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House of Commons

Monday 17 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Children, Schools and Families

The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Leaving Age

1. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What progress he has made on plans to raise the education leaving age to 18 years. [174103]

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): May I take this opportunity, on behalf of my ministerial team, to wish you, your staff and all Members of this House a very merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker, on this cold and wintry day?

We have introduced the Education and Skills Bill to legislate to raise the participation age, so that all young people continue in education or training until 18 from 2015. The Second Reading debate is now scheduled for mid-January.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: In my constituency we have a lot of looked-after children, and people who have been in care are disproportionately less likely to stay on in education past the age of 16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that raising the participation age to 18 will ensure that those young people, who do not have the advantage of a secure family background—or of having their name put down for Eton from birth—will get the education, training and skills that they need?

Ed Balls: In the cohort of 10 and 11-year-olds in year six, there are 5,000 children in care. On present trends, those young people would be much more likely to be out of education, employment or training when they reach 16 than the rest of the population—about four times as likely. That is why it is so important that we do everything we can between now and 2013, when this legislation kicks in, to ensure that such young people have opportunities for work and training or to stay in school or college. Giving opportunities to them is a key priority for this Department, and for the Children and Young Persons Bill.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that there is little point in encouraging, let alone compelling, people to
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stay at school until 18 unless there is adequate tuition and guidance in the crafts? There are many young people who will never have an academic ambition but who can become very fine craftsmen and prepare for a proper apprenticeship.

Ed Balls: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we will not fulfil our ambitions unless we make sure that school, college or an apprenticeship is an offer available to every young person. That is why we are legislating in the Education and Skills Bill to give every 16 and 17-year-old a right to an apprenticeship, and why we have increased the number of apprenticeships by more than 100,000 and will double them again by 2013. That is why the Conservative party is wrong to call the Bill a stunt, when in fact it will do precisely what the hon. Gentleman wants, which is to give opportunities to the young people who need them.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that this is not a “Staying on in Schools” Bill? It is about staying on in training and education, and a whole variety of things that young people can do to get the right skills for the modern economy. It is quite a long time until 2013 and 2015, and my right hon. Friend has just wished you and everyone else a merry Christmas, Mr. Speaker. In the spirit of Christmas, can we not do something for these young people faster than by 2013 and 2015?

Ed Balls: But we are, and we will progressively do more between now and 2013, when the legislation comes into effect. A few weeks ago, I extended the availability of education maintenance allowances to young people on entry to employment courses. In our children’s plan, we introduced last week a new scheme called “entry to learning”, precisely to ensure that young people who could benefit from apprenticeships if they had the qualifications to start those courses have indeed got them. That is why it is right that we do more now and in the coming years to ensure that by 2013, when the legislation comes into effect, every young person can benefit from the new opportunities on offer.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): How will young people in the Berwick area be compelled to attend courses when the nearest further education college is 50 miles away, when there is only one high school, and when those who stay on at school beyond 16 are charged £360 a year for transport by the Labour council?

Ed Balls: The important thing to ensure is that schools and colleges in that area have the support that they need. We will need to look at transport in rural areas, as I have said in past discussions on this issue, to make sure that when we say that there is an opportunity for every young person, those opportunities exist and are real. There will be an obligation on local government to make sure that the opportunities are real and can be taken advantage of. The right hon. Gentleman is right: we will need to look at transport as part of those discussions.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that in the past three years, in Barnsley the number of students taking
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modern apprenticeships has gone up by some 167 per cent., and in Doncaster by some 150 per cent. However, can he tell the House what role the new 14-to-19 diplomas will play in improving the vocational education base for young people?

Ed Balls: The diplomas will ensure that from the age of 14 young people in schools and colleges can study the combination of theory and practice that they need to move on to an apprenticeship or to university. It is important that we ensure that the curriculum engages and challenges young people, so that they want to stay in school or college and do well by their talents. The diplomas that we are introducing will be a real step forward for those young people’s learning, and will ensure that young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who want to benefit from an apprenticeship will reach 16 having been given the learning that they need to do so.

