Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



Valerie Davey

  100. I wanted to ask you, during the uncomfortable position which another Department, namely the DTLR, suffered, under the scrutiny of the media, with leaks and counter-leaks from their political advisers and the career civil servants, whether you sat there, as it were, and breathed a sigh of relief because it was not your Department, or whether you took note and thought, "There are aspects of this which in our Department we really need to look at again"?
  (Mr Normington) The truthful answer is, I breathed a sigh of relief, and also that the Secretary of State and I sat down and had a conversation about whether there were lessons to be learned for us.

  101. And were there?
  (Mr Normington) On the whole, we felt that we had got the relationships in a state where we could sort out problems; so I do not think we thought that there were lots of things we could learn. But that sounds complacent; there are always things you need to just keep your eyes on.

  102. The political advisers in the DfES do not have a very high profile; are they being effective, and do they come within your remit?
  (Mr Normington) They are civil servants for the time they are with us, are they not; and do they come within my remit, well, they are appointed by the Secretary of State, so they are in a slightly different position, but I do have a lot of dealings with them, and the Secretary of State and I are concerned, just as we are with everybody else, about people's performance, and I think they are performing very effectively, actually. But I do not suppose you would expect me to admit, here, today, that they were not, but the truthful answer is that they are working very effectively, and working well as part of the team, which is what the Secretary of State and I both want.

  103. What you both want, presumably, from them and for the Department, is to have this good media profile. How effective do you think the Department is, in relation to the media?
  (Mr Normington) Just to be clear about the special advisers, one is more concerned with media issues and one is a policy adviser, really. How good are we on the media? I find that very difficult, because I am not quite sure, different people will judge us differently.

  104. The difference between The Times and the...
  (Mr Normington) No. I mean that, what is successful media, everybody will have different views about that, will they not? We are trying very hard to be straightforward and tell things straightforwardly, to answer questions from the media and to have good relations with the media; that is what we are trying to do. But I think perhaps you should ask the Secretary of State about this.

  105. One last question. The one criticism, potentially, is the amount of money you actually spend on self-publicity. I have used the word `self-publicity'; how do you feel, how conscious are you of the size of the budget which you spend in your relationship with either the rest of the team, i.e. the schools and the colleges, and/or the wider public?
  (Mr Normington) We are very conscious of that, and the budget has to be agreed every year, and it is agreed within the Department and then with Ministers. The huge proportion of that budget is spent on information to the public about programmes and policies that we need them to know about, so that they can participate in them; that is what most of the money is spent on. Some of the recent increases are, for instance, in relation to the programme we have for persuading children and parents that children from areas of the country where people do not go to university so much should go to university. There is a lot of that sort of spending, that is where the big money is. But I am conscious of that and we try to keep an eye on it.

  106. Is that budget set as a proportion of the total, one year to the next, or do you look ahead and say, "This coming year we're going to be doing this policy area, this policy area, they clearly will need further funding," and it is set to the needs of the Department, or is it set as a proportion?
  (Mr Normington) We try to do it as you have just described, the second approach there, because there are not limitless funds in the Department, there is about £220 million to spend on admin. costs of all sorts, and therefore we try, in a sense, every year. The issue is `what are the priorities,' not, `shall we increase the spending.' Indeed, it rarely is, in terms of those sorts of costs, shall we increase the spending, it is always about priorities.


  107. Can you not save money on both consultancy and advertising of posts? It always seems to me rather strange that you have to go to Capita to advertise; although, I have to confess, so does the House of Commons and this Select Committee use Capita to identify personnel. But this huge bill that is run up, in terms of advertising posts, in the education sector generally, not just by your Department. It just always seemed to me that the Internet was going to be a way of cutting down, if you like, the size of the TES and the THES, and a much cheaper way of identifying new recruits into the profession, and it seems to me that we have not taken advantage of the new technology. Whereas, in the House of Commons, no longer do many of my colleagues advertise at all in print media, we use `' and you get a hundred applications, and one wonders why we cannot see the use of the new technology in saving a lot of money on advertising in the education sector?
  (Mr Normington) There are two issues there. We tend to use Capita, as they now are, PricewaterhouseCoopers, A T Kearney and others, mainly to help us with recruitment of senior staff and chief executives of NDPBs, and so on, because, actually, we are not expert recruiters and we need that kind of help, and sometimes you need to search to supplement what you will get from advertising. The other issue, about general advertising, there are huge amounts being spent on advertising in the TES for teachers, and in other places; we have not gone down the road ourselves of saying we should set up in competition with that. There is, I would have thought, a market opportunity for anybody who wants to do that. I do not know that it is the Government's job.

