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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 January 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Mr. Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Donald Richard Coleman, esquire, CBE, Member for Neath, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.

Oral Answers to Questions


Administrator-Teacher Ratios

1. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he has any plans to reduce the administrator-teacher ratios within local education authorities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon) : There are unacceptably wide variations in the proportion of resources LEAs delegate to schools. We published proposals last month to require that by April 1993 at least 85 per cent. of resources should get down to the school level. That is where the right decisions will be made.

Mr. Butler : Will my hon. Friend confirm that local management of schools has, at long last, identified the heavy administrative load from which some education services suffer? Is not it time that it was reduced?

Mr. Fallon : My hon. Friend is right. It is wholly wrong that councils such as Coventry and Cleveland should employ as many non-teachers as teachers on their education budgets. Parents and teachers want more of their schools' money given back to the schools themselves, and that is what the new requirement will ensure.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : With Cumbria making every effort to ensure that as much money as possible is devolved to schools, may we presume in return that the Government will look favourably on that authority when they make the next settlement?

Mr. Fallon : I am delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman, and Cumbria has confirmed it to me, that that authority hopes to do much better next year--it needs to do much better--in delegating more money downwards to its schools.

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Secondary Schools (Expenditure)

2. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how much at today's prices was being spent per pupil in secondary schools in 1979 ; and how much is planned to be spent this and the next financial year.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Kenneth Clarke) : Average school-based spending per secondary pupil in 1978-79 was £1,165 at 1988-89 prices. In 1988-89, the latest year for which actual spending information is available, it was £1,690. That represents a real-terms increase of some 45 per cent.

Detailed information for 1990-91 and 1991-92 is not available on a comparable basis. In 1990-91, the secondary block of the standard spending assessment allows for total expenditure of some £2,175 cash per 11 to 16-year-old secondary pupil. The figure proposed for 1991-92 allows some £2,550 cash per 11 to 16-year-old secondary pupil. That represents a further real-terms increase of 10 per cent. in one year.

Mr. Bruce : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that comprehensive reply which, I am sure he will agree, nails the lie that the Government and the Conservative party are not willing to devote more and more resources to education. Has he had a chance to receive feedback about what has happened under the LMS changes to the effectiveness with which the money is spent? Does he agree that it would be better to give 100 per cent. of the money to schools to allow them to decide what they buy from the central education department at county hall?

Mr. Clarke : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comprehensive question, which required me to give the figures. I agree that they show that improving standards in our education do not depend wholly on increasing real-terms expenditure, because that is what we have been doing consistently in our period of office. Local management of schools allows money to be spent most effectively at local level in the school. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has issued a circular suggesting that as much money as possible should be made available in that way. A school that feels confident that it can handle its resources best itself should contemplate opting for grant-maintained status.

Mr. Ashton : Arising out of that carefully planted question, are not there now fewer children of that age at school than there were in 1979 and does not it cost as much to maintain and run a school with fewer pupils? Is not it also a fact that much more expenditure now comes from the county council and through the poll tax, not from the Government?

Mr. Clarke : If the question was planted, I know not by whom-- certainly not by me. It is a question frequently asked about actual expenditure on education and it brings out the most relevant figures of all, which are those of real-terms spending per pupil. It has risen spectacularly during the period of this Government. Next year's local authority allocations, to which I have just referred, show a 16 per cent. increase in the standard spending assessment--10 per cent. ahead of the rate of inflation. The resources are there and we must ensure that they are used to the best effect to obtain the higher standards that we want.

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Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that local management of schools is a step in the right direction? Those of my schools which have opted out find that they can spend the money a great deal better than Lancashire county council ever did. They are appointing more staff and they can devote more to books and equipment. Roll on the rest opting out.

Mr. Clarke : I am delighted to hear of that experience. As news spreads of how successful grant-maintained schools have been, we shall see many more applications. They are now beginning to come in. I agree with my hon. Friend that the money that we are putting into education is best spent by governors who feel confident that they are able to do so in a grant- maintained school under their control.

Mr. Andrew Smith : May I invite the Secretary of State to confess that the statistics of which he boasts do not bear out his claims for the education service, first, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) pointed out, because the numbers of school-age children have fallen from more than 10 million to 8.6 million and, secondly, because the Government have cut expenditure on the nation's schools in real terms by more than a quarter? In addition, have not the Government also cut the share of gross domestic product and the share of public expenditure devoted to education, and does not that show that it is time for a Labour Government with a real commitment to investment in the nation's education in place of the neglect and statistical gimmickry that are characteristic of this Administration?

