Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 240-259)



  240. No. You know a lot about faith schools, you know a lot about Bury where there were particular problems last summer. Would you be happy for all of the children in your constituency and in the area of Manchester as well to be in separate education according to faith? Would you be happy with that or would you see that as a real concern?
  (Mr Lewis) The first thing I ought to say is that there were absolutely no disturbances in Bury. There could have been—

  241. You were very close though.
  (Mr Lewis) They were obviously very well managed which is interesting in itself. On the substantive point, which is a valid point, my view is quite strongly on this that I think faith schools play a very, very important in the fabric of our education system, in the range of choices that are available to parents and young people. I actually think it is slightly disingenuous to suggest that faith schools in any way, in my view anyway, contributed towards the events in the summer in terms of those dreadful disturbances.

  242. That was not my suggestion.
  (Mr Lewis) No, no, but some people have suggested that, you did not but many commentators have suggested that. I think they are very important. I think they offer choice for parents. I think they contribute towards high standards and I think there is evidence that young people who attend them, on the whole, enjoy the experience. I think what we need is a diverse system so that is right for some parents and for other parents they make different choices. They do not feel that faith schools are appropriate to them. I think the Secretary of State's announcement within the last few days says that basically applications for future faith schools, there will be guidance which suggests that they either operate and feel comfortable operating inclusive admissions policies, which means they take a significant number of young people from other faiths or no faiths, or they demonstrate a willingness to collaborate and work in partnership with schools of other faiths or non faith schools. I think that is probably the right way forward. I have to say my two children who are five and seven go to a faith school, I think it is important to say that. I have to say though that I think that it is important to encourage collaboration and partnership and it is important to give the opportunity to young people to learn about and have experience of other people's cultures and religions. I think that there are all sorts of ways we can do that, through citizenship activities, through youth work activities, through twinning arrangements, the beacon school arrangements, all of those things. I think it is wrong to per se—I know you have not done this, Chairman—blame faith schools for many of the inherent deep rooted problems we have in some of our cities and towns right now. In my view if you are uncomfortable, and fundamentally do not like the idea of mixing religion and education, I think you should be honest enough to argue that case and I think it is a perfectly respectable point of view to hold. I do not think it is right to use, as I say, the events in those northern towns or for that matter September 11th as some kind of intellectual justification to justify a position you had in the first place. I think you should be honest enough to argue the fact you are not comfortable with mixing religion and education. As I say, I am a strong supporter of faith schools. The Government did not say in its manifesto, of course, that we would embark on this kind of uncontrollable, unlimited massive expansion of faith schools. What we said was we would welcome applications for an increase in the number of faith schools providing they have the support of their respective local communities. I feel that is still right that we recognise the contribution they make, the fact that parents value those schools. You know it is interesting, I am not sure I understand the conclusions but it is interesting because I was researching this for a speech I was due to make recently, as participation in organised religion in this country has declined, the number of parents who are choosing to send their young people to faith schools has significantly increased. I do not know what that says about how parents see the ethos and the focus that is often there in a faith school. There are many schools which have a strong ethos and a strong focus, I want to say that, not just faith schools but it is clearly in faith schools that does exist and we should pay tribute to that and celebrate that. It is important in that context to recognise that they are part of a range of options that are available to parents.

  243. Minister, what we would be more interested in is actually the basis of the evaluation of whether faith schools are more successful than regular comprehensives. One of the jobs of this Committee is to try and scrutinise your Department and when your Department, as all departments do, get a fashion behind them—we all know all departments get a fashion and a fad—for us to say "Hang on, are you really looking at good data? Are faith schools more successful than the others". There is recent evidence coming out that many of the faith schools that have been looked at as succeeding better than a regular comprehensive actually have lower numbers of free school meals, lower numbers of special educational need pupils so in a sense what we are doing—and it is our job—is seeing if this Department is really in the midst of a fashion and fad or basing its arguments on good evidence?
  (Mr Lewis) I think that like in any situation some faith schools are excellent, some faith schools have a very inclusive approach to admission, other faith schools are not as good, do not provide as high a quality of education and some people might say that in terms of their catchment area they take a disproportionate number of given people who are not from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, for whatever reason, and therefore if you are comparing like with like is it a fair comparison. My own personal view is that a significant majority of faith schools do provide a high standard of education relatively speaking to their young people. That does not mean there are not numbers which do not provide poor quality and it does not mean that there are not many non faith state schools which perform significantly better than those of faith schools but that is my own personal judgment.

