The responsibilities of the Secretary of State - Education Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


28 JULY 2010

  Q1 Chair: Good morning. Welcome to this sitting of the Education Committee, which is on the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Education. I would like to welcome him and the Permanent Secretary from the Department to our deliberations. Secretary of State, thank you for your letter responding to my letter about the Sure Start children's centres report. In fact, we will have a full point-by-point reply in the autumn, for which I am grateful. I also thank you for clarifying the position on the Early Years single funding formula, for which we are also grateful. Secretary of State, how much of the information that you gave the House on 5 July was accurate?

Michael Gove: I sought to give as much accurate information as possible about those schools that were going ahead as part of Building Schools for the Future and about those schools where, sadly, we were not able to continue construction. Before making my statement, I sought to ensure that the accuracy of what I said to the House was as great as possible. As you and the Committee will know, there were some regrettable errors; I took the opportunity on the following Wednesday to apologise to the House for the errors that were made, which were wholly my responsibility.

Q2 Chair: Thank you for that. You will have seen the transcript of yesterday's evidence and know that Mr Byles was asked specifically about the suggestion that BSF had procured schools at three times the cost of commercial buildings. When asked if that was accurate, he quite specifically said no. Could you respond to that?

  Michael Gove: Yes; the information that BSF buildings cost three times what commercial buildings cost was information that we had received from Partnerships for Schools. My Department had e-mailed Partnerships for Schools—actually prior to the Queen's Speech—in order to get a comparison on a cost per square metre basis. The average cost of a Building Schools for the Future school is £1,800 per square metre; we asked for comparisons with other buildings, and there were commercial buildings that cost between £500 and £600 per square metre. That information was provided at my Department's request from Partnerships for Schools explicitly for use in a House of Commons debate. It was considered to be a valid comparison by that body, so I felt that it was appropriate to use it in the House of Commons. There are a number of comparisons that can be drawn. You can draw comparisons, as I think I did, for example with the cost of building schools in Ireland, which is a broadly comparable jurisdiction in a number of ways and has gone through similar property processes. The cost of building a school there is something like two thirds of what Building Schools for the Future costs. It is also the case that, in conversations with Tim and other professionals at Partnerships for Schools, I have been reinforced in my conviction that we can procure schools much more cheaply than has been the case in the past. I am grateful to Tim and his hard-working officials for having worked with my team at the Department for Education in order to identify some of the cost reductions that we can make, which will feed into a broader capital review.

  Q3 Chair: Thank you very much. When asked about waste, Mr Byles acknowledged that there was some and then immediately said that a lot of it was down to EU procurement rules. Do you accept that analysis, and is there anything that can be done to ensure that there aren't these alternative models, which are created at great expense and then have to be scrapped—as Mr Byles put it, thrown in the bin?

  Michael Gove: There are two very good points there. The first is the existence of EU procurement rules. It is certainly the case that EU procurement rules add delay and cost to the process of procuring schools. One of the reasons why I invoke that comparison with Ireland—it is one of the reasons why we have looked at Sweden—is that there are other European Union countries that can procure schools at a significantly lower cost. It is the case, in conversations that I have had with Mr Byles and his highly professional team, that they have emphasised to me that while European Union procurement rules are certainly a burden it is also the case that there are other things that we can do in order to lower the cost of schools, whether or not we use the procurement model that Partnerships for Schools has used in the past or an alternative one. There are changes that we can make to planning laws and to building regulations. It is also the case that there are changes that we can make to the other regulatory rules that the Department has cleaved to in the past. For example, there are regulations governing the environmental sustainability of buildings—BREEAM regulations—which are for schools being rebuilt or refurbished, and have to be passed at a particularly high threshold. I am very committed to ensuring that new schools, and indeed all new buildings, are environmentally sustainable, but the current regulatory framework is prescriptive in the wrong way, and there are other ways in which we can simultaneously lower costs and have greener buildings, perhaps by having a greater degree of system building and standardisation in the procurement of schools. But this is work that is going on with the capital review, and I have to say that I've been heartened and encouraged by the professionalism and commitment that Tim and his team and Partnerships for Schools have shown in this process.

