Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE 2002

MR DAVID NORMINGTON AND DR RUTH THOMPSON

  40. But your view then is that schools which become successful are entitled to freedom to innovate, and not that schools which enjoy freedom to innovate are more likely to become successful?
  (Mr Normington) I think there is some evidence of both those statements, in fact. The Government's policy is that schools should earn their autonomy. Can I just make a point though, that all through this period, and going right back to the late eighties, what we have developed in this country is the most devolved school system, in terms of governance and the way budgets work, and so on, of any country bar a very small number, it is arguable that the Netherlands is one that has a more devolved system than ours. It is a very devolved system, and that was a policy developed under the last Government, and it has continued under this, with the one exception that grant-maintained schools, which was really about the way in which funding was routed, i.e. we did not go through the local authority, that was one of the main changes in 1997. But what did not happen then was a major rowing-back on the freedoms which those schools had, because they were able to take foundation status, with many of the freedoms and autonomies which they had had as grant-maintained schools.

Paul Holmes

  41. I was fascinated by something you just said, and hopefully you can clarify something which, when I asked the Minister on Monday, I certainly did not feel he did, and I have now been able to understand the rationale for what the Secretary of State said as well. You were saying that the Secretary of State's speech on Monday was still saying that she was committed to the idea of comprehensive schools, and you said that Specialist Schools, for example, do not undermine the idea of comprehensive schools. If Specialist Schools and City Technology Colleges and Beacon Schools, and all the rest of it, are allowed to select up to 10 per cent of their pupils by aptitude, which I cannot see any other version about whether it is another word for ability, if they can select 10 per cent of their pupils, and they also have more money and more status, and therefore mobile, aspirational parents tend to select those schools, in various ways, by getting their kids into them, that means that, in any given area, around 40-50 per cent, which is the Government's ambition by the time of the next election, will be Specialist Schools. So, in any given area, up to half the schools have got more money, more status and the right to select up to 10 per cent by aptitude or ability. How can the other half of the schools in that area still be comprehensive; they cannot have a comprehensive intake if the most able pupils, that are the pupils with the most aptitude, if you prefer that word, have gone to the Specialist Schools?
  (Mr Normington) As a matter of fact, almost no Specialist Schools do select on aptitude; that is not what most of them want to do.

  42. But the number is increasing?
  (Mr Normington) The number of schools is increasing. I would be very surprised if we have seen much increase in selection, but we will have to see about that. Two particular things which relate to what the Secretary of State said. One was that what the Secretary of State was describing was a whole-system approach, she wants every school to be on this map of improvement, they will be in different places but the aim is that all schools should be moving up and achieving. And she would like many more schools to aspire to be Specialist Schools, or to have some kind of similar special ethos or direction. Secondly, it was a very important change in 1997 that Specialist Schools were required, as part of gaining their specialism, to share their expertise and experience with other schools; and an important element, as the policy is developing, is actually having groups and associations of schools in an area, working together, so that if one is a beacon in technology they share that expertise with others. And we have some very interesting examples of that, that is a trend that is growing. There is a lot to be debated about the Secretary of State's speech, which at the moment we have not yet seen. I would really like it if people read the speech and had a serious debate about it. I know she would, too.

  43. I have read the speech very, very carefully, and I find it very alarming, the way it talks about not just creating, which used to be our criticism, a two-tier system of schooling, but she talks clearly about a multi-tiered system, where schools are very firmly pigeon-holed into different levels. And, again, the aspirational parents, who look at those league tables and this multi-tiered approach, are going to be saying, quite clearly, "I want my children to go to that one that's in the top tiers, and not to that one that's in the bottom tiers." And that can only take us back, in a de facto way, to grammar schools and secondary moderns, by backdoor methods?
  (Mr Normington) They are saying that already.

  44. And this is going to make it even worse, accelerate it?
  (Mr Normington) No, because the aim of the policy is to move schools upwards. One of the things about the tiers, some of the tiers are about performance; there is a whole group of weak schools, with low performance, and an important element of the whole approach, and indeed of the resourcing, is to support those schools in moving out of that weakness, so they can work towards Specialist, or some other similar status, so that we do not have a two-tier system. This is an aspiration to move everyone out of the categories of weakness and failure, so that we have a system where groups of strong schools in every area are providing much better quality education and much better choice for all pupils, which is, after all, what the comprehensive system was about.