Mr. Clarke : The hon. Gentleman's assertion of a 25 per cent. real- terms cut is startling. There seems to be some ingenious arithmetic or use of statistics behind that which he had better explain to me on paper if he wants to carry on using that figure. The proportion of GDP is an irrelevant measure of public spending for any service. As it happens, Britain spends a higher percentage of GDP on education than most of our competitors, but that tends to be a measure of the level of GDP. I have shown that there has been an enormous increase in real-terms spending on pupils and I do not believe that the Labour party would have exceeded it. Everyone knows that improving standards of education, standards of reading and spelling have to do with many more things than just the level of public expenditure per pupil.

3. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how much was spent per pupil at secondary schools in Staffordshire in the most recent year for which figures are available ; and what was the comparable figure in 1978-79, at constant prices.

Mr. Fallon : Staffordshire spent £530 per secondary pupil in 1978-79 and £1,610 per secondary pupil in 1988-89. At 1988-89 prices those figures are £1,165 and £1,610 respectively--a real-terms increase of about 38 per cent.

Mr. Knox : Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures show an impressive increase in expenditure per pupil in secondary schools in Staffordshire, which nails the lie that there have been cuts since the Government took office?

Mr. Fallon : Yes. Increased spending on education under the Government is not a big idea but a big fact.

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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : How much of the extra expenditure in Staffordshire is due to the imposition of the national curriculum, for which many schools have to buy different books? In particular, how much extra will his announcement yesterday on the changes in the geography curriculum cost? Would not it have been better to follow the proposals made by The Geographical Association and have geography taught in a way which is much more relevant to modern living?

Mr. Fallon : A substantial proportion of the extra resources are being spent on the national curriculum--and every penny spent on the new national curriculum is a penny well spent. As to additional resources, the national curriculum is being introduced in stages and money will be provided as appropriate.

Schools (Capital Expenditure)

4. Mr. Hoyle : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to make an announcement on capital expenditure for schools ; and if he will make a statement.

6. Mr. Cohen : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement about his criteria for funding capital improvements and tackling disrepair and dilapidation in schools.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. Tim Eggar) : My right hon. and learned Friend announced his decision on the 1991-92 annual capital guidelines for local education authorities, and grant to voluntary-aided schools, on 17 December. In that announcement we gave priority to agreed committed expenditure, the provision of new school places and cost-effective projects to remove surplus places.

The remaining resources are distributed to contribute towards capital improvement work at schools and £109 million will be available for such work this year--an increase of more than 50 per cent. on the sum available in the current year.

Mr. Hoyle : Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State's statement showed a drop of 9.6 per cent. over the previous year in Cheshire schools' capital expenditure? Surely he is not surprised that parents in Cheshire are extremely concerned at that vast reduction. How can he justify that cut?

Mr. Eggar : Cheshire had a very good settlement. Its annual capital guidelines include almost £1 million for improvements to schools and for other work. In addition, there was an allocation of almost £2 million for capital expenditure by governors of voluntary schools.

Mr. Cohen : Why has the Government's education capital allocation been so inadequate that it has failed to stop the rundown of schools, and why do some--such as Newport junior school in my

constituency--receive such exceptionally low priority? Under the Department's guidelines, even the slightest modernisation--such as dealing with leaking roofs and dangerous windows and floors--is classed as an improvement and is therefore deemed to fall outside the Department's basic needs allocation. Is not the truth that the Government do not give a fig for our school children and that they are forcing a slow death on many of our most-loved schools?

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Mr. Eggar : I suggest that if the hon. Gentleman is worried about Newport junior school, he knocks on the door of Waltham Forest local education authority, which did not include that school in its bid to my Department. It is up to that LEA to provide the funds--and to ask for them if they are wanted.

Mr. Thornton : My hon. Friend will be aware of successive reports by Her Majesty's inspectorate showing a direct correlation between the quality of the environment in our schools and the standard of education in them. Although I welcome the extra £109 million that is being made available, against the background of an estimated £3 billion of outstanding repairs, will my hon. Friend and his colleagues talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to see whether anything can be done to increase the release of capital receipts to local authorities--which could perhaps be ring-fenced--to bring about important improvements in the state of our schools?

