Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Kali Mountford: I am interested in the development of the argument about sharing knowledge and practice among GPs under the primary care trust system. Will my hon. Friend compare that argument with the assertions made by Conservative Members about their policy of GP fundholding, and say whether what she is welcoming would have been possible under such a method of funding and running practices?

Laura Moffatt: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and she will not be surprised to hear me say that I do not believe that that would have been possible. There is a sense of having respect for colleagues, of sharing information and of sharing practice and expertise, which develops those services throughout the town. I believe that that has been hugely successful.

However, I also firmly believe that we have great difficulties when we face reconfiguration of major services, particularly the acute services. We know that 80 per cent. of health care is delivered through our GP practices and nurses, and I am glad to say that most of us do not have to go near a hospital, but it is extremely
30 Nov 2004 : Column 563
difficult for local people to accept that change is needed. That relates particularly to accident and emergency care.

As a Member who has attempted to think carefully about some suggestions from senior clinicians about how best to deliver emergency care, I want to share some of my experiences. As I was a nurse for 25 years, I have tried hard not to be just an oppositionist Member of Parliament who says no to everything suggested, just in case it might be damaging. I decided that I would listen to everything that was being said, and challenge it at every point, and I have done so since 1995—since before I was elected.

Being faced with very difficult arguments demonstrates to me that it is hard for those involved in the profession to be brave about those decisions, and to say that they feel that such things need to happen, and that they are going to make changes because they will make the service safer and more efficient. It is also difficult to set that against the background of what our constituents feel about the service, because, on the whole, they have not had any experience of it—thank goodness.

Given the modernising process, and the way in which we continue to ensure that the NHS is fit for the times in which we live, the relationship between Members of Parliament and the health service is an interesting one. We need a grown-up debate. For political parties to divide and say, "We don't like it because you look as if you're supporting it," does not do our constituents any good whatever. As we continue to develop our services and change the way in which we do business, it is my dearest wish that, in this House and outside, we can have a grown-up debate, be decent, and understand that the reason why decisions are devolved to senior clinicians is that they know what they are doing. We have the right to challenge, but they understand how best to deliver services.

The Queen's Speech contains quite enough proposals in relation to health, because our professionals are saying that the component parts are in place, particularly in acute care, and they now want to get on and do the job, and be left alone to show that they can deliver. I firmly believe that the one thing that has driven those improvements is targets. Without question those targets have put staff under pressure, but they have also given us excellent results in our health service. Long may that continue.

4.38 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who is a fellow West Sussex Member. I agree fully with her call for a non-partisan debate by Members of Parliament on public services and the health service in particular. I endorse her comments on that particularly.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills made some comments about identity cards, on which I want to touch briefly before moving on to education policy. If the Government go ahead with the introduction of identity cards, I think that they will regret it deeply. It would be a huge extension of state power into the lives of ordinary people. ID cards always
30 Nov 2004 : Column 564
start off as popular, and then become hugely unpopular—they started off very popular in Australia, and then almost brought down the Government at one stage. Identity cards pose a danger, especially with today's technology, of aggregating in one place, around one identification number, all the personal information that is held by the state. That gives rise to a real danger that an unauthorised official will have access to information to which he is not entitled.

Neither do I believe that identity cards will work to deliver that which is claimed for them. They must be carried all the time to be effective—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. An amendment has been moved to the motion today, so we are restricted to discussing matters related to health or education.

Mr. Gibb: I will obey your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The Queen's Speech talks of the high importance that the Government attach to educational opportunities enabling all individuals to realise their full potential. Who could disagree with that? I wonder, however, whether the Government are doing enough to achieve that aim.

On a number of occasions, I have raised in the House the issues of phonics in the teaching of reading in primary schools, the teaching of multiplication tables by rote—which I do not think happens in many primary schools—and mixed-ability teaching in secondary schools. I have raised those issues not just because they are important in themselves, although they are. Ours is one of the worst literacy rates in the developed world, with 23 per cent. of adults unable to read a simple instruction on the side of an aspirin bottle, 17 per cent. of 11-year-olds leaving primary school for secondary school still unable to read properly, and 37 per cent. of 11-year-olds leaving primary school unable to write properly—and they will never catch up, or recover from that bad start to their secondary school education.

