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House of Commons

Thursday 26 April 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Reading Recovery

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): When he expects the additional funding for reading recovery announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be made available. [133952]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): Funding for the national roll-out of “Every Child a Reader” will be made available over three years from 2008-09. We are exploring the most effective ways of helping children who will benefit most from intensive literacy support. We are discussing with “Every Child a Reader” partners how we can reach the greatest number of children. I am pleased to confirm that we have invited Nottingham to take part in the third and final year of the pilot this year.

Mr. Allen: The reading recovery programme, “Every Child a Reader”, is a welcome development, and I thank my right hon. Friend and his team, along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for introducing it. In a constituency and city such as mine, one in eight youngsters cannot read their first lesson at secondary school, so there is still a great deal of work to do. What can my right hon. Friend do, first, to train reading recovery co-ordinators effectively, and secondly, to roll out a programme to train teachers so that they can begin to expand the reading recovery programme to ensure that all our young people can read properly?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend has been a champion of the education cause in Nottingham. Matters have improved to a huge degree, but there is still an awful lot that we have to tackle. We have placed Nottingham in this project because it is designed specifically for the kinds of problems that he experiences there, as do I in the city that I represent, Hull. This is a partnership with the KPMG Foundation aimed at getting to children in their first year at school to ensure that they have the best possible foundation and that, later on, they do not need the kind of remedial and catch-up attention that gets more difficult the older the child gets. From this September, my hon. Friend will see the
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implementation of the “Every Child a Reader” policy, which includes the part-funding of a project leader, followed by its rolling out to 20 specialised teachers in 20 schools in Nottingham. Thereafter, it will be rolled out nationally. I undertake to keep a personal eye on how it is going in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Secondary School Standards

2. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in secondary schools. [133953]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, there are now 36,800 more teachers, and figures published today show a growth in the school work force of 17,300 in the past year alone. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the consequent improvement of 15 per cent. more 14-year-olds achieving the national standard in English and maths. We will continue to raise standards through more choice between schools for parents, more choice of qualifications for pupils, and record investment in personalisation in staff and in buildings.

Andrew Selous: With reference to the previous question, I can tell the Minister that even in leafy south Bedfordshire, in one of my local upper schools recently a quarter of the children were unable to read properly. Five million adults in this country are functionally illiterate, many of whom are parents of secondary school children who are themselves struggling with reading. Will the Minister redouble his efforts across Government to address adult illiteracy so that we can break that cycle of deprivation?

Jim Knight: Although I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not want to join me in congratulating staff and pupils in his constituency on the improvements over the past 10 years, I accept that we need to focus efforts on adult basic skills. That is why we are concentrating our budgetary priorities in that area to do everything that we can to ensure that adults who, perhaps because of inadequacies in the education system prior to the past 10 years, are not reading and writing well, receive all the help that they can get.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): In my constituency, there has been an historical legacy of young people leaving school early to go into industry, so education has not been very highly regarded. Over the past few years, however, there has been a dramatic improvement in the number of young people getting GCSEs and A-levels and going to university. If we are to build on that, it is a question of changing aspirations. What are the Government doing to lift people’s aspirations in constituencies such as mine?

Jim Knight: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question and I join him in congratulating his constituents on the improvements in education in the past 10 years. He is right to raise the issue of aspiration. The way in which the excellent leaders in some of our new schools, such as academies, have raised pupils’ ambitions is a consistent
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feature that I note on my visits. That is why we are extending some of the thinking behind academies to trust schools, and getting universities and employers involved so that young people in more disadvantaged areas can see themselves going to universities and into well paid employment, thanks to the involvement of such partners.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Standards are not directly related to resources, but they help. Does the Under-Secretary recall receiving a letter from Mr. Glyn Ottery, the chair of the Somerset Association of Secondary Heads, who points out that, because of the underfunding in Somerset compared with other areas—he acknowledges the increase in funding—his school, Stanchester, receives £254,740 less each year than the English national average? How can that extraordinary differential be justified?

