The Work of the Committee in 2008-09 - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

 
 

 
2  Meeting the Objectives

5.  The Liaison Committee has defined Objectives and Core tasks for departmentally-related select committees. These are based upon the House's Standing Orders, which require those committees to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government department concerned and its associated public bodies. Table 1 below sets out those Objectives; Table 2 matches them to the Committee's activities during the 2007-08 Session. Subsequent paragraphs provide supporting detail.

Table 1: Liaison Committee Objectives for departmentally-related select committees
Objective A: to examine and comment on the policy of the Department:
  • proposals from the UK Government and European Commission in green papers, white papers, draft guidance etc.;
  • areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient;
  • any relevant published draft Bill;
  • specific output from the Department expressed in documents or other decisions;

Objective B: to examine the expenditure of the Department:

  • the expenditure plans and out-turn of the Department, its agencies and principal non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs);

Objective C : to examine the administration of the Department:

  • the Department's Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and the statistical measurements employed;
  • the work of the Department's executive agencies, NDPBs, regulators and other associated public bodies;
  • major appointments made by the Department;
  • the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives;

Objective D: to assist the House in debate and decision, producing reports which are suitable for debate in the House and its committees, including Westminster Hall.  

Table 2: Liaison Committee criteria and the Committee's inquiries in 2008-09
 Policy proposals  Emergent/deficient
policy  
Draft legislation Departmental output*  Public Expenditure  Public Service Agreements  Agencies and NDPBs Major Appointments  Implementation of Legislation and policy  Debates in the house 
Review of Services for Children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs              
Appointment of the Children's Commissioner          X    
Sure Start Children's Centres             
The Work of Ofsted  X    X       
Looked-After Children           
Allegations Against School Staff              
Training of Children and Families Social Workers              
Early Years Single Funding Formula           X   
Social Mobility            X  
Diversity of School Provision             
Lord Laming's Progress Report on the Protection of Children           X   
Child Health Strategy       X       
National Curriculum        X     
School Accountability  X           
Elective Home Education              
National Curriculum Testing         X     
Public Expenditure     X  X       
Academies           X   
Sustainable Schools and Building Schools for the Future          X   
Draft Apprenticeships Bill    X         X  
Teacher Training             
Young people not in education, employment or training             
21st Century Schools White Paper              
Early intervention            

* Includes Ofsted as a non-Ministerial Department

Policy

6.  The year's work has been dominated by our continued examination, begun in 2008, of the three main pillars supporting education provision in England and rooted in the Education Reform Act 1988: testing and assessment of children's levels of attainment, the national curriculum, and school accountability. Our inquiry into the first of these themes—testing and assessment—led to publication of a Report in 2008. Our inquiry into the national curriculum spanned eight oral evidence sessions and resulted in a Report which was highly critical of the degree of prescription in the existing Curriculum. The Government has since adopted recommendations made by Sir Jim Rose following his review of the primary curriculum, undertaken at the Department's request. Although we were not convinced that Sir Jim Rose's proposals necessarily offered the best basis for reducing the burden and complexity of the National Curriculum, we note the Government's acknowledgement that greater freedom for teachers to use their professional judgment and a move away from an over-prescriptive curriculum are desirable aims in themselves.[3]

7.  The third and final inquiry into the fundamentals of the education system in England has examined the differing methods by which schools are accountable to those who use and fund them. Both written and oral evidence taken during the inquiry has sometimes, inevitably, explored the connections between school accountability and school improvement; but the inquiry has centred upon self-evaluation, inspection and performance tables. Halfway through the inquiry, the Government published detailed proposals for a new School Report Card, to replace the Achievement and Attainment Tables currently compiled. It envisages that the Report Card would be a clear and comprehensive account for parents and would offer a broader picture of school performance than one based purely upon performance. The Government has taken the Report Card used by the Education Department of New York City as a model, and we were able to travel to the United States to meet officials responsible for its design and operation. We plan to publish our Report on school accountability early in the current Session.