Mr Pollard

  244. Minister, I would like to go back to your opening statement when you talked about ethnic minorities and I am very interested in that. I know from my own constituency that the Indian kids do miles better than any other group, in fact better than the ethnic white groups.
  (Mr Lewis) Yes.

  245. Pakistanis do next best and the Bangladeshis do worse of all. I wonder if you could take us through how we might get the Bangladeshis particularly to aspire and achieve better which is not just in education, it is a family thing and a community based issue as well.
  (Mr Lewis) I think it should be, first of all, a significant source of concern that children from certain ethnic minority backgrounds are doing worse than generally. We have a responsibility both at a Government level and a local education authority to really address that issue. By the way if we are talking about some of the difficulties in some of our communities if young people from ethnic minority communities feel cut off from the opportunities that are available to others that really does contribute towards that. My view is there are a variety of interventions that we need to use. We do have the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, for example, I think we need to look at that, frankly, and make sure that we are using it to maximum effect in the future—talking about base line assessment—because I think that some of it is based on historical spend, if you like, and we need to look far more at current need and ensure that we are using that money, as I say, to maximum effect to achieve the outcomes that we want. I think that is important, specific resources we target in that area on individual schools and local education authorities. There is the issue of learning mentors, I think making a significant contribution up and down the country in a variety of ways but particularly getting people from ethnic minority backgrounds who could be regarded as role models, who have done the business in terms of education or the world of work and been successful, in sport, however you define that, giving those kids a sense that to be aspirational is a good thing, to achieve is a good thing and that really there is the potential and the opportunity there for those young people and there are no bars, no barriers in our system. It is about both national government funding, making sure that is used properly, it is about initiatives like learning mentors, excellence in cities, targeted initiatives. It is also, frankly, about the management of an individual school, you know it is about a head teacher focussing in on, in a mainstream way, obviously all of his or her pupils but really acknowledging as a starting point that ethnic minority pupils in that school may be struggling for all sorts of reasons and therefore it is important to have a strategy, as part of a strategy to ensure that anybody who is struggling in your school, that you are not just simply allowing that to happen but you are homing in on that, targeting that and looking at the different range of appropriate interventions and support mechanisms which are going to allow those young people to pursue and fulfil their potential.

Mr Turner

  246. I think in answering that question you failed to respond at all to the point about under-achieving white pupils. You spent a great deal of time talking about the Ethnic Minority Support Grants and other associated interventions, what about failing white pupils and particularly whites where they are an ethnic minority in their own schools?
  (Mr Lewis) First of all, with all due respect to Mr Turner, I was asked specifically in the context of the question about policies towards pupils from ethnic minorities in relation to Bangladeshi children.

  247. He actually mentioned white pupils.
  (Mr Lewis) I am delighted to answer the question but I do not want to misrepresent what I said.


  248. Minister, the floor is yours.
  (Mr Lewis) Thank you. Basically our whole intervention in terms of numeracy and literacy, in terms of early years of secondary, in terms of our new approach to 14 to 19, in terms of the development of the Connexions Service, in terms of learning mentors, in terms of having floor targets for both schools and local education authorities, in terms of GCSEs—we have had some good news today with 50 per cent of young people achieving the GCSE target a year early—all of that is about ensuring that under-performing young people who in the past were not actually being given the opportunity by the education system in this country, we were basically educating an elite in this country for too many years, and all of those policies are about ensuring that we educate a far wider range of young people to a very high standard than we have ever done before. It is about again, as I said, specific initiatives which we have, as I say learning mentors, excellence in cities, all sorts of specific interventions, the Connexions Service itself will be there to make sure that young people who are struggling for whatever reason within the system have any obstacle and any barrier removed or dealt with which is getting in the way of them progressing. Of course in the end we need to look at what we are saying about outcomes. What we are saying very, very ambitiously is that 50 per cent of young people go to university, why that is important is that will mean that a significant number of young people from communities and families who have previously been denied that opportunity will go to university in the future. We are talking about re-vamping the modern apprenticeship route for young people so that as an alternative option or a similar option is a valued and high quality option for all young people. Everything that this Government is doing is about encouraging able children and talented children to maximise the opportunities but also making sure that we give every single child, whatever their social background, the opportunities that they deserve.

