Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-59)



  40. Will they identify colleges that do not have a buddy system and take appropriate action?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The inspection system is identifying areas of work which it would expect to find, for example monitoring attendance, and our reporting on whether or not they are finding evidence of that in college inspections, so the inspection system does bring that out.

  41. I must say I was surprised on Page 4, Paragraph 13 to see that "colleges should monitor student absence closely" should have to be picked up and jointly signed off in a Report like this. It would be trite to put it in if it were not happening.
  (Professor Melville) Let me make the distinction. All colleges are required to monitor student absence. The point that the Report makes is that that is done immediately. In a sense the step forward that the best colleges have taken is to do that daily. A very good example is given of a college that is doing this. In the morning a register is brought in and tutors who have been appropriately trained phone their homes and ask where the students are. That is the best practice that has been drawn out, but colleges are not able to claim funding unless they keep appropriate records of student absences.

  42. What about the criticism that that sort of absence data takes 14 months or so to publish?
  (Professor Melville) The reference is to the overall data, not just absence data. If we take the straightforward data, which is A-level results, then it is published on exactly the same timescale as with schools. At the moment because the funding system relies on the audit of the completion data or achievement data from the exam boards, then we publish it after it has been audited. I think the criticism is quite a reasonable one. It would be of value to publish data earlier, even if it were partial or provisional, and the web site provides the means of doing this. We have certainly been looking at that following this review to look at ways in which we can get, albeit partial data, earlier so that it is available for benchmarking comparisons.

  43. What the Report implies, though, is that for data that shows up some lack of performance, that is perhaps continued into the next student year and, again, if it is 14 months, into the student year after that before it is going to be picked up by you.
  (Professor Melville) Naturally it is going to continue into the next student year because of the date the exam boards produce their output. That is round about November.

  44. Unlike A-levels where you could pick it up and the Department could get into hyper mode to make any changes necessary?
  (Professor Melville) I think the point is well taken that the earlier the appropriate bodies can get the data out the faster the turn around in terms of the action. I think what is suggested here is something that could be taken on board in future.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) There is an associated data point which I think is important to a number of the questions that have been asked already this evening and that is our inability to track students from one college to another or from one course to another. I was very pleased that the Report appeared to be supporting our efforts to introduce a student tracking system. We are currently pursuing that with the Office of the Information Commissioner. I think if we can have support from this Committee and from the National Audit Office in that task it would be very helpful because the question about exit, where are people going and why are they going, is very difficult if you cannot follow them from college to college and course to course and track them and report their progress.

  45. The Report seems critical of "lax methods used to identify and improve the weakest teaching in course delivery and ensure consistency in the quality of courses."
  (Professor Melville) I would not say it is critical in general terms. What it is saying is that some colleges have come much further than others. I do not think we have anything that could remotely be described as a "lax" system of inspection and audit within the system. This is being strengthened in the new inspection and audit arrangements that are proposed by the Learning and Skills Council.

  46. If colleges need to "increase the rigour of methods", which is the exact phrase agreed in this Report by you, it seems to me there must be laxity there.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I was referring earlier to the introduction of mandatory self-assessment, the local Learning and Skills Councils' regular reviews which will take into account the results of those self-assessments and all the performance data and all the inspections that are available, the regular four yearly inspections, the ability to intervene where we have got particularly poor provision in a college or in a part of a college. I think we are constantly improving both the monitoring and the ability to apply pressure where necessary in the system.

  47. I am against glib comparisons, but if you take a fast wheel change operation like Kwik-Fit, with hundreds of outlets and thousands of staff, I cannot see them accepting as an excuse that a tyre might not match the car or there was some weak training of their staff or course delivery, although there may be different orders of complexity in this. That is the approach that seems to have been taken today, that such things are just not acceptable when it comes to cars but they are acceptable when it comes to people.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not believe that they are acceptable to young people and I believe that the quality system that we have introduced gradually over the last few years, the specialist system we have introduced is now pretty rigorous. We have had a system where actually a large number of teachers have not been qualified, we are introducing mandatory qualifications. We have a system where we have not been rewarding the best teachers in the way we are now in schools and we are changing that. We have tightened the screws of poor performance increasingly in recent years, and your experience of Kwik-Fit is clearly better than mine over the years.

  48. Just to outline, again, if I missed it, what is being done to recruit more working class students and retain them?
  (Professor David Melville) This was a very important area. While we were doing the expansion in further education we introduced a premium for colleges so there was an incentive to recruit students. We used home address post codes as a proxy so they attract a premium 10 per cent increase in the funding recognising what is needed. The Kennedy Committee, chaired by Helena Kennedy, highlighted the good practice in this area. We do have a significant number of colleges where more than 70 per cent of students are from deprived neighbourhoods. In the 1997-98 letter of guidance from the Secretary of State he set the targets for the recruitment of what we call high widening participation students, and those targets have been met and specific funds were allocated for expansion in those areas. Of course we monitor and benchmark not just against students in general but also we pick out colleges that have what we call high widening participation factors, a high proportion of students from deprived areas. Interestingly, a number of the colleges that perform well in these tables are precisely those colleges and, therefore, as we indicated earlier, good practice is being promulgated. Those colleges that do very well achieve accredited status or are beacons and are given £50,000 to disseminate good practice against an agreed programme.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) It is worth pointing out, and looking ahead, that one of the things we were very keen to do is to place a responsibility on the Learning and Skills Council to promote equality of opportunity, not just in ethnic minority communities but right across the piece. They will have a statutory responsibility which you will be able to monitor them on, which I think no other statutory body has in quite those terms.

