Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 160 - 179)

WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002

RT HON ESTELLE MORRIS, MP

  160. Secretary of State, the issue of accommodation centres has concerned a number of Members of Parliament. There was an Early Day Motion with 140 signatories and 100 of those were Labour MPs, but there was not an opportunity through time, procedure, etc, to debate this issue recently during the Immigration and Asylum Bill. There have been concerns that your department has been bounced on this issue—a policy imposed upon it by the Home Office. Can you tell us whether you and (if so, which) senior civil servants were involved and at what stage of the evolution of this policy?
  (Estelle Morris) Of course I was involved. It concerns my department, of course I was involved. I was not "bounced" into it. I am not prepared to be bounced into decisions like that. Clearly, the order of events was that the Home Secretary was already dealing with the issue of accommodation centres and thereby consulting across government as usual. I both wrote and—probably—spoke personally to the Home Secretary about that. I speak with the Home Secretary a great deal and I have probably covered that. Of course I spoke to him before the announcement was made in public or before further consultations around Whitehall took place.

  161. It is, on any measure, a significant departure from the 1944 principle of where universal education is available to all children, so at what stage were these discussions in terms of the White Paper or was your view and the Department's view involved in considering how this educational provision may work?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes, of course we were. We were consulted and I had discussions before anything was put in the public domain. Indeed I remember that one aspect of developing that policy was the continuing role of the Local Education Authority in terms of the education that was made available in the accommodation centres. I even recall, though it was a few months ago now, the nature of some of those discussions. My starting point was that if the Home Secretary had come to me and said that he wanted to change and upturn the standard and quality of education for asylum seekers which was absolutely brilliant, I would not have objected to it, but my belief has always been that partly because of the length of time it takes to deal with the applications for asylum seekers and partly because we seem to have a housing policy that moves these families about from one place to another, we are not getting the best deal and the best ability from schools that we might have, so we did not have an ideal position.

  162. When you arrived at that view, did you seek the views of schools that were providing education for asylum-seeker children?
  (Estelle Morris) I fed into the paper produced by the Home Office, but the consultation on that has obviously invited a number of letters. I myself—

  163. You were saying that you formulated your view prior to considering the information which would be available to your Department as to what schools were experiencing for children who were seeking asylum.
  (Estelle Morris) I do not live in ivory towers and I am sure you did not suggest that I do, Mr Shaw.

  164. I did not.
  (Estelle Morris) But when I am with schools and with headteachers and if somebody comes up with an idea, I have not got a blank piece of paper in my mind so I only go and talk to somebody so I can form a view. One of the things that teachers, especially in inner cities, have said to me ever since I have been in the Education Department is that one of the things they have sometimes found difficult to deal with is huge pupil mobility. It is a real issue for schools that we do not have the answer to. It is one of the things I do worry about and it can almost keep me awake at night. I think pupil mobility, especially in London, is a huge issue. I knew this before the consultation started, that some of those students, those pupils who have the most mobility is because of the way we deal with asylum seekers at the moment which is actually to juggle asylum seekers. I know you do not think that, but there is a feeling out there in schools that some of these children are kept in accommodation centres, education accommodation centres once it has been determined that they have got the right to stay in the country and this is, by necessity, short-term. When someone offers me a solution which might give stability, the same teaching targeted to their needs in one place for a period of six and up to nine months, I make a judgment that the needs of that student might be better met than their being in a number of schools over even a longer period.

  165. I have not said what my view is, Secretary of State. Will the teachers in accommodation centres be qualified teachers?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes. Let's be clear about this: the roles would be no different than that which apply in a school and there can be people without qualifications, QTS, that teach in school. That is my only caveat there.

  166. My final point is that the Home Secretary said that if children were in an accommodation centre for longer than six months, their education would be reviewed. How would it be reviewed and what involvement have you had in terms of that review?
  (Estelle Morris) I think both the Home Secretary and I hope that the asylum process would be such that it would have been determined within six months and I think that it is one of those catch-all things that I hope we do not have to deal with because I hope it will all be reviewed, but I think he was right to give that assurance and I think at that point as throughout the whole of the process because we have said it about children who have special educational needs that they might need an education which cannot be done in the accommodation centres, that their needs must be assessed and—

  167. In accordance with the code of practice, would that apply?
  (Estelle Morris) Yes, the LEA still has responsibility for the education that goes on in the accommodation centre and what we need to do now is to work out the detail, and we have not got any yet, it might be a little while arriving. I still have not talked to LEAs in any depth or my own officials about how exactly that assessment will be made of special educational needs, but there is a top-line commitment that if it cannot be met within the accommodation centre, it will be met elsewhere. The general direction is that I want to give these children stability, the same teachers, if we possibly can, maybe the beginnings of learning English if they have not got that so they can cope with mainstream school. I want to improve their education and not detract from it.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, the Committee is very minded to look at this area in one sense in terms of the mobility of children through schools, especially in urban areas. In an urban area, like my own constituency, where there is a focus for a particular group of political refugees coming from a particular country, the impact on local schools can be quite catastrophic if a large number of children arrive in short order and then move on. We have seen examples where schools are just getting used to a group of children and then the children are whisked away and the whole school suffers from it. Actually schools in my own constituency suffered because they were just building a relationship with the children and then they were moved on, so we are minded to look at that at some stage.