Employers complain that school leavers do not have a basic knowledge of maths or English. According to the most authoritative international survey of education systems around the world, the TIMSS—third international mathematics and science—study, our state education system comes a poor 20th among those in 41 developed countries. The parents of one in four state pupils now think it necessary for their child to have private tuition, particularly in maths.

As I said, I have not raised those issues just because they are important in themselves but because they relate to the political and philosophical debate about who runs our state-sector public services. The hon. Member for Crawley touched on that when she said that Members of Parliament had a right to challenge experts on the conduct of the provision of public services. My question is this: is it the professional bodies who run and determine policy in our public services, or is it elected politicians? Does the Association of Chief Police Officers decide policing policy, or does the Home Secretary? Does the NHS Confederation or the Secretary of State for Health decide health policy? Do the education academics in our universities decide education policy, or does the Secretary of State for Education and Skills?
30 Nov 2004 : Column 565

The public are quite clear about who is responsible. They understand our constitution, and they believe that the politicians are responsible. When things go wrong, they blame the politicians. Politicians, however, actually have very little say in key policy areas in education, health and policing. I believe that that is one of the main reasons why Governments of both parties have failed to deliver the improvements and reforms that were promised so faithfully. As a result, people have become disillusioned with politicians and the whole political process.

When I raised the issue of mixed-ability teaching with the Secretary of State and the Minister for School Standards, I pointed out that 60 per cent. of all lessons in comprehensive schools took place in mixed-ability classes. That came as a surprise to many, but the figures were from Ofsted and had emerged in parliamentary questions.

The Minister's initial response was that there was no evidence that teaching in a mixed-ability class was any less effective than streaming or setting according to ability. Labour's 1997 manifesto, however, contained an explicit promise to increase the amount of setting. It said:

To the Minister's credit, he was happy to engage in a constructive discussion with me on the academic evidence that he had been given in the Department. The key document is a report by Laura Sukhnandan and Barbara Lee from the National Foundation for Educational Research. It is a publicly available document. The West Sussex director of education has also used it as a basis for our discussions about streaming in schools in that area. It is a summary of the literature on streaming and setting by ability, and it concludes that there was insufficient evidence that setting resulted in higher educational achievement, and that setting had a negative impact on those belonging to particular social groups.

On examining the report in more detail and looking at the underlying research that it claims to summarise, it is clear that it is tendentious and does not accurately reflect that research. It says that research by Kulik and Kulik, two American academics, concludes that

But reading Kulik and Kulik's research reveals that they say that only in respect of cases where the curriculum is not tailored to the particular ability level. The curriculum should of course be tailored to the particular ability level when setting is introduced, and Kulik and Kulik concluded that when it is, very significant gains are made in educational attainment at the top level, strong gains are made in the middle, and there is a neutral result—in other words, no loss—at the bottom. They also concluded that those at the bottom experience a small increase in self-esteem, and that the very bright pupils at the top experience a small decrease in self-esteem as they are confronted with competition for the first time.

On further reading the research of the proponents of mixed-ability teaching—the key proponent is R.E. Slavin—it is clear that their main motivation is social
30 Nov 2004 : Column 566
equality rather than higher educational standards. I have no complaint about those who are motivated by that point of view, which is a perfectly respectable one to hold. Slavin believes that one breaks down social division by deliberately mixing different abilities in a classroom, but in my view, that method perpetuates social division. It damages the educational achievement of those from lower socio-economic groups in particular, who do not have the background to counter the poor educational achievement that results from mixed-ability teaching. The consequence of such teaching is the opposite of what Slavin wants: social division is perpetuated, rather than ended. I strongly believe that Members who look at the research will conclude that setting results in significantly higher educational achievement, even if common sense does not already lead them to that conclusion.

During my friendly discussions with the Minister, and in answer to a parliamentary question, the Department for Education and Skills offered its next defence of the status quo. It accepted that overall, 60 per cent. of lessons take place in mixed-ability classes, but it argued that there is setting in the core subjects and that the 60 per cent. figure includes lots of peripheral, non-core subjects. So I tabled some more parliamentary questions to test that argument. They were answered by Ofsted, which showed that there was setting in 80 per cent. of maths lessons—a core subject. That supports the Government's contention, but it still means that that there is no setting in one in five maths lessons in our comprehensives. Only 54 per cent. of lessons in English—another core subject—are in sets, which means that nearly half of all such lessons in our secondary schools take place in mixed-ability classes. There is setting in only 20 per cent. of history lessons and 36 per cent. of geography lessons. That knocks on the head the argument that the 60 per cent. figure relates to non-core subjects; rather, it relates to the core, principal subjects.

