UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 243-i

House of COMMONS

MINUTES OF EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Children, Schools and Families Committee

 

 

Schools Commissioner and Schools Adjudicator

 

 

Wednesday 16 January 2008

JIM KNIGHT and SIR BRUCE LIDDINGTON

DR PHILIP HUNTER

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 122

 

 

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Children, Schools and Families Committee

on Wednesday 16 January 2008

Members present:

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Chairman)

Adam Afriyie

Annette Brooke

Ms Dawn Butler

Mr. Douglas Carswell

Mr. David Chaytor

Mr. John Heppell

Fiona Mactaggart

Mr. Andy Slaughter

Mr. Graham Stuart

Lynda Waltho

Stephen Williams

 

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Jim Knight MP, Minister of State for Schools and Learners, Department for Children, Schools and Families, and Sir Bruce Liddington, Schools Commissioner, Office of the Schools Commissioner, gave evidence.

 

Q1 Chairman: I welcome the Minister for Schools and Children, 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-he 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, 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.

Q20 Mr. Chaytor: Is there not a further category of independent schools which may wish to re-enter the state system?

Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes. That is a separate piece of policy; the Government welcomes independent schools that want to enter the maintained sector. So independent schools are sponsoring academies, such as Wellington school, which is sponsoring an academy in Wiltshire. Winchester is about to come in with an academy project in Hampshire. But there are a small number of independent schools-Belvedere in Liverpool, William Hulme's in Manchester, Bristol Cathedral and Colston's Girls in Bristol-that are coming into the system as academies. Belvedere is a very high-performing school, and William Hulme's and Colston's Girls are above average performance schools.

Q21 Mr. Chaytor: So the academy concept is now far more flexible and variable than it was just two years ago?

Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes.

Chairman: Graham, did you want to come in on the same point?

Q22 Mr. Stuart: Yes. Going back to the evidence that you just gave, Minister, on the Charity Commission, I wonder whether the evidence that you have given is compatible with what the Secretary of State told us last week, when he said that he wanted to get rid of a two-tier education system. You seem to be welcoming additional places in the independent sector if they are provided by that sector and not by state funding.

Jim Knight: As I think I said to David, as far as I am concerned, the best outcome is that charitable status is demonstrated by access to facilities and expertise for a large group of people. The more we can blend and blur the edges between the independent and maintained sectors, the better we will achieve what the Secretary of State is setting out about moving away from two-tier systems within education. Various examples of those have been around in the past. We should try to get something that is consistent with equal opportunities for every child in this country.

Chairman: Graham, I will call you again later.

Q23 Mr. Heppell: One of your duties is to promote academies, specialist schools and so on, but at the same time, you say that you are trying not to be prescriptive. How have you helped local authorities that have rejected the idea of academies out of hand? Are there examples of where you have steered such authorities through? I hear what you are saying about being pragmatic. I have some experience of councillors who may be pragmatic and who may not be pragmatic and will dig their heels in. I am sure that there must be areas where people have said that they will not have academies. How do you help those areas with the Building Schools for the Future programme?

Sir Bruce Liddington: The critical point on which I engage them is what their alternatives are for their underperforming schools. The one thing that is not acceptable to the Government is to have underperforming schools that nobody is doing anything about. The role of local authorities in challenging underperformance was strengthened in the 2006 legislation. Local authorities can now issue warning notices as soon as they have concerns about a school. They do not have to wait until it goes into Ofsted special measures. They can remove the governing body of a school and put an interim executive board in its place. That removes what local authorities have said to me over the past seven years, which is that quite often, when there is a low-performing school, it is the governing body that is the problem for the local authority because it is in denial.

The Prime Minister has made it much easier for me and my office by indicating how to deal with the 639 schools that are below 30%. I do not have the exact figure including the 30th percentage point, but I expect that it would be about 670. The Prime Minister has unequivocally said that those schools cannot remain-in five years' time, they must not exist. The major problem will be if those schools do not exist, but there are another 670 that have slipped below the floor target. Let us hope that we can avoid that. We will avoid that.

In my conversations with local authorities, I do not say that they must have academies or they will not get their Building Schools for the Future money. I do not say that and never have. What they must do is come up with a plan that will address the low performance of those schools. I do not care whether it is an academy, a trust, a federation or whatever, but it needs to be successful. The academy policy is a tried and tested way of dealing with the lowest-performing schools. Therefore, if a local authority that has one or more low-performing schools does not want to have an academy, I challenge it to come up with a solution that will work just as well as an academy solution, if not better. Local authorities have the opportunity to do that.

Q24 Mr. Heppell: It seems to me that there is a bit of a contradiction in saying that local authorities should be seen as leaders in their community, they should shape the direction of schools and they should pick what are the local circumstances. I hear what you are saying, but I have a suspicion that you are almost making people an offer they cannot refuse. You are saying that you want to see their options, but if they do not come within your narrow remit, they are unlikely to be successful.

Councillors have said to me that they are going along with Building Schools for the Future, they are getting a good deal on it, but are not happy with the way that they have to do it. That is not my personal view, because mine is the complete opposite view. However, some local authorities are saying that they do not want academies or the changes, but know that they have to have them to get the money. I am quite happy with the idea that there is a strong direction centrally, but you seem to be saying that there is not.

Sir Bruce Liddington: The situation that you are describing perhaps applied five years ago. Now, particularly with the changes that have come into sway since Ed Balls became Secretary of State, local universities can be academy sponsors, as can good local schools, good further education colleges and good, known independent schools. Let me give an example. In somewhere like Bolton, where they did not want to have any academies at all five years ago, they are now going to have four academies, which they welcome. One of them will be sponsored by Bolton school, the good independent school. These changes that have been introduced by the Secretary of State mean that having an academy is less a step into the unknown than it was five years ago, when you had a rich man with 2 million who was coming along on a metaphorical charger. Now the local authority-which can itself co-sponsor the academies-can come up, as Manchester and Birmingham have, with its own sponsors. It remains involved in the academy project. It is less a step into the unknown, and more an opportunity to seize the chance for the robust and necessary step towards independence. Frankly, the image I occasionally have is of the witchfinder general going round leaning on local authorities to do things they do not want to do.

