Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questins 60-79)


9 JANUARY 2008

  Q60  Annette Brooke: Do you think that it is something you should be seeking?

  Ed Balls: I should be very happy to listen to the views of the Committee on that.

  Q61  Annette Brooke: Right, thank you for that. Can I perhaps return to mainstream education for a moment? Within the Children's Plan there is the phrase "stage not age" in relation to the new test. I want to pick up a specific point, but to relate it more generally across the Department. Goals for 2020 on page 16 include: "every child ready for success in school, with at least 90% developing well across all areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile by age 5". I appreciate that there is a conflict between being ambitious for our children and, on the other hand, particularly in the early years, taking on board child development. I should like to ask you about that dilemma generally in the Department and how you set targets, particularly in the early years when we know that there are variations in child development in terms of hearing and all sorts of things that are not necessarily fully developed. So how can you just come up with a figure of 90%? Is there any scientific evidence to say that by the age of five, 90% of children will be at stage X in the child development process? They never would be, because there are so many aspects of child development. How do you face up to that real dilemma to be ambitious but to remember that every child is so individual, but particularly up to age five and six?

  Ed Balls: We have thought very carefully about how to frame this goal and the goal for Key Stage 2 for secondary children. There is a balance to be struck between ambition and realism. There is also a balance to be struck between being ambitious for every child and recognising that some children will not be able to reach this standard at any age. Then there is the third point which you raise. There will be some children who will be able to reach a standard, but at a slower pace. When we set this at 90%, we looked in detail at the way in which Early Years Foundation Stage progress had been moving in recent years. We were conscious that some people would say that 90% in 10 years' time or 12 years' time is insufficiently ambitious and that it should be 100% of children. But we also recognise the very important point that you make and your expertise. There are things that we will be doing as part of the follow up for the Children's Plan. We have not specified the details of some goals yet, for example, around youth offending. There are others where we need to make more progress in terms of measurability and children's wellbeing, as I said earlier, is one of those. It would be a good thing for us to produce a more detailed document or statement of how we arrived at those numbers or those areas where we are still continuing to consult. We will consult widely over the next year on whether these goals represent the right national ambitions. This was our starting point. We thought that this was a reasonable but stretching way to frame the long-term target for early years. But we will want to discuss with experts, including the Committee, how exactly we should measure it over the next few months.

  David Bell: Can I come in here?

  Chairman: Briefly, because we have two more sections.

  David Bell: Quickly, the letter that has gone to Sir Jim Rose this morning, which the Committee has seen, makes the point specifically about that transition from the Early Years Foundation Stage into the primary curriculum. It is another good opportunity to consider quite how youngsters make the move from early years into the more formal primary curriculum.

  Chairman: We try to make this look like a seamless process, but we have sections that we try to cover. So we will now move on. We will focus a bit more on the Children's Plan, led by Fiona.

  Q62  Fiona Mactaggart: The Children's Plan states that, "The Government is committed to halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020." Do you stick by that?

  Ed Balls: Yes.

  Q63  Fiona Mactaggart: How will you do it?

  Ed Balls: The 2020 goal will be affected by the income, the work chances, and the progress that today's teenagers make over the next few years. They will be the parents of the generation of children being born by the end of the next decade. Looking to the 2020 goal, that is a very broad set of policy levers and something which the Children's Plan is an important contributor to. The 2010 goal will be affected much more by the level of income going into families' household budgets, plus the percentage of families who are working or non-working. The reforms being taken forward by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on employment and support for employment for families and single parents, plus the decisions made by the Chancellor in the next couple of Budgets, will be much more important to the 2010 goal than any lever that our Department can pull.

  Q64  Fiona Mactaggart: I am a fan of the Children's Plan, but there is a risk of it sounding a bit like some other 10-year plans that were promoted by Comrade Stalin and others, in that, if you go on after the commitment— [Interruption.] Sorry, that was a joke. If you continue from that statement, the Plan states that, "The number of children in relative poverty fell by 600,000 between 1998 and 2006." A true statement, but it does not acknowledge that last year's figures were the first in which there was a relative increase. You said in reply to an earlier question that the lowest-hanging fruits, the first steps in making progress, are the easiest bit. We are in the situation of being one third of the way to the 2010 target, but we have used up four fifths of the time. So, we have got two thirds of the way in two years. Are we going to get there?