International Comparisons

2. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What international comparative assessments of school performance he has commissioned or evaluated in the last 12 months. [174105]

9. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will take steps to improve literacy levels in England against international benchmarks. [174112]

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): England has participated in two recent international comparative studies: PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study, which looks at 10-year-olds’ reading attainment; and PISA, the programme for international student assessment, which is on 15-year-olds’ attainment in science, with limited surveys of reading and mathematics. Both enjoyed much higher levels of participation by other countries than previous studies. Independent analysis shows that educational standards in this country continue to improve. We have moved from below average to above average, but, as we said in the children’s plan, we have further to go to achieve world-class standards. We have also recently commissioned a piece of research to benchmark our primary curriculum against high-performing countries in literacy, numeracy and science, the results of which will feed in to the review of the primary curriculum.

Mr. Harper: The OECD international study, which the Minister mentioned, showed that the UK had fallen from eighth to 24th in the maths league table. Why is that?

Jim Knight: The OECD’s study, and a more complete report that it produced a month ago, said that educational performance in England remained very strong. The OECD’s PISA study said that the sampling for reading and maths was too small to use for comparative purposes. The science study, in which England’s 15-year-olds were found to be among the best in the world, should be the baseline for future comparison, not historical comparison.

Mr. Hollobone: The English language is this country’s greatest export, but our decline down the international league tables for literacy shows that hundreds of millions
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of children around the world are learning to read and write English better than children in our own country. Is that not a source of national shame? What is the Minister going to do about it?

Jim Knight: Naturally, we are doing a number of things to improve literacy standards in this country, but it is simply wrong to suggest that they are falling; they are continuing to improve. It is great that other countries are improving their literacy standards too, and as I said, more of them are entering the comparative studies. It has been said that one of the studies of literacy should not be used for comparative purposes because the sample was too small, and the basis of most of this country’s fall in the other was the fact that higher attaining readers are not spending enough time reading, and are being too distracted by computer games. Society as a whole needs to tackle that together.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): On performance, my hon. Friend probably knows that my county has encountered substantial problems in schools, despite recent improvements. Will he say how he will work with some of the underperforming education authorities to ensure real sustained improvement in schools, so that children can benefit from the increased investment that has been made?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to share responsibility for improvements in literacy with local authorities. National strategies resource is out there working both with local authorities and directly with schools to improve literacy, and to ensure that the findings of Sir Jim Rose’s first review, which promoted the use of synthetic phonics, are used effectively throughout our primary schools so that we can continue to raise standards.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I urge my hon. Friend to be very cautious when looking at international comparisons? A couple of weeks ago, UNICEF published a report indicating that child poverty in Canada had worsened by 20 per cent. since 1989. Upon investigation, it turned out that a UNICEF official admitted that some of the figures were made up, and further investigation showed that there had been no marked change in child poverty in Canada since 1989. So will my hon. Friend be careful when examining statistics from bodies such as UNICEF?

Jim Knight: We do proceed with a certain amount of caution, but we do decide to participate in some of these projects. We need to take forward certain things as a result of the comparative studies—for example, the very large gap in performance between the lower achieving and the highest achieving pupils in this country. Such a gap seems to be more particular to the UK than to elsewhere, and that fact lies behind a lot of the policies in our children’s plan. Concerns about such studies also exist, and we are taking some of those up with the responsible bodies. For example, it is odd that one week’s literacy study shows one country at the top, whereas the following week’s literacy study, carried out by a different organisation, shows that country way below the United Kingdom, in the second division.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): How can we ensure that specific science subjects are taught more in our secondary schools by teachers who are specifically qualified in those subjects?

