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

3  Reflections on working methods

Formats for Committee meetings

27.  The Committee held 51 meetings in Session 2008-09, taking formal evidence at 33 of them and producing eight reports (with two substantial reports due to be published early in the 2009-10 Session based on work done in the 2008-09 Session). We have met twice a week for virtually every week in which the House has sat.

28.  For the two main inquiries begun in 2008-09, we held seminars to help scope our inquiries and set terms of reference, and to explore in a relaxed forum some of the main issues.

29.  We have built upon our experience in 2007-08 of holding informal meetings to hear from individuals directly affected by an inquiry. We held four such sessions in 2008-09, with groups numbering between ten and thirty, representing:

  • Recently-qualified social workers (to inform the inquiry into the training of children and families social workers);
  • Recently-qualified teachers (to inform the inquiry into the training of teachers);
  • Home-educated children and their parents (to inform the inquiry into the review by Graham Badman of elective home education); and
  • Local authority officers responsible for liaison with home-educating families (to inform the home education inquiry described above).

In each case the visitors introduced themselves and their point of view before participating in a fairly free discussion, led by the visitors as much as by the Committee. The style of the meetings was similar to those held by the Committee when undertaking visits within the UK.

30.  In informal feedback, those who attended welcomed the chance to discuss sensitive subjects in depth, in private and without a verbatim record; and we note that the Committee came across as being "in listening mode". In each case, Committee staff made a fairly full note of proceedings, with all views being unattributed to any individual. Those notes were treated as annexes to the reports subsequently agreed by the Committee and were duly published. Now that we hold such meetings almost as a matter of course, we would in many cases feel less confident when preparing a Report that we had really "got under the skin" of the inquiry without work of this kind. We are grateful to those who agree to take part in discussions and to those who act as brokers in facilitating such meetings.

Government replies

31.  Each Committee Report is the result of a great deal of work by Committee members, staff, Specialist Advisers and contributors. The aim of almost every report is to inform or influence Government, and Government responses are keenly awaited by the Committee and by witnesses alike. In our opinion the mark of a good response is that it should treat each recommendation as a fresh contribution to a debate and should acknowledge the evidence on which each is based. What is unsatisfactory and, in some cases, simply lazy, is for the Government simply to restate a position without recognising the extent of external opinion underlying a Committee's recommendation, and without really addressing the point being made.

32.  The quality of the Department's responses, when measured against this standard, has been variable. Typically they have been full rather than cursory and have welcomed the Committee's contribution to the debate, even when the Committee's conclusions have not accorded with the Department's thinking. The Department's response to our Fifth Report, on Allegations against School Staff, showed evidence of a genuine reappraisal of policy, even if the Government chose to disagree with the Committee on some points. However, we have occasionally been disappointed by responses containing vague answers which give an impression of accord but which, on closer inspection, do not accept or even address some of the detailed points being made. In the Government's response to the Committee's Report on Looked-after Children,[16] several responses to individual recommendations simply refused to engage with the evidence; and some recommendations were overlooked altogether.

33.  The Department fundamentally disagreed with much of the thrust of the Committee's Fourth Report, on the National Curriculum. The Committee's Report co-incided with two major studies of the primary curriculum, by Sir Jim Rose (on behalf of the Department) and by the Cambridge Primary Review team led by Professor Robin Alexander. The field was therefore fairly crowded with comment and opinion, and the Department was perhaps a little defensive as a result. However, we were very disappointed with the tone of the response, which appeared to re-iterate "off the shelf" arguments rather than take into account fresh evidence to the Committee.

34.  We therefore invited all those who had contributed to the inquiry—by providing written or oral evidence—as well as media commentators to come to an informal meeting to discuss both the Committee's report and the Government response. Approximately 30 people contributed to a wide-ranging discussion, during which it became clear that we were not alone in our disappointment with the Department's response. To the Department's credit, its Director-General for Schools also attended, listened, and replied to some of the points made. We regard this as a useful model for testing reaction to a report, and we intend to hold similar meetings in future.

35.  The Department's responses have generally been provided in good time. In some cases, by agreement with the Committee, responses were delayed, for instance to allow receipt on a day when the House was sitting. We also agreed to a longer delay for a detailed response to the Committee's Seventh Report, on the Training of Children and Families Social Workers. This was to allow the Department to consider the Committee's Report alongside that of the Social Work Taskforce, which was considering parallel issues, and to align its responses.

Conclusion on Government replies

36.  In general, if the Department does not agree with a recommendation, it should say so and provide a proper rationale. This would be more open than simply avoiding the issue or concealing non-acceptance with warm words. We also remind the Department that the Committee's reports are informed by opinion which may be more current than that which helped to form Government policy when it was first drawn up. The Department should not merely restate policy without re-examining fresh evidence such as that amassed by the Committee.

Select committee membership

37.  In our Report last year on the Work of the Committee in 2007-08, we noted the growth in the number of places on select committees and in the tasks which select committees were being expected to undertake; and we warned that care would need to be taken if standards of scrutiny were not to be put at risk by placing excessive burdens on Committee members. We note that the Liaison Committee shared some of our concerns,[17] and we believe that in advocating a reduction in the size and number of committees and ending overlapping remits, the House of Commons Reform Committee—the "Wright Committee"—has proposed a way forward which deserves the support of the House.

16   Looked-after Children, Third Report of Session 2008-09, HC 111. Back

17   The work of committees in 2007-08, First Report from the Liaison Committee, Session 2008-09. HC 291, para 80 Back

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Prepared 13 January 2010