  Ed Balls: As I said, that is a matter for subsequent decisions which will have been made over the next few months and the next couple of years. I made a speech the day before the publication of the Children's Plan to a conference organised by the End Child Poverty coalition, in which I talked in detail about what had happened to the child poverty numbers in recent years, and acknowledged the rise in child poverty. So, I apologise if we did not make that particular point in that paragraph, but it is something which we have been open about and happy to discuss. The reality is that we have made substantial progress on reducing child poverty. In the 18 years to 1997, we had the fastest rise in child poverty of any European country. Since 1997 we have had the fastest fall in child poverty of any European country. That is pretty good, but it is not good enough to get to 2010. Therefore, if we are going to get there, and I believe that we can, we will have to do more. As I have said, that is not something that can be delivered from the resources or with the levers of our Department, but it is something for which I have joint responsibility with Peter Hain and Alistair Darling. There was a debate at some time in 2005 as to whether we had failed to meet the quarter target in 2004. At the time of the 2003 pre-Budget report, when I think £1.2 billion went into the child tax credit, and on the basis of Institute for Fiscal Studies figures at that time, we thought that that would be sufficient to more than meet the objective before and after housing costs. Changes subsequently happened, which involved a faster rise in the incomes of the non-poor than we expected. That is a good thing. It is good that the average went up, but it made it harder for us to meet our child poverty objective. What has happened over the past couple of years is a similar story—even though absolute child poverty has come down the relative numbers have been more difficult for us, partly because of the better performance of the economy. Those are explanations, not excuses, and I think it is important for us to stick to our guns.

  Q65  Fiona Mactaggart: I do, too. But I also think that it is important to describe an ambition—and a plan to get there—which is real. I am anxious that this has become a kind of shibboleth that we are repeating and that there is risk that it could become unreal. You say in the Plan that there is the joint unit between your Department and the Department for Work and Pensions and so on, and you point out in your response to me, quite rightly, that in the short term the things that your Department can do will not make the difference, although they will in the longer term. However, can you give a hint of what you think is needed in the next two years to get to the 2010 target, because we want to get there?

  Ed Balls: To get to the 2010 target we would need a combination of a rise in employment rates for single parents, which have been rising steadily over the past 10 years but have not yet got to the level of a number of our European counterparts; a further reduction in workless households; and resources allocated to families in future Budgets. Since I have had a lot of experience of sitting here as an adviser at the Treasury, I can say that the one thing the Treasury would not take kindly to is my coming to a Select Committee and telling the Treasury how it should write the next Budget, but that is clearly something that will be in the Chancellor's mind in his Budget preparations. The child poverty goal is a very ambitious goal for a government to set, and setting down quarter-point and halfway milestones was the right thing to do, although ambitious. If it had not been for those objectives, we would never have made the progress that we have, even though sometimes we have not gone as fast as we would have liked. As I have said many times to child poverty campaigners, you can either say, "You failed to meet the target to reduce by a quarter by 2004, therefore it is a betrayal; it was not worth the candle," or you can say, "You got a substantial part of the way there but you needed to go the extra mile—redouble your efforts." The easiest way for governments to meet targets and objectives is to set unambitious ones and then tick the box every year. You get better outcomes, but it is politically harder, if you set more ambitious goals and strive to get there. In the case of the Millennium Development Goals, at the moment we are not going to meet the goals for the reduction of international poverty by 2015, but it would be wrong to say, "Well, in that case, let's back off them." We need to find ways to redouble our efforts.

  Q66  Fiona Mactaggart: I absolutely agree, but how are we going to hold you accountable? You are saying at the moment—on this bit of it right now—"It is not me, it is someone else." Sorry, I am being mean.

  Ed Balls: That is slightly unfair.

  Q67  Fiona Mactaggart: You were saying that the things that can happen at the moment—

  Ed Balls: In the short term.

  Q68  Fiona Mactaggart: Can you advise us, as Members of Parliament, whether we hold you, as the Secretary of State for Children, accountable? Do we hold the Secretary of State for Welfare accountable? Do we hold the Chancellor accountable? How do we hold the Government accountable for the detail of this target? It is worth arguing about the detail; that is why I made the crack about Stalinism. You need to dig beneath these sorts of statements and look at progress and other things, for example whether the IFS and others were surprised when the child tax credit did not deliver the changes that everybody had expected. I completely concur with you, but Committees like ours need to be able to dig underneath and that is difficult when responsibility is moving.

  Ed Balls: There is a question for the Committee—and for Parliament—about how it chooses to manage its process of scrutiny and accountability, which is not for me to dictate. It is for us, as the Executive, to be clear about how we will manage our process for driving change. The Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and I now have much clearer joint responsibilities for child poverty—they are clearly set out in the delivery arrangements—and we meet on a regular basis in government. It is a matter for you to decide how to scrutinise that. Clearly, that is more complex for this Committee than pretty much any other Committee in Parliament because I have a range of joint responsibilities in a number of areas. Whether I can deliver depends on my leverage and the co-operation of other Cabinet colleagues. Obviously, from my point of view, the more you scrutinise them and ask them whether they are doing what we need to do to meet these objectives, the better, but it would be quite wrong for me to start dictating how to do that. This is a 10-year plan because I thought that it was right for us to set the ambitions for our new Department, to be ambitious and to look to the long term. The reason why it is not Stalinist is that I do not think Stalin ever really believed in joint working or dual keys, or that he saw cultural change and indirect leverage as the way you went about it. We are absolutely clear on youth justice, health, obesity and immigration that we will achieve in promoting the welfare of children only if we do it through the support and co-operation of other colleagues.

