Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
TUESDAY 1 MAY 2001
BICHARD, KCB, MR
1. May I welcome Sir Michael Bichard, David
Normington and Ruth Thompson to this meeting of the full Education
and Employment Select Committee. We are very pleased that you
are here. A touch of sadness, Sir Michael, in that you will be
leaving the Department and the Civil Service at the end of this
(Sir Michael Bichard) Two more weeks.
2. May we welcome David Normington who is going
to be your successor? We hope to have as good and productive a
relationship with you as we have had with Sir Michael. Ruth Thompson,
welcome to you also. We have a short amount of time and a great
deal to cover. It is a particularly interesting time when we actually
have a witness before the Committee who we know is going to retire
soon. We have had other experiences when we did not quite know
they were going to retire. I am going to ask you a very obvious
question. When we met you last year we had quite an impressive
impression of progress in many areas of what we are achieving,
what the Government is achieving in educational policy. Could
it be that within a short time of taking up your new appointment
you might be writing articles in the national press totally reversing
the warm and positive things you have been saying to the Committee
in the past? It is going to be interesting to test you on this
and say, today, are we going to get the absolute story or do we
have to wait for two or three months to read it in the Telegraph
or the Times?
(Sir Michael Bichard) No, it is not my style either
to change my position or to comment on people I have worked with
and respected after I have left. You will not see any of that
from me. You might see something about how I would like to see
the Civil Service develop in the future, but you will not see
anything looking back on what has happened in the past.
3. It is a disturbing bit of our recent past
experience that there we were, we had the Chief Inspector of Schools,
who was a very important part of the monitoring system of our
educational progress, who had given us one story in evidence over
a number of years and then immediately we felt that we were not
actually getting what seemed to be the full story from the Chief
Inspector. Were you disturbed by that?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I was disappointed by some of
the things that Chris Woodhead said. Some of them were a surprise,
given what he had said when he had been in post. I am always disappointed
when people go away and comment adversely on previous colleagues,
so I hope I will not do that. I do have views about public sector
management and about the future of the Civil Service and it is
entirely appropriate that I should be able to make those views
known and influence the debate. It will be a forward looking contribution
rather than a backward looking contribution.
4. May I just push you once more? I do not want
you to get into personalities, I just want to get you on the drift
of what Mr Woodhead has been saying since his recent retirement
from the post. Which of the Chris Woodheads is the accurate one:
the reports he has been giving to the Select Committee over the
last two or three years about steady progress in meeting educational
achievements or the sort of thing he has been writing since?
(Sir Michael Bichard) You need to look at OFSTED's
reports over the last two or three years and you will see a consistent
and developing theme, which is that the quality of teaching in
our schools has been improving, that the number of unsatisfactory
lessons is decreasing, that the literacy and numeracy strategy
is succeeding, and I believe it is succeeding, and all of those
are absolutely right. I do not think comments that the previous
Chief Inspector made after he had departed can detract from the
overwhelming evidence which is there in OFSTED reports across
Mr St Aubyn
5. If we want to find out what Chris Woodhead
really felt about his term in office, do you think we are better
served by asking you these questions or by asking him to be a
(Sir Michael Bichard) I was going to say that if you
want to know what Chris Woodhead thinks you should ask Chris Woodhead
not the Permanent Secretary.
Mr Derek Foster
6. You and the Secretary of State in the past
have spoken warmly about the synergy created by the Department
of Education and Employment. Clearly the Working Age Agency, which
is now going to be called Jobcentre Plus, rather complicates that.
If some of the functions which are now the function of the Department
for Education and Employment are hived off to a separate agency,
is it possible to continue the kind of welcome synergies which
you and the Secretary of State have spoken of?
(Sir Michael Bichard) Machinery of Government changes
after the election are a matter for the Prime Minister and it
is not really for meand I would not dream of commenting
on those at this point in time. I believe that the synergy to
which you refer, although it is a word I remember we banned after
two weeks in the merged department because everyone was using
it so frequently, has been shrunk. There are many things which
we would not have been able to do had we not had a merged department,
not least of which is the bringing together of post-16 learning
outside of HE in one body. That must not just be an administrative
change, it has to lead to real improvements in the quality of
teaching and service. There are many things we could not have
done. Your question was: do you necessarily lose that if you reorganise?