  Q4 Chair: Thank you very much for that. Any analysis of BSF would accept that there was a lot of waste, but that things have improved. One of the fears, with the review team coming in, would be that some of the lessons that have been learned might be lost if every effort is not made to capture what has been learned in the last few years. Are you thinking of a completely new start? To what extent will you ensure that the lessons are learned?

  Michael Gove: I do want to have a system that is significantly more cost-effective. When I made the announcement on 5 July, I did so after a great deal of thought. It was not an easy announcement to make, because, inevitably, I was in the business of disappointing hopes. There are people who wanted to see new schools in their area, who had been promised new schools by the last Government and who would not see new schools in the way and on the timetable that the last Government had promised. I did not take that decision with any pleasure or any relish, but looking back at the history of Building Schools for the Future, it's clear that the whole process was, to my mind, misconceived. One of the fundamental flaws of Building Schools for the Future is that it operated on an area-wide basis, and two flaws flowed from that. Flaw one was that within a given local authority there might be some schools in an advanced state of dilapidation but other schools in respectable—not ideal, but respectable—buildings, all of which would be refurbished and repaired. In another part of the country, you would have schools in an advanced state of dilapidation that would not have their needs addressed by this programme for years to come. I know, Mr Chairman, that in your constituency, in Withernsea, there is a school in an advanced state of dilapidation that was not covered and wouldn't have been covered for years by BSF. So that was one concern—that BSF didn't target schools in the most need as effectively as possible. Indeed, towards the end, one of the ways in which Building Schools for the Future was meeting targets was by allocating money to local authorities on the basis not of need, but of a local authority's readiness to meet some pre-set criteria. The other area in which I felt that we needed to change related to the fact that the whole procurement model meant that everyone had to sink a huge amount of cost into the process before bricks were laid and before transformation could take place. So you had anything between £7 million and £10 million being spent in the procurement process on setting up a local education partnership. Once local education partnerships were set up, you would have a process of procurement that led, to my mind, to duplication. In terms of capturing some of the benefits that have accrued—some of the insight—Tim and his team at Partnerships for Schools are highly professional. They are collaborating with our capital review, and the expertise and experience—hard won—that the team has secured is being quarried by our capital review team. The cordial and productive relationship that the Department and PfS has will inform the capital review in the future.

  Chair: Thank you. May I now go to Tessa?

  Q5 Tessa Munt: Might I ask you a slightly more general question? I want to know what your vision is for education. I want you to imagine that, inconveniently, I have a two-year-old, a four-year-old, a seven-year-old, a nine-year-old, an 11-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old.

  Michael Gove: Congratulations.

  Tessa Munt: Thank you. They're a handful. I want you to imagine that, more inconveniently, some of those children live in a city and some live in a rural area. I want you to tell me what your vision is for the children who are already in the system and those who will go into the system and through it.

  Michael Gove: The first thing to say is, well done on having such an extensive and, I am sure, happy brood. The second thing to say is that each of your children's needs will be specific and individual, so in spelling out what a general vision is, you have to acknowledge that each of your children will be special and talented in a particular, individual way. In terms of what my overall vision for education is, I've used the phrase before: I want children to become authors of their own life story. The reason I use that phrase is that I think that education is a process of emancipation, of liberation. One of the problems that this country has had historically is that we've been very good at educating a minority—the gifted and talented—quite well, but the majority of children have not been educated as well as they should have been. The days have gone, if they ever existed, when a society could survive by having an elite who were well educated according to a particular set of narrow academic criteria, and others who were simply allowed to become hewers of wood and drawers of water later on. I think that's fundamentally a narrow and an unjust view of education. I also think it's no longer economically sustainable, so what I would like to do is to ensure that every child has an experience at school that enables them not just to get the qualifications that mean that they can choose the jobs or the university course that suits them and fulfils them. I also want children to spend their time at school gaining access to what I believe is their inheritance—the best that has been thought and written. School should be an enjoyable time. Horizons should be extended. Children should have an opportunity to encounter worlds and ways of thinking that take them outside their environment, whatever it is, so at the end of compulsory schooling, yes, children are equipped to work well and yes, children are able to make their own economic choices, but they also feel enriched. They're able to enjoy music and literature. They're scientifically literate, so they can reject bogus arguments put forward by people who are attempting to seduce them into lazy ways of thinking. They can analyse what politicians and people in power say and know what's rubbish and what's sensible. Above all, they can be happy, confident citizens and parents in the future. That is my overall vision, and obviously how it's implemented is one of the things we'll discuss in the course of the next hour.

