Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 180-199)

MR STEPHEN TIMMS MP

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001

  180. So your mind is open to that, in terms of allowing youngsters to take GCSEs after 16, or alternatives to GCSE?
  (Mr Timms) Yes, it is.

  181. And perhaps it would be felt that was something that you would be willing perhaps to consider piloting? Because I think one of the statements in the White Paper is, it is whatever it takes; and that would mean some quite valuable change as to how we measure young people's success at 16, and also targets that we have referred to as well?
  (Mr Timms) Some youngsters doing GCSEs after 16 is something that is not a completely new idea, but I agree with you that, the way that we measure performance of schools, it certainly does raise some issues in that area that we will need to think quite hard about.

Chairman

  182. Has not the Department got to make much more effort in terms of overcoming what many of us see as a kind of institutionalised, anti-vocational ethos? The vocational stream is always seen as slightly second-class, and is not the real challenge for so many young people, that are not traditionally academic in that sense, who have real talents, that we never in our educational system manage to encourage; and have we not got to make more of an effort to say there are all sorts of talents going through our system and we recognise them, that we applaud and encourage them? One does look at the Department sometimes and think, yes, we like the fact there is going to be much more of an emphasis on an alternative vocational stream, but to give it status and esteem is what we need?
  (Mr Timms) Yes, I completely agree with that, and I think people have been saying this for a very long time; we have never managed to achieve it in the past, and we are very ambitious to achieve it now. I think that is important for a number of reasons. One reason is that the skills that one acquires through pursuing that vocational route are precisely the skills that in some areas we are most short of in the economy at the moment, so it is a national imperative, I think, that we do provide encouragement for people to acquire and develop those skills. And I think the great attraction of the overarching award idea is that it will mean that, whichever route you choose to go through, whether it is an academic route or a vocational route, or a mixture of the two, and I think we probably want to try to break down those barriers a bit between the two separate routes, you will end up in the same place; and I think that will be quite a big contribution to achieving this parity of esteem. Can I just say one other thing, that the Committee has told me about some of its overseas experiences, let me just tell you about one of mine. I was in Singapore recently, and was very interested to hear what happens there, where everybody does O levels, and they still are O levels, 25 per cent then go off to, effectively, sixth-form colleges and do A levels after two years, but another 40 per cent go into very good quality institutions, called polytechnics, which do focus on the vocational and technical skills, and you can spend three years in one of those, and then, if you are able to, you go to a university, but you go to university in the second year rather than the first. I thought that was just quite an interesting model of a very distinct and separate vocational pathway, which does lead on into higher education, in the way that we want our pathways to. But an interesting point from the discussions I had there was that, even there, and these polytechnics have all that investment put in them, there is still a problem, that you are seen to have not quite made it if you go to one of those, whereas if you go the A level route that is regarded as a more prestigious one. So it is a big challenge there.

  183. So we are all in agreement here, Minister, but the difficulty that our Committee finds is that we are trying to do a sort of baseline assessment on you, so that we have a performance review in a year's time.
  (Mr Timms) Yes, so I gather.

  184. So are there any markers, in a year's time, when you come back, hopefully still in the same job, and we say, well, okay, you said some very brave things about raising the esteem and status, and perhaps you hinted at some institutional change; where do you expect to be in a year's time, in terms of making some real differences that we can pick up on?
  (Mr Timms) Yes; well, let me get my defence in quickly. I think this is going to be a long-term process. We will, as you know, be saying more about our 14-19 proposals in the new year, and I think what we will envisage may well be a sort of ten-year process of change to achieve the objectives that we are agreeing need to be achieved. There will certainly, I think, be a great deal more clarity in a year's time about where we are going and the routes that we intend to take there; whether I will be able to point to substantial change in this area within a year I am more hesitant about.

Mr Shaw

  185. I just want to talk about funding schools, but also a focus on local education authorities. One of the possibilities you alluded to, about Key Stage 2 perhaps dipping down this year, was a lack of focus from local authorities. Do you think that might be something to do with their focuses on the number of strategies that they have to produce? For example, at the moment, the LEAs have to do an Educational Development Plan, an Early Years and Childcare Plan, a Behaviour Support Plan, a School Organisational Plan, an Asset Management Plan, an Ethnic Minorities and Travellers Achievement Plan, a Lifelong Learning Plan, Infant Class Sizes Plan, ICT Plan, Numeracy and Literacy Plans. Local authorities themselves have to produce about 70 plans and strategies, of one form or other, and that is perhaps the education part of it. Would it not be better if you just had the Educational Development Plan with an overarching focus on these particular areas, rather than lots of separate, enormous amounts of work, particularly if you have got a small unitary authority, and one, the area that I represent, that means an enormous amount of work? We want to see the focus on support for schools, particularly if they are in difficulty, rather than reams of red tape, which you seem to be making them do?
  (Mr Timms) As you say, this is an issue that applies across the board, it is not just a question on education, I think. But we are looking at some changes in this area in the Public Service Agreements that are being piloted currently. I think two of those, if I remember rightly, are, we have introduced some flexibility on the planning requirements, for exactly the reason that you identify, and I have no doubt at all that we will be able to identify ways in which we can spread the ability for flexibility there beyond those that are piloting it at the moment. But I think this, more broadly, is going to be one of the issues that the Local Government White Paper will address, when that is published, before too long.

