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Mr. Bercow: For the benefit of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), would my hon. Friend confirm that he is not blaming a particular Government, but rather the system advocated by Kimberley, Meek and Miller, who are, to their eternal discredit as teachers of reading, on the record as saying that within the psychosemiotic framework, the shared reading lesson is viewed as an ideological construct where events are played out and children must learn to position themselves in three interlocking contexts? What nonsense.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend is right. It is such nonsense and the prevailing—almost exclusive—view of education academics that is the problem that Members on both sides of the House, and Ministers in particular, should be addressing.

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On secondary education, the Government like to cite the PISA—programme for international student assessment—international study, which shows Britain's literacy and maths levels among 15-year-olds as seventh and eighth among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, but that starkly contradicts other, more authoritative and established international comparisons, such as the third international maths and science survey, which shows Britain at a poor 20th out of 41 countries.

Mr. Beard: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gibb: I will not. The hon. Gentleman spoke for long enough.

The PISA study was based on tests that—I quote from PISA—

In other words, they were common-sense tests—IQ tests—so it is not surprising that British children do well in them. They were not tests based on knowledge of the school curriculum, which was the basis of questions in other surveys, such as the one that I cited, the third international maths and science survey.

Again, the question is why are we failing so badly in this country at secondary level. The Labour party understood only too well in the run-up to the 1997 election that education was failing and that it was Labour's No. 1, 2 and 3 priority. Labour also understood very well one of the key causes of the failure at secondary level. The 1997 Labour manifesto stated:

That commitment was repeated in the 1997 White Paper, "Excellence in Schools". It is odd, then, that six years later, only 26 per cent. of lessons in year 7 are setted, 39 per cent. in year 8, 45 per cent. in year 9, 39 per cent. in year 10 and 44 per cent. in year 11. Overall, only 38 per cent. of lessons in comprehensive schools are subject to setting. In other words, 62 per cent. of lessons in comprehensive schools take place in mixed-ability classes.

Despite a clear commitment to reduce the amount of mixed-ability teaching, no such reduction has taken place in the past six years. There is a keen debate among education academics in the US, and to some extent in the UK, about the efficacy of setting. It is an ideologically driven debate in which the key protagonists are J. E. Slavin, who vehemently opposes setting on the grounds that it is inegalitarian and undemocratic, and J. A. Kulik, who argues that setting children in accordance with their ability in a particular subject and tailoring the course content to each ability level will produce significant gains at the upper level and modest gains at the middle level, while those at the bottom level will see no improvement, but no decline either.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gibb: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I wish to continue my argument, as other hon. Members wish to speak.

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Moving slow-learning children out of mixed-ability classes does not reduce achievement at the lower levels, but leads to significantly rising standards at other levels. There is also clear evidence that the self-esteem of low-achieving children rises with setting. My view is that setting means that extra resources, including smaller classes or better teachers, for example, can be targeted at the low-ability sets, with a view to raising achievement at all ability levels. That may sound technical and managerial, to use the Prime Minister's words, but it is not. It goes to the very root of the causes of failure in our state education system. The reason we have so much mixed-ability teaching is in many ways ideological rather than merely technical.

I urge Labour Members who are genuinely interested in improving our education system to read the study by Tom Loveless entitled "The Tracking and Ability Grouping Debate". The evidence is overwhelming that setting works, delivers higher standards and is beneficial to children from lower socio-economic groups and ethnic minorities, but it involves eradicating mixed-ability classes in our comprehensive schools. That presents a dilemma for people on the left, including many Labour Members. If we accept the research evidence showing that setting raises standards significantly, especially among able children from poorer backgrounds, we must ask which is more important: the social egalitarianism of including children of all abilities in one classroom or the genuine social equality that is a consequence of the high educational standards—

David Taylor: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is making a very learned and interesting speech, but I find difficult to see how it relates to the motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The motion and amendment on the Order Paper cover fairly wide ground and I have not so far heard anything that is out of order. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to remember that time is short enough without points of order of that nature being raised.

Mr. Gibb: The choice is between the social egalitarianism of mixed-ability classes or the genuine social equality that is a consequence of the high educational standards in state education that result from splitting up children into classes according to their ability in each subject. Education is one of the key Government targets—this may assuage the criticism of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor)—and the key to social mobility and opportunity, and it is paramount in eradicating poverty.

If Labour Members are serious about equality, they will join me in urging the Secretary of State to do more to insist on the synthetic phonics method of teaching children to read in primary schools and on eradicating mixed-ability classes in our comprehensive schools.

6.13 pm

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East): I am sorry that the previous speech was interrupted by a point of order, as I thought that it was a very good and interesting speech, although I also thought that it demonstrated why there is an argument for targets.

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Targets can go wrong and they are a new thing that may need refinement, finessing and so on, but I speak as someone who served in a local authority for a number of years and each year handed a budget to education, which was the biggest spender locally. The education authority took the money and that was the last time that it discussed its budget with us. The comments of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) highlighted one of the reasons why I think that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is right not to hand over money to spending Departments and then retreat from the field. He is right to stand in the field and say, "This is taxpayers' money, it has been raised for a purpose and we are going to agree between us what you will spend it on and try to ensure that you spend it efficiently, effectively and in the areas that we as a Government and House of Commons agree to be important."

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a difference between proper accountability for taxpayers' money and good management? It is the second point that we are concerned about.

Mr. Mudie: I am not sure whether the Opposition favour that argument. When one looks at their alternative to targets, one sees that it is not to have no targets or to finesse the existing ones. In the light of the first part of the motion, which speaks of doing away with targets and, instead, having professional autonomy, does the hon. Gentleman genuinely feel that it is right to hand over large amounts of public money?

I return to my point about the speech of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. As laymen, we work for money and hand it over to the Government. Clearly, he agrees that we hand it over to, professionals who take no notice of us or of what we would like to achieve and spend it in a way that they feel professionally, brooks no interference. It is welcome that we have a Chancellor and a Government who tell what the hon. Gentleman described as the three failing services—health, police and education—that they must achieve certain things.

Of course, there may be difficulties. I confess that, as the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) will know, I was the culprit in the Select Committee on the Treasury who ambushed the Chancellor with targets when he appeared before us in relation to the spending review. The most memorable target was that of the Foreign Office to maintain world peace, although it contains some of the difficulties that arise without targets. It is very sensible for the Treasury to reach agreements with spending Departments on what we as a Parliament and a Government expect Departments to get out of the vast sums that they are given.

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