  Q6 Tessa Munt: Can I get you to home in slightly on the issues of faith and business?

  Michael Gove: On faith, we know that faith schools are popular. We know that in those areas where faith schools exist, they tend to be over-subscribed. I think it's no secret that I myself have two children who are at a faith primary school, which is doing an outstanding job. But I also recognise that there are some people who explicitly do not want their children educated in a faith-based setting, and one of the principles behind our education reforms is to give people the maximum amount of choice, so that those people who may not necessarily have a very strong religious faith but believe that the ethos and values of faith-based education are right for their children have that choice. Others, who want a different approach, can take it as well. One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school that is set up on an explicitly atheist basis. It wouldn't be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broadest sense of the word, small "l" liberal. They exist to provide that greater degree of choice. However, one of the things that I do recognise is that there are concerns about social cohesion, integration and inappropriate faith groups using education as an opportunity to push their agenda. That is why, when I was in opposition, I asked a number of questions about the way in which public money was going to certain groups, in order to ensure that it didn't go to extremist groups, and it is why the Permanent Secretary and I and officials have been working to ensure that the regulations that govern faith-based education are such that we don't have groups with an extremist, a fundamentalist or a narrow agenda taking schools over. It is also why we have been quite clear that you cannot have, in the science curriculum, creationism taught as though it were scientific truth. As far as business goes, it is a huge area. Business can play a bigger role—I've been talking to Bob Wigley at Business in the Community about this—in providing governors for schools. One thing that business can do is ensure, as part of its corporate social responsibility thinking, that it encourages more business people to play a role in acting as school governors. Business can also play a critical role in helping us to improve vocational qualifications. One of the things that we've got wrong over the last 150 years is the quality of vocational qualifications in this country. I would like the business community to play an even bigger role in making sure that we have high-quality vocational qualifications to rank alongside those of countries such as Germany. Business can play a role in educational improvement. There are organisations such as Serco, Tribal Group and others that play that role, but it is important that they are effectively regulated.

  Q7 Tessa Munt: I want to ask you a little bit about the role of business specifically in the sponsorship of schools and other aspects such as the role of private and independent schools in the mix.

  Michael Gove: On business sponsorship, some business organisations have been very effective academy sponsors and some individual business men have been very effective academy sponsors. If I were to single anyone out, it would be Lord Harris—Phil Harris—whose chain of academies in south London has transformed educational opportunities for young people. His first school, the Harris CTC, was the first school to be ranked outstanding in every area by Ofsted. More than 83% of its children achieve five A* to C at GCSE, even though it has a higher than average proportion of children from poorer backgrounds. The other schools that Phil Harris has taken over have done phenomenally well. Yes, he applies a businesslike mind and businesslike terms of organisation to make sure that the school group runs efficiently, but he is driven by a passion for education. Anyone who visits the schools—I hope that those members of the Committee who have not will take the opportunity to do so—cannot help but be impressed by what a visionary individual can do by turning round schools that have had an appalling record. I visited Falconwood, one of the schools that he took over, where they used to have boarding across the windows so that visitors who walked down the corridor could not see what was happening in the classroom because the behaviour of the children was so poor. The school stopped at 12 on Friday because it was run in the interests of the teachers, not the students. Now that he has taken it over, that school has been transformed. Attainment is improving. Poorer children who were effectively written off now have the chance of a better education, thanks to him. To my mind, he is a hero. On the broader issue of the role of the private and the independent sector, we need to say to public schools, "Yes, you are charities. The provision of education is a charitable purpose." But we must recognise as a society that we need to do more collectively to raise attainment for all children. That is why people such as Anthony Seldon at Wellington who has sponsored an academy or the governors of Uppingham who have played a big role in supporting people like David Ross and academies in other areas are to be applauded. When Andrew Adonis was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, he said that what we wanted from independent schools was a sort of DNA transfer into the state sector to help raise attainment. That is absolutely right.