Jim Knight: I shall have to dig out the letter from Glyn Ottery, but I will ensure that it has my personal attention when we consider the reply. The figure that comes to mind for the improvement in resources in real terms per pupil in Somerset is approximately £1,000. However, I accept that we do not fund equally on a per pupil basis throughout the country. We are currently consulting on school funding—I am examining closely the way in which we balance the need to achieve stability across the system with any need for redistribution to ensure that areas of deprivation, especially within authorities, get the necessary money.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I was pleased on Monday to welcome the Secretary of State to the city academy in my constituency. He was especially impressed to learn that, last year, it managed to send 43 students to university compared with only seven a few years ago. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has also visited the city academy. What lessons does he believe that schools such as the academy can teach other schools in Bristol so that they achieve a similar increase in standards?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right. Bristol academy was the first academy school that I visited and it was instrumental in persuading me of the success of the academies programme in raising aspirations—the phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey). The lesson that neighbouring schools can learn—I hope that academies will continue to work more closely with them—is first, to realise that, in difficult areas such as parts of Bristol that are served by the academy, it is possible for children to envisage themselves going to university and getting highly paid jobs; and secondly, it is to ensure that such ambition is embedded throughout the work force and in our approach to all children.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Educational standards cannot be raised unless there is good order in the classroom. That means that the worst behaved children may have to go to pupil referral units so that they do not disrupt the education of others. Surely those units are meant for children who are badly behaved, not for those who have a medical condition, which has led to a statement of special educational needs. Ofsted has warned that pupil referral units are
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the least successful setting for children with such statements. Does the Under-Secretary agree that it is wrong for children with such statements to be taught alongside violent and disruptive children in pupil referral units?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the proportion of pupils with statements of special educational needs in pupil referral units has declined from 22.5 per cent. under the Tories in January 1997 to 15 per cent. in January 2006. It is important that children, regardless of their special educational needs, are clear about the discipline code in a school. If they breach that, heads should be free to exclude, subject to an appeals system in which a small percentage of appeals are upheld. If that means that they need to go to a PRU, so be it, as long as it ensures that it delivers personalised education. Ofsted finds that nine out of 10 PRUs are satisfactory or better.

Primary School Standards

3. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in primary schools. [133954]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that primary standards in English and mathematics are at their highest ever. We are improving the quality of teaching and learning, with ongoing training and support for teachers.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating pupils in his constituency on improvements in results at age 11 of 13 per cent. and 11 per cent. more pupils achieving the national standard in English and maths respectively. Following Jim Rose’s independent review of early reading, new teaching guidance called “letters and sounds” will be launched this month further to support the teaching of phonics.

Mr. Harper: I do indeed congratulate teachers and pupils personally when I visit schools in my constituency, which I do regularly. Last year, 35 per cent. of children at key stage 2 had a reading and writing standard below level 4. What progress is being made in the roll-out of synthetic phonics to train teachers to address the reading and writing problem in primary schools?

Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman is right: Jim Rose’s review was instructive, and we will issue guidance shortly and provide teachers with primary framework packs to help them in teaching, for example, English and maths. That guidance focuses on the use of synthetic phonics, and will ensure that best practice is rolled out across the country to continue to improve reading, alongside the measures to which the Secretary of State referred in response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend yet had the opportunity to read the letter that I sent him following my visit to Doxey primary school in Stafford, in which I praised the staff and especially the
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leadership of the school for its fantastic improvement in performance over the past five years? I have noticed in Staffordshire, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has in Somerset, that the success of schools is constrained by the low funding that they currently receive. In the context of the review of funding being carried out by my hon. Friend, does he buy the argument that those of us in areas that have traditionally been low-funded could contribute much more to the Government’s agenda of raising standards if we were better funded?

Jim Knight: Clearly, we are into the school funding lobbying round. I congratulate staff, governors, pupils and parents at Doxey primary school on its excellent results and on the excellent value for money that they represent, set against the funding that the school received. Our primary focus in funding is deprivation: we need to ensure that those who suffer disadvantage are funded to tackle that disadvantage, wherever it is found. As I consider the results of the consultation due for completion at the end of May, I will look at whether we are properly targeting deprivation, including in counties such as Staffordshire.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Is the Minister concerned at the growing number of primary school children being excluded from school? Does he have any plans to deal with that increasing problem?

Jim Knight: The right hon. Gentleman is right that exclusions of primary school children have increased, but it is a very small number: I think that 0.03 per cent. of primary school pupils are being permanently excluded. We do have some concerns about that, so we have asked our national strategies team to look at where such exclusion is concentrated and consider what interventions might be necessary.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): More than 30 Members on both sides of the House, and the Department, have supported the competition being run by the parliamentary information technology committee in partnership with E-Skills UK, the sector skills council for IT. Does my hon. Friend agree that the engagement of Members in such exercises, working with their schools, can help to promote higher standards in this vital area? Will he take this opportunity publicly to support the competition and encourage other Members to sign up for it?