Chairman: He is not the chief inspector any more.

Sir Bruce Liddington: No. I see my role as helping local authorities to understand the range of options they have. In particular, shooting down some of the urban myths about academies, but above all being persuasive so that local authorities can see that they have to face up to the challenges and that we will not let them just stay as they are.

Mr. Heppell: I still do not see you as Mary Poppins.

Sir Bruce Liddington: That show is closing.

Chairman: I am conscious that this is the biggest the Committee has ever been. There is a fantastic attendance. There are even more people here than there were for the Secretary of State last Wednesday, and everybody wants a bite. John, have you finished?

Mr. Heppell: I have finished.

Chairman: Andy, you wanted to come in very briefly on one point?

Q25 Mr. Slaughter: I will be as brief as I can. You paint a good picture of the function of academies in raising standards, and I am sure you would say the same about BSF. You now have the imprimatur of The Sunday Telegraph, which says that BSF is being used for social engineering and destroying grammar schools. I do not know whether you think that is a badge of pride or not. Realities on the ground can be different, as we know. If you have a local authority which is seeking to use the academy programme or BSF money to do the opposite-to set up schools which will increase social division and will be selective by fair means or foul- what powers do you have to address that issue nationally?

Jim Knight: We have to agree on the strategic vision. At some stage it goes back to the sort of question that John asked, about whether this is genuinely locally determined or only locally determined as long as they do what we say. We do need to agree the strategic vision with the authority, and we have a very clear position which has near unanimity among Front-Bench Members that there should be no new selection. We certainly would not want to see opportunity restricted for some by systems being put in place in areas that would do that.

Q26 Mr. Slaughter: What can you do if that is being done, either by the front door-by some selective process-or by the back door? We all know that selection and admissions can be done in quite subtle ways.

Sir Bruce Liddington: May I answer that?

Chairman: Briefly.

Sir Bruce Liddington: The admissions code does not allow schools to fiddle around with their admissions. I was head of a very oversubscribed, grant-maintained school: a school that was its own admissions authority. I know what schools do. The code now has statutory weight, so that if schools are not sticking to it they are breaking the law, and that has concentrated the minds of a lot of schools, particularly schools that are their own admissions authorities. Under the 2006 legislation, admissions authorities have a duty to monitor the admissions system and challenge any examples they see of admissions not being done correctly. I remind local authorities and admissions authorities of that very regularly. It is not in anyone's interest for some schools to do less than adhere to the code, and my office would monitor any Building Schools for the Future plans that looked as if they were leading to segregation and selection.

An interesting statistic is that, whereas the national average of free-school-meals children in all schools is about one in seven, the number in Church of England and Roman Catholic voluntary-aided schools is very little lower than that, about one in 10. The key difference is in selective schools, where the incidence is about one in 50, or in some selective schools, one in 100. It is little known, but the voluntary-aided schools, Church of England schools, Roman Catholic schools are a good deal closer to the national statistic than people would think.

Q27 Annette Brooke: How do you promote diversity and choice in those areas that still have grammar schools?

Sir Bruce Liddington: Local authorities that have grammar schools have four fifths more schools for the remainder of their children to go to. There is nothing to stop a grammar school becoming more diverse and in places like Kent and Buckinghamshire, where I live, the grammar schools have shaped their brand to make sure that they look different from each other because they no longer feel, rightly or wrongly, that they will necessarily be the school of first choice. With the remainder of the schools in the local authority, I have the same conversation as I do in non-selective local authorities, encouraging them to have more academies, more trusts and more federations, to amalgamate good and weak schools, close schools which are not viable and have more specialist schools in a strategic way.

Q28 Annette Brooke: Is that just a second-best solution for those families and pupils who cannot aspire to the grammar school?

Sir Bruce Liddington: It is not the policy of this Government to close grammar schools.

Q29 Annette Brooke: Right. I just wonder whether there is even more that should be done in those areas that have grammar schools. Because you have the downside of the secondary moderns, do they not need even more help?

Sir Bruce Liddington: Let me give an example. I mentioned the pilot that Lord Adonis announced yesterday. Two of the schools in the pilot, and I hope a third school to be brokered within the next few days, are Kent grammar schools which have each undertaken to take on responsibility for a Kent secondary modern school with a view to making that school into an academy. A grammar school cannot become an academy, it is not in the legislation because academies have to take children of all abilities, but the intention is that there will be, for example, collaborative post-16 provision so that the youngsters who go to the secondary modern now and typically leave school at 16 will have the opportunity of the high-quality grammar school post-16 provision. The good quality education that exists in the best grammar schools-not all of them are the highest achieving or have the highest contextual value-added either, but the two in the pilot do-will be shared with the other school in the federation. That is a construct that Lord Adonis is very keen for us to roll out across the country with more grammar schools.

Q30 Annette Brooke: Thank you. Could I just ask about local authorities as co-sponsors of academies? When I first heard about this, it surprised me because it seemed to be against what I thought academies were there to do for the Government, which is to get independence from those nasty local authorities. Is this just local authorities deciding, at least we will get some power this way? What is the real gain of having local authorities in terms of the Government's vision for academies?

Jim Knight: Let me start and Bruce will finish. I think the gain is that as local authorities develop their commissioning function and expertise, local authorities can see the value of academies. They see their independence, their flexibility and innovation and the strength of governance that comes from the main sponsor. Those are all things that they want to see in their areas as part of turning around the schools that they have been struggling with. They also see that, as a commissioner, they can be part of guiding how that academy is set up and run. They are a minority stakeholder on the governing body and, in terms of recruiting the sponsor, they can be involved as a co-sponsor. That is good commissioning as far as I am concerned.

