Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 68-79)




  68. Can I welcome you all and thank you very much for coming to meet the Committee? We are embarked on this full week's attempt to understand education in one city. We have been delighted at the reception we have had and the level of cooperation we have received. Today, we have been getting out to the schools and talking to a whole range of people. Not only are we looking at education in one city but this is the beginning of our year's look at secondary education and we will be looking at the four areas of diversity, whether the government's diversity strategy is working; is it good value for the taxpayers' money. We will be looking at recruitment and retention of staff. We will be looking at attainment of pupils; are there difficult sectors? We will also be looking at school admissions. We are looking at the whole piece but we will be publishing bit by bit. Indeed, we may do a specific report on Birmingham, maybe linked with Auckland in New Zealand, when we go there. What we are not getting at the moment is what is your view of Birmingham as a place in which children are taught in terms of its entirety, a holistic approach. If a bit of that could flavour your answers, that would be most gratefully received. Mr Gittins, would you like to say a few words?
  (Mr Gittins) I have been in Birmingham for two and a half years. I have worked in seven local authorities over my career of 30 years. I have found Birmingham a very interesting and supportive local education authority to work in, in lots of ways. I found it quite consultative in terms of how it tries to determine policy. I have worked closely with teachers on that. It is a very mixed city. My own school is in Sutton Coldfield, in the north eastern area of the city, which most people who know the area would suggest was the more affluent part of Birmingham. The schools within it are quite diverse. There are two grammar schools. As in all the city, pupils have the ability to be selected to the King Edward Foundation Schools, of which there are five. There is a former grant maintained school and foundation school right across the road from mine and there is huge pressure from parents, as there is I am sure all over the country, to migrate outwards in terms of admissions. I am a member of the Admissions Forum and we have new admissions criteria for the whole of Birmingham this year. I have spent most of the last two weeks discussing with anxious parents what the impact of that process will be.

  69. Could we have a copy of the admissions criteria?
  (Mr Gittins) I am sure someone could provide one. In terms of the LEA, the LEA part of the funding formula is funded as additional needs so more money would go into what would loosely be termed disadvantaged areas within the city as opposed to the sort of area I work in. That is certainly true in part with Excellence in Cities money as well. That is not an issue as far as I am concerned and as far as teachers are concerned, but there is a significant amount of differential funding per pupil organised in terms of need through the LEA. The LEA has a very large advisory service which most people find very supportive of schools.
  (Ms Blois) I have been a teacher for 28 years, full time. I have worked in Birmingham for ten years. Prior to that, I worked in what was originally Herefordshire and Worcestershire, in the Herefordshire part of it, in a rural community and prior to that I worked in Bury, in Lancashire. I have worked in mixed education schools until I came to Birmingham. I work in King's Heath, in what was formerly a boys' school, which is now a technology college and we got technology college status two years ago in partnership with one of the King Edward independent schools, the Camp Hill site, which you will have heard of.

  70. We are going there tomorrow.
  (Ms Blois) You will hear all about the technology college and their unique partnership. It is an exciting and challenging LEA to work for, probably the most exciting and challenging I have ever worked for. They are at the forefront of a lot of initiatives launched by the successive governments. They want to take on board everything that they can and try it out here. It has the advantages that you get to use the initiatives and the disadvantage side is that a lot of them are short term so you put work into them and find that the funding dries up and the initiative fizzles out, which is very frustrating for all the people concerned who have put time and effort into it. It is the centre of national education development. It has been very supportive of me. When I first came to Birmingham it took a long time to settle into the education authority. I had come from education authorities in schools where you did not speak out. If you had views to express, you either kept them to yourself or discussed them with colleagues in the staff room. In Birmingham I found you were encouraged to say, "I do not feel this is working and these are the reasons" or, "This is a brilliant initiative. We really ought to push this" and people would listen. The support service would listen. They were interested in what you thought as an employee. In our wage slips there were always phone numbers: "Do you want help with this? Ring up and talk to us." I was not used to that. Some of the initiatives are a little too quick to be taken on without the necessary resourcing and training that staff needs.
  (Mrs Edwards) I work in an inner city school, Saltley School. I was educated in Birmingham except for the time when I teacher trained. That is the only time I have not been under Birmingham's education authority. I came back home because it is a good authority and that was 20 lots years ago. I have worked at the school now for 13 years and that is after six years doing relief work around many different secondary schools in Birmingham. The main problem seems to be how long funding is going to last for. You start something up. Will it be there next year? Will it be there financially five years away. That causes tension. There is also a lack of flexibility with where the money can be spent. Whilst it might be needed for a new computer room, it has to go on some of the special educational needs stuff. While it might be needed for special educational needs, it is tied into a computer suite. That is causing some problems in the school I am in where there is a tying in with what the money can be spent on. Presumably, if it is causing problems for us, it is causing problems elsewhere.

