Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)
MP AND SIR
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
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
Q44 Stephen Williams: My recollection
of the 2006 Act was that there would be two choice advisers per
local authority. Is that correctis that what was in the
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
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
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 Planthe document with the rainbow
on the cover that got the Secretary of State into some difficulty
last weekaspires 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
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
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 Liverpool55%
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
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
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 numberthe Children's Commissionerand
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
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
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 situationas we touched on earlieris
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 answerthat 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 majoritywell 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 Walesin Cardiff. The sort
of work that Sue Hackman is leading in the Departmentas
the chief adviser on school standardsaround 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 Governmentboth Front Benches
in factseems 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 togetherit 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
Chairman: It must be true, because it
was commissioned by the Conservative party, and published in The
Jim Knight: You have my permission
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.