Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 220-236)

MR STEPHEN TIMMS MP

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001

  220. You can give the Committee that, but they did also note that educational special needs is much less than the average school in most specialist schools?
  (Mr Timms) It is still the case that the free school meals is less than the national average in all the specialist schools. I was referring though to the ones that have been declared this year, which I think is an indication of the direction that we are moving in, that the proportion is significantly above the national average.

  221. I am going to irritate my colleagues and jump to faith schools now, and come back to the academies in a moment. But we must leave you with one message, Minister, that we will want to know progress on value added next time we meet you, perhaps before next year, because many of us on this Committee are absolutely sick of seeing league tables of exclusive schools, in exclusive areas, where people go in with ten starred GCSEs, A stars at GCSE, and, surprise, surprise, come top of the league in A level results. And I am sure that when you went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, you had excellent A levels, and you got a very good degree, and, people who get those qualifications, if you had not got a good degree at Cambridge, we would have had a thorough investigation of why not. But you take the Committee's point of view on this?
  (Mr Timms) Absolutely; and let me just reaffirm our full-hearted commitment to the introduction of value added. Shall I just spell out the sort of programme that we have got for publishing that information?

  222. Briefly, Minister?
  (Mr Timms) As I have said, we have got a pilot this year which will look at value added between Key Stage 3 and GCSE, and between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3, and that will be fully published nationwide next year. Between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, there is a pilot next year for publication the following year; between GCSE and A levels, pilot in 2003 with full publication in 2004, and between Key Stage 2 and GCSE, pilot in 2003 for publication in 2004.

  Chairman: Thank you, Minister. I want to move to faith schools now and I will ask Paul to lead with the questions on that.

Paul Holmes

  223. Faith schools, really, one of the problems that a lot of people see with the expansion of faith schools is very much in the area that we have gone into now, with specialist schools and City Technology Colleges, and so forth; but is their success based on the fact that they effectively become a form of selection in another way, it is not formal, 11-plus selection but it is selection in other ways, it is aptitude, ability, attitude of pupils, and so on? Canon Hall recently gave an example of an inner city where there were two schools, literally side by side, and he said one had got excellent GCSE results and one was virtually a failing school, with about 20 per cent getting five A-Cs GCSE; and, he said, what was the reason for the difference, the excellent school was a faith school. And then there was an analysis, printed in The Times Educational Supplement, where they looked at things like free school meals and special educational needs, and, surprise, surprise, the big difference between the two schools was that the excellent school took well below national averages for special educational needs, well below national averages for free school meals, and that the poor school, academically, next door, was way above average, nearly 59 per cent were special educational needs, for example. Is not the expansion of faith schools just another version of the expansion of specialist schools and City Technology Colleges, it is selection by back-door methods, which is going to create a two-tier education system?
  (Mr Timms) I would make two points on this. Firstly, I think there is evidence, and Ofsted has gathered some evidence, to suggest that faith schools are doing a good job, and particularly doing a good job amongst some of the most disadvantaged youngsters, and they have looked at it on a value added basis, and the evidence, I think, is, it is fairly clear, that church schools are doing a good job. The other great strength that church schools/faith schools have is the strong support they have from parents, which we know is quite a big element in schools doing well. So they do have significant benefits. We are not going to be promoting, going round encouraging or urging people to establish faith schools, but what we are saying is, where there is a broad demand from a community, supported through the school's organisation committee, then that demand ought to be facilitated rather than blocked.

  224. But is not one of the points you just made there, you were saying about the attitude of the parents and the support of parents and the parents who were able to move their children miles to get them to their school of choice, a faith school in this case, a specialist school in another one, is not that the whole point about it is back-door selection; alright, specialist schools might select only 7 per cent by aptitude, but there is a much wider back-door selection going on by attitude? The faith schools will interview parents and the pupils to see what their background is and what their attitude is, and so you are selecting the most supportive parents, the most committed parents, and therefore the pupils who are going to achieve better?
  (Mr Timms) The evidence that Ofsted has gathered suggests that, if you look at the differences between Key Stage 2 and GCSE achievement, there is evidence of the faith schools doing relatively well. And I think, my own observation is, it is the case that some faith schools are able to do particularly well, and I am thinking of schools in my own constituency, a boys' school, or serving my own constituency, not actually in it, that is doing very well amongst Afro-Caribbean boys. Now that is a group where we have some of the biggest problems of underachievement nationally, and that school is doing well. I think what we need is, going back to something I said right at the beginning, a diverse system; faith schools are doing well, with some youngsters, but they are by no means the whole answer, really it is going to need many other different kinds of schools as well. There is an excellent girls' school in my constituency—Plashet School—that bends over backwards to meet the diverse faith commitments of all of its pupils, which are very varied; that school is also doing extremely well. What we are looking for is diversity, but faith schools, I think it is clear, do have an important contribution to make.