Paul Holmes

  71. I am not saying this just because I am a member of NASUWT. The memorandum of evidence that you submitted gives a very eloquent account of what is good about teaching and what tremendous down sides have built up in recent years and the effect that has on the tensions. Had I tried to write this two years ago when I was still teaching, I would have tried to say the same things, I am sure not as clearly as you have done. Some of my colleagues would be rather more sceptical and say this is a case of teachers and professional associations crying wolf and exaggerating, over-egging the pudding. How would you respond to that?
  (Ms Blois) I can understand that. After I had written this when I was looking through it again to make any extra notes to bring to the Committee, I got to thinking what I do not want to do is to whinge unmercifully about it. There are good and bad sides to every job. You have to do it and you then understand the pressures. There are pressures in every job, but if you have ever written one of these reports that is how it is. I am a northerner through and through and in the north we call a spade a spade, pardon the expression. This is how I perceive the role of a teacher in the job. NASUWT is a proactive union but that does not mean to say that I think everything that any union says is wonderful. There are things I would adopt from the union and things I would not. This is written from the heart, from how I perceive it. It is a brilliant job. When you are in a classroom with children, you are educating children, you can see the learning process taking place, you can help those who have not quite got the message and you can see the others who have the message doing well, it is brilliant. It is when the doors open and everything else rushes in past you as the pupils leave that you begin to question why you are doing the job. I suppose you can always say, "It is not the job I went into" if you are a 20 something year old going into teaching now. If you are 28 years down the line, it is not the job you came into, but we are educating tomorrow's citizens. 50 years ago, when you talked to teachers who taught 50 years ago and said to them, "What was it like then?" it is a completely different planet, let alone a completely different world. It was written from the heart; it was not designed to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. It is how I perceive teaching.

  Chairman: We thought it was excellent.

Ms Munn

  72. Paul was on the visit to the same school as I was and one of the head teachers said, "There is an issue about how we as teachers have portrayed the profession." If we talk up the bad side too much, are we not contributing to the problem of recruitment, because it is a great job. While we were there, I also spent a lot of time talking to a teacher there who was coming through the graduate recruitment process, who had been in sales and had come in, in his late forties. It has transformed his life. He had such a passion for the job and the subject he was teaching. How do you get that balance in terms of if you really do believe it is a job which gives job satisfaction which, in his previous job as a sales person, he was not getting? If you talk up too many of the negative things, are you not in danger of putting off just that kind of person who has such a lot to offer as somebody with experience in other walks of life?
  (Mr Gittins) I have two members of staff who have been off with long term stress for nine months and the figures show increasing amounts of that. We talked earlier about funding. Significant proportions of the funding at my school, probably as much as ten per cent a year on a 3 million budget, come from separate bids, separate initiatives, all of which have separate targets, separate monitoring. Those are some of the things that come through the door. People are accountable for all different things in all different ways and teachers feel that is a real pressure. They want to take part in that. They want the money because some of the things that happen to it benefit children's education, but each of them produces extra work. Teachers set incredibly high standards. They are not happy with 96 or 97 per cent. They do go on about the three per cent because each of those three per cent is a child who is not achieving what we would want them to achieve. In that respect, teachers bring pressure onto themselves by their very professionalism. In terms of the effect on recruitment, we do want to shout from the rooftops what a great job it is and we must think it is a great job because I cannot see any purpose for doing it otherwise. We do not do it for the pay or the status; we do it because we love it and we love young people. In fora like this, teachers have a responsibility to fight for a better deal and say, "This is a problem", because I do not think anyone would disagree on the main objectives of raising achievement and the social inclusion agenda and getting everybody involved in reducing disaffection. Therefore, when we do whinge, it is because we feel we have a responsibility to improve the situation, not for ourselves—I do not think teachers do it for that—but for the children in the schools.
  (Ms Blois) We do a great job, as a profession. If you look at the rising standards, particularly in Birmingham as an improving authority. Birmingham schools are improving. We do a great job but without the points I have raised we could do an even better job. It is the little, niggly things that bring practising teachers down that are the problem, not the job itself. These things bring my job satisfaction down. If I had some support to do some of these, I could do an even better job than I am doing now.

  73. How much of that is about the individual management within individual schools and how much choice and ability they have to use their resources? We went to a school this morning, admittedly one which was well resourced and in a pretty well off area comparatively speaking. One of the things the teachers there were saying was that it was great there because they had a lot of the administrative stuff taken off them. "We have a reprographics department to do all the photocopying" and all that sort of stuff. How much of that is a problem which is not as difficult to solve as we might think?
  (Ms Blois) You said yourself it was a well funded school. In some schools that are not quite as well funded, it is a big issue as to who does it to try and take the workload off teachers.