Mr. Eggar : As my hon. Friend recognises, in addition to the annual capital guidelines, it is possible for LEAs to raise capital and to spend it on their schools--and a considerable number do so. About £2.6 billion has been spent by LEAs since the annual survey to which my hon. Friend referred.

Mr. Harris : Does my hon. Friend recognise the deep disappointment felt in Cornwall at its capital allocation for the coming year? It is felt not only by members of local education authorities but among many parents. Will he review the criteria for drawing up allocations, because it seems to us that it does not take sufficient account of the need, for example, to replace old Victorian village schools, of which there are many in Cornwall?

Mr. Eggar : I am aware, from representations that my hon. Friend and others have made, of the special problems in Cornwall and of the difficulties of local education authorities. Of course, the criteria have been agreed with the local authority association. If at any time it wishes to reconsider those criteria, or to discuss them with us, we shall be happy to meet it.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : Despite what the Minister said, many people will find it hard to understand how those criteria work. Despite the overall increase, many local authorities have seen dramatic cuts. Devon has had a big cut and in Cornwall, where £100 million of spending is needed to get up to the Government's standards, the allocation was cut to a little more than £6 million this year. Will the Minister review the figures? Will he review the allocation given to Cornwall? Does he expect that, having already delayed it once, he will have further to delay implementation of the Government's minimum standards for school buildings and the environment in which children are taught?

Mr. Eggar : Of course, we are prepared to listen to suggestions for changing the criteria, but those criteria have to be appropriate for all local authority associations throughout the country for them to be recognised generally as being fair. From time to time, some authorities benefit from the way in which those criteria are drawn up and some do not benefit. That is inevitable when one has objective criteria. As we have already announced, we shall be reviewing the premises regulations shortly.

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Mr. Brandon-Bravo : My hon. Friend must know that many local education authorities, in common with other departments, think in multiples of what they know they can expect from the Department. They include a range of minor capital works which there is no way that any Minister would specify or ring-fence. Is there no method of bidding for capital spending which will stop local authorities from blaming the Minister for every shortcoming in their areas?

Mr. Eggar : I am afraid that my hon. Friend is right. Some local education authorities play political games with their applications. It is for the LEA to decide how to spend those capital guidelines and other borrowing amounts that it has at its disposal in the way that it thinks appropriate. It is answerable to the governors and parents if it refuses to go ahead with capital works improvements and others that it has suggested.

Mr. Fatchett : The Minister seems remarkably complacent in his answers about the £3.5 billion of outstanding repairs in our schools and the fact that tens of thousands of children are taught in dilapidated buildings. Does he reject the proposition by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) that there must be a link between low-quality buildings and an inability to provide high-quality education? In an earlier response the Minister seemed to accept that it was all right for school buildings to be of a low standard because it had no adverse effect on education. Thousands of parents up and down the country do not subscribe to that view.

Mr. Eggar : The hon. Gentleman has not looked at the figures. This year there is 15 per cent. more capital guideline expenditure than last year and there is a 21 per cent. increase in the spending available for voluntary-aided schools on the figure for last year, when there was a considerable increase on the year before. Massive amounts of additional resources are being made available by the Government for spending on capital equipment and on improvements as well as new build.

Grant-maintained Schools

5. Mr. Andrew Mitchell : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools have now decided to seek grant- maintained status.

9. Mr. Amess : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science how many schools have applied for grant-maintained status.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke : Eighty six schools have submitted applications to the Secretary of State and I am awaiting a further 12 applications following ballots in favour. Of the 86 applications, 56 have been approved, 12 rejected and 18 have yet to be decided.

Mr. Mitchell : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the popularity of the Government's policy for promoting grant-maintained status is growing significantly with parents, governors, teachers and schools, as demonstrated by the fact that there are five times the number of ballots pending compared with a year ago? How long does he think that it will be before the Opposition decide to disavow their shameful and ill-intended opposition to this excellent policy, as they did with the right to buy?

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Mr. Clarke : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's premise. The first grant-maintained schools are experiencing a big improvement in morale, closer parental involvement, more applications for places and a general all-round improvement. I cannot understand why the Labour party remains wedded to the concept of bureaucracy controlling our schools. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that it will rapidly come round to accepting that this is a much more sensible way to run a great public service.

