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15 Nov 2002 : Column 267—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his points a little later.

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was feeling sensitive and in difficulty about the hon. Gentleman's charges. I hope that he can

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set out his position clearly later and confirm that he does support our specialist school programme, which, as he says, is open to all schools.

Mr. Willis: The right hon. Gentleman said in The Times that all schools would not get specialised status.

Mr. Clarke: We can have a proper exchange later—I hope that the hon. Gentleman sets out his policy and position clearly. Specialist schools are important and should be substantially expanded. I would welcome support from Liberal Democrat councillors up and down the country and from local education authorities for that programme.

Standards are the key issue and we must focus on them. First, on key stage 2 standards, we can claim a good deal of success. In mathematics, the proportion of children getting level 4 or above—the standard we have set—has gone from 58 per cent. in 1998 to 68 per cent. in 1999, 71 per cent. in 2000, and 70 per cent. in 2001. Early statistics for 2002 indicate that is now 73 per cent. The record in mathematics is largely successful, but about English, in some respects, we can be less optimistic. We did well at the beginning, achieving an improvement from 64 per cent. to 70 per cent., then up to 74 per cent. in 2001, but that has reached a plateau, remaining at 74 per cent. in 2002. Throughout this year, to fulfil the commitment in the Gracious Speech, we shall try to continue to drive up standards in English in particular. It is important that we carry that through.

Mr. Gibb: Having cited those figures, how does the right hon. Gentleman explain the findings of Professor Timms in Durham university's evaluation unit? He says that since 1997 there has been no statistically significant improvement in literacy in year 6.

Mr. Clarke: I very much welcome, and do not dismiss at all, the important contribution of serious academics, of whom Professor Timms is one, to the debate. Different data sets are used for different analyses, and people make judgments on them. At the end of the day, however, I look at Ofsted's conclusions and examination results. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I have not come to the House saying that everything has been wonderful. I have just said that results have reached a plateau, and we have to deal with that. There will be a lot of academic commentary, including from Durham university, which we will look at with interest. Fundamentally, however, following substantial debate on the issue, we must look at the official figures on results.

Mr. Gibb: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the point made by Professor Timms that children are being taught to take tests, and that there is no underlying improvement in either numeracy or literacy?

Mr. Clarke: I do not accept that. There was initially a lot of controversy about the core literacy and numeracy programmes, which followed the precise line of argument cited by the hon. Gentleman, but most people, including teachers and parents, believe that the literacy and numeracy hour which we initiated has had a major and welcome impact on raising standards in literacy and numeracy in primary schools. That can be derided as

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simply urging children to pass tests, but those tests are important. The basic tests in literacy and numeracy for key stage 2 equip children to deal variously with similar tests throughout our lives, and it is important to be able to do them easily. I therefore do not accept Professor Timms's point in this specific instance—those tests are important and it is important that we deal with them. It is also worth pointing out that the number of pupils aged five, six or seven in infant classes over 30 fell in accordance with the standards that we have set.

The issue of standards is at the core of our programme. My watchword is to support teachers' professionalism—it is our job to support them, enabling them to develop and be effective in their schools—by dealing with issues such as behaviour, which the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) mentioned earlier, and bureaucracy. We must also encourage subject-based professionalism. Developing teamwork both in schools—everyone in a school working together—and between schools and the rest of the community, is also crucial. Most important of all, perhaps, is leadership. We must ensure that we have genuine leadership from every teacher in a school to ensure that children fulfil their aspirations effectively. A central means of achieving that is to extend freedom to schools—freedom to innovate, freedom to work in partnership and freedom from bureaucracy and unnecessary restrictions. I acknowledge that the issue of bureaucracy remains extremely serious and difficult, and I shall make it a personal priority. We must also give schools more freedom from strings attached to funding. I announced the other day that we intend to progress further and shall shortly have a formal consultation on more earned autonomy for schools. Schools of sufficient quality will merit the freedom to tailor the curriculum. In response to an earlier intervention, some schools would value the opportunity to vary their curriculum to make sure that every child in their school is stretched and can develop in the most effective way. Schools may also have freedom to vary terms and conditions for staff and greater financial freedom. In those areas, too, it is important to clarify the Conservatives' position.

The hon. Member for Ashford criticised my proposals when he stated—I quote from The Daily Telegraph to confirm that my source is pukka—that I was retaining the power to

The hon. Gentleman has a dilemma in making that point. Is he saying that there should be identical inspection regimes for all schools, from the best to the failing, or does he agree that there should be a light-touch approach, whereby schools that are seen to be doing well have less frequent inspections? Where should that be decided, if not at the centre? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that all schools should have the right to vary the national curriculum, however good, competent and effective they are, or should that right be afforded only to schools that are judged by Ofsted to be at the top level of competence? Should the same apply to financial freedoms? When the hon. Gentleman says that he opposes our proposals for greater earned autonomy and greater freedoms for schools, he has an obligation to set out clearly what he intends to do.

We are helped further still by the Conservative party conference to understand the party's views of some of the issues relating to schools. This forms the subject of

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my fourth request. The document entitled XLeadership with a Purpose" issued at the Conservative party conference stated:

that is, the Conservatives'—

That would effectively bring back the assisted places scheme. It suggests that that is the way to deal with the issues in the inner cities.

We, by contrast, have a strong programme for children in our inner cities. Almost 80 per cent. of the excellence in cities areas have improved on their 2001 GCSE results, with spectacular success stories—including Tower Hamlets, up by 7.2 per cent., Wandsworth up by 5.7 per cent., Redcar and Cleveland up by 5.2 per cent., and so on. With our commitment to excellence in cities and the investment and reform that have gone into that—as opposed to the Conservatives' proposal for a renewed assisted places scheme—I believe that as regards policies for the inner cities, we will be in a much stronger position by a long way. However, I may have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman's policies. Perhaps he will be good enough to explain them to us later.

In the area of further education and skills, there is an even greater need for investment and reform than in the other areas that I have mentioned. For too long, further education has been the Cinderella of our education services, and our national lack of competitiveness in skills, compared with many other countries—particularly the United States and important European allies such as France and Germany—has been a major problem. We are focusing strongly on that area.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Would the Secretary of State consider allocating specific funds to universities and further and higher education to target primary and secondary schools where there is no history of pupils going forward into further and higher education?

Mr. Clarke: The short answer is yes. The hon. Gentleman's proposals are constructive. We already have a programme for summer schools for children from secondary, not primary, schools in the areas that he describes, to ensure that children who have the talent to go to university understand what it means and are not inhibited by their fears. If the hon. Gentleman's comment is that we could do more and better in that regard, I accept the challenge and agree with the thrust of his argument. We will be examining that matter.

The journey of reform in further education and skills entails putting teacher training and learning at the heart of what we do; ensuring that we get better employer engagement, which is a serious weakness at present; reducing bureaucracy—I am sorry to say that again, but there are too many programmes and inspection regimes, which we must sort out; and introducing a coherent qualifications framework. We need to achieve a situation that will allow us to make progress.

On universities, the Gracious Speech stated:

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I cannot improve on the admirable quality of the sentiments expressed there. That is exactly what we shall do. An early decision that I took was to delay for five or six weeks over the Christmas break the proposals on which the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education has been working, which were to have been published in the next two to three weeks. They will be published in mid-January. I decided to delay publication for the selfish reason that I wanted to be sure that I would have a chance to read the material thoroughly and understand the issues fully. I wish to express publicly my appreciation to my hon. Friend and to leaders of the university world, who have been very understanding of the delay in the process.

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