Sir Bruce Liddington: I would want to make the distinction between the situation as it applied when the policy started, and as it applies now. Back in 2000, there were a depressing number of local authorities that needed intervention because the standards of education provision were so low. At that time, the Government did not encourage sponsors of early academies to work closely with local authorities. That situation has changed over the years as more and more local authorities have come out of intervention and started to provide good quality service for the children in the schools there and as the Government have given local authorities a clearer, sharper role on challenging low performance.

The Secretary of State's view is that it would be perverse if an academy sponsor now took an academy forward in isolation from the local authority's provision of education in that area. In places like Sunderland, Manchester and Birmingham, we have been more than happy for the local authority to find or help find its own sponsors and to have two members of the governing body, rather than one, which is the norm for local authority representation on an academy governing body.

That said, we still expect there to be a lead sponsor as the focus of the development. You should not ignore the degree of independence that an academy has from the local authority. It is funded by the Department, it can opt out of the national pay and conditions of service, and we still expect the lead sponsor to have the majority of governors on the governing body. So the role of the local authority is enhanced, but it certainly is in no way a takeover or something that simply preserves the status quo. In my view, there would not be very much point in that.

Q31 Annette Brooke: Finally, is that two-way traffic then-those academies which are perhaps totally independent from the local authority at the moment are being brought more clearly within the strategic framework of the local authority?

Sir Bruce Liddington: I would have to answer that question in two stages. Statutorily, the funding agreements of the early academies can be varied only by consent or by a long notice period. Ministers have not been enthusiastic to impose changes on those agreements, which tie academies into a lot of the legislation for maintained schools. We are changing the funding agreements of new academies. For example, the Secretary of State has decided that, from July, new academies will all do the national curriculum.

Jim Knight: In core subjects.

Sir Bruce Liddington: Yes, in core subjects. We cannot impose that on the early academies without a lengthy process which, as I say, Ministers have not been enthusiastic to go into. But I think that the second part of my answer would be to say that even those early academies have recognised the fact that isolationism is no longer regarded as being acceptable in the educational world at present.

I look back to the time in 1993, when, as head of a grant-maintained school, I was summoned to a meeting in Birmingham by John Major and John Patten. We were told that we should do whatever we wanted to in our own schools: select if we wanted to, interview if we wanted, and take no notice of anybody else's agendas. If you got a group of education professionals and leaders together today and said that, you would be booed out of the room because people now recognise that collaboration is actually better for the children in the school.

You cannot do the 14-19 vocational offer, for example, as an isolated school. You have to work with others. Increasingly, those early academies are coming back into the local fold. I know of one where the principal of the academy chairs the local authority heads group. I know of another, south of the river from here, where the academy has willingly signed up to the protocol that the other local authority schools have got, to place hard-to-place children. Increasingly, even the early academies are coming back into the fold.

Chairman: Sir Bruce, we have to move on. I would like Adam to lead on fair access.

Q32 Adam Afriyie: Thank you. We have some wonderful words in politics, and one of them is "fair". The questions that always spring to mind are, "Fair to whom?" and, "Fair on what criteria?". Initially, my question to the Minister is, what is your definition of "fair access"? In an ideal world, fair access is operating perfectly, as you envisage it-what is the outcome? What do we see?

Jim Knight: That every child, regardless of background, has an equal chance-does not have obstacles put in their way-of being able to access schools. That obviously has to be within reason as, for example, there might be issues like distance that make it difficult for them to get getting home every night. Having a uniform can be prohibitively expensive, so people from poor backgrounds cannot access that school. Things like parental interviews are selection by the back door in terms of income. That is the sort of thing that we have sought to get rid of through the new admissions code, which every admissions authority must act "in accordance with", as opposed to having "due regard to", as it was previously.

Q33 Adam Afriyie: I wonder whether I could ask the same question of Sir Bruce-what would be your definition of "fair access"?

Sir Bruce Liddington: I have always said that giving parents a choice between a good school and one or two indifferent or poor schools is no choice at all. My job description says that I am the national champion for choice and diversity. What that means to me is that there have got to be more good places in good schools in the right places.

An eloquent example of that is in Carlisle, where there are falling rolls to the extent that, quite unusually, there are empty places in good schools. There will be two academies, each of which will be the amalgamation of two schools. I visited two of those schools that are going to become one academy. One is a good school and the other, which serves a white, working-class estate, is in special measures. I said to the head of the school in special measures, "Why does anyone come to this school?" It has only 250 on roll and there were more than that number of spare places in the good school, in the centre of Carlisle, about three miles away. He said to me, "Eight pounds a week." That is what it would cost the youngsters from that white, working-class estate to get on a bus and go to the good school in the town centre, because under the old legislation, if there were places nearby, the local authority did not have to provide free transport. Now local authorities have a duty to address issues like that. Now that issue will be addressed, because the school on the white, working-class estate will close. For me, fairness is giving every child the opportunity to get a good place in a good school in the right place.

Q34 Adam Afriyie: But that is with caveats, in terms of geography. If there is not a school above the national average within, say, 10 square miles of where someone lives, then surely there is some form of restriction on equal or fair access for each child. I am just checking whether it is recognised that there are constraints?

Sir Bruce Liddington: It is. I said to my line manager last year, when the results were published, that I would rather become the national champion for expression of preference rather than choice, because it is not possible to give everyone a free choice. As you know, there is a Government policy to expand good and popular schools, which is one of the things that I go around encouraging local authorities and schools to do However, there is an academy in south London that is the most oversubscribed school in the country. It would have to expand to have 35,000 children on roll, if it was to give everyone their first choice. That is not possible.

Jim Knight: I represent a constituency where one town of over 10,000 population has no post-13 education at all. Everyone has to get on a bus to access their education beyond key stage 4. The other option is to get on a ferry, which does not run for one month of the year, and go across the water. That is a reality. That is one of the reasons why, in the Children's Plan and elsewhere, we have talked about trying to improve parental and pupil voice-[Interruption.] The policeman warned us about mobile phones.

Chairman: A 50 fine for charity.