  186. We will wait and see. The LGA are very concerned about what was put in the White Paper about ring-fencing budgets. If, on the one hand, the Government believes in local control, devolution, but devolution within certain parameters, i.e. `you are going to spend the money on this', is this the thin end of the wedge, is that the way you see local education authorities going? We have direct grants now to the headteachers, we have ring-fenced budgets, they produce all these reports, is that really the focus, is that what local education authorities are to do in the future, rather than having the flexibility to spend money where a school has perhaps serious weaknesses? One school might have a deficit, another school might have a surplus, but should we be giving them exactly the same money each year; should it be for someone at a local level to determine whose need is greatest?
  (Mr Timms) I agree with that.

  187. May I give you an extreme example. As you know, in Kent and Medway we have a selective system, and so you could have a secondary-modern school with 60 per cent special needs, spare places, so therefore the kids that come to those schools are ones that perhaps have been kicked out of other ones, for various reasons, and then you have a grammar school, and the grammar school will have a big surplus and the secondary-modern will have a deficit, because of places, etc., low GCSE results, higher levels of behaviour, difficulty recruiting, but we give them direct grants for the same money. Do you think that is right?
  (Mr Timms) The bulk of each school's funding comes still through the LEA, and I would envisage that continuing to be the case, and there will be local decisions to be made about the best way to allocate those resources.

  188. But you are ring-fencing?
  (Mr Timms) What we are saying is that, and I think it is right for Government to be able to say this, the highest priority for this Government is education, that we do need to be assured that the extra resources that we are placing in education are deployed for education, and we have therefore said that we will, in the Education Bill, introduce a reserve power on school funding, so that if, in an extreme case, the money consistently is not being passed through to schools, we will take a power to ensure that it is. Now that is very much a kind of last resort measure, it is not one that we envisage using very widely, but I think it is appropriate that, if there is a real problem in a particular authority, that power should be available. Of course, lots of local authorities have spent over the Standard Spending Assessment over the years, and I am sure that will continue, and the reserve power will not affect that at all. But we do want a back-stop so that if there is a serious and continuing problem in a particular authority it can be addressed.

  189. Will the local education authorities and, indeed, will the electors within the authorities know what the goal-posts are, where they are, i.e. `if you don't spend this amount of money then we will use the reserve powers', in advance, or will that decision be taken afterwards; you know, a clear idea, what the rules are, what the game is about? It is important for electors within local education authority areas as well, so to know whether their authority is performing well, if it is spending money on the schools in the way that it should do, in advance?
  (Mr Timms) That is a very fair point, and I think the power will need to be used transparently in that way and the criteria to be made clear in terms of the new funding formula from 2003; so, yes.

Chairman

  190. Minister, underlying some of the points that have just been made is this relationship between central Government, your Department, and LEAs; and it is still a problem. And many of us on this Committee will welcome what is obviously more of a partnering approach between the Department and the teaching profession and schools, rather than the stick, the carrot, the stakeholder approach. It always seems to me that LEAs are left out of that; there is still a view in the Department that it is the stick rather than the carrot that you use on LEAs, and they are the democratic voice in this country locally. Many of them we talked to—and good local authorities—still feel that Government has a negative relationship rather than a positive relationship, and is not the Department reinforcing that, at the moment, and if we want to energise local education authorities it has got to be a positive relationship rather than a negative one?
  (Mr Timms) I agree with that, and I hope that LEAs do have a sense of an increasingly positive arrangement. Of course, I was a local authority leader for four years, and I have a high view of the contribution that LEAs can make to education, partly based on that experience. I was the Leader of Newham Council, and I watched, over a long period, how it was the sustained and committed and patient support provided by the LEA that enabled long-standing problems of underachievement in the area to be steadily addressed, and there have been quite substantial improvements in the last 15 years as a result of that work. So we do have, and I think we have made this clear, a very high view of the contribution of LEAs, particularly in the area of school improvement. We have recently announced a series of diversity pathfinders, as the latest example, which involves us providing additional support to LEAs, to work out in their areas the implications of the ideas in the White Paper. So I certainly see this as a partnership that we want to establish with LEAs, and I think we are putting the steps in place to achieve that.

