Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)


9 JUNE 2008

  Q60 Annette Brooke: Perhaps I can just refer you to the recommendation from Tom Clarke's commission.

  Yvette Cooper: I should like to draw your attention to a document that we published recently on further reforms to the tax credit system. In particular, there is a whole chapter on reforming delivery of child care support through tax credits, which is all about different options for simplifying the process and so on. Therefore, any views that the Committee had on that would obviously be welcomed. Jane Kennedy has been leading the work in the Treasury on that issue, but I know that Beverley has been involved in those discussions also.

  Beverley Hughes: I was going to mention the consultation that the Treasury has put out. The other thing to say is that of the £950 million that was announced in the Budget, £125 million was specifically for a range of different pilots, to try to deal with what many members of the Committee have been talking about today, which is how we get to the harder to reach. One of those pilots is testing different ways in which HMRC advisers can offer good quality advice within children's centres, to try to simplify people's applications. That is also a project for HMRC advisers themselves because we feel that directly engaging with parents in children's centres—sitting down with them, looking at the factors for particular families and the things that parents find complex—will inform our considerations of how best to simplify the process.

  Q61 Annette Brooke: I shall move on. Under the Childcare Act 2006, which we both know well, April 2008 was the date when local authorities had to show that they were offering a level of child care suitable to the local area's needs. I do not know whether there has been any evaluation of how much has been achieved, but if there has been I should like to ask about the provision of extended schools and holiday provision.

  Beverley Hughes: As you will remember, Annette, under the 2006 Act local authorities were given a duty to ensure that there was sufficient, and sufficiently flexible, child care for working parents and parents of disabled children. Actually, that duty started in April 2008 and, in the lead-up to that, local authorities were required to undertake their first assessment and to write that down, having looked in detail at the demand from parents—not just the demand in quantum, but the demand in terms of flexibility and affordability as well. Then they had to look at their supply and produce an assessment of how far, locally, there was a match between what parents wanted and needed and what was available and use that assessment to stimulate the local market in one way or another to better meet the needs of parents. The local authorities have just finished their sufficiency assessments. An organisation has independently been looking at the quality of those assessments, some of which are good and some of which are not so good. We will use that experience to give further guidance to local authorities about how to improve that process. In a sense, they are just in the starting blocks now, having undertaken those assessments, and will go on to use that information to inform what they do, in terms of the levers we have given them, to start ensuring that what parents want is provided. In many areas, it is not so much that there is not enough child care, but that it is not flexible enough. That is why we have pilots on the entitlement in respect of three and four-year-olds, for example, to see how mainstream reception classes, as well as private sector providers, can be much more flexible. That is the main lead now, together with the issue of affordability in some parts of the country.

  Q62 Annette Brooke: I do not know if it was the same research, but an article in The Times reported on Government-commissioned research by the National Centre for Social Research. I shall be careful, because I am not assuming that what I read in the article in The Times is true until the Chief Secretary says so. That article said:  "In terms of older children, only 17% of parents are using the much-vaunted after-school clubs. This figure has not changed since 2004, despite" all the hype about "the `extended school' initiative". Is that factual?

  Beverley Hughes: That was not our research.[9] I found that figure strange, to be honest, because, looking at the statistics, there has been an amazing growth in the number of holiday clubs, particularly, over the past few years. As I said earlier, about half the secondary schools and many primary schools are now offering extended activities, including child care. However, many parents are feeling a gap in respect of secondary-age children in the 11 to 14 age range. In terms of the extended school offer, primary schools have cemented child care as part of the range of things they are offering as extended activities. Secondary schools do that less so. Initially, that was so because parents, in their responses to school questionnaires, did not indicate that that was an issue in respect of secondary schools, but actually that is emerging. We are doing some work with schools in London to ensure that we provide what parents need in terms of child care in secondary school, including an assurance that, if their child attends an after-school club, there is a proper register and security and that it is not a loose arrangement just because children are a bit older. We are working to ensure that we can give proper guidance to secondary schools about how to ensure that those extra-curricular activities after school are organised in such a way that parents can be sure that their children are attending, are safe and are being cared for while they are at work.

  Chairman: I just remind everyone that we are getting to the stage where quicker questions and answers would be helpful. We have one important section after your section, Annette.

  Q63 Annette Brooke: I will ask the Minister quickly. We have not really spoken about rural poverty today. Obviously it is important. The provision of extended schools, with the problem of transport, is particularly difficult in rural areas. Are you giving any special attention to rural areas?

  Beverley Hughes: Yes.

  Chairman: That was very brief.

  Beverley Hughes: I will go into greater length if you wish me to.

