Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Improving School Attendance in England (HC 404-I)

Public Accounts Committee 28 Feb 2005

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Evidence given by Sir David Normington KCB, Permanent Secretary and Mr Peter Housden, Director General for Schools, Department for Education and Skills

Q19 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I would prefer to meet in - where was it? - the Cinnamon Club where we last met.

Sir David Normington: We did.

Q20 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Were you on expenses?

Sir David Normington: I was not.

Q21 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I was; my son was paying. I think this report is a very good report, but really it is airy-fairy, is it not? Frankly it is possible that we are actually pouring good resources down the drain trying to solve the problem. Do you think that your department is spending money wisely, effectively, value for money, the whole lot?

Sir David Normington: We can show that these targeted amounts of money which we spent within that £885 million, which is, by the way, on average £125 million a year, because this is a seven-year spend, have produced. However, what they have not done is affect the whole system. Where we have targeted resources it has produced improvements.

Q22 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): On unauthorised absences?

Sir David Normington: As yet, we have not seen unauthorised absence coming down overall.

Q23 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This is the point. If you look at page 14, Figure 6, you have just reiterated and validated exactly what I have said. You have had no success whatsoever with unauthorised absences. I do not blame you at all, but I blame the system. Look at Figure 6. I know graphs cannot be 100% accurate, but I took a piece of paper with a straight edge and tried to work out unauthorised absences since 1994 to 2003-04 and there is virtually no difference at all. So unauthorised absence has not changed since this graph started in 1994-95 up to 2003-04; no difference whatsoever. What was it 20 years before that? Can the National Audit Office tell me? Can you tell me?

Sir David Normington: I do not think we collected these figures before this.

Q24 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It would have been important to do so.

Sir David Normington: They only go back ten years.

Q25 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I can tell you as a former head teacher that I would suspect you could go back 20 years and those figures would be no different; there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. In other words, the money you have been putting in to try to solve unauthorised absence is an absolute waste of resources which could have been spent in the education system on something better.

Sir David Normington: We have not been spending most of that money on tackling unauthorised absence: we have been spending it on reducing permanent exclusions, which are down 25%; we have been spending it on trying to tackle behaviour in schools, in other words trying to tackle the problem upstream rather than downstream. Relatively small amounts of money have gone directly into unauthorised absence.

Q26 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): And truancy.

Sir David Normington: Unauthorised absence. Truancy is part of unauthorised absence, you cannot equate them exactly.

Q27 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am sorry, I thought you meant authorised absence.

Sir David Normington: No; unauthorised. Your general point is right, you can see it, it is there in the graph.

Q28 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It was the same when I was a head teacher 20 years ago. You had targets and you failed to reach those targets and you spent a lot of money and nothing has changed in 30 years. In other words, the system does not work. What you are trying to do cannot work, because there is a hard core of truants who will not go to school, for one reason or another, and it does not matter what you do, you will never get that hard core of truants back to school. You might say this is a very pessimistic outlook, but it is true; t is actually true. You have to look to see why they do not want to go to school. If you look at paragraph 1.12 on page 16, it tells you why they do not want to go to school. It says "It is self-evident that pupils who regularly fail to attend school reduce their chances of fulfilling their academic potential" that is obvious "and research has demonstrated that high rates of absence are associated with low academic achievement". Again, that is absolutely obvious. I know one should not say "slow learners" or "educationally subnormal", it is not particularly politically correct to say that now though in my day it was, but the fact of the matter was that those kids would not go to school because they could not fit into the school. It did not matter what the school did for them, they could not fit in because they were frustrated, because they were picked on or they had other interests. They would not go to school. Has anybody ever thought of actually taking those kids out of the school and putting them into special schools?

Sir David Normington: That is indeed what happens.

Q29 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): No, it is not.

Sir David Normington: With some of them.

Q30 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Some of them, but I am not talking about some of them. I am talking about Figure 6 and the number at the bottom which has not changed for 20 years.

Sir David Normington: The behaviour improvement programme which we talked about a moment ago has bucked that trend. In those 1,500 schools unauthorised absence has begun to fall and that is the result of very, very targeted effort on the very children you are talking about.

Q31 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What we have done is we have opened up specialist schools, which we could express an opinion about later but not at this particular time, and we have closed special schools and tried to integrate and it has not worked, it has made the system worse. I had experience of children being taken out of comprehensive schools because they could not cope and sent to my school. They were truants but they did not truant when they came to me and I did not thump them or beat them; well, sometimes, not regularly. They did not truant because they were in a school where they were all the same, they all had exactly the same abilities, they were not left to become frustrated and they attended school. What we have done is completely the opposite policy: we have kicked them out of these schools and put them into comprehensive schools with 2,000 kids and they are lost.

Sir David Normington: We still have a lot of special schools. It is not the policy to force children who are unsuitable into the ordinary secondary schools. Secondly, we have increased the number of places in pupil referral units and ensured that in the majority of those - and the aim is to have it in every one - they get a full timetable, which they never used to get before.

