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10 Oct 2007 : Column 349

However, the Secretary of State came to the House today in a spirit of humility, perhaps as a result of his recent experiences, and he was honest about standards. Although many Labour Members were crying out that the Conservatives should not throw light on areas where the current education system is not doing well enough, it turns out that the Secretary of State repeated the key statistic that appears in today’s motion—that nearly half of pupils are leaving primary school without the educational attainment that we on both sides of the House hoped to see.

The Conservatives have been clear about the need for greater independence in the setting up of schools and about encouraging more academies. Today’s debate has served a purpose by slowly getting the new Secretary of State to change his attitude that structures do not matter and to recognise that they do. Although in his speech he showed no enthusiasm for the academies programme, in his answers to the questions from the Liberal Front Bench, he started to express enthusiasm. We are excited by the prospect of setting schools free and by the belief that those areas of the country where we see the poorest performance, often in inner cities, where local authorities and the Government have not managed to provide adequate opportunities for kids, there is an exciting programme of innovation and change, with parents having a stronger role in determining how schools are run.

The Conservatives will help that by removing the requirement for external donations. We want a single academy contract so that outside providers can run nationwide networks of schools to a high standard, allowing pupil choice—a word that did not appear once in the Secretary of State’s speech—to help drive change. I do not know whether this is true of colleagues in the House, but I do not see choice as an end in itself. I see choice as the lever of change, which parents in areas where the schools are not good enough can use to raise standards. Parental choice can be exercised to insist on new schools and on changes to schools that are failing. That is the point of the change agenda. It is not an end in itself; it is about raising standards.

That is why we are excited about the new academies. The Secretary of State is not quite there yet. We want to see whole-class teaching, streaming and setting. We want robust discipline brought back. We do not want rhetoric from the Government. We want the reality. We know that even in the toughest areas, traditional teaching can work. We do not want a return to the 11-plus. Our party has not got itself into a knot about that. We are focused on improving standards in all schools, and we believe that the points that I have made are the way to do that.

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stuart: I do not have time to do so and I will end up stealing someone else’s time, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall press on.

There seems to be movement from the Government on synthetic phonics, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has pushed for some time. It was kind of the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), to credit the Conservatives with having pushed that
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forward. We also believe in a rigorously enforced uniform policy, strict standards of discipline, a strong ethos in the school, and setting by ability throughout the school. The Minister recently stressed that parents from low income families should not find themselves unable to afford that uniform. I hope that he will not contradict our desire for a strong uniform policy, which should be mediated by common sense—I am glad to see him nod.

The Minister would not expect me to do otherwise than raise the issue of education funding. I have done so on many occasions in private meetings and in debates with the Minister. Beverley and Holderness, which is part of the East Riding of Yorkshire, has the fourth lowest education funding in the country. The gap between the best funded authorities and the lowest funded is growing. None of us denies that the best measures of deprivation available to any Government should be used, but the fact that the gap between places like the East Riding and other areas should increase over time is deeply regrettable. I pay tribute to the fact that despite very low funding and the costs of delivering education in a rural area—on which the Minister has previously commented, for which I am grateful to him—and thanks to the teachers, the pupils and the effort made by the Conservative-run East Riding of Yorkshire council, together they have delivered significant, consistent and ongoing improvements in standards. I do not want to take a private comment out of turn, but the Minister might say that doing so well with so little diminishes the strength of the argument for having more. That is not true, however, because money should go to where it can best be used. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, our schools have shown that they can do very well.

I have mentioned to the Minister that Beverley grammar school, which is a comprehensive school in Beverley, Beverley high school and Longcroft school are three outstandingly successful schools. The head teachers from all three schools have mentioned their demoralisation as they try to deal with the funding pressure. I hope that the Minister will examine that issue.

In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the cross-border issue, and I will not miss this opportunity to ask the Minister to re-examine it. That issue may be at the margin, but every pupil who leaves a deprived area of Hull and attends an East Riding school should bring with them some of the funding to provide the extra support that they may well need. That would not be a huge change. The comprehensive spending review has just been announced, and there is an opportunity to make that change in the interests of justice. I know that such a change would be extremely popular in my local area, and it would create gratitude among local people towards the Labour Government.

Finally—I am sure that I will be waved at, if I am using too much time—I want to discuss skills. As the Minister knows, the Leitch review, which was commissioned in 2004, produced the report, “Skills in the UK: the long-term challenge”. The report congratulated the Government on positive aspects of the education system, but it also pointed out that more than one third of working-age adults in the UK do not have a basic school-leaving qualification, that 5 million adults have no qualifications at all and that one in six
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adults do not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. The Government have rightly pointed out the need to improve skills, because the number of unskilled jobs will decrease dramatically in the next 20 years. In my local area, FE colleges have experienced funding pressures, and they see a discrepancy between how schools are treated and how they are treated. Adult courses are a way to feed adults with low skills back into education, but such courses have been closed down and people have been priced out. Given the comprehensive spending review, this is an opportune time for the Minister to address some of those issues.

