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House of Commons

Thursday 10 June 1999

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Numeracy Hour

1. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the numeracy hour; and if he will make a statement. [85393]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): The national numeracy project has been evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales. Seven hundred and fifty schools took part in the project. Using a baseline of two years earlier with similar children, there was up to a 16-month improvement in the performance of those who had been part of that programme.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Would he agree that, if the numeracy project is to be effective, one of the essential ingredients is for staff to be properly trained and supported? Will he join me in congratulating teachers on the work that they have done so far on the various initiatives that the Government have introduced? Will he take this opportunity to assure the House that proper support and training will be provided for the introduction of the numeracy hour in all our schools?

Mr. Blunkett: I am very pleased to give that assurance. The evaluation of the project undertaken by Ofsted shows that teachers were able to plan, organise and teach mathematics much more effectively. Obviously, training teachers is a crucial factor. We have put £55 million into training and materials for the programme and 1,760 extra teachers are providing model lessons. Teachers in every school in the country--including the head and a governor--will have the opportunity to receive the necessary training in the months ahead. We have expanded by one day the number of training days available this summer to facilitate the training programme. As teachers become more familiar with the numeracy programme, the sort of figures that we have seen for the literacy hour will be reflected--90 per cent. of primary teachers have said that they found that framework helpful and positive and have welcomed it.

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Single Work-focused Gateway

2. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): What assessment he has made of the role of local authorities in the planning and delivery of the pilots for the single work-focused gateway. [85394]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Mr. Andrew Smith): Local authorities have been encouraged to be full partners in the new one service. They are represented on the national project team and on local implementation teams. Due to the demanding time scales to which we are working to get the pilots up and running in June and November, it made sense to allow for the phasing in of the councils' service involvement, but some council staff, premises and functions will be involved from day 1 and their contribution is invaluable.

Mr. Healey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that the Education and Employment Select Committee recently took evidence from the Local Government Association on our inquiry into the single work-focused gateway? Is he aware that, while the LGA strongly supports the ambition of the one service, it told us of the pilots whose participants felt that they had been invited to join the train but that it had already left the station and was 2 miles down the track? In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend explain what efforts have been made to ensure that local authority staff have been open to recruitment as one service advisers? Are there any local authority sites from which the one service will be delivered in the pilot areas?

Mr. Smith: Not only has the association been invited to join the train, it is on the train. The LGA is fully involved. Local authority staff have been encouraged to apply for jobs as personal advisers in the new one service and a number have already been appointed. Yes, local authority premises will be used from day one, including in some towns where there has been no access to benefit and employment services. As I said in my earlier answer, there will be an opportunity for councils to pace the extension of their involvement over time--something that the councils very much wanted--so that it accords with their own priorities. Also, discussions on resourcing are taking place so that local authorities will be resourced in relation to their involvement on the same basis as the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service.


3. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): How many schools are piloting the use of masterclasses for more able pupils. [85395]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): Ten schools are involved in the pilot of masterclasses for gifted and talented pupils. We are also developing a separate pilot of about 40 summer school projects, based in a range of schools and education action zones. Further details will be announced shortly.

Mr. Chapman: We still need to improve the education of all our children and to provide lifelong learning for others, but are not special measures needed for gifted and

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talented children, in particular in inner-city areas, as they are still not given the priority that they deserve? What are my hon. Friend's plans for masterclasses for those gifted children and for ensuring that those are more widely available?

Ms Morris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For too long, there has been the feeling that able children will do well despite school rather than because of it. It is about time that we recognised the fact that allowing every child to reach their potential means giving attention to every child, including those who have a particular ability or talent. My hon. Friend will know that a key strand of our work on the excellence in schools project is to ask those participating to work with their most able, gifted and talented children to ensure that they achieve their potential and that they achieve at a level that has not until now been available to them.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I recognise that masterclasses may indeed be beneficial for the more gifted child, and no doubt the trials will be carefully evaluated, but does the Minister recognise that able and gifted children should be assisted in mainstream education and that, from the word, go there should be streaming in secondary schools to ensure that those children are given the challenges that they need? Does she further agree that perhaps, in addition, special help could be provided at the end of the school day to continue that impetus?

Ms Morris: I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Lady has just said. It is absolutely crucial that the needs of those children in mainstream schools, whether primary or secondary, are met. For too long, schools have been good at meeting the needs of children who are thought to be less able and struggling--which is right and may it continue--but have often left those who are doing well to get on at their own pace. We are looking for a change of culture. We need to work with schools and teachers so that they develop strategies and teaching styles that will extend the abilities and the potential of every young person.

Every school should look carefully at pupil grouping. Certainly there is a lot of evidence showing that setting children can raise standards. That is setting children by ability for different subjects rather than streaming children, to which the hon. Lady referred, which puts them into the same stream for all subjects. Again, under the excellence in cities initiative, we are requiring all schools to look carefully at the way in which they group students and seriously to consider setting, unless they can prove to us that another way of grouping children is achieving the same high results.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North): I welcome the Minister's responses to these questions. As she knows, the Select Committee on Education and Employment recently published a report on the needs of highly able children. I agree with her comments that we have tended to neglect this group because of the concern about struggling children and average standards. Does she agree that, although the masterclass initiative is a very important one, perhaps the key, as the Select Committee suggests, would be for every school to have a policy for highly able

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children and probably a named senior member of staff with special responsibility so that that group is no longer neglected?

Ms Morris: That is absolutely right. I welcome the Select Committee report on gifted and talented children and I look forward to my appearance before the Committee in about four weeks' time. The main theme of the report is absolutely right: in all our schools there are able and talented students who need to be recognised and supported. I know that the Chair of the Select Committee will welcome the fact that, as part of excellence in schools, we are requiring every school in the 25 pilot areas to designate one member of staff to be responsible for monitoring gifted and able children. Over the next few months, we will draw those teachers together, provide them with training and make links so that they can support each other. I have every confidence in saying that much that the Committee espouses in training will be delivered through excellence in cities over the next 12 months.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The masterclass initiative and the excellence in cities initiative, which includes masterclasses, are, like so many Government initiatives, strong on rhetoric and weak on delivery. How many children will be moved to another school for some part of their education as a result of these initiatives? The Minister has talked today of the need to meet the needs of more able pupils, but the masterclass initiative within excellence in cities is based on selection by ability. Last week, the Prime Minister told head teachers that there should be no return to selection by ability because it was too devastating for those who were rejected. What confidence can parents, pupils and teachers have in statements made by the Secretary of State and the Minister on meeting the needs of more able pupils when the Prime Minister so obviously disagrees with them?

Ms Morris: I find it amazing that the hon. Lady has failed to grasp the central difference between her policy for gifted and talented children and that of the Government. Unlike the Opposition, we do not believe that gifted and talented children exist only in selective schools. We believe that, in every school, there are groups of children who are gifted and talented and whose needs have been ignored. The thrust of our policy is to ensure that a gifted and talented child does not have to be in a grammar school to get extra support. That will give parents confidence that, whether their child goes to an existing selective school or to a comprehensive school in a city or a rural area, there will be policies to support the child in realising their potential. That is what parents want--not a few children siphoned off for extra attention.

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