|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
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?
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. 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. 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.