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31 Oct 2006 : Column 45WH—continued

12.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bayley. You managed to sneak in some way through the debate, and you are very welcome. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate. It is clear from his speech that he cares deeply about the matter, and I know that he has secured Adjournment debates in the past on getting children school-ready by the age of five. I believe that he asked me a question about it just a couple of weeks ago. He made some startling points today, particularly the one also made by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) that children from working-class families on benefits have a quarter of the vocabulary of those from a middle-class background. He asked about 11-year-olds, and I undertake to write to him on that with a detailed answer.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) mentioned special educational needs. He is a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and we missed him on Thursday.

Mark Williams: That is my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams).

Mr. Dhanda: I am sorry, I am getting the wrong Member. We had a three-hour debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday to discuss the SEN report. We have invested in SEN to the tune of a 43 per cent. increase in the past three years and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have an ongoing commitment. He made interesting points on reading and the involvement of parents. Reading should not be seen as something for girls or the middle class, or as a white thing. Part of my excuse for not being the best read Member of the House, to say the least, is that when I was a child neither of my parents could read particularly well in English.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) mentioned the value of family learning, which is happening in her borough. I recently visited a school in Camden that does a great deal of work on family learning, and it is a valued scheme that helps both children and parents. She also
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said that there are now three city academies in her borough, so Hackney, South and Shoreditch is setting the pace. I agree that it is far from the worst place in the country to live in—perhaps second best to Gloucester. She said that there has been an 83 per cent. improvement in the catching up of people who have benefited from reading recovery in her area.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West made some interesting points, not least those on the economic enhancement of being able to read from an early age and the knock-on effect for the wider economy. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the literacy levels of children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. The discussion ties into the debate on how to get the right support for children at the right time. I wish to set it in the context of our wider early years primary work on reading before turning to the distinct contribution of intervention programmes such as reading recovery. I shall also touch upon issues raised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) on phonics.

The ability to read underpins all educational achievement. It enables children to grow up equipped to take part in society, to have high expectations and to make the most of their learning. Being able to read is essential not merely because it is the foundation of all other learning but because of the joy that it brings to children and adults throughout their lives, not least in the case of Grace Allen, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned. It is also true of Zac Dhanda, although for someone aged 10 months it is a matter of chewing the pages of a book rather than reading them.

My hon. Friend is concerned about the high number of children who leave primary school with reading difficulties that cause them real frustration and isolation. Ensuring that children are fluent, enthusiastic readers is a vital part of our goal to give every child the chance to fulfil their potential. We cannot afford to overlook pupils or leave anyone behind. We all stand to share the benefits of an economy and society with less education failure, higher skills, reduced crime and better health. My hon. Friend mentioned the stark statistic of the costs involved when young people end up within the criminal justice system. I believe that the figure that he mentioned was about a quarter of a million pounds a year.

The Government have overseen significant improvement in educational achievement, particularly in primary schools. In 1997 one third of children left primary school without having mastered the basics of English and maths; now, three quarters achieve that in maths and about four fifths in English. As the hon. Member for Basingstoke said, this is certainly not a time for complacency. The literacy and numeracy strategies, and now the primary national strategy, have proved successful. The 2006 key stage 2 results are the best primary results that we have ever had. More pupils from all socio-economic groups are getting better results, but the performance gap between those from more and less deprived areas is still big, although it has narrowed. A significant minority experience problems that could lead to poor outcomes in later life. That point has been made by several hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber. We need to identify those children early on and work to ensure that their needs
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are met with a variety of different strategies. Reading recovery is important, but there is a range of things that we can and should do.

The reforms that are outlined in the schools White Paper set out our aim to provide an education that is tailored to meet each child’s learning needs and abilities, and to narrow the achievement gaps. We shall support schools by providing resources and training to deliver personalised learning, with more catch-up lessons for children falling behind and more opportunities for schools to provide small group and one-to-one tuition for those children who need such extra help. We have made £990 million available to fund personalised learning between 2005-06 and 2007-08. That money is particularly targeted at schools that face the greatest challenges, including those with pupils from deprived backgrounds or with low prior attainment. It will be for schools themselves to decide how to use the resources available to them to meet the individual needs of their pupils.

The Gilbert review, led by Christine Gilbert, is looking at ways to ensure that personalised learning is a reality in every classroom. It will set out a vision for how teaching and learning should develop between now and 2020. The review will report back to us by the end of the year and I look forward to hearing its recommendations.