Jim Knight: We are ensuring that in areas where choice does not operate very effectively, we are still driving forward improvement.

Q35 Adam Afriyie: I was just doing a reality check. There is an understanding and acceptance that you are never going to have equality on all variables for all children in the entire country.

Chairman: Okay, do you have a question?

Adam Afriyie: The question is about the choice advisers that we now have, the transport for children on free school meals and the admissions forums. Does the Minister think that those are sufficient measures to support your definition of fair access, or is something missing?

Jim Knight: No, the only thing that might be missing at the moment is proper understanding and rigorous enforcement of the new statutory obligations. In order to address that, I will be writing this week to all the local authorities in England to remind them of their duties under the Act. That will inform them of some of the concerns that have been raised with me, anecdotally, about the lack of understanding and rigorous enforcement of the code. We are serious about this. Tomorrow also sees the new admissions appeals code coming into effect. I think that the basic framework is right and I do not think that we need to add to it. We will keep these things under review because we are very serious about these matters.

Q36 Adam Afriyie: Sir Bruce, with your responsibilities, do you think that anything is missing from the code of admissions and the other three measures? Would anything else assist in achieving the objective?

Sir Bruce Liddington: I support everything that the Minister has said. The additional dimension that perhaps I bring is an insistence that local authorities and other admissions authorities monitor the effectiveness of the admissions process and are prepared to challenge it where it is not being done properly. For example, in one London borough, the director of children's services indicated that because of the large number of voluntary aided schools and academies in the borough, he was no longer able to fulfil his statutory duty with hard-to-place children. We put together the protocol that I mentioned earlier, which was agreed to by not only all the remaining community schools, but all the academies, voluntary aided schools and the city technology college-which does not have to fit into it. The local authority had never approached the oversubscribed voluntary aided schools with a view to them taking their share of hard-to-place pupils.

That is something that I talk to local authorities about because I believe that hard-to-place pupils should be spread around the system rather than be put into just the lower-performing and empty schools.

Q37 Adam Afriyie: I think that you have brought us to the next set of questions, which is on monitoring. I will ask the first question on those lines. The admissions forums have the power to produce a report on social segregation and several other issues on an annual, bi-annual, quarterly or monthly basis, but they do not have a duty to produce that report. Do you think that they ought to have the duty to report, at least annually, on the effectiveness of their activities in a particular area?

Sir Bruce Liddington: I think that it would be premature to say that we need to change the legislation to introduce that duty until we see what their reaction is. I anticipate that they will want to report on those issues and my office will be encouraging them to do so.

Q38 Chairman: How often?

Sir Bruce Liddington: Probably in line with the fair access report that I have to make to Parliament every two years.

Q39 Chairman: Minister, do you concur with that?

Jim Knight: Yes, I would want Bruce to strongly encourage admissions authorities to produce a report. They will probably want to produce it annually, but my hope is that they will at least produce a report to coincide with the cycle that Bruce has mentioned.

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 understanding 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.

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 Timms 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.

 

Examination of Witness

Witness: Dr. Philip Hunter CBE, Chief Adjudicator, Office of the Schools Adjudicator, gave evidence.

 

Q63 Chairman: Dr. Hunter, we are very pleased to see you again. We were helped very much by the evidence that you originally gave to the previous Committee in order to write what some people said was a very good report, which did influence the legislation, as I think you will remember, on the code and much else. It was a pretty good partnership in those days.

I will not ask many questions, as I want to share them around in this shortish session. I was not quite sure, reading all the material, how soon the rules were brought in. I have all the appeals and those that you have looked at, but are the assessments effective now? Were you basing this on the new criteria from last September?

Dr. Hunter: My report covers a bit of the year in which the old code applied and a bit of the year in which the new code applies. As far as the new code is concerned, I feel clearly that it is very good and clear, and schools understand it. I think that they think that it is fair. I am sure, having heard what the Minister has had to say today, that in a year's time, you will be able to say that a vast majority of schools are compliant with it. That is a very good basis for moving forward. Of course, in a way it is only the start, because, as we have heard, you can have an area in which all the schools are compliant with the code and yet there is still an unacceptable degree of segregation. Then you need something else.

There are two questions. First, what is an unacceptable degree of segregation? Someone must decide that. You will never get a position in which all schools have exactly the same proportion of free school meals or the same proportion of ethnic minorities. So someone must make a decision about what is an unacceptable degree of segregation, and then decide what to do about it if there is an unacceptable degree. That is extremely difficult, because you will always end up with a situation in which you are saying to a bunch of parents, "Yes, I know you are rich, articulate, well connected and have spent 20,000 more than you otherwise would on house on this area in order to get your child into the local school-I know that-but we are asking a proportion of you to send your children to a less attractive school down the road". That is the sort of decision that loses local councillors their seats and sometimes loses MPs their seats, so it is a very difficult thing to ask, but that is what you have got to do.

Q64 Chairman: When you originally came before the Committee you said two things: you wanted a mandatory code-a tougher and mandatory code-and you wanted the ability to be called in more often. Are you now happy that that is now the situation?

Dr. Hunter: Having heard today what the Minister is going to do-with letters to local authorities and the rest of it-I am happy that that is going to happen.

Q65 Fiona Mactaggart: I wonder whether the way that your office operates is actually conducive to getting better education, in that you have to have a situation of conflict to intervene-you have to have a complaint.

Dr. Hunter: Sure.

Q66 Fiona Mactaggart: So that sets up parents in a situation of anxiety with the admissions authority or whatever. I accept that it is not always parents. It sets up a conflict in the first place, and you resolve that conflict.

Dr. Hunter: That is right, but we are not going round the country stirring up conflicts.

Fiona Mactaggart: I am not suggesting that you are.

Dr. Hunter: We are there to resolve disputes. We are not there as regulators or inspectors-that is the job of the Minister and of Bruce Liddington. It seems to me from what we have heard that they are addressing that pretty rigorously. We resolve disputes within the terms of the code of practice and the regulations in force at any one time.

