Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 124 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002

RT HON ESTELLE MORRIS, MP

Chairman

  124. Secretary of State, as people are settling down can I do a commercial for the Committee's latest report on Post-16 Student Support, which has been delivered from the printers. For the journalists here who would like a copy, can I tell them that whatever they have read in the press, they have not heard half the full story, or even a quarter, so here it is available but embargoed until 6 o'clock in the morning. There will be a press conference tomorrow at 12 noon in the Boothroyd Room. The Chairman of the Science and Technology Select Committee would like me to say that they have a press conference in the Science Museum tomorrow at 10 o'clock on their latest report, on Science in Schools. Secretary of State, thank you for coming again. It was quite a momentous occasion, if you remember, when we were doing what we called our baseline assessment in October of last year. If I remember, you were slightly delayed for the start of that meeting by something called the ILA, and of course that gave us a lot of work in this Committee after that. I do hope you share the view, and I think you do, that the Committee's report on that was constructive in terms of the next phase.
  (Estelle Morris) Indeed, Chairman, it does give the opportunity to not only thank the Committee for the work on that report but on other reports, but I have to say that in return you might accept the then Minister, Mr Healey, was more open with you beyond the call of duty and certainly beyond the words on the written page. I have certainly found, from the department's point of view, that the whole of that interchange was very useful to us, and I welcome the openness and the straight talking. I hope that when we launch ILA 2 it will reflect some of your concerns and is a better product because of the way I think we jointly dealt with the issue throughout the year.

  125. Secretary of State, I am going to ask you to say a few opening words in a moment, but just to come back on that, we found that the level of frankness, openness and constructive dialogue we had with the Minister, John Healey, on that did set the kind of standard that we hope will be maintained across the piece in future. It was just refreshing, even in terms of your Department's response to our inquiry report, which was at a very good level. Can I invite you to say a few words to start this session?
  (Estelle Morris) I did give some thought, Chairman, to opening words, and the trouble with opening words is that you end up repeating them because somebody asks you a question on whatever you decided to say. So I decided not to actually say a lot of opening words. I was going to thank you, and I have already done that. Given that baseline assessment happened last time, this is value added, and I suppose I have my own thoughts as to where we have really added value as a department over the last year, and as ever in the life of policy development and implementation there are some areas where we have done more work and made more progress in the past 12 months—and that includes secondary school reform and trying to sort out ILAs at the beginning of our FE strategy—and there are areas that we still have to address, in terms of the strategy document, perhaps at the end of October/beginning of November, for higher education. Rather than going through all those areas I would sooner put the facts on record and pledge my commitment to try and maintain an open relationship, and get on with it.

  126. Excellent. We have got you for an hour and a quarter. Let us get on with it. Can I open the questioning by saying to you, Secretary of State, when you are running the department, and when you are looking at how you are trying to achieve your goals for the department, obviously it is team work, and you have had some very talented people in your team. How disconcerting is it for you, as a team-player, manager, team-builder and motivator, to have key members of your team plucked away from you after 11 months?
  (Estelle Morris) I lost two good ones and gained two good ones. I think I have as strong a team now as I have had. You have to put that in context, it is a department that has incredible ministerial continuity. I myself have been there in each of three posts on the schools side since 1997, and I worked with the Permanent Secretary when he was Director General of Schools for two years before the 2001 election. Myself and Mrs Hodge pulled the average age up of the ministerial team considerably, other members of staff have been there for two years before 2001 and we have the three youngsters as well. I think, inevitably, as far as John Healey and Stephen Timms are concerned, they are both moving to departments where they will get new experience, and that is the life of a minister and of a politician—everybody knows that you cannot bet on being in a second job tomorrow or the same job after the next election. I do not feel as though I have been disturbed in that sense. We have got continuity and I do not feel as though the team has been thrown in the air and had to start again.

  127. Secretary of State, we would be disturbed if you moved on very quickly.
  (Estelle Morris) I am glad to hear it!

  128. In the sense not only that some of us might think you are doing a good job, but the fact that if you walk along what I call the "corridor of remembrance" outside your office and see what a short time so many ministers of education and secretaries of state have actually lasted in the department, one of the refreshing things is that your predecessor stayed a full term and you seem to be making a good start on that as well. Coming back to the schools, Minister, school standards, only 11 months. It is a very complex area. You were there in schools for quite some time.
  (Estelle Morris) Indeed. I think I did a one-year/three-year split. I think if you went to any other organisation and looked at it over a six-year period you would probably find that the change of personality at senior level was more than it has been in our department. All I can say is that ministers are entitled to accept opportunities in other government departments for breadth of experience and I do not feel that we are an unstable team. I think we have benefited from stability. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State was there for a full term. There have been a few changes among senior officials, to tell you the truth, but I do not go into the department and feel as though it lacks stability—the very opposite. Some of us have been there long enough now to pick up the consequences of our earlier decisions. I think that is an incredibly helpful position for ministers to remain in.

