Previous Section Index Home Page

10 Oct 2007 : Column 324

Ed Balls: I am coming on to that point right now. But before I do, I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in praising the 700 per cent. increase in capital investment that his local authority will be getting in today’s announcement, compared with 1997. I hope he will put out a press release to congratulate us on that.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ed Balls: In a sec.

As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, we should start by agreeing that, despite the substantial progress that we have made, there is still some way to go before our education system can be described as world class. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that fact today. He is right to point out that 23 per cent. of young people are leaving primary school at 11 without having reached level 4 in maths, that the figure is 33 per cent. for writing, that 40 per cent. are not reaching level 4 in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, and that too many 16 to 18-year-olds are leaving school and college without proper qualifications. I agree that that is not good enough.

Putting the debating points to one side, let us go back and look at the history. In 1997, it was not 20 per cent. failing to make the grade in maths; it was 38 per cent. In 1997, it was not 20 per cent. not making the grade in reading, but 33 per cent., and it was not 40 per cent. not making the grade in the three Rs, but 57 per cent. So let us agree that, although we have further to go to be world class, we are going in the right direction and we have made substantial progress from what was a desperate, taxing inheritance.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will also agree that the reason we have made substantial progress since 1997 is our investment and our reforms. We have 38,000 new teachers and more than 100,000 more teaching assistants, and more than 1,100 new schools have been built rebuilt or refurbished. There has been a 25 per cent. fall in permanent exclusions. Another fact not reflected in the hon. Gentleman’s motion is that the number of failing schools—those that do not have 25 per cent. of students gaining five good GCSEs—is down from 616 in 1997 to just 47 today. I want to go further: I want to get rid of all of them, but the fact is that there were 616 when his party left office, and the figure is now down to 47.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Secretary of State just touched on the subject of exams, and I wonder whether he shares the concerns of head teachers in my constituency about the quality and consistency of online exam marking. A growing number of actual grades are varying significantly from the predicted grades; this is happening to a worrying degree. Some of the exam boards are now moving to oral online marking. If this situation is not reviewed and monitored, the problem is likely to increase.

Ed Balls: If the hon. Lady goes to the House of Commons Library, she will find that the capital allocation for her local authority area is up 5,000 per cent. since 1997. On the particular point that she has raised, the reform that I have announced in recent weeks to establish an independent standards regulator
10 Oct 2007 : Column 325
will give parents and teachers the confidence that the exam boards are doing a good job and that standards are not declining. I will make sure that the standards regulator looks at the precise issue she has raised.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Was it not significant that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) failed miserably to cite the figures for the 1997 key stage 2 results? I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has put the record straight. Furthermore, if we are going to have a serious debate on this matter, should we not recognise that simply because a boy or girl does not reach level 4 at key stage 2, it does not mean that they are illiterate? We need a far more considered approach to describing the abilities of children who do not reach level 4.

Ed Balls: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I think that, outside the Chamber, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would agree. I have found it is possible to have a serious conversation with him outside, although perhaps not in this debate. Of course it is not the case that a child of that age who does not reach level 4 cannot read, write or do arithmetic, but they are not doing as well as they should be to prepare for going on to secondary school. That is what we want to turn around. It was striking, however, that, despite the intervention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners, the hon. Gentleman failed to acknowledge the progress that has been made since 1997. It is impossible to have a serious, rational debate unless he can acknowledge that we have made substantial progress, although there is much more to be done.

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: I will not give way. I want to make some more progress, then I will take an intervention.

Let us acknowledge that there has been a transformation of investment and reform, and that that reform has been accelerated by me in recent months and not been set back. I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for our programme of catch-up tuition for those falling behind in writing and maths, but I say to him that if he wants a serious debate on educational reform, he needs to monitor a little more closely the standard of the Leader of the Opposition’s articles on education policy before they are submitted. The proposal by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)—[Hon. Members: “Right hon.”] The proposal by the right hon. Member for Witney a few weeks ago that children not making the grade at 11 should be held back for an extra year in what would soon become overcrowded primary school classrooms was roundly condemned by head teachers and parents alike because it just would not work. Rarely have I seen a policy announcement fall apart so quickly under scrutiny. It is the Leader of the Opposition who needs a little extra help with his writing.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Over the summer recess, I spent a week in one of my comprehensive schools shadowing the teachers. It is a very good school, with very high standards and excellent teaching—[Hon. Members: “A comprehensive school?”] Yes, it is a
10 Oct 2007 : Column 326
comprehensive school. And yet, there were at least half a dozen year 7 pupils—they had just started secondary school—in one of the maths lessons who did not know the difference between an odd number and an even number. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made some practical suggestions for how we might avoid children going on to secondary school in that state. The Secretary of State is new in his post and he must be fizzing with ideas. How will he deal with this problem? How are we going to stop children going to secondary school not knowing the difference between an odd number and an even number?

