Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. But are you convinced there is a direct relationship between the patterns of spending and the achievements of the targets; for example, because higher education spending has been reduced, have we seen a falling away in the quality of HE or a failure to meet the targets in HE?
  (Mr Normington) Not really, no.

  21. So what does that tell us about the contributory policy then?
  (Dr Thompson) May I just interject. I think it is important to bear in mind that the balance of spending in higher education has shifted, in that there is a move towards more contribution from the student, and therefore there has been a very small decline in the amount of money coming in from the Government, relatively; actually, the shift is not that great, and, if you look at the total expenditure on the services of the universities and higher education, I do not think you would find that there had been a decrease in overall spending. But it is where the money is coming from that has changed. So I think that is important to put that on the record as well.

  22. Can I pursue this one, because the unit cost in HE and in FE has remained fairly constant.
  (Mr Normington) It has gone up in HE this year, for the first time for quite a lot of years.

  23. But what do you learn about the performance of HE and FE; because, particularly in FE at the moment, there is considerable concern, following the Secretary of State's recent speech about the changes she is looking for in FE? What I am interested in is what mechanisms you have, and how do you come to conclusions about where to allocate future growth and where to make reductions?
  (Mr Normington) Clearly, the performance of different sectors has to be looked at not just in absolute terms but also in relation to individual institutions, and in all sectors there is a great variety of performance; and often we are looking at the benchmarks of performance for particular types of institution. Some of the most important data that is provided on schools, for instance, is the autumn package of data, which takes similar types of schools and compares their performance, in relation to where they are, the nature of their pupils, and so on, and we have been refining that, so that you can actually compare schools against like schools. What you see there is quite a range of performance, even within a particular band. What I cannot prove to you, because the evidence clearly is not there, is that you get a certain level of performance for a certain input of resource, I cannot prove that in any of our sectors, because there are so many factors affecting that. Money either can be spent well or it can be spent badly; very often, the leadership and management of the organisation that is getting the money is the key to whether you get more output or not. And I guess that if there is a weakness in all our analysis it is that you cannot produce a neat correlation between the money going in and the output you can get; you can, in general terms, but there are too many factors intervening which get in the way of doing that.

  24. If I could ask one further thing about the link with targets. In your Report, you provide a checklist as to the extent to which targets have been met, or not met. Does it follow that where the Department has not met the targets set, my recollection is, within the Skills area, that the Chairman just focused on, this is problematic, does it follow then that in the next three-year period we are likely to see an increase in resource, in an attempt to achieve those targets, or not, and how do you deal with the failure to meet targets, or do you revise targets downwards?
  (Mr Normington) We may revise targets downwards, of course, because setting targets is an imprecise science, and sometimes you get new evidence about it. If we are not meeting targets, the first discussion with the Treasury and others in any spending review is why are you not meeting them; is it an issue of ineffective delivery, what are the blockages to meeting them, and, if you do need more money, where is that money going to have its greatest impact. So it does not necessarily follow, nor should it, that because there is poor performance in an area you need to put more money into it; it may be that the best place to put money in some sectors would be in a great injection into the development of leadership and of good leaders, that may be the best thing to do. So, I am afraid, unfortunately, it does not follow that if an area has been poor performing it gets more money; I say `unfortunately', I do not think that would be right, actually.

  25. But the overall message is, there is no discernible relationship between the level of investment and the level of achievement?
  (Mr Normington) No, I do not think I am saying that. If you take any institution, if you take any of our schools, colleges or higher education, clearly, there is a relationship between the money you put in, the quality of staff you can recruit, the types of support you can give to different kinds of pupils and students, some of whom have much greater barriers to achievement than others. I think we know quite a lot about that; and that does infuse a lot of our policies, it infuses local authority funding as well, to a degree. And what I cannot prove to you is that the injection of a specific amount of extra money in a particular area automatically produces good outputs in a particular area. I think I can show you, in general terms, that the injection of money overall has produced certain outputs.