  45. The Minister, again on Monday, said that he wanted to hear the evidence, he wanted to base his policies on evidence. You have just talked about Specialist Schools being required to share with their neighbours; well, again, a recent report showed quite clearly, and my experience as a teacher up until last year shows quite clearly, that Specialist Schools do not do that. In the recent report, the only Specialist Schools that were seen to share their expertise and facilities with their neighbours were sports colleges, the Sports Schools, and the others, basically, just did not. And, as I say, certainly in my experience as a teacher they did not. You were talking about why Specialist Schools were seen to be increasingly effective in raising standards; well, again, some of the evidence for that is that they take fewer children with special needs than the national average, they take fewer children who qualify for school meals than the national average, in other words, they are selecting by backdoor methods. Now some of the evidence, if you are using an evidence-based approach, does seem rather to contradict what you and the Minister are saying?
  (Mr Normington) You are referring to the OFSTED work, are you not? OFSTED said that this was not yet a strong enough element, that is true; in fact, they also said, which is also true, that many Specialist Schools are more comfortable linking with their primary schools than they are with other secondary schools with whom they feel they are in competition. And I think that remains a major issue, but one which the Secretary of State was saying she wanted to change. If one is trying to create a universal system and a universally more excellent system, we do have to tackle some of the issues you described, about which schools are taking which pupils, and ensuring that all schools take their share of pupils who need extra support and help. And that is what the comprehensive system is about as well and what the Secretary of State was also implying, I think, when she said, "I want to preserve the best principles of the comprehensive system but I actually want to find ways of creating many more excellent secondary schools."

  46. And just the last point was one I forgot to mention, that, obviously, if schools do have the status and the money, and all the rest of it, of being Beacon Schools and Specialist Schools, they become oversubscribed, and it does mean that, in terms of disruptive pupils, they have far less pressure upon them to take in disruptive pupils, because their places are full, and when the LEA says, "We need to allocate this pupil," they can say, "But we are bursting at the seams." And, of course, the disruptive pupils, again, I speak with 20-odd years' experience as a teacher, the disruptive pupils end up in the schools that are lower down whatever tiered structure you have got at the time which have got a spare place, and they cannot refuse to take them. So you get into a cycle of deprivation at one school, while the other school is getting more and more successful?
  (Mr Normington) But a lot of what was being said, in the underlying approach in that speech, is that you get schools to work together, to share their excellence, for strong schools to link with weaker schools, to help them get better, so that you try to deal with those issues. There will always be some issues like those you have described, but we have to work harder to minimise them.

Chairman

  47. Your policy of encouraging the members of your Department to get out and spend time in schools, would that have been more effective if it went right down from top to bottom, that it was almost a part of the contract, that anyone who works for your Department spends the minimum of a week in a real school, in what I call a real part of the country? I am glad that senior managers are encouraged to do this, and, indeed, Sir Michael Bichard encouraged this Select Committee and its members to do more of it, and that is one of the reasons we are going to spend a week in Birmingham schools. But would not this be a rather better policy; because I remember very clearly that when someone, I believe, in No.10, used the description "bog-standard comprehensives," it caused great offence in your Department, because it took people's eyes away from the serious debate about improving all schools? Is it not the same, in terms of, you asked us all to read carefully the Secretary of State's speech, we would have done so much better if the whole media had not gone off, and a lot more people would have read the full content of the speech, if this `not touching some schools with a bargepole' had not been included? Now I do not expect a comment on that, but it is strange, is it not, that the Department for Education and Employment, furious about `bog-standard', a year later the Secretary of State uses "wouldn't touch with a bargepole." And I feel for the people that woke up this morning whose children go to schools that the Secretary of State would not touch with a bargepole. Would you not feel the same?
  (Mr Normington) Yes; because we have to feel, as parents, or as relatives of children in the system, if they are going to schools that are not up to scratch then we are all failing them. And, in a sense, that was what the Secretary of State was saying. It is true, I think, a lot of people, teachers included, will recognise precisely what the Secretary of State was saying; but I will not go further with that comment.

  48. But we cannot have it both ways, can we; the people who criticised `bog-standard' then used an equally offensive term? And, certainly, as the Chairman of this Committee, I do not like either description.
  (Mr Normington) I am not agreeing with you that there was outrage about `bog-standard', I do not want to get into those phrases particularly. I am just saying that, if you are in the business of trying to improve education, you need to start from the reality of what the education system is like. We were talking to Mr Holmes about that, and one of the realities is that there is great variation in performance, and some schools are not performing well enough. And one of the disappointing things about the last 24 hours is the way in which people seem to want to deny that as a fact, when the general population knows it all too clearly. Let us start from that position and see what we can do to make it better. The whole effort of Ministers and the Department is to try to ensure that many more schools are excellent. And may I just agree with you on the other point, which is, we have started, as a major theme, for quite some time, we have been getting our staff out into schools, colleges, universities, to see what it is like; often those are quite short stays. The most recent change that I have made is to say, "You need to be long enough in a school to see what its tempo is, to see what a typical day or a typical week is like." I cannot commit myself to sending 4,000 staff in short order to spend a week in a school, just because I have some work to do in the Department, but therefore I thought it was sensible to start actually with our middle managers, who have a lot of influence on the people who work for them and on the policy, and get them doing that. I would like to extend it beyond that. I certainly think it ought to happen with further education colleges and some of the other people we deal with. It makes a really big impact on people in quite a short time. The other thing is, more exchange with the system, more bringing people in from the education system to work with us, on secondments, attachments, and so on; we have about 110 inward secondees, of all sorts, at the moment, quite a lot of teachers, and so on. That is a really important bit of it as well.

