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Primary School Tests and Targets

12.31 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Urgent Question): Will the Secretary of State make a statement about the changes to the primary school tests and targets that he has announced this morning?

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): I have published a document today, "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools", that sets out the Government's approach to primary education, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. It outlines an approach that joins high standards through a varied, rich and exciting curriculum with high standards of excellence and achievement through testing, targeting and tables.

We support the testing regime that we have established. We believe that tests mean that teachers and parents can track the progress of every single child. They help to identify those pupils who need extra support, as well as those who need to be stretched. Targets show what we need to achieve, and provide clear focus and an important means of measuring progress and improvement. Every organisation that wishes to succeed sets itself goals and targets, and we confirm that approach in our document. We believe it important to maintain the regime of performance tables, which gives information to parents in a way that enables them to use the information and make choices about schools.

Following our conferences of primary head teachers, we have taken a number of the sensible suggestions made by them to modify the application of some of these principles. Four points in particular should be noted. First, in future the target-setting process will begin with schools themselves for key stage 2, and local education authority targets will be set afterwards. Schools will set targets based on what they know about individual children's abilities, but also on high aspirations for the value that the schools themselves can add. We want schools to aim to add more value each year, and to look at the performance of other schools in similar circumstances.

Secondly, I have listened to concerns about testing and key stage 1. I believe that robust assessment is a vital learning and teaching tool, and that most teachers support that strongly. I do not accept that the sort of tests and tasks that children are set at key stage 1 are too stressful for them to do, but we will look at the way in which the tests and tasks are used, and we will trial an approach in which tests and tasks underpin teacher assessment, rather than being reported separately.

Thirdly, I have listened to concerns about the reporting of the achievements of children with special educational needs. We will consult to establish precisely how we should consider modification of our approach to deal with those needs. Finally, we are prepared to consider ways in which schools' broader achievements than those measured purely through the tests can be better reflected in the performance tables.

As well as outlining the changes that I have mentioned, the document that I have published today sets out how we will support schools in taking more

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control of their own improvement, and in providing children with a broad, rich curriculum, which we will support. I commend our statement to the House.

Mr. Green: I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which enables this House to do its proper work of scrutiny.

The Secretary of State launched this morning what he calls a new primary schools strategy. I welcome this tacit admission that the Government's previous complacency about standards in primary schools has been completely misplaced. Just as his Department has caused uncertainty and demoralisation in secondary schools and among university students, so it has signally failed even to meet its own targets on primary school standards. Does he accept that the strategy does nothing to deal with the key issues affecting schools at the moment? Will he admit that it will have no impact on the school funding crisis that his Department has created, and will be of no comfort to head teachers faced with budget cuts? It is significant that, as he introduces the strategy for primary schools, thousands of the assistants whom he must rely on to implement it face redundancy because of the funding crisis. If he talks, as he did this morning, about more skilled adults in the classroom, what does he say to teachers and teaching assistants facing redundancy?

A signal of the Secretary of State's problems—indeed, it is always a symbol of a Secretary of State in trouble—is the fact that in his tour of the media this morning he consistently tried to misrepresent our policies. He has been saying, on the basis of my speech to the National Union of Teachers—I know he has read it because he keeps quoting from it—that we would abolish the tests. He knows that we are committed to testing—but not to the arbitrary targets that he insists on setting schools. I know that he would not wish to mislead the House, even though he wishes to mislead the media, so perhaps he will take the opportunity to set the record straight. The shift in his position on testing and the use of targets is breathtaking. Only last month, he told the conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers:

Today, he is changing the testing regime and abandoning one of his own targets. Is he genuinely moving towards abolishing the destructive regime of national target setting that has caused so many problems in schools? If so, I welcome his first tentative step towards our policies. However, given the problems that the targets created for his predecessor, I can understand why he would want to abandon them. If he is genuinely interested in scrapping these national targets, will he now confirm that he will abandon all of them—for secondary schools, colleges, and the 50 per cent. university admissions target—because they have had such a destructive effect on our education system?

I suspect, however, that today's announcement is merely a convenient way for the Government to shift responsibility for their own failures. Will the Secretary of State admit that his Department has failed to meet the targets that it set for literacy and numeracy among 11-year-olds, meaning that every fourth child leaves primary school unable to read, write or count properly? Will he also admit that his use this morning of the

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language of autonomy for schools is merely a hollow vehicle for shifting the blame, as his Department has admitted that it will fail to hit those targets? There will be no extra autonomy for schools that have already set local targets because the national target will still exist—it will just be deferred to 2006, conveniently after the next general election.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the real problems for schools lie in his Department's addiction to a regime of central command and control that sends teachers up to 20 pages of paperwork every school day, instructing them how to do their job? When he said this morning that primary education should be magical, did he not realise that that would be greeted with hollow laughter in hard-pressed staffrooms throughout the country?

This is not a new strategy. It is a smokescreen designed to hide the central fact that the Government are failing in primary schools, just as they are failing in secondary schools and our universities. With every week that passes, it becomes clearer that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department in disarray, letting down hard-working teachers as well as pupils and parents. Unless and until the Government stop interfering and start trusting professionals while giving parents real choice, his policies will continue to fail. Will he reverse those policies, because if he does not the failures of the present will be repeated in future and he will let down further generations of schoolchildren, teachers and parents?

Mr. Clarke: Let us start with the facts—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear them, but, compared with 1998, about 84,000 more 11-year-olds are achieving the expected level for their age in maths, and about 60,000 more in English. The percentage of schools achieving below 65 per cent. in English and maths has been halved since 1998. The percentage of schools achieving 80 per cent. or more in English and maths has more than doubled since 1998. The lowest achieving local education authority is now performing at about the level of the average LEA of five years ago. The international test—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test—demonstrates that England's primary school pupils are the third most able readers in the world, behind Sweden and the Netherlands, and that England is the most successful English-speaking country in literacy among 10-year-olds. We have a record to be proud of, which is why we will maintain the tests and targeting regime that we have established, as they have achieved so much.

Why? Because we know that, despite the advantages, more than one in four pupils are still leaving primary schools without achieving the expected level in English and maths. That is not good enough and it must improve. We also know from the different levels of free school meal provision, that there is a massive range of achievement—not just between suburbs and inner cities—at SATs level 4 at key stage 2.

We need a test regime and a targeting regime. That is the main contrast with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who told his new friends in the National Union of Teachers that he was announcing—I quote his words, as he wanted me to do so—"a bonfire of targets". He went on to say that he wanted to scrap the targets.

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Both the key stage 2 targets would be abolished and the key stage 3 targets would go, too. He said that he would get rid of the target for English and maths for 12-year-olds and GCSE targets. That amounts to a clear set of policies to abandon children who are not achieving, whereas it is our aim to help and support them in every possible way.

Why? Simply because 70 per cent. of pupils who achieved level 4 at key stage 2 went on to get five or more good GCSEs, and of those pupils who did not reach level 4 in 1997, only 12 per cent. achieved five good GCSEs. That reveals a serious failure, which, under the previous Conservative Government, led to 7 million to 8 million adults in this country being unable to read and write at the essential levels that we need. We are not going to repeat that, and I hope that the House will decide not to go down the path recommended by the hon. Member for Ashford.

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