Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200-219)




  200. Minister, are we also achieving in another area of inclusion. When we went to Denmark, we were very interested to look at some of the inclusion techniques they have for including new arrivals in the country from ethnic minorities, refugees, and so on. And they have a very different approach to inclusion in Denmark than we have here, in terms of very seriously taking the education of new immigrants and those who do not have Danish as their first language, they make a very serious effort both in terms of supporting those children, and, in a sense, much more vigorously than we do in this country, to make sure they turn into good little Danes, but also encouraging quite stiff measures for parents. Parents, for example, as I understood it, in Denmark, their benefit system, their benefit support, depended on them learning Danish, the home language. Are we building up problems for ourselves? How much research is the Department doing on the amount of exclusion in ethnic minority communities? Someone like myself, with a fair, but not the largest, percentage of ethnic minorities in my constituency, a fair number, whose one real concern for a very long time has been parents taking young women out of the education system, sometimes at about 13 or 14, taking them right out of the education system and not bringing them back in until the education process is over, it is a real concern certainly of mine and many of our colleagues who face a serious problem in their own areas, girls' education particularly. As a bundle, are we taking that seriously; could we learn from the Danes and other experiences?
  (Mr Timms) I am sure we could learn from the Danes. I think we are taking it seriously. The White Paper has some figures in it about ethnic minority achievement by comparison with the rest of the population, and what that suggests is that we are making some headway, that the gap is diminishing, in that there is still a gap, and there is still a good deal of work to be done, and I think that will require addressing all of the issues that you described. But we have made it very explicit that we do want the levels of achievement in the ethnic minority population to match, over time, the levels of achievement in the rest of the population, that is an explicit objective of ours, and the indications are we are making progress in that direction, although there still remains a good deal of work to be done.

  Chairman: I look forward to talking to you about that in a year's time. We now actually are moving on to specialist schools.

Mr Chaytor

  201. Minister, can I ask specifically about the question of the specialist schools' capacity to select by aptitude, and can you tell us what you understand to be the difference between aptitude and ability?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. Aptitude is about potential and ability is more about achievement, and the key thing, I think, is that aptitude relates to a child's potential rather than being something that one can study to acquire.

  202. But if a school wants to exercise its option to select by aptitude, how does it test that potential, and are there accepted external tests that exist, or would it be largely through interview, or would parental interviews be involved; how will you envisage the testing by aptitude to develop?
  (Mr Timms) The School Standards and Framework Act sets out the arrangements for this, and it is only permissible to introduce selection by aptitude in a number of areas, which are prescribed in regulations under that Act, because it is not possible to test for aptitude in some areas; in others it is.

  203. Could you tell us which areas it is and which it is not, because I am not clear about that?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. The current regulations prescribe design and technology, information technology, modern and foreign languages, performing arts, visual arts, physical education and sport as the areas where aptitude testing can be carried out.

  204. But we have now designated maths and science as a form of specialism, and that is not included in the list?
  (Mr Timms) That is not included, that is correct, and we do not have proposals to introduce new regulations to designate the new specialisms.

  205. So what does that mean; that means that a school that wishes to become a maths and science specialist school is not able to select by aptitude?
  (Mr Timms) Not quite. As you know, the incidence of schools actually taking up this opportunity is actually very modest; but it would be possible, to take your example, for a maths and computing specialist school to select by aptitude on the basis of the information technology aptitude test.

  206. But if I am the headteacher of a maths and science specialist school and I want to recruit children for that specialism, you are saying that I cannot do that but I can recruit children specifically because they have an aptitude in information technology?
  (Mr Timms) It is a maths and computing specialism; that is the specialism we are introducing.

  207. Is it maths and computing, or maths and science?
  (Mr Timms) Maths and computing. So it would be not unreasonable to look at the information technology, which is—

  208. But on the maths side, you are saying there is therefore no mechanism by which a specialist school can select by aptitude for mathematics?
  (Mr Timms) That is true, yes.

  209. But just pursuing the point about this, is it not inevitable though that this capacity to select by aptitude will lead to further divisiveness, because, for every school that selects its 10 per cent, or 6 per cent, or 7 per cent, by aptitude, these are children that were taken away from the potential pool of talent of neighbouring schools. So is not the specialist school programme inevitably leading to a two-tier system, as some schools will gain strength and will recruit more able children, or more motivated children, and other schools will become weaker as they lose the pool of able and motivated children?
  (Mr Timms) No, I do not agree with that, because, as you said, the limit is 10 per cent of the cohort being selected, and we know that at the moment only about 7 per cent of schools that could take that up are doing so, and most of those were schools that selected before they became specialist schools. So if you multiply 7 per cent by 10 per cent, we are talking about less than 1 per cent of the pupils at a specialist school having been through any kind of selection of this nature at all; so I really do not think that, on that basis, you can say that we are developing a two-tier system here. What I would say though is that, take the sports example, we know that schools having the distinct sense of identity and character that comes from specialist designation is a powerful lever in raising standards across the school system. I think that a school being able to select a small proportion of its children on the basis of a sporting aptitude is that contributes to the sense of ethos of the institution, which benefits then all the children in the school. Being able to do that, I think, is a valuable opportunity for the school to take, given that it is such a constrained ability from the start.

