By Geoff Gee
Education policy is better for having a process of rigorous scrutiny that draws on robust evidence. The Education Select Committee has become a key part of that process. So one outcome of the General Election will be to determine who is available to serve on the Committee, which will be key to how effective it is in the next Parliament.
The Education Select Committee end-of-Parliament report on its own work notes an impressive volume of activity: 30 reports, 156 oral evidence sessions with 727 witnesses and more than 2300 written submissions. We can put alongside that the occasional high profile contribution to education issues from the Committee’s “comrades-in-arms” on the Public Accounts Committee.
The Education Select Committee has also invited suggestions for what their successors in the next Parliament should look at. This is a reminder that, even though parliamentary procedure always appears to be the product of a long history, the current form of the select committees really only dates from 2010, and is likely to develop further in the new Parliament.
As an organisation committed to the development of evidence-informed education, NFER welcomes the work of the Select Committee and contributes to it when we have relevant evidence we can draw on. The Committee has added greatly to the process of compiling, synthesising and raising the profile of available evidence on some key education policy issues. Its members have not confined themselves to looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of the Department for Education. They have also asked ‘is this policy achieving what it is supposed to?’ and even ‘are there issues in our education system where policy should be reviewed?’ Amongst others they have:
- investigated the thorny issue of underperformance of white working class children
- pursued the DfE over the issue of a clear statement of purpose for SureStart children’s centres
- raised the profile of concerns around careers education, and
- gathered available evidence on the academies and free schools programme.
To be effective in assembling evidence, the Committee needs appropriate powers, resources, skills and knowledge. It does not always have what it needs. It can appoint specialist advisors and this Parliament has seen committees undertaking formal training in questioning skills. But all that only goes so far. For example, when the Education Select Committee concludes that ‘We have sought but not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools’, all it can do about it is recommend that ‘the DfE commission, as a matter of urgency, research…’.
So, while no body is better placed than the Select Committee to have an impact on government by highlighting the available evidence, there are limits to what it can do. In practice, the obligations on government with respect to select committee recommendations are evolving along with the whole committee system. And as this develops it will surely become more common for ministers, advisors and civil servants to look at policy proposals and ask: “What would the Select Committee say about this?”
In producing better evidence and being an advocate for the findings, does it help to have some elected representatives with a professional knowledge of the subject? As the Institute for Government notes, MPs who elected the chairs of select committees in this Parliament seemed to think so. Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Committee, worked for 20 years as a GP. Rory Stewart, Chair of the Defence Committee, worked in the Foreign Office as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the House of Commons Library, in 1979, there were 49 MPs who had previously been school teachers. In 2010, it was 24. A Sutton Trust analysis of candidates in the forthcoming election does not report if there are any teachers. However, on the previous careers of candidates, it notes a large number were previously employed in occupations such as lawyers, journalists or consultants, and 31 per cent attended private school. So it looks a lot like the pool of MPs with a background in the state school system to draw on for the Select Committee could be smaller than ever. It is obviously neither necessary nor desirable for the Committee to be full of ex-teachers, but it would surely benefit if there were a few. Let’s hope that the election puts some people in the House of Commons equipped to develop this important contribution to education policy.