  108. Thank you for that. I want to finish up by asking a little bit about management of policy. I am going to start by saying, what this Committee picks up, and particularly in our interview with Sir William Stubbs, from the QCA, only two or three weeks ago, is, what is the nature of the relationship. Ruth Thompson said, difficulty in terms of underspend is very often because other people in the education sector, like the Learning and Skills Council, a whole range, OFSTED, are spending the money. What is the relationship and how do you manage this relationship between all these bodies? I will give you one example. When we pushed Sir William Stubbs, he had a Green Paper that made some pretty innovative remarks about the end of foreign languages being compulsory in secondary education, and suggesting that the real place to invest is in the primary sector, learning foreign languages. When I asked him whether that had come from the work of the QCA, persuading you in the Department that you should change, and that fed into the Green Paper, I think he confessed that that was not the case, that when he opened the Green Paper he was quite surprised about the content. Now, if that is the case, what is the process, what is your relationship; take just the QCA, how come a Green Paper was published with that very big change, in terms of curriculum, that the QCA did not seem to be consulted on?
  (Mr Normington) I am surprised at that. The Chief Executive of the QCA, David Hargreaves, at that time, was on all the working groups that worked on that Green Paper, and, I must say, I had assumed that, because of that, the QCA was fully involved in it. And, actually, the QCA, over a number of years, have provided advice to us, not on dropping foreign languages but on the tightness of the curriculum in secondary schools and the lack of flexibility in it. So I do not know what he said, and so on.

  109. But also, in terms of the international baccalaureate, he said: "The QCA has evaluated the international baccalaureate and its applicability to the English education system," and had rejected it; but no-one in the public domain has seen that, had you seen it?
  (Mr Normington) Personally, I cannot remember seeing that. But what I do know is that the production of the Green Paper was overseen by a group of people, which included Ministers, actually, with input from a number of our major NDPBs, and that is what would be the normal practice, that you would have policy developed with the advice of and support of people in our major bodies. We would not, for instance, want to be developing policies on teacher recruitment without the Teacher Training Agency being at the centre of that. I accept there is more to do, in working with some of our big partners, but we start from the basis that they need to be involved in that. I am sorry if he was surprised; there should not be any surprises in something like the 14-19 Green Paper for the QCA, at the point that it is produced.

  110. I have to say, that was my impression from Sir William, it may not be the case, to be fair to Sir William. But, you see, what this Committee is feeling and finding is that, in relation to what you say was a third of your budget is Innovation and Learning and Skills Councils, we are already getting sort of on the grapevine, in our constituency work, as we are Education and Skills, concerns about how the relationship is working, it is a very important part of your management responsibility. If something was going to go wrong with the LSC delivery, it is going to be very much down to you and your relationship with the LSC; now we have a very high regard for Bryan Sanderson, certainly I have, but how do you manage that relationship, how do you make sure that something is going on early enough?
  (Mr Normington) There are the formal things and then the informal things. We do have a senior member of staff from the Department sits as, I am not sure what the term is, an observer, but actually an active participant, on the Learning and Skills Council itself. The formal relationship is a remit letter, which is, in a sense, the Government's set of priorities for Learning and Skills Council, which they convert into a plan; there are quarterly review meetings, which Margaret Hodge takes, to review their performance with officials there, and with Bryan Sanderson and John Harwood there. In a sense, that is the formal framework. I would meet Bryan Sanderson myself once a month, probably, it is a fairly regular thing, and John Harwood about once a quarter, when we would, one to one, usually, just review what was going on. Our issue really is should we have other sources of information; we pick up a lot informally, as well. We have been having this great series of dinners with FE college principals, Ministers and I have been sharing out FE college principals, so that we can take stock with them of what their view is about the whole policy, and also what they are thinking about the changes that have taken place. So we actually do dip-stick into some of the organisations which deal with our NDPBs, in order to get another view. So I think that is all in place; and with the LSC we are working it out still, of course, but it is all there, and the QCA a similar thing. One has to get this relationship though right. We are not managing that process, we are trying to monitor the performance of those organisations and trying to spot when we have concerns, which we are asking the LSC or the QCA to account for; and sometimes, when things are difficult, you have closer working relationships with them than when things are going well. It is just knowing when that is changing.

  111. Sometimes this Committee picks up quite early when something is going wrong, or when something has changed, because we call most of those bodies that you work with to this Committee. Lord Puttnam, only on Monday, said that one of the real problems with the General Teaching Council and its slow start, and the fact that he has spent most of his time, as Chairman, quite unbelievably, looking after the plumbing, seeing to the plumbing, the most unlikely thing I would have thought Lord Puttnam would have been expert in, but there were real problems. And the way he described those problems was that the new Labour Government came in, in 1997, with a commitment to set up a GTC, but the senior civil servants in the Department did not think it was necessary, and what he described was a poor piece of legislation, poorly thought through, because there was not the interest and focus in the Department that he would have expected. Now that is pretty damning, for the first Chairman of the GTC to say that it was a poor piece of legislation, coming from the fact that senior civil servants did not think it was necessary; do you have any comment on that?
  (Mr Normington) If it were true, I would be very unhappy about it, because it is Ministers who have to decide those things, and if civil servants are not implementing Government policy then that is a serious matter. I know that what happened was that the legislative basis for the GTC was not adequate. I think that was a mistake, I do not think it came from a lack of commitment. I had better go and talk to him about it, because I would be really concerned if that were the case. I do not detect a lack of commitment to the GTC in the Department, and nor should there be, since if the Government is committed to it the Department should be committed to it, and we should not have a view that some of our civil servants can be lacking in enthusiasm and holding back policy.

