Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 60 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001

BARONESS ASHTON OF UPHOLLAND

Chairman

  60. Are you saying that Yvette Cooper is really the Minister that we should have here because she chairs the committee?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I think she would be able to give you a more detailed analysis of it than I am able to. As I say, it falls within my remit because I have that as part of the DfES and the Cabinet Minister responsible is the Secretary of State but, in terms of the day to day work that Sure Start does, Yvette Cooper chairs the group, so I think you could go into more detail with her than you would be able to with me.

Paul Holmes

  61. The Government's ambition is that the Sure Start programme will only reach one-third of the children living in poverty by 2004. What about the 66 per cent that you want to bring in?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and this is my point about having a Sure Start model that you can roll out in that most deprived children do not necessarily live in deprived areas, they live in leafy suburb land in areas of one or two streets and it is very important that we have models that can be worked through for them. When we look at the cross-cutting review, one of the ambitions I have is that we begin to designate and develop the way in which schools can play a role in both Sure Start and Early Years to be developing family based services. Schools seem to me to be the obvious community resource and are often an underutilised community resource and I do not mean, I hasten to add, that teachers should do more than they currently do nor that heads should take responsibility, but we have good private and voluntary sector partners who could be brought in. We have good links with health and I would like to see those extended and expanded: the role of child and adolescent mental health services, the role of school nurses and so one where we have good examples of them being involved in schools on a more outreach basis and I see that as being potentially a model where you could integrate the kind of Sure Start childcare/Early Years developments alongside some of the work we are trying to do on behaviour management, working with families who are deprived and working with adult literacy too around a school provision because school provision is pretty much universal.

  62. What commitment is there for financial resources to back that up? There is a good record of governance over the last 20 years of some excellent initiatives which are well funded and really work and then they say to the schools, "Right, now you can do that as well because you have seen the example", but there are no resources that follow through to do that.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The purpose of the review is to be putting forward proposals to the comprehensive spending review, so resources are clearly key to all this. One of the issues of our resources in terms of the childcare role is that there are over 40 different funding streams and that has been necessary in order to get money from the European Union and so on, so I do not make any apologies for that. In fact, I am delighted that my predecessor Margaret Hodge was able to do that, but we managed to look at making it easier and more accessible and perhaps reducing the number of streams, but that is all about how to mainstream and how to integrate the services together.

Ms Munn

  63. Moving on to a different area but with some of the same themes, namely money, the particular area that I wanted to raise was around the schools building programme and the capital. Firstly, I would just like to say that I welcome this enormously. One of the things that I did when I was a candidate in the Election was that I went to the school at which I started well over 35 years ago. The toilets which I used when I was four years old were still there and the concern that that school had around the decay that had gone on with the lack of investment was palpable, so I welcome the programme. My question is, £8.5 billion sounds like a lot of money, but how confident are you that you are going to be able to continue this level of investment? Presumably the asset management plans which the local authorities are doing should be identifying how much overall is needed to get the schools up to the standard that we want them to be.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed. The position is that we used to have a position where there was just about enough money in the budget to deal with the need to expand schools because of children moving into the area but there was not enough to think about genuine renewal and we are trying to now develop, through the fund mechanisms, the opportunities to do that and I do not make any apologies for using PFI in that either because it is a very important tool to do that. What we want to do with the asset management plan is first of all to get local authorities to understand exactly what they have and to have a programme developed so that it is not so much a case of, if the thing fails sufficiently, in that I can think of schools where you let things decay to the point where they have to renew them because, if we keep patching them, they never work well, and it was a great day when I got the money for our school toilets, I remember it well. So, we are trying to look beyond that to having a coherent programme for the future. We are committed to doing that. Again, this is all part of where we go on the spending review and it will be for the Secretary of State to pull together the whole of the department's programme. I do not think anyone is any doubt as to the importance of getting school buildings not only repaired but prepared in a way that will allow for the technology of the future. School buildings will have different uses in 10 years time to what they do now, so we need a more flexible approach and I am also very keen that we are looking carefully at design and we are looking carefully at environmental issues.

  64. If I could link in with the earlier discussion because I too would be very keen to see schools really as a family centre for the community. A number of schools in my constituency are being renewed and we are getting new schools, but there is a real concern in the community that there is no space being put in there for community use. The local authorities say that is because there are not sufficient resources and it comes back again to the forward thinking which you are talking about, but also this sense that we have to think across the issues and are we making sure that when schools are built, we are putting in place in order that we can do the things which Paul was talking about?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed, it is a very good point and it is something that, with the purpose of looking at the whole review, building in terms of childcare and building that into what we are doing like extended schools and so on, these are relatively new ideas that, in a sense have been around for a long time, I did not claim any credit for them and certainly I have been thinking schools as a community resource for at least ten years, but beginning to see what that might look like does have an impact on how we design the build and I have no doubts about that, we will have to consider it.

