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Education Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the Secretary of State, I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.51 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is pleasing that the Second Reading of a Bill that continues our challenge to raise standards takes place on the same day that the United Kingdom achieved its best ever performance on international comparisons of achievement for 15-year-olds. I know that the whole House will congratulate our teachers and young students, who, in the words of The Sun, showed:

while, in the words of The Times, UK pupils were "near top" in world-class tests.

In reading literacy, our country came seventh. Only two countries significantly exceeded our score. In maths, we were eighth, and again, only two countries achieved significantly better results. In science, we were fourth out of 32, with only Korea significantly exceeding our score. It has always been the Government's aspiration that our country should have a world-class education service. That is what has guided us. Today's Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development results show that we are on the way to achieving that, and I thank all teachers and all who work in our schools for making it possible.

Today, we have also received the latest Ofsted report into literacy and numeracy. As hon. Members will know, last year, the results of the key stage 2 tests faltered, staggered or stood still—whichever verb one wants to use. However, over the lifetime of the literacy and numeracy strategy, we have seen an 18-point increase in literacy and a 17-point increase in numeracy. Some of the largest increases in progress were achieved in our poorest local authorities in schools where children had under-achieved for decades.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was kind enough to give his speech to the BBC in advance of giving it to the House. I noticed that he commented that the Ofsted report was "damning". I have no objections to high standards and high aspirations. I do not mind how he judges his performance, but I question his use of the word "damning", especially as Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, said today of his own report:

If that is a damning indictment of what is currently going on in our primary schools, long may it continue.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Does the right hon. Lady also agree with the chief inspector of schools that

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the main reason that, in his words, there are problems this year is the shortage of teachers? Does she accept any responsibility for that?

Estelle Morris: I am not sure that the chief inspector said that that was the main reason. If I remember correctly, he said on the "Today" programme this morning that it was puzzling that the results had stood still. He went on to say that we cannot expect year-on-year improvement and that, in a strategy of such scope and importance, there were bound to be times when things stood still. He added that teacher shortages and teacher instability could be one of the factors that had an effect.

That is exactly the reason why, in previous years, this Government have taken measures in legislation and elsewhere to introduce training salaries and golden hellos, and the effects of that legislation are now coming through. That is why we had an eight percentage point increase in the number of people entering initial teacher training this year, and it is why we have 12,000 more teachers in our schools than we had four years ago.

The most interesting comment made by the hon. Member for Ashford—certainly in the official Opposition amendment—relates to the Conservative party's new-found love of local democracy. The amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats also refers to local democracy. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, has always wanted to put power into the hands of local authorities, rather than those of schools or parents, so I can take that point from him because it has been his consistent approach throughout the many years that I have known him. However, such an approach by the hon. Member for Ashford represents a U-turn of great proportions: gone are the free schools, and power has gone back to local authorities.

The Bill is intended to build on the excellent work that schools, governing bodies and all those who serve our children have achieved in the past four years in taking forward the standards agenda. Almost four years ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, introduced the first major legislative programme to kick-start our drive to raise standards in schools, and much has been achieved since then.

Four years ago, almost one in three of our infants were taught in classes of more than 30, so 485,000 youngsters started their education in classes that were too large for them to be given the individual attention that they needed. The House will know that that figure has fallen to 0.5 per cent., so that fewer than 8,000 of our infants are now taught in classes of more than 30. As well as the success of the national literacy and numeracy strategy, the amount of money spent on capital projects in our schools has trebled. For the first time, there has been sustained and significant investment in the buildings in which our teachers teach and our pupils learn.

We have already begun to provide major investment in the teaching profession, ensuring that we can reward our good teachers for teaching well, increasing their support in terms of classroom assistants and strengthening their professional development for the first time for a long time. All that and our other achievements, such as those in the tests for seven-year-olds and 11-year-olds and at GCSE and NVQ levels, represent a huge tribute to the

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head teachers and their staff, to the support staff and the governing bodies and to all those who work in our schools. They have achieved a great deal. On that issue, if on nothing else, I know that I speak for the whole House in paying tribute to the work that they do on our behalf for our children.

I hope that I shall also find agreement in saying that, against that background of significant progress during the past four years, there is still a considerable way to go. Some schools are still not good enough. Some children do not get the start in life that they need. The Bill is intended to build on existing legislation to provide new ways to tackle failure and to create more flexibility for our good schools. Such legislation would not have been possible four years ago.

It is crucial that we give schools more freedom and flexibility against a background of an accountable profession. We must know that teachers can use that freedom in the best interests of their children and judged against an evidence base. We now have the most accountable of all public services, which we did not have four years ago, and teaching is the most publicly accountable of all the professions. We know more than we ever did about the performance of every school in the country. Against that background of a hugely accountable profession and service, now is the time to say that, in that framework of accountability, we should devolve and trust those people who are well able to get on with the job that they need to do.

Several hon. Members rose

Estelle Morris: I must have said something that sparked off some interest.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Much of the accountability that the Secretary of State mentions is the result of the many reforms that were introduced under Conservative Governments, such as the publication of examination results, but will she help us on one issue: when will she publish key stage 1 test results, school by school?

Estelle Morris: I have always given credit where it is due. Ofsted and performance tables were clearly introduced under the previous Government. That was the right thing to do, we were right to keep them and we were right to reform them. For example, next year, we shall have the first value added key stage 3 results. I am happy to recognise what was done in the past. We have built on that.

We have no plans to change the publication of results except, next year, to introduce value added for key stage 3. In 2004-05, we shall be able to extend that to other age ranges.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): The right hon. Lady rightly talks about trusting teachers. Is it not ironic that she is introducing a Bill that has nearly 200 pages, 211 clauses and 22 schedules? How will she persuade a profession that already feels overburdened that the Bill is genuinely deregulatory?

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