Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
MP AND SIR
16 JANUARY 2008
Q1 Chairman: I welcome the Minister
for Schools and Learners, Jim Knight, and the Schools Commissioner,
Sir Bruce Liddington, to our proceedings. It is nice to see you
back here again Jim and to see you, Sir Bruce, after some gap,
although we seem to meet all the time on the circuit at various
meetings. You are welcome. We have been looking forward with great
anticipation to this sitting. In the history of this Committee,
certainly since I have been Chair, and given the way in which
Select Committees conduct themselves, it is rare indeed for witnesses
to fail to appear. On Monday, two major witnesses to our inquiry
on Testing and Assessment failed to show. One person had
no excuse at allshe prioritised internal union business
above appearing before the Committeeand the other had rather
a poor excuse. That has not happened before. I asked other Clerks
and Chairs for their memories: people remember Arthur Scargill's
unwillingness to appear before the Energy Committee, and the Maxwell
twins' reluctance to appear before the Public Accounts Committee,
but it is very unusual. Given the importance of testing and assessment
to the teaching profession, I thought that it was remarkable for
Steve Sinnott and Chris Keates to treat the Committee with such
disdain. I have sent a strong letter to them, and the Committee
will consider whether to call them in the inquiry at all. We now
move on to the business of the day. Would the Minister or Bruce
Liddington like to say anything to open, or should we go straight
Jim Knight: I think, Barry, that
I shall put the statement that the Department asked me to read
out to one side. I am looking forward to coming back next month
to talk about testingI am confident that I will show up.
Bruce and I have been looking forward to coming along. We do not
really have an opening statement, but I am delighted to introduce
the Committee to the Schools Commissioner, Bruce Liddington.
Sir Bruce Liddington: I really
value the many meetings that you and I have had since I became
Schools Commissioner, and it is a great honour to appear before
the Committee today.
Q2 Chairman: Minister, you were reluctant
to have Sir Bruce come here on his own. Why?
Jim Knight: We were not reluctant
for him to come on his own; rather, we feel that Ministers should
be accountable to Parliament, in particular for the policies for
which we are responsible. There may well be policy issues that
you want to question the Department about, so it seemed sensible
to offer you the opportunity to ask Ministers as well as Bruce.
Q3 Chairman: We are grateful for
that, but I hope you do not think that you are setting a precedent.
We often have civil servants on their own as witnesses to particular
inquiries, such as that on Building Schools for the Future,
so I hope you are not attempting to set a precedent.
Jim Knight: We will certainly
bear those comments in mind.
Chairman: You had better.
Jim Knight: I would not want one
of your stern letters.
Q4 Chairman: How long have you been
in post, Sir Bruce, is it a full year?
Sir Bruce Liddington: A little
bit longer than that: I started formally on 1 August 2006, although
I was not announced until 7 September.
Q5 Chairman: How well are you doing
in the job?
Sir Bruce Liddington: That is
for others to judge, but it is a great job and I love doing it.
I am responsible for a wide range of things: I am the national
champion for choice and diversity; I have a responsibility for
fairness of access; I have a role with local authorities becoming
commissioners; and with trusts and Academies. We are ahead of
the game on trusts and Academies; the work on local authority
commissioning is going forward thoroughly; I am confident that
we will make the system fairer on access for schools with the
code of admissions; and on choice and diversity I am preparing
my first report, which will come to you in early April, on how
the system is becoming more diverse.
Q6 Chairman: How are people in the
sectorin schools and local authoritiesreacting to
your new role?
Sir Bruce Liddington: It depends
on which part of the role you are talking about. You will know
from the debate during the passage of the 2006 legislation that
some local authorities were less than enthusiastic about the role
they saw me having going around trying to get them to have Academies.
As the number of Academies that we were expected to deliver increased,
not all local authorities welcomed what they saw as the pressure
to have more. As Schools Commissioner it is much easier for me,
because I have the two-stage sign-off of Building Schools for
the Future, which means that at two stages as local authorities
are planning their strategies for change and their BSF plans,
we engage with them so that they know from the very beginning
what ambitions the Government have for the system to become more
diverse. Local authorities know that they have a duty to make
their schools more diverse under the 2006 legislation. There is
less a sense of either me personally or my office coming along
when plans are relatively far advanced and less a sense of an
imposition of unwelcome government policy. Local authorities are
now much more pragmatic about the need to be more diverse. More
and more local authorities are coming to my office with ambitious
plans to have strategic trust arrangements, to have multiple Academies
of which they are co-sponsors and to make the system more diverse
in a way that, frankly, many local authorities have tried to do
previously on a smaller scale than we are expecting them to do
now. Most local authorities now would see the approach from my
office as rigorous and robust, but also appropriate.
Q7 Chairman: So, Minister, how do
you view all this? The Delivery Unit in No. 10 used to have quite
an important role in all this. I see there is an advertisement
for a new lead person in that unit specialising in your Department.
How does it work out between what the Delivery Unit in No. 10
does, what you do, and what Sir Bruce does?
