Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 80 - 99)

WEDNESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2001

BARONESS ASHTON OF UPHOLLAND

Mr Turner

  80. I would like to begin by following up on one of the Chairman's questions. Is there a document which lists, to begin with, your department's programmes operating in which areas? I worked for a local authority before I came here and we had a list of every known programme that applied in that authority though I doubt that it was very effectively joined up until it reached local authority. Is there such a document?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I have not seen such a document. That does not mean that it does not exist because I have not asked to see it. If you are asking whether we can get you the list of which programmes apply in which areas, yes, we could.[6]

  81. And then the criteria because again it seems to me that the criteria are absolutely essential so that I can understand, for instance, why certain programmes, do not apply in my constituency, like EMAs. It is a constituency with one of the lower GDPs in the south-east of England.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I cannot answer obviously for EMAs. I think the other point you are making and it has been made several times is one that I absolutely accept. My experience again at the receiving end of government programmes, and yours would be too, is that, when you are looking to try out ideas and to pilot initiatives, it is quite often that they look very scattered. They are not necessarily from the centre but they feel it from the ground. What we are leaning towards now is much more bringing everything together and making this fit in a way that is more easily understood and I take your point and hence my part of it in terms of childcare over many years that we have a range of initiatives and what I want to see is how these best fit together, which communities we are addressing, how do we make sure that we do not miss lots of the children that we wish to work with, how the partnerships are doing, which ones need more support and how we provide that support. So I am absolutely 100 per cent behind the idea of joining it up but it is about bringing that together, as I say, in different ways.

  82. On Early Years provision, I tabled a couple of PQs recently to establish how much was provided in each local authority area and what the take-up was and I have been promised you will be collating figures of take-up in 2002[7], so does that mean you have not collected figures for take-up of places that are provided in this programme yet?

  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Do you mean the nursery provision for four year olds and three year olds.

  83. That is right.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) As far as I know, we have the details of that because we know what the take-up levels are, so we should have.

  84. Somehow they did not emerge.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Then I will go back and make sure you get those. As you know, it is a moving population, so there are issues about it but the differential is also about the provision that local authorities have been providing themselves and we are just at that point where we are moving universal provision for three year olds where they do look different and the reason they look different is because our investment is in areas where there is very little.

Valerie Davey

  85. I want to come back to Early Years but the range of projects which you are going to consider in putting the map of Britain and where this money is being spent. We have not mentioned, for example, New Deal in Communities, we have not mentioned Excellence in Cities, we have not mentioned Education Action Zones or indeed Health Action Zones, all of which inter-relate and I would agree with Andrew that it is when it gets to local government level, for example within the city of Bristol, that you begin to see the impact and eventually you hope there will be a total impact, but understanding on the ground, if you are a local councillor or indeed if you are involved in one of these projects, the inter-relationship is important. Is that something Government are considering and giving thought to?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Certainly in my area we are because it is part of my conversations with the Department of Health because Education Action and Health Action Zones often are working in the same communities. I do appreciate because I have been on the other end of it that, when you are trying to understand what the difference between these things are, it is sometimes difficult. Targeting resources is a very useful mechanism and I think all government have used targeted programmes in order to make sure resources hit the particular things they want them to hit and that is quite important. The trick is to move that now, certainly areas I am working on, to be more easily understood, to make sure the funding streams now come together. As I have said before, it is necessary if you are going to access all the different bits of money available but, if you are on the ground working out how to apply for them, it is not so easy. So, it is about those kind of things. We are acutely aware of this myriad of different things going on and acutely aware of the need to join up and make sure that it all fits together and that is part of the work of the next one.

  86. You realise of course that none of us are saying "no" to this money coming in. Whatever direction it is coming from, we want it and we will use it as well as we can. An area where there has been universal acclaim from all the professionals in Early Years has been the foundation stage and I would like to just focus on that. Now the idea is coming through that the baseline assessment will be universal and I appreciate the universality approach, but when is it going to be done and what will it be done for?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The assessment will be done at the end of the reception year, the end of the year when the child is five.

  87. That is pre-school still, is it not? A child goes to school officially, statutorily, in the term after they are five.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The term after they are five and you will find that it is now described as the summer after they will have started school, so they will be at school.

  88. This is a difficult area and this is not a trick question and I do not want to get you involved in some of the detail of it but the foundation work could, if we are not careful, be brilliant for what it is doing up to five and then, when the children start school in the term after they are five, they do not benefit from it and have not had that baseline assessment and I think what many professionals would urge you to do is to look at how important that foundation work is for the five-plus, for the year in which many of us, as older parents, would have called reception year which is now actually Year 1. How much of that baseline reflects into year 1 or is indeed part of Year 1?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) We call it a profile and the reason we call it a profile is that it is not a test and it should not be seen as a test. It is an assessment made by the teachers in the general course of their work about the child and the reason it is done while the child is at school is because we think children arrive at school from a whole raft of different experiences and it is only after a while of being with the child in the school setting that you can make those assessments and we are looking at, yes, of course abilities in terms of literacy and numeracy, but also emotional development and social development, those things that are crucial to the beginning of a child's educational life, and the purpose of that is to inform up the school and to help work out where a child has reached. As I say, it is not a test, it is a profile and I have called it that specifically because it is about the teacher and it is about when the child is at school and has had some school experience, but obviously looking at how children develop is ongoing.