  Q64 Annette Brooke: Actually, I would not mind a little more detail—I represent a rural area, with some of these problems. It is hearsay rather than evidence, but in deprived areas it has been said to me that, where a payment is charged by the school for extended schools—I know that some element of the child care tax element comes into this—very many of the extended schools are failing, or falling, simply because they are not sustainable, because of the low levels of income in that area. That starts a downward spiral, in terms of keeping it going. Is that so? I would like a little more than yes or no.

  Beverley Hughes: Two quick points. First, there are a number of schools—we are clear about this—that need a bit more help. We are trying to make sure that they get it, in terms of how they can manage their total budgets in ways that enable them to make the kind of cross-subsidies, if you like, that would help children from disadvantaged families to take part in extended activities. Some schools are doing that very well. Secondly, we did include in the Children's Plan a provision—I cannot remember how much it was—certainly to enable 50,000 children from disadvantaged backgrounds to take part in extended activities by directing those extra resources to schools in those areas, so that they would have extra funding and could provide extended activities for those children free of charge. So, we are doing both of those things—helping schools to use their budgets better, but also some direct funding, specifically for the purpose that you outlined, to enable disadvantaged children to take part in activities free.

  Q65 Annette Brooke: I have recently asked a parliamentary question about extended school provision. The answer was that the information was not collected centrally. Surely it is very difficult to monitor what is happening if there is not some collection of information.

  Beverley Hughes: It is not true to say that we have no information. We have the Training and Development Agency, which is, if you like, our field force, out there, working directly with local authorities and schools, making sure that when an authority tells us that a school is fully extended, for instance, that it is, and that the range of activities meets the core offer. It is working directly with schools to support them in delivering the extended activities. But it would be too onerous to ask schools to provide us with a whole range of statistics as to what they are providing and how many children are taking it up. We are trying to strike a balance. I certainly am very clear that I need to know enough that when I say to you that half of all secondary schools are offering the full extended offer that that is right. I can tell you that I am really prodding the system to make sure that I can do that through the TDA. But to go beyond that would be very difficult, in terms of asking schools to provide a large amount of numbers.

  Q66 Lynda Waltho: What work is the Treasury doing with the DCSF to improve both the quality of the child care work force and the conditions of that work force?

  Beverley Hughes: On quality, I think that we have got a pleasing, improving story to tell. Ofsted rated 96% of child care as good or outstanding in 2007, and 98% of early education provision as at least satisfactory. Both of those figures are going up. But you are quite right that the quality is crucial. To get the benefits, particularly for disadvantaged children, what happens day to day between the staff in the settings and the children is the critical factor. So, the training or up-skilling of the work force is crucial, as is the Early Years Foundation Stage, because that will give parents the assurance that in every single setting, there is a common framework that staff have to work to. The Children's Workforce Development Council is working with us to take forward progressive training for staff both in terms of the extent to which we can put graduates in settings—there has been a marked improvement there—and in moving people from Level 2 to a minimum standard of Level 3 over a period of time.

  Q67  Chairman: But do you agree, Yvette, that child care settings should be run by people who are well-paid and well-qualified?

  Yvette Cooper: Obviously, the quality of staff is critical. Our role is to provide the DCSF with a significant and substantial CSR settlement, as we did last year, and it has to ensure that the money is well spent and delivers the quality that our children need.

  Ed Balls: I think it was the next CSR round that was referred to, and we will be preparing the evidence well.

  Q68 Paul Holmes: On the issue that we discussed a few moments ago, it is a little alarming if one of the main planks is children's centres and after-school clubs. It seems, anecdotally at least, that they are struggling financially, because they are set up in the poorest areas where parents cannot afford to pay. About a year and a half ago, I visited a brilliant after-school club at a junior school on a very poor estate in Chesterfield, but it closed a year later because the charity that was running it could not keep it going any longer. I understand, anecdotally, that all the children's centres in Chesterfield, where we have many poor areas, are struggling wherever parents are needed to pay into them. The County Council will not talk to me about that; are you telling me that I cannot get an answer from you either?

  Beverley Hughes: The situation varies, but I do not accept the general premise that children's centres are struggling financially. There has been a massive injection of funding, which we have committed to sustaining because we care about it. We feel that the priority on early years—children under five—is absolutely paramount for the agenda that the Committee is discussing today. That is why we started it and why we will continue it. We are giving local authorities significant amounts of money that increasingly are not ring-fenced. Generally speaking—I have spoken to one or two MPs about this—there might be specific areas in which the level of disadvantage in communities, and the number of such communities, is such that they are experiencing some of those issues, but that is not general. We need both local authorities and, as I said earlier to Annette, schools themselves to be much better at using those pots of money. They need to bring them together and make sure that they can address the need across their areas, not in a one-size-fits-all way but by using their money flexibly. They want that flexibility and the Government are giving it to them; it is up to them to be creative in how they use it. It is up to them to address and target their resources, as far as they think appropriate, at the areas of greatest need.

