Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): In considering access, will the Secretary of State also take into account cross-departmental issues as well as those that are entirely within her own remit? For example, children with special educational needs have been mentioned. For children with speech and language development problems in north Somerset, it is almost impossible to get a speech therapist. Will she and the Secretary of State for Health set targets so that we can see what progress is being made in recruiting speech therapists for some of our most vulnerable children?

Estelle Morris: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about setting targets. In my previous existence on the Front Bench, I often heard the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), argue that targets are a bad thing--but we always welcome a conversion.

I acknowledge that there is a need to work across Departments, and that the question of speech and language therapists is key. Not enough were trained in the past, and there is a real problem of access. It is intolerable if the problem is caused by an argument about who employs them, who funds them, and who is responsible for getting the relevant part of the statement right. Sure start is a good example of cross-departmental working. It has not been easy, but we will continue to make our best endeavours.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): On access, will the Secretary of State give some thought to the effect of the perception of likely student debt, especially on people from poorer backgrounds? The Government-commissioned Callender report, published on Christmas eve, showed clearly that the people most affected by increased debt are those from poorer backgrounds. As the Select Committee also suggested, that could be the cause of the disappointing figures for poorer students going on to higher education. Will she consider the Scottish example, and draw the conclusions that I believe are out there?

Estelle Morris: We have never pretended that this is not a difficult issue. We have acknowledged that if we want an expansion in higher education we must think seriously about how we fund it. Life has changed in those respects. When Lord Dearing considered how we could get the balance right about how much comes from students, how much from families and how much from the nation, it became clear that these were tough decisions. I think that we made the right decision; the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is not correct to say that the evidence shows that there has been a downturn in people applying to enter higher education. I believe that the figures show that there was a 1.8 per cent. increase in people applying for higher education places last year. We await the results of the review to which he

21 Jun 2001 : Column 195

referred, but no doubt we shall return to the issue in the coming months. Like him, we shall continue to monitor the evidence.

With reference to particular items in the Queen's Speech, we made it clear that our priority for this Parliament will be secondary schools. May I say as loudly and clearly as possible that we have many fine secondary schools and as many excellent secondary schoolteachers as primary schoolteachers? However, if one looks at the evidence, no one--no teacher, politician or parent--can possibly think that we are good enough or as good as we can be at secondary level. We must look at what is happening at key stage 3 to 11 to 14-year-olds. When tested at the end of year 7, their first year of secondary school, about a third of our students perform less well in the basic subjects than at the end of year 6. Not only have they not made the progress that we expect; they have gone backwards.

Key stage 3 results over the past few years are flat, to say the least. Ofsted comments on the quality of teaching at key stage 3 show that it is not as good as it is for all other age ranges. That cannot be right; we cannot accept that position, and must improve it. It is not a criticism of the profession to say that anybody who teaches years 7, 8 and 9 has not got it right and has failed; it is a fault of the system. Schools and previous Governments have not given enough attention to what happens in the transition from primary to secondary school or what happens in those early years. All the levers that have been applied have been about performing well at key stage 2 and at GCSE level. Too often, years 7, 8 and 9 have been left to coast, and the emphasis in secondary schools has been on year 10 and 11 students. The statistics show that the best predictor of GCSE performance is how students perform at key stage 3. We have got to get that right.

We will do that in partnership; we have to be rigorous and demanding, but we will also be supportive. This September, all our secondary schools will start to extend the literacy and numeracy strategy into the early years of secondary education. The most literate and numerate bunch of 11-year-olds that we have ever had are about to go into secondary schools this September. Not only are they the most literate and numerate 11-year-olds that we have ever had, they are better at science, are more competent in information and communication technology and have confidence in themselves. We cannot let them down or put them into a key stage 3 system that has always allowed children to go backwards, rather than push them forward.

Key stage 3 is therefore important and we shall invest in teachers' professional development so that, over the next few years, all our secondary teachers are up to date in best practice, have learned what works and have learned from their colleagues who are performing at the highest level. That will be funded; teachers will be supported and helped to manage that change. I want to make it clear that the key stage 3 strategy was not dreamed up by me, my colleagues, or civil servants. It was developed by our finest secondary schoolteachers; we are learning from what works best and what has been successful in schools.

