. As a society, we have to decide whether we think that that is a priority and whether we will spend the money. I think that it is a priority, but you would expect productivity to be lower, in the sense that it will cost you more to get the next person up to standard. However, that is, in a sense, obvious.

  Q22  Mr Chaytor: Is the Department working on a new model of productivity?

  Stephen Meek: The Atkinson review involves an ongoing process of refining definitions of productivity, capturing the benefits and outcomes and I think that papers on this subject come out reasonably regularly, as I am sure that the Committee is aware. There is a kind of moving picture on the definition of productivity. The issues about low-hanging fruit and how much harder it becomes as you go on are all relevant, but it is a moving picture on the definition of productivity.

  Q23  Mr Heppell: Can I move on to targets? In the Annual Report, there is an awful lot on targets. Some of them have been achieved, but an awful lot have not been, with no real explanation as to why those particular targets were not achieved. I am wondering how meaningful targets are. What are the new Department's key targets? How do they fit in, or how do they evolve, with the Children's Plan? Also, how will that process fit in with the local area agreement process?

  Ed Balls: If you look at the last set of PSAs, the area where I think that we have struggled to make progress compared to our expectations when the targets were set is, in particular, Key Stage 3, in the group aged 11-14. For us as a Department, the progress that children make in the early years of secondary school is a real challenge, because too many children do not seem to make progress in the way that you would expect them to make in that period. I must say that I also think that the targets that we set for Key Stage 3 were quite ambitious targets. They were based upon an expectation that we would make really quite rapid progress, which we have not managed to sustain. At the same time, for Key Stage 4 we have clearly met the targets for GCSE results and we have continued to make progress. From memory, in Key Stage 2 we have made progress, but we have not gone as fast as we would like. There is an underpinning assumption; if you look at the Children's Plan, it essentially says that we have continued to make progress year-by-year on standards over the past 10 years, but the pace has slowed in recent years, and we would like to see that pace reaccelerate. Part of the reason why we have not met some of our PSAs is because that pace has slowed. The Children's Plan attempts to address some of the reasons why the pace of progress has slowed, which is partly around the primary curriculum review. We have already reviewed Key Stage 3. It is also around the broader point that schools need the wider community and need to focus on barriers to learning outside the school, if we are to sustain the pace of progress we would like and, as I have said, to reach those children for whom progress is tougher and more challenging.

  Q24  Mr Heppell: Can I press you on that? My authority has made massive progress in the past few years. Although it has made massive progress, everybody else is making progress and it never seems to move up in the league table. It is frustrating to see things obviously getting better, but still having, if you like, a bad reputation. One of the areas where there is "slippage" in the target, is in equalities.

  Ed Balls: Inequalities?

  Q25  Mr Heppell: Inequalities—whatever you call them: the super outputs against the average or targets to narrow the gap. It does not seem that that is one of the areas we are moving in. What can we do to make the target effective?

  Ed Balls: As you know, because we discussed that in the House, when we published the school-by-school GCSE results in the Autumn, for the first time we also published the list of local authorities that have seen the biggest improvement across all of their schools and areas over the past year and past 10 years. I think that Nottingham came fifth in the country in progress in the past year. We are talking about the role that local government should play in education, I think that it should, within their areas, be holding schools to account for whether they are making progress, including whether they are doing okay but coasting. We ought to be holding local authorities to account for whether they, in individual schools and areas, are making progress. We praise some of the areas that have made particularly fast progress: Tower Hamlets is the fastest improving authority over the past 10 years, and Halton, followed by Salford and Wakefield have made progress in the past year. We also need to highlight those local authorities that have not been making progress. On inequalities, for the first time in the new PSAs, which we publish for the next spending round, we have an objective, both for progress in raising standards for all, but also for narrowing the gap in achievement. That will be a very important part of our performance management with schools in the next few years. As I have said, one of the critical things in the Children's Plan is that narrowing the gap is sometimes about progress in schools for individual pupils. The agenda on personalisation and catch-up is about making sure that children who start to fall behind early are helped to catch up—often children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. It is partly about highlighting the fact that some schools with similar catchment areas seem to make much less progress than other schools, and about asking local authorities, with us, to highlight that. It is also about recognising that many of the issues that hold back children from more disadvantaged backgrounds are issues outside the school: culture of expectations, parental engagement, special needs, and diet and health. If we are going to raise standards and tackle inequalities, as a Department we need to think about the needs of children rather than the simply the performance of schools. That is why the coming together of Every Child Matters in local areas and the role of the Children's Trust in identifying barriers to progress is important.

