Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-62)


16 JANUARY 2008

  Q60  Mr. Stuart: But vast amounts of money have been spent, yet the data seem to suggest not only that we are tumbling down the international league tables, but that we are letting down those who are poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in our society, when the fundamental aim of policy was to address that. What has gone wrong?

  Jim Knight: I do not think it has gone wrong, and one must be cautious about believing too much of the spin that comes from Tory central office.

  Mr. Stuart: It was the Secretary of State.

  Chairman: Hang on a minute; this is a Select Committee.

  Jim Knight: What the evidence shows is that, 10 years ago, more than half of schools in England could not get more than 30% of pupils to achieve five A* to C passes, including English and maths. We have now got that down to 21%, but there is still further to go and we are on track to achieve what the Prime Minister set out for us: by 2012, to ensure that none of those schools exist.When you look at individual data on pupils, you can see a similar improvement in performance, but the hope and assumption 10 years ago would have been that, if we improve the performance of the school system and take out failing schools, that would narrow and eliminate the gap between those from the poorest backgrounds and those from more advantaged backgrounds. What has been perplexing and disappointing is that, while the gap between schools in more advantaged areas and those in more disadvantaged areas has narrowed, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils has not narrowed to the same extent. That is why we now need more personalised learning, and the progression work that we are doing. There is a whole raft of policy to try to tackle that, so that we narrow the gap more individually within schools, as well as between schools.

  Q61  Chairman: Minister, research that I certainly respect is the work by Professor Tymms and people like him. They indicate that performance depends on intake. That is the truth of the matter, and Sir Bruce touched on that when he talked about a school—was it in Peckham?—where there may not be the ability to have a balance. Heads gave evidence to the previous Education and Skills Committee that, if you do not get a balanced intake, you will always be in trouble as a school. Surely, fair banding must be the answer.  The emphasis in policy of shipping people around different schools, running them around and giving them free transport takes away from a balanced intake. All the time that you are giving to those people able to travel, move and be clever about their admissions positioning, that will always leave the schools somewhere in the centre of my and other hon. Members constituencies with an intake for which it is very difficult to raise the expectations and the levels. Is that not true?

  Jim Knight: Intake is significant, and fair banding is a clear option within the admissions code, because it is something that we think can work well; but it is not the be-all and end-all. The biggest single determinant of success for a school is the teaching and the leadership from the head teacher of that teaching and learning.

  Q62  Chairman: But Sir Bruce just said that if he had 100% kids from one background, with very few aspirational parents and very little backing from their homes, you are never going to do it. Surely that is right?

  Jim Knight: You have got a much tougher job, but I, and I am sure the Committee, have visited schools in very difficult circumstances in low aspiration communities that are doing a fantastic job and outperforming others of similar levels of resources and intakes. One of the achievements of London Challenge was being able to marry up and show schools with a similar intake, in similar circumstances, with similar resources, that the results can be very different. That is down to the inputs of teaching and learning.

  Chairman: Well, I am sorry Minister; I have valued all your answers today, but I have one reservation. The Select Committee went to a secondary modern school in Maidstone that was 100% free school and more than 65% SEN. I really think that that is a challenge, and those sort of schools need help. You will only get it through some kind of fair banding. That is not a question; I do not need an answer. This has been a good session, and it has overrun. Thank you very much for your assistance. We will be seeing you soon, Minister. Sir Bruce, we will be in touch with you as soon as your report comes out.

  Jim Knight: Thank you.

  Sir Bruce Liddington: Thank you.

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