Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)


16 JANUARY 2008

  Q40  Chairman: Can you look at social composition without their co-operation? How else will you do it?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I think that the data that we have now enable us to come to a very clear picture of the direction of travel and the absolute degree of segregation. We are very aware of that in the sorts of places that you know about such as Bradford, Oldham and Bolton.

  Q41  Chairman: And Maidstone? It is not just in the north.

  Jim Knight: Part of the encouragement that we would give to admissions authorities to produce the reports, is that otherwise there is a danger that we work solely from data and intelligence gathered through government offices and other local authorities. They are more likely to paint a complete picture if they do it themselves, rather than leave it to us to do it for them.

  Q42  Stephen Williams: I wonder if the Minister feels that to be a retrospective admission of weakness in the 2006 Act. Monitoring by admissions forums is not very meaningful if there is no duty on them to do it.

  Jim Knight: I would argue not. Often, as we take legislation through, we have a debate about whether something is a duty or something that we should encourage. That is often a subject of fascinating debate in Public Bill Committees. We are always reluctant to impose more and more duties, as that opens us up to the charge of ever-increasing bureaucracy and as we all know, in this place, people are keen to make that charge. If we can get people to want to do things, it is, in many cases, better than forcing them.

  Q43  Stephen Williams: How many choice advisers are in place at the moment?

  Jim Knight: As I understand it, every local authority has those in place.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes, the response of local authorities to the need to provide choice advice means that they are not necessarily all appointing choice advisers. They are changing the job descriptions of people already there to incorporate that role, and we do not collect that information at present.

  Q44  Stephen Williams: My recollection of the 2006 Act was that there would be two choice advisers per local authority. Is that correct—is that what was in the Act?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I think that local authorities are being more flexible in the way that they deal with that duty. The example that I would quote would be from Doncaster. When the local authority realised that there would be an Academy in the village of Thorne at the edge of Doncaster, it knew that if parents in that village followed their normal pattern of not filling in the application form for the Academy, their children would not get a place there. The Academy would fill up with educated middle-class children from dormitory villages around Doncaster, where people live and work in Leeds and Sheffield, and there would be no places left for the children it was provided for. The local authority appointed or redefined the role of, I think, eight people who went around and interviewed all the parents of children who lived in the village of Thorne, and explained to them what the Academy was there for. A total of 100% of those parents filled in the preference form and so the children that the Academy was put there for now go there. That is the sort of choice advice that I encourage in a more flexible way.

  Jim Knight: The important thing is that there is an effective choice advice service that is provided by every local authority. We have commissioned Sheffield Hallam University, and I am sure you would agree that it is a good source of advice.

  Stephen Williams: It is a wonderful place.

  Jim Knight: It is going to report to us in July this year once it has looked at how effectively that service is being provided.

  Q45  Stephen Williams: Briefly on transport, the Act provides for the school to be a maximum of six miles away from home for parents to qualify for working families tax credit or free school meals. Minister, as you acknowledged earlier, you represent a rural area. Is that enough for parents in a rural area to exercise a meaningful choice on behalf of their children?

  Jim Knight: For faith admissions it is up to 15 miles as I recall, and I think that with that caveat, it is sufficient. In the more inaccessible parts of my constituency it would be difficult to access secondary education, if you have a preference for Catholic education, without that 15-mile rule, but you can still access good education on the six-mile rule.

  Q46  Stephen Williams: I have a final question. The Children's Plan—the document with the rainbow on the cover that got the Secretary of State into some difficulty last week—aspires on behalf of the Government to measure and monitor the impact of the school admissions code on children and families over time. Will that be delivered via the Schools Commissioner's report, or is there something else that the Government are going to do to monitor admissions?

  Jim Knight: Bruce's team will lead on that, but it is something that Ministers, the Secretary of State and I take a very keen interest in, and we will play the necessary role in ensuring that that is properly enforced. If we need to do detailed audits of how things are working or of particular authorities if our concern is drawn to them, we will commission that work and take action with them if we think it necessary.

  Q47  Stephen Williams: Can we come back to the question of whether schools have a comprehensive intake? A recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research stated that voluntary-aided faith schools are 10 times more likely to be unrepresentative of the surrounding area because of their admissions authority than schools were the local authority is the admissions authority. Is that something that concerns both the Minister and the Commissioner?

  Jim Knight: As Bruce said earlier, it depends on how you define representative. In terms of free school meals, the data that Bruce referred to show that you cannot make that judgment.

  Q48  Stephen Williams: One example of one in 10 is a reasonably significant statistical difference.

  Jim Knight: Yes, but the data that we have show that voluntary-aided Muslim schools, for example, have one of the highest proportions of pupils who receive free school meals, and selective Church of England schools have the least. Then there is every other type of school in between those two. In terms of free school meals, I do not think that the IPPR is right. With regard to diversity and other ethnic groups, there might be some evidence of that. I am equally aware of the King David School, which is a Jewish foundation school in Liverpool—55% of its pupils are Jewish and 45% are non-Jewish. There are a number of examples around and about, and we have a very active discussion with faith organisations on those issues.