  Q8 Nic Dakin: I want to take you back to your statement in the House on 5 July. You said that there were nine meta-stages of the BSF process, but yesterday Mr Byles said that that was describing the process right at the beginning, and that it had been significantly refined, and was much more effective and down to five stages. Were you rather over-egging the pudding at that point?

  Michael Gove: The nine meta-stages are the stages through which all the schools that are going ahead have had to go. We produced a document containing the authoritative list of those school projects that were going ahead. It listed the stages through which local authorities had to go before procuring schools. It was subdivided into nine stages, and the document was signed off by Partnerships for Schools and the Department for Education. No one would deny, however you slice up those stages, that the process has been intensely bureaucratic, nor would anyone deny that Tim Byles has been a highly professional chief executive of Partnerships for Schools. He has worked within a framework laid down by the previous Government in order to try, within those constraints, to make it significantly more efficient.

  Q9 Nic Dakin: When Mr Byles was saying that it was simplified, and that it was only five stages, was he right to obviously over-simplify it?

  Michael Gove: There are different ways of looking at it. There were nine meta-stages through which all the schools that went ahead—that on 5 July we were glad to allow to go ahead—had gone through. There were also nine stages in the process that still operates at the moment. How you divide each stage depends on where you look. I shall find the detail in the document that was signed off by Partnerships for Schools, and come back to you.[1]

  Q10 Nic Dakin: You also mentioned a school that had to have its whole building reconstructed because the corridors were too narrow. Was that school built under BSF or a different programme?

  Michael Gove: It was built under a predecessor programme, a PFI programme. When I was informed of that, I took the opportunity to correct the record in the House.

  Q11 Nic Dakin: So it has been corrected? May I turn to the terms of reference for the James review, and how it has been set up? My interest in sixth-form colleges is registered. The terms of reference for the James review omits sixth-form colleges, where 150,000 16 to 18-year-old learners receive their education. The Prime Minister's announcement on FE funding, which was welcome, also omitted sixth-form colleges. In the light of that, and of the advice to sixth-form colleges that BSF will deal with their future capital remit, don't you feel it would be helpful to include them in the review of capital?

  Michael Gove: Yes, I think it certainly would be, and I am anxious to ensure that sixth-form colleges are involved in the review. I have been very impressed by the way in which sixth-form colleges operate. Around 40% of sixth-form colleges are ranked as outstanding by Ofsted. It is interesting that they are some of the educational institutions that have been most independent of both local and central government, and it is interesting that they have a particularly good record when it comes to raising attainment for children from underprivileged backgrounds. The success of sixth-form colleges reinforces in my mind the belief that a greater degree of autonomy and independence can generate fantastic results. It is certainly the case that we can learn from sixth-form colleges about effective procurement, and I certainly want them to be involved in the capital review. I will ask the capital review team to ensure that its work is informed by sixth-form college principals and the great work that they have done.

  Q12 Nic Dakin: Of course, FE colleges generally have received a lot of investment over the last seven years, and there must be lessons to be learned from that too. You helpfully mentioned in your answers to earlier questions the issue of dilapidation of buildings, but the terms of reference for the capital review as I read them—I may have read them wrongly—do not include consideration of additional places, surplus places and dilapidated buildings. Do you feel that those terms of reference should be widened to pick up such issues? They seem to be heavily focused on new providers and new schools, rather than on the issues that you highlighted in your earlier answers.