I have said that I will not speak for overly long, so I will draw my remarks to a close. The new CSR is out and a new Secretary of State is in post. We need to support the innovation of academies and set schools free. We also need a Secretary of State who speaks with the same passion about the need to raise school standards as he does about the destruction of the Conservative party. I hope that the improvement in standards is more of a reality for the Secretary of State than the disappearing chance of a disappearing Conservative party.

3.43 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): This has been an excellent debate with a thrilling and strong opening by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). Of all the public services, education has the greatest impact in shaping lives, promoting opportunity and ensuring economic strength. If we get education right today, we can be confident about the kind of society that we will have in 20 years’ time.

Today’s debate takes place after more than 10 years of a Labour Government, who promised that “education, education, education” would be their priority and whose manifesto promised “zero tolerance of underperformance”. I shall quote the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his famous 1996 Labour party conference speech:

The Secretary of State has demanded an acknowledgment that there has been an improvement since 1997, and I am happy to provide it. There has been a modest improvement, but instead of 35th in the world, we are now 29th on the same World Economic Forum league table. We are behind Belgium, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, Cyprus, France and Malta. We used to be ahead of the United States, but we are now 14 places behind it; we used to be ahead of China, but we are now behind both China and India, the great emerging economic giants. I ask myself whether this is the extent of Labour’s ambition: an education system that is 29th in the world, and therefore an economy that will be 29th in the world tomorrow. There has been a modest improvement, yes, but not on the scale promised in 1997 and not on the scale that we need if we are to compete in the knowledge economy of the new world.

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Yes, standards of reading have risen from 63 per cent. in 1996 to 80 per cent. today, but one in five children still leave primary school unable to read properly. There is no excuse for that; in deprived parts of the country, there are primary schools with challenging intakes that get 100 per cent. of their children to level 4 in English. Some 40 per cent. of children leave primary school not having reached the expected level in reading, writing and maths combined; that same 40 per cent. go on to fail to achieve five good GCSEs.

Yes, there has been a modest improvement in GCSE results: 45 per cent. achieved five or more GCSEs in 1997, while 58 per cent. do so today. However, when we include English and maths, the figure is only 45 per cent., and if science is added in, it is only 40 per cent. The gap between the headline figure and the figure including English, maths and science has risen from 10 per cent. in 1997 to 18 percentage points today. Most alarming of all, the figure for 15-year-olds achieving a grade C or higher in English, maths, science and a language has actually fallen, from 27 per cent. in 1997 to 25.7 per cent. today.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was right to point out the importance of the tests and how they reveal some deep-seated problems. It was refreshing to hear the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws); with Liberal Democrat education policy under his stewardship, I think there will be a growing consensus between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party, given that they are now in favour of academies.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) spoke passionately about education in his constituency. He mentioned particularly William Hulme’s grammar school, which I have visited and which is now in the state sector. In a thoughtful speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) pointed out the importance of setting by ability, of whole-class teaching and of good discipline and behaviour.

The problem with this Government is that in recent weeks they have focused too much on spin, and in the past 10 years they have focused too much on eye-catching initiatives. If the Government really want to raise standards in our schools, they need to challenge the ideology that has dominated the educational establishment during the past 30 or 40 years. That ideology led to “look and say” methods of teaching children to read, so that now 23 per cent. of adults cannot read the dosage on an aspirin bottle.

To say such things is not, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield suggested, to talk down the education system, but to point out the realities—

Mr. Sheerman rose—

Mr. Gibb: I shall not give way, because of the time available.

If we want a consensus, we have to address those realities so that we can address the solutions to such problems together. The ideology that I have mentioned led to mixed-ability teaching in our comprehensive schools; the bright become bored and the less able become disaffected, and that invites disruption and
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truancy. In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) was right to point out the difficulties of teaching mixed-ability classes, in which there are wide ranges of ability—with some children barely able to read and write and others who should be going to Oxford or Cambridge.

When the Labour party came to office, it promised more setting. Yet after 10 years in office, only 40 per cent. of academic lessons are set by ability. That means that six out of 10 lessons still take place in mixed-ability classes—the kind of classes that are difficult to teach, as my hon. Friend pointed out. I know that many Labour Members share those concerns.

Mr. Chaytor rose—

Mr. Gibb: I shall not give way, because of the time available.

The issue is not one of left or right, but about ensuring that our schools adopt tried and tested teaching methods and a curriculum that imparts knowledge as well as skills. It is about keeping out of our schools ideologically driven fads that have not been tested and that, when implemented, lead to declining standards.

The Government talk about wanting to improve behaviour in our schools, but they have made it increasingly difficult for head teachers to exclude disruptive pupils. They have refused to allow schools to make the signing of a home-school contract a condition of acceptance at a school. They have refused to abolish appeals panels, which second-guess the decisions of head teachers to exclude. As a result, a quarter of appeals are won by the excluded child, who then returns triumphantly to the school to challenge the authority of the head and the teaching staff. That is why teachers leave the teaching profession, and it is why standards are low in too many of our schools—51 per cent. of them according to Ofsted and the Secretary of State’s predecessor.