  Chairman: I think all members of this Committee will applaud spending time in a school, over time; indeed, I often argue that every Member of Parliament should spend a week of their year in a hospital, not being treated but watching what goes on, but also in school. Now we are going to move on to Department underspend, that you will be familiar with, and I want to ask Mark Simmonds to open the questioning on that.

Mr Simmonds

  49. During the 2000-01 financial year, as the Department was previously structured, I think the Department had the largest underspend of any Government Department, and during the 2001-02 financial year, I also understand there was a significant underspend. I wonder if you could confirm that was the case, to start with, and, secondly, perhaps offer the Committee an explanation as to why the underspend is continually taking place?
  (Dr Thompson) The figures are right for 2000-01. The figures for 2001-02 are not yet out.

  50. What is your initial view; is it that there has been another underspend?
  (Dr Thompson) Our initial view is that there will be further underspends, yes.

  51. Could you explain to the Committee why that is the case; why there is a consistent underspend?
  (Mr Normington) We are talking about £1.6 billion underspend, in 2000-01, under the old Department. After Machinery of Government changes, it is about £1.3 billion on the Education and Skills budget, which is just about 4 per cent of the Department's spend on Education. It is a lot less, in percentage terms, if you take local education authority expenditure in place. There are a number of reasons for it. By the way, I want it to be smaller, I am not happy about it. It says something about the way in which we profile expenditure and manage it. So all I am about to say has to be against that background. We have got to do better. But there are some reasons for it, and I just take a couple of examples to illustrate it. A significant amount of it in 2000-01 was in the Sure Start programme; it is a ring-fenced budget, we are not able to spend that money on anything but Sure Start, therefore we cannot manage our resources across budgets. And what that underspend is due to is that programme taking longer to get off the ground locally than we had expected, or the Sure Start team had expected, when they drew up the original profiles. It does not mean to say that money will not be spent, but it will be spent later. That is one example. A different example is the capital. There is quite a significant capital slippage in those figures, which is simply about money being allocated to projects but those projects not being brought to account in year; and, in a sense, I do not really apologise for that too much, because it is wholly artificial to want to try to conclude a big building project on 31 March. It is a great improvement in Government accounting that you can carry expenditure like that across year ends, so that you can actually have more efficient expenditure. But in that case the money is allocated to those projects, the projects are under way, but the money has not been brought to account within the year. So those are two examples; there are others. So it is not one reason underlying this.

  52. Do you not think though that, particularly the first example you gave, that was a very good reason for having and creating flexibility into the system, so whilst that money may be there for future years you could allocate that money that was perhaps for Sure Start to some other programmes that are oversubscribed? Because I am sure we could all think, around this table, of the £1.6 or £1.3 billion that could be spent in our schools and educational establishments, throughout all constituencies. Do you not think some additional flexibility should be built in?
  (Mr Normington) Yes, I do, and we can do that, to an extent; and when the announcements were made in the Budget about extra expenditure we were very clear that there was some new expenditure in the Budget, but also we had reallocated some money as well, and that the money came from both those sources. Sure Start actually, because it is ring-fenced to Sure Start, is one where we cannot do that, but most of our, well, some, budgets are not ring-fenced, although a number of the underspends—

Chairman

  53. But you have known about the problems with Sure Start for a long time. Many of us, who very much support the roll-out of Sure Start, feel very frustrated, that in the early days you seemed to be able to get a Sure Start programme up and running quite fast, because that was what the Department wanted, it wanted to show it was active, it wanted to be doing things; but now it is increasingly difficult to get a Sure Start programme and up and running. That is the Department's fault, is it not, you are increasing the barriers before people can get the money and spend it on what we believe, in this Committee, is one of the finest programmes of cutting through this cycle of underachievement and poverty?
  (Mr Normington) I hope it is not true that it is becoming more difficult to get the money, if you are a Sure Start partnership. I think we have got something like 400 set up. The underspend in 2000-01, I think, simply flows from the difficulty of getting the initial local partnerships set up and into a shape and with the capacity to start taking the money and spending it. That is what it was. If it is now in some way difficult to get Sure Start approvals, I would be really concerned about that. I did not think that was the case.