  Q69 Paul Holmes: I will send your answer to Derbyshire County Council.

  Beverley Hughes: Okay.

  Chairman: David has been very patient. He has been in the debate on climate change, but he is one of the most regular attendees of this Committee, and he will have a brisk opportunity now.

  Q70 Mr Chaytor: I am sorry that I was not here at the start. May I go back to the issue of training, and ask Ed and James whether the Government are going to abolish the 16 hour rule?

  James Purnell: We are, as we announced previously, looking at the 16 hour rule and how it can be implemented flexibly. For example, we are looking at young people of 16 and 17, but we want to consider the issue more widely as well. We would not want to abolish it completely because we want jobseeker's allowance to be a regime that gets people back into work. We do not want a system in which people can perpetually be in training and continue to get JSA. Indeed, the evidence shows that one reason why there has been a good focus on work in the past 10 years is that it is often better to get people into work and then get them trained. However, that is not the whole story, which is exactly why we are bringing together the work that we do with the work of John Denham's Department to create a system in which when you sign up for welfare you sign up for skills at the same time. As you know, the Departments have made a number of announcements about how we are integrating those two services. We are going to give people a skills health check to make sure that we identify skills weaknesses and then, if that is a barrier to work, provide them with training. We are also saying—I know that you want to move on—that there is far more flexibility in terms of training and how people can take it up within JSA than they often realise. We need to explain that well.

  Q71 Mr Chaytor: A constituent came to my advice surgery last Friday. He is a parent who has just been made redundant and who is prepared to invest £4,000 of his savings into retraining into a higher-level skill, but because that would be slightly over 16 hours a week, the job centre will not enable him to do it on JSA. He therefore cannot claim his mortgage protection payment, which makes it financially not viable. May I write to you about that anomaly? I do not think that it was what the Government intended.

  James Purnell: No, exactly. That is why we are reviewing it. If there are clear outcomes such as improved job entry and retention that justify flexibility in the 16 hour rule, then that will be attractive. If, on the other hand, it becomes a way of avoiding JSA conditionality, it will not.

  Q72 Mr Chaytor: May I ask Ed about post-16 participation? Nearly all education indicators have improved significantly over the past 11 years, but the one that is pretty stubbornly static is participation post-16. Why do you think that is?

  Ed Balls: Post-16 participation has increased but, as you say, modestly. By international comparisons, we are still a long way down the league table for post-16 participation, at 17 and at 18. That is what our new legislation, which I think is going to the Lords tomorrow following the passage of its Commons stages, is intended to address—the Bill would raise the education leaving age to 18. It is partly about the focused nature of provision post-16. As you know, the expansion of the apprenticeship programme—it has been expanding in the past 10 years, but we want to accelerate its expansion further—is important, as are Diplomas, in ensuring that there are powerful ways in which young people can combine learning and on-the-job training. There are too many young people who have left school at 16 and gone into full-time work without any training at all because that was more financially attractive in the short term. It is partly about what has been offered post-16, but I would say that it is also about aspiration. We have done, I think, a really good job in the past 10 years of raising the aspirations of young people who might have wondered whether, at 18, they would stay in the education system and go to university or go into work. As you know, there has been a very significant rise in higher education participation after 18, but there is more to do to raise levels of aspiration to stay in education after 16 among today's 10 to 14-year-olds. I always feel—this is why our Department has an important role to play—that we engage too late. We talk to 15 and 16-year-olds and their parents about why it would be good to stay in education, but to really affect aspiration we need to be talking to parents and young people in primary school and the early years of secondary education. Too often, we talk to young people and their parents who have already decided that they are going to do it, or are on the cusp. Too many young people and their parents have decided that education will not be for them at a much, much earlier stage. Much earlier intervention is what we need to do.

  Q73 Mr Chaytor: Regardless of the level of aspiration or the opening up of opportunities post-16, something must go wrong between the ages of 11 and 14. It is not a sudden decision to leave school at 16, it is a gradual process throughout secondary school.

  Ed Balls: We know that there is a very clear link—this takes us back to the subject of the Committee's work—between poverty and educational outcomes. The evidence shows that those links often strengthen through a child's life rather than diminish. Children from families on low income are less likely to make progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4 than the average. The disadvantage that means that they will already be doing less well at Key Stage 2 accelerates in their early secondary years. That is why the focus on promoting excellence for all and trying to address the quality of teaching and aspiration is so important. To give you one fact, we will set out tomorrow the details of our national challenge programme to get the number of schools with below 30% getting GCSEs including English and maths, down from 638 today to zero by 2011. Of those 638 schools, 540 have above average free school meal uptake in the intake to the school. Half of all the schools with more than 50% of kids on free school meals are in national challenge areas. Those statistics cut both ways because they tell you not only that there is a concentration of lower income or poverty in schools which do less well but that half of schools with more than 50% of kids on free school meals exceed that basic minimum. Many schools with a lot of poverty and deprivation achieve high results as well. That takes us back to the point I was making about aspiration. We need to address poverty, low income and the barriers to learning outside school, but that should never be an excuse for poor performance and expectations. I still feel that is too often the case.