The answer to that is no, you do not necessarily lose it. It is
very, very important that whatever the machinery of government
after the election, the interdependence of education and employment,
the links between them, is acknowledged and worked upon very,
very hard. In a knowledge economy education and employment are
the keys to economic success, but also to social justice. We must
make sure that the bridges we built are maintained in whatever
7. I agree with that entirely. The question
then follows: why did we all argue so strongly that education
and employment belonged together if really the synergyI
use that word which you bannedcan be created through some
other mechanism? Why do we have a Department of Education and
Employment if those synergies can be maintained if it is broken
up, or could have been created if it had never been created in
the first place?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is sometimes easier in some
settings to maintain connections and relationships than it is
in others, but it is not impossible in other settings and there
may be other considerations which the Prime Minister needs to
have regard to. It must be a matter for him. My point is that
whatever the machinery, we must make sure that we optimise those
8. David Normington has had a very key role
in making the education and employment merger work. Could we perhaps
ask David if he would like to come in on this?
(Mr Normington) Similarly you have to make any organisational
structure work. Wherever you draw the dividing lines, there is
always another organisation that you have to work with. We have
to work very closely with the DSS now and if the dividing line
is drawn in other places, then you have other kinds of organisational
synergies which you have to create. I think I am saying to you
that providing you know what your objectives are and you work
hard at those objectives and they are shared between different
kinds of organisation, you can make different kinds of organisational
structures work. We have put a lot of effort into creating the
DfEE. Personally I put a lot of effort into it and it will be
disappointing if it is broken up, but you can make different kinds
of organisations work.
Mr Derek Foster
9. In what I might call the real economy, we
are always coming across superb organisations which have worked
extremely hard at teamwork and have in the course of that improved
their productivity, their quality, their customer service and
then some other organisation, very often the City, which has different
shareholder values will come and destroy it. Could it possibly
be that enormous effort has been employed in getting this department
working successfully together, creating a sense of teamwork and
effectiveness and high productivity, high morale from the staff?
Would it be destructive if someone came along and changed the
consideration? If so, how long would it take for that new configuration
to bed in and achieve a certain kind of results?
(Sir Michael Bichard) Personally, I am someone who
is quite reluctant to change structures, because actually what
matters is the way people behave and the values rather than the
structures. If you are going to change structures you need to
take that into account, but actually some people will spend a
lot of time trying to carry on behaving in exactly the same way
in the new structure and you have a couple of years of disruption.
Clearly the Prime Minister will take that into account. I am proud,
we are all proud, of what the DfEE has achieved. You must not
misunderstand what I am saying. I am not actually proposing that
it should be changed or split up. I shall be very, very sad because
it has achieved a huge amount and it has delivered certainly as
much as any other department in Government. That is not to say
that a new organisation will not deliver too, well led.
10. You did tell the Committee in 1996 that
the links between education, employment and training were so strong
that not to have them in the same department risked marginalising
employment. Is that still your view?
(Sir Michael Bichard) I cannot say to staff that I
am going to guarantee that there is not going to be a machinery
of government change, so they should not heed what they are reading
in the press. What I am saying to staff is that what has changed
since 1996 is that employment and education are now centre stage.
They were both separately marginal and marginalised previously.
That is no longer the case. Therefore if there is a reorganisation
then it will be built around those two functions and it will be
a reorganisation from a position of strength. That has changed.
11. I understand what you are saying and there
will be some sympathy for that view on the Committee. However,
if the two are split, how would you ensure that the links you
have said are so important and so valuable in the knowledge economy,
the links between education and employment, are kept at that proper
level, are maintained and that our education system is preparing
people for the real economy as well as doing all the other things
it has to do? How would you make that link if they were in two
separate departments? Do you have any suggestions for us?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It is quite difficult to answer
some of these questions because you are hypothesising on what
the reorganisation would be, but I shall try nonetheless. There
are things that clearly you can do in terms of management teams
meeting and working together, there are things you can do in terms
of joint planning, there are things you can do in terms of joint
targets and joint budgets. These can benot always are but
can bevery practical ways of working closely together.
A lot of it at the end of the day will come down to the personalities
of the two Secretaries of State and the two Permanent Secretaries
and whether or not they get on. One has to be realistic about
this, but if there is a will and if the personalities are okay,
then there are things you can do, which we are beginning to show
with some of the joint working we are developing, to maintain
12. You mentioned previously the success you
thought had been achieved with the 16-Plus agenda from having
the two in the same department. Could you give us any other examples
of successful policies you think have come from the integration
of education and employment?