  Q26  Chairman: But it is in the super output areas—the most deprived children in the most deprived backgrounds—where you have missed the target. That should be seared on the soul of the Department. You did mention that in your answer on targets. Meeting new targets and bringing the most deprived children towards the average is where you have really fallen down.

  Ed Balls: That was because we set ambitious objectives. If you look at the past four or five years, progress in standards has been faster for children on free school meals than for the average child. The case can be made that a number of things that we have been doing to try to focus on tackling that disadvantage gap have started to work. There has been a narrowing of the gap, but at much too slow a pace in my view. Therefore, it is still the case that children's educational chances are being affected by where they live and the income of their parents rather than their abilities. That is something that we really need to address. I am not in any way trying to duck the issue or walk away from our responsibility. We have been making progress, but there is a lot more do to.

  Chairman: We will be coming back to that, Secretary of State. We will now move on to spending plans, on which Sharon will open.

  Q27  Mrs Hodgson: I have a very quick question and then I think that Graham Stuart will come in on some more detailed matters. Over the years since 2000 there has been a large increase in public expenditure on education, but I believe that that will level off from the years 2008 to 2010. How is your Department preparing schools for the lower rate of annual growth? The Comprehensive Spending Review was published before the Children's Plan so was expenditure for the plan included in the Comprehensive Spending Review?

  Ed Balls: On the first point, it is important to put that matter in its proper context. The rate of growth of spending over the next three years will be slower than that over the last 10 years, but it will still be rising in real terms. In real terms, it will rise across the UK by 3% a year and by 2.8% for England, which means that the percentage of GDP spent on education will be rising for the next three years. We will have considerably faster growth. There will be well over twice the rate of growth in education spending in the next three years than over the 18 years of the previous Government. To put this in its proper context, we will still have substantial real-terms increases in resources, which are historically above average. Although over the previous 20 years educationalists have shown that GDP was falling consistently, it will keep rising over the next three years. We will have less of an increase, but the numbers will still be going up. Secondly, it is important to say that a number of the things that we want to do go beyond simply the quantum of resources. There are a number of schools that are not doing as well as they should, despite having the same resources as schools that for the same catchment deliver much higher results. Our drive on standards and performance is substantially about tackling some of the non-spending barriers to progress. On your final question, we allocated around £1 billion over three years—a cumulative figure over three years—in the Children's Plan for Children's Plan priorities. All of that was money that I managed to find and release from within the overall spending settlement that I inherited, with the exception of, I think, an additional £200 million[3] added into our budgets in the pre-Budget report. We managed to find in other areas savings or money that we could release to allocate to the Children's Plan. This was money for new priorities, but I never claimed that it was additional money over and above the spending of the new settlement.

  Q28  Mr Stuart: Welcome, Secretary of State. The Prime Minister made a commitment to eradicate the spending gap between state schools and private schools. Could you reaffirm that commitment today?

  Ed Balls: Yes.

  Q29  Mr Stuart: Can you tell us what it means, when it will be achieved and what milestones we can measure on the way?

  Ed Balls: I cannot tell you the date on which we will get there because—

  Q30  Mr Stuart: Do you have an aspiration date? When would you like to get there?

  Ed Balls: That is asking me to pre-empt our application for resources in the next spending round. I am not in a position to do that today. Even if I were, I could not tell you whether I would be successful because there might be other Departments which thought they had an equal claim on resources. It will clearly depend upon—

  Q31  Mr Stuart: It is a promise made by the Prime Minister. We have long-term Comprehensive Spending Review periods. To ask you, as Secretary of State, to give us some idea when this firm commitment should be met is not unreasonable. It is not asking you to divulge positions that cannot properly be divulged ahead of any spending rounds.