The renewed primary framework for literacy and mathematics was made available to schools at the beginning of this month and will help to raise attainment levels among all pupils. Through the framework, we have enhanced support to schools and early years settings, and drawn on latest classroom good practice and research. The literacy element of the framework draws on the findings of Jim Rose’s independent review of the teaching of early reading, which has been well trailed in this debate. Rose advocates quality first teaching, which comprises a blend of well-judged whole-class, group and individual work, as the most effective way to raise standards. He confirms that high-quality phonic work should be an inherent part of quality first teaching. The framework underpins Jim Rose’s recommendation that systematic phonic work set within a rich language curriculum is the best route for children in becoming skilled readers.

I support the assertion that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North made that prevention is better than cure. To that end we are developing the early years foundation stage, which is also informed by Jim Rose’s findings. The early years foundation stage is about improving opportunities for all children from birth to the age of five, by giving them the best possible start in life and erasing the artificial divide between care and learning. Evidence shows that an integrated learning and care experience enables children to achieve the best possible outcomes. The early years foundation stage will provide children with the experiences and activities that they need to grow, learn and develop.

It is quite a coincidence that earlier today I attended a conference that four children had arranged on the subject of extended schools. Extended schools, children’s centres and Sure Start are the best possible demonstration of our long-term commitment to early
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years. Hon. Members will be aware that we have surpassed our target for extended schools, with more than 3,000 having been created, along with more than 1,000 children’s centres, with a view to ensuring that every school is an extended school by the turn of the decade.

Mrs. Miller: With the change from Sure Start to children’s centres and the consequent reduction per head in the amount of funding that will be available to them, how does the Minister feel the literacy programmes that Sure Start has successfully run to date will be affected?

Mr. Dhanda: I shall come on to that, although I have seen a range of projects in children’s centres, and it seems that more and more are being developed, so I do not agree entirely with the hon. Lady that we shall see a reduction. Rather, there will be a greater level of support through children’s centres, but I shall come to that in a few moments.

We know that early access to high-quality care and education has a positive effect on educational achievement. We shall focus on closing the achievement gap between those children and others. Repeated studies show that bright children from poorer households begin to fall behind less able children from more affluent backgrounds from as early an age as just 22 months. At that young age, such children have already become less likely to succeed at school and more likely to become unemployed, and therefore in wider need of support from society but, paradoxically, less able to access it.

We have invested £20 billion in early years and child care, so that there are now more than 1.25 million child care places. We have met our target early to open 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres, providing vital support to the parents of 800,000 children throughout the country. There are now 3,000 extended schools, offering wrap-around child care from eight in the morning until six in the evening, and in some cases for longer periods. That is a pretty good demonstration of our commitment. That investment is being rolled out to an extent never seen before in this country, to every community. Every hon. Member here will have noted new children’s centres opening in their constituencies, at an average rage of around six for every constituency by the end of the decade. We shall expand that to half of all primary schools by 2008, with the extended schools, and to all schools by 2010. That is quite a multi-billion pound commitment.

The literacy and numeracy strategies, the primary framework and the early years foundation stage are all about getting it right first time, from the earliest age. For some children, intervention will always be necessary. We recognise that we need systems in place that offer second and third chances, by identifying when a child is falling behind and stepping in with extra help to put them back on track for success. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North outlined, reading recovery is an early literacy intervention that offers another chance to those hardest-to-reach children. The programme is directed at those who are the lowest achievers in reading in their class, regardless of any other kind of problem. It aims to return them to the average for their age in a relatively short time.

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Reading recovery has been around for some time and we have supported it throughout that period. That is why we are pleased to support the “Every child a reader” project, which is expanding the availability of reading recovery and exploring the wider use of the skilled literacy experts who deliver it. “Every child a reader” is placing specialist literacy teachers who are trained in reading recovery into schools to support those children who are most at risk of not learning to read.

The three-year project is supported and funded in partnership with charitable trusts and the business sector. We are contributing £4.55 million to “Every child a reader” over three years. I heard what my hon. Friend said about his offer to contribute locally in Nottingham, which I am sure will be heard through the airwaves. Helping more children to learn to read is one of the surest ways of making a real difference to their lives. By re-engaging existing reading recovery teachers and training new ones, we are creating a powerful resource in our primary schools. Those teachers are providing invaluable support to children with significant literacy difficulties.

Our involvement in “Every child a reader” offers us the opportunity to harness the expertise of reading recovery teachers. It will enable us to explore the potential for those teachers to support tailored literacy teaching more broadly within a school, with an impact beyond those children who receive intensive one-to-one support. “Every child a reader” will also provide us with valuable information about how intensive early literacy support can be provided in the future. If we want all children to succeed in life, we must ensure that they can all read well.