  Chairman: Thank you. Can we move now to support for weak schools, and Meg Munn would like to lead on that.

Ms Munn

  191. I want to ask about this area of schools which have got serious weaknesses but are not at that stage in special measures, and we note that in the recent annual report of the Chief Inspector of Schools there was a view that they tended to decline and they did not do as well as schools that were actually in special measures. So I wonder if you could perhaps just tell us how you view this situation, and what support the Department intends to give, or does give, to schools which have got these serious weaknesses?
  (Mr Timms) I think Mike Tomlinson is making an important point, that, increasingly, as the number of actually failing schools declines, and also as we get better at putting things right where a school is failing, so we are able to look a little further up the spectrum of achievement in schools, if you like, and increasingly give support to schools that, they may be in danger of but are not currently failing but do have weaknesses; and I think that is an area we need to explore further. I think a number of those schools will be amongst those that we are directed to by the application of the floor targets, they will be the schools that are below the 20 per cent, below the 25 per cent, five good GCSE level. So that will certainly help a number of those schools. But I think we will also need to look at whether there is scope for us developing programmes specifically for schools that are identified in the way that you described; we have not done that yet, but I think there will be the opportunity to do so as the problem of failing schools becomes rather less substantial than it has been in the past.

  192. Linking somewhat to the area that Jonathan was exploring, about the role with the local education authority, surely, the ideal situation would be where the local education authority is already identifying that there are problems in particular schools such that they are dealing with that. Given this proposal to try to give more money directly to schools, are we confident we have got that balance right, in terms of enabling the local education authority to play that role, rather than get into the point where schools are seen as, whatever label we use, if we move it up they will still be seen as failing, which is damaging to the teachers, damaging to the pupils?
  (Mr Timms) I agree with you, and I think that is an essential role of the LEA, and good LEAs are doing that at the moment. And it is one of the reasons that we have intervened in some LEAs, because that role is not being provided there, but in good LEAs it already is, and, I agree, that is where the earliest signs of problems can be picked up, and where swift action can be taken to put the problems right before they become more serious.

  193. So are you confident that the balance of funding between schools and LEAs is right, because we heard from Jonathan the range of plans which LEAs have to do; given their full range of responsibilities, have they got the resources to do this work?
  (Mr Timms) They are getting significantly more resources than they used to, of course. We have encouraged delegation, perhaps that is what you are referring to,—

  194. It is, exactly.
  (Mr Timms) —increasingly to schools, and I think that has been right; but I think LEAs do have the resources they need for these tasks. Of course, we will be looking at this again when we come forward with the new funding system, because we will explicitly be differentiating between that element of the funding which is for an LEA for its own core functions as an LEA, and the rest, which is intended for schools. So I think that distinction will become much more explicit in the new system than it is at the moment.

Chairman

  195. Is there a secret cupboard that the Secretary of State has that she does not let you have the key to, because when she makes major speeches she seems to indicate that she knows of all the schools in the country, under her rule, she knows what is happening, she has a very, very sensitive indicator of what state they are in and she could immediately take remedial action? You are suggesting that maybe you have not got the key to this cupboard, that you have less real sophisticated knowledge than the Secretary of State. Is that a problem between the two of you?
  (Mr Timms) I am not aware of the existence of a cupboard. I certainly have had the experience of mentioning a school that I have never heard of before to the Secretary of State, and she immediately talks about it and knows who the headteacher is and what is going on there; that is a remarkable ability that she has. But I think what we clearly need is a balance here, we are going to need to be interested in what is happening in individual schools, if we are going to tackle this long-standing problem of a long tail of underachievement in schools; but, equally, we are going to need to rely on LEAs for much of the improvement across the system that is essential.

  196. But it is very interesting with this Committee, that very often we do work in one area that illuminates work in another area. And I know this is not your area particularly, but when we did the Early Years, and, in fact, I remember, Minister, you answered the debate on Early Years, on our report, up there, in terms of making a child's early experience work, was parental involvement. And if there is anything this Government seems to have failed on, in these areas of weaker schools, it is parental involvement; parental involvement is a watchword, in early years, and then it seems to dissipate somewhere, further on. And is not, in a sense, one of the problems that the Department has with engaging parents, and it almost looks as though you have given up on the engagement of parents, in the most difficult schools, with the most difficult children? And that is a feeling that I get, this is a personal view, not a Committee view, but I am trying to transfer the experience of the early years to the later years; and if you are really going to do something in these schools, surely, you have got to come back next year and say, `we have actually got', as we suggested for early years, `a charter for parents, a real involvement for parents'? Because I hear too often people saying, "Oh, we tried parental involvement; the annual meeting of the school, hardly anyone turns up;" that seems to me a failure of the system, not of parents, it is a failure of our system to engage parents?
  (Mr Timms) I agree with you about the importance of parental involvement. I do not think we have given up. We had a conference yesterday for newly appointed headteachers; one of those was talking to me about her work with the parents, this is in a primary school, with her parents that is clearly taking up a lot of her energy. And through, for example, Excellence in Cities, through some of the other support that we are providing to schools, there is the ability to do that. We have talked as well in the White Paper about extended hours schools, providing a range of services, support services, to the wider community; and I think one of the benefits from that initiative will be engaging parents in the life of the school, just bringing them in, giving them the opportunity to do some things, and so getting their support for the school and a better understanding on their part of what their child is doing. So we have not given up on that, and, I agree with you, it is very important.