Jim Knight: We have had a problem for some time with the number of specialist scientists teaching science, but we are starting to see an improvement. The last time we had oral questions, I announced that, for the first time, we had exceeded 3,000 for the number of new recruits who are specialist scientists. We are also developing a conversion qualification for biologists, because we have plenty of them, so that they can change to physics and chemistry, for which there are shortages. We are doing a number of things, and things are moving in the right direction.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend noticed the PISA report on science competencies, which concluded that the governance of schools, especially autonomy, had little effect on educational outcome? What has a real impact is the steepness of socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, will my hon. Friend move the agenda on from school governance to offering opportunity to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, who struggle so much to attain the educational level of the rest of the population?

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend will be pleased that the children’s plan shows that we unambiguously set out to narrow the attainment gaps between those from advantaged areas and those from disadvantaged areas. He is right to highlight that aim. However, that is not to say that governance does not have a role. The most important factor in achieving educational success is to combine the engagement of parents with their child’s learning, high-quality teaching driven by good leadership, and good leadership driven by strong governance. That is the model of school improvement that we want, so that we can narrow the attainment gap that my hon. Friend rightly points out.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): May I join the Secretary of State in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and every Member of the House a merry Christmas?

Among the torrent of Christmas cards that the Department will be receiving, last Friday the Secretary of State received a letter from more than 500 authors, co-ordinated by Channel 4, pointing out that 10 years after the Government came to power, our literacy performance was plummeting. As Ian Rankin said,

They can have 100 per cent. literacy in villages in Kerala, in one of the most deprived parts of India, but here the Government are going backwards. New targets published under our new Prime Minister show that the Government have actually dropped their more ambitious literacy plans and are now happy to accept that one in six children will leave primary school without being able to read ploperly—I mean properly. [ Laughter. ] It is terrible—it is happening everywhere! Why is the Government’s approach to literacy leaving children unable to read, and the nation’s authors in despair?

Jim Knight: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list, but to help launch the national year of reading next year the Prime Minister has commissioned an
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illustration for the front of his Christmas card from Shirley Hughes, an esteemed children’s author. I am sure that that will set the national year of reading off to a good start. The national year of reading is an important initiative to encourage the whole country to read, and especially to read with their children.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Channel 4, and I was interested to read the Channel 4 fact-check on his claims that standards in literacy are declining, informed by the OECD report that we are talking about. It states that

It also says that he has

and that

Michael Gove: It is interesting that the Minister is now rubbishing the OECD figures, although in 2000 his own Government used those figures to claim, “We are the stars.” The Government quote those figures liberally when they are convenient, but when they are inconvenient, they run away from the truth. What the Minister did not tell us is that in his children’s plan published last week there is not a single mention of the tried-and-tested method of teaching reading which works—synthetic phonics. There is not a single mention of that, two years after the Government appeared to accept Sir Jim Rose’s report; synthetic phonics has been buried under a torrent of strategies on rusks and gloop from the Secretary of State. Should not Ministers, instead of caving in to the educational establishment by getting rid of rigorous testing, simply concentrate on getting children to read?

Jim Knight: Certainly the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully. I was not rubbishing the OECD; that was the OECD rubbishing him. Researchers from the OECD itself said that

In terms of the other stuff that the hon. Gentleman said— [ Interruption. ] It really was “gloop”, which is the word that he likes to use. The importance that we place on Jim Rose’s synthetic phonics is embedded in the fact that we have asked Jim Rose himself to carry out the review of the primary curriculum, which will ensure that the work he did on synthetic phonics will be carried out and integrated into a reformed primary curriculum.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that what the international comparative assessments agree on is that it is a profoundly mistaken idea to force children to learn to read at the age of five, and even more so to drag them off to primary schools a few days after their fourth birthday? The assessments show that the countries that start formal education at the later age of seven are those that do best in the international comparisons.

Jim Knight: My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should not be too rigid about what we do for every child. We should ensure that every child has momentum
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in their learning and that we have more personalised learning. For example, he will be pleased to see that on page 71 of the children’s plan there is an explicit mention of phonics. That does not bear out the reading of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who perhaps needs to read paragraph 3.85, which says:

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