Mr Turner

  249. Leaving aside the fact that the Secretary of State did put a rather more accurate statement of your targets for universities, it is not 50 per cent of youngsters going to universities, is it, it is 50 per cent of youngsters having a higher education experience?
  (Mr Lewis) Going into higher education.

  250. Right. When you mentioned the five overall objectives in your introductory statement, could you just quantify each of those and say exactly what the target is on each of those please?
  (Mr Lewis) On young people making sound choices about learning Key Stage 4 GCSE, my view is if we enable and support young people to make those sound choices we will achieve the targets that we have set ourselves in terms of GCSE. We have already achieved one of those in the year early. By the way if you enable young people to make those choices at Key Stage 4, it is very likely that we will achieve our targets in terms of higher education and in terms of alternative high value routes like modern apprenticeships. So that is how I would quantify that. If you get it round to that age, and you give them the support to make those choices, you will reap the benefits in terms of their education certainly beyond 16. In terms of supporting all young people to overcome the problems which get in the way, that is about performance but it is also about this ridiculous situation in this country where far too many people have dropped out at 16. The reason they drop out is for a variety of reasons, as we know. It is often thought to be completely limited to careers advice and curriculum issues, it is not, people have family difficulties, they get involved in peer group activity which is not particularly desirable, they get hooked, unfortunately, on drugs or on alcohol, there are a whole range of reasons why young people do not end up performing in the way we want them to do. So supporting all young people to overcome the problems is basically a reference to the Connexions service and that kind of support.

  251. I am thinking of a quantifiable visible date by which you expect to achieve this?
  (Mr Lewis) I think that the targets that you would need to look at are the number of young people remaining in education beyond 16, the number of young people having access to higher education, the number of young people if they are not having access to higher education pursuing an alternative high quality route. Frankly it is not just about how you measure these from an educational point of view. If we get this right, it has an impact on targets and objectives across Government, whether it be teenage pregnancies, whether it be anti-social behaviour, whether it be the skills shortage or the productive gap we have in our country. There is a whole variety of targets and objectives that if we get the principles I outlined in my opening remarks right, they will have a massive knock on effect not just, as I say, in the narrow context of what the DfES is trying to do but specifically in terms of the Government's—as I said at the beginning—commitment to social justice and economic success. If you want me to carry on going through the list I will do.

  252. I think it might waste the Committee's time if you do because you do not appear to be putting dates on these targets.
  (Mr Lewis) There are existing dates. We have already today had news that we have achieved a year early our target of 50 per cent of young people getting the sort of grades in GCSEs that we want. We have significant floor targets in terms of LEAs and schools who perhaps have not been doing as well achieving the kind of resource that we would want in the most disadvantaged communities with regard to GCSE performance. We have, as you know, the higher education target. We are about to respond to Cassels who talks about a modern apprenticeship target. We have a clear priority objective if you look at Educational Maintenance Allowance, if you look at Connexions and all of that to ensure that we maximise the number of young people who do not drop out of education and learning, high quality education and learning at 16. I think there are more than enough targets there.


  253. Minister, if Andrew Turner was wanting more clarification, you would be happy to write to him?
  (Mr Lewis) I would be delighted to do that, Chairman.[1]

  Chairman: I want to move on because you have such a wide spread of responsibilities so I want to get a good coverage. I am going to encourage everyone to ask short questions and reasonably short answers. Jeff Ennis, who is well known for his probing short questions.

Jeff Ennis

  254. Turning to the specific area you are responsible for in terms of Education Maintenance Allowances. You have already mentioned we are still in the pilot phase here. My own particular area the two LEAs in my constituency, Barnsley and Doncaster, are part of the pilot phase for EMAs. What level of success do you think we are having so far, given the fact that we are still in the pilot phase, in terms of getting young people to stay on for further education courses and eventually for higher education courses?
  (Mr Lewis) One of the things it is important to say is that the way the pilot has been established is that it will be relatively easy to compare areas of a similar nature, some of whom have EMAs and some who do not. I know the ones who do not feel very aggrieved about that but that is the way the evaluation has been established. The early indications—and I have to be clear about this, it is early indications—there has been about a five percentage point[2] increase in participation post 16 of young people where EMAs have been available and in operation. It is very early though and we are expecting some better data within the next month or two on that. Of course the other measure that is very important is participation but it is also attainment. Is there evidence that yes we keep more young people in but what is equally important is that they stay in and do well and achieve. That is the basis on which we are examining EMAs at the moment.