Mr. Amess : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Chalvedon school in Basildon has become the first grant-maintained school in Essex? Does he agree that grant-maintained status has nothing whatever to do with opting out of the state system, but rather signals a change in the method of funding and an increase in educational opportunities?

Mr. Clarke : I entirely agree. Many other applications are being considered in Essex and those promoting them wish to make their schools better state schools. I believe that that experience will lead many others to apply very shortly.

Mr. Leighton : Does the Department of Education and Science still believe in the elimination of surplus places? If so, why, when the London borough of Newham wanted to close a secondary school that was surplus to requirements and open on the site a primary school that was needed, did the Secretary of State's predecessor--for what I can only assume were ideological reasons--give it grant-maintained status to frustrate that sensible management decision? How can the right hon. and learned Gentleman possibly justify such action and will he, as a new Minister, review it?

Mr. Clarke : Certainly we believe that surplus school places should be removed. The Audit Commission demonstrated that a great deal of money would be released for capital investment if we shed the large number of such places that exist. It is not true that applications for grant- maintained status are an automatic way out ; as I said, 12 were rejected when the proposals in those instances were plainly not acceptable. The case of the Stratford school was decided on its merits : parents were committed to making the school grant maintained. I deplore the reaction of Newham and connected authorities which have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to close the school because it had the temerity to try to opt out of local authority control.

Mr. Straw : The Secretary of State must know that the policy of opting out is a moral and educational failure. Last Saturday, The Times described it as evil ; it is proof of the Government's subscription not to standards but to double standards. Can the Secretary of State explain why, if no bribes are being offered to schools that try to opt out, the capital allocations for schools that do so, at £355 per pupil, are five times the level of those for local authority schools in the surrounding areas? If no bribes are being offered, is the Secretary of State willing to allow the financial arrangements of opted-out schools to be examined by an independent inquiry?

Mr. Clarke : I repeat my assertion that public services are best delivered by those--in this case, the teachers and governors--who are in closest contact with parents. When

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such people are capable of being given that responsibility, they should be given it. I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman is so much in the pocket of local authorities that wish to maintain their empires that he describes the opting-out policy as "evil".

Mr. Straw : That was in The Times.

Mr. Clarke : The hon. Gentleman quoted that extraordinary proposition with approval. Let me ask him to visit any of the successful grant-maintained schools to which my hon. Friends have referred and try to explain to governors, teachers and parents that he considers their independence an evil in the state system.

Mrs. Maureen Hicks : Is not it a fact that, by opening the way for choice and the other benefits provided by grant-maintained status and local management of schools, we are making parents, governors and head teachers more aware of the resources available for education? As parents see that some town halls are hanging on to the money at the centre, will not they increasingly want their schools to opt for grant-maintained status? What further steps can we take to protect those parents, guarantee that they are given that choice and ensure that they are not politically engineered into being frightened away from going for what is good for them?

Mr. Clarke : I agree with my hon. Friend. We are taking steps to ensure that a fair proportion of the local authority central expenditure that would otherwise be needed for a school is transferred to the school itself. The governors of grant-maintained schools invariably find that they can make better use of the money and, as my hon. Friend so wisely said, they become more aware of what is involved in choices about how to spend money in schools. We must explain the case properly and ensure that all those who should be interested in the policy are properly canvassed about it, to counter what my hon. Friend describes as the politically motivated distortions being created by some local authorities which simply want to retain their own staffing levels and control over public funds.

Small Primary Schools

7. Mr. Jack Thompson : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what representations he has received about opting-out of small primary schools ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Eggar : There has been a general welcome by parents and governors alike in response to the decision to extend the eligibility to apply for grant-maintained status to primary schools with fewer than 300 pupils.

Mr. Thompson : Is the Minister aware that his Department's policy of encouraging the elimination of surplus places in primary schools is in direct conflict with the opting-out policy? Is it not clear to him that in counties such as Northumberland, with a huge rural population and a considerable number of small primary schools, any school opting out will cause serious problems for an authority which is currently Labour controlled and has the support of the Conservative councillors in preventing opting out? It will kill the education service in rural areas if schools opt out. Will the Minister reconsider the policy in relation to small primary schools?