Mr Simmonds

  168. Secretary of State, are you in favour of satisfying parental first choice at both the primary and secondary school levels?
  (Estelle Morris) If we could, but we do not have a situation where every parent can have a first-choice school.

  169. But is it your ambition that you would like to see it, wherever possible?
  (Estelle Morris) Wherever possible, yes. I think it is a legitimate thing to want to satisfy where parents choose to educate their children.

  170. Is it true that the Department has been putting pressure on Local Education Authorities to fill spaces in perhaps less popular schools where currently there are vacancies rather than perhaps providing additional funding to successful schools to allow them to expand and then take in their first choice?
  (Estelle Morris) There are two things. When we reorganised infant education to deliver our class-size pledge, we were absolutely insistent that LEAs expanded their good and popular schools and indeed many parents were more likely to get their first choice in that age group because there were more places in the popular schools. We did that and it cost the nation. It was a decision by us to actually invest the nation's income in that to good effect. I think there is a real issue there and I am interested in that if we can expand the popular schools to better meet parental demand, we should do it. There are just two things. What is a popular school and parental demand sometimes change over time, so we have to be careful of that. What can be popular one year is not popular the next. What I would say to LEAs is that when they are looking at the pattern of provision and if they are short of places, I would really welcome them choosing to meet some of the demand for extra places by expanding popular schools. I go further than that, that if a school is not doing well and parents do not want to send their child there, and the LEA takes the decision that it cannot be turned round and it should be closed, I am entirely happy if it is the LEA's decision to come forward with a plan to expand a nearby popular school. In essence, I would agree with you, but I would add a word of caution that you cannot just go in and put in new buildings for what essentially is five, six, seven forms of entry into secondary school overnight, but the gist of what you say is one that I would agree with.

  171. Can I take you a little bit further into your view of the relationship between schools and Local Education Authorities and ask you for some clarity. I got sort of contradictory responses from your Permanent Secretary and one of your new Ministers about the potential expansion of more money going direct to schools and circumventing the LEAs. Now, in your view, is that something that we are going to see more of while you are Secretary of State, or will the whole thing stay the same or what route are you going to go down?
  (Estelle Morris) Well, the situation will change a little bit because of the division of the LEA money and the schools' money in the new funding arrangements that are shortly to come in. We have pushed, as did the Conservative Government before us, for more money to be directed to schools, so we have always wanted to keep a very tight check that as much money goes to schools as it can. For instance, the special grant, the cash sum that has increased, I think it is called a special grant, though I think it has more initials than that,[7] that goes to schools and yes, we are continuing that next year, as you already know, but we do not have plans to massively reorganise the financing of schools. However, for instance, we do adapt and learn as we go on, so the dedication of capital money direct to schools is something that has been expanded under this Government and the amount of cash was expanded last year and who knows what will happen next year, so again I am with the drift of what you say, but I would not want to give you the impression that we are about to abolish LEAs, cut them out or drastically change the way we fund the situation with schools.

  172. Can I just go a bit further. In the Education Bill which is currently going through Parliament, there are obviously proposals to allow successful schools to innovate and have a degree or even a totality of autonomy from the Local Education Authorities by setting up companies.
  (Estelle Morris) Yes.

  173. Can I ask you, is it your ambition that all schools, and obviously we all hope that all schools will become successful schools, that all schools will become successful and, therefore, a vast majority of them, if not the totality of schools, will actually go down this route?
  (Estelle Morris) The companies, which of course is now not in the Bill because the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords voted against it, and we will have to see about that when it comes back to the House of Commons next Monday, I think is quite innovative and it gives a vehicle, it gives the capacity to schools to actually manage more of their own affairs. Now, this could be as simple as jointly, which I am quite interested in, offering support of their expertise to schools which are not doing as well, but this actually puts it on a formal basis. I think we are evolving over time the nature of the relationships between LEAs and schools, and I do think times have changed over the last five years. I think that LEAs have, and I say this in the nicest way, it is not meant to sound patronising, grown up and realise that in the world in which we are they survive if they provide what schools want and what the nation wants. So when I am talking now with LEAs, that has been one of the great changes in the last five years, and again with recognition of the work that the previous Government did in talking about the role of LEAs, so I think what I want is for LEAs and schools to actually sit down and work out how services can best be delivered. I do not want a battle between schools, I do not want a situation where we say to schools, "You've earned that right to break away from the LEAs" because I am always left with the question, if that is right for some schools, why not do it for all schools? I think that has always got to be the bottom-line question. Don't give some schools the privilege that actually could well be used by all schools. The whole of the school company, the whole of that which operates school improvement, the whole of the selling services is about trying to find the new relationship between what LEAs do and what schools do. I am interested in shifting it and I look to our best schools to actually lead the way, but I do not have a clear view of where we might end up. I feel as though we are being innovative here and we want schools to actually show what can be done.

