Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)


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 all—she prioritised internal union business above appearing before the Committee—and 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 into questions?

  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 testing—I 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 sector—in schools and local authorities—reacting 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 yesterday—by "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 discussion—the Treasury people were there too—to 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 again later.

  Jim Knight: I really am unsighted on that. Perhaps when the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee—

  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 close—which may be the right thing for it—you 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 way—the Secretary of State is quite clear that he does not want my office to be in any way prescriptive with local authorities—but 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 to that?

  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 introduction—this is the last one from me—you 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 introduction—it 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 street—they 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 deprived backgrounds.

  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 choice—it 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.

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