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Reading Tuition (Primary Schools)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Wood.]

11.42 pm

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley): I submitted this topic for debate in the light of the report by the Office for Standards in Education, published last week, about the teaching of reading in a number of inner-London primary schools. The debate also coincides with the standard attainment tests that are taking place this week in primary schools throughout the country.

My concern about some aspects of primary education do not, however, stem simply from last week's report. A number of reports in recent years have suggested that far too many pupils fail to reach educational standards appropriate to their ability and age.

Last week's report on the teaching of reading in London schools was a shocker. Eighty per cent. of seven-year-olds had reading abilities appropriate to an age below their actual age; nearly 20 per cent. of those achieved no score at all. Four out of 10 11-year-olds were found to have reading ages two or more years below their actual age. The usual excuses about social deprivation and lack of resources will not do; the report made it clear that the quality of schools' intake was not a reliable guide to pupil performance, and that similar schools scored differently.

Sadly, a growing bank of evidence suggests that the deficiencies in primary education that were exposed in last week's report are not confined to inner London. Last year, a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that the bottom 40 per cent. of 13-year-olds in English schools lagged two years behind their German equivalents, and never caught up. The author of the report, Professor Prais, was critical of the emphasis that had been increasingly placed on the child-centred, individualistic approach to schooling, in which pupils were encouraged to proceed at their own pace.

By contrast, the emphasis on the continent is on teaching the class as a whole and on ensuring that pupils advance together to a high average standard. Last year, the Basic Skills Agency published a report which stated that the 30 per cent. or so of children who had not learned to read properly by the age of 10 never recover. I understand that this week the agency will publish a report confirming that about 32 per cent. of those going to secondary schools are reading at the level of nine-year-olds.

Last year's national tests for 11-year-olds showed that 52 per cent. of pupils failed to reach national curriculum level 4 in English, the standard that is expected to be achieved by a typical pupil of that age. Additionally, nearly half the 14-year-olds failed to reach the expected standard in English and mathematics in their tests. The failure of so many of our young people to reach their full potential gives rise to massive concern for the future well-being and prosperity of this country. For young people, the lack of proper grounding in literacy and numeracy can range from inconvenient in later life to downright disastrous.

I have no doubt that many of the social problems that face this country can be partly attributed to the way in which the education system has let down many people in

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their early years, particularly in inner-city areas. Recently, people have asked me whether there is a problem about the teaching of reading in my constituency. I do not think there is, and from my visits I can say that I have some excellent primary schools in my constituency. I visited one such school on Friday, the Meltham Church of England junior and infants school in Holmfirth road, Meltham, which, I am pleased to say, has just received an excellent report from Ofsted.

I cannot be certain about the achievements of my local schools, because, without information, it is difficult to make comparisons and judgments. That is why I am delighted that the results of this week's tests for 11-year-olds will for the first time be made public by school and in league table form. I hope that, next year, the results of the tests for seven-year-olds will also be made public in that form. Many heads and primary school teachers are unhappy at that prospect, but information, transparency and openness are crucial in helping to drive up standards in our schools.

We need to get parents more involved in the educational process, and they can do that only if they have some meaningful information that they can use to compare local schools. The publication of the results will in itself improve standards, because schools that have not performed well, or as well as they would have liked, will have to look at their performances to see how they can be improved.

There has been a change in the attitude of parents and the general public to tests, and particularly to the publication of the results in the form of league tables. Every year, I send a questionnaire to thousands of my constituents asking them a range of questions. For the past few years, I have asked whether they support the principle of testing and the publication of the results. Between 800 and 1,100 people usually respond, so it is a good sample. The increase in support for the regular testing of pupils has gone up from 73 per cent. of all respondents in 1993 to 80 per cent. this year.

More interesting is the turnround in people's views on whether the results should be made public. In 1993, 38 per cent. of respondents were in favour and 50 per cent. were against. The support for the publication of results went up to 42 per cent. in 1994 and to 46 per cent. in 1995; this year, 50 per cent. of respondents were in favour of publishing examination results and only 32 per cent. were against. People want the information, and it is clear from the figures that I have quoted that we are winning that argument.

Returning to the specific problem under consideration, what is the cause of the under-achievement? Last week's Ofsted report blamed weak teaching, inadequate lesson planning, poor teacher training and a lack of leadership by some head teachers. It appears that we are paying the price for more than 30 years of so-called progressive teaching in our schools, and for education being the vehicle for creating an egalitarian society as part of socialist efforts at social engineering. During those 30 years, child-centred learning in mixed-ability classes has done untold damage to many thousands of pupils. Reversing the process is taking much time and much effort, but reverse it we must.