(Sir Michael Bichard) If you look at the way in which
some of the policies have been implemented, you see some huge
benefits. If you take literacy and numeracy, which David has been
responsible for, I think he would say that actually having some
of the people from the Employment Departmentand David Normington
came from the Employment Departmentmaybe with more experience
in terms of delivery and following through and completion is one
of the reasons why the literacy and numeracy strategy has been
more successful than some of the previous attempts to deliver
national education strategy which has not always been covered
with glory. If you look at the Schools Directorate now, you will
see a large number of people who have not just come from the old
Department of Employment, they have come from the Employment Service,
well within the Department of Employment. There are actually very
few people in senior management positions there who came from
the old Department of Education. What you have seen is our being
able to bring together different skills, creative skills, delivery
skills, in a way which has been very, very helpful. What we have
managed to do is perhaps move away, and it may be a caricature
but there may be some truth in it, from a Department for Education
which was small, quite introspective and very policy orientated.
We now have the broader view and put a higher emphasis upon delivery.
13. Do you think some of that cross-fertilisation
would be lost if it were split into two separate departments?
(Sir Michael Bichard) It need not be, but one of the
things I should like to think the Civil Service could do better
would be to encourage more mobility between departments. There
is a lot of talk about mobility between departments. I do not
see as much of it as I should like let alone bringing people in
from outside. It is not necessarily going to be lost but it needs
to be worked at harder.
14. I want you to try to put yourself here on
this side of the Committee. You know what our job is. We hear
you saying some very interesting things about what has been to
you the excitement of the department being seriously more centre
stage, as you described it. We are sitting here listening to what
you say at a very difficult time of change. Whether we have had
progress or not some of us on this Committee might disagree about,
but the fact of the matter is that from our point of view we see
rumours of a major change in the department, perhaps a total reordering
of the work of the department, we have you as Permanent Secretary
baling out, we have the Chief Inspector of Schools baled out,
we have the Secretary of State making it very clear that he is
baling out. For a successful department which has achieved so
much over the last four years, it is quite a disturbing scenario
for members of this Committee to realise that all the main actors
are disappearing off the scene. Is this because you have done
such a fantastic job that you are hanging up your gloves as a
group or is there a deeper concern?
(Sir Michael Bichard) No, there is not a deeper concern
at all. I cannot speak for the others and the Secretary of State
is going to be here next week. I have decided to go because I
actually do believe that six years is probably the right time
for someone to lead an organisation. If you go on much longer
than that you lose the passion and the energy and the organisation
actually feels in need of refreshing. That is why I left. I said
to the Cabinet Secretary some time ago that I was going to go
on my next birthday which would have been in January next year.
It seemed foolish to be around for five or six months if there
is an election, when the new Secretary of State of whatever party
deserves the right to know the person who is advising them is
going to be there for the rest of their term. It just seemed the
right time for me to go. I have to say I had regard to the fact
that I have some very, very able peopleI shall spare his
blusheswho I think were pushing and rightly pushing to
have their chance. Leigh Lewis who is now Chief Executive of JobCentre
Plus and David are just the people to take it forward. What pleases
me most about going is that I know that although they will do
things a bit differently, although they may even have a bit more
energy, they do actually share the same management values and
leadership values that I have.
15. What you have not been sayingand
may we ask you to use us as a sort of confessionalis what
you have been saying to David and Ruth and others about what the
challenge is now for the department. What are you saying to them?
You are handing over. What are the targets we now go for?
(Sir Michael Bichard) The challenges for the department
in policy terms for the future are certainly around secondary
education which David has been closely involved in and where the
Government has set out its thinking quite recently; certainly
in terms of seeking to achieve full employment and building onyou
may want to challenge this and discuss itthe success of
the New Deal. There are challenges in the world of HE, which are
about increasing access, protecting quality and delivering a sector
which is capable of competing on what is going to be an increasingly
global stage. We have concerns right across everything we are
doing about public sector recruitment. We do have, if not a crisis,
problems in terms of teacher recruitment, but it is not just teacher
recruitment, it is also ensuring that we have people who can deliver
our Government child care strategy. Wherever you look across the
public sector, particularly in inner cities, there are issues
there. Finally, I hope that they will carry onand I am
getting bored with the term modernising government but what we
are talking about istransforming the way in which the department
and the Civil Service work. There is certainly a lot more to do
16. I am pleased that you said earlier on that
you are looking forward and not back. Clearly we have the lessons
to have learned from where we have come from. If you take those
lessons and project them, you have said what we should be doing
but what are the things we should not be doing perhaps? What are
those things whereby we have learned the lesson and we do not
go down that path again? Are there any rows which the education
and the employment department or departments ought to be aware
(Sir Michael Bichard) That is a big question to ask
without notice. There are some areas where we need to reflect
upon the extent to which we are prescribing and intervening. There
have been very good reasons why in certain areas we have prescribed
quite strongly from the centre, not least around literacy and
numeracy. One of the most difficult decisions you have to make
in public administration is when you centralise and when you devolve.
