Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 665-679)

STEPHEN TWIGG MP

WEDNESDAY 17 JULY 2002

Chairman

  665. Minister, may I welcome you to our deliberations. You have the great privilege of being the last of the present team to come before the Committee. I suppose there is a penalty in that you could well be back in front of the Committee in the autumn. May we welcome you to your new job and may I personally say that at the time you spent in your previous job some very interesting things came out from the team of the Leader of the House. I am grateful for that. We do hope you are going to enjoy your experience in the Education and Skills Department and that you will stay there quite a long time. We prefer to have Ministers who have time to become used to the job. Would you like to say a few words to open the session?

  (Mr Twigg) May I first thank the Committee for inviting me along and giving me the opportunity to say a few words at the beginning. I was casting my mind back and I did appear as a witness before your predecessor committee eleven years ago, the Department of Education and Science Select Committee, when I was President of the National Union of Students, in an inquiry about student finance. I am sure that I would still hold some of the views that I held then.

  666. After the reaction to our recent report, they obviously had a higher calibre of NUS president in those days!.
  (Mr Twigg) I am very confident that in 1991 we would have welcomed everything you said in your recent report. I had the chance on Friday, in the debate on behaviour, to say a little bit about why I was so delighted to be asked by the Prime Minister to do this job. For many of us, I think education is something that lies at the core of what we believe in, whatever political beliefs and values we have. I was certainly very influenced in this by my family background, by my parents, and in particular by my mother. She comes from a pretty tough, working class background but got through the Eleven Plus, went to Dame Alice Owen Grammar School and then had to leave school at 15. The view at that time was that girls did not stay on at school beyond that age. She certainly brought up my sister and me to believe in the high values of education and its great importance. I do think that it is right that this week we reaffirm education as the top priority for the Government in terms of our values of opportunity, of promoting a more cohesive society and seeking the greatest inclusion and equality of opportunity. Looking back at the last five years since this Government came to power, a great deal has been achieved in education. As David Miliband said when he came to the Committee a few weeks ago, there are still enormous challenges. I want to say a couple of things about the main policy areas on which I have been asked to work. The first is a new one, which is a Strategy for London Schools. As a Londoner, I am very excited to have this new brief. I am an outer Londoner by birth and represent an outer London constituency, but I have been an Inner London councillor and school governor. I am very well aware of some of the issues that Estelle Morris spoke about in her speech three weeks ago on the London challenge, how in this city we have these incredible contrasts of great wealth and enormous poverty sitting side by side. We have wonderful diversity in terms of the cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds of people who live here, but we also have the challenges that that can sometimes bring with a very mobile pupil population. We have some excellent schools, but we have more than our fair share of schools in challenging circumstances. We have some very good school leavers, but we do not have as many excellent school leavers as there are in some of the other parts of our country. We have 33 local education authorities, very local and bringing many benefits, but also there can be difficulties with strategic leadership and co-ordination. Since Estelle's speech about the London Challenge, I have been working with various partners in London to look at how we can take forward this strategy. I would certainly be very interested in the views and comments of the Committee on how we can best take that forward.

  667. As we only have an hour, can you be brief?
  (Mr Twigg) We had an excellent debate on behaviour last Friday. Thank you to those who took part in that debate. Concerns about pupil behaviour and behaviour in schools are rising. This is a very important area. One needs to be taking on the national behaviour strategy. I know that David Miliband spoke about the 14 to 19s. We want to raise the staying-on rates in education after the ages of 16 and 17 and to foster a good national debate, following the Green Paper on 14 to 19s. Finally, on young people, clearly there is a great challenge for all of us, in whatever area of work, to engage with young people and to give young people a voice. I am very pleased at my role in working with the Connexions Service, the Youth Service and the voluntary sector for young people, and also the Children and Young People's Unit. It is a privilege to be here. Thank you for inviting me along. As a last comment, Chairman, and you talked about my previous job, I am a very strong supporter of select committees and I think Parliament's strengthening of select committees is a vital challenge for us all during this parliament. Therefore, I particularly look forward to working with this Select Committee for however long I am in this job.

  668. May I open the debate by starting with your London responsibilities? This Committee has actually opted to spend a week doing research in one of our great cities—not London but Birmingham—to look at the education in one city. Birmingham seemed to me to be more of a bite-sized city than London. But London is of particular interest to us. Two years ago, some of us visited the Lilian Baylis School and looked at some of the difficulties in a very challenging environment of the school. We do recommend you have a look at both where Lilian Baylis is today and what has happened at Lilian Baylis. It would be a very interesting experience for any Minister and it is convenient. I pop in there because it is very close to the House. May I start by asking what your relationship is going to be with the new Commissioner, who is going to be considering 33 education directors, presumably from local education authorities. Is it going to be a difficult one? When is he or she going to be appointed?
  (Mr Twigg) We are currently preparing the recruitment plan for the Commissioner. I want to see the Commissioner in post in the autumn. I will be working with the Commissioner on a day-to-day basis in the Department. It will be a Civil Service appointment. He or she will be based in the Department. I will work with him or her along with the 33 education authorities and other interested partners across London. It is an innovative move. It reflects the team and the circumstances of a city that does not have a city-wide authority with educational responsibilities. From my own experience in London and from the discussions I have had over the last month or so, I think there is general support for continuing the current arrangements with 33 local education authorities but a recognition that there is a need for some co-ordination and some strategic leadership. That will come from the Department and that will be my role, but the Commissioner will be able really to get into some of the detail of this, working with LEAs and also working with schools, the Institute of Education and other key players within London.