Valerie Davey

  26. I would like to press you further on the schools issue, in particular. You said earlier that the increase in the funding to schools, on a unit basis, ranges from anything from 3 per cent to 10 per cent. Does not that alarm you, given what you have just said?
  (Mr Normington) The Government has had to try to damp the effects of that, as I recall. I think the DTLR, as it was, actually put in a floor of 4 per cent, and actually injected money to ensure that that was the case. It does not alarm me, it is a fact though, and that is why the Government is in the process of trying, yet again, I do not mean this Government yet again, but it happens every few years, to redraw local authority finance; and the next phase of that, I think, will be a consultation in July, which will actually look at a new formula for education, which will try to address this issue of the disparities. There will always need to be differences, different levels of funding, according to different need; you will always need to take account of the nature of the area in which you are putting money, you will also need to take account of the costs of recruiting staff in those areas. But the Government is committed to producing a basic level of entitlement for per pupil spending, or for education school spending, and then looking at the factors that you add to that, to try to create a much more transparent system. Because almost no-one in the system is happy with the present way in which it works, it is not transparent, it is very difficult to understand why it works in a particular way, in a particular authority, and some members of the Committee are in areas where funding is quite low, and it is very difficult to explain why that is; and we are in the process of trying to put that right. I just know that this is the most difficult thing in all Government to put right.

  27. One of the ways in which the Department, and indeed the Minister, has done it, in the past few years, is to add additional funding directly to schools. Now would the Department find it easier, and is that the way in which they wish to see funding from the Department go, directly to schools, in other words, bypassing the local education authorities?
  (Mr Normington) That is not the Government's policy. A certain amount of money goes direct to schools, it is an increasing amount; there are a number of blocks. The amount of money that goes to schools via local education authorities' main spending, and which they can then adjust as they wish, or to a degree, anyway, is about 86 per cent of total resource, the total schools budget; 14 per cent, therefore, by definition, is in other categories. Some of it is in the standards fund, that is the main chunk, which is hypothecated to some particular purposes, and some of it, about £600 million, is actually in the schools standards grant, which is a grant which is administered by local authorities, but that is simply an administrative convenience, it goes direct to schools. The Government's policy is clear, that local authorities have a role in this, and therefore you have to leave them with some discretion to decide locally how they allocate that money.

  28. Given the title of one of those budgets, schools standards, is there any more direct link between the spending of that money and standards in schools than the general funding, which you talked about earlier?
  (Mr Normington) No. It is really just a name that was given to it, but to emphasise that, actually, we mind about standards. But that money, for a typical secondary school, I suppose it is about £70,000, it is a significant amount of money, and it is money that comes to them and they are assured of getting it for the three years of this current Spending Review period.

  Chairman: Thank you for that, Mr Normington.

Mr Baron

  29. Mr Normington, sixth-form colleges; there has been a change with regard to their funding, in the sense that the Learning and Skills Council have now taken on this responsibility, and certainly in my constituency it has caused an element of disruption. Sixth-form colleges, at least two in my constituency, are down something like £150,000 on what they were envisaging that they were going to receive, simply because it appears that the Learning and Skills Council has taken on the responsibility and the formula has been tweaked somewhat. This was received by the schools at very short notice, this news, and it has caused consternation. Why was that change implemented; can you throw any light on this, from my point of view?
  (Mr Normington) Can I just check, are you talking about school sixth-forms or sixth-form colleges?

  30. I am terribly sorry, I am talking about school sixth-forms, sixth-forms within schools, rather than sixth-forms in colleges.
  (Mr Normington) Of course, that is the main change that has taken place. When the Learning and Skills Council was set up, it was decided that there should be a single funding route for post-16 education and training, so that, over time, and it is over time, college provision, separate sixth-form college provision, sixth-forms could be funded on the same basis according to a national formula. And that has meant that school sixth-forms, for the first time this year, are getting their money from the Learning and Skills Council, but they are getting it through local education authorities, the local Learning and Skills Council applies its formula, puts it to the local education authority, which then puts the money to the schools. Your schools are very unfortunate, because two-thirds of schools with sixth-forms have got more money than they got the previous year out of this formula, and, I must say, that surprised us a little, but that was the way the formula worked. I have explained the underlying reason for the change; there has been some disruption, but, for a lot of schools, it has worked in their favour. There is supposed to be, and this is the bit that is sort of puzzling me about your comment, there is, a real-terms guarantee for sixth-form funding, so, unless their pupil numbers have changed, there is not supposed to be any loss of funding, year on year, once inflation has been taken into account. So it should not be the case, and, if it is the case, I would happily look into it.

