Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questins 40-59)


9 JANUARY 2008

  Q40  Mr Stuart: So which is it, the first or the second? Is it the less ambitious, or—

  Ed Balls: As I understand it, it is the first.

  Mr Stuart: It is the first. Okay, so we can measure it against that fixed point in time.

  Q41  Chairman: I think that the last time the previous Committee met David Bell, we asked similar questions. I think that you have some knowledge of this. Do you want to add to that?

  David Bell: No, I think that the Secretary of State has made the point and position clear.

  Q42  Chairman: You were a bit iffy about whether that was about capital expenditure or current expenditure.

  Ed Balls: The answer is that on the capital side, we will meet the commitment within this spending round. It is on the current side, on revenue, that we will take it more or less—

  Q43  Chairman: Do you remember that that is what the discussion was about?

  David Bell: Yes.

  Q44  Mr Stuart: Why have the Government decided to reduce the minimum funding guarantee for 2008-09, given that that will lead some schools to face reductions in their resources?

  Ed Balls: The minimum funding guarantee is set to reflect the quantum of resources available to us as a Department, the cost pressures that we believe schools will face and the efficiency gains that we think it is sensible for us to expect schools to deliver. On that basis, I do not think that we would expect any local authority to have to impose cuts on individual schools. Obviously that will depend on the decisions made in local authority areas within the overall quantum of their budgets. They will take into account a number of factors, including what is happening to schools rolls. If a school roll is falling substantially, I guess a local authority has to take that into account, but those are local decisions rather than central ones. I am not going to hide from you the fact that this is a tougher settlement than previous ones, but at the same time we think it is entirely deliverable, not just to meet the basic needs of schools but to deliver our priorities, particularly in special educational needs and the personalisation agenda.

  Q45  Mr Stuart: What specific efforts have been made to prepare schools to be able to deal in the tougher funding environment?

  Ed Balls: We announce the detail of the budgets to local authorities at the end of October or early November, and it is then a matter for local authorities to work with their schools through the schools forums in the following months to work out how they will prepare.

  Q46  Mr Stuart: So there is no specific central help to deal with what is quite a big change in the funding environment for schools.

  David Bell: In some ways your question links to Mrs Hodgson's question. Part of the work that the Department has been doing with local authorities is to enable them to work with schools. Do not forget that that is in the context of three-year budgets, so it is extremely important that schools do not look only at the next financial year, but plan their programmes over three years. One virtue of three-year settlements is that schools might have to manage. That might be difficult in the first year because of falling rolls, but they can look at it with some certainty in years two and three. Our Government office network is working with local authorities. Both the National College for School Leadership and the Training and Development Agency for Schools are putting together programmes to enable head teachers to be even more acutely aware of the efficiency effects of the sorts of things that they do. There is a lot of support. One reason for getting the settlement out in the Autumn is to give schools that kind of time to prepare.

  Q47  Mr Stuart: When will the review of schools funding commence, and what will its terms of reference be?

  Ed Balls: We expect to do the substantial work on the schools funding review over the Summer, and we have not yet published detailed terms of reference for that review. The idea is to be able to inform decisions for three-year budgets following this spending review period, so we still have a number of years to prepare. We will need to look carefully at the underlying assumptions underpinning the current "spend plus" formula—I know that the Committee has discussed this before—and how far they have changed, how far we need to make adjustments to the formula, whether we are getting the right balance between stability and deprivation and whether we need to do more to focus on pockets of deprivation within more affluent areas. That is an area for which we have allocated £40.9 million in this three-year budget round. There are a number of issues that we want to look at, and we will be doing that later in the year.

  Q48  Mr Stuart: Can we take it that you will be considering having a more targeted funding system in terms of targeting disadvantage in areas where it may not otherwise show up so easily, statistically ?

  Ed Balls: At the moment, within the overall dedicated schools grant, about 10%—slightly more than £3 billion; about £3.5 billion of that £36 billion DSG—goes on deprivation spend, so there is already a substantial chunk of expenditure there. However, that is within the context of an historical set of arrangements. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck between the pace of change and stability. I am not going to prejudge the review by saying that there is not sufficient focus on deprivation, but I certainly think that looking at whether there is a sufficient focus on deprivation is an important part of our work. As the Schools Minister would want to jump in and say, if he were here, this is not simply deprivation measured across an area, but also taking a proper account of the deprivation that can occur within areas that are sometimes categorised as being more affluent.