Jim Knight: First, we are very
happy with the work that Bruce is heading up with his team. The
relationship with the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is a good
one. We had a meeting with it yesterdayby "we"
I mean four out of the five Ministers, plus the senior officials,
the Permanent Secretary, the Directors General of the four main
areas, plus supporting officials. We met to progress-chase delivery
on our Public Service Agreement targets. That is just part of
our ongoing dialogue and discussionthe Treasury people
were there tooto ensure that we continue to successfully
deliver what we are responsible for.
Q8 Chairman: What is this post that
is advertised? Is it a deputy to the lead person on children,
schools and families?
Jim Knight: I cannot answer that,
because the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is not something over
which I have jurisdiction
Q9 Chairman: But it is at a much
higher salary than Members of Parliament would receive
Jim Knight: Are you tempted?
Chairman: Well, we will discuss that
Jim Knight: I really am unsighted
on that. Perhaps when the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison
Q10 Chairman: But if you are in a
local authority or a school you see Sir Bruce, the Commissioner,
then there are Ministers, then there is the Delivery Unit, and
then there is the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. I am
sad that Cyril Taylor has now stepped down. That organisation,
too, is largely Department-funded. Is there not a confusion about
goals and who you listen to and who gives advice?
Jim Knight: I would hope not.
The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is more of a mutual
organisation formed by the schools themselves. It is an extremely
valuable network and carries out some good work on our behalf
in terms of building the capacity, but much more from the bottom
up. Ministers make policy. Bruce and his team are responsible
for delivery and working very much with local authorities to ensure
that their commissioning role is working well. The Prime Minister's
Delivery Unit effectively provides an internal audit and progress-chasing
function across Government. It feels coherent from where I am
sitting, and I would hope it feels just as coherent elsewhere.
Q11 Chairman: Bruce, do you think
it is coherent?
Sir Bruce Liddington: I do. I
doubt whether very many individual schools would have much of
an awareness of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit. I think that
is something civil servants are very concerned about, and Ministers
as well. Local authorities would be aware of it and would watch
its work. But apart from the PMDU going around to local authorities
to do its research, it does not have an advisory role with local
authorities. That is very much something that we do from the Department.
My office has a very clear role in challenging local authorities
to come up with good Building Schools for the Future plans and
to carry out their responsibility to challenge low performance.
Q12 Chairman: But Sir Bruce, some
people would say that here is this unique opportunity for every
local authority in England to have a vision of what schooling
in their area would be into the middle of the century and beyond.
But behind that comes, "As long as it's diverse, has Academies
and conforms to a whole set of rules," so the vision is kind
of cramped, is it not?
Sir Bruce Liddington: I would
like to think that my office has a role in freeing up thinking
in local authorities. I do not come across directors of children's
services who have doctrinaire views about the provision of education
in a way that was perhaps the case five to 10 years ago. The directors
of children's services are pragmatic people: they may or may not
come from an education background, but they are open to advice
from a variety of sources. Elected members have a different perspective,
perhaps. If you are an elected member with a very small and low-performing
school in your ward, and you propose that that school should closewhich
may be the right thing for ityou very rapidly become an
ex-elected member. That agenda is something I can engage with,
both as Schools Commissioner and as a former head teacher and
member of the education committee in Northamptonshire. So I would
like to think that the agenda my office has is one where we can
actively engage with local authorities, not in a prescriptive
waythe Secretary of State is quite clear that he does not
want my office to be in any way prescriptive with local authoritiesbut
working with them in order to facilitate their becoming more diverse,
and to give parents a wider choice of schools to choose from.
Chairman: Minister, do you want to add
Jim Knight: Just to say that the
role Bruce performs for us is to ensure that the necessary level
of ambition and educational transformation is achieved through
his role in the BSF programme. We do not tell him that he should
use phrases like "As long as it has Academies." We do
not say that you have to have Academies in order to successfully
be approved for your BSF programme. We say, you have to achieve
the educational transformation that we expect from this investment.
That may often include Academies, and turning around underperforming
schools, but not necessarily. Academies are a means to an end,
not the end in itself.
Q13 Chairman: In your introductionthis
is the last one from meyou mentioned the whole of your
role, but you did not actually talk about the one role that the
predecessor to this Committee had quite a part in playing in changing
the nature of the Act that brought you into being. We expanded
your role, as we were advised, to include looking into the social
composition of schools. You did not mention that in your introductionit
is the only bit you left off your job description. Why was that?
Sir Bruce Liddington: I would
have included that intellectually when I talked about fair access,
because if parents from more deprived parts of the country are
to have the same chance to go to the sort of schools that people
in this room would want to send their children to, that is part
of my fair access responsibilities. I will have to report to Parliament
every other year on that. I have a role in encouraging local authorities
to take on change advisers, to make sure parents get the advice
that they need. There are 8% of parents who do not state a preference
for their secondary school, and most of those do not choose not
to do so because there is a good school at the end of the streetthey
are not empowered to get involved in the system. A natural product
of the work that I do on fair access is that there will be greater
social cohesion and fairness in admissions for people from more
Chairman: We will come back to some of
those themes, particularly in relation to diversity and fairness.