Q67 Fiona Mactaggart: Exactly, and yet research by the IPPR and others shows that the biggest contribution to the relative success-the most significant factor in explaining the relative success of different children-is parental involvement. I am concerned that you do not have any mechanism whereby you can intervene before that conflict is established between a school and parents.

Dr. Hunter: That is the job of local authorities and Government.

Q68 Fiona Mactaggart: Is it your view that they do it well?

Dr. Hunter: It is my view, having heard what I have heard from the Minister today, that they are addressing it vigorously.

Q69 Fiona Mactaggart: That is not the same as thinking that local authorities are doing it well.

Dr. Hunter: As I said, local authorities have got difficult jobs to do; being a director of education myself, I understand that. I think that, sometimes, we expect too much of them. I have just said that, where you have got unacceptable degrees of segregation, which does happen from time to time, it is exceedingly difficult, as the people of Brighton found out last year, to get that resolved in a way that does not lose local councillors their seats, their jobs and sometimes MPs' jobs. These are highly political decisions-highly political sets of circumstances that you are putting people into.

Q70 Fiona Mactaggart: I represent a constituency with the largest proportion, I think, probably in the country, of unhappy parents. That is a product, to some degree, of an 11-plus system. One primary school in my constituency said that the adjudicator had been able to address its governors and some other governors about their role and about being an admissions authority. It seems to me that governors are amateurs. Is there not a role that you can play in enabling governing bodies, where they are admissions authorities, and others to do their job better before they get into this situation of conflict with parents, which is occurring so often?

Dr. Hunter: Our role is to resolve disputes, and we only get involved once the dispute has been declared. That having happened, of course, there are many occasions on which we can mediate between the two parties. From time to time, we get to a position at which the decision we take-the determination we make-is one that both parties are happy with. That is something that tribunals across the country do from time to time, including us.

Q71 Fiona Mactaggart: One other point about this is the fact that you take on average about six weeks, as I understand it, to decide in an individual case. At that point, a child is normally likely-if an individual child is involved-to have settled in school, and the consequences of your decision are that it is often not the appropriate thing to do for the child to change their circumstances.

Dr. Hunter: We get involved mostly in admissions cases well before the start of the school year, so that, in most cases, six weeks is in good time for that. There are some cases-directions cases, for example-where the child is out of school and we try to do that as quickly as possible. I would say that all the jobs that we do used to be done by the Department. I used to be a civil servant in the Department and know that cases could sometimes take two years to resolve, when the job was done by civil servants and Ministers. At least we only take six weeks.

Q72 Fiona Mactaggart: I have never found it a compelling argument that a bad system is better than an appalling system.

Dr. Hunter: I am not saying that ours is a bad system; I am saying that it only takes six weeks.

Q73 Chairman: It was suggested that six weeks does work generally. Six weeks is what you aim to be the maximum. Is that right?

Dr. Hunter: Yes.

Q74 Fiona Mactaggart: But six weeks of a seven-year-old's life is a very, very long time.

Dr. Hunter: As I say, the vast majority of cases-98%-are to do with situations well before the beginning of the school year. People are not out of school while that is happening.

Q75 Fiona Mactaggart: One of the things we have been talking about up until now is the fact that certain kinds of parents are more likely than others to be adept at making complaints and at triggering the process that engages you. Is it your view that a system that largely depends on parental complaint-I know your engagement can be triggered by school complaint and so on-is a satisfactory system for monitoring how the schools admission code works in practice?

Dr. Hunter: Up to now, until the 2006 Act, all of the complaints that came to us-apart from a very small number to do with partial selection-came either from schools or local authorities. It was only the Act that allowed parents direct access to us. So we have had very little experience of that so far. We have had only about 30 cases this year where it came from parents. That is a question that my successor-I am leaving this year-will be able to answer next year.

Q76 Fiona Mactaggart: What is your prediction?

Dr. Hunter: There is inevitably some truth in saying that advantaged, middle-class, articulate parents will always find ways of advancing their cases and that that sort of thing is not accessible to poorer, more deprived people. Something must be done about that.

Q77 Fiona Mactaggart: What sort of thing?

Dr. Hunter: I think the emphasis on making sure that local authorities and admission forums address their responsibilities properly-the sort of thing that the Minister was talking about with this letter going out this week-is the way to make sure that all schools are compliant with the code and that all schools take seriously their responsibilities to make sure they have got a reasonable social and ethnic mix in their intake.

Q78 Mr. Stuart: It is just that something must be done about that. You sound absolutely committed to social engineering and frustrating the choices of parents.

Dr. Hunter: No, I am not.

Q79 Mr. Stuart: Surely, the only answer would be to go to a full lottery system or effectively to make sure that we have a social mix by asking parents to accept that the good of all will be best served by creating a fair mix of schools?

Dr. Hunter: Absolutely not. The first thing that I said was that somebody-I think that this has to be somebody locally, local politicians-has got to decide what is an acceptable or unacceptable degree of segregation. I said and firmly believe that you will never get to a position in which all schools have exactly the same proportion of free school meals or ethnic minorities or what have you. What is an unacceptable degree of segregation will vary across the country. You will get some parts of the country where a certain set of circumstances will be acceptable that would not be acceptable somewhere else. It is only where there is an unacceptable degree of segregation that somebody has to intervene. There are lots of different ways to intervene. Sometimes, it can be done without too much difficulty locally. In my experience, those kinds of intervention are extremely difficult, and national Government and you as a Committee must be aware that social engineering is not an easy matter.

Q80 Mr. Stuart: It is especially difficult if there is incoherence in the messages that parents receive. On the one hand, they are to exercise choice, and when they exercise it, they then face criticism. The Minister said that we need greater enforcement of the legal obligation. He did not feel there was enough cracking down yet. He doubtless meant that you should be cracking down harder on enforcing the obligations under the admissions code, and it is creating a real tension, which is why, in my area and across the country, there is a massive increase in the number of appeals. People are more and more dissatisfied with the system, because expectations are created which, as you said, are not met for broader social reasons.