Mr Chaytor

  65. Before we leave the question of capital, Minister, you mentioned that PFI would be used where it meant better value for money. Can you tell us what the criteria are?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I can to some extent. The basis upon which we look at PFI is to see what we are able to achieve within that PFI project that would not be achieved simply left to the resources available and that is a combination of factors, not least of course the actual money that you would have to invest at that particular time but also what the outcomes would be. One of the things that I think is important about PFI is because at the end of whatever timescale is decided, let us for argument's sake say 20 years or 25 years, the buildings have to be handed over in good condition. That means that you are building in the maintenance and upkeep of those buildings throughout that time and that is a hugely important factor, so it is combination of what is the investment being made, what is the gain at the end, what will be the amount in terms of the support for maintenance and the support for the school building, removing from head teachers those responsibilities as well which I think would be welcome, and to develop that as part of the long term plan.

  66. That is not a set of criteria, is it? That is a basis of a general judgment, it is not a precise set of criteria. What I am interested in finding out is whether there is an agreed, accepted methodology that is applied to each PFI project.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I cannot reel those off for you but I can certainly get them for you.[4] They do exist and the reason that I cannot reel them off is because they exist both in terms of the department's officials who work on the PFI projects but also in terms of their relationships with the LEAs, so that, as they develop them, they take the criteria but they also look at the particular circumstances of the LEAs. I would be very happy to supply those for you.[5]


Chairman

  67. Who has the overall control in terms of the quality and design? So many of us are sickened by the awful educational buildings that have been built over the years and the buck passes between architects, local education authorities and the government. We are spending all this money, what control do we have on the quality of the buildings as we enter the feeling of the beauty of the environment?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and it is a very interesting and pertinent question because I was speaking at a conference on design at the PFI two weeks ago. There is an ongoing debate about whether the departments should play a more significant role in the design. I have my doubts about government departments becoming design gurus. What I am very clear about is that, on the ground, there are people who are pretty clear about what they are trying to achieve and I do want to see school governors, if it is a school, and the head teacher and the local community involved in some way, shape or form in that design. What I have said is that I want us to move closer to thinking about design in terms of the environmental issue: how much does it cost to heat it, light it and so on, in terms of the flexibility of the building: this building is used for school purposes but school purposes are changing so how much effort has been given and is thinking of being given? And to have designs that are practical as well and affordable, but that the people who are going to live in the building, the children, have some say in what their school should look like. In my own school partly for an anti-bullying project, the kids were asked to take a plan of the school each and to draw which parts they like best and which parts they did not, and it was astonishing to see the unanimity of people, which parts they felt were dingy and which parts they would like to have differently done. If you can expand that and of course include the teachers as well because the teachers have to feel that the plugs are in the right places, all of those things that, when you build a house, you take into account.

  Chairman: Minister, that is good news but all of us sitting round this table have been looking ruefully at schools and educational buildings. My own area is one of the wettest parts of the world and we have schools with flat roofs. How many of us are involved with leaking schools because the roofs were designed not for the climate that we actually live in.

Mr Shaw

  68. One matter on PFI, please, Minister. One of the criteria, looking at the costs of putting the PFI deal together, are the lawyers' and the accountants' fees. There is one case of a hospital in Kent where the accountants' and lawyers' fees were £2 million and the capital programme was £10 million and it collapsed, but you will be looking at that because that is part of the criteria and there is guidance about how much you should spend on lawyers and accountants before you actually get to putting the deal together.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed, Mr Shaw; you raise again a very, very pertinent point. What I have asked for and what officials are working for is to get the system to be much less time consuming because it seems to take a huge amount of time to get the schemes put together.

  69. Bills keep coming in.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed. We are developing guidance—I think it will be out by Christmas—saying this is what we expect to do in terms of what the mechanism should be. It should of course decrease the cost because you actually have a rigorous approach to it.

