Examination of Witness (Questions 160
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
160. Secretary of State, the issue of accommodation
centres has concerned a number of Members of Parliament. There
was an Early Day Motion with 140 signatories and 100 of those
were Labour MPs, but there was not an opportunity through time,
procedure, etc, to debate this issue recently during the Immigration
and Asylum Bill. There have been concerns that your department
has been bounced on this issuea policy imposed upon it
by the Home Office. Can you tell us whether you and (if so, which)
senior civil servants were involved and at what stage of the evolution
of this policy?
(Estelle Morris) Of course I was involved. It concerns
my department, of course I was involved. I was not "bounced"
into it. I am not prepared to be bounced into decisions like that.
Clearly, the order of events was that the Home Secretary was already
dealing with the issue of accommodation centres and thereby consulting
across government as usual. I both wrote andprobablyspoke
personally to the Home Secretary about that. I speak with the
Home Secretary a great deal and I have probably covered that.
Of course I spoke to him before the announcement was made in public
or before further consultations around Whitehall took place.
161. It is, on any measure, a significant departure
from the 1944 principle of where universal education is available
to all children, so at what stage were these discussions in terms
of the White Paper or was your view and the Department's view
involved in considering how this educational provision may work?
(Estelle Morris) Yes, of course we were. We were consulted
and I had discussions before anything was put in the public domain.
Indeed I remember that one aspect of developing that policy was
the continuing role of the Local Education Authority in terms
of the education that was made available in the accommodation
centres. I even recall, though it was a few months ago now, the
nature of some of those discussions. My starting point was that
if the Home Secretary had come to me and said that he wanted to
change and upturn the standard and quality of education for asylum
seekers which was absolutely brilliant, I would not have objected
to it, but my belief has always been that partly because of the
length of time it takes to deal with the applications for asylum
seekers and partly because we seem to have a housing policy that
moves these families about from one place to another, we are not
getting the best deal and the best ability from schools that we
might have, so we did not have an ideal position.
162. When you arrived at that view, did you
seek the views of schools that were providing education for asylum-seeker
(Estelle Morris) I fed into the paper produced by
the Home Office, but the consultation on that has obviously invited
a number of letters. I myself
163. You were saying that you formulated your
view prior to considering the information which would be available
to your Department as to what schools were experiencing for children
who were seeking asylum.
(Estelle Morris) I do not live in ivory towers and
I am sure you did not suggest that I do, Mr Shaw.
164. I did not.
(Estelle Morris) But when I am with schools and with
headteachers and if somebody comes up with an idea, I have not
got a blank piece of paper in my mind so I only go and talk to
somebody so I can form a view. One of the things that teachers,
especially in inner cities, have said to me ever since I have
been in the Education Department is that one of the things they
have sometimes found difficult to deal with is huge pupil mobility.
It is a real issue for schools that we do not have the answer
to. It is one of the things I do worry about and it can almost
keep me awake at night. I think pupil mobility, especially in
London, is a huge issue. I knew this before the consultation started,
that some of those students, those pupils who have the most mobility
is because of the way we deal with asylum seekers at the moment
which is actually to juggle asylum seekers. I know you do not
think that, but there is a feeling out there in schools that some
of these children are kept in accommodation centres, education
accommodation centres once it has been determined that they have
got the right to stay in the country and this is, by necessity,
short-term. When someone offers me a solution which might give
stability, the same teaching targeted to their needs in one place
for a period of six and up to nine months, I make a judgment that
the needs of that student might be better met than their being
in a number of schools over even a longer period.
165. I have not said what my view is, Secretary
of State. Will the teachers in accommodation centres be qualified
(Estelle Morris) Yes. Let's be clear about this: the
roles would be no different than that which apply in a school
and there can be people without qualifications, QTS, that teach
in school. That is my only caveat there.
166. My final point is that the Home Secretary
said that if children were in an accommodation centre for longer
than six months, their education would be reviewed. How would
it be reviewed and what involvement have you had in terms of that
(Estelle Morris) I think both the Home Secretary and
I hope that the asylum process would be such that it would have
been determined within six months and I think that it is one of
those catch-all things that I hope we do not have to deal with
because I hope it will all be reviewed, but I think he was right
to give that assurance and I think at that point as throughout
the whole of the process because we have said it about children
who have special educational needs that they might need an education
which cannot be done in the accommodation centres, that their
needs must be assessed and
167. In accordance with the code of practice,
would that apply?
(Estelle Morris) Yes, the LEA still has responsibility
for the education that goes on in the accommodation centre and
what we need to do now is to work out the detail, and we have
not got any yet, it might be a little while arriving. I still
have not talked to LEAs in any depth or my own officials about
how exactly that assessment will be made of special educational
needs, but there is a top-line commitment that if it cannot be
met within the accommodation centre, it will be met elsewhere.
The general direction is that I want to give these children stability,
the same teachers, if we possibly can, maybe the beginnings of
learning English if they have not got that so they can cope with
mainstream school. I want to improve their education and not detract
Chairman: Secretary of State, the Committee
is very minded to look at this area in one sense in terms of the
mobility of children through schools, especially in urban areas.