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Mr. Eggar : I have some difficulty following the hon. Gentleman's logic. If those schools are supported in their application for opting out by parents, governors and staff and they are viable schools, why should not they, rather than the administrators at county hall, be responsible for spending the money? They must be best placed to know how to spend the money to the benefit of their pupils in a way that is appropriate in their school.

Mr. Dunn : Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that those who criticise the grant-maintained schools provisions do so because they are motivated by a dislike of the involvement of the consumer? After all, it is the consumer who starts the process leading to the award of grant- maintained status and that is why the Labour party dislikes it so much.

Mr. Eggar : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is for that reason that there is a continuing and welcome upsurge in the number of schools applying for grant-maintained status.

Assessment and Testing

8. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what further proposals he has for amendments to the implementation of assessment and testing in the national curriculum.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke : My speech at the north of England conference on 4 January sets out my proposals and I have placed copies in the Library.

Mr. Griffiths : How much money did the Secretary of State waste on the pilot studies that everybody told him beforehand would not work? Does he intend to carry out any pilot studies on the new proposals for seven- year-olds and, if so, will he make further changes if they, too, prove impractical?

Mr. Clarke : The £6 million spent on the pilot studies was money well spent. My predecessor would have been bitterly criticised if he had not piloted those tests. It is in the light of the experience of those pilots that the tests have been greatly simplified and the proposals now being discussed with the profession will be simple and useful to them and extremely informative to parents when they are introduced in July this year.

Mr. Allason : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the national curriculum has proved quite successful, even if it was brought in rather too quickly? Does he agree that a greater proportion of resources would be available for schools, pupils and teachers if less money were spent by local education authorities on administration?

Mr. Clarke : It is now almost universally accepted that the national curriculum is a good idea and it is being supported throughout schools. With respect, I do not agree with my hon. Friend's implied criticism of my two predecessors who are said to have introduced it too quickly. That is now an excuse for former opponents who are coming on side. If my two predecessors had not pressed on with the reforms, the reforms would not have been started by now. Their success is suddenly being perceived. I agree with my hon. Friend's final comment that we need less money spent on administration and more spent where it counts--in the classrooms.

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Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Will the Secretary of State reconsider his proposals for the geography curriculum? As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is in favour of democracy, does he agree that one of the key problems in a democracy is deciding priorities? Would not it be a good idea to teach pupils at an early stage that one of the most difficult areas in which to make decisions is land use? Would not it have been sensible to keep that in the geography curriculum rather than return to a purely factual-based curriculum?

Mr. Clarke : Pupils need to acquire that essential body of factual knowledge and the skills necessary for a true appreciation of it before starting to strike attitudes and form opinions about subjects. We must achieve the right balance in the curriculum as it is being introduced in our schools.

Scientific Research

10. Mr. Knapman : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects the new arrangements for the funding of scientific research in higher education institutions to become operative.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Alan Howarth) : I congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent appointment to membership of the Agricultural and Food Research Council. To answer his question, the new arrangements for funding research projects supported by research councils in higher education institutions will take effect from 1 August 1992.

Mr. Knapman : I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent reply, but will he assure the House that adequate arrangements have been made during the transitional period and that there will be no reduction in funds for scientific research?

Mr. Howarth : The reason why my right hon. and learned Friend deferred the introduction of the new arrangements until 1992 was so as not to disturb the existing cycle of grant applications and to ensure that the detailed preparations for the new system could be thoroughly carried out. He has invited the research councils to work with representatives of the higher education institutions and the Department to draw up a detailed specification of the new boundary and to put in place new grant application arrangements. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks on resources. The new arrangements will represent a cost-neutral transfer of funding responsibility from the Universities Funding Council to the research councils.

Mr. Douglas : Does the Minister accept that a market solution is quite inappropriate for this part of higher education and that there is a crisis in the funding of fundamental research in our higher education institutions, particularly in Scottish universities? How much of those funds is likely to be devoted to fundamental research in Scottish universities? The position must be rectified as soon as possible.

Mr. Howarth : It is healthy and proper that there should be selectivity, concentration on excellence and bidding for the available research funds. The money that the Government have made available for science has increased markedly. The money available through the science

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budget and the Universities Funding Council has increased by 10 per cent. The distribution of those funds, to Scottish institutions and elsewhere, is a matter for the research councils and the UFC.