  89. I welcome that enormously and I think your word "profile" is one that perhaps was reflected in the work we did in the Select Committee earlier on. Can you tell me quite categorically that that work is not part of the league table procedure for schools and that it is there for the parents and the teacher to assess a child and help their performance in the future?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed. The only thing I would add to that is that it may provide in the future aspects of value added measure because we will see where a child is and we are looking at that and we have not made any decisions about it, but we are absolutely not testing children in any way, shape or form. It is a useful mechanism to help schools see where a child is.

Chairman

  90. One of the problems we identified in terms of Early Years was much of the good work that has happened in children getting a nursery place at four and now three, but there is evidence on the ground that children are getting formal learning too early. All the work/research we have had from an excellent woman who has completed her PhD in the development of the brain and early learning and so on showed the danger of formal learning for children too early on and there is inevitably in the process a real push to get children the formal learning.[8] Do you see that as a problem? We heard it all the time when we went round schools. That is what people were saying. Good initiative but the unintended consequence was that children will be put in a formal situation with one teacher and 25 children too early when they should be in very small groups doing more active play and stimulating play.

  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Learning through play is very important. I do not want children to get into formal learning too early and I would agree with you entirely on that. The purpose of the nursery education is nursery education. Children learn from the minute they are born, their first and most important educator is their parent. We accept that and that is absolutely right and children learn a huge amount in that learning through playtime at nursery. They learn about socialisation; they do learn numbers and reading and some children are ready to do those things. It is also about not holding any child back, so I do not want to get us back to the position we have also had where children have not been allowed to learn their letters because the nurseries have said "no" and that is one of the things I can remember. It is about allowing a child to develop in the way that a child does; it is learning through play and it is very clearly done in that way and it is not about, we will all sit down now and learn the three Rs which we all agree—and I do not think there is anybody on this Committee would disagree—is not appropriate and you cannot get them to do it anyway because they will not.

  91. Do you recognise this as a problem?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I recognise that people are worried about it.

  92. Minister, I am asking you. We saw evidence that this is happening, that real children in real schools have been put into formal settings too early.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) By "too early", you mean . . .?

  93. Certainly before they are five and even when they are four.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) All I would say to you is that that is not the purpose of the Early Years. I have not seen that. I would be very happy to go and see it if you have seen it and I accept that you did. The only advice I would give is that, for some parents, there is an opportunity for children to start formal school because of the way the terms are worked out and the way admissions are worked out in the term after they have turned four. Where parents want to do that, we would not stop it, but the purpose of the nursery education is precisely that. If it is a problem, then we need to deal with it.

  94. If I, as Chairman of this Committee, make a suggestion about people to whom you should talk ...
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I would be very, very grateful.

  95. You would be happy to meet them?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Indeed, most certainly.

  Chairman: Excellent.

Mr Turner

  96. I wanted to pursue something arising from Val's questions about baseline assessment. You mentioned that it might form the basis of value added measure. Hitherto, you have only spoken about value added measures for Key Stages 2, 3 and 4. Many of us have three tier systems in our schools and there is not really any measure at all that is achieved in the intervening phase. Do you have any intention of providing such an interest for public consumption?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I am not sure. I am very conscious of the public consumption side of this debate and the way in which schools feel pressurised by that public consumption and the need to make sure that we are able to reassure them and make sure that we know what we are measuring. In terms of the early profile, it is about a recognition that schools' greatest achievement is the value that they add to a child and therefore being able to find new and creative ways of measuring that and, as you know, there are lots of lots different ways you can look at, some very simple which is where we start, so I give you a woolly answer because I am actually not sure where we should go on this, it is an area that I want to explore and, three-and-half months in, I have not quite got there.

  Chairman: It is nice that ministers do admit that they do not know all the answers.

  97. Key Stage 1 information you do collect, so it is available, you have simply chosen not to make it available to parents.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) Yes.[9]

  98. Why are my parents not entitled to that when parents of a child in a primary school can see what appears at the end of the process?
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) I think if you talk to the individual schools, they will share information with parents.[10]

  99. You know what I mean on a practical basis.
  (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) The trouble is that this is where we get into the difficulty, what are we comparing with what? In terms of Key Stage 2, the 11 year tables, there is still huge controversy around how we do it, what we are trying to show and so on, and local newspapers thoroughly enjoy setting up league tables for schools in a way that is very simplistic, if I can put it in that way. We need to be cautious about moving in that direction until we are sure about what we want to say by doing it and I am not sure what I want to say by doing it. It is important for us to know what information is, but I am not sure that I want to be saying that to the general public.


6   Ev. p. 34. Back

7   HC Deb 26 October 2001. vol. 373. cols. 453 - 6W; HC Deb 5 November 2001. vol. 374. cols. 45 - 60W. Back

8   Early Years Learning, POST Report 140, June 2000, which is available from the Parliamentary Bookshop [Tel 020 7219 3890] or via the parliamentary web-site at www.parliament.uk/post/home.htm Back

9   Note by Witness: There are no Performance Tables for Key Stage 1. Back

10   Note by Witness: Primary schools are required to publish their school level results for Key Stage 1 National Curriculum Assessments in both the Governors' Annual report and the School Prospectus. Back


 
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