In an urban area, like my own constituency, where there is a focus
for a particular group of political refugees coming from a particular
country, the impact on local schools can be quite catastrophic
if a large number of children arrive in short order and then move
on. We have seen examples where schools are just getting used
to a group of children and then the children are whisked away
and the whole school suffers from it. Actually schools in my own
constituency suffered because they were just building a relationship
with the children and then they were moved on, so we are minded
to look at that at some stage.
168. Secretary of State, are you in favour of
satisfying parental first choice at both the primary and secondary
(Estelle Morris) If we could, but we do not have a
situation where every parent can have a first-choice school.
169. But is it your ambition that you would
like to see it, wherever possible?
(Estelle Morris) Wherever possible, yes. I think it
is a legitimate thing to want to satisfy where parents choose
to educate their children.
170. Is it true that the Department has been
putting pressure on Local Education Authorities to fill spaces
in perhaps less popular schools where currently there are vacancies
rather than perhaps providing additional funding to successful
schools to allow them to expand and then take in their first choice?
(Estelle Morris) There are two things. When we reorganised
infant education to deliver our class-size pledge, we were absolutely
insistent that LEAs expanded their good and popular schools and
indeed many parents were more likely to get their first choice
in that age group because there were more places in the popular
schools. We did that and it cost the nation. It was a decision
by us to actually invest the nation's income in that to good effect.
I think there is a real issue there and I am interested in that
if we can expand the popular schools to better meet parental demand,
we should do it. There are just two things. What is a popular
school and parental demand sometimes change over time, so we have
to be careful of that. What can be popular one year is not popular
the next. What I would say to LEAs is that when they are looking
at the pattern of provision and if they are short of places, I
would really welcome them choosing to meet some of the demand
for extra places by expanding popular schools. I go further than
that, that if a school is not doing well and parents do not want
to send their child there, and the LEA takes the decision that
it cannot be turned round and it should be closed, I am entirely
happy if it is the LEA's decision to come forward with a plan
to expand a nearby popular school. In essence, I would agree with
you, but I would add a word of caution that you cannot just go
in and put in new buildings for what essentially is five, six,
seven forms of entry into secondary school overnight, but the
gist of what you say is one that I would agree with.
171. Can I take you a little bit further into
your view of the relationship between schools and Local Education
Authorities and ask you for some clarity. I got sort of contradictory
responses from your Permanent Secretary and one of your new Ministers
about the potential expansion of more money going direct to schools
and circumventing the LEAs. Now, in your view, is that something
that we are going to see more of while you are Secretary of State,
or will the whole thing stay the same or what route are you going
to go down?
(Estelle Morris) Well, the situation will change a
little bit because of the division of the LEA money and the schools'
money in the new funding arrangements that are shortly to come
in. We have pushed, as did the Conservative Government before
us, for more money to be directed to schools, so we have always
wanted to keep a very tight check that as much money goes to schools
as it can. For instance, the special grant, the cash sum that
has increased, I think it is called a special grant, though I
think it has more initials than that,
that goes to schools and yes, we are continuing that next year,
as you already know, but we do not have plans to massively reorganise
the financing of schools. However, for instance, we do adapt and
learn as we go on, so the dedication of capital money direct to
schools is something that has been expanded under this Government
and the amount of cash was expanded last year and who knows what
will happen next year, so again I am with the drift of what you
say, but I would not want to give you the impression that we are
about to abolish LEAs, cut them out or drastically change the
way we fund the situation with schools.
172. Can I just go a bit further. In the Education
Bill which is currently going through Parliament, there are obviously
proposals to allow successful schools to innovate and have a degree
or even a totality of autonomy from the Local Education Authorities
by setting up companies.
(Estelle Morris) Yes.
173. Can I ask you, is it your ambition that
all schools, and obviously we all hope that all schools will become
successful schools, that all schools will become successful and,
therefore, a vast majority of them, if not the totality of schools,
will actually go down this route?
(Estelle Morris) The companies, which of course is
now not in the Bill because the Conservatives and the Liberal
Democrats in the House of Lords voted against it, and we will
have to see about that when it comes back to the House of Commons
next Monday, I think is quite innovative and it gives a vehicle,
it gives the capacity to schools to actually manage more of their
own affairs. Now, this could be as simple as jointly, which I
am quite interested in, offering support of their expertise to
schools which are not doing as well, but this actually puts it
on a formal basis. I think we are evolving over time the nature
of the relationships between LEAs and schools, and I do think
times have changed over the last five years. I think that LEAs
have, and I say this in the nicest way, it is not meant to sound
patronising, grown up and realise that in the world in which we
are they survive if they provide what schools want and what the
nation wants. So when I am talking now with LEAs, that has been
one of the great changes in the last five years, and again with
recognition of the work that the previous Government did in talking
about the role of LEAs, so I think what I want is for LEAs and
schools to actually sit down and work out how services can best
be delivered. I do not want a battle between schools, I do not
want a situation where we say to schools, "You've earned
that right to break away from the LEAs" because I am always
left with the question, if that is right for some schools, why
not do it for all schools? I think that has always got to be the
bottom-line question. Don't give some schools the privilege that
actually could well be used by all schools. The whole of the school
company, the whole of that which operates school improvement,
the whole of the selling services is about trying to find the
new relationship between what LEAs do and what schools do. I am
interested in shifting it and I look to our best schools to actually
lead the way, but I do not have a clear view of where we might
end up. I feel as though we are being innovative here and we want
schools to actually show what can be done.