Chairman: Graham, stick to questions, please.

Dr. Hunter: Unfettered parental choice and the market lead inevitably to social segregation. The only answer to that is regulation. Unfettered choice and the market lead to unacceptable segregation, so somebody has to make a judgment about when to start to regulate in order to avoid the undesirable consequences of unfettered choice and the market.

Q81 Ms Butler: Dr. Hunter, you said earlier that it will probably take a while for schools to comply completely with the code. How long? How many years do you think it will take for schools to comply?

Dr. Hunter: I would guess another year.

Q82 Ms Butler: Just another year?

Dr. Hunter: I am expecting a splurge of references to us this year, and I would have thought that by the end of that, most schools will have got the message. The code is very clear; it does not take a genius to be able to read the code and understand when a school is complying with it and when it is not.

Q83 Ms Butler: Has it been made clearer now that the loopholes have been closed?

Dr. Hunter: Absolutely. I think that it is a very good code.

Q84 Ms Butler: What progress has been made over the last few years to make sure all local authorities reviewed their admission arrangements? In my constituency of Brent, South, there are more than 250 children without school places, and it seems to be getting worse. What progress has been made?

Dr. Hunter: It varies in different parts of the country, but I am clear from what I have heard this morning that the Government are determined to make sure that every local authority and every admissions forum is addressing those problems. The capacity to deal with them does vary, and I worry about some of the smaller authorities having the officer support and the political clout to deal with the problems that they face.

Q85 Ms Butler: As for the local authorities that are not complying, for whatever reason, how can that situation be resolved?

Dr. Hunter: It can only be dealt with through pressure of one kind or another from Government and by making sure that support from central Government to those authorities is sufficient to allow them to deal with their problems. Some of the problems, particularly in London, are difficult. I was working in an authority last year where I think only 35% of the 11 to 16-year-olds living in that authority go to schools in that borough.

Q86 Chairman: What was that percentage?

Dr. Hunter: Only 35% go to schools in that borough and over 50% of the children in schools in that borough come from somewhere else. Now I frankly fail to see how a local authority like that can plan for the future. This has been established by setting up all these local authorities in London, and in my view anyway, there has got to be some mechanism somewhere to make sure that that situation is improved.

Q87 Chairman: Which borough were you talking about?

Dr. Hunter: Hammersmith and Fulham.

Q88 Fiona Mactaggart: I want to know this: is there any research about the impact on a child's achievement of them going through the appeal process at the beginning of their secondary school career, which is where it usually occurs?

Dr. Hunter: No; not that I know of.

Q89 Fiona Mactaggart: If there is not, is it not up to you to try and ensure that there is? It is clear that it must have some impact. I do not believe that it has none.

Dr. Hunter: You mean going through the appeals process?

Q90 Fiona Mactaggart: Yes. When a child is not admitted or goes through an appeal for admission and is then not admitted, what is the impact either on their future education in the school where they end up or on their education in the school that they are admitted into following an appeal? I think both of those may have an impact on the child's future education.

I watch those children arriving in my constituency surgery. They did not get the bicycle because they did not pass the 11-plus-and then they are hauled into see me, with mum complaining. And they hear all of this talked about, and they are very unhappy children. I want to know who looks at what the impact of going through all that at the beginning of their school career is on that child's learning while they are there. Nobody has that job-the schools are not going to do it.

Dr. Hunter: Well, we as adjudicators do not deal with the appeals process. We are engaged in some activity this year monitoring some of what is going on there, but we do not have any statutory responsibility for that. And that is something that, no doubt, the Department and Ministers and so on are thinking about now. Part of what you are talking about is to do with selection, the 11-plus and all that. We have a position where there is selection, and I am not saying anymore about that.

Q91 Mr. Chaytor: Why not?

Dr. Hunter: Because I am an adjudicator and I am very keen-may I say?-not to get involved in policy areas of that kind.

Q92 Fiona Mactaggart: But there are areas, which are not selective, where the same experience occurs for an individual child, and I think that unless the Department is poked, they might not do this research-they have not so far. It has been going on for a long time. Do you not think that it might be a role for your unit?

Dr. Hunter: There was some research about five years ago-from Sheffield Hallam, again-about the appeals process that covered what parents thought of it.

Q93 Fiona Mactaggart: Did it cover children's achievement?

Dr. Hunter: No, it did not do that. They did not follow it up in that regard.

Chairman: I think that this is a suggestion for research for someone else; we recognise that it is not your job to do research, Dr. Hunter.

Q94 Stephen Williams: Just a question for the Adjudicator-I was looking through the tables at the back of your most recent report. I noticed there were 10 adjudicators around the country and you head up the team. Is that enough to cope with the work load? You said you were expecting a splurge of referrals this year. Are you confident that you have enough people in your team?

Dr. Hunter: It has been so far. There were 16 when I came and I got them down to eight because they were not busy enough, and we added two more last year because we thought the work would rise. I think that is probably enough.

Q95 Stephen Williams: And do you operate as a national team, or is there geographical professionalism?

Dr. Hunter: Yes, it is national.

Q96 Stephen Williams: So you get sent wherever there is demand. I just wondered, looking through the table, whether some authorities seem to have lots of complaints and some do not appear at all. Hertfordshire seems to appear in great numbers in every single category of complaint. Is there any sort of pattern that we should be worried about?

Dr. Hunter: No, we often get the position where a local authority-I think that it was Kent last year and Hertfordshire this year-decides to have a go at looking at all the admissions criteria for every school in the area, which is what all authorities should be doing. Having done that, they send a lot through to us. If all authorities do that, as a result of what Mr. Knight was talking about earlier today, we are going to have a busy year and we may have to bring in more, but I think that we have probably got enough at the moment.

Q97 Stephen Williams: Right, just a quick final question: when the Education Inspections Bill was going through in 2006, an amendment that my colleagues proposed at the time but that was withdrawn because the Minister made a concession included a suggestion that local authorities should be able to look at the admissions policies of individual schools, and it was conceded by the Minister that some pilots would be implemented. Have you seen any evidence of these pilots taking place, which effectively would be working alongside your team?