  Ed Balls: I was answering the question in the most honest and open way that I can. There is a clearly a difference between the two parties. We are committed to raising the level of spending per pupil in state schools to the level of private school spending. The Opposition parties are not willing to make that commitment. That gives you a clear difference of view. That pace at which we can deliver that commitment will depend upon resources post-2011. We are closing the gap over the next three years as we have done over the last decade. We have clearly been going in that direction, but we have not got there yet. I cannot give you a date after 2011 because I do not know.

  Q32  Mr Stuart: When would you like to do it? I am not asking you to give us a date by which you categorically promise to do so, but it does not seem unreasonable to members of this Committee that, having made the commitment, you should be able to give us some idea of when you would hope to do it. I accept that there may be other priorities. Maybe there will be an economic downturn. Who knows? But give us an idea.

  Ed Balls: I would like to do it as fast as I can, obviously.

  Q33  Mr Stuart: And what does it mean?

  Ed Balls: As I understand it, there was around a £3,000 per head gap in state versus private school spending when the commitment was made. The Prime Minister said that he did not see why children who were going to state schools should have fewer teachers, less resource and therefore less opportunity than the minority going to private schools. Therefore he thought that our ambition over years should be to try to get state school spending up to private school levels, because that is the way to have fairness and excellence for all, rather than to have a two-tier education system. Of course it takes time because money does not grow on trees, but some of us want to get rid of a two-tier education system and other parties are quite happy to continue with a two-tier education system. That is where the dividing line is. Obviously I should like to make progress to end a two-tier education system faster rather than more slowly. Unfortunately, I cannot pre-empt the next spending review yet.

  Q34  Mr Stuart: Just to confirm, the gap is what we should look at. If we want to map the milestones along the way, this Committee can look at the gap between average expenditure per pupil in the private sector and average expenditure per pupil in the maintained sector. We can map that and draw our trajectory from that to see when the Government will achieve this firm and fixed commitment which you reaffirmed today.

  Ed Balls: Having a debate between the parties—

  Mr Stuart: It is not a party debate.

  Ed Balls: Having a debate between the parties as to which parties are and are not committed to ending two-tier education seems to be a very good debate to have. If in order to inform that debate we can make some projections, I am happy to study your projections and to tell you whether they are right or—

  Q35  Mr Stuart: I am not here as a party spokesman, Secretary of State, I am here as a member of this Committee. All of us on this Committee are interested in that commitment. Our job is to scrutinise your performance and we want to find out how you are going to get on in that regard. Trying to drag in party politics is irrelevant to this. I am not a Front-Bench spokesman of any kind.

  Ed Balls: Far be it from me to drag us into party politics, but I was simply pointing out that there are different ways in which you can measure the credibility of an aspiration to end a two-tier education system. One is whether you are willing to set ambitions and a second is the pace at which you then meet them. We have clearly been willing to set as an ambition the goal of getting state spending up to the level in that year of private school spending.

  Q36  Mr Stuart: Of the year when the promise was made?

  Ed Balls: I think that it is in the year when the promise was made.

  Q37  Mr Stuart: So it is a fixed target, and not a moving target depending on how much is spent in the independent sector. It is about that particular year and the time when the promise was made. That is what you are measuring it by. Nobody seems to know quite what the promise means, and it would be really useful for you to set it out specifically today.

  Ed Balls: I will very happily write a letter to the Committee setting out the commitment that was made, the progress that we have made and the progress that we shall make in the next three years. It will show clearly that we are narrowing the gap, but we need to continue to prioritise education spending over other spending or tax cuts to continue to make progress.[4]

  Q38  Mr Stuart: I am sorry, but it is so important to settle this. Are we talking about what happened to be spent in that year, on average, by the independent sector, or about closing the gap between the independent sector, wherever it is at any given time, and the state sector? That is what we would like to know.

  Ed Balls: The thing that is interesting is that you are criticising me both for not making sufficient progress to meet the objective and for not making the objective sufficiently ambitious.

  Q39  Mr Stuart: I was not aware that I was making any criticism whatever. I have merely been trying to find out the terms of the promise that you made and how we can measure whether you are meeting it. There is no criticism at all.

  Ed Balls: It is already a very ambitious goal to raise state spending up to the level of private school spending in the year in which the commitment was made. It would be even more ambitious to try to keep pace with the subsequent rise in private school spending.

2   Ev 20 Back

3   Correction from witness: The Department received £250 million extra, not £200 million. Back

4   Ev 20 Back

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