  Q74 Mr Chaytor: Will you be publishing the names and local authorities of all the 638 schools?

  Ed Balls: All 638 schools are in the public domain; that information has all been published clearly. Tomorrow, we will publish the number and percentage of schools in every local authority area. Of the 150 local authority areas, 134 have at least one national challenge school.

  Q75 Mr Chaytor: Earlier, you commented on the continuing widening of the divide between Key Stages 2 and 4 in terms of children from different social backgrounds. Is there any evidence in any area that that divide is beginning to narrow? Are there any positive signs that certain policies have reduced the gap?

  Ed Balls: Yes. If you look at GCSE results in the last four or five years, the results of children on free school meals have risen faster at GCSE level than the average, so the targeted intervention for boys and girls from low-income families in terms of catch-up has been working. Those children have been doing better than average, but it still does not take away from the fact that a child from that kind of family is at the moment much less likely to get five good GCSEs at 16 than the average child from the average family.

  Q76 Mr Chaytor: Would you accept that there is any truth or validity in the argument that although a highly standards-obsessed and assessment-driven system is good for children with supportive families, it might be part of the reason that children from less supportive families fall behind?

  Chairman: Can we have a brief answer to that one?

  Ed Balls: I obviously read your report in detail and I welcome your support for continuing to publish national test results. That was very positive. We obviously want to make the process as stress free as possible and, as I said, make sure that we tackle all the barriers to learning from outside the school. Earlier, we talked about it becoming harder as you make progress to address special educational needs and the barriers to learning outside the home. Tackling that is what our Department is about, and is the key to the next stage in terms of raising the level of test results. I come back to the simple point that it is much harder to have a culture of excuses about low performance linked to poverty or the area where the school is if you are publishing those results and holding governing bodies and local authorities to account for performance. I personally think that for too many decades we, as a society, assumed that people who live in a certain place and are from a certain kind of family just did not do well. We can now demonstrate clearly that although some schools are still underperforming, some schools with the same kind of catchment in the same kind of area have achieved dramatic improvements in results. They are posting results way above the average. It is the publication of that information that allows us to demonstrate that there is not necessarily a link between poverty and performance. It is the tracking of individual progress that gives teachers the power to make sure that every child can stay on track and to see early when a child is falling behind and give them extra support.

  Chairman: I am sure we can carry on with that next month when you are here on your own.

  Q77 Fiona Mactaggart: Is the gap between the achievement of children on the lowest incomes and the achievement of children on medium incomes growing or shrinking?

  Ed Balls: The answer to that is that the gap has stabilised during the past 10 years, having grown for decades. There is tentative evidence that we are starting to close that gap. The fact that GCSE results have risen faster than average for free-school-meal pupils suggests that we are starting to close the gap, but to me it is still a more powerful reality than the closing of the gap, which is why we must continue to do more. The national challenge programme is powerful because it puts a large amount of money on the table to empower governing bodies and local authorities to address disadvantage and poor performance, but it also makes it clear to local authorities, areas or governing bodies that come up with excuses that we will not tolerate them any longer.

  Q78 Fiona Mactaggart: How will you stop them meeting the national targets by coaching children across boundaries, which too many of them do?

  Ed Balls: As in?

  Fiona Mactaggart: One of the points that we raised in our Testing and Assessment report is that there is a bit of a culture of coaching children who are close to a boundary across that boundary so that they can—

  Ed Balls: I thought that you meant bussing them from one area to another.

  Fiona Mactaggart: No. I am talking about teaching to the test.

  Ed Balls: The way to do that and one of our big success stories is our progress not simply in terms of average results at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4, but the floor target.[10] One of the advantages of testing is that it allows you to track the progress of every child, not simply the average. We must demand that schools focus on the progress of every child and measure that progress rather than simply looking at the average. We do not think that schools would be delivering if they were simply coaching to the average and just around the borderline.

  Q79 Fiona Mactaggart: I have one more gap issue, which is about the social and emotional aspects of learning. We now have information about that, which we did not have before, which is great, but it is another area where the gap seems to be pretty sustained and not necessarily moving. What does that tell you?

  Ed Balls: I am not sure that I understand what you mean by the gap.

9   Note by witness: Whilst the research was not carried out by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), this article was referring to research commissioned by the DCSF. Back

10   Note by witness: In response to Question 78 about coaching children across boundaries, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families highlighted the substantial successes on average results and floor targets. He also meant to highlight the introduction of the new progression targets. Back

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