Mr Simmonds

  54. What are you going to do in this current financial year and subsequent financial years to ensure that the underspend is reduced dramatically, because I think that £1.3 billion figure is equivalent to £600,000 per secondary school across the country, and that is an enormous sum of money that is not being spent that should be?
  (Mr Normington) I will ask Ruth to say something about that, but I just want to say one thing. Apart from what I said about capital, very little of the underspend is in the schools area; that does not mean to say you could not reallocate some of the money to the schools area, but most of the money is not an underspend on schools budgets. It is really important to say that, because the initial reaction from schools was that they were the ones that were suffering from this; it is not the schools budgets that are underspent. But we have a lot to do. Do you want to say something?
  (Dr Thompson) Yes, may I say something about the steps that we have been taking. What David Normington has just said is relevant. As you know, as a Committee, we do a great deal of our business through intermediary bodies, other bodies, and the most salient now is the Learning and Skills Council, which has about a third of our budget passing through its hands. One of the things that we have been doing with them is working with them, and you have to bear in mind that they have only been in operation one year. They had a start-up year where, as you might imagine, budgeting and profiling was particularly difficult for them, and they had a number of legacy systems to absorb and all sorts of turbulence in their own systems. We have been working with them to see to it that over the course of the next year their profiling can be much improved, and this is the responsibility that we need to give to them and to have with them. So we are working with them on the areas where we know, from our own experience as a Department, the particular difficulties arise with underspending, and have arisen in the past, when these programmes were part of the departmental business; Work-Based Learning for Young People is one such case in point. There are other complications that I might mention, just before I go on to other things that we are doing, in respect of the Learning and Skills Council. Because of the legacy of the TECs, where some money came through the accounts almost like a windfall. There is a one-off effect there, which was adding to a perceived underspend, that, in fact, with the Secretary of State's agreement, is being recycled out through the local LSCs into what is called the Local Initiatives Fund. So there are all sorts of changes taking place in that body; but that is one area where we need to work with our non-departmental public bodies, and in particular with the LSC, because of its newness and its size, to bear down on the factors which will bring about underspending. Now, internally, in the Department, and David Normington talked about capital, we have already begun to overcommit on capital programmes, which is something which you find is widespread around Government, and indeed elsewhere, to ensure that we make the best use we can of the budget in-year. I think we have probably been too cautious; we are looking at how much further we can go. There are, to be honest with you, as well, some areas of direct spending from the Department where, frankly, I think that my colleagues and I need to work hard to improve the levels of expertise among budget managers, to make sure that when they profile expenditure at the beginning of the year they profile it realistically, and that during the course of the year, if the budgets depart from profile, we get very much earlier warning than we do, or have done in the past, about those variances, so that we can redeploy the money satisfactorily. So those are some of the things that we are trying to do.

  55. Are you not concerned that, if you do not address this, what I think is, very large underspend, the Treasury will actually cotton on to this and say, "Well, actually, the Education Department doesn't need this money"?
  (Mr Normington) They have cottoned on to it.

  56. I am sure they have cottoned on to it, yes; it is a very serious point?
  (Mr Normington) Yes, it is a very serious point, and we have had a serious discussion with them about that very point, of course.

  57. So the Treasury have said they may withdraw some of this funding to give a lesser level, have they?
  (Mr Normington) No, they have not threatened to do that, but they are engaged with us in trying to understand why the underspend has occurred, what is a genuine underspend and what is simply an issue of profiling, and, as I say, in the Budget, that led to us reallocating some of the money that we had underspent. I forget precisely how much it was, but it was about £100 million.
  (Dr Thompson) £150 million.
  (Mr Normington) £150 million was reallocated as a result of that exercise; we discussed that with the Treasury, and we reallocated the money at Budget time to—

Chairman

  58. Is not the Treasury the cause of the problem, in the first place; are you not terrified of the Treasury, and so that makes you more cautious? So they lead to the underspend in the first place and then the Treasury comes along and says, "Oh, you don't really need this money because you're not spending it"?
  (Mr Normington) We are not terrified of the Treasury; anybody who holds the purse-strings is somebody to take serious note of. But we work pretty well with the Treasury on this. The only way to deal with this issue is to share the information with them and actually to sit down and make sure that they understand why it has happened.

  59. Have they asked you for any money from the LSC, the change from the Training and Enterprise Councils to the LSCs, yet, because I think the Secretary of State at that time said you were going to save £50 million; what has that been spent on, or did it never materialise?
  (Mr Normington) That is the admin. costs. The admin. costs of the Learning and Skills Council are just over £50 million less than the costs of the previous system, and, that money, I think you would find it very difficult to trace precisely where that was. I think it has been recycled within the budget, I do not think they have asked for it back.


 
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