  Q69  Chairman: We are all on a learning curve, because the more I hear your responses, the more I understand that you are on a learning curve in the Department. Certainly, in respect of children's responsibilities, we will have to learn to do a much more difficult task in terms of scrutiny than on the other side—on schools.

  Ed Balls: If we do not do it, we will not succeed.

  Fiona Mactaggart: Our challenge, therefore, is to see whether we can get the Chancellor and two Secretaries of State together in front of us on this issue.

  Chairman: I am sure that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will help us. Can we now have quick questions and quick answers?

  Q70  Stephen Williams: I will be as quick as I can, Chairman. Next, I come to staying on. Two big things are going to happen this year: your first flagship Bill to raise the education participation age starts on Tuesday; and the roll-out of Diplomas will start in September. Taking Diplomas first, is everything on track for their successful introduction?

  Ed Balls: We have made substantially more progress than any of us thought possible when I arrived in the job in July and substantially more progress than the Permanent Secretary advised me that he thought was possible when he greeted me on the first day.

  Q71  Stephen Williams: So you were worried, but now you are less so?

  Ed Balls: How can I say this? When a senior civil servant greets you by informing you of challenging objectives, there is part of you that thinks, "This sounds like it's going to be tough." But, actually, I think we have done very, very well. The announcement before Christmas of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service point score for Diplomas was a very positive fillip indeed. Many universities in the Russell and 1994 Groups and the new universities are coming forward and saying that they will want to attract Diploma students. A report coming out in the next week or so from the 1994 Group will be a very powerful signal to heads and students. In the end, it will take some time to get things bedded down, but at the moment I am honestly feeling quite upbeat about it.

  Q72  Stephen Williams: We touched on resources at the start of this sitting. Are enough resources, especially capital resources, committed to ensuring that this is a success? You can have more people participating in education and training if you can raise the education leaving age, but clearly more provision means that more capital resources will be needed. Is there a big enough capital budget in your CSR settlement to deliver them?

  Ed Balls: Are you asking about Diplomas in particular?

  Q73  Stephen Williams: They are linked, are they not? If you raise the leaving age, more people will participate, but, hopefully, Diplomas will attract more people as well.

  Ed Balls: In the Green Paper and the documents that we produced in November, we see a substantial rise in training at work and apprenticeships as being much more significant in terms of increasing numbers than a rise in the number of full-time students in school or college post-16 between 2013 and 2015. Given what is happening demographically, we need not a big capital expansion, but a substantial number of apprenticeships. That is why we are legislating for a right to apprenticeships and, therefore, a duty on local areas to work out how they are going to deliver them. At the moment, we do not think that resources are our most significant constraint.

  Q74  Stephen Williams: We are obviously going to have a more in-depth look at the Bill in its Committee stage. Is there not a significant problem if you see the answer to more people attaining higher education levels as making them stay on longer than they wish to? Currently, in year 11, nearly 68,000 children are persistently absent under the existing compulsory staying-on age. What gives you confidence that raising the legal barrier is going to attract more people into education?

  Ed Balls: One of the things that we need to do for 13, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds—and we are doing with the Steer work, following up his exclusions report and more broadly through studio schools and other things—is to find more motivating and compelling ways to keep certain kinds of young people in pre-16 education, rather than sticking them in a classroom of 30 or 25 to learn a certain curriculum. Clearly, the same applies after 16. If the policy was to raise the legal age at which children could leave school, it would be the wrong policy, but that is not what we are proposing. We are proposing finding ways in which the 50,000 young people currently in full-time work who are not receiving any training can receive training for a qualification. We want the substantial numbers of young people who would like, but cannot access, an apprenticeship to be able to get one. We want to address the issue of young people aged 16 and 17 who do not have the qualifications or the basic learning to access an apprenticeship through entry to employment to be helped to catch up. The reason why we have a six-year planning process is that we want to make sure that by 2013, when the obligation kicks in, the cohort that today are 10 and 11 in primary schools are better prepared to stay in education until 18.

  Q75  Stephen Williams: A couple of last questions in this section, because we are running out of time and there is more to do. The predecessor Department, in post-16 areas, was keen on contestability and competition among colleges, sixth form providers and so on. We do not hear much about that now. Is there waning enthusiasm for competition in that area?