  74. Our job is accountability of the Department as to wise spending of their money. In a sense, we are part of the problem because we demand that when the government spends money they are accountable for it and it makes a difference and adds value. On the one hand, we know that there are loads more resources in the education system now. Tim Brighouse said it last night. Everyone says we have loads of resources. We went to Sheldon Heath School this morning. Do you think it is a revolution of rising expectations? As you have more money, you have got more articulate about what you want done with it? There is a voice that says when there was less money and you were resigned to no new money coming into education you were quieter about what the problems were.
  (Ms Blois) A lot more is expected of us. We have looked at our professionalism and said, "This is brilliant. This is good. This fulfils us. This is challenging. This is what we all need", but do we need to stand by the photocopier and fill in forms?

  75. This Committee looks at the number of teaching support systems being appointed over the last three years and it is enormous. These people presumably are taking a load off you as teachers. The 70,000 classroom assistants do not exist?
  (Mrs Edwards) They exist but they are helping with individual children within the classroom. You cannot send them to do things like photocopying. It is not part of their job.

  76. There has also been a big increase in administrative staff in schools as well.
  (Mrs Edwards) Some of it is going on but it is not everywhere yet. We are having to appoint an administrator at some point because of the paperwork coming through purely to do with the examination system. Forget the internal sort but the external sort, the GCSEs, the GNVQs, the course work, the bits of paper flying around. I was talking to the deputy head yesterday morning prior to coming here and he said a stack of paper had arrived that big from GNVQs to the person who has just taken that role over.

Paul Holmes

  77. I went to the same school as Meg this morning. Another group of teachers were explaining the support staff that they had which was like nothing I had ever seen in my years of teaching. They were also saying that the head had told them that they would have to sack some of them because their levels of funding are coming down because they were no longer a grant maintained school. In your schools is the problem of teacher morale or recruitment and retention? Is it worse now than it was five or ten years ago or is it just a matter of perception? Is it any different?
  (Mr Gittins) In terms of recruitment, I have already outlined the fact that my school is in a more "favoured" area. It is easier to recruit teachers in the area where my school is than it is in some parts of Birmingham. Having said that, I advertised for an English teacher in April and got not a single applicant in a school with an excellent record of professional development, support for newly qualified teachers, that pays its newly qualified teachers from 1 July rather than 1 September to try and get them in. When you look at the age profile in terms of teachers recruitment is a huge issue. The quality of the people coming into teaching is excellent. It is getting enough of them. The situation is masked by the use of agency staff. We are not sending children home because they have not got a teacher in front of them. I use the word "teacher" loosely. When you have a situation where the supply agency you are paying 160 a day to sends you someone whose first experience in a school is walking through your door that morning, that is very difficult. As far as morale is concerned, I think that is mixed in terms of people feeling pressured. The issues of stress are there. You said there were a lot more administrators. I would say there is a lot more administration as well linked in with this whole issue of bid culture and monitoring and monitoring and targets.


  78. There are a lot more teachers.
  (Mr Gittins) There are. In primary schools there are more teachers. My pupil/teacher ratio at school is roughly the same as it was two years ago. More teachers will produce smaller class sizes which will raise achievement. I do not think that should affect how we do things. That would be the way it would work if you could afford more teachers to reduce class size, rather than necessarily reduce contact time or whatever, although from a teacher's point of view they may prefer it to be that way round. It is an interesting question. Teachers work very hard. They carry on what they are doing because of the pleasure they get from the achievements of young people.

  Chairman: No one on this Committee would deny that. We were talking to a head of English this morning who said she works twice as hard now as when she did when she first came into the profession.

Mr Chaytor

  79. Julia, in your evidence you quote your assistant who refuses to wash the tea towels. Is that not entirely an issue for the individual school and the job description that was written when that classroom assistant was appointed? It is hard to take that as a serious argument, that teachers have to work harder when the classroom assistant is there but somehow the job spec does not include washing the tea towels.
  (Ms Blois) The teaching assistants have a very woolly job description. It is actually not a teaching assistant; it is a technician who said, "That is not part of my job description; I am not doing it." The fact of the matter is I am well paid for being on my knees in front of the washing machine and tumble drier X number of times a day as a food technology specialist. I perceive that my time could be better spent with pupils. I did one of these studies of how long I spent teaching pupils and how long I spent administering the lesson and the technicians. In a 50 minute lesson, it amounts to spending ten minutes with the pupils and 40 minutes on everything else. Is this a good use of my professionalism?


previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 31 October 2002