  Michael Gove: The review team's terms of reference were drawn widely to ensure that they took account of our stated priorities. I shall make two points. One of the documents that I have read during the last two weeks while I have been considering how the capital review should go forward was a report produced by the Office of Government Commerce. It analysed how the primary capital programme—the programme of capital investment for primary schools—had gone. It rang alarm bells before the last election, saying that there was a significant problem—a critical problem—with the failure of government to provide sufficient basic-need places for children coming on stream in primary schools. I was struck by the fact that although that alarm bell had been rung, action had not been taken before the election. One of my priorities—I have stated this clearly, and I know that the capital review team is aware of it—is to make sure that we provide a sufficient number of places for children at primary level in future. The point about dilapidation was made earlier in response to the Chairman's question. In my conversations with the capital review team, it is certainly the case that it is aware of my priorities in these areas.

  Q13 Nic Dakin: That is additional to what is in the terms of reference as written, which is very helpful. Finally, may I pick one area where there has been concern as to why some schools have been included in the list? I was pleased that Mr Byles was able to confirm yesterday that the list is finally correct, and we are all very happy about that, but I understand that schools in Salford and Wigan were part of the same LEP process, yet some are going ahead, and some are not. That seems very confusing.

  Michael Gove: It is confusing, and in a way that is one of the factors about the whole Building Schools for the Future programme. It was designed in a way that was almost a conspiracy against the public to prevent them from understanding what was going on. You can have joint LEPs, but with local authorities at different stages in the procurement process. The whole language of BSF, PfS and LEPs is bound to be confusing to most people outside, when what they want is a government who get on with repairing schools that are in a poor state. That is what we are aiming to do. The shadow Secretary of State made the point that there were two mistakes in the list. One related to a school in North Tyneside—Monkseaton. We said that work had been stopped, but he said that the school was open, so there must have been a mistake. Actually, the work that had been stopped at Monkseaton was ICT work, as distinct from rebuilding work. The fact that the shadow Secretary of State, a very gifted politician at the top of his powers, who had been in charge of this for three years, could make a mistake like that shows that the BSF process is one that can defeat even the most talented of us, and he has my sympathies. The document that was backed by both PfS and the Department lists the stages: remit stage, pre-procurement stage, notice in the Official Journal of the European Union, to which we are all subscribers, dialogue, close of dialogue, preferred bidder, financial close, operational LEP with one wave of investment and then operational LEP with more than one wave of investment. That final point touches on your question—where there are at least two, perhaps three, local authorities. There are at least two LEPs, perhaps three, where more than one local authority is involved.

  Q14 Lisa Nandy: I want to follow on from Nic's questions. Yesterday, we had Mr Byles here. We asked him about how the decision was taken to stop schools that had reached financial close, and whether that decision could have been taken on other grounds, such as the state of school buildings or pressure on school places, or where there had been decisions to close schools because of the anticipated Building Schools for the Future money. He told us that he had drawn up a number of lists against different criteria, which were then sent to you for decision. Do you think that the decision to stop the projects on the basis of whether or not they had reached financial close was fair?

  Michael Gove: I do think it was fair, yes. Again, the advice that officials give is necessarily covered by privileged status, so that advisers can speak freely during the process. Tim was candid in talking to you yesterday, so I think it is fair to run through the process. It was never the case that I received advice about, for example, choosing to apply a different set of criteria, other than where local authorities were in the procurement process. As I just said in response to Mr Dakin's questions, the procurement process is perhaps not the most simple process ever designed by government, and so in drawing the line, you had to decide whether or not you drew it at financial close, or at close of dialogue, or at some other point along the way. The reason why we chose financial close was that it seemed to us clearest that if a contract had been signed, that was a binding commitment; but prior to that, if no contract had been signed—this was the legal advice as well—there was no requirement to follow through. By drawing the line where we did, broadly 50% of projects went through and broadly 50% of projects were stopped. Before the general election, the last Government had said that, overall, they anticipated a 50% reduction in capital expenditure in the first three years of this Parliament, so in that sense, we drew the line where the law would lead you to believe was the most appropriate place to draw it—these are always judgments; you can never be scientifically accurate about it—but we also did it in accordance with the broad capital envelope laid out by the last Government. Of course, people would understandably be disappointed, but that seemed to be the basis on which the decision could be taken.

