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What I find so depressing about the position of the Conservatives is that they have abandoned ambition and aspiration for children throughout the whole country, especially for poorer children. We do not do that; we say that everybody can achieve and that investment needs to go in at the primary point. The Government have an obligation to do what we can to help teachers and to strengthen their professionalism. These proposals are intended to achieve just that.
Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the Secretary of State agree that his earlier statement about the need for a broad, rich curriculum and his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on music and sport are an admission that, after six years of a Labour Government, those aspects have been squeezed out of primary schoolsotherwise there would have been no need to take this line? Will he confirm that 75 per cent. of our primary school children are not receiving even the minimum of two hours physical education a week, with the result that our youngsters are less fit than ever and obesity is rising to record levels?
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): I commend the excellent work being undertaken in Preston primary schools, especially at Moor Nook community primary school, which has seen huge improvements as a result of the Government's policies. Will my right hon. Friend comment further on the improvements in schools where there are difficult socio-economic backgrounds?
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I recently visited Preston to see some of the achievements there and the way in which creative projects, like the playing for success project with Preston North End football club, can help teachers with their professionalism in precisely the aspects that he describes.
The choice is clear. There is our position, which is saying that we trust teachers, have confidence in them and want to support them, and that we want to set aspirations and do what we can to help; or there is the Opposition's position who say, "We don't care about ambition. We don't care about aspiration. We are not going to help and we are not going to move things forward." I prefer the Government's position for my hon. Friend's constituents.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): The Secretary of State will be aware from the recent National Audit Office report that 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly, compared to only 7 per cent. in Sweden. He will also be aware that in Switzerland, where synthetic phonics are used to teach reading, children learn to read in two terms, compared to between two and three years in this country. His document refers to strengthening phonics, but how does he intend to tackle the problems highlighted by Ofsted, that at key stage 1
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman raises entirely legitimate points. I have met delegations from those who are concerned about synthetic phonics, to see how we could move things forward. The Department has held a number of discussions involving various academic experts in the field to consider how we could improve the programme. Our commitment is to ensure that the literacy and numeracy strategies are based on the best international knowledge and I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman's points are legitimate parts of that discussion. I am not going to commit myself here and now to any change of approach on those matters, but only to ensuring that we listen to the best possible evidence before deciding precisely what to do.
Mr. Clarke: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to his personal work in ensuring that such issues are raised; for example, sure start has made a major difference in his constituency. That type of addressthe focus on raising standards, improving the quality of schools, bettering the condition of people going to school and providing proper supportwill make a difference. The difference between us and the Conservatives is that we focus on thatthey do not.
Mr. Clarke: The reason that the document is called "Excellence and Enjoyment" is that the whole primary education system should be about promoting those qualities. In many cases it is, but we have to spread that and take it forward, as the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the inquiry that the Public Administration Committee has been undertaking into government by targetry? Although we have not yet reported, the evidence that has come before the Committee overwhelmingly suggests, first, that targets are important and should be retained by the Government; and, secondly, that they should be more flexible and that more of them should be set locally. I thus commend the approach that my right hon. Friend has announced today.
Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expert opinion. The key question is exactly as he suggests: how do we ensure that targets are owned and possessed by those who have to carry them through? The principal reason for the changes that we have announced today is to try to promote that. We have received evidencewe have listened to primary headsthat the current regime does not give enough weight to the views and opinions of those actually in schools in setting targets as they have to do. I hope that the system that we are putting in place will meet the ambitions set out by my hon. Friend.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am very grateful to the House for opportunity to consider this urgent question because it is still not clear whether the Secretary of State has moved the goalposts, as it is unlikely that the Government will achieve the targets, or whether he is simply unable to deal with his job, like his predecessor.
Mr. Clarke: The simple answer is that we have not moved the goalposts in any respect whatsoever. The national target that we have established for each of the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 is 85 per cent. We have said that very clearly all the way through. That remains our target, and it is what we seek to achieve and we will continue to press it. Again, I can say only that it contrasts starkly with the policy of the Conservative party, which wants no ambition or aspiration.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Of the 150 local education authorities in the United Kingdom, right at the very bottom of the league table for funding per primary school pupil is the county of Leicestershire. Can the Secretary of State explain how, with the new framework announced today, we can deliver premiership performance on third division funding? Does he accept that the devolved Administrations probably had it right in sticking with the key stage 2 measurements but abandoning the pernicious and counterproductive publication of league tables, which does nothing for schools in poorly funded authorities such as my own?