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15 Nov 2002 : Column 320continued
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): I am usually a pessimist as regards the British state education system. Having been at various state schools for all but two years in my education, I saw at first hand some of the best that the state sector has to offer, and over the years, some of the less good. I have listened to speeches by successive Education Secretaries with increasing gloom, both since and before 1997, but the appointment of the current Secretary of State has filled me with optimism. He was quoted in The Sunday Times last week as saying that the reason for the lack of Oxbridge places for students from comprehensive schools was the inverted snobbery of many comprehensives, rather than real snobbery at Oxford and Cambridge.
That is encouraging, because I am sure that it is true. More than that, it is the first hint from any Secretary of State that I have heard that the root of the problem with our state education system is the ethos of many of our schools, rather than the structure of the education system. It is an ethos that has been handed down in teacher training colleges since the mid-1960s and probably even before that, and as a result, the education establishment has come to be dominated by people with a specific outlook on the world. It is an outlook that believes in concepts such as teaching children how to learn, instead of actually teaching them. It is an outlook that eschews competition between children, decries tough discipline, rejects streaming by ability in favour of mixed-ability teaching, and ridicules the public school ethos. It is an outlook that is failing children.
The measures in the Gracious Speech to increase the penalties for parents of truants are welcome, but they deal only with the symptoms of the problem rather than the root cause. A study by Professor O'Keeffe in 1993 asked pupils why they stayed away from school, and the most frequent answer was to avoid subjects that they found too hard or teachers whom they did not like. A recent OECD report XEducation at a Glance: Indicators 2002" concludes that one in four British 15-year-olds said that their lessons were blighted by noise and disruption, and more than half the pupils surveyed said that they were bored by their lessons.
In a fascinating study carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research last year, three local education authority inspectors specialising in English and a chief inspector visited 20 different literacy
I support the Government's measures to increase the penalties for parents of truants, but they do not deal with the causes of truancy. They are being tough on truancy, but they do nothing about the causes of truancy.
The truth is that many youngsters are simply let down by the education system, to such an extent that they feel humiliated in class when they cannot keep up. A quarter of 11-year-olds cannot read properly by the time they leave primary school, that has a knock-on effect at secondary level and they fall further and further behind. No wonder such children become disruptive, are bored and ultimately stay away from school.
What we should be asking ourselves is not how nasty we can be to parents, but what is going on in our primary and secondary schools that is resulting in such poor achievement. At this point I expect the Minister for School Standards to leap up and ask whether I have read the OECD programme for the international student assessment surveyPISAwhich shows that of 32 countries, the UK ranks seventh in reading, eighth in maths and fourth in science. That is an incredible result given the widespread concern about education in Britain. Surely, he will say, that proves that all is well with our education system.
I have read that report in great detail and it is incredible. It is particularly incredible because in the previous year a far more authoritative studythe third international maths and science study, conducted by the respected International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievementput the UK 20th out of 41 countries, just two places ahead of Lithuania. The IAEEA has been conducting such surveys since 1970.
According to Professor Prais of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, the TIMSS survey shows the UK to be some 40 points on average behind Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic and Hungary, whereas PISA puts the UK 20 points ahead of those same countries, and all that achievement occurred in just one year.
We must therefore somehow take account of the 60-point discrepancy between the two surveys. Why did the two surveys, one carried out in 1999 and the other in 2000, come to such radically different conclusions? The answer is not that there was some miraculous alchemic improvement in education, but that there were significant errors in the way in which the PISA study was carried out.
The international surveys test a sample of youngsters in each of the different countries involved. Over the years the TIMSS survey has come up with tried and tested criteria that PISA, the new study, did not follow. The most significant criterion relates to the type of question asked. The TIMSS study consisted of questions common to the school curriculum in each country, but the PISA survey directly states:
There are a number of other differences between the two surveys. TIMSS tested 13 and 14-year-olds, whereas PISA tested 15 and 16-year-olds. The fact that many pupils at the latter age will be leaving school creates disparities, especially on the continent. PISA also tested the age groups rather than the classes. As children in most of Europe are held back a year if they do not achieve certain standards, a bias against continental countries is again created.