  112. You can see this Committee's interest in this, only because we believe that, if we detect things going wrong, it is the role of this Committee to say something seems to be going wrong, or has gone wrong in the past, but not in the sense that we want to punish the Department, that we want the Department quickly to learn the lessons so it does not make the same mistakes again. That ran throughout, as you know, our ILA Report?
  (Mr Normington) I talk to David Puttnam from time to time and he has not mentioned this to me. I am surprised at it, and I will find out what we can learn from it. Certainly, a mistake was made in drafting the legislation, but actually I just thought that was a mistake, not through lack of commitment. The commitment to the GTC now is very great, we have greater ambitions for it than perhaps they have for themselves.

  Chairman: An interesting comment.

Mr Chaytor

  113. You described yourself, in your opening remarks, as the Secretary of State's chief policy adviser. Now, in a period of presidential-style Government, is not that an obsolete concept, and is not the reality that education policy is driven from No.10?
  (Mr Normington) I know this is a sort of popular view, but, no, that is not so. That whole thing needs unpacking, really. We have a Prime Minister who is probably more interested in education than any Prime Minister, and therefore takes a great interest in the development of policy; it would be surprising, given what he had said about his priority, if that did not follow. And it is therefore the case, but it has always been the case, that big policy issues and big policy directions are discussed with No.10 and, as appropriate, with others, but it does not feel to me as though he and his office are driving the agenda. They do set the high ambitions for education, they do challenge us to make sure we meet those ambitions, but I think the lead remains very firmly with the Secretary of State, and she is the one who is held accountable.

  114. And how is the process between the advice you get from the No.10 Policy Unit and the advice you get from NDPBs and the drive you get from individual Ministers within the Department, how do you manage that process, and what is the relative influence of each of those sets of advice?
  (Mr Normington) It is not quite like that, in a way. Sometimes, all those people are sat round a table, thrashing out the policy; on very big policy directions, sometimes somebody from the Prime Minister's office would be involved in thinking through those issues, so that the NDPBs are round the table. It depends what the issue is. But, usually, the process is agreeing the general direction within Government, the Department going away and working out how it is in detail going to produce those outcomes, and then accounting to the Prime Minister for those policies. That is the formal process. But, of course, there is a lot of discussing going on, we have lots of discussions with No.10, but that has been so in all my career, under previous Governments too, and it depends on the priority that policy area has and the interest of the people involved, and it would be very surprising if we did not have lots of discussions in No.10 in that process. But it does not feel as though it is one way.


  115. Give us a specific example then, Mr Normington, because it is very good in theory, but, in practice, do you not get frustrated when something is blocked, you do the work, you can deliver and it is blocked elsewhere? For example, who is blocking at the moment any real action on the student finance report; is it your Department being slow and ineffective, is it stuck in No.10, or is it at ministerial level?
  (Mr Normington) I am sorry, you cannot tempt me into a debate about who is advising whom, and who is blocking whom; after all, that is the internal working of Government, which we do not lay out. If I just take that specific case and say this. We are working with No.10 and the Treasury and some others on that review. I know people have been waiting for that review for a long time, they are not going to hear the outcome until the Spending Review is over, because, after all, all the issues being discussed there end up being about the amount of resource that is available. And it became clear, as we got further into that review, that, actually, we could not conclude it until we had looked at it in the context of the overall Spending Review. That is the fact. Nobody is blocking it, in that sense, it was just an agreement that, actually, when we had done a lot of the work, we could not conclude it until we knew what the total resource picture was.

  116. You will be happy to hear that we will be giving you our recommendations on our Report in time for you to take those into account.
  (Mr Normington) Thank you very much.

Mr Chaytor

  117. Just one final thing. When policy develops to the point of a Green Paper or a White Paper, who then writes that, and, specifically, in the 14-19 Green Paper or the Schools Achieving Success White Paper, who is the author of that document, where does the responsibility for it lie?
  (Mr Normington) It would normally be written, is almost always written, by civil servants in the Department.

  118. Always written by your officials?
  (Mr Normington) Almost always.

  119. What would be the exceptions?
  (Mr Normington) It will be written by them, but then the document will be put round in draft to others, who will make comments on it, both within the Department and, at a particular point, round Government as a whole, normally. I cannot think of a case where the draft has not been done by a civil servant. Of course, if it is not very good then you have an awful thing about, well, how are we going to make this better, and people then make suggestions about that; but usually it goes back to the Civil Service, again to make it better, that is normally the process. I cannot think of a recent case when that has not been so.

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