8.  Alongside our work on school accountability, the Committee has undertaken a major inquiry into teacher training. This is a subject which has had a bearing on almost all of our inquiries into different aspects of schools policy during this Parliament. Accordingly, we drew the remit for the inquiry widely to encompass training for teachers in early years settings, primary schools, secondary schools, and further education. We plan to publish a Report in the New Year.

9.  The two other substantial inquiries held during the 2008-09 Session concerned children's services. Most of the evidence for the first inquiry, into looked-after children, was taken during the 2007-08 Session; but we arranged further oral evidence in the light of the trial of those found responsible for the death of Baby Peter in Haringey in 2007, in order to learn more about the pressures upon local authorities in deciding whether or not to apply for a child to be taken into care. Our Report was published in April 2009 and was well received by organisations representing children's interests and by the press. Both The Independent and The Times ran leading articles based upon the Report's recommendations, and The Times described our visit to children's homes in Denmark as "a case of taxpayers' money well spent".[4] The Committee's report was debated on the floor of the House on 2 July and attracted contributions by backbench Members from outside the Committee from each of the three main parties.

10.  The inquiry into looked-after children led directly to our second major inquiry into children's services, which considered the training of social workers who work with children and families. Looked-after children told us that they valued good social workers very highly but that vacancies and high turnover in the workforce often denied those children the opportunity to forge long-lasting relationships with them. Evidence from local authorities suggested that social workers were not always well equipped by their training to intervene when necessary and protect children. We recommended that universities and local government should do more to provide high quality college courses, relevant practice experience and acceptable levels of support from good managers to social workers on the front line. Our Report was published in July and is being taken into account by the Social Work Taskforce, established by the Government to conduct "a nuts and bolts review of social work".

Short inquiries

11.  In amongst these more substantial investigations which aimed to survey particular areas in depth, we continued our standard practice of holding occasional shorter inquiries, some leading to reports, some not. Some, such as those examining the failure to mark Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 National Curriculum tests on time, or the Early Years Single Funding Formula, were particularly topical and took up issues of immediate concern. Others, such as the inquiries into the Child Health Strategy, Lord Laming's Progress Report on the Protection of Children, and the Department's White Paper on schools, published in June 2009 and generally known as the "21st Century Schools White Paper", gave us a chance to dig a little deeper into the thinking behind recent policy publications and reviews.

12.  In June, we held an evidence session on Social Mobility with the Rt Hon Alan Milburn MP, who had chaired a Panel on Fair Access to the Professions. The Panel's report was published in July[5] but its main themes were debated in June on the floor of the House shortly after the Committee's evidence session; the transcript of Mr Milburn's evidence to the Committee helped to inform the debate.

13.  Two of our smaller inquiries attracted particular attention inside and outside the House. Many Members of the House will have been contacted by teachers or other school staff who believe that they have been unfairly accused of improper behaviour with children but who find themselves struggling to clear their names or lead a normal life while the allegations are investigated. Some Members have raised particular cases during Adjournment debates, and we held a short inquiry on the subject. In some cases, allegations will be true and the perpetrator should be duly punished; but we were left in no doubt that many had no foundation at all but nonetheless caused far-reaching damage to the wellbeing and career of the person accused. Bearing in mind the basic principle of justice that a person remains innocent until proven guilty, our recommendations sought to tilt the balance more in favour of the accused while retaining the necessary protection for children subject to abuse.

14.  Our inquiry into Graham Badman's Review of Elective Home Education, commissioned by the Department, has generated huge interest among home educators. More than 150 submissions were received from home educating parents and groups. Most were fiercely critical of the Review's proposals for the establishment of a register of home-educated children and powers for local authority officers to monitor the education and welfare of home-educated children. The essence of the Review's proposals has been incorporated into the Children, Schools and Families Bill introduced in the House on 19 November 2009, and we intend to publish a Report before Second Reading of the Bill.