Q32 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is a waste. Let me give you an example. I had a secondary school kid who was sent to me, who never attended school at all, he was a truant, he thieved when he was playing truant and he was at a comprehensive school. He was sent to me, as a special school, with a reading age of 6.5 and an IQ below 70; I do not even know whether it is politically correct to say that these days. He could not even read The Sun and if you cannot read The Sun it is pretty bad, is it not? When I read his report, do you know what it said? It said "This boy does not try in French and I had to remove him from the lesson". He could not even speak English and they were trying to teach him French. What was he doing in the comprehensive school? You talk about giving them curricula which are relevant to them, but you are giving them curricula which are based on the standard curriculum and based on the school to which they are ashamed to go because of their ability.

Sir David Normington: We are trying to ensure that every pupil gets the support they need, whether it is in a special school, in a pupil referral unit or in an ordinary state secondary school and trying to provide them with the extra support, whether they are in school or in a special unit. I would not want to equate all these problems with special needs, because truants come in all shapes and sizes. We know that quite a lot of truants, that is people who are not in school, who are unauthorised absentees, are with their parents and it is condoned by their parents. Some are looking after their younger siblings, for instance. Truants come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Q33 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Of course they do.

Sir David Normington: What I accept though is that there are some children with special needs who find it very, very difficult to fit into their schools and the curriculum.

Q34 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So what do we do with them? We either exclude them because they are a problem, or we do not bother with them at all and they play truant.

Sir David Normington: I should prefer, and this is the aim, either that they were in a special school where they were getting the special treatment you are talking about or they were in the mainstream school and getting a personalised curriculum supported by a specialist worker. That is also what happens more and more. Either of those is a possible solution, but we are dealing with some really tough cases.

Q35 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): This report says that it was not sure, if I remember correctly, whether truancy bred crime or the crime bred the truancy. Well I can tell you: truants have nothing to do and they gather in their twos and threes from the same school and they plan crime or they get into mischief. It is as simple as that. If they were at school, they probably would not. The solution to the problem is to provide them with places where they feel comfortable, where they are not ashamed to go and where it is made interesting for them. That can be done in a special school, it cannot be done in the comprehensive school.

Sir David Normington: Sometimes it can be done in the comprehensive school.

Q36 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Tell me one. Which schools has it been done in? Look, there is not a hap'orth of difference in ten years and I would argue that there is not a hap'orth of difference in 20 years on that ever since we started to close special schools. Baroness Warnock said it was a mistake, once when she was in front of the Education and Skills Select Committee. She said she had changed her mind.

Sir David Normington: We have a lot of special schools still; every local authority is engaged to have special school provision which deals with some of the children you are talking about. The aim is to give every child the support they need wherever they are in the education system. I just repeat this one fact. Within that unauthorised absence figure, what is happening is that the average length of time that people are off school is coming down; the total number of pupils taking small amounts of unauthorised absence is going up. It is a static figure in that chart, but within those figures something very interesting is happening, which is heads being very tough in not allowing people to be off school and not authorising it and also there are some signs that we are getting people back to school and keeping them there more than we have ever done before. I agree with you that the overall figure remains static and there are some real hard cases in those figures.

Q37 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The final point I would make is that I do not believe either that it is a good idea necessarily to involve or blame the parents - authorised absence is totally different - in terms of unauthorised absence. They tend to come from an environment which has bred that anyway, whether through their genes or through the environment in which they live. I had a case which I can remember clearly. I brought the parents in because he was not coming to school. The excuse was, as the father stood in front of me chewing gum, that he did not care that his kid was away from school because education had done nothing for him. I can tell you that I had not done very much for him. When the parent has that attitude, there is no chance for the kid at all and that is why punishing those sorts of parents is a waste of time. It is different with unauthorised absence. I could go on about unauthorised absences, which is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Sir David Normington: Neither you nor I would want us to give up on any of those children. We should never give up on them.

Q38 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): No, I am not saying give up. What I am saying is that the approach is totally wrong. The approach should be to remove them from the mainstream altogether and place them into special schools.

Sir David Normington: Sometimes that happens.

Q39 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It should happen the majority of the time and not the minority of the time.

Sir David Normington: I do not always equate truancy with sending them to a special school. I cannot agree with you that that is always the solution.

Q40 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If you do not know why they are playing truant in the first place, that is the important factor. I would say that the vast majority are playing truant for the reasons I have given.

Sir David Normington: Certainly parents not caring whether they are at school or not is one factor. Another factor is the fact that they are not getting the sort of education they need at school. I accept that. Sometimes it is pressure from older brothers particularly who are encouraging them to bunk off school. It is all those things.

Q41 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Can I take it that tomorrow you will be opening some new special schools?

Sir David Normington: Some new special schools are being opened, but generally the pattern is ---

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I do not know where. I will tell you what to do. Go back and open two or three new specialist schools for drama and dance. That is the best thing to do. Let us have everybody poncing around doing drama and dance.

Q42 Chairman: Thank you Billy Elliot for that.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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