When do you prescribe and when do you give discretion? As officials,
we as often get that wrong as we get it right. It is something
you have constantly to be asking yourself and naturally politicians
need to ask themselves as well. There is no coded message there.
I am sure the Secretary of State will say exactly the same thing.
We do need to keep asking ourselves about that balance. I am sure
we need to be concerned about levels of bureaucracy and that is
not just in schools but it is right across all of our sectors.
Our task ought to be to support and facilitate and we need to
be concerned if processes become excessively bureaucratic or are
actually developed into something which is excessively bureaucratic.
It is not always bureaucratic when it leaves the department, but
sometimes it is pretty bureaucratic when you are on the receiving
end in a classroom or in a lecture theatre and that is something
which I am just beginning to learn from a slightly different perspective
now. We need to ask ourselves constantly whether we have the balance
right and whether or not the bureaucracy can be reduced. We are
reducing bureaucracy in schools, there is absolutely no doubt
about that in terms of reducing the amount of paper which is going
out and in terms of simplifying things like the Standards Fund.
That is something where we really have to keep up the pressure.
17. May I follow that up with one specific?
Do you think we have learned, in terms of external and self-inspection,
(Sir Michael Bichard) In my view self-evaluation is
always important. I should always want to encourage institutions,
whether we are talking about schools or universities, to start
from a base of rigorous self-assessment and self-evaluation. The
history of education in this country is that that has not alone
been sufficient and that some external inspection and challenge
is necessary. I believe it still is necessary and I believe it
still is necessary and will continue to be necessary.
18. I am really asking where you think the swing
of the pendulum on that particular issue is.
(Sir Michael Bichard) I was going to go on but I stopped
myself making a slightly banal comment about it being a matter
of getting the balance right. This is not the first time I have
said this, but I do not believe you ever achieve quality, which
is what we are about, quality and education just from inspection.
You do not achieve quality just by telling people where they got
things wrong. You actually have to help and support them to get
it right and you have to develop within institutions a real sense
of commitment to quality and continuous improvement. You need
challenge but you need ownership and you need self-assessment
19. First on the issue of universities, you
referred to quality education in universities. The figures quite
clearly show that there has been a significant drop in the unit
cost funding in universities since before this Government changed,
since 1995-96; it was something like £5,310 to £4,810
at present, so quite a chunk has dropped off between 1995-96 and
the projection for this year and the coming years. Is that a problem?
Is it the fact that the Government is now being fair to universities
and were simply paying over the odds before, or is there something
about the political priorities here which we should be picking
up, where the schools are deemed to be a politically higher priority
than higher education and that therefore it is safe either to
cut or not increase higher education funding?
(Sir Michael Bichard) You will remember that at the
time of the Dearing report the recommendation which was accepted
by Government was that the reduction in unit funding should be
no more than one per cent a year. In actual fact since then it
has been less than one per cent a year on whatever price base
you use, until this year when there has actually been an increase
in unit funding, just under one per cent, but that is the first
increase in some 15 years. It is not right to say that it is a
constant story of reduction in unit funding: there has been an
increase. Has HE had a poor deal compared with schools? Any Government
has to have some priorities and primary education was a priority,
New Deal was a priority. The Government also introduced tuition
fees for the first time and that was a major change in terms of
funding for HE. There is a general feeling in HE, which is of
course made up of autonomous institutions, that they should be
given some scope, some freedom, some time to develop and that
is what they have been given. The future for HE does raise questions
about how we are going to compete on a global stage when our universities
are very much smaller than, for example, most American universities.
Do we have decision-making processes in place in enough of our
universities to ensure that opportunities are grasped when they
arise and that threats are dealt with quickly when they arise?
The answer is that a number of our universities have made very
significant changes to their governance systems but not all of
them. There are also issues which the Secretary of State has drawn
out around equality and that is not just a marginal issue. One
must ask if only 10 per cent of your professorial staff are women
whether or not you are liberating all the talent which is available
to the HE sector. There are big questions to ask in terms of the
future of HE in a global setting.