Once that argument had been conceded, the next response was that that this is a matter for heads and teachers, rather than for Ministers. That brings me back to the core question. Should the decision about whether to stream secondary schoolchildren be a matter for the professions, or for elected politicians? That is an important philosophical issue, which we should consider. If every secondary school in this country were the envy of the world, if our schools filled parents with confidence, and if education were not the number two political concern in almost every opinion survey, I would agree that these matters should be left to teachers and heads. But if it is clear that one of the root causes of underperformance in our schools is mixed-ability teaching—it is a matter for debate, but I believe that it is—Ministers and Parliament have a right and a duty to intervene, or at the very least to engage in the debate with the professions about that particular policy.

Speaking as someone who was a chartered accountant by profession before I entered the House, I know that we were continually being told by the Department of Trade and Industry how to go about doing our job as auditors. We were told how to audit and what to put in companies' accounts, but I never felt that my professionalism was being undermined. Is not our children's education more important than the presentation of a profit figure for a company?
30 Nov 2004 : Column 567

I think that the Government agree with me on this matter. Earlier this month the Minister for School Standards spoke to the annual meeting of the Girls Schools Association and reported the "startling" findings of a four-year study conducted by academics at Cambridge university into the differences in educational achievement of boys and girls. Revealing the evidence from that study to the world, he said that the research

He continued:

By segregating pupils into boys-only classes for languages and girls-only classes for maths and by arranging the seating into girl-boy, girl-boy throughout the classroom for all other subjects, those results were achieved. That is what this particular co-ed comprehensive did during this experiment over a particular period, and the results were startling with increases from 61 per cent. in 1997 to 81 or 82 per cent. by 2004. The reasons for the success were discussed in interviews and it was felt that pupils suffered from fewer distractions and that boys and girls did not feel the need to show off to each other.

Those remarks are very revealing for a number of reasons. First, it shows that there is an enormous amount of underachievement in our secondary schools. If making simple changes in classroom configuration can bring about such improvements in educational attainment in GCSEs, it is clear that in most schools where those changes have not been made—clearly the overwhelming majority of schools—pupils are performing way below their potential.

That research and the speech made by the Minister for School Standards directly contradict the Government's claims that secondary education in this country is doing fine. The Government cite surveys such as those conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment to prove that everything is fine in our secondary schools, which they follow up by saying that they would still like to do a little bit more. I believe that the research that I have cited shows huge underachievement in Britain's secondary schools. It also shows that the move towards co-education was not based on any research or evidence that better results could be achieved. Too much of what happens in education is based on assertion rather than evidence-based policy making. That must be changed and I hope that the Government will ensure that policy changes are based on evidence rather than on the assertion of education academics.

The most revealing aspect of the speech by the Minister for School Standards is the acknowledgement that politicians can be involved in the debate about how the teaching profession goes about its business. He was directly engaging in debate about classroom configuration, so if he can engage with the issue of gender in classroom configuration, why cannot he engage on the issue of ability grouping? Why should setting be a matter for teachers, heads and the
30 Nov 2004 : Column 568
profession while gender can be influenced by politicians? The truth is that there is no distinction and the Minister was right to engage in the debate about gender, as he would be right to engage publicly in the debate about setting.

The next issue then becomes how much notice schools take of the research and the Minister's comments on it. If the research were replicated and the startling results repeated, would it not be a disgrace if it were not instantly taken up by every co-ed comprehensive in Britain to make huge improvements in educational attainment? What will be the result if that does not happen and the assertion-based policy emanating from education academics and disseminated by teacher training colleges continues to ignore that research, just as the research on mixed-ability teaching has been ignored? What should hon. Members do about it? What should the Government do about it? More importantly, what can the public, particularly the parents, do about it? When those questions have been considered, we should apply the answers to mixed-ability teaching and phonics versus whole language methods in the teaching of reading in primary schools.

I hope that all hon. Members who are interested in education will start to address some of the real issues that cause underperformance in our schools, put aside the ideology and the party pre-positioning and have the confidence, as democratically elected politicians, to challenge the comfortable and complacent educational orthodoxies that, for 30 or 40 years, have led to the gradual decline of our state education system.

4.55 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page