  Ed Balls: I do not think so. There is a distinction between pre and post-19. In driving Diplomas and delivering our ambitions in the 14-19 age range, we need to make sure that we have the collaboration between colleges and schools in the areas that is needed to make sure that you can have a comprehensive offer for young people. That requires a focus on collaboration and performance management. Clearly, as with schools, those colleges that are not attracting people, because no one wants to go there, are going to struggle and we need to take action on that. For post-19, as we move more in the direction of a demand-driven system as Train to Gain expands, a market incentive is going to bite increasingly over time on that kind of provision in the FE sector.

  Q76  Stephen Williams: Your two predecessors as Secretary of State who we questioned here always had a presumption in favour of sixth forms as well. There is the roll-out of Academies, and they usually a have a sixth form attached. Is that presumption still there?

  Ed Balls: The interesting thing—in a way this is a reflection of the influence that the Committee had a couple of years ago—is that if you look at the first 30 schools that set up as trusts in September, 23 of them are in collaborative trusts. My instinct politically is that parents want the option of their children staying on in school into a sixth form, and many head teachers whom I speak to who do not have sixth forms would like to have one. In many areas, collaboration between secondary schools, through trusts and other means, is a way to share sixth form resources without every school necessarily needing a separate sixth form. My guess is that as the Diploma programme expands, we will see more of that collaboration and therefore more young people moving around their area to different institutions for different courses, rather than staying in one sixth form for all their courses.

  Chairman: Lynda gets a gold star for patience today. You want to talk about teachers.

  Q77  Lynda Waltho: I would like to talk about teaching. I am very pleased that it is acknowledged in the Plan that teaching is a highly skilled occupation. The best teachers constantly seek to improve their skills. You go on to say that to achieve the ambitions for children and to boost the status of teaching, you would like the profession to become masters-led. Do you think that this will make the profession more attractive? Importantly, would achievement of the masters attract a higher salary? What would the time frame be—how long do you see this taking?

  Ed Balls: We are learning from a number of countries that have used post-graduate training of teachers as part of career development, as a way of continuing to drive excellence in the teaching profession. We have, Ofsted says, the best generation of teachers that we have ever had and lots of people today want to come and be teachers, but we need to make sure we continue to support every teacher to improve through their career. One of the things that we are doing within the range of things in the Children's Plan is saying that in order to make teaching a masters-level profession, we will start with a presumption that every teacher coming into the profession should be studying for a masters qualification in the early years of their teaching. That does not mean a continuation of initial teacher training or going away from the classroom to do full-time study, but it does mean having structured masters-level professional development through those early years. We would also like to make that an offer that would be available for existing teachers. I praised the partnership earlier. One of its successes has been that we have made much more progress on work force development, professional development and reform than we might have expected—that has happened because of the partnership. It is important to discuss the details with the teaching unions and employers before we jump to hard conclusions. This is a process for discussion.

  Q78  Lynda Waltho: I really would like you to consider the idea of the achievement attracting a higher salary as well. Would you see it as being comparable to other masters degrees?

  Ed Balls: It needs to be comparable. We have made real progress in the last few years on pay structures and incentives for progress and rewards for attainment. If I suddenly lob into the Children's Plan a new expectation with a clear link between that and pay without discussing that in detail with our partners, people would think that that was the wrong thing to do. I understand the point you are making—they understand it as well—and it is something we will need to talk about in detail. This is about continuing to bring the best talent into teaching, allowing talent to develop through time, giving support for that, and rewarding it.

  Chairman: We will have just a few rapid-fire questions before we finish. Stephen, you can go first.

  Ed Balls: This is my starter for ten.

  Q79  Stephen Williams: I would like to ask about the international data that have come out recently: the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study on 10-year-olds; and the Programme for International Student Assessment on 15-year-olds. As I am allowed only two questions, I will look at reading first, and then at maths and science. The reading analysis shows that although England does well at the top level of achievement, we are only average overall. However, there is a significant tail of underachievement compared with other countries. What concerns do you have about that and how will you address the problem? In particular, some of the detail shows that English children disproportionately spend their time watching television or playing video and other games at home, rather than reading for pleasure. How are you going to tackle that?

  Ed Balls: As I understand it, the PIRLS data, compared with the previous study, show that the biggest change in enjoyment of, and performance in, reading actually happened for the highest achieving children rather than the lowest achieving children. The point that you are rightly making, which is that we do not have enough reading outside school, is not only a low-achieving-children issue. It goes across the ability range, with the biggest fall among the highest achievers. PIRLS makes it clear that we have more children playing computer games and fewer children reading for pleasure than some other countries and compared with five years ago. That is an issue for our society. While this is partly about responsibility for schools—the Rose review will look at reading within the curriculum—PIRLS makes it clear that compared with five years ago, teachers are setting less reading homework and have less time for reading in the school day. That is an issue that we need to look at, but it is also a responsibility for parents and our wider society. I do not think that it is my job to tell parents what to do, but I do think that all parents have to find a way to strike the right balance for their children between reading, watching TV and playing computer games. The evidence says that we are not all getting that balance right at the moment.

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