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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): The Secretary of State knows that I do not often rush to be the first to praise him for the documents that he produces, but this morning's discussion paper "Excellence and Enjoyment" is very good. In view of the inheritance bequeathed to the Labour Government in 1997—with appalling levels of achievement in literacy, numeracy and GCSEs—many of us understand why a strict regime of testing and targets was necessary. We have now reached a time for softening the approach, as demanded by schools, teachers and parents. Speaking personally, rather than as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, I welcome the softening of the approach and the manner in which the Secretary of State has listened to so many of the articulate voices in the education sector.

Mr. Clarke: I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks and I pay tribute to the way in which he, unlike some Conservative Members, has studied the issues and come to a clear view of them. It is critically important to maintain a national regime of tests, targets and tables. However, it is also critically important to implement them in a way that gives possession of the system to teachers and governing bodies in primary schools throughout the country. That is what our proposals are all about and that is what I believe they will achieve.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the urgent question today. It is appalling that, on such a significant issue for the entire primary sector, an urgent question is necessary before we can bring the Secretary of State before the House to respond.

Liberal Democrat Members are constantly fed up of hearing successive Secretaries of State say that their targeting and testing regime is responsible for improving the quality of education in our schools. It is the work of our teachers, not the Secretary of State's targets, that has achieved that. If the Secretary of State spoke to teachers—including those in the National Union of Teachers, which he boycotted last Easter—they would tell him that the one thing that prevents them from raising standards even higher in our schools is his regime of narrow targets and testing.

Having said all that, we welcome the partial U-turn that the Secretary of State has made today. In lifting the pressure of tests on seven-year-olds, he has gone some

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way towards meeting our requirements. Does he agree that the key issue for parents—not for the Secretary of State—is the progress of their children? What they want is testing that is geared towards their children, to determine their needs. By retaining the element of central testing, the Secretary of State will remove opportunities for schools to achieve what parents want. How does he reconcile allowing schools to set their own targets for literacy and numeracy at key stage 2, while retaining a national target for other stages? That is contradictory. Does he accept that we have seen progress in science, at key stage 2—for which no targets have ever been set—rocket forward faster than either literacy or numeracy?

We also welcome the Secretary of State's comments about special educational needs. The tragedy is not the inclusion of children with SEN in the league tables, but the damage that is done to individual children with SEN and their learning. Regimenting those children into a target and test regime often does enormous damage to their learning opportunities, and I hope that the Secretary of State will address that.

Mr. Clarke: If the hon. Gentleman did listen to teachers in primary schools, he would hear them say that the numeracy and literacy strategy has been a tremendous success that they welcome and applaud. That is why we have today announced the extension of that approach to subjects other than mathematics and English. The hon. Gentleman would also hear teachers say that despite initial reservations about the operation of Ofsted, it has positively improved the provision of good quality schools throughout the country and has dealt with problems where they have occurred.

We have listened to teachers on these proposals. On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raises, I completely agree that testing has to be geared to the needs of every individual child, but parents want to have some sense that their children at the age of 11—the end of key stage 2—are achieving certain basic national standards in maths, English and science. We need a national testing regime to ensure that parents know what the situation is.

The statement contains important news about our targeting approach. We believe that targets will be more effective if they are owned, controlled and determined by schools locally, and then aggregated. However, we would be failing in our responsibility as a Government if we did not seek to set national targets to raise the quality of English and maths at all levels throughout the school system. That is important, and it is genuinely extraordinary that some of the Opposition parties do not identify with such targets.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned special educational needs. We will consider that issue to meet precisely the point that he made. We need to ensure that the regime considers the specific needs of every child with special needs, and I believe that we can do that very effectively.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. The big improvement in primary education is a result of the extra resources that

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the Government have put in and the professionalism of primary school teachers and head teachers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in implementing the changes that he has proposed today the Government will have a lighter touch on regulation and perhaps show more faith in the professionalism of teachers in primary schools, with less need for the rigid regime that, to some extent, has begun to reduce some of the flair they can show?

Mr. Clarke: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he requests. I am the first to say that the people who make the changes happen are the teachers and the teaching profession, but others support them. For example, they are supported by classroom assistants; by the provision of more teachers, as has happened; by the production of good quality material, such as the numeracy and literacy strategy, which we will now extend to other areas; and by the provision of good quality data about students that enables teachers to focus specifically on the needs of each student. Each of those initiatives requires support, so while I pay tribute to the teaching profession, and the individual professionalism of teachers, I also confirm that we will continue to support that professionalism in a variety of ways, rather than casting teachers on the waves and telling them to get on with it.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Secretary of State will forgive all of us for considering that he has created an impression of a certain degree of incoherence and panic. Last week's debate on school funding proved to many of us that the funding provided by his Department, and not by LEAs, was seriously lacking. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has been dragged here to make this statement, which shows that the Government's policies have failed. Will he explain why teachers, teaching assistants and school governors should believe that his current policy this week will be in place in two or three months? What credibility does his policy have with teachers?

Mr. Clarke: The process that has led to the publication of this document is precisely the opposite of that described by the hon. Gentleman. As with our documents on secondary education and education in London, we identified some months ago what we needed to do with this document. We identified that we needed to set out a clear strategy for our approach, to consult the professionals—which is why we consulted more than 2,000 primary school head teachers—to listen to what those professionals told us and to see whether we could improve our policy. The final step was to publish the document for public debate.

That is precisely what we have done. The policy will not be changed according to any time scale of the sort that the hon. Gentleman might suggest. It is in fact a tribute to our approach that we have published the document after considerable discussion and debate, and after paying considerable attention to the key issues that need to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman would do better to give the Department credit for that, instead of trying to score a cheap and inaccurate point.

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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Will my right hon. Friend explain how the new strategy will help three primary schools in my constituency, where 95 per cent. of the children enter without being able to speak a word of English, and without having heard much English? Key stage 1 is therefore a very difficult exam for them, and the staff, to cope with. It does not really reflect the value added gained by staff and children in the period that it covers.

Mr. Clarke: I very much respect my hon. Friend's commitment to fighting for the schools in question. She and I have discussed these matters on other occasions. The proposal made today will meet her concern precisely, as it will ensure that it will be teachers' rounded assessments of children entering school, such as those to whom she referred, that will form the report to parents and the public as to what has been achieved. That report will take into account the national SATs at key stage 1, but no more than that. The result will not be that two different scores are published side by side, as it were: one account will be produced by the teacher, and it will take account of the problem described by my hon. Friend. I believe that it will help teachers in her constituency properly to look after the needs of the children whom she has described in a coherent and comprehensive way.


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