Dr. Hunter: I am not sure of the context of that, but all local authorities now have a duty to look at all the admissions criteria for all the schools in their area. You question whether they are doing that, and I suspect that, as I say, after this year, we will begin to assist in the way they are doing that. If they have got problems with that, they refer them to us.

Q98 Chairman: But if you come back to the nub of this, when we had earlier discussions with you, it was very clear that you were discontent with the system. That is why you wanted a different code and why you wanted to be able to come in more often. It tends to happen-does it not?-that although the articulate middle-classes catch on to a new set of rules that they can use, it does cascade and filter down. So is it a splurge in that other people from less affluent backgrounds will learn to use the system?

Dr. Hunter: The splurge will arise because local authorities have got a letter from the Minister-this week, presumably-saying that we have got to do it. My experience is that they tend to do what they are told to do in this regard. Some of them will do it better than others, but I would guess that, this year, all local authorities will get down on to looking at all the admission criteria of all schools. You will find in a year's time that schools are pretty compliant with a very good code. As I say, that is only the start.

Q99 Chairman: But the irritating thing when we took evidence for that previous Committee was that we would have a head from central casting-I always say-and I would say, "But you have no looked-after children; you have hardly any special educational needs children; and you have almost no one on free school meals. What about the code?" I remember a particular female head smiled sweetly and said, "We take note of the code."

Dr. Hunter: Well, they cannot "take note" now; they have got to comply. It is the law.

Q100 Chairman: But are they? Is the process really happening?

Dr. Hunter: You will get the answer to that after this year's experience. I am pretty confident that, after this year's experience, you will be able to look at it and say that that part of it is working.

Q101 Chairman: You are a very experienced person in the education world. You have worked in so many areas and have an overview. Do you think that what has happened-the change in the legislation, the change in your role and the change in the nature of the code-will address the fact that there is such a distortion in terms of the intake in many of the schools that have been able to exclude? Can you see a real qualitative change?

Dr. Hunter: The answer is that I can see a real step change, which will produce a very good basis for further work later on, but it will not answer all your problems. If every school in the country is compliant with the code, you will still have areas in which there is a degree of social and racial segregation, which some of you, the Government and some people locally will feel uncomfortable about. At what point does that degree become unacceptable? That is the first question. The second question is, what do you do about it? The answer to the first question will be different in different parts of the country. You will have different answers in Ealing, Bradford, Bury, Huddersfield and everywhere else. In my view, it has to be a local political decision. The question of what to do about it is extremely difficult.

Q102 Mr. Stuart: Do you feel that the change from education departments to children's services departments has affected the ability to deal with major reorganisation?

Dr. Hunter: There are two things. First, they did go through a blip when they lost a lot of good officers-hoary old education officers who knew how to shut schools. I was a director of education at the time of the last cuts in numbers. We closed 133 schools in Staffordshire in the 1980s, and every one of them was difficult. They did lose a lot of those officers; they are picking them up again. Secondly, are there now some authorities that are just too small to cope with these things? My answer is yes.

Q103 Mr. Stuart: Do we need to give additional support to help?

Dr. Hunter: Either additional support, or you start amalgamating authorities-or you stop setting up new tiddlers.

Q104 Mr. Stuart: Moving on to academies, is it appropriate for the Secretary of State to be involved in approving academies' admission arrangements as well adjudicating?

Dr. Hunter: I do not think that it will make a lot of difference in practice, because academies are tied in to the same code. I think that it is a perception problem, and the way to get out of it is to give it to somebody independent, like the adjudicators.

Q105 Mr. Stuart: If I may go back to some of the earlier evidence, representing a rural area, as I do, and seeing the difficulty of choice, with its not being delivered, would you like to see choice emphasised less and to focus more on the Minister's talk of raising standards in all schools, as well as recognising the need for a proper social mix in schools?

Dr. Hunter: There is a job for Ministers, local authorities and everybody else, which is to fix expectations at a realistic level. That is difficult.

Q106 Chairman: Do you have a suggestion about who that independent body should be, if the job is taken away from the Government?

Dr. Hunter: Sorry?

Chairman: You suggested that you would like to see-

Dr. Hunter: No, I meant the adjudicators. Give it to us.

Chairman: Oh, give it to you. Right, okay. Good. Excellent.

Q107 Mr. Chaytor: Your annual report last year described the ending of the first preference first provision as a good thing, because it was unnecessarily complicated. How was it complex? Was it more complex than any other criteria?

Dr. Hunter: Yes, it was. First preference first meant that schools were giving priority to families who put that school down as their first preference, which inevitably meant that, where you had some first preference first schools and some equal preference schools, parents started playing the system. They just stuck that school down as their first preference, even if it was not, in order to improve their chances of getting into that school.

Q108 Mr. Chaytor: But in the wholly or even partly selective areas, would you not accept that ending first preference first has worked against the Government's objective of creating greater community cohesion, because it reduces the capacity of the non-selective schools to strengthen their intake?

Dr. Hunter: I see no evidence of that. Basically, what those schools were doing-I understand why they were doing it-was sort of blackmailing parents, saying, "If you don't put us down first, you'll lose your place in the queue." I do not think that that is fair.

Q109 Mr. Chaytor: If there were evidence of that, would you reconsider your view?

Dr. Hunter: Yes, of course I would. Certainly, the first preference first system and what was called conditionality were giving a lot of people a lot of problems. You would need some pretty strong evidence to go back to it.

Q110 Mr. Chaytor: Could I ask about fair banding? It is not necessarily fair, is it? The issue is that fair banding is banding on the nature of the applications to a school, not the nature of the wider catchment area of the school. What are the merits of banding according to applications, as against banding according to the wider catchment area?