  Q49  Stephen Williams: Here is some more evidence. The Sutton Trust, which is an organisation that some of us in the Committee are big fans of, showed that, in the 200 top-performing state schools in the country, their intake has 5.6% of children on free school meals. If, however, you compare the postcode area that that school sits in, you will see that they should have nearly 15% of children on free school meals. Certainly, something is going wrong there with regard to fair access.

  Chairman: Could the Minister and Sir Bruce give a quick answer on that?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: The code does allow a variety of admissions arrangements, as long as they are fair and transparent. So if you have a limited number, for example, as with Church of England or Roman Catholic schools, the likelihood is that their catchment will go beyond the area in which they are placed. They are likely to have town-wide catchment and, therefore, will not reflect the social make-up of the area in which they are placed geographically. Another interesting statistic is that Academies have a third of children who are on free school meals, and we have debated whether the possibility of fair banding is appropriate for Academies. The Academy at Peckham, for example, will always be full of very challenging children, because it is a densely populated area near to Peckham Rye and will always fill up with children who live in that area. There will never be children alongside them who come from educated, middle-class homes, and they will all come from challenging, poor homes. Ministers have debated whether that is desirable and, indeed, Lord Adonis encourages Academy sponsors to give serious consideration to fair banding and to larger catchment areas, which would mean a more comprehensive intake and less social segregation but would inevitably lead to the possibility that children who live at the bottom of the drive would not get in.

  Chairman: We are running out of time and have another section led by Lynda.

  Q50  Lynda Waltho: I would like to explore your role and particularly that of the local authority. It might be slightly difficult with a Minister on your right-hand side, but as a civil servant in the Department, do you believe that you operate sufficiently independently of the Department at the same time as enjoying the confidence of all relevant parties, or would you be able to do your job better if you were completely independent?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I have never felt remotely constrained. I am encouraged to give fearless and independent advice. I have not felt that that has been unwelcome. I have worked with a variety of Ministers since I went to work at the Department in 1999. I see huge advantages in being a senior civil servant and doing this role, but I can see where you would have concerns that that independence might not be there. I occasionally look at my opposite number—the Children's Commissioner—and wonder why I do not have that degree of independence. I do not feel the need for it.

  Q51  Lynda Waltho: We have heard some authorities express that view. They felt that you were not sufficiently independent; they felt that it was the Minister's voice effectively. So it is important that you have made that clear.  I would like to look at the strategic role of local authorities as well. Their role is far more one of procurement, looking at demand management, planning, implementation and support. I know that local pathfinders are exploring the practical implications. The adjudicators noted a problem, possibly with a lack of capacity in some local authorities. I have expressed a similar feeling about my own local authority in Dudley. Are there any findings yet that you can tell us about from the pathfinders on such commissioning, because those findings will determine their success and obviously yours to a certain extent?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: The local authority commissioning pathfinder is an example of where we are damned if we do and damned if we do not. We have decided to roll out this change of policy gradually. We started with 10 pathfinders just over a year ago, and we added another six just before Christmas. We are working with them in a bottom-up way to tease out the good practice of commissioning that they do— in particular, the intellectual understanding of what constitutes commissioning. A lot of people talk about the commissioning role, but I do not necessarily find that everyone understands its implications. It is a very radical change. You are right in saying that some local authorities are going to struggle to come up with the capacity to make this change. One of the things that always surprises me as I go about the country is that some local authorities seem to be well staffed and able to respond to the various challenges that they face, while others just do not seem to have enough people working there to do the work. There are a variety of reasons for this: sometimes, they have deliberately decided to be like that; sometimes, funding makes it like that; sometimes, elected members want them to be like that.You make a good point, which is that all the local authority pathfinders that are involved in the pathfinder project have got sufficient capacity to be able to take this agenda forward, and local authorities will have to find that additional capacity for it to happen. It is not that easy, and they will have to make this quite radical change, but we are not rushing them into this. We are not working with a clever young civil servant in a darkened room coming up with guidance and policy documentation; we are actually rolling out the good practice that exists.

  Chairman: Sir Bruce, I shall have to ask you to be a bit more brief, because we only have 10 minutes left in this session.

  Q52  Lynda Waltho: If I could move on slightly further to parental involvement, which is an area I am particularly interested in, research before 2006, I think, looked at the experience of parents in campaigns for new schools, whether for particular schools or not. There were major difficulties found in obtaining information. For instance, many had to make Freedom of Information requests, and there was a lack of understanding, experience, assistance and expertise. Has the Office of Commissioner improved this support and this service? If not, where are the gaps and what can we do about that?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: It is an area where my office will have to be proactive. I do not come across local authorities that do not want to satisfy or inform their parents, but I find fewer of them who talk to the parents while the children are in the system and fewer still who talk to the parents at the end, asking them what they thought of it and what changes they would want. I am in the process of commissioning the views of 12,000 parents about the provision of education, and I am also encouraging local authorities that do not attract significant numbers of their own children to their own schools to find out from the parents what they do not like about those schools. Local authorities do not always want to do that, but my office has a role in encouraging that activity. In order to be able report to Parliament about parents' voice, both on diversity and fair access, I believe that I am going to have to commission more activity than there has been before.