Jim Knight: Certainly. I warmly commend to Members on both sides of the House the parliamentary IT committee’s competition for schools, which is a significant initiative. The roll-out of IT, with billions of pounds invested in information and communications technology in schools, is reaping results. Yesterday, I met the supplier of IT—RM—to schools in Newham, where half of primary schools have received the IT and half have not. The effect on the results of those schools in Newham that are using IT well is highly significant. We all need to have due regard to that in our constituencies.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): In 1997, the Prime Minister promised to eradicate classes of more than 30 in primary schools to raise standards. Today’s figures
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show, however, that half a million primary school children are still taught in such large classes, rising to a shocking one in four at key stage 2. After 10 years of the Labour Government, why are they still failing on the basics?

Jim Knight: We are not failing in the basics. Today we announced the best-ever adult:pupil ratio—one in 73 classes at key stage 1 consists of more than 30 pupils, as opposed to one in five 10 years ago. Obviously we want to reach a point at which no child aged five, six or seven is in a class of more than 30, but there are constraints in, for instance, rural primary schools with very few teachers. It is difficult to adjust staff:pupil ratios just like that, but I think we are making excellent progress in delivering our promises.

Poorer Students

4. Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): What discussions he has had with vice-chancellors of Russell Group universities on increasing the number of students from poorer backgrounds who are accepted for study. [133955]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Government have made a clear commitment to widening participation in higher education. I regularly have discussions with vice-chancellors and others throughout the sector about how we can help more people from under-represented groups, particularly young people from poorer backgrounds, to participate in higher education. The discussions focus on raising aspirations and opportunities to attract more applications. The document “Widening participation in higher education”, published last November, describes the actions that we are taking.

Stephen Williams: As the Minister will know, whenever universities consider the potential of students from state schools whose grades may be slightly different from those of students from independent schools, they get into trouble with certain sections of the press. Does he not think that the introduction of an A* grade at A-level will make the life of admissions tutors at some Russell Group universities much more difficult, given that in the first few years there will probably be a disproportionate success rate among independent school students?

Bill Rammell: I think there is a general consensus that there is a strong case for the A* grade. The key judgment will concern the level at which the threshold is set. I am sure that, as well as taking a range of other initiatives, we can continue to promote the widening of participation. I agree that university admissions tutors have always made judgments both about individual students’ attainment to date and about their potential to develop, and some of the initiatives that UCAS has been taking will help to inform those judgments.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The Minister will be pleased to learn that in Tees Valley the number of university applicants from low-income families has increased by more than 48 per cent. That startlingly good result was achieved primarily through the Aimhigher programme, which has inspired
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youngsters and schools to have self-belief. Will the Minister visit us in Teesside and look at the examples that we can provide? We would love to share them with everyone. Will he also tell us what additional support will be given to the Aimhigher programme?

Bill Rammell: As my hon. Friend knows, I visited Teesside university with her recently, and I will seek a further opportunity to do so.

The Aimhigher programme has been a real success story in promoting aspiration among under-represented groups, and we should continue to support it. We should also celebrate yesterday’s announcement of a significant increase in the number of university applications for next year. The number of applications for places at English universities has risen by 6 per cent., and—crucially—the proportion of applicants from lower socio-economic groups has not only not fallen but actually increased. That demonstrates emphatically that critics of the new system are wrong.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I agree with the Minister that the A* grade will help universities to assess the merits of applicants, but does he think that students applying to university should be judged on whether or not their parents went to university? A yes or a no would be helpful.

Bill Rammell: I think that UCAS’s recent decision to include information about parental participation in higher education may prove to be a useful tool in helping university admissions tutors to make judgments. They have always made judgments about both attainment to date and potential to succeed. If there is no previous experience of higher education in a young person’s family, an admissions tutor will be able to provide that person with a taster course, or put him or her in touch with a student ambassador. That can help young people to achieve their full potential.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ask the Department to conduct a review to establish the merits of the system in the state of Texas, where, as he knows, the top 10 per cent. of students who leave colleges have an automatic right to enter any university? That has proved to be a boon for university outcomes in the state.

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend and I have discussed that subject. University admissions are, rightly, a matter for university authorities. Nevertheless, we must have available as much data as possible, to ensure that the widening participation initiatives that we undertake are as effective as possible.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Does the Minister agree—I think that he does—that one of the key problems facing the Russell Group universities is the comparative flight in the maintained sector away from the crunchy subjects that those universities value, such as mathematics and sciences and ancient and modern languages? What can the Minister do to avert that flight, and in that context does he not agree that it is tragic that there are plans to get rid of ancient history A-level, as that will intensify the dominance of a small number of schools in the Latin and Greek classics and close down a possible route to university for children in the maintained sector, which is potentially deeply socially regressive?

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