Mr Shaw

  225. I think that the point that Paul was making is the fundamental one, it is not the school, it is not actually where it is, it is the cohort, and it is whether a school is actually serving that cohort. If a system is set up that excludes a certain cohort, i.e. those from poorer backgrounds, with special needs, etc., then of course the school is going to do well. So it is what the school has, not what the school is, and if you create a situation—
  (Mr Timms) Yes, but there are plenty of examples of church schools which are meeting the needs of exactly the kind of cohort that you were describing; and the point I am making is, the evidence is they are doing a good job.

  226. So you are clear the evidence is about the cohort and the level of special needs and the level of that, rather than the institution itself?
  (Mr Timms) Yes; taking all those factors into account, the evidence is that they are doing a good job.

  227. Do you not think though that events have really overtaken the Government's idea of expanding faith schools, with the events in Bradford, indeed, there was a report that highlighted the separation within a particular community of education as a cause of the multiracial problems, the events in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, the community issues and race relations issues arising out of events from September 11? Surely, what we want to do is for each of us to have an understanding of different cultures, and that best arises when we learn at an early age, at school. And if we are going to see an expansion of faith schools, separating particular religious groups within our communities, that is not going to do anything for the promotion of racial harmony and living in a celebratory way of multi-culturalism?
  (Mr Timms) I very much agree with you about the objective, but I do not see the establishment of faith schools as being in contradiction to that. You mentioned the case of Bradford; certainly, the report did highlight the segregation in schools as one of the issues in Bradford. I think I am right in saying that there are not any maintained faith schools, currently, in Bradford, there are quite a number of independent faith schools in Bradford; and one of the benefits of what we are proposing, I think, is some of those schools being able to come into the maintained sector, being inspected by Ofsted, the National Curriculum, and also having the opportunity and encouragement to form partnerships with other schools, schools of different faiths and schools of no faith. And I think what we want is an inclusive education system, and we will want new faith schools coming into the maintained system to contribute to that inclusiveness, perhaps in terms of their admissions arrangements, as the Church of England is proposing, or in terms of partnerships being established. And we have made this point in the White Paper, that we will be encouraging the establishment of partnerships between different kinds of schools, precisely to avoid the kind of segregation which, I agree with you, is a feature of things currently, but it is a result of housing policies, and historical legacies, rather than of faith schools.

Mr Chaytor

  228. If I could come in on this question of the inclusiveness of faith schools, because, I read in this morning's press, the Secretary of State is now considering making it a requirement of new faith schools that they would need to open up their admissions arrangements. But is not there a contradiction there between the arguments about bringing into the system existing faith schools that are run independently? Because I have some knowledge of the private Muslim schools in Bradford, and I cannot see any of the existing private Muslim schools in Bradford agreeing, for example, to specify a proportion of their intake as non-Muslim. So this question of changing the admissions policy, opening up the schools to children of different faiths, how is that going to work, is there going to be a set percentage which schools will have to offer; and, if it is not that, what kind of partnerships do you envisage, what is the detail there, how can a 100 per cent Catholic school form a partnership with a 100 per cent Muslim school, that is not inevitably going to just reinforce the segregation?
  (Mr Timms) I spoke in terms of increasing the inclusiveness of the system as a whole. I do not think it would be possible, and we are not proposing, the Secretary of State is not proposing, to require quotas for non-faith adherents, although—

  229. Why; it would not be possible, because of the politics of the situation, or technically it would not be possible? There was a time when voluntary aided schools had to, or could, bring in up to 15 per cent of children not of that faith, simply to fill the places; technically, it is possible?
  (Mr Timms) I think it would be extremely difficult to require that in law. The recommendation of Lord Dearing to the Church of England was that new Church of England schools should have that inclusiveness as a characteristic of their admissions procedures; we welcome that.

  230. But, in law, we can have 10 per cent of children selected by aptitude, but we cannot have 10 per cent of children selected by virtue of being of a different faith; what is the difference?
  (Mr Timms) I think, if you were to have people in front of the Committee, perhaps you might in the future, from the faith organisations, they, or some of them, anyway, would want to make the point, and it may not be a denominational point, it may be an individual school point, that individual schools would feel that being able to require faith adherence amongst their admissions is an important element in achieving their identity and establishing their ethos, which is one of the important contributors to the success of those schools. But I think we will have to see the decisions that people make about that; and we had a response to the White Paper from one of the Islamic education organisations, and that was supporting the inclusiveness of admissions. So I think we are going to see a variety of responses on that point. But I do think it would be difficult for us to require it in law; what we can do though is encourage schools to work with other schools, and that is very much working with the grain of the White Paper, the new features we want to see in the education system. And Estelle, I think, will be making this point to the General Synod today, that we want to see good schools, good church schools, working alongside other schools, and there are all manner of different kinds of partnerships one could envisage, but good schools working with struggling schools, I think, is an effective vehicle for tackling school improvement.