I had hoped that Education Ministers would follow the lead given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who put country before party advantage when he supported last year’s Education Bill, which would have fallen but for Conservative votes supporting the Government in the Aye Lobby. I had hoped that we could work together—I hope that we still can—to ensure higher standards in our schools. But all we now hear and read in the newspapers from the Minister for Schools and Learners and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is a return to the old politics of cynicism and spin. I say that more in sorrow than in anger. The country will have to wait two years before we can see a genuine reforming Government who will actually deliver higher standards in all of our schools.

3.51 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I welcome today’s debate and thank hon. Members for their insightful contributions, which I shall try to comment on in a moment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has outlined the significant progress that has been made in our schools over the past few years since our dodgy
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inheritance from the Conservative party, but as he has also acknowledged, we know that our education system is not yet world class. While we have many outstanding examples of schools, with more children and young people than ever before performing to their best at school, we want excellence to be the standard available to all so that each child has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

We want to deliver genuine opportunity for all, overcoming attainment gaps and eradicating child poverty, ensuring that outcomes are determined by talent and hard work and building a fair society and a culture that celebrates success. Thanks to unprecedented investment over the past 10 years, and the immense dedication of all those who work in schools, we have exceptionally strong foundations to build on. We will continue to sharpen our focus on ensuring that every pupil gets a personalised education, responsive to their individual needs and supportive of their individual talents. We will get each child off to the best possible start in life by giving them the skills they need to thrive in the modern world.

Because we believe that learning is a right and not a privilege, and that everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from this right until at least the age of 18 as a precursor to a successful adult life, we will be legislating to extend this right to every single young person in England, and in doing so we will raise aspirations and galvanise the whole system to do better for our young people. We are prepared to put in the necessary investment to realise those bold ambitions, creating the world-class education system supportive of every unique individual that this Government are determined to deliver and to which Conservative Members only pay lip service.

The Opposition run down our achievements, while their spending plans make it very clear where their priorities lie. Their proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million would cost £3 billion, delivering £2 billion in benefits to their old school friends in the richest 5,000 estates. By contrast, our priorities are to invest in a fair level of inheritance tax, and put the remaining £2 billion into health and education—proposals that properly meet the aspirations of the public for the future of their family, not just at the end of their lives but at the beginning of their children and grandchildrens’ lives too. That is an investment in everyone’s future, rather than immediate cashback for the wealthy.

What do our passion and priority for education mean to our constituents? One thing they all see is new schools. My capital announcement today means that by the end of the latest spending period there will have been a sevenfold increase in investment in real terms since 1997.

The new funding will go towards ensuring that our youngest children have the best possible learning environment—inspiring new buildings and integrated technology instead of the cramped classrooms, peeling paint and outside loos under the Tories. We can not only build 675 replacement primaries in England and more than 400 new secondaries, but provide new money for councils not yet in the Building Schools for the Future programme for special educational needs pupils and diplomas. We can also provide more money
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for school kitchens and, of course, £3 billion devolved straight to schools and more than £4.5 billion devolved to councils.

In 1997, the Tories’ whole capital budget was well short of only £1 billion. However, our determination is not only to create successful schools but to support strong and confident families, thus helping families to help themselves. How can children achieve in school if we do not do better for their health, safety and early development, and support their parents and carers? Through the children’s plan, about which we are currently consulting, we draw on the expertise of all those who live with, work with and understand children in order best to address those genuinely tough issues.

Through the 10-year youth strategy and its commitment of more than £650 million, we have signalled our intent to offer young people the opportunity to develop and grow through participating in positive activities beyond school. The Labour party—the Government—is committed to putting its money where its mouth is.

We have had an engaging debate, although at times it has spread more heat than light. It was led by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who displayed a mastery of drama but gets no marks for history. He said that he wanted to set up more parent-promoted schools, but parents already have the power to establish schools under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The first parent-promoted school, Elmgreen school in Lambeth, opened this September, with support from the Labour council and local Labour Members of Parliament. As it expands, it is due to move into a new building. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can have a word with local Tory councillor Andrew Gibson, who opposes expanding a parent-promoted school.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) made an interesting speech, which contrasted with that of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. He asked about child poverty. It is the joint responsibility of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Treasury to tackle that. All three Departments take a joint lead and, as he said, we have a public service agreement target to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it by 2020. The DWP is investing £150 million in helping parents get back into work, and our Department is improving education and access and funding to child care. On 2 August, £4 billion over three years was announced for children’s centres and child care. That includes child care to support 50,000 parents into work or training.

The Chairman of the Select Committee made a thoughtful speech and demonstrated why he commands respect from all hon. Members. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath needs to learn from that.

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