Dr. Hunter: It depends where you are and how many schools are into the banding business. If all schools in an area are operating in a banding system, I do not think that it makes a lot of difference which direction you are going in. I have noticed some of the academies getting into banding. This is precisely what Bruce Liddington was talking about. If a school is serving a difficult area and all the kids and only the kids from that area are going into the school, you have to try to widen it in some way. Some of them are into banding, and I think some of that is probably justifiable. It depends where you are.

Q111 Mr. Chaytor: There was reference earlier to lotteries. Is there evidence that people are starting to use the lottery provision?

Dr. Hunter: Some of them are. Some of them are using it in different ways. In Brighton, for example, they were not really using a lottery, except as a tiebreaker. As tiebreakers, they are coming in more, and probably very sensibly, too. They have a place. They are one of the devices that can be used if it is necessary to get into dealing with unacceptable segregation.

Q112 Mr. Chaytor: But are there circumstances in which a lottery would be a useful or valid method of allocation other than as a tiebreaker-as the basic method of allocation to the school?

Dr. Hunter: Yes, I can imagine that. I think at Haberdashers' Aske's, which Bruce was talking about, that is the case. You can come across circumstances where that is possible.

Q113 Mr. Chaytor: According to the annual report, there seems to be one local authority that disproportionately takes up the time of your colleagues, which is Hertfordshire. How can it be that one out of 150 local authorities is responsible for about 20% of the total references on admissions? What can be done about that? Is it not the case that you should not just be waiting for those to come from Hertfordshire but should be intervening more actively with Hertfordshire to prevent it?

Dr. Hunter: We have been having discussions with Hertfordshire about the way things worked out last year. What happened was that the code came in fairly late in the sequence this time. Hertfordshire decided to have a go at it, after most of the schools had made up their minds about their admission arrangements. Having decided to do that, they stuck in a whole lot of objections, many of which they withdrew as they went through the system. That was a particular set of circumstances, and we will have that from time to time.

Q114 Chairman: We have talked before about pan-London co-operation on admissions. How is that going? It was very important. When I listen to you, there is a subtext that London is a bit of a mess. I do not know if that is true. Is it a bit of a mess?

Dr. Hunter: I am the wrong person to ask. I used to work for the Inner London Education Authority, and I used to think it was wonderful.

Mr. Stuart: A minority view.

Dr. Hunter: Probably.

Chairman: Well, we do not know whether it was a minority view. There has been no polling on that.

Dr. Hunter: We need more collaboration and co-operation between London authorities. How you achieve that-whether you give some powers to the Mayor or what have you-I do not know, but something has to happen in London.

Q115 Chairman: But how is the pan-London co-operation working?

Dr. Hunter: That is working reasonably well. I was, if you remember, reasonably sceptical about that at one time. I said it was necessary, but I am always sceptical about big computer schemes.

Q116 Chairman: You thought it was going to break down, did you not?

Dr. Hunter: I said it would break down sometime. It has not broken down yet.

Chairman: Touch wood it has not.

Dr. Hunter: I think that it has a reasonable chance of working.

Q117 Chairman: Would you like to get rid of what people call the Greenwich agreement? I am not talking just about London. Do you think people should go to community schools? We have taken evidence from heads here who have said, "Look, if I have a fair number of people in my community coming to my school, I can do wonderful things, but if a very significant percentage of my community leave the area, it is much more difficult."

Dr. Hunter: It depends where you are. Last year, I was in Southall in Ealing, where 95 or 98% of the children are Asian. Up the road, there are schools where 70% of the children are white. Those are local schools serving their local community, and people were happy with that. Now, somebody, somewhere has got to say that that is either acceptable, because it is working, or that it is not acceptable, because of the implications that it has for racial integration and all the rest of it. That is a matter that ends up with local politicians; it is a proper political decision. That is the local authority, local councillors and the local MP reaching a view about what is acceptable and what is not.

Q118 Chairman: So it is almost like the visioning process that Building Schools for the Future entails. Should the question of what is the vision of educational provision in this area for the next 50 years be a very important part of that process?

Dr. Hunter: Yes, of course. I am quite keen on politicians, and this is what they are for. They are there for making decisions and reaching views of that kind. They are elected to do that job, and it is a very difficult job.

Q119 Mr. Stuart: Chairman, you are talking about segregated societies, but I would suggest that the evidence is that local politicians are not normally best placed to challenge the existing situation. That would certainly seem to be the evidence from the United States. If, for broader social reasons, segregation has gone too far, are the local politicians not more likely to be supportive of the existing arrangements, reflecting, as they do, the existing forces that have led to that situation arising in the first place?

Dr. Hunter: National Government has to have a view as well, but in the end, it is the local politicians-and the local MPs-who are going to lose their seats if they get it wrong.

Q120 Chairman: If the pan-London co-operation is going so well, why is Hammersmith and Fulham in the situation that it is, with its vast influx and outflux?

Dr. Hunter: That is the result of its going so well; it is the result of parental choice. It was always like that in Hammersmith and Fulham; it was always like that in many of the London boroughs. The schools in inner London were not planned to fit the present boroughs at all. A lot of them were on the borders, and a lot of them were over the borders of the areas that they serve because, for 100 years, it was the ILEA that set those things up. Nothing is going to change that. That is why, in London, in 10 or 15 years' time-or at some time or other-there is going to be some arrangement that leads to better co-ordination of planning across the London boroughs.

Q121 Chairman: So reflecting on what has happened in recent times, you are obviously encouraged by the changes in the code in terms of your ability to intervene. If you were going to make any other changes that would produce a better outcome for education for young people in our country what would they be?

Dr. Hunter: My personal view is to give some powers back to local authorities and to make sure that they are big enough to be able to accept those powers.

Q122 Chairman: You are a democrat?

Dr. Hunter: I am.

Chairman: That is a dangerous thing to be these days. Dr. Hunter, thank you very much for your evidence. It is a pleasure to see you. In case we do not see you again, may I tell you what a big difference you have made to this Committee? In giving us your evidence, you have also made a big difference to what goes on in the rest of the country. Thank you very much for everything that you have done for us.