  129. Let us get down to the meat of this meeting and start by explaining for us, here we see a period of practically unprecedented spending on schools—particularly on schools—and increases in resources. We have just been told by our specialist adviser (and if you think you have had continuity, I think our special adviser on this, from the London School of Economics, Mr Tony Travers, has been with the Select Committee for 17 years) that here is a period of massive expenditure on schools, yet in some parts of the country, in some schools you visit, there is a feeling "Has it trickled down? Has it gushed (never mind trickled) down? Has it really impacted?" There are teacher shortages in some parts of the country, and a feeling that teachers are under stress, that there are problems. Can you explain to us this dichotomy of unprecedented (this Committee will accept) levels of expenditure into schools yet this feeling that it has not kind of delivered yet?
  (Estelle Morris) The teachers' feeling under stress is slightly different and if I may I will concentrate on the money. The money has got to schools. The money held back by local authorities is less than it was. The pass-through rate from LEAs to schools has increased and I applaud and thank local authorities for that. I believe our own department's running costs have actually decreased and if you look at the funds of departments across the board we have done quite well. When I go to schools I ask the very same question and I get the same response "We need more money". I then always follow it up with "But have you got more money than you had in 1997? Have you noticed a difference?" They say "Yes, but". I do not think I should ever go to a school and worry if the teacher left me thinking they have got enough money; they see it as their mission to say "We need more money". I do think it is beholden on us to actually say "But aren't you getting more than you had?" It is a very different question. There are a number of other things I have learned: they do not count capital as money. If they do not control it they do not count it. So if they have had an extension or a new school building or repairs to the roof they do not actually see that as capital. The amount of money that we spend on the National Grid for Learning or the literacy and numeracy strategy they often do not see as money themselves. So it partly depends on how it is routed through to them and how much influence they feel they have on how it is spent. There is another factor, and this goes a little bit into what you said about teacher numbers: most of them have used the money to create new teaching posts, which is an issue I have been discussing with the profession for nearly a year now. What then happens is that that becomes part of the baseline commitment for the next year round, so your next year's spending commitment actually ignores the extra money you put in for increasing staff in the previous year. So I wish they said "This is brilliant, the money is showering down on us, we have never had it so good". I do not expect them to say that but these days I rarely find anybody who says their financial position has not improved since 1997.

Ms Munn

  130. I want to move on to talk a bit about the link between finance and targets and look particularly at the departmental report. Focusing in on just one area—and I know other colleagues will come in on other areas—and looking at Sure Start, which is an initiative which has been widely welcomed, we find that at the moment there is less to report in that a lot of the Sure Starts are in their early stage and there has been slippage, perhaps, in implementing them. With that background, and given the idea that Sure Start is supposed to have a long-term increase over many years, because it is about giving children that sure, early start, are you yourself happy that the targets that are there which are linked to more finance etc are the right ones?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes, but they need to be looked at as we progress and at each spending review we look at our PSA targets and make sure that they are fit for purpose. Sure Start is interesting because I think it was two things. I think, possibly more than any other programme run by our department, it was about process as well as outcomes. That is part of the reason for my departmental underspend, which I noticed you raised with the Permanent Secretary last week. What we tried to do was to have projects that started at the base and grew up, and actually rooted themselves in the community. So the early targets were about process; they were about setting them up, about contacting children. I could present to you a most brilliant report on Sure Start but if it has not actually reached the children and the parents and contacted them within however many months of birth, it will not work. So I look at the amount of money going to Sure Start, I look at the targets and I do, too, note that they are input rather than output achievements at the moment, but that will change over time. I am very happy to make the commitment that what we expect to get out of Sure Start we will get out of Sure Start, which is improvement in social development, emotional development and cognitive development and, I think, parents who are more active partners in their child's education, greater well-being and greater cohesion of provision of services to families. I just say that it has been an incredibly slow process but for defensible reasons, and I think the targets are right for now but they are not right for ever.