  70. If you are saying this is the guidance, if it passes a period of time, will you be saying, "That is it, that is enough, we are not going to allow to continue year upon year. Not only does it cost a lot of money but is also frustrates the community. When is this hospital going to be built? When is the school going to be built? It is a PFI deal, it is some way down the line." Will there be a cut-off point?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I am not sure whether we are planning a cut-off in the guidance because I have not seen the draft guidance yet. What I have said in terms of the steer is that we have to make sure that people understand what the process is, that it is timely and that it deals with the issues that need to be dealt with, but the officials who do work closely with local education authorities when they are getting in trouble, our track record is fairly good —

  71. We do not want them getting into trouble in the first place.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) What I mean by "getting into trouble" is when they are not sure what to do next. It is long before "getting into trouble" in terms of the project collapsing. The department has very good officials who go and talk and work with local education authorities at the first sign that they have a difficulty and the problems that we have had in terms of timescale I think are about people getting to grips and learning about the scheme but, now that we have done that, we want to be more creative with it, but I fully accept your point, it has to be within measured timescales and it has to be within a reasonable cast and precisely those objectives we have in the guidance.

  72. I think you will be looking at a very firm set of criteria and a very firm case in order that you give that PFI the green light in order that the local councils or the schools consortium can go out and find the finance and they will need to employ their own accountants and lawyers, but I think you should be looking for some sort of timescale because another month and another month goes by and it goes on and on and, if there is not that sort of timescale, it seems to me a model where the department says, "You should be able to put together a deal, this is the model of good practice and, if you are not going to do that, we will intervene." Your department is quite happy to intervene and remove the education authority but perhaps a few plugs should be pulled on the PFI.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) What you have asked me about is another point and I would be reluctant to say, "If you do not do it in six weeks and two days, you are off" because that is different. I think what you are saying about a clear-cut set of guidelines and a clear-cut time-frame and a clear understanding that this project is going to work properly I agree with completely.

Paul Holmes

  73. I have three concerns on PFI and I will be interested to see the criteria that Education are using on PFI. At a Court case, we saw criteria on London Underground where the Government said that any public bid would automatically be penalised on the grounds that they bound to be behind schedule and inefficient whereas the private sector were bound to be efficient and always build on time, rather like Railtrack. I hope there will not be any artificial criteria in the criteria that Education are using to look at PFI but there are other concerns about PFI and one is accountability. In some of the early schools, governors were asked to sign gagging orders on grounds of commercial confidentiality and the company which built the school argued commercial confidentiality in terms of running the buildings etc, so you have accountability. Then there are questions that PFI can work against the community involvement that we were talking about early in that, for example, one school in Derbyshire has had the suggestion that, when they have an event in the evening, the company say they will charge a parking fee because they want to maximise the financial return. So, there are very factors here that are very worrying and actually work against schools being community involved in a commercial company which is keen to maximise return.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I will be as brief as I can. In terms of the public/private cross-benefit, I know that the issue of delay and overspend is an issue and it is taken into account. I do not know about specific examples; I would not anticipate that that was something we would want to do at all, we need to be realistic about what the differences are. The second in terms of governors and gagging orders and so on, I am very keen that governors run schools and that means that they run schools and I would not wish to see what you might call a gagging order. There will be issues of commercial confidentiality but of course, as responsible grown-ups, governors would be quite clear about their responsibilities. I do not want the companies to feel that people can just wander up and say, "This is a dreadful scheme" and so on, but that is about a negotiated position and I want governors to be in the driving seat. One of the issues about PFI is that I do not think governors understand the system—and I do not blame them, it is difficult—and therefore we will have to do quite a lot more—and I am talking to colleagues about how we do that—to help governors understand what it is they are entering into so that they make a proper and genuine decision. In terms of the evenings, yes, I am very, very alive to the issue about who controls the school building outside the school hours because again it fits very much into what I have been saying about community resource and I have already asked officials to go away and make sure that we are not in a position where the governing body could not dictate what exactly is going to happen. So, thank you for raising that.

  Paul Holmes: If all those criteria are there, that will be excellent.

  Mr Pollard: Chairman, you mentioned accessibility of the Minister and I can categorically tell you that the Minister is exceptionally accessible. It may help of course that she is a constituent of mine!