Ed Balls: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman: for him, we have managed only a 308 per cent. increase in capital allocation over the next few years, compared with 1997. I say to him that if we are serious about educational reform, we must intervene early through Every Child a Reader, Every Child Counts and our new Every Child a Writer programme. We must do this when children are five, six and seven years old to stop them falling behind. The proposal that we should say to parents or teachers after the key stage 2 results that we are going to keep their children back in primary school for another year was laughed at by parents, teachers and head teachers alike. It was a piece of spin with no substance behind it, and it was not the only proposal that failed that test.

While the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is looking at that proposal, he should also look at the proposal by the right hon. Member for Witney to abolish appeals for exclusions. He needs to remind the right hon. Gentleman that independent appeals were introduced by the previous Conservative Government, and that last year only 130 of 9,170 exclusions were overturned, which is less than 1.5 per cent. He should also remind the right hon. Gentleman that if independent appeals were abolished, hundreds and possibly thousands of head teachers would be forced by a Conservative Government to defend their decisions in the courts. That would be no way to back head teachers.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Is it true that a pupil in Manchester who was found to be carrying a knife last year was ordered to be returned to the school when the matter went to appeal?

Ed Balls: I think that the claim of the right hon. Member for Witney that that was the case has been rejected as incorrect by the school and its governors, so the hon. Gentleman should look at his facts before making those sort of allegations in this House.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The Secretary of State said a moment ago, in spite of claims by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), that he is accelerating the pace of reform in his Department, so may I test him on that point? Is the Department’s policy still the same as it was in the Blairite manifesto of 2005—to make all secondary schools “independent specialist schools”? Does that remain the policy?

Ed Balls: As the hon. Gentleman knows, our policy is to ensure that every secondary school is a specialist school, an academy or a trust. That is my policy and I back more independence for governing bodies. Of course that is the case, and I want to accelerate the
10 Oct 2007 : Column 327
academies programme. What I have done is abolish the £2 million entry fee and encourage universities and high-performing public sector organisations to come in and support academies. I am also very pleased to say that local government leaders—Labour, Tory and Liberal—have been coming forward to propose academies. As for the idea that I should reject such proposals because, by definition, they come from local government, I have never heard such an anti-local government statement before. It is absolutely ridiculous.

Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who I think is clarifying the position, but I am not quite sure why he finds it so difficult to repeat the words that appeared in his manifesto of 2005:

Is that still the Department’s policy?

Ed Balls: Of course I stand entirely by the manifesto on which we fought the election. [Interruption.] It would be worth checking whether the Leader of the Opposition is also supporting his current policy on grammar schools. After all, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) thought he had the Conservative leader right behind him, only to be stabbed in the back in the reshuffle. Anyone who thinks that I am scaremongering might like to check last week’s speech to the Tory conference fringe by the Leader of the Opposition’s university chum and putative Mayor of London, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), in which he called for a return to—and I can quote him exactly—“good, old-fashioned academic selection”. Good old Boris!

I have to say to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath that if he is genuine in his support for our mission to drive up standards for all children and to give every child the best possible start in life and if he really wants to reduce the number of young people not in education or in training after 16, he must agree to back our plans to increase spending per pupil in state schools to today’s private school level and to raise the education leaving age to 18.

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: I have already given way several times.

We know that this is where the right hon. Member for Witney and the Conservatives get into difficulties because they cannot match those commitments and cannot guarantee the funding to pay for them. The Conservative party’s commitment to substantial tax cuts for the few and what the Leader of the Opposition called “dramatically lower public spending” mean that the Opposition cannot match our spending or our commitment to world-class education.