Draft legislation

15.  No draft Bills have been published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families during the 2008-09 Session. As we noted in our report on the Committee's work in 2007-08, parts of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill, published in July 2008, fell within our remit, and we and the then Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee published Reports on the Draft Bill on 5 December 2008.[6] The Draft Bill's provisions were incorporated into the Appenticeships, Schools, Children and Learning Bill, published in February 2009. While we recognised the enthusiasm in the evidence for the Draft Bill in seeking to raise the status and standards of apprenticeships, we had grave doubts about whether a statutory duty upon particular bodies to secure sufficient apprenticeship placements could be met, or met without compromising on quality. Despite the Government's assurances, those doubts have yet to be assuaged.

16.  Our Report on the Draft Bill also criticised the Bill's failure to require schools to give any prominence to apprenticeships in the careers advice which they gave to pupils; and we recommended that the draft Bill should be amended to include such a requirement. Despite further criticism of this aspect of the Bill from all quarters in both Houses, in some cases citing the Committee's Report, the Government continued to resist pressure for change. At Report Stage in the House of Lords, however, the Government finally conceded the weight of opinion and introduced an amendment to give effect to the gist of the Committee's recommendation.

Public expenditure

17.  The Committee and its predecessors have traditionally taken oral evidence on public expenditure. We took evidence in October 2009 from the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary, examining the Department's top-level policy on use of the funds available to it. Much of the session dwelt on the Department's plans for efficiency savings in order to meet targets set by the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review and the 2009 Budget. One important point which the Committee identified and which the Secretary of State admitted during the evidence session was the lack of a detailed breakdown of spending on children's services in the Departmental Annual Report. The Secretary of State made a commitment to improve substantially the data provided for the 2010-11 Report.[7]

18.  The Committee also holds regular evidence sessions on the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, for which £9.3 billion has been allocated for the period 2008-09 to 2010-11.[8] One of the consequences of the so-called "credit crunch" was to cast doubt over whether finance would be readily available for individual BSF projects funded using the Private Finance Initiative. In the light of oral evidence in January from Partnerships for Schools, the Non-Departmental Public Body with direct responsibility for overseeing Building Schools for the Future projects, and amid considerable media speculation about prospects for the programme, the Committee Chairman raised the matter with the Prime Minister when he gave evidence before the Liaison Committee on 12 February 2009. In the remaining months of this Parliament, we shall continue to assess the scale of the Government's commitment to the programme.

Sponsored Bodies

19.  The largest public body for which we have a scrutiny remit—other than the Department itself—is Ofsted, now properly titled the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills. HM Chief Inspector is neither a member nor a servant of the Government: she is accountable to Parliament principally through this Select Committee.[9] We receive regular correspondence from members of the public relating to the exercise by Ofsted of its duties.

20.  Ofsted is a non-ministerial Department which performs its functions on behalf of the Crown.[10] Ofqual, likewise, will perform its functions on behalf of the Crown and will be accountable to Parliament through this Committee's successor, rather than to the Government.[11] Although we do not seek to bind our successor committee, we would expect that it would carry out a role in overseeing the work of Ofqual similar to that which we fulfil in our scrutiny of Ofsted.

21.  Our inquiry into school accountability has examined some of the larger questions about Ofsted, such as its purposes; and senior Ofsted officials gave oral evidence to us during the course of that inquiry. But we have also continued our practice of holding regular scrutiny sessions based upon HM Chief Inspector's Annual Reports and Ofsted Departmental Annual Reports. The first of these hearings in this Parliamentary Session, in December 2008, followed soon after the trial of those responsible of the death of Baby Peter in Haringey; and our discussions then were dominated by discussion of Ofsted's role in reporting on standards in safeguarding of children. A second session in February 2009 ranged more widely and explored Ofsted's budget, inspectors' priorities during school inspections, diversity within the Inspectorate's workforce, and its approach to struggling schools.

22.  Other sponsored bodies have given evidence during the course of policy-based inquiries and evidence sessions, for instance:

  • Partnerships for Schools, on the Building Schools for the Future programme;
  • the Children's Workforce Development Council, on the training of children and families social workers; and
  • the Training and Development Agency, on teacher training.