  Q49  Mr Stuart: That is an important point. If that is to be included—if it is to be targeted as closely to individual people as possible in order to tackle their individual needs—it will be welcomed. What reassurance can you give the F40 group, for example, about what it considers to be an unfair funding allocation? In terms of the current spending period, quite a lot of money has been held back from ministerial priorities; will tackling disadvantage in rural areas be a ministerial priority? Can you allay fears that there are just too few Labour votes in rural areas for you to bother?

  Ed Balls: As a Member of Parliament for an F40 member authority, I very much understand the concerns that you raise from a constituency point of view. However, my authority was one of the top three local authorities for improvements in GCSE performance in the past year, which shows that you have to be a little careful about making too tight a link between performance and the quantum of resources, but I understand your point. In the debates that occurred, we ended up with a shift to the minimum funding guarantee. At that time, the pace of change was perceived as destabilising for individual schools, and that was why we ended up with the system we did. At the same time, if there is too much stability, history can end up dominating the reality on the ground, and that is why it is right for us to have a review.

  Mr Stuart: We have a young radical as Secretary of State, we have high hopes.

  Chairman: Graham, you have not had a bad innings on that, it is time to move on. I will ask Dawn to take us into the questions on the Children's Plan.

  Q50  Ms Butler: First, I would like to congratulate the Department on the Children's Plan. It has been warmly received locally by head teachers and by parents. Some are talking about how the Children's Plan relates to the Every Child Matters five outcomes, and I wondered if there are plans to re-categorise some of the content, to make to easier for people to refer to.

  Ed Balls: In some ways, I would personally see the Children's Plan as being the mission for our Department. Many of the issues that we have discussed so far are integral to the Children's Plan: how we focus on narrowing gaps in school attainment—that is really what it is about. I do not want the Children's Plan to be seen as only the spending announcements made in the document—the measures that we are taking on school improvement are also very important. I say that to make clear that we see schools, and driving up standards, as central to the achievement of the Children's Plan. We decided to structure the document around our five Public Service Agreement objectives rather than around the five Every Child Matters objectives, although we could have done it the other way round. The document, and in a way the entire Department, is informed by the reality of Every Child Matters on the ground in local areas. We have been trying to learn lessons from what happens locally. If I say that in the Chamber, colleagues opposite sometimes roll their eyes, but we see ourselves very much as a Department that at the national level is taking forward the Every Child Matters agenda. If it would help for us to produce a breakdown of things that we are planning or doing in the Children's Plan around the five Every Child Matters outcomes, I would be happy to do that.[5] One of the important commitments in the Plan, in chapter 7, is for us to produce indicators of child wellbeing, which are measurable and comparable and cross all the five Every Child Matters outcomes. Sometimes, when we look at performance, we end up making school tests a measure of output because they are easy to measure whereas, from the Department's point of view, we need to look right across the piece.

  Q51  Ms Butler: I will come on to some of the details of the Children's Plan, but in terms of the Department, how many functions does the Department for Children, Schools and Families have that the Department for Education and Skills was not performing?

  Ed Balls: The truthful answer to that is a large number, but a large number of joint responsibilities. If you take youth justice, for example, we have joint responsibility for the management of the Youth Justice Board, for ministerial oversight of day to day operations, for appointments. Every policy decision is made jointly by myself and Jack Straw or by Beverley Hughes and David Hanson. We now have, located in our Department but led by a senior official from the Ministry of Justice, a 30-plus strong team of officials who jointly, across the two Departments, prepare all advice on Youth Justice issues. That is a set of responsibilities and expertise that the Department did not have in DFES days. You will not see that reflected in our departmental expenditure limit, because our departmental expenditure has a small amount of resources for the prevention of crime. Most of the expenditure is happily in the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice. In terms of intensity of effort, the allocation of civil service resource and ministerial accountability, youth justice is a substantial addition for us, but I think that you could say the same thing about children's health and school sports. We now have joint responsibility for children's play, drugs policy, youth and alcohol policy and child poverty. Those are all areas where we have taken on new responsibilities and had dedicated resource and ministerial time allocated to them within the Department.

