Alan Thomson asks key members of the education sub-committee what they would like to achieve this year
The House of Commons education sub-committee has three inquiries planned so far for this year. Members will look at the role of school governors, early years education and public-private partnerships. On top of this, the full education and employment committee will continue its major inquiry into access to post-16 education, due for completion in spring.
The sub-committee may add to this workload if it has the time. Last year, the sub-committee conducted six inquiries. Members are free to make suggestions for more inquiries, which could be agreed by the committee. The THES asked key committee members from each political party to prepare an inquiry wish-list.
Malcolm Wicks, new chairman of the education sub-committee, is keen to narrow the scope of the Access for All inquiry into post-16 participation.
He thinks the inquiry should focus on access for the disadvantaged in order to make the final report more applicable to the challenges that will be faced by further and higher education over the next three years.
Mr Wicks (Lab, Croydon North) said: "We have successive cohorts of people leaving school aged 16 with few or no GCSEs, and many of these people will do badly in society over the next 50 years. The question is: how are we to give them a second chance?
"David Blunkett has said that there should be an extra 700,000 people in further education by 2002, and that this expansion ought to focus on the disadvantaged. The sub-committee ought to take a rigorous look at how this might actually be achieved."
Mr Wicks is also keen on early years education and the provision of better support for parents, who are the main educators of their children from birth until school. For the longer term, he wants to look at how higher education can maintain quality while the quantity of students is increased.
Nick St Aubyn, MP for Guildford, thinks the education sub-committee should launch a major inquiry into funding, which would cover the introduction of tuition fees and whether the abolition of maintenance grants has affected student participation, particularly among adult learners.
The Conservatives are still unconvinced that the 1998 funding changes mean the best for students. A lack of state maintenance support and greater graduate debt could be disincentives to participation, Mr St Aubyn said.
The Tories also feel that the changes have failed significantly to improve university funding. Institutional budgets will still fall by 1 per cent a year up to 2002.
Mr St Aubyn, like many in his party, wants to examine the reasons for the 12.8 per cent decline in applicants aged over 25 years accepted to university in 1998-99. The government blames much of this on a decline in the total pool of over-25s who want to take higher education qualifications. Opposition politicians remain sceptical of these claims.
Drop-out rates among school-leavers continue to be a concern. Mr St Aubyn would like the sub-committee to investigate the reasons for drop-outs: specifically, if there is any link between a realisation by first-year undergraduates that they are amassing significant debt and a subsequent decision by them to quit their courses.
THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS
Education spokesman Don Foster said that the continuing Access for All inquiry into post-16 participation was the top further and higher education priority. But he warned against any other major inquiries for post-16 education.
Mr Foster said that the sub-committee is more likely to concentrate on schools and school governance because it carried out a lot of work in further and higher education in 1998.
"I think both higher and further education are looking for a year or so of stability, and I think that the committee will not feel the need to have another look at the sector for a while," he said.
The committee can, however, carry out brief inquiries at short notice should specific problems or issues arise in further and higher education over the next 12 months, he said.
If there is one overarching issue on Mr Foster's wish-list, it is that he would like to see the select committee given more teeth. He feels that the committee as it stands is most potent in its face-to-face examinations of government ministers and education department and other officials.
Mr Foster believes, however, that too often the government pays scant regard to the subsequent committee reports. Parliamentary convention and not statute obliges the government to respond to reports.
Mr Foster said: "At the moment it is up to government when they reply. I think the government should have to hold debates on the floor of the House on select committee reports. That way the government would have to say why they have ignored things, said 'no' to things and otherwise cherry-picked reports."
THE COMMITTEE SYSTEM
SELECT committees were set up in their present form in 1979 in an initiative widely attributed to Norman St John-Stevas.
Their remit is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of government departments and associated quangos. The education and employment select committee shadows the Department for Education and Employment and bodies such as the further and higher education funding councils. It is split into two sub-committees: education and employment.
There are 17 members on the full committee, ten on the education sub-committee and eight on the employment sub-committee. Derek Foster (Lab, Bishop Auckland) sits on both sub-committees, chairing the employment sub-committee. The new Labour government added four members to the full committee.
Membership reflects the strength of parties in the Commons as accurately as possible. Hence 11 of the 17 education and employment committee members are Labour MPs, with four Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats. There are seven Labour MPs on the education sub-committee, two Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat.
Appointment to the committee is controlled by the party whips. Interested MPs submit their names to the whips, who decide who is most suitable in terms of experience and knowledge of the area concerned and political acceptability. The Blairite whips would not, for instance, appoint too many old Labour left wingers to any committee.
Once the committee selects an area for investigation, it will call for written evidence. Any individual or organisation can offer to submit evidence. The committee can also invite individuals and representatives of organisations to give oral evidence. Witnesses, normally government or quango representatives, can face stiff grillings at the hands of the committee.
After all of the evidence is in, the committee will start to prepare its report for publication. The committees are powerful in that they are all-party with in-built majorities of MPs loyal to the government. Their reports can achieve government action by being only mildly critical or by simply highlighting concerns. Reports take the form of political pointers, which are useful for ministers to gauge attitudes towards policy or intended policy. By convention, the government ought to respond to reports, but it is under no obligation to accept recommendations.
The education sub-committee is chaired by Malcolm Wicks. Its members are Charlotte Atkins, Joe Benton, Valerie Davey, Caroline Flint, Derek Foster, Gordon Marsden (Lab), Don Foster (Lib Dem), John Hayes and Nick St Aubyn (Con).