  131. Given that some of those targets are less easy to measure because they are not about numbers (and do not get me wrong, I am not somebody who wants to have lots of numbers because I think we end up sometimes measuring what we can count rather than what is important), do you really think it is going to be possible to be able to quantify the benefits of Sure Start in terms of how children are doing, maybe, five years down the line in their education and general social well-being?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes. What we have to remember is the US programme Head Start, which did not start to think about its results until 18 years after it started. Part of the evidence they gave for success was how well those youngsters brought up their own children and became effective parents. I suppose governments have got to look medium and long-term. You are right, probably with the amount of money we put into Sure Start, the Prime Minister and Chancellor could have given it to me elsewhere in my budget and we might have seen more immediate results, but it is right to invest for the long-term. Somebody once said to me that the best thing they thought we had done in our department was the early years policy and Sure Start was the thing that we would get the least recognition for because it was essentially medium-term and long-term. However, I would not be looking to 18 years. What I would be saying is that given that we have now got baseline assessment when children went into school, I would not be disappointed if, over time, the youngsters that had had the investment made by Sure Start did see that reflected in the baseline assessment when they started their formal education.

  132. Given this approach of linking finance and investment to outcomes, and given what you said that there might be some delay, are you going to be able to continue to defend and, possibly, expand the programme in the future?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes, but I have been looking across the piece in what we have got in early years at the moment, and there are a lot of titles—neighbourhood nurseries, community nurseries, early excellence centres, Sure Start—for the plain old nursery we used to know when we were little. I do think, as I said to the department, that the time has now come, in my view, to make sure that that makes sense and not to cut back on provision. I have asked myself the question, what is the difference between an early excellence centre and a neighbourhood nursery and a community nursery? We have to ask that question and make sure parents are asking that question as well. So I am very interested (and I hesitate to use the word "rebranding" because I do not mean that) in making sure that the whole of our early years provision is as simple to explain to its clients, to its customers, as possible. It has got like that for the best of reasons. As we have tried to meet each new need and as we have got more resources that we have been able to invest in early years, we have not always thought "Let us just pile it all into Sure Start"; we were almost starting from scratch in some areas—absolute scratch—in terms of government investment in early years. For instance, how do you tackle the pockets of deprivation in otherwise affluent areas? Is Sure Start always the model for rural areas? Are early excellence centres? Should Sure Start be attached to schools? To some extent we have been piloting a lot of those initiatives, but I very much hope that over the next two years, as part of our new work after the spending review, maybe the name and shape of it might be slightly different, but that is only because it is almost rationalising it and makes sense of what we have created. I do expect to be able to continue to invest in that area.

Mr Baron

  133. Secretary of State, as referred to earlier, there has been a real shift in total spend but, also, the proportion of spend towards schools in recent years. Yet going round the schools in my constituency the number one issue is teacher retention and recruitment. In other words, it does not seem as though the money is having much effect, and when questioning teachers and headteachers about this they seem to be suggesting that it comes down, at the end of the day, to workload. This issue of workload has been used as a political football in the past—too much. Is there a connection in your view between the fact that we seem to find it difficult to retain our teachers—and there is an annual resignation rate of something like 15 per cent, very roughly, and something like one in five teachers leave during their first three years—and the workload that we seem to be putting on to our teachers?

   (Estelle Morris) Just as a response in terms of the background of figures, I want to keep every teacher in the business, of course I do, and of course I worry about retention, and I am not pretending that it has not got slightly worse in the last two years. However, we have very many teachers. We recruit 30,000 teachers a year. That is the target that we have to get. We are the biggest recruiter of labour into a profession every year, year on year, more than any other single profession. I think 80 per cent of them actually teach in the maintained sector during the first five years. However, you also have to look beyond the figures sometimes, and if somebody leaves teaching—it is a 75 per cent female population, some will leave to have babies, some will leave to take maternity leave or take a break to bring up the families—they count as leavers. They also count as leavers if they are in a relationship where their partner gets a job elsewhere and they leave at Easter but find a new job in September in a new area of the country where they have gone to live with their family. They count as having left the profession. One of the figures you do not use and you must use is that 13,000 return to the profession each year—13,000. Some of those will be from having brought up a family and some will be from having had time out to move house. I am not complacent, (and I do not want to be critical of teacher unions) and I know there is a problem in terms of teacher recruitment and retention, but it does the service of the children no good to actually cry it up more than it is. If people would just use the fact that 13,000 return to the profession each year as much as they do the fact that there has been a slight increase in the number of people leaving, I think you would get a truer picture. Just on the link to workload, there are 20,000 more teachers than there were in 1997. Nobody is denying that, nobody is challenging it, nobody is saying we are spinning the figures and making it up. It is true. There are more classroom assistants, there are more bursars. So what you cannot do is tie any increase in pressure that teachers feel that they have got on them to fewer teachers, fewer support staff in the classroom—the match is not there. It is about something else, which I can comment on, but it is not about the reduction—

  Mr Baron: Point taken, Secretary of State, but the fact is that whether you talk to OFSTED or the NUT or unions generally, and indeed teachers and headteachers themselves, their view is that the workload is the key factor as to why teachers are leaving the profession. It cannot be denied that in recent years the figures have been getting worse. Yes, we are recruiting them but we have trouble keeping them, and this is the problem. That is why there are quite extensive teacher shortages across the country. I do not want to turn this into a political football, and I think you recognise there is a problem but I am interested in looking forward as to how we are going to try and put this right. That is the number one issue in schools, certainly in my patch, at the moment.