  Q15 Lisa Nandy: You also talked about the capital review and that you would be considering issues of particular concern, such as the state of school buildings and the pressure on places. Will you also consider cases where school closures are planned, partly as a result of anticipated Building Schools for the Future work?

  Michael Gove: My two priorities are to consider pressure—basic need pressure, where they need pupil places—and, as you mentioned, dilapidation. However, it is also the case that some local authorities have put in a great deal of work, and that work should not be set at nothing. It is clearly the case that people have worked very hard to identify the educational needs in their area and, in some cases, they will have done some work on design and so on, which we can develop and build on. The future decisions that we take will inevitably be influenced by that. They will also be influenced by the basic organising principle behind the coalition Government, which is that we want to target disadvantage as well. One of things behind Building Schools for the Future—one of the processes—was that it was designed to address disadvantage. I do not believe that it did so as effectively as it should have done, but I think that is a noble aim, and it is one that will guide us as well.

  Q16 Lisa Nandy: Finally, Nic also talked about some of the confusion that has been caused by the way in which this has been decided and announced. Before coming here today, I was contacted by schools from all over the country that are still in a considerable state of confusion about the decision that's been taken. Nic mentioned Wigan and Salford—Wigan is obviously the borough that I know best and have an interest in. I think that it is a really good example of where, whether or not the decision was non-discriminatory—on the face of it, it doesn't appear to be because Wigan and Salford, as I understand it, were at exactly the same stage in the process—Salford's schools are going ahead and Wigan's aren't. Yesterday, when Mr Balls came and gave evidence to us, he said that there are two criteria for "fair". One is about the factors that have been taken into account; the other is whether or not the decision is non-discriminatory. Do you accept that there are schools that are still entirely confused—"devastated and heartbroken", in the words of one teacher from Waltham Forest—about the decision that has been taken; and do you also accept that there is a need to talk to those schools and to those local authorities, to ensure that they understand the criteria on which that decision was taken?

  Michael Gove: I understand that there will be people who are heartbroken by the decision, but the decision was taken by me on the basis of saying, "We need to draw the line here. These are the principles. It's a rules-based decision." Then, I said to officials, "Will you tell me which schools fall on either side?" So it wasn't the case that I was saying, "I'll put Wigan here and Salford there." I said, "If we use the existing system that we have inherited and if we apply strictly fair criteria, then let's inform those schools, local authorities and relevant constituency Members of what happens." As I say, it is an inherently confusing system—not of our design—so moving away from it will necessarily involve confusion. The one thing that I would say is that, prior to this, there were lots of local authorities that were in a state of confusion about how BSF worked. One of the things that I've been struck by in the letters that I have received from Members of Parliament, local authorities and others is that many of them have said, "We're sorry that our school isn't going ahead, but thank you for ending BSF. The waste, the bureaucracy—it was a total waste of our time and an immensely frustrating process. Please put something simpler in place." Now it is my job to ensure that we can get the money, if at all possible, as quickly as possible to those schools that are in the greatest need. And I do sympathise with the schools in that position.

  Q17 Lisa Nandy: I want to push you on this, because there are still schools that are in a considerable state of confusion. In fact, having looked through the paperwork for one of those examples in detail, I am completely confused about how one set of projects has been categorised as going ahead and one set hasn't. You said in the House that you would go and apologise to those schools where the projects are not going ahead, but I would suggest that it is just as important that you talk to the people who are still entirely confused about the situation as it stands. I gather from some of the media reports that you are being pursued by a chicken, about the Sandwell closure. I suggest that, rather than campaigns like that, what we really need is for those people who are still in a state of real confusion about this decision to understand why it was taken. I am not suggesting that those decisions are all wrong. What I am suggesting is that it is very difficult for those schools, those local authorities and those parents, staff and children to understand why that decision has been taken, and that does need to be addressed.