Socialists at every level have been driving that process of so-called progressive education. A Labour Government introduced comprehensive education and the teaching

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reforms that changed the approach to education. Children betrayed in Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets have been betrayed under Labour local education authorities.

As hon. Members know only too well, some middle-class parents living in those regions are sufficiently well-to-do to be able to send their offspring to grant-maintained schools, outside their local education authorities. Let us not forget that the Labour party has opposed all our efforts, both in the House of Commons and in local education authorities throughout the country, to give more information and power to parents.

Labour has nothing to offer parents of pupils, and it was most illuminating that the Secondary Heads Association should describe the Labour party's recent education policy as simplistic, bland, short of ideas, unlikely to assist in raising school standards, poorly thought out, uncosted, lacking in detail and an uncomfortable combination of the naive and messianic. All those comments were contained in the SHA's report.

So, away from Labour and back to the real world. One of the most common complaints I hear when I visit schools is that Ministers and others are for ever criticising teachers. I always reply that those same people spend enormous time praising teachers, although pointing out that more needs to be done. The problem is that the teachers hear or read only what the media report, and it is the criticisms that are reported.

My experience is that the majority of teachers are hard-working, dedicated and committed to their pupils. Of course, as in any profession, some teachers are not up to the job, and should not be teaching. Last week's Ofsted report, however, was critical of teaching methods, and it is fair to say that the vast majority of teachers have experienced their training during the past 30 years, when so-called progressive teaching methods have prevailed.

In 1991, Robin Alexander, from the university of Leeds, said in the summary document that accompanied his report "Primary Education in Leeds":



    The project highlighted the prevalence of the power of certain orthodoxies of primary teaching methods and the extent to which many teachers feel obliged to conform to these while in some cases being all too conscious of the problems they may pose. It is likely that this conformist culture has elevated particular class practices into ends in themselves."

That is the most extraordinary and damning comment imaginable; some teachers are apparently following practices simply to conform with the prevailing culture. That clearly needs to change.

I do not for a moment claim to have any great expertise on teaching methods, but last week's Ofsted report is clear that more whole-class teaching should take place in schools, along with more effective group work. The report also says that teachers have to be more knowledgeable about reading in order to teach it successfully. In particular, the report said that phonics contributed to the accuracy and fluency of reading by children of all abilities where it was taught well.

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Last August, we saw a remarkable experiment, when Irina Tyk and others set up and ran the Butterfly reading project on the Mozart estate in London. It involved a highly structured method of teaching children to read and spell according to the phonic or alphabetic method. The children were sitting at desks in rows facing the front. They were working individually within a whole class. The result was that the 27 children aged between seven and 12 returned to school in September armed with written reports which showed that, in 30 hours of teaching on the 10-day course, their reading ages had been raised by an average of 13 and a half months. I should like to know what lessons the Department for Education and Employment has taken on board from that remarkable course.

Last week's report also showed that mixed-ability classes were in use in some schools. It said:


Mixed-ability classes, part of education's drive for equality, are still too prevalent, and I have seen them in primary schools in my constituency. I believe that, where it is feasible to do so, schools should be setting pupils by ability, so that all the pupils in a class are progressing at more or less a similar level, so that the less able are not holding back the more able and the more able are not intimidating the less able.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that teacher training is crucial. Too many of the progressive notions being implemented in our schools today have been inculcated into teachers at teacher training colleges. Last week's report said that the vast majority of teachers held appropriate initial qualifications and were trained for the primary phase. Yet, as the report said, in spite of an array of professional qualifications, many of them related to reading, it was apparent that many of the teachers in both year groups lacked the range of skills they needed to teach reading in those schools.

Many teachers told the inspectors that they did not believe that their initial training had provided them with the proper equipment to teach reading. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister what further steps the Government intend to take to try to improve the quality of teacher training in this country.

I believe that every parent should be enormously grateful to the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead. Mr. Woodhead is determined to improve the quality of teaching in this country, so that all pupils can maximise their learning potential. It is a source of enormous regret that 50 Labour Members have seen fit to sign an early-day motion calling for his resignation, simply because he has, in their view, attacked teachers and comprehensive education. That EDM says more about today's Labour party than it does about Mr. Woodhead. I say to Mr. Woodhead, "Keep up the good work."

I hope that this short debate has been useful. The ability to read properly and clearly is crucial to young people, and much clearly still needs to be done in our schools. I hope that the Minister will be able to demonstrate that the Government, like Chris Woodhead, are determined to take additional action to improve the quality of reading and all other subjects in our schools. I look forward to what he has to say.

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11.58 pm


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