  49. I took some reassurance from your last answer, Sir Michael, on the quality of training teachers themselves and the pay structure, which is enabling you to help overcome recruitment problems. What is your prognosis about that now?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) One of the things we tried to do in schools, and we need to do it in colleges too, is to raise the status of the profession. That is one of the reasons why we want to ensure that everyone teaching in a college is qualified. We are taking steps to ensure that that happens pretty quickly with people coming into the system and we are looking to ensure that people already in the system are supported in obtaining a qualification. I am very confident we can make progress there. We are also trying to provide more pay for the best teachers. We are in discussions with unions at the moment as to how that can best be done. We are introducing an additional grade or scale to encourage the very best teachers to stay in the classroom or the lecture theatre rather than moving on to administration or management. We are trying to ensure that we have good teachers who are well paid and who are encouraged to stay in the lecture theatre. We also want to root out the teachers who are not good enough.

  Mr Griffiths: Thank you.

Mr Steinberg

  50. I want to progress along the same sort of line of questioning, on page 26, paragraph 5.10, the Chairman mentioned this, and when I read it I got exactly the same sort of feeling as he did. The information here, if I have interpreted it correctly, is quite worrying. You must read into it what is not actually stated. If you read into it it says that something like 90 per cent of teaching observed was at least satisfactory, with only 50 per cent of that actually being good. My maths are not very good, I scraped an O-level and it has not improved since, so it could well be wrong. That means that 55 per cent of further education teaching was only satisfactory or unsatisfactory; is that right?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We did not spot there was an error there and the 50 per cent is incorrect, it should be 62 per cent, and it has now gone up to 64 per cent. It is by no means as bad as those figures are suggesting.

  51. What does it make those figures now?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) For the year in question it should be 62 per cent and not 50 per cent, and it has now gone up to 64 per cent. We are talking about 10 per cent of teaching not being to a satisfactory level. We are talking about 36 per cent of teaching not yet being good or outstanding. We should not be complacent. I do not think that that is a bad base on which we can build. It is certainly a huge improvement, I think, on the position five or 10 years ago.

  52. If that was a similar scenario in secondary education would you be saying the same thing?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We are applying some of the same approaches in the world of FE that we have applied in teaching. If you read the most recent OFSTED report on schools you will find that the number of unsatisfactory lessons has reduced dramatically. Inevitably there will always be some unsatisfactory lessons. It is already, in terms of unsatisfactory lessons, pretty low. What we need to ensure is that the good and the outstanding increases to nearer 100 per cent.

  53. If you read on it says, "In general staff on part-time contracts account for a significant proportion of total teaching time and need to bring their work up to standard". That is not a very good indictment on the standard of teaching and further education if such a high proportion of part-time teachers are not delivering the goods.
  (Professor David Melville) I think it is important to note that generally we have been reporting part-time teachers separately for the last four years, and part-time teachers are slightly worse in terms of teaching observations than full-time teachers. That is why we have introduced specific programmes in the Standards Fund relating to part-time teachers. We put something like £2 million in last year to the Standards Fund specifically for supporting improvements.

  54. Why has the DfEE not made this a high priority to ensure that there was a high quality staff regime because we have all known this has been going on for years and years and years. We have all known the standard or some teaching in further education colleges has been pretty poor for years, and yet nothing seems to have been done about it for years.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not accept that at all.

  55. Have you been into many further education colleges?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Indeed, I have, and my son spent some time in a further education college, which cannot be said of every Permanent Secretary, so I have had first hand experience of such colleges, and I know how important they are. I do not accept that we have given this a low priority over the last five years. We have invested very considerable sums of money.

  56. I am going back further than five years.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think I can only be held responsible for the last five years.

  57. You are not here to be responsible, you are hear to answer questions for the department over the last 20 years.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am here to be personally responsible for the last five or six years, because I have been the Accounting Officer. The whole point of this Committee is to hold the accounting officer responsible.


  58. I am afraid, Sir Michael, you are not quite right on that. The constitutional diction, or whatever that may be, is that accounting officers are responsible for all preceding accounting officers. Sometimes we have people here who were not there at the time of the action we are discussing. Mr Steinberg is correct.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) That was not, with respect, the point that was being made. The point that was being made was that I was not responsible for the last five or six years. The point I am making is that I consider myself to be responsible for the last five or six years and I am entirely aware of the fact I am also held responsible for what went on in the period before that. The point I want to make is that over the last five or six years in particular we have taken a lot of action to improve the quality of further education, and I believe that we have had some success. If you look at the figures on retention and achievement over that period of time you will see significant improvements.

Mr Steinberg

  59. I will move on to that. When I read the Report, because of what I read in chapter five it appeared to me it was no wonder that standards and achievements have not been all that high if you have a situation where the standard of teaching has been so low.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) We have an independent inspection process which concludes what 90 per cent of the teaching observed is satisfactory and 64 per cent of it is now good or outstanding. I do not think that suggests that we have a system here which is in serious decline, it is improving.

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