Our focus will remain clearly on teaching and learning because they make a difference. To improve them, we must build more levers into the system, which is why we

21 Jun 2001 : Column 196

are embarking on an ambitious agenda to create a diverse school system. All schools need to be good at the basics and teach the national curriculum well. However, they need to do more than that; they must be good at the basics and good at something special. We already have the beginnings of a diversity agenda in our school system. We have specialist schools, beacon schools, training schools, church schools and schools with a generous spirit that are supporting schools in other parts of the local education authority. Today, we announced a further 79 specialist schools and a further 425 beacon schools, exceeding the target that we set ourselves. Let us be absolutely straight that on offer will not be a two-tier system, but a guarantee to every parent and child that our schools are well funded, teach the national curriculum and are good at the basics. Every parent knows from visits to secondary schools that much is the same in every school--they all teach the national curriculum and go through the same testing regime, and they even look vaguely similar--but that something is different about every one. There is something special about every single secondary school in this country. We intend to allow schools to build on that specialness and to allow ourselves, as a nation, to celebrate that diversity and to install the levers for school improvement.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): The Secretary of State referred in her comments to this country and this nation. It might aid my understanding as a new Member if she clarified exactly which nation she means. When she introduces any new provisions for education in England and Wales, will she undertake to respect the judgment of the Labour Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in the National Assembly for Wales that specialist schools are neither attractive nor practical in terms of Welsh educational need or values?

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman knows full well where my responsibilities lie. Devolving power means that nations make their choices and exercise their preferences about how they guide their systems, and I have regular contact with my colleague and shall continue to do so. We exchange ideas, but she will develop her own system. Our White Paper will also refer to that issue.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new post, which is a well deserved promotion. She smiled when she said that the new system would not be a two-tier one, because she knows full well that there is a two-tier system. Some 40 per cent. of schools will be specialist schools and they will get £500,000 more over four years, so it is a two-tier system in terms of funding. The extra 100 faith schools will also be able to select on the basis of faith. Increasingly, under this Government, we see not diversity, but schools being able to choose students. What will the Secretary of State do for the 60 per cent. of schools classified as "bog standard" and will she distance herself from that awful comment? How will she ensure that those schools that are not beacon schools, church schools or specialist schools will not be disadvantaged by receiving fewer resources to meet the aspirations of their children?

Estelle Morris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of congratulation. Sameness is not what parents want, and sameness does not raise standards. Schools have their

21 Jun 2001 : Column 197

own characters and missions--they are not all the same, as I have said--and we want a secondary school system that allows schools to build on those differences. Our aspirations do not stop at 40 per cent. of our secondary schools being specialist schools. We are into transformation and radical change, and that will take time.

The hon. Gentleman will agree that when we came into power in 1997 the specialist school movement was an exclusive club. The progress that we have made has meant that some of the schools in our inner cities that serve the most disadvantaged areas--such as Golden Hillock school near my constituency in Birmingham--have received specialist school status, and they would not have come anywhere near it under the Conservative Government. I have every aspiration for schools to reach that standard, and he should listen to us when we say that that is our target. In the medium and long term we want to be able to respond to every school that wants to be a specialist school and is ready to take on that role. That is the message. We want diversity for every school--not diversity for a few or rationed diversity--to enable them to play to their strengths.

The diversity in schools that I do not like is that between the good and the bad, which has caused us difficulty for generation after generation. Although we have a record of success in turning failing schools around, some schools still have not made it. Some schools, often in neighbourhoods where no child has ever gone to university and nothing more has been expected from the school than what it has been able to give historically, have not made it, and we must conquer that problem. We have tried a number of methods over the past four years, with considerable success, but we have not yet got it completely right. I promise the House, parents and schools that we will not turn our back on a school where underachievement is almost institutionalised. We will work with it to ensure improvement, but we need to find more ways to achieve that.

That is why the Queen's Speech made it clear, as will the Bill that eventually comes before Parliament, that we want to make partnerships with the voluntary and private sectors to find innovative ways to turn around failing schools. Our diverse school system contains a group of schools at the cutting edge that do very well and are the innovators for the next generation of school improvement. I want to free them up to be innovators, and they too may want to seek relationships and partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors. I want them to be able to do so.

This is not about privatisation. As has been the case with local education authorities, we will be rigorous when it comes to spending public sector money on contracts with the private sector. There is no question of money being handed over with no targets being set, and without accountability, measurement or a clear vision of where that money will go. The Queen's Speech makes it clear that the challenge of education in the public service is so important, and so much to be cherished, that we are not prepared to forbid the use of private sector expertise where that may be of help. The aim is to find ways in which the private and voluntary sectors can support the better delivery of public service.

21 Jun 2001 : Column 198

I have no doubt about the responsibility that we have with regard to those who use and work in the public service. We have the highest of aspirations. We know that it will not be easy over the next few years. We have a good education service, but it could be better.

As Secretary of State, I am lucky to work with the finest generation of teachers that any Secretary of State has had the privilege to work with. Our pledge to teachers is that we will offer true partnership when it comes to raising standards. Our pledge to parents and pupils is that we will not rest until our education service is the best in the world. It must offer pupils the opportunity to aspire and succeed, and it must be able to realise the dreams and aspirations of all parents and students. That is what they want, and what we want. That is what we will deliver.

Next Section

IndexHome Page