  Chairman: Can we ask for slightly shorter questions?

Mr Baron

  134. Let me give you one example, if I may, Secretary of State: during September last year, in the busiest period, documents were sent to primary schools with something like over 400 pages, and sent to secondary schools with something like 390 pages, which would have taken your average headteacher one-and-a-half days to read in a typical month during the busiest month of the year. That is the sort of issue that headteachers are raising with me. What are we going to do to address that?
  (Estelle Morris) Can I suggest that I do not suppose there was a headteacher in the country who actually ploughed through the pay and conditions document that was well over 100 pages that also gets sent to schools. Come on. These are intelligent, bright, professional people. Does any Member of this Committee plough through every document and every word of every paper that is sent? Mr Shaw does. I tell you what I do when I get to my constituency office on Friday, I bin more than half of what is sitting on my desk because it is brochures and such like. This is a serious conversation, Mr Baron, but it has to be about what is real. If you crammed in that document the whole of the Key Stage 3 strategy, which is actually a teaching and learning document, to last us over the years ahead and then say that teachers have to read all of that as well, that is not the real world.

  135. If I may say so, Secretary of State, what do you say to the teaching unions, OFSTED, the headteachers and teachers in my constituency who say that workload is the number one issue—forget documents—
  (Estelle Morris) I would be delighted to forget documents.

  136. That is why teachers are leaving the profession and we are having trouble recruiting.
  (Estelle Morris) I think workload has increased. I think we ask more of our teachers than any previous generation of teachers and ask more than the Secretary of State asked me when I was teaching. I cannot change that. I do not want to change that, because what they do is so important. At the moment the mood in the public is to want better public services. Every parent wants the best for their child, and that is good. That pressure from our joint customers, the general public, parents and pupils, puts tremendous pressure on teachers to achieve. That is the world we live in and that is why I applaud teachers for the work they do. What I often say to them is to put themselves as citizens. If they have got a grandmother or a parent who is going to hospital, or they have got somebody in social services care, or they travel by train on the railways, do they not, as citizens, demand better public services? They do not realise when they are demanding better public services that that puts pressure on those who work in the public services, and it does. So my answer to that is I cannot do anything about the extra demands because the extra demands are right in the most important of all the professions. What I can do about it is see how we manage those demands. So the conversation I have with the teacher unions is "Let me look at what teachers are doing that somebody else could do." Twenty per cent of their tasks, people say, could actually be done by somebody else. I could list the things that we could all agree teachers should be doing, and I can actually say "How can we actually support the profession into the 21st century?" because they do not have the level of support the professions have the right to expect. Any of us on the Committee who have been teachers and moved from teaching to politics saw the difference in support that we got overnight on the change of job. I saw it in 1992 and I would imagine it is even more measurable now. They have a right to expect the support, but we have a right to demand something of them. So my debate—and I know I have not solved the problems—is not how can they work less hard, but how can I make sure they are able to use their time commensurate with the skills and qualifications they have got? That is the nature of the discussion I need to have with the profession.

Mr Pollard

  137. Just a quick question, Chairman. Some years ago, Secretary of State, five, six and seven-year old class sizes were brought down to a very welcome 30. Has that made any difference to the number of teachers required?
  (Estelle Morris) Of course. If I remember rightly, I think it was 12,000 extra teachers that were required for that. I must admit I have not used that figure for a while, but I am almost sure about that. It has. However, even if you take that out and look at the overall number of teachers, it is still a significant number increase in teachers, but we did need more primary teachers to meet the class-size pledge.

Chairman

  138. The Chairman of IPPR who used to be advising on policy now thinks that, over the country, the 30 limit was probably a waste of money and that the money, targeted better, could have been more effective. Are you familiar with that criticism?
  (Estelle Morris) I read the coverage of it but I do not agree with him. I think our decision to have that as a commitment was based on what OFSTED said about the importance of smaller classes in earlier years. I think it is great that the nation now has not got five, six and seven-year olds in classes of 45, and that is what they had in 1996. I think it is money well-spent and well-invested.

Mr Chaytor

  139. Secretary of State, you mentioned the departmental underspend earlier. Could you remind us what the total underspend was for last year?
  (Estelle Morris) It is either £1.3 billion or £1.6 billion.


 
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