  Lynda Waltho: Thank you.

  Q53  Mr. Stuart: We have heard, Bruce, that you would prefer to be in charge of expression of preference, rather than choice, because too often there is no choice. To what extent is there choice across the system and how consistent is it?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: That was a light-hearted remark, and I think that we need to stick with choice. My job is to make sure that parents genuinely have a choice.

  Q54  Mr. Stuart: Just in my area, many parents feel that they do not get a choice. Even though it was a light-hearted remark, it exactly reflects the experience of so many parents in the constituency that I represent.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I think that the reality of the situation—as we touched on earlier—is that the best that people can hope for in most cases is the opportunity to express a preference between more than one good school and to get one of their preferences, rather than the extreme that I cited of the Haberdashers' Aske's Academy, which would need to expand to 30-odd thousand children. I do not think that we have done enough yet to explain to parents what we mean by choice, and I do not think that we make it easy enough for parents to be able to make a valid distinction between what is on offer.

  Q55  Mr. Stuart: That is a very good civil servant's answer—that we could explain to parents what we mean by choice. The truth is that there is no choice. How much choice is there in rural areas, for instance?

  Jim Knight: The frustration is that the vast majority—well over 80%—of parents do get a school of their preference. Ultimately, what we are all after is every parent having a choice of good education for their children. Part of that is about structures and delivering the diversity and choice that Bruce is responsible for. Part of it is also about lifting the standard of education in every school and, in particular, now, trying to move the focus on to coasting schools. I talked a little bit about that in my north of England speech last week in the south of Wales—in Cardiff. The sort of work that Sue Hackman is leading in the Department—as the chief adviser on school standards—around the progression pilots, testing when ready and driving forward that agenda, will bear down pretty sharply on coasting schools and will expose them more than at the moment. In the sorts of areas that you and I represent, I think that that can have quite a significant impact.

  Q56  Mr. Stuart: I am sure that everyone on the Committee would applaud that sentiment; it is just that so much of the language of Government—both Front Benches in fact—seems to be about choice, where there is no realistic way of delivering it. Is it not an urban model?

  Jim Knight: To some extent it might be, in that there is a reality around the more sparsely populated rural areas. In most rural areas, however, there is a degree of choice and, in most areas, the market towns are sufficiently close together—it is in the market towns where, by and large, secondary schools in particular would be. It is possible to exercise choice on that basis. But that is one of the reasons why I have been particularly keen to develop parents' voice, to be able to start to tackle coasting schools now that we have done so much to tackle those that really have been failing.

  Q57  Mr. Stuart: Are not the policies that have been laid out for us today incoherent? On the one hand, we have choice, and yet we know, and all the data show, that those who exercise choice most effectively are middle-class parents. At the same time, we are talking about dressing up diversity, which seems to have a double meaning, both as a variety of different types of supply, but also as a genuine social mix, so that we do not have social segregation. Choice and stopping segregation are mutually incompatible, are they not?

  Jim Knight: No, I disagree. That is like saying that you run a Stalinist command economy, or a totally free market. It is possible to have a managed system, which is why the local authority role is important.

  Q58  Mr. Stuart: Why is there a gap in performance? We are 10 and a bit years into a Labour Government, whose primary aim was to create a fairer system and to ensure that what the most advantaged benefited from was spread more widely. Yet the evidence seems to be that the gap between the poorest 10% and the richest 10% is widening. An incoherent policy position might explain why the aim of providing the best for those with the least, which will hopefully be shared, is not working.

  Chairman: Sir Bruce, is that right?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I do not recognise that.

  Chairman: It must be true, because it was commissioned by the Conservative party, and published in The Sun.

  Jim Knight: You have my permission to disagree.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: I do not recognise that. Obviously, we are not yet in a nirvana where 100% of schools are excellent. Arguably, even we get them all up to 30% five A* to C passes, including English and maths, that is not good enough.

  Q59  Mr. Stuart: Did not the Secretary of State recently say that we are failing vulnerable people and the poorest people?

  Sir Bruce Liddington: He did, and that is why my office exists and why we challenge local authorities to address low performance. If you take somewhere like Northampton, where I was a head teacher, when I left there were two popular, over-subscribed schools, both single-sex schools, one of which I was head of. Now, the lowest-performing school in the town has been replaced by an Academy. The children who live in the poorest part of Northampton now have the third best school in the town, and they go to it in large numbers. I am talking to the local authority about having more diverse arrangements in the town, so that more youngsters can go to good schools.

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