Peter Luff: In an attempt to build a spirit of consensus, I welcome the fact that the Government have used the most benign economic conditions of any post-war Government to increase expenditure on education—just as any other Government would have done. Why is it, however, that some local education
10 Oct 2007 : Column 328
authorities such as Worcestershire have not shared in that increase and have fallen further and further below the national average per pupil spend?

Ed Balls: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that over the past 10 years, education spending has risen by 5 per cent. a year in real terms. Between 1979 and 1997, it rose by only 1.4 per cent. a year, so it is clear that when the Conservative Government were in power, they failed to achieve their objectives— [Interruption]—despite all the lobbying.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con) rose—

Peter Luff rose—

Ed Balls: No, I will not give way. I had reached the point in my speech where I was about to explain why there is no consensus on education policy in this country. The reason is that there is no consensus on tax and spending policy. Yesterday in this Chamber, we saw a shadow Chancellor who was exposed in the full view of national scrutiny for making tax-cut promises that he cannot afford, for being left with a £2 billion black hole and for getting his sums wrong. Before Opposition Members lecture me on our national numeracy strategy, I suggest that they draw up a strategy to improve the numeracy of their own Front Benchers. Before running down the achievements of our Every Child Counts programme, they need to ensure that they have a shadow Chancellor who can count. As we all know, the shadow Chancellor’s sums simply do not add up and he has not reached the required standard to make progress. It is the shadow Chancellor who needs extra help and one-to-one tuition and it is the black hole in his plans that fatally undermines Tory education policy.

Several hon. Members rose

Ed Balls: No, I am not giving way.

While the Conservative party remains committed to tax cuts for the wealthiest few, which it cannot afford, every parent in this country will know that our schools would not be safe in its hands, that progress on standards would be put at risk and that economic stability would be undermined. Only last week, at the Conservative conference, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath slammed what he called a trendy 1960s culture of liberal teaching, but his problem is that his party remains stuck in a 1980s culture of fiscal irresponsibility and tax cuts for the few, which would mean spending cuts that would hit standards in our schools and set back our children’s future. It is the hon. Gentleman’s party that needs a culture change and his party that needs to examine its leadership. Until it does so, there will be no consensus on education policy in this House.

2.17 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I am pleased to take part in this important debate—the first full-scale debate on the new Department and its responsibilities. I hope that the Minister for Schools and Learners will sum up and that he will be able to explain the apparent contradiction between the Secretary of State’s position
10 Oct 2007 : Column 329
today in respect of the Labour party manifesto and the Department’s own recent position.

The manifesto, as the Secretary of State was kind enough to confirm and support, was very clear about the Government’s commitment to making all secondary schools “independent specialist schools”. Despite that, the most recent departmental answer from the Minister for Schools and Learners stated:

There appears to be a 180° contradiction between the Blairite manifesto on which Labour Front Benchers stood and the position that the Department has now taken. Perhaps in the hours between now and the end of the debate, the Minister will be able to explain that contradiction.

We are happy to support the motion for the reasons suggested by both the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and, in fairness, the Secretary of State. There are clearly enormous deficiencies in our education system today—notwithstanding any improvements over recent years—which are quite unlike those in many other advanced countries that do not have our enormous under-achievement. We do not support the motion without qualification, however, as we would have liked the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to put in a little more on policy issues at the end of it. I appreciate that with the magpie nature of the present Administration, he may have feared that by the time he sat down, the Secretary of State might not only have stolen his homework but copied it out and handed it in. Perhaps that explains the absence of any proposals that could have been nabbed by the end of the Session.

I also hope that the last sub-sentence of the motion does not indicate the tendency on the part of the Government and the Prime Minister to think that educational achievement and delivery in the public sector is dependent on Government Departments rather than on individual schools and other units that deliver the improvements. We will not deal with the major issues facing children in this country simply on the basis of letters sent out over the summer by the Secretary of State or improvements in leadership in the Department.

Inevitably, the debate has so far focused mainly on the schools element of the children, schools and families agenda. In winding up the debate, will the Minister for Schools and Learners therefore touch on some of the other important elements for which his Department has responsibility, as I presume that the rationale for bringing together the Department was to cover all children’s issues?

Next Section Index Home Page