  Chairman: Right, Minister, we will obviously come back to that. I want to move on to specialist schools.

  Ms Munn: You are excluding my `Inclusion', Chair.

  Chairman: I am excluding `Inclusion', sorry.

Ms Munn

  197. Which I thought was going to make a very nice link between what you were talking about. What we just wanted to highlight in this area was issues about both authorised and unauthorised absence of young people, and one of the issues, again, surely, there, is about parental involvement; is there going to be more of a focus on authorised absence as well as the unauthorised absence targets?
  (Mr Timms) The whole area of truancy and absenteeism is a very important one for us. We do want to reduce all absenteeism from our schools, in particular, to cut truancy levels; we have, as you know, a PSA target to cut truancy by 10 per cent between 2002 and 2004. But I think it is right that we should be looking at both authorised and unauthorised absence, I think it is clear there are problems with both.

  198. Moving on, to something which is often the cause of unauthorised absence, in my view, that is young people who are not engaging with the curriculum, for all sorts of reasons. Now we are looking at developing learning support units; how confident are you that they will offer something more than a break for the teacher and the rest of the class from the difficult young person?
  (Mr Timms) I think this challenge of engaging youngsters who have lost their interest in education is a huge one, I think it is one of the central challenges that we face, and it is one of the reasons that I think that what we are proposing on 14-19, what we will be saying about that, is going to be so significant. I think it does require quite a big change in the way that we manage the whole education system, and giving youngsters opportunities in schools that at the moment they just do not have. For example, workplace learning, I think, is going to be an element of the solution here. I think there are quite a lot of youngsters who have lost interest and being disengaged, as you describe, who would be enthused again if they could see the close links between their learning and a future job opportunity, and workplace learning is one way that that can be achieved. I think we will see many more examples of links between schools and FE colleges, because, again, there are a number of very good examples around the country where youngsters who have lost interest have been excited again by education because of being in a college, rather than a school, for some of their school's week. And, by the way, the Chairman asked me earlier about what we might have achieved within a year. I would certainly hope that within a year there will be some pilots of these things, so that we can see the impact that they have. But, equally, I do think it is going to be important that the learning support units do their jobs well, Ofsted, of course, will be looking at them, as part of their inspections. And I think the indications are encouraging that this is being seen as part of the mainstream work of the school, that clearly what happens in them will have an impact on the school's performance, as measured subsequently; therefore, it is very important and will be taken seriously.

  199. Can I raise just one slight concern I have about the idea of workplace placements and college for some young people, because I have had quite a lot of experience of this over the last four to five years, particularly with young people who are looked after by local authorities, and sometimes what happens is, because they have disengaged, maybe they have had a very difficult period in school, they have disengaged with the process which would lead them to GCSEs, these alternatives are looked at. But then what you sometimes end up with is young people, who, for all sorts of other reasons, their emotional development is not as good as a lot of their peers', find themselves in college environments where they are even less able to cope. And, somehow or other, it feels that the problem is moved, rather than ensuring that the young person is enabled to achieve something by the time they are 16 and, maybe in line with the issues that Jonathan was raising, is subsequently enabled to obtain those GCSEs, if not at age 16?
  (Mr Timms) I think that highlights the importance of good and strong pastoral arrangements for young people who are taking these routes, and I think that is absolutely essential; the last thing we would want is people who, as you say, are just sent somewhere else and then the system loses track of them. But I do not think it need be like that, and I have visited some examples where the pastoral arrangements that are provided within a framework of that kind are actually very good and where I think there is proper attention being paid to the individual needs of the youngsters who are participating. I think meeting the needs of children who have been in care is a very important subject for us, it is an area where our achievements as a nation have been dreadful in the past, and we have set targets to increase to at least 50 per cent by 2001 the proportion of children leaving care aged 16 and over with a GCSE, to 75 per cent by 2003; this is an area where we need to do very much better than we have done in the past.


 
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