Paul Holmes

  231. A question of choice. Not everybody lives in a city, where they could actually have three or four schools within easy travelling distance. A lot of people in Derbyshire, for example, where I have taught all my career, live in small villages, in small towns. What happens if, in your village, the school is a strong faith school, but you, as a parent, are either of a strongly different faith, or, like 93 per cent of the population, do not go to church at all; what choice are you then having? And if you live in a small town, where the only secondary school is a strong faith school, or, for that matter, a sports specialist school, or a science specialist school, but your child, or you, as parents, do not share that specialism, or do not want to go to that faith school, what choice have you then got, if your only local school within travelling distance is excluding you because you do not share that particular specialism or that particular faith?
  (Mr Timms) I think the answer, in the context of the specialist school point, an important feature of the specialist school scheme is that specialist schools will be good at everything, these will be good schools, they will have a particular focus on a specialism, but that will not be at the expense of anything else in the curriculum, they will still offer a full, broad curriculum, and be offering it better as a result of the specialist scheme and the additional funding that they receive and the improvements in ethos and identity as well.

  232. But 93 per cent do not go to church; what about faith schools?
  (Mr Timms) Again, the evidence is that faith schools are very attractive and popular, including amongst people who do not go to church. I think the important point is that we need good schools, and where there is a limit, obviously, on the number of schools available in a particular area, that those schools that are available should be very good.

Valerie Davey

  233. We have talked about partnership in a variety of ways. I would like to take up the link with the independent sector. Can you tell me what message the Department is sending out to the conferences of the independent sector, at the present time?
  (Mr Timms) As you know, we have had a number of independent/state school partnerships, and we provided funding for those partnerships. I think the message we are sending to the independent sector is, we think there is considerable value for the maintained sector and for the independent sector in encouraging some of these partnerships, that they can help us to raise standards in the maintained sector. We are also, of course, reaffirming the view we have always taken, that schemes like the Assisted Places Scheme, which was abolished when this Government was elected, do not, in our view, have a part to play in the future relationship between the Government and the independent sector. And, from time to time, we are called upon to introduce something along the lines of an Assisted Places Scheme; we are not proposing to do that. What we are looking for though is opportunities to work with the independent sector to raise the levels of achievement in the maintained sector, and I think there are opportunities to do that.

  234. In a year's time, it will be interesting to see how effective those have been, and certainly that is a question I shall come back to. In the White Paper, setting up new schools, there is an indication that it is almost a competition, that a whole range of people can put in a bid for a new school, including public, private and voluntary bodies. Does `public' there include the independent sector?
  (Mr Timms) Yes. If somebody in the independent sector wished to put forward a bid then they could do so, and that would go through the process that we described in the White Paper. But there is certainly no objection to them putting forward a proposal.

  Valerie Davey: I think there will be objections, Minister.

Jeff Ennis

  235. Changing the subject, Minister; area-focused initiatives, such as Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones, which I am very supportive of, and the reason I say that is because I am on a governing body, at Willowgarth High School, in Grimethorpe, which is part of the Barnsley Education Action Zone, and we have seen the good GCSE results this year leap from 25 per cent to 35 per cent, and I think a lot of that is down to it being an Education Action Zone. Is it the Government's intention to extend further the programme of area-focused initiatives? And, whilst on the subject, because of the shortage of time, I am going to combine the two questions. The main concern I have got, in terms of the delivery of Education Action Zones, is that in deprived areas like the areas that I represent, and I believe in the principle of levering in private sector funding, and I think we should do that wherever we can, but I know, in another area in my constituency, a secondary school which has been given small Education Action Zone status; the headteacher spent half his time over the summer holidays trying to get in a maximum of £7,000 private sector funding, to support that bid, and it is a real difficulty in areas of deprivation, levering in private sector funding. Should we have more flexibility within the machine to make allowances for the deprived areas, in terms of levering in private sector funding?
  (Mr Timms) As soon as I leave the Committee, I will be off to address the National EAZ Conference, so, if I may, perhaps I will refer to what you have just told me about the improvement in GCSE results in the Barnsley Zone. But we do envisage taking further this area-based approach. The Education Action Zones themselves were set up initially for three years, almost all of them have been extended to five years. We do not see those particular institutions continuing beyond the five-year term for which they were established. But we are certainly very actively learning the lessons of the successes of the Zones, and spreading those through, in particular, Excellence in Cities, including these new smaller Action Zones, like the one that you have just been talking to us about. I do recognise that securing sponsorship in some parts of the country can be harder than in others. We do, of course, give funding support to the Technology Colleges Trust to allow them to do some work centrally to gather sponsorship, which can then be drawn down locally. And I was talking to the Trust recently about their work on Education Action Zones, and I would hope that in areas where there are problems that support can be usefully used. Because this process of establishing links with the private sector, in order to secure funding, can be a very creative part of the process of setting up a Zone, it can make quite a big contribution, I think, to developing relationships in the community which are valuable for raising standards in the Zone. I agree with what you said about the importance of levering in private sector support, in a variety of forms, and that task of getting sponsorship can be quite an important element in making that happen.

Chairman

  236. Minister, we have overrun our time. Thank you for your attendance today. We could have asked you a lot more questions, as you could tell, but we look forward to meeting you again soon, but, certainly, in terms of a performance review type of meeting, in a year's time. Thank you for your time.
  (Mr Timms) I will look forward to it, too. Thank you very much indeed.

  Chairman: Thank you.


 
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