Chairman

  74. Who cannot vote!
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I have three other voters in my household!

Mr Pollard

  75. I want to move onto Early Excellence Centres. Minister, I am delighted that, in my constituency, I have an Early Excellence Centre but I have to say that it was there before you were in post, so there is no undue influence there. What are the criteria for where Early Excellence Centres are? You know my constituency as well as I do and it would be hard to describe it as a very needy and run-down area, in fact it is about one of the wealthiest towns in the land, so I wonder if you could take us generally through that.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Because I know your area, I can say that it may be one of the wealthiest areas in the land but it has real pockets of deprivation as you well know. It has a number of children who are living in, I think, real poverty and we do have in all our schools in the area issues of children with low literacy levels, with family backgrounds that lead them to have lower education attainment and so on, so I think that in our communities, however affluent they appear, there are always areas that are deprived and I would not want our programmes to be purely for those areas that measure high on the indicators, important though they are. The point about the Early Excellence Centres is that it gives the opportunity for people to come together and it is very much driven by those areas who feel they can provide that. We want to have 100 of them, we have 49. We plan to let them develop themselves so that you bring in together the different services and therefore it is driven by areas where we can address a genuine need and what that need is, where we can bring together the services to support that and we can develop and grow and bring in other areas around it and that is really the criteria.

  76. Why have the Government not planned to have an Early Excellence Centre in every Early Years development and childcare partnership? There are 100 that you are planning and there are 150 of the other, so there is a gap of 50.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Can I leave that to the review?

Chairman

  77. There is a case in principle. What is guiding the department? Do you want to put these in areas of higher social deprivation? Your opening remarks showed that you were concerned about reaching through to that bottom third who are the most difficult people to get into any form of education and is that not the priority? Should that not be the priority of the department? If we get to the situation where you are going to have one in every local government area, yes, St Albans will get its share, but is it right that those areas get their share when real deprivation is clustered in other regions of our country?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed and inherited targets are always more difficult to work back and see precisely why we did it. I am a great fan of targets because it keeps everybody on our toes not least myself because you can ask me about them. I think what is important is that we developed a range of different approaches to how we tackle deprivation with the clear view that this is a real focal point for us. The point that I was really making is that I recognise that deprivation exists across our communities and therefore the models we develop have to be appropriate and I think that the investment in financial terms is largely going into those areas of high deprivation and rightly so and it will be the area on which we will focus. The child care review will be the area in which we focus in terms of developing our partnerships but it is also relevant to say that, if you want to make sure that you address all children's needs ultimately, that you develop models which you can move across the community and use resources in that way too.

  78. How far do you think your department joined up in these things? When this Committee looked at a whole range of good innovative ideas to tackle this deprivation, lack of education and poverty, one of them was Sure Start, there were Early Excellence Centres and later on there was educational maintenance allowance (EMA), so there is a whole range of packages, and then there are mechanisms that this Government are suggesting and we have asked them to go further in terms of identifying children from more deprived backgrounds to get into higher education. How is the department stitching this altogether or is there one group of ministers scattering Sure Start here, bit of EMA here? How is it stitching together? Should they not all be concentrating in the same areas of deprivation in a more focussed way?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Yes, we are stitching it together and one of the reasons why I can say that is because one of the issues that I am looking at in my childcare review is the need for 50 per cent of the population by the age of 30 to be accessing higher education and I would argue that you start really at the beginning because you have to approach children and young people wherever they are. If you look at where a number of the problems are, they are trying to focus on the same areas, but there is a lot to do and a number of areas and, if you are going to work with local partners on the ground, they have to be able to work with you. So, sometimes when you are developing a programme, and Sure Start is a good example, you are reliant upon the local people being able to come together and develop that service. It is not about us driving with hoards of people from the centre saying, "Here we are, we have come to do this."

  79. No, it is not but it is also the case that even if you look at the awards from the Lottery, the fact is that the most deprived communities which have less able people, less middle-class professional people, less people able to put a competent bid through, so time and time again, even with the Lottery, you will see that Jeff Ennis's area probably gets less Lottery money than any other part of the country yet it is one of the most deprived. If you wait for an articulate group of people to get together and organise it, then you are going to have a long wait in some of those deprived parts of the country.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I do not think I said that. I think what I said was that you have to be sure that you can put the partners together. I would have said that you bring together the sort of `top down bottom up approach', the kind of thing that we have to meet in the middle. So, it is not about people from the centre and it is not about waiting for people who clearly could not do that, so I would argue with you that, in my experience of working in economic development deprivation for 20 years, some of the most able and articulate people willing to do things live in the most deprived communities. They simply do not get access to the resources but, my goodness, they are there and I think that is something that we should not forget, that these people are begging poverty but we should not give them any other attributes that we perhaps would not want to. They are quite capable of coming together and working together, they just need support to do it and that is what we have to do.

  Chairman: Support to do it is crucial.


4   Ev. p. 33. Back

5   Ev. p. 33. Back


 
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