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Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey), a fellow member of the Select Committee. She is right to cite the Bristol city academy, whose results over the past few years have improved from 25 per cent. of pupils achieving five good GCSEs to 33 per cent. She is also right to praise the head, who was named head teacher of the year for the west of England. But she is wrong always to assume that in life there is a zero-sum gain. Some people can gain without it being at the expense of others.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to serve on the Committee under his chairmanship. It is a delight, too, to see the Minister for School Standards on the Treasury Bench and I look forward to his response at the end of the debate. It is also a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on the Opposition Front Bench and, of course, the Liberals are here, too.

The debate about academies and the whole issue of diversity of provision in state education is a huge red herring. There are 3,409 secondary schools in England, of which 12 are currently academies. A further 35 academies are in preparation, with a total of 200 expected by 2010. I am not against academies. They are a worthy attempt to try to raise educational standards in areas where standards have traditionally been unacceptably low. But that is all they amount to, although the Government may be right to begin taking LEAs out of the loop. We should really be focusing on the general level of educational underachievement in the remaining 3,200 secondary schools. Indeed, in the Government's response to the Select Committee report on school admissions, they say that they are concerned to ensure that every school is a good school.

The same is true of specialist schools. Of course, it is nice to have a variety of schools from which to choose. Some schools may specialise in the subject in which one's child excels, but are not such schools a luxury that we should come to only when we have sorted out the
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basic problems facing our education system? People want a basic high standard of education right across the board. The present situation is rather like a hotel chain boasting that it has swimming pools when its bedrooms do not even have bathrooms, or even beds in some cases. In reality, what choice is there for most children?

In my constituency, all three secondary schools are now specialised—business and enterprise, maths and computing and sport. But what if a child is gifted in foreign languages? Where should he or she go to school in my constituency? In reality, most parents have the choice only of one or two schools and in some instances neither would be the one they really wanted.

Having said that, to the extent that going for specialist status galvanises a school into pushing up standards, it is a good thing, but the idea that diversity itself will push up standards is nonsense. We must raise educational standards throughout the school system. Let us not kid ourselves into believing that they do not need raising. Consider the academy results themselves. In a parliamentary written answer that the Minister for School Standards gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), he said that:

However, those figures are still very low in absolute terms. Consider some other results. At Greig city academy, 23 per cent. of pupils achieve five GCSEs. At Unity city academy, the figure is 17 per cent.; at Manchester academy, it is just 9 per cent.; and at the Academy in Peckham, just 12 per cent. In some instances, those schools have shown decreases since they became academies.

The 2003 programme for international student assessment results—the PISA study—are very damning. They show English schools at 11th place in science, 11th in reading and 18th in maths. The more authoritative study is even worse. TIMSS, the third international mathematics and science study, shows Britain at a very poor 20th out of 41 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The PISA study is striking not just because of the results, but because of the reason for the OECD's decision to exclude figures from the main tabulated results. The reason the OECD did that was the very low participation rate by schools in England—just 64 per cent. One in three schools refused to take part. The minimum response is 85 per cent., which most countries far exceeded. There was also a low participation rate among students.

All that gives the impression that poorly performing schools were too embarrassed to take part and that schools tried to exclude their poorly performing students to boost their results. That was not a factor in most other countries that took part in the OECD survey. The OECD's press notice says:

In other words, the results in the appendix to the PISA study probably exaggerate the results in a positive sense. The actual results were probably worse than those published. We faced the same low response rates in the 2000 PISA survey, which Professor Prais of the
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National Institute of Economic and Social Research believes were a contributing factor in the relatively good results in 2000.

It is also of enormous concern that the PISA study reported that the advantage of being educated in the independent sector was greater in the UK than in any other country, except Uruguay and Brazil. In other words, being educated in the state sector in the UK puts people at a greater disadvantage than in most other countries. PISA went on to say that, even when pupils' family backgrounds were taken into account, the advantage of attending an independent school in the UK was significant.

I shall quote briefly from the PISA report. It states:

Some Labour colleagues will respond to that by saying that we should smash the private schools and force those children into the state sector, which will provide a better mix of socio-economic backgrounds, thus solving all the problems in our state education system. Again, of course, that is absolute nonsense.

Private education accounts, as hon. Members have said already, for just 7 per cent. of pupils. If that 7 per cent. were put among the 93 per cent., it would have little effect on the overall balance of socio-economic groups. We must focus on the 93 per cent. of pupils who are educated in the state sector. I find the argument about intake astonishing. Are those who use that argument saying that children from families of a low socio-economic group are less intelligent than those from other groups? I do not accept that. Are they saying that such groups behave less well than other socio-economic groups? I do not accept that either. The only potential impact that a school with a high proportion of children from a low socio-economic background can have will be the low expectations that that generates among the teachers, and we must address that.

The letter from the Secretary of State to the Chairman of the Select Committee lists the proportion of pupils who are eligible to receive free school meals. There is no correlation between that eligibility and results. Some 59 per cent. of pupils at the Djanogly city academy in Nottingham are eligible to receive free schools meals and 50 per cent. get five good GCSEs. At the Walsall city academy, where 50.9 per cent. are eligible for free school meals, 47 per cent. achieved five or more GCSEs at A to C. However, the Greig city academy has, at 37 per cent., a much lower proportion of free school meals eligibility, yet only 28 per cent. achieved five good GCSEs.

I accept that at a primary level, a child who comes from a family with books and an environment that values education will have an advantage, but if we ensure that our primary schools teach reading and arithmetic properly, I do not see why even that disadvantage cannot be ironed out over one or two years. It is interesting that advocates of phonics in the teaching of reading—I am sorry to bring this up, but
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the Minister no doubt expected it—can demonstrate that the focus on synthetic phonics and the use of text that does not necessitate a look and say teaching method are an enormous advantage for children from lower socio-economic groups and from ethnic minorities. The Government would achieve far more if they focused on reading strategies and eliminating the fault lines in the national literacy strategy than they are by focusing on structural issues, such as academies and diversity of schools.

The teaching method used in the national literacy strategy is analytical phonics, which incorporates phonics and whole word sight reading. The alternative, more traditional "c-a-t" method is known as synthetic phonics, as the Minister is no doubt by now fully aware. St. Andrew's university carried out a study of 300 children in primary schools in Clackmannanshire. It showed that the group taught using the traditional synthetic phonics method read words about seven months ahead of the children taught the analytical phonics NLS programme and their spelling was about eight to nine months ahead.

In the 90 per cent. of our secondary schools that are neither private nor academies, 17 per cent. of children are arriving unable to read properly and 37 per cent. cannot write properly. Those children have already missed out on six years of reading and they rarely recover from that in secondary school. Under the synthetic phonics programme, children learn to decode any word by the end of their first term.

The other major problem in our secondary schools is that of mixed ability teaching. The fact that a school is an academy or a specialist school does not have an impact on whether it has mixed ability teaching. I was always told that mixed ability teaching was a thing of the past in our comprehensive schools; it was a 1960s fad that had gone. When I tabled parliamentary questions, however, Ofsted responded that 60 per cent. of lessons in secondary schools still take place in mixed ability classes—71 per cent. in year 7, 60 per cent. in year 8, 54 per cent. in year 9, and 59 per cent. in year 10. An enormous body of academic evidence points to huge increases in educational achievement when streaming and setting takes place.

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