Chairman

  174. Secretary of State, we will have the opportunity of looking at some of these issues in depth in your own City of Birmingham in September, from the 16th to the 20th.
  (Estelle Morris) Indeed.

  175. We are going there really as a response to Sir Michael Bichard when he contributed to an away-day and he challenged us to really get into depth in one city, one area, so have you any advice for us in terms of these issues where we look at the relationship between the Local Education Authority and schools in Birmingham?
  (Estelle Morris) I am delighted you are going to Birmingham. You will be most welcome and I think you will enjoy it. It is a very good LEA which will be just about to lose its Chief Education Officer at the point at which you visit, so I hope you are able to visit while he is still there. I have to say, and I am hugely biased, but I sense that the relationship between the LEA and the schools in Birmingham is slightly different than the LEAs and schools anywhere else. I will tell you what I would look at. I would look at most how the LEA has kept a strategic role, but left schools feeling as though they are in charge of their own destiny and it has managed to do that trick in that probably schools both feel more empowered and yet they are the ones who most say that they want the LEA to have a role and that is what is different. Sometimes when I go to schools that feel strong and feel confident about themselves, they then follow it on with, "And I can manage without the LEA". In Birmingham I did a primary headteachers' conference only recently. What they said to a round of applause was that they were confident and strong, but they sought assurances from me that I would not cut out the role of the LEA, so the thing you should most look at is how it has changed over a decade from an LEA which I was quite honestly ashamed of, to one that now has actually earned the trust of the schools and has found itself a niche in their everyday life.

  176. That is most useful, Secretary of State. You were talking about relationships just now. Can I push you on the relationship which is especially important to you and that is your relationship to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury. I wonder when you read or when you heard of perhaps plans to change the whole nature of child allowances and family benefit to support extended EMA, did that come as news to you or was that after a long period of consultation with the Chancellor?
  (Estelle Morris) Sometimes I read things in the paper which I said and I do not even recognise them, so if any politician in the room actually reads things in the paper and believes that that is policy with the `i's dotted and `t's crossed, they are mistaken. You will have to wait for the spending review announcement and it is not for me to comment on that. All I would say is that the EMAs have been successful in terms of participation. The Government has a Manifesto commitment to extend them, but I think we are almost at that commitment and I think the Manifesto commitment on that is that about one-third of the nation, so we will evaluate that policy in due course, but maybe at this time of year more than any other perhaps you will be able to speculate what might be in the spending review separately, but I am not about to speculate on that.

  177. I am not asking you to speculate. By and large, you are feeling pretty positive about EMAs and their role, are you not?
  (Estelle Morris) I am feeling pretty positive about my settlement, but I am not commenting in detail about any aspect of it.

Mr Pollard

  178. Secretary of State, there is an acute skills shortage in the south-east particularly and that is so in some of our local economies, and modern apprenticeships is one thing. How can we encourage more kids into apprenticeships?
  (Estelle Morris) We have to get them right to begin with and one of the problems is with the whole vocational route and, and again I am being generous today, I think the previous Government made huge efforts in this field as well. We have never ever got it right, never ever got it right. I bemoan the demise of the modern apprenticeship system. I think it was a model that actually could have been as relevant today as it was in its heyday in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and I do bemoan its demise. We have to make sure that the product is right and my colleague Mr Mitchell can make sure that is the case. I will tell you how to do it. You assure them that it will lead to something in that if you think of yourself as a parent, you will only recommend a course of action to somebody if you think it will lead to somewhere, so we have to make sure that it is a robust qualification that leads to employment or leads to progression and routes into higher education. I am more confident now that the MAs will do that following the Cassells Report than perhaps a couple of years ago.

  179. A plumber in my constituency can earn £55,000 to £60,000 a year, so I cannot understand why people are not encouraged. Further on from that, you have got an aim of having 50 per cent of young people going into higher education. What about the other 50 per cent? Is it not creating a `them and us' in that if you are one of the 50, you are okay, but if you are not one of the 50, you are somehow not quite one of us?
  (Estelle Morris) I take the point. There are two things on that. Do not forget that a lot of the people going to university will be doing their engineering and IT and they will not all be straight academics, but I take that point. We must not give a message that we are not as ambitious for the other 50 per cent who choose different routes and it is something I have reflected on over recent weeks and if that impression has been given, it should not have been and it must be something to which I will perhaps return at a later date.


7   Note by witness: The grant is known as the School Standards Grant. Back


 
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