HL Deb 04 March 1992 vol 536 cc836-8

2.48 p.m.

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many civil servants of Principal rank and above in the Department of Education and Science have had experience of teaching in schools.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, to provide this information would involve scrutinising the personal records of about 280 members of staff. This would not be a productive use of civil servants' time.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am very amused though dissatisfied to get the same Answer that received about four years ago when I asked this Question. I should have thought that someone would have learnt to count by now. I cannot believe that it is not possible, with modern methods of treating records, to find out the rather important answer to the question. Why is there this obstinacy and secrecy in the DES?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is neither obstinacy nor secrecy, but out of respect for the confidentiality of the personal records of people recruited into the Civil Service. There is a policy of using generalists in the Civil Service who bring to bear on the work a great deal of variety and experience. It is absolutely essential that they have access to professional advice. In the Department of Education that comes from very many people, including Her Majesty's Inspectorate itself, the National Curriculum Council, the School Examinations and Assessment Council, and many other bodies who can provide very good, sound and expert professional advice.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords—

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if we were to abandon the principle of enlightened, dedicated and well-educated amateurism in the Civil Service and insist on specialised experience, it would be impossible to man the Civil Service at all?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I think the suggestion behind this question is that administrators in the Civil Service should all be teachers. But should people in MAFF all be farmers? Should all in the Department of Transport have a direct professional involvement with the service? We have a very good Civil Service that serves us well. The important aspect is that when they are involved in policy-making they have access to good, sound, professional advice.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I too find the implications of this Question rather disquieting. Does the Minister agree, for example, that the fact that Home Office officials have not served as police officers, or sat on the Bench, should not rule them out of advising on police policy or criminal justice?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. It is important that education is not simply about teaching in the classroom. There are many other aspects of education to which it will be necessary to get a much wider range of experience to be brought to bear.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, at the third attempt, since all that is being sought is a statistic, what has personal confidential information got to do with it?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, apart from it being personal and confidential information I said that it would not be the most productive use of civil servants' time. I have to ask noble Lords opposite, to what purpose is the information required? Is it because they believe that civil servants in the Department of Education and Science can only, and should only, have teaching experience?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is a silly idea that the administrative Civil Service should come from a teaching background, when the professionals who advise the administrative Civil Service all come from a teaching background? Perhaps the Minister will go a little further with me on that and consider the possibility that those people who have been in the inspectorate for, say, five or six years would be better for a return to the classroom where they might then put their theories into practice?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I side-step his final point, because that is another Question. However, my noble friend makes an important point. If we have teachers teaching, teachers advising, teachers inspecting, teachers administering, I believe that the teaching policy advice would be the poorer for it. It is the richer for having sound professional advice when it is appropriate, and to temper that with the general expertise of civil servants.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that one of the things I most like about her is that she always likes to ask questions of this side of the House? I only wish that standing orders enabled one to do that all the time! Is it the Government's view that what would be a very simple task is simply uninteresting? No one is saying that everybody who works at the Department of Education and Science should have some teaching experience. The Question leads on to whether any of the civil servants have such experience. Is the Minister saying that it would be completely uninteresting if we were to discover that nobody in the department had any teaching experience at all? To answer her own question, I have to say that it would be interesting to know how many have had some experience.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am making the distinction between what would be interesting and what would be good use of civil servants' time. I have said that the information is available but that it is in the personal records. It would require going into each and every personal record to gather that information. I can tell the noble Lord that some have teaching experience and some do not. I am asking: what purpose would it serve, other than to be very time consuming and to no productive end?

Lord Airedale

My Lords, despite what has been said, might it not be an improvement if the people who cannot make up their minds whether to call themselves "educationists" or "educationalists" decided to call themselves neither?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the question was entirely characteristic of the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. Again, I believe that that is a question for both "educationalists" and "educationists" to respond to.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, has not the position changed under this Government? The Government have centralised the whole education system. An increasing number of schools are financed directly from the DES and the Government have quite unprecedented powers to interfere in every kind of educational institution from the universities downwards. Therefore, is not Parliament entitled to expect that a fairly large number of the people who are doing this job know what goes on in schools, with their experience there? The Secretary of State does not have a clue about what goes on in schools; but at least we can expect that some of the civil servants who serve him, and who are managing our schools now, do have that kind of experience.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the civil servants know a great deal about what goes on in our schools. However, I must say that I disagree so much with what the noble Lord said. This Government have done more than any other to devolve operational autonomy down to where it belongs; that is, to the schools.