  31. What I may do is pursue this after this Committee meeting with you, but there is no doubt about it, two of the schools with sixth-forms in them are down quite significantly; and what perturbs them more than anything else is the fact that they were given very little notice about this change. But perhaps we should correspond.
  (Mr Normington) I will be very happy to take this up. It is just possible that they are down against an expectation; because what happened here was that schools were given illustrations of what their budget was going to be, which was increased very significantly on the previous year; the local authorities then found it very difficult to meet that budget allocation, and it was agreed that, though they had to provide an increase on the previous year, it could be less than the total allocation. So it could be that their expectations about what they were going to get were disappointed and they got that news very late. But I will look into it.

  Chairman: Thank you for that, Mr Normington.

Mr Simmonds

  32. Can I follow up, Mr Normington, one of the points that Val Davey was making earlier, about the proportion of funding that is circumventing LEAs and going directly to schools. Do you see that proportion increasing or decreasing, in the forthcoming years?
  (Mr Normington) I do not know, for sure, I think it depends on how the Spending Review goes. I am not anticipating a major shift in the way in which those proportions I described work out; there has been some increase in the direct money going to schools. No, I cannot be sure yet. I will be clearer after the Spending Review.

  33. I am not concerned with the total sum of money itself, but the proportions that you gave figures for earlier?
  (Mr Normington) I know that, but, in a sense, that is an issue in the Spending Review too, it is an issue about the total amounts of money, but also where and how it is spent, and it could go into any of those three blocks I described.

  34. I am interested in that response, because the response we got from the Minister, that we interviewed on Monday, was very different from that.
  (Mr Normington) That is possible.

  Chairman: We are moving to schools' expenditure.

Mr Turner

  35. The Secretary of State has said that comprehensive schools have failed to deliver for a large number of their pupils, but she is still wedded to the comprehensive principle. Is that the triumph of ideology over experience?
  (Mr Normington) I am not sure I should be taken too far into this, because, after all, this is the Secretary of State's policy. What she was saying was that some comprehensive schools are a lot better than others, which is patently obvious and just a fact, and all the policies are designed to try to ensure that the comprehensive system does deliver higher performance, that is what it is all about. It is a very interesting speech, in terms of, I know it got a headline, but actually there are a lot of things in there about her disappointment with what the comprehensive system has delivered up to now, but she is saying that we are putting in place the policies to try to make the comprehensive system perform everywhere better, because that is our objective. If we could do that, that would be a terrific achievement.

  36. And, effectively, what those policies do is abolish the comprehensive system as we know it, and revert to a much more disparate system?
  (Mr Normington) Well they preserve an important element in the comprehensive system about admissions, they do not introduce lots of selection; in that sense, the comprehensive system is, certainly in her speech she says that very clearly, she is not proposing to change that element. What she is saying is that the comprehensive system needs to be more diverse, with many more schools with a distinctive mission, ethos, aiming higher, and Specialist Schools, for instance, are one of the routes for achieving that. So when you look at the model of comprehensive schools, it will not be just a lot of community schools that look the same, it will be schools with a distinctive path of excellence, but not schools that select.

  37. Right. The thing which concerns me, you see, is whether you measure the effectiveness of your policies effectively, and it seems there has been a big shift in the Government's policy, certainly from the rhetoric of the early years and even before they came into office, from one which supported a reversal of many of the policies that were adopted by previous Governments to one which goes for more difference between schools. But I am not sure on what that is based. How did Ministers come to the conclusion that what the previous Government was going for was broadly right, not wrong?
  (Mr Normington) I think you will want to ask the Secretary of State that question, rather than me.

  38. But you devised that, presumably?
  (Mr Normington) Yes. If you take the Specialist Schools policies, which, after all, have become a very important part of the reform of secondary education, what we all saw about Specialist Schools was that standards were improving there, and appeared to be improving faster than in the rest of the system. And when you have evidence of that kind of success, clearly, you say to yourself, "Well, could we make this a much wider element in the reform," and we did not have that evidence so clearly in 1997 because there were not so many, and the Specialist Schools programme was not as developed as it is now. But there is nothing surprising about that, that was the process that was going on.

  39. But similarly on greater autonomy for schools, that was evidence which you presented, that greater autonomy was successful and Ministers therefore moved perhaps further in the direction of greater autonomy than they did in the early years?
  (Mr Normington) I think these things go in waves. The Government came in with a clear commitment to abolish grant-maintained schools, that was its clear intention, it is not going back on that, but there is a growing belief that, as more schools become successful, you ought to be able to give them more freedom to innovate and create greater success, and that has become a major theme of Government policy in the second term.

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