  255. Do we have any evidence in terms of the young people who qualify for EMAs in terms of the breakdown of those going on vocational courses as opposed to academic courses as against the non EMA areas?
  (Mr Lewis) Frankly, no, we do not have that evidence yet. It is a very good point and what I will do, if the Chairman will allow me to do it, is I will go back and check whether that piece of work is being done and more to the point, if it is not, suggest that they include that in the evaluation if that is okay.[3]

  256. I think that is an important area for us to research actually. Once again, accepting the fact we are in a pilot phase, do you think there is enough evidence already correlated to show that we do need to very seriously consider a national roll back of the EMA programme or would money be better spent on other interventionist measures?
  (Mr Lewis) I think that is the dilemma. When we get what I would describe as hard data, credible evaluation evidence, I think we have to make a decision and that decision is do we roll EMAs out on a national basis, do we sort out some of the anomalies in terms of, for example, financial assessment where there are different criteria being used in different areas which causes a lot of frustration or do we say, having got the evidence, that either it has not been as effective as we hoped it would be or in terms of the extremely expensive cost of rolling it out nationally, we could find better ways of keeping the 16 year olds in education. I know there has been speculation. There was a leak in the newspaper, I responded by saying it was a nonsense that the decision had been made not to roll the EMAs out—which was the basis of the press article—that decision simply has not been made nor has the decision been made to roll it out. This is one where we are genuinely waiting for the evaluation evidence and then we will have to look at that and also look at that in the context of cost. That is a reasonable thing to do when you have piloted anything and you are making a decision whether you are going to maintain and extend it or whether you are going to change the nature of it. I do not apologise. I do not think Ministers should be worried or anxious about that.

  Chairman: That is music to our ears when we hear you say we are going to wait for hard data and evidence to be collated. What we get worried about is when in the midst of a pilot or the midst of a new experience regarding policy some message comes out of some unknown policy adviser in No. 10 and the Education Department goes into a flat spin, has a cross-departmental inquiry, as in student finance. What worries me is when your Department does not stick to hard data and mature reflection. I know you are not responsible for the other world but that is the lesson that has been learnt.

Mr Chaytor

  257. On the question of the timescale of the decision, you have said, Minister, that further research on EMAs is being conducted but that will not be available for some time yet, can you give us an indication of when it will be available?
  (Mr Lewis) Hopefully we will have far more significant and useful, relevant, informative evaluation evidence by early in the New Year.

  258. Does that mean that decision will be taken in the context of the review of finance for higher education or are the two decisions being seen as quite separate?
  (Mr Lewis) I think currently the issues are being considered separately.

  259. Is there a possibility they might be integrated? Would you think that is a good idea to integrate?
  (Mr Lewis) I think there is a very good case for suggesting there should be integration in terms of the consideration of those two policy areas, yes. I would say there is a good case. At the moment I think we are looking at those issues separately. In a sense we are at a different stage. I respect and appreciate what the Chairman said about previous practice. I think, to be fair, if I may, Chairman, on student finance, actually I think what happened was—and this is not naive I do not think—politicians actually went out on the door step and during the election, particularly, weighed up the kind of issues which were giving them the most grief, people expressing the most disappointment with in terms of the Government's first term. Having experienced that, they felt it was only right to come back and review it. The main reason for reviewing it was I think that obviously there were anomalies where the burden on some families, particularly those families above low income levels, just above low income levels, was prohibitive in some cases and, secondly, because it was the perception amongst young people from low income families that they would have to pay amounts that actually they would not have to pay. There was a danger of disincentivising what we were trying to achieve in terms of persuading all young people or many young people that they have a genuine opportunity to go to university. That is, in a sense, the reason why we are where we are at now in terms of reviewing the higher education finance regime. Now we know the Educational Maintenance Allowances have been up and running for some time, the pilot phases, and we had always intended really to review them in a way that I have described, and a recognition that in terms of the next spending round a decision would have to be made about whether you were going to change the nature of how you spend money to keep young people in education at 16 or whether you were going to ensure that Educational Maintenance had a universal coverage. That was always going to be the debate and discussion.

1   Ev. p. 81. Back

2   Note by witness: So if participation without EMA had been, for example, 65 per cent the EMA effect would take it up to 70 per cent. This would be almost an eight percent increase. Back

3   Ev. p. 81. Back

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