174. Secretary of State, we will have the opportunity
of looking at some of these issues in depth in your own City of
Birmingham in September, from the 16th to the 20th.
(Estelle Morris) Indeed.
175. We are going there really as a response
to Sir Michael Bichard when he contributed to an away-day and
he challenged us to really get into depth in one city, one area,
so have you any advice for us in terms of these issues where we
look at the relationship between the Local Education Authority
and schools in Birmingham?
(Estelle Morris) I am delighted you are going to Birmingham.
You will be most welcome and I think you will enjoy it. It is
a very good LEA which will be just about to lose its Chief Education
Officer at the point at which you visit, so I hope you are able
to visit while he is still there. I have to say, and I am hugely
biased, but I sense that the relationship between the LEA and
the schools in Birmingham is slightly different than the LEAs
and schools anywhere else. I will tell you what I would look at.
I would look at most how the LEA has kept a strategic role, but
left schools feeling as though they are in charge of their own
destiny and it has managed to do that trick in that probably schools
both feel more empowered and yet they are the ones who most say
that they want the LEA to have a role and that is what is different.
Sometimes when I go to schools that feel strong and feel confident
about themselves, they then follow it on with, "And I can
manage without the LEA". In Birmingham I did a primary headteachers'
conference only recently. What they said to a round of applause
was that they were confident and strong, but they sought assurances
from me that I would not cut out the role of the LEA, so the thing
you should most look at is how it has changed over a decade from
an LEA which I was quite honestly ashamed of, to one that now
has actually earned the trust of the schools and has found itself
a niche in their everyday life.
176. That is most useful, Secretary of State.
You were talking about relationships just now. Can I push you
on the relationship which is especially important to you and that
is your relationship to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the
Treasury. I wonder when you read or when you heard of perhaps
plans to change the whole nature of child allowances and family
benefit to support extended EMA, did that come as news to you
or was that after a long period of consultation with the Chancellor?
(Estelle Morris) Sometimes I read things in the paper
which I said and I do not even recognise them, so if any politician
in the room actually reads things in the paper and believes that
that is policy with the `i's dotted and `t's crossed, they are
mistaken. You will have to wait for the spending review announcement
and it is not for me to comment on that. All I would say is that
the EMAs have been successful in terms of participation. The Government
has a Manifesto commitment to extend them, but I think we are
almost at that commitment and I think the Manifesto commitment
on that is that about one-third of the nation, so we will evaluate
that policy in due course, but maybe at this time of year more
than any other perhaps you will be able to speculate what might
be in the spending review separately, but I am not about to speculate
177. I am not asking you to speculate. By and
large, you are feeling pretty positive about EMAs and their role,
are you not?
(Estelle Morris) I am feeling pretty positive about
my settlement, but I am not commenting in detail about any aspect
178. Secretary of State, there is an acute skills
shortage in the south-east particularly and that is so in some
of our local economies, and modern apprenticeships is one thing.
How can we encourage more kids into apprenticeships?
(Estelle Morris) We have to get them right to begin
with and one of the problems is with the whole vocational route
and, and again I am being generous today, I think the previous
Government made huge efforts in this field as well. We have never
ever got it right, never ever got it right. I bemoan the demise
of the modern apprenticeship system. I think it was a model that
actually could have been as relevant today as it was in its heyday
in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and I do bemoan its demise. We have
to make sure that the product is right and my colleague Mr Mitchell
can make sure that is the case. I will tell you how to do it.
You assure them that it will lead to something in that if you
think of yourself as a parent, you will only recommend a course
of action to somebody if you think it will lead to somewhere,
so we have to make sure that it is a robust qualification that
leads to employment or leads to progression and routes into higher
education. I am more confident now that the MAs will do that following
the Cassells Report than perhaps a couple of years ago.
179. A plumber in my constituency can earn £55,000
to £60,000 a year, so I cannot understand why people are
not encouraged. Further on from that, you have got an aim of having
50 per cent of young people going into higher education. What
about the other 50 per cent? Is it not creating a `them and us'
in that if you are one of the 50, you are okay, but if you are
not one of the 50, you are somehow not quite one of us?
(Estelle Morris) I take the point. There are two things
on that. Do not forget that a lot of the people going to university
will be doing their engineering and IT and they will not all be
straight academics, but I take that point. We must not give a
message that we are not as ambitious for the other 50 per cent
who choose different routes and it is something I have reflected
on over recent weeks and if that impression has been given, it
should not have been and it must be something to which I will
perhaps return at a later date.
7 Note by witness: The grant is known as the
School Standards Grant. Back