  Q52  Ms Butler: The report highlights that there is close cross-departmental working, which has made the report and the 10-year plan quite strong. I was not a member of the previous Committee, but I have been informed that it was told that it would be difficult to involve health services in wider children's service planning. It seems in the Plan that the problem has been addressed, but it would be good if you informed the Committee of what consultations took place and how the problem has been addressed on health issues such as obesity and teenage pregnancy.

  Ed Balls: In general, it would be much too early to say that the problem has been solved. It is a problem that we are now addressing. It is a regular refrain from school heads and directors of children's services on the ground that there is sometimes a gap in working and not enough intensity of joint engagement, for example on children's mental health or children's health more generally. That is something that I know that Alan Johnson, as Secretary of State for Education, was very focused on. He has gone into the Department with a big desire to improve the prevention side of children's health and to have much greater working locally. You can see that in the fact that we have announced a joint review of child and adolescent mental health services and the fact that Alan and I, through John Bercow, are doing a joint review of speech and language therapy. You can also see it in the operating framework for the NHS for the next year, which was published just before Christmas. It had children's health as one of its top five priorities and was seen in the children's community as a very substantial step forward for children's health and its prioritisation within the overall NHS. All of those things are a reflection of what has been happening at the national level over the last six months and of our joint working. We now need to see that reflected in the way in which primary care trusts around the country are allocating their budgets and working with children's services locally. That is not perfect today, but we think that this is a big step forward.

  Q53  Ms Butler: It will be important that all of these services are easily accessible under one roof if possible. Going back to teenage pregnancies, they are at their lowest rate for the last 20 years, but in constituencies such as mine in Brent South, the figure is 11% higher than the national average. You talked earlier about local authorities and making them accountable. How will we monitor local authorities and ensure that we make them accountable and that we spread good practices, to ensure that the Children's Plan actually works?

  Ed Balls: We still have an above average rate of teenage pregnancies, but we have the lowest level for 20 years and we have had quite substantial falls. The degree of variation across local authority areas is very wide; quite strikingly so. The evidence shows that those authorities that have had an intensive drive with schools on that issue have made real progress and authorities for whom it has not been a priority have not made progress. I cannot find the figures in front of me for one comparison I could make, but variations across areas are quite striking. That is something that we will want to do more to highlight. It is important that local authorities and schools together take responsibility for this issue.

  David Bell: I visited a project elsewhere in London, where they had made greater progress with the reduction in teenage pregnancy rates. One of the most striking reasons was the close working relationship between the director of public health and people working in schools. It is a good illustration of the fact that you cannot tackle such problems if you leave them with just one agency More generally, the new Public Service Agreements that begin this April are all cross-Government. We have deliberately moved away from the agreements that, in the previous round, tended largely to be the responsibility of one Department. For example, we cannot address the well-being of children and their health on our own as the Department for Children, Schools and Families; we must work with other Departments. When we put together the delivery agreements, the mechanisms by which we will achieve what we expect to achieve, there must be close working between Departments. The Children's Plan was in many ways an early illustration of such cross-departmental working, which must be translated into what happens in local authorities and in wider local areas.

  Ed Balls: You could make the same point about, for example, looked-after children, where there is wide variation—authority by authority—in looked-after children's progress in school and the stability of their care. You could make the same comparisons on the education or re-entry of youth offenders, where some local authorities have been much more effective than others at locating offenders close to home and then managing their re-entry into mainstream education or work. Other authorities are not making anywhere near the same progress. One thing that we must do, which goes back to Mr Heppell's comment about the national indicator set, is use data to show clearly the local authorities that do well throughout the range of issues—you can make the same point about missing children. The best practice of such local authorities should be highlighted, and the local authorities that do not take seriously their responsibilities for co-ordinating support for disadvantaged groups need to do more. You can say the same thing about Gypsy and Traveller education, in which there is a wide variation in performance.