Dr. Bray : Is the Minister aware that the proposed arrangements are another way of increasing the attrition of research funding in higher education and basic science generally? What are the Government's long-term objectives? Are they to remove all autonomy from institutions of higher education in relation to research strategy and to concentrate it solely in the hands of research councils and donors?

Mr. Howarth : There has been no attrition of funding. On the contrary, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), we have increased the amount of funding available through the science budget and the Universities Funding Council by 10 per cent. It certainly is not our intention that all the money made available from the taxpayer in support of scientific research should be channelled through the research councils. We are seeing a shift of a certain proportion of funding from the Universities Funding Council to the research councils so as to clarify where responsibilities lie. We certainly do not intend to end the dual-support system. It is important that funding should be available to universities through the Universities Funding Council so that they can support projects initiated in universities and, in particular, so that they can support the work of promising young scientists who are developing their scientific abilities and experience but who may not yet be at the point where they are able to make a claim on research council funding. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I ask the House to give a fair hearing to these important education answers.

Reading Standards

11. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has to monitor reading standards nationally ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke : The national curriculum will secure, for the first time, national monitoring of standards in reading from age seven onwards. This summer's tests for seven-year-olds will supply the first data in what will soon become a much fuller picture. I have instructed Her Majesty's inspectorate to continue to monitor reading standards and provide me with regular reports.

Mr. Evans : Will the Secretary of State confirm that, after nearly 12 years of Tory government, cuts in the education service, our children's reading standards are, not surprisingly, declining? Will he acknowledge that one reason for that decline is the inability of local authorities to maintain their schools library service, due to lack of funds--a situation which is worsening as a result of the poll tax?

Mr. Clarke : Recent reports show that we do not have enough information on the subject, but they also show that the inadequate reading standards being achieved have little or nothing to do with resources or any of the other excuses put forward. What is required is the systematic application of good teaching methods in schools and for

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local education authorities to pay much closer attention to the problem. That is why I have written to the chairmen of the local education authorities and I have asked Her Majesty's inspectorate to circulate its report to all head teachers. I am sure that we shall address the issue of good teaching methods, properly applied in schools, to get reading standards up to the level that this country requires.

Mr. Pawsey : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that much of the responsibility for poor reading standards must lie with the permissive educational regimes which have been pursued in many of the nation's classrooms? Does he agree that what is required is not necessarily greater funding but greater rigour, greater discipline and greater structuring of reading and the way in which it is taught?

Mr. Clarke : I agree with my hon. Friend's approach. What is required is good, systematic teaching, principally using phonics, as well as other methods, to teach pupils. The reports show that overdependence on some of the stranger new methods of teaching reading which have been introduced is damaging to pupils' performance. That is the key issue which we must address, along with others.

Mr. Straw : Why does the Secretary of State not have the guts to admit that HMI's report on reading is a stark indictment of the Government's shameful record on that issue? It shows that one in five young children cannot read properly. The back of the report, which the Secretary of State evidently has not read, states that there is a lack of non-contact time, a lack of spending on books and a lack of under-five provision, among other factors named by head teachers. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why his predecessor was so complacent about the reading standards of this nation's children that he abandoned all national monitoring of reading standards in 1989?

Mr. Clarke : Why does the hon. Gentleman not have the guts to admit that the Labour party has been closely associated with every change in teaching methods and with moves towards an overdependence on curious child- centred methods which have been responsible for the problem of reading standards in our schools? No one abolished anything in 1989. The hon. Gentleman makes a totally artificial point about the change in the location of a unit which was moved into the School Examinations and Assessment Council, where it is still operating and monitoring reading standards.

Mr. Patrick Thompson : In monitoring reading standards, will my right hon. and learned Friend give more weight and encouragement to traditional methods of teaching reading, writing and spelling? Will he take a closer look at what is going on in our teacher training colleges?

Mr. Clarke : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Most parents look for those schools where the teaching methods are reasonably formal and reasonably well oriented and aimed, above all, at achieving success in reading and spelling. Our introduction of national curriculum testing, our extension of parental choice and our insistence that local authorities should pay more attention to all those factors will get our schools back on to a sensible track of getting reading standards up to the quality that we require.

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