Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The column on page 7 of the document entitled "Realising the Vision" states:

Primary schools in my very rural constituency created stability this year by cutting their budgets to keep teachers and classroom assistants. Next year, however, the situation will be very unpredictable, and schools do not know whether they will be able to retain staff. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that?

Mr. Clarke: The hon. Lady must not have been in the House last Thursday, when this matter was discussed at some length in an Opposition Supply day debate. I am sorry that she was unable to participate in that debate. I agree with her to the extent that it is right that there needs to be certainty about funding next year, 2004-05. I set out last Thursday a clear set of ways in which that will be achieved. However, I must say that the uncertainty caused by Opposition talk of 20 per cent. cuts in education is extremely destabilising for schools in the hon. Lady's constituency.

Colin Burgon (Elmet): Having spoken to several primary school head teachers this morning, may I pass on to my right hon. Friend their congratulations—[Laughter.] This comes from the chalk face, and it is true. May I pass on those teachers' congratulations that my right hon. Friend has listened to teachers on this matter? Does he agree that the changes at key stage 1 are not causing a decline in standards, as teacher assessment is increasingly accurate because teachers constantly review the effectiveness of their work? Is not the change a real vote of confidence in teachers, allowing them to improve standards in a broader and wider curriculum?

Mr. Clarke: I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. I believe that the experience of primary teachers in his

20 May 2003 : Column 854

constituency will be widely shared, including by their colleagues in the constituencies of Opposition Members. However, I want to reinforce a key point made by my hon. Friend. One reason why we felt able to take the steps on key stage 1 that we have taken is the increasing evidence that teacher assessment at key stage 1 is close to the SATs assessment. We can therefore have confidence in the professionalism of teachers to make the assessment in that way, as long as it is underpinned by the national SATs results. My hon. Friend is right to say that the change is a sign of our confidence in teachers. It is precisely because of that confidence that we can make the announcements that we have made today.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent statement by Britain's leading performance musicians that the current regime of testing, tables and targets is driving subjects such as music out of the curriculum, with very damaging long-term consequences? The same is true of sport. How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to rebalance the primary sector's priorities?

Mr. Clarke: I am aware of the reported remarks of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. I am having a meeting with those people later today for an in-person discussion about those matters, but the document is specifically about encouraging and improving the quality of the curriculum in primary education in respect of music, sport, the arts and modern foreign languages. All those subjects need more Government support in terms of materials for teachers, and a greater focus through existing work force agreements. We are therefore trying to meet the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, and the document is major step forward in that respect.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement? I have seen in my constituency that the testing regime has driven up standards, but it must also be right to review the regime with the benefit of hindsight to see how we can make it operate better in terms of meeting our targets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is right that we send a message to teachers that we treat and view them as professionals, setting clear targets is a very important way for parents, as well as the Secretary of State, to hold teachers and head teachers to account?

Mr. Clarke: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful for his comments. That is why I find so disgraceful the suggestion made in some quarters that targets should be abandoned. Data from free school meal provision show very wide variations at each level in the number of children reaching SATs 4 at key stage 2. If we could only achieve the position where children in the bottom half of achievement got up to the level of median attainment at each of those levels, we would be well past the 85 per cent. target that we have set nationally. Our target is to improve all primary schools so that they can maximise their performance. This document commits us to that target. The Opposition are totally uncommitted to improving our schools.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Good schools, such as Summerfield primary school in my constituency,

20 May 2003 : Column 855

manage to provide a breadth of curriculum despite testing, targets and tables, as I found when I attended that school's May day celebrations. Why is the Minister for School Standards—who so ably but ill advisedly erected this edifice in a previous life—distancing himself from the Secretary of State by skulking out of shot at the far end of the Treasury Bench?

Mr. Clarke: I am glad to say that all my colleagues are very proud to be in shot. We may not have generally commendable physiques, but we are very proud of what we achieve. I know that in the Isle of Wight the idea that the Conservative party is the party of the poor has already taken root. In that context, I am delighted that, as part of the new ideological shift, the hon. Gentleman was present at the May day celebrations to deal with the situation. However, I hope that he will agree that, in any school in his constituency, there must be room for improvement and for getting more children to read and write properly at the age of 11. He ought to be committing himself to that goal, as the Government are doing.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is showing extra confidence in the professionalism of teachers. However, will he say a little more about the importance of our strategy on tests and targets, especially in schools in poorer areas? An example of that is Northcourt primary school in my constituency, which, although it is the most improved school in Kent, is threatened with closure by the Conservative-controlled county council.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend puts his finger on a critical point; the people who most gain from our testing and targeting regime are children in the poorest communities and from the poorest backgrounds. Our obligation is to drive standards up for them, even more than for everybody else. In the past, the Conservatives have not bothered about those people. That is their privilege. However, we, as a party, are going to focus on ensuring that the poorest people get the best opportunities.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Has the Secretary of State consulted his colleague in Northern Ireland, where there is not quite the same scrutiny on education? I welcome his comments on statementing, as we often seem to fail in that regard. Does he agree that in areas of need there may be a role for after-school homework clubs to help children? Experienced adults could help them at home or in the community rather than in the classroom.

Mr. Clarke: I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a great deal in the document about extended schools, including after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, weekend and holiday activities and so on, for exactly the reason indicated by the hon. Gentleman. The more we can ensure that children in some of the worst-off communities have opportunities for engaging and learning, the better will be their prospects in the future.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Following this change of policy by the Secretary of State, will he reconsider

20 May 2003 : Column 856

another decision, namely his extraordinary refusal to see a cross-party delegation of MPs from Leicestershire to discuss primary schools in the county and their funding? Better still, will he visit primary schools in Leicestershire, especially Cosby primary school and John Wycliffe primary school, as both schools, according to a report in the Leicester Mercury, are apparently having to make two teachers redundant? Perhaps he will listen to the primary school head teachers who are having to make cuts and the 24 teachers who face the axe. Perhaps then he will be able to tell the House how he has been listening to teachers.

Mr. Clarke: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to be in the Chamber last Thursday for the debate called by the Conservatives on that matter. Had he been present, he would have heard us discuss that question in great detail. Many Members raised constituency questions on the issue. We set out a clear strategy to deal with the precise issues that he mentioned.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that, in considering more flexibility, more self-regulation and more local self-targeting, we continue to be aware that we introduced targeting because so many of our children did not meet the aspirations that we wanted for them as they go through our school system? Many Members may have the wherewithal and the confidence to be happy with their own evaluation of their child's progress, but many parents throughout the country do not have that confidence. They rely on the state and the schools for testing and targeting to ensure that their children get a decent education.

Next Section

IndexHome Page