  669. One person's innovative move is another person's gimmick. We are a little worried, or certainly there has been this expression, that this could be seen as a gimmick rather than something that really is going to confront the enormous issues that face education in London. What do you think are the main challenges that you and the Commissioner face? What are the three biggest challenges?
  (Mr Twigg) One, we need to get better co-ordination between different boroughs, different authorities. I know from my own experience as an outer London MP that a decision that is made in the London Borough of Enfield about where a school is to be located will have massive implications for the boroughs of Barnet, Waltham Forest and Haringey. So one is looking at some of those issues to get better co-ordination about those sorts of decisions. London's population is rising; the school population is rising even faster. We are going to need new schools in London. Let us put them in the right places and make sure that they have the right sort of ethos. So one is co-ordination. Secondly, I think there is an enormous challenge, and I know this is not peculiar to London but it is perhaps greatest in London, to do with people mobility and the impact which people mobility can have on schools, on the funding of schools, on the ability of schools to deliver for pupils. This is a very live issues, not one for which I think there are any simple answers, but certainly I think that is going to be a big challenge. Thirdly, to increase parental confidence in the secondary system in London. Estelle raised the figure in her speech that nationally 85 per cent of parents, when their children reach 11, get the secondary school that they want. In London the figure is 59 per cent. The proportion of parents in London who are sending their children to I nner London, independent secondary schools is getting on for double the national average. Some of that will be choice but often that is parents who do not have faith in the secondary system in parts of London, so it is restoring that faith. These are three big challenges.

Jonathan Shaw

  670. How often do you visit a school?
  (Mr Twigg) I try to visit at least one school a week.

  671. In London?
  (Mr Twigg) Now that I have this new job, I will be seeking to visit one school every week, if I can. We are setting up a programme in the Department.

  672. You go to different areas of London, so you see a diverse range of different ethnic groups, different mixes, wealthy and poor, right across the board?
  (Mr Twigg) Absolutely, and one of my first visits in London was to the Swanley School in Tower Hamlets, which is a 90 per cent Bangladeshi school and it has pioneered some excellent work on truancy.

  673. What are your observations about asylum seeker children in these schools?
  (Mr Twigg) By and large, they add a lot to those schools; they add to the cultural diversity of the schools; and many of them are very quick learners.

  674. From your observations, have you noticed that any of the asylum seeker children create difficulties for those schools?
  (Mr Twigg) There is clearly an issue.

  675. Have you observed anything?
  (Mr Twigg) There is an issue about people mobility. In discussions with heads and others, I have observed concern about what pupil mobility can lead to in schools. Clearly, pupil mobility is a product of a number of factors, of which migrant populations, including asylum seekers, is only one. Jonathan, I have to say that I would emphasise the positive. I see that in my own constituency where there are quite significant numbers of asylum seekers in schools. The difficulties often come with the mobility rather than to do with the fact that they are asylum seekers.

  676. Head teachers have not said to you, "Asylum seeker children are causing us difficulties and we do not want to teach them in our schools. We want you to put them in accommodation centres"?
  (Mr Twigg) No.

  677. They have not said that to you?
  (Mr Twigg) No.

  678. That is very interesting. You are in charge of the Children and Young People's Unit. The idea is that that cuts across various departments. Would you expect that unit to have input into the development of policy that we now have when children are going to be educated in accommodation centres? Would you expect them to have an input?
  (Mr Twigg) I need to tread carefully because there is a slightly unusual arrangement, as you will know. Although the unit is based in our department, it actually reports to John Denham in the Home Office. I have the departmental responsibility but they do not directly report to me. It is certainly something that could be considered within their remit. I would be very happy to take that back to them.

  679. Last week I wanted to understand from the Secretary of State, not to form a view but just to understand, the input that the Education Department had in formulating the policy of going against the 1944 principle of universal education. That is an important principle, as the Secretary of State acknowledged. Is it reasonable for us as a committee to expect that the Education Department played a significant role in shaping that policy? Some people are concerned that the Department has not had that important role. If we have a unit that cuts across departments to focus on children and young people, and all that pertains within that, would you expect them to have some sort of role in helping to shape that particular policy?
  (Mr Twigg) It is certainly possible for that role to be played. I am not aware of what input the unit has had, if any, because obviously the policy was developed before I was in the Department. I am quite happy to take that particular question back. I do know that we are obviously working as a department to ensure that, assuming the accommodation centres do go ahead, the educational content within the centres is of a high quality and that the children who are being taught in accommodation centres are getting good quality education for the period they are in those accommodation centres. I have already discussed that with the relevant officials in our Department.


 
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