My colleagues are champing at the bit to get their questions in,
so we will start with David, who will lead this section.
Q14 Mr.Chaytor: Minister, if today's
Charity Commission report leads to a de facto reintroduction
of a whole series of assisted places schemes, would that be considered
an acceptable outcome in terms of choice and diversity?
Jim Knight: Obviously we are not
going back to the days of taxpayers' money being used to assist
people to go to independent schools. That is something that we
changed in 1997 in order to reduce class sizes for five, six and
seven-year-olds, and it was entirely the right thing to do. Since
David Miliband was in my position, we have been trying to improve
the relationship between the independent sector and the maintained
sector so that pupils who attend maintained schools can benefit
from some of the facilities and expertise that exist in the independent
sector. I have not spoken directly with Suzi Leather about what
the Charity Commission is proposing, but I fundamentally think
it is right that institutions with charitable status should demonstrate
the philosophy and requirements behind that status. If that means
that those private institutions offer opportunities to young people,
that is a good outcome, but equally, I would be slightly more
interested in an outcome that would give access to larger numbers
of people, not for the whole school experience, but for aspects
of it and use of the facilities and expertise that the independent
sector can offer.
Q15 Mr. Chaytor: In terms of choice
and diversity, and also more generally, if the consequence is
to increase the segregation of children by ethnicity or by the
alleged religion of their parents, is that a price worth paying
to pursue this choice and diversity policy?
Jim Knight: No, it is not.
Mr. Chaytor: It has happened.
Jim Knight: It depends how you
look at it. I would disagree that segregation is happening, although
there are examples that cause concern, and that is one of the
reasons why we changed the admissions code. If you look for example
at some of the faith schools, you will see much more ethnic diversity
in some of the Catholic schools than you might find in other local
maintained schools in the same areas. The issue can be looked
at in all sorts of ways, but we are confident that choice and
diversity works well in lifting standards, it works well for parents
and is popular with them, but it should not be unfettered choiceit
needs to be managed, and that is why we have a rigorous admissions
code that we want to ensure is properly enforced.
Q16 Mr. Chaytor: Do you think that
the admissions code itself will limit the extent of segregation
on grounds of religion or ethnic group? The Commissioner spoke
a few moments ago about his role in terms of improving social
cohesion, but at the moment there seems to be a conflict between
that objective and the reality on the ground. It is hard to see
that the new admissions code alone will resolve that conflict.
Jim Knight: It is not the only
thing that will resolve that problem.
Q17 Mr.Chaytor: So what else can
the Government do?
Jim Knight: I think it is very
important. Another important aspect would be the duty to community
cohesion and the use of choice advisers by local authorities that
we fund, and how they operate to ensure that, as children go through
the transition into secondary school, parents properly understand
the choices available to them, and what that can do for their
children in ensuring that their aspirations are as high as they
possibly can be, because many problems and worries largely exist
around secondary schools.
Q18 Mr. Chaytor: Can a faith school,
with 100% of children of that single faith, be reconciled with
a duty to promote community cohesion?
Jim Knight: Yes, I think that
it can. Last autumn, with Keith Ajegbo and Trevor Pears from the
Pears Foundation, I visited a school in Tower Hamlets that was
fairly diverse but had a strong twinning relationship with a Catholic
school on the other side of Cambridge Heath Road, I think it was.
Certainly, it was a very busy road, whichever it was. The nature
of their twinning relationship was breaking down some segregations
that reflected the broader community, rather than those created
by schools. We must make it clear how that works as well, with
friendships being built between ethnic communities thanks to that
strong twinning arrangement. That is the sort of thing that we
are trying to encourage through the new duty to community cohesion.
Q19 Mr. Chaytor: May I ask one further
question to the Commissioner? What are the current criteria for
the establishment of Academies?
Sir Bruce Liddington: Although
we look at each example on a case-by-case basis, broadly speaking,
we are looking at schools that get 30% five A* to C, counting
English and maths, or below. We are looking at schools which have
negative contextual value added. We are looking at schools in
the top one fifth most deprived parts of the country, and we are
looking at schools in Ofsted categories. We are still moving around
the country, although there are fewer seriously failing schools
than there were when I started working on the Academies policy
in 2000. Although we still, from time to time, come across schools
that ring all four of those bells, increasingly we do not. A local
authority still has the opportunity to indicate that it has a
basic need and that it wants to have an Academy to provide for
that, in which case it does not have to have a competition. But
there are still competitions, where the Secretary of State can
express a view on whether he is prepared for the outcome of a
competition to be an Academy, which might result in an Academy
where none of those criteria apply, although that has not yet
happened. I then have to add two other further categories. First,
the 15 City Technology Colleges, which are, of course, high-performing
schools, are in the majority moving towards Academy status and
taking on responsibility for a legacy underperforming school.
Secondly, yesterday Lord Adonis announced a pathfinder pilot of
10 of the strongest schools in the country pairing together with
10 of the weakest, with a view to the weaker school becoming an
Academy, and to a hard federation between the good school and
the weak one. Those good schools have the opportunity to become
either trust schools or Academies, if they so wish.