Scrutiny of appointments

23.  The Government proposed, in its Green Paper The Governance of Britain, that select committees should play a role in scrutiny of public appointments, particularly where the officeholder exercises statutory or other powers in relation to protecting the public's rights and interests.[12] Four posts within the remit of the Department for Children, Schools and Families were identified following discussions between the Government and the Liaison Committee:

—  The Children's Commissioner for England

—  Chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency

—  HM Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills

—  Chair of Ofqual

24.  We duly held a pre-appointment hearing in October 2009 with the Government's preferred candidate to succeed Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green as Children's Commissioner: Dr Maggie Atkinson, currently Director of Children's Services at Gateshead Council. While we had no doubts about Dr Atkinson's professional competence, we would have liked to have seen more sign of a determination to assert the independence of the role, to challenge the status quo on children's behalf, and to stretch the remit of the post, in particular by championing children's rights. Our Report therefore declined to endorse her appointment. The Secretary of State considered our Report but proceeded to appoint her nonetheless, giving his reasons in a letter to the Chairman, which we print as an Appendix to this Report.

25.  We were well aware that our opinion would not be binding on the Secretary of State in deciding whether or not to proceed with appointment, and we note the full explanation given in Mr Balls' letter for rejecting our advice. However, we were surprised by the terminology used by the Cabinet Office in its guidance for Departments on pre-appointment hearings by select committees. Paragraph 7.1 of the guidance suggests that, on receipt of a Committee's report on a proposed appointment, a Minister will take into account "new, relevant facts about the candidate's suitability for the post" such as an undisclosed conflict of interest; and it adds that

"there may also be occasions when a candidate's performance in front of the select committee is considered relevant to the post in question—although this should be exceptional. 'Relevant considerations' does not include any comments or recommendations which are clearly partisan in nature or which are not directly related to the post in question".[13]

There seems to be no provision for a Minister to take into account the Committee's overall view on suitability other than in "exceptional" circumstances. We are not convinced of the worth of involving select committees in public appointments unless Ministers are expected to give greater weight to the views of committees on the merits of a particular candidate. Also, as we said in our report on the appointment of the Children's Commissioner, we found it impossible to give a fully informed view on whether to endorse the preferred candidate, as we had no means of comparing her with other applicants.

Post-legislative scrutiny

26.  The Government published a Command Paper in March 2008 setting out a new approach to post-legislative scrutiny.[14] Under the new procedure, which the Liaison Committee has described as having the potential to make "a valuable difference to the scrutiny of legislation"[15], Government departments will publish memoranda on the operation of Acts between three and five years after Royal Assent. The relevant select committee would then decide, on the basis of the memorandum, whether to undertake post-legislative scrutiny on the operation of the Act. The Committee Chairman therefore wrote to the Secretary of State on 10 June 2009, pointing out that the Education Act 2005 would be covered under the new procedure. A memorandum on the operation of the Act is awaited.


3   DCSF Press Release 0219, 19 November 2009 Back

4   The Times, 20 April 2009 Back

5   Unleashing Aspiration, Cabinet Office, June 2009 Back

6   The Draft Apprenticeships Bill, Fourth Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 1082, Session 2007-08; Pre-legislative Scrutiny of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill, Seventh Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 1062-I, Session 2007-08  Back

7   Public Expenditure, oral evidence taken on 21 October 2009, to be published as HC 174 [incorporating HC 1043-i of Session 2008-09], Session 2009-10, Q 44.  Back

8   Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 Back

9   See HL Deb, 25 October 2000, col 406 Back

10   Education and Inspections Act 2006, section 112(3) Back

11   See www.ofqual.gov.uk Back

12   The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170 Back

13   Pre-appointment hearings by select committees: guidance for Departments, Cabinet Office, August 2009 Back

14   Post-legislative Scrutiny-The Government's Approach, Cm 7320, March 2008  Back

15   The work of committees in 2007-08, First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2008-09, HC 291 Back


 

 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index  

 
© Parliamentary copyright 2010 
Prepared 13 January 2010