UK Participation in the test was very low in comparison with that in other countries. From the original sample selected, only 61 per cent. of UK schools agreed to participate, in comparison with 95 per cent. in France, Germany and Switzerland. The proportion of pupils who agreed to take part in the test once their school had agreed to participate was, at 81 per cent., the lowest in any of the countries. Taking those two types of non-response rates together, the UK had a response rate of only 48 per cent. of the original sample, compared with 90 per cent. in France, Germany and Switzerland. Common sense would suggest that it is the weaker schools and pupils who would refuse to participate.
The Minister for School Standards needs to be careful when he cites the PISA report with such a flourish, as he has done on several occasions. One of the things that the public dislike about politicians is our constant use of statistics to try to prove our party political point. They do not believe us when we use them, especially when they run counter to people's daily experience or common sense. I know that the Secretary of State is sincere in his desire to change the way in which we conduct politics in this country. I admire him for that, so I urge him to look carefully at the PISA report before continuing the habit of his colleagues and previous Ministers of citing figures that are misleading and truly incredible.
Even without Professor Prais's painstaking analysis of the PISA survey, it is clear that it is flawed. Why else would the public be so concerned about the condition of state education? Why else are people so desperate to move into the catchment areas of the dwindling numbers of good state schools?
The Times Educational Supplement suggested cognitive ability tests, which are a form of IQ test that some secondary schools administer to their year 7 intake as a basis for assessing the school's value-added performance. However much educational standards rise, in theory, the CAT scores should stay roughly the same. No one claims that British pupils are becoming innately cleverer; the Minister for School Standards and others simply say that they are improving in English and maths.
I cite that damning evidence neither to run down our education system in party political fashion so that I can conclude that if only the Tories were in power, everything would be great, nor to criticise teachers, who work enormously hard and conscientiously. My anxiety stems from the fact that our state education system has been in decline for the best part of 40 years. We shall not begin to remedy it until we consider the facts honestly and objectively.
We must eschew all the interest groups: the education establishment, the trade unions, right-wingers, left-wingers, Ministers and Opposition. Let us not try to hide what is going on with newly devised and flawed
Once we have an honest understanding of the state of our education system, we can consider what happens in our schools and determine what needs to change. Are the teaching methods at fault? Are the low expectations that the Secretary of State emphasised in his speech on the 10th anniversary of Ofsted to blame? Are there too many mixed-ability classes? Are we using the right methods to teach children to read? Is the configuration of primary school classrooms right? Is there enough discipline? Should we exclude more pupils? If so, where should they go?
What do the best performing countries, such as Switzerland, do? Why is there no truancy in Switzerland but massive truancy in Britain? Why do some schools do so much better than others with similar socio-economic intakes? Why does one primary school in a specific area do well in SATs in English but poorly in maths, while only a mile away, a similar school does well in maths and poorly in English?
Most importantly, is there something in the ethos of the top 50 state schools that the rest can adopt? Is there something in the operation of the top private schools that the state sector can emulate?
Labour Members could argue that the improvement in Ryan's behaviour was due to the resources and smaller classes at the private school. Clearly, those aspects help. However, Ryan puts it down to the ethos of his adopted school with its stress on staff-student interaction and mutual respect. As Trevor Philips says:
Those concerns will have a long-term impact on the economic well-being both of Britain and of the individuals whom the state has let down. If we do not tackle the ethos in our state schools, we shall let down millions of youngsters, particularly those from the low socio-economic groups. It is time, I believe, to stop arguing about structures such as the role and responsibility of local education authorities, grammar schools versus comprehensives, specialist schools and city technology colleges. We have been arguing over them and changing those structures for decades, with few beneficial results.
We need absolute concentration by everyone on standards, not on trying to prove that standards are improving when the public know that they are not. That is old politics and people are fed up with it, whichever party is involved. We need a serious commitment to improving standards. It is easy for Ministers to confine their activities to changing structures, but we need a serious examination of what is being taught, and how. That is what parents want, and it is what all of us in the House who are genuinely concerned about our education system should want as well.