  Michael Gove: I do understand exactly what you say, and it is confusing for many of them, but the system—the BSF system—was not one that I designed. I wish that the system that had been designed had been a lot simpler. Then, the distress that was felt by your constituents and by others would not be felt. Partnerships for Schools and the Department have been in touch with local authorities and with individual schools to explain to them the nature of the procurement process and why some people fall on either side of the line. Lots of parliamentarians and lots of other people found the process inevitably bewildering. I will not mention the city involved, but I had a meeting with some Members of Parliament from another significant city who were led to believe, as the local authority was led to believe, that they were in one stage of the process when in fact they weren't. Now it's understandable that there should be that sense of disappointment, but that is a consequence of this process, which led many people to believe that they were closer to securing buildings than was actually the case. I deeply regret that a complex situation led to that confusion. As for the chicken, it's nice of you to ask about it, but my children were delighted when it showed up outside our house. "Will it lay an egg?" my little daughter asked, and I said, looking at the precise physiognomy of the chicken, that I was not sure that that was likely to happen, but the Daily Mirror can produce miracles, I am sure.

  Q18 Liz Kendall: I want to go back to the advice that was given and the decision on Building Schools for the Future. As you know, yesterday Tim Byles said that PfS "advised the Department that it would be wise to validate the information with each local authority before publication due to the inherent risk of errors. The advice was not followed". Later on, he confirmed that that advice was given through officials, so I want to ask Mr Bell, did his officials receive that information from Partnerships for Schools and did he pass it on to the Secretary of State?

  David Bell: There were conversations at official level between the Department and Tim Byles, in which Tim Byles did warn of the risk of errors—in fact, the sort of errors that he described yesterday: the name change of a school, perhaps, or a parliamentary boundary being redrawn and so on. At no point during that conversation was the risk of misclassification error identified, as turned out to be the case with Sandwell, which Mr Byles apologised for yesterday and previously. The Secretary of State was told about the risk of errors in the list, of the sort that Mr Byles and I have described. Officials did not put to the Secretary of State the option of checking the data with local authorities, on the grounds that they believed that the kind of errors that we have just described were capable of being checked without validation with the local authorities. The Secretary of State, being advised of potential errors in the list, asked for the data to be checked, and Partnerships for Schools was tasked with the checking of that information. Colleagues and Partnerships for Schools confirmed, at various stages after that advice to the Secretary of State, that they were double-checking and triple-checking the data, but, as we have all seen, subsequent events demonstrated that it was not sufficient to remove all the errors in advance of the first statement to the House of Commons.

  Q19 Liz Kendall: Why do you think errors were still made? Obviously there has been a lot of discussion about the list being rushed through and there being very little time for checking over 700 schools. How much time did Partnerships for Schools have to check over 700 schools?

  David Bell: In a sense, the decision was not rushed at all, because some of the earliest conversations I had with the Secretary of State and the new ministerial team were about what we were going to do with Building Schools for the Future. There were many conversations—the Secretary of State has acknowledged this morning that he asked for a number of different cuts of the data to understand what the potential consequences were. This was a very detailed, very careful process. Throughout that time, PfS was checking data and providing new cuts of that data to the Secretary of State. PfS said that it was checking the data all the way through, so I do not think that there is any question that there was some sort of last-minute, rushed process of checking the data. To a large extent that was going on. In relation to your first point about how this happened, PfS acknowledged that it made some human errors in relation to the misclassification of Sandwell schools, and there were some errors in some of the data that the Department gave to PfS for further checking, so there were errors there. There is absolutely no argument about that and we accept responsibility for those errors not having been corrected before the Secretary of State made his announcement.

1  See reply to Q13. Back

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