An evaluation report of the first year of “Every child a reader” is published next week and I look forward to reading it, as I know my hon. Friend does too. In some respects it would perhaps have been nice to have this debate just after publication, but I look forward to reading it and taking the issue from there. My hon. Friend has invited Ministers along to that event next week, and I hope that the Department will consider the invitation favourably. I congratulate him on securing this worthwhile debate, which has helped to highlight some of the important work that is taking place out there.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I congratulate hon. Members in all parts of the Chamber on speaking above the noise, which I do not regard as acceptable. Word has been sent to try to get the problem dealt with, and at the end of this sitting I shall write to the Chairman of Ways and Means to seek to ensure that we get round the problem and that it does not intrude on debates in the future. It is not fair on hon. Members who secure an Adjournment debate to have it interrupted in that way.

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Science in Higher Education

12.30 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to introduce this important debate.

The funding of science in higher education in England and Wales is becoming a subject of considerable concern to many, my constituents in particular. When, only a few weeks ago, Reading university staff and students heard that senior management at the university, which is in my constituency, proposed to close the physics department, naturally there was shock and dismay. The shock was all the greater given that many had felt that their future was secure, following a review that concluded six months earlier. The review had expressed the hope that, with the right investment, the physics department’s £500,000 per-year losses of the past six years could be turned around.

Reading university has a small but very capable physics department, which has built a strong reputation for research on atomic and molecular physics. That is why the university wanted to save it, if at all possible. Since the review, however, the university has been stung by two financial double whammies that would knock the best-run university off course. The new lecturers’ pay settlement and changes to pension arrangements are costly—there is an additional £1 million per year in extra pension contribution alone, and big rises in energy costs and an ever-growing backlog of maintenance to deal with.

Those financial blows have set back not only Reading university; many other universities around the United Kingdom are looking closely at where they could make significant savings. The Reading announcement will not be the last that we hear about a department closing this academic year. I would not criticise the vice-chancellor of any university for closing a department, just as I have not criticised the vice-chancellor at Reading. Reading university is extremely well run and is now among the world’stop 200.

However, it is profoundly disturbing that the axe seems to fall fastest on the pure science subjects such as physics and chemistry. Since Labour came to power in 1997, about 19 physics and 10 chemistry departments have closed across England and Wales. About 80 science departments have closed during the past six years. The Royal Society of Chemistry believes that in 10 years’ time, only 40 chemistry departments will be left in England and Wales.

Anyone who has read the Institute of Physics report, which covers 10 physics departments in English universities and was published in July this year, will understand why physics is in the same boat. The IOP report found, first, that all 10 physics departments were in deficit, usually heavily; secondly, that they were very dependent on public funding and the metrics used to allocate it; and thirdly, that they had large, fixed costs and out-of-date lab equipment that required substantial additional investment.

If universities are to commit substantial funds to physics, they need to be sure that large numbers of students who are attracted to studying the subject can
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be found. Despite a slight increase in science student numbers in the past two years, no university can base its physics department’s medium-term future on potential big increases in physics students. Of course, when measuring a category called “science students”, the Government net can be spread fairly widely. However, if Reading university’s experience is anything to go by, the number of physics enrolments has been dropping steadily since 2002, and probably before then, although I do not have the relevant figures.

Indeed, this year Reading university is getting fewer than half the physics students that it had in 2002. I am told that this year, even in clearing, there were very few physics students wanting to find university places. However, the trend as measured by those taking A-levels is clear: there has been a big drop in those taking physics since 1997. Some 28,800 students took physics A-level in 1997, but only 24,094 did so in 2005.

Many in the profession believe that the dropping numbers are due to two main factors. First, the continuing growth of what some describe as “easier” subjects on the curriculum—why would someone take pure physics, when they can take combined science or media studies? Some of the academics with whom I have discussed the issue believe that the overweening importance of league tables in schools has encouraged teachers to push students towards less challenging subjects.

Secondly, there is a lack of properly qualified and skilled teachers. Now, 80 per cent. of physics teachers do not have a physics degree; their core skill is believed to be biology. One third of all science teachers have a third-class degree or lower. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has told me that the drop in pure science student numbers since 1997 has been a major concern. It also believes that the increasing numbers going to university without a comparative increase in funding has stretched resources to the limit, with a resultant decrease in the scope and breadth of practical science education.

The association believes that the funding of undergraduate higher education must reflect the costof teaching each subject and recognise the importance of the subject to the economy. Many organisations also believe that the decrease in the funding qualifier weighting for laboratory science undergraduate courses, from 2.1 to 1.7, introduced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2004, makes it more difficult for universities to justify further investment in laboratory courses or the refurbishment of facilities. That has amounted to a 20 per cent. cut in science teaching and has impacted dramatically on science departments in universities. If the truth be known, it has been extremely damaging.

Furthermore, if a department is scored a four under the research assessment exercise, the stepped—or should I say cliff-edge—approach to funding means that many departments will lack research funding. That student and research funding double whammy, set up by this Government, has killed a number of university science departments.

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