  Chairman: Dawn, a last point.

  Q54  Ms Butler: In 12 months' time, when you produce a report about how far the Children's Plan has been implemented and its success rate, will it also include a dossier of good practice to help local authorities and other areas that are perhaps not achieving or progressing as much as you would like?

  Ed Balls: That is a good idea. For the Department to achieve its objectives, this is as much about using informal, arm's-length levers or cultural change as it is about direct expenditure. We decided that we needed the first round of consultation on the Children's Plan to be intensive, and we will now undertake much public consultation on, and discussion with teachers in local areas about, the Plan's implementation. We thought that there could, potentially, be a national conference in the Summer to highlight examples of policies that are working, so the right thing may be for us to produce, more systematically, performance measures, comparisons and examples. I shall take that point away and reflect on how best we can do it. If we can do it in order to contribute to your work over the next year, we will be very happy to do so.

  Q55  Annette Brooke: Ed, I can see only six colours on what I presume to be a rainbow, so my questions will be about whether things are missing from the Children's Plan. I shall start with reference to the UN convention on the rights of the child. We just raised the question why we are not examining the five outcomes from Every Child Matters, but many people felt that Every Child Matters did not give sufficient weight to the convention. Clearly, the Government will be assessed on their progress in implementing the convention later this year. I am sure that you will agree that they will not get top marks in every section. How is the DCSF planning to put in place the institutional frameworks necessary to promote and protect children's rights under the convention?

  Ed Balls: The absence of pink from the front page of the document is notable.

  Annette Brooke: Indigo.

  Ed Balls: Isn't it, "Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue"?

  Mr Chaytor: Surely it is: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

  Ed Balls: I was thinking of the song as a way of remembering.

  Chairman: Now we all agree that it is indigo, perhaps we can return to the question.

  Ed Balls: I would not want Members to think that that was a diversionary tactic. In Annex B, we published a full breakdown of the UNRC articles and examples, area by area, of how we envisage that the new Department's Children's Plan will take forward aspects of the UNRC convention. We think that we get pretty close to implementation, but we have not made a formal commitment to do so. As you know, there are a number of reasons that that would be complicated.

  Q56  Annette Brooke: I feel rather sad about that. I am aware of Annex B, but I still do not think that you are making a real commitment to putting in a framework that would deliver on this commitment, which was made way back in 1991. I believe that we are rather lagging behind our European counterparts on this.

  Ed Balls: We have made substantial progress in the past 10 years. The new Department is a further step towards implementing or matching a number of the commitments made in that convention.

  Q57  Chairman: What was the most difficult bit, Secretary of State?

  Ed Balls: As you know, we set out our view on smacking in the Autumn. Different parts of the Community have different views on what the UNRC requires, and a number of UNRC signed-up countries have the same policy as us. However, there is also a view that we would need to go further to meet the obligations of the UNRC, as I understand it.

  Q58  Annette Brooke: May I come in on a related issue? Joint working is a very big issue now. You have identified joint responsibilities, but there are conflicts—this relates back to the convention—such as over the rights of separated asylum-seeking and trafficked children. I assume that your Department has to be fully signed up to safeguarding the welfare of all children in this country. How closely are you working with the immigration authorities, given that they do not have such a commitment? We know that not all children are getting as much protection as they might.

  Ed Balls: My colleague the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, Beverley Hughes, has been in close contact with Ministers in the Home Office over that. Obviously, consistent with the Government's wider approach to immigration and asylum, we want to ensure that the education and welfare of children are properly protected. We monitor that and are in discussions with our colleagues about it. However, the overall framework for that policy is a matter for the Home Secretary. We do not have a joint responsibility on immigration and asylum.

  Q59  Annette Brooke: You do not have a joint responsibility for every child in this country?

  Ed Balls: The areas where we have a dual key policy responsibility are set out clearly in the Machinery of Government document. However, in areas that fall outside those responsibilities, but where the welfare of children is affected, clearly we have an interest and we take an interest. I do not have joint responsibility for immigration policy as it affects the children of asylum seekers.

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