  210. If I could just move on to the question of the evaluation of the performance of the existing specialist schools, the evidence is that their increase in GCSE performance is greater than that of non-specialist schools. But can I ask two things about that. First of all, in making that judgement, how do we separate out the role of the specialism as against the role of the additional money, both in capital and revenue terms, that they have attracted, as against the role of the management team that has decided to go for the specialist school status in the first place? It seems to me we are drawing conclusions on only one of the variables in the equation?
  (Mr Timms) It is a very important feature of the specialist school scheme that the extra funding is for some specified improvements, and there is a very demanding process that schools need to go through in terms of setting plans and targets in order to become specialist schools, and then, once those plans and targets are agreed, there is funding that is provided to help them achieve that. And I am quite sure that that process of planning and the effort that goes into that is a very important part of the reason why specialist schools are doing better. Now not every institution is in a position to go through that process; where they can, I think, it is in all of our interests that they should, because of the improved levels of achievement that result. So, equally, I think, the evidence is, and to some extent, I guess, this is a bit anecdotal, that I think it is the case that the clearer sense of identify that comes from being a specialist school, the fact that one of the benefits of the specialist school system will be that every specialist school will be able to be the best school in its specialism in the area, I think, that is actually quite an important benefit, in terms of raising the levels of esteem, on the part of youngsters, pupils and teachers in the school, and therefore raising the levels of achievement.

  211. But in the White Paper the argument for specialist schools is very firmly located in their GCSE performance. Now what I find curious is that the indicator is something that has almost been rejected by the Government in its move to value added indicators and performance, because with the existing specialist schools we are just taking an aggregate GCSE performance of three years ago and comparing it with the aggregate GCSE performance now, and we are saying that that proves their improvement. But that is not the method we are using to develop value added indicators in specialist schools, is it, because there we are looking at the measure of the individual student performance from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4? So has some work been done, or is work in progress, about the value added achievement of specialist schools?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. As you know, we are doing quite a lot of work on the value added measures at the moment, and later this month, I think on 22 November, we will be publishing the first pilot of value added measures, and then those measures will be—


  212. The first official report?
  (Mr Timms) Indeed.

  213. Because a number of colleges, including one of mine in Huddersfield, Greenhead College, have actually piloted value added and led the way, in fact, in measuring value added?
  (Mr Timms) Right. Well we are still at the pilot stage nationally; but from next year that information will be provided nationally.

  214. But the Department seem to be getting cold feet about value added; lots of difficulty, lots of problems: are you getting cold feet about value added pilots?
  (Mr Timms) No, no certainly not; 22 November we will be publishing the pilot data, and it will be national from then on.

Mr Chaytor

  215. So on 22 November it will be possible then to compare the value added achievements of the existing group of specialist schools with non-specialist schools?
  (Mr Timms) For those in the pilot group, I imagine it will. This has been looked at in lots of ways, including the value added measures, and I think the indications are actually pretty clear. Professor Jesson's research is instructive on this, that the specialist schools scheme does allow significant improvement in schools, and that is why we want to spread the specialist scheme so much more widely, as we have set out in the White Paper.

  216. On the monitoring of performance of specialist schools, the Ofsted report recently criticised specialist schools for not fulfilling one of their objectives, and that is the community involvement and the spreading of good practice, and so on. What is going to be done about that? And, secondly, is there not an argument to say that, for many existing comprehensive schools, their community role is, in fact, a specialism, and is there an argument to be made that the community role of the school ought to be designated a new specialism, for which many schools would then apply? Schools that are particularly good at developing parental involvement and developing pre-school activities, to opening up the school to a range of community activities, running adult education programmes in the evening, is this not in itself a valid form of specialism, and would the Government consider including this on its existing list?
  (Mr Timms) I guess the extended hours school model that we talked about in the White Paper does open up opportunities for developments of that kind.

  217. But that would not attract the additional capital and revenue funding that specialist schools do, necessarily?
  (Mr Timms) No, it would not be part of a specialist school model, but there would clearly be some resource implications for it happening; nevertheless, you are right. Ofsted produced a very positive report, I am glad to say, about the contribution of specialist schools, and I think they said that 80 per cent of the schools, if I remember rightly, were taking good advantage of the specialist school scheme, and that it was incentivising improvements of the kind that we need. They also, rightly, drew attention to their concern that amongst the schools they looked at the community element was not being delivered as effectively as we would wish. Now, to be fair to the schools here, this is quite early days for the current form of the community element in the specialist scheme. We have, I think, since the research was carried out, improved the guidance on this and promulgated more information on best practice in this area; and, together with working with LEAs and schools, I hope we are going to see improvements on that front. But the Ofsted report as a whole was a very strong indication of the benefits of the specialist schools scheme.


  218. Will you give the Committee, if you cannot give it now, an indication of how many, on specialist schools, are in deprived environments, and how many in more leafy, affluent areas?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. I can certainly drop you a note with that information.

  219. We would be more concerned if the specialist schools were not being used to good effect in those areas of social deprivation?
  (Mr Timms) That is very important. One point I can make is that, if you look at the specialist schools that have been designated this year, the free school meals proportion in those is above the national average. But we certainly do have figures for how many specialist schools are in Excellence for Cities areas, for example.

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