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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 10 February 2009

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Rose Report

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)

9.30 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is nice to serve under your tutelage once more, Mr. Olner.

Many people will not know what the Rose report is, but I think that it will have much further reaching effects than the hot air and froth being engendered in the Thatcher Room at the moment concerning bankers and so on. When the report comes to fruition in March, April or some time later this year, it will affect education not only in primary schools but right across the board. It will instruct and help teachers and help young people develop skills and will establish a lasting effect on education in this country.

This is a serious debate, and I am pleased to see that some MPs take it seriously and are in the Chamber. We should continue to remind our colleagues how important education is and how it fashions all of us. Many young people will benefit from the report. I am encouraged by Sir Jim Rose’s report and by my visits to schools in my constituency and my talks with head teachers, who welcome the report. They are looking forward to some things in the report that I will discuss in a minute or two. Support staff and teachers also welcome the initiative.

There is, of course, some opposition, whipped up by a few subject teaching associations and some newspapers. They say that the proposed new curriculum is the end of subject teaching—history, geography, maths and so on—and therefore the end of proper teaching. It is complete nonsense to accuse Jim Rose of that particular sin. He is way beyond that. The report is logical. It builds and develops on the themes forming the early years foundation stage. It recognises that there is teaching before the initial teaching alphabet takes over, and that changes and developments have taken place in primary phases during the past few years.

The report encourages cross-curricular links between subjects. I went to the George White junior school in Norwich and found that there are improved attitudes, greater enthusiasm and motivation and consequent improvements in attainment when children are taught in a cross-curricular way. We do not learn in subject boxes; learning is, or should be, an inspiring but sometimes slightly messy and confusing business. It makes more sense to acquire and apply knowledge and skills across the curriculum through themes and topics.

That does not mean, however, that basic literacy and numeracy skills will not be taught. On the contrary, they will be taught separately, as the report recommends, and then applied across the curriculum, where they will make sense and have a purpose. Sir Jim’s proposals outline an exciting, flexible, creative primary curriculum that puts the child at the centre, producing practical, thoughtful “ideas people” rather than forcing children
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into narrow cul-de-sacs of knowledge with an inability to think laterally, creatively and imaginatively or to apply their knowledge and understanding effectively.

The report was called for by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Its aim was to consider the feasibility of reducing the number of subjects in primary education and of introducing foreign languages into the curriculum at that early stage, particularly at key stage 2. The Minister and I will fall out savagely in a few minutes about some of the things that I shall say about key stage 2, because I think that there will be serious consequences if and when the Rose report is implemented. The curriculum should enable schools to provide more personalised teaching, especially for children with special educational needs, about which I shall say more in a minute. Reading, writing and numeracy should be strengthened.

I have identified the following as key points in the review: the aim of instilling a love of learning; changes to the curriculum involving a move away from subject-based education; complementing the use of play in teaching; interaction and general interrelationships between all stages of all education; and allowing teacher innovation within the education sector.

We have read the headlines about the changes from subject teaching to a more thematic approach. People have missed the point if that is what they believe. The quote that has stuck with me—we all had primary education and remember the good bits and bad bits—is

That is something a person carries with them through life: the ability to question because of encouragement to ask questions, without the belief that one can ever stop learning, whether at age 16, 18, 23 or whenever. In a good primary school curriculum, learning is continuously built into children, and it extends throughout the rest of their lives. Sir Jim has sent a powerful message by saying that, and we should welcome it.

We neglect a prime part of the education process in talking so much about increased testing. We miss out on making people enjoy learning—there is nothing to say that it cannot be enjoyed. I welcome the fact that many young people skip and run to get to school because they so enjoy the teaching that they receive and are inspired by it. Others, of course, do not do so, but Rose’s scheme recognises that and allows for their abilities to be fed into a new programme. Those who do well at learning and enjoy it do better in exams.

The report is entitled “The independent review of the primary curriculum”, and we can still feed into it with ideas. Many groups by which I have been invaded—I will mention one or two of them—are still taking part in that process.

“A love of learning” is the phrase that we must push, but many opportunities offered under the new curriculum will be compromised and undermined by the continuing presence of what Sir Jim Rose calls “the elephant in the room”—this is the point where the Minister and I savage each other delightfully—meaning key stage 2 standard assessment tests. Key stage 2 SATs are abhorred out there in the community, and it has been recognised that key stage 3 SATs are not as essential as was once argued.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): All MPs visit schools. I visited one last Friday and spoke to the head, deputy head and chair of governors
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about the curriculum issues to which my hon. Friend refers. I congratulate him on securing this debate. Is it not taking Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t talk about the war” approach to education to instruct Sir Jim Rose not to discuss in any detail comments about assessment and testing? They have a central and sometimes malign impact on curriculum development in terms of teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and so on. Does my hon. Friend hope, as I do, that Sir Jim Rose will set aside that requirement and discuss the future of key stage 2, which should follow key stages 1 and 3?

Dr. Gibson: I agree absolutely. There must be a serious challenge to SATs 2 and their effect on the morale of teachers, young people and parents. We must ask what we should substitute for them. None of us would stand up and say that young people should not be tested by some kind of system, but it should not be a SATs 2. There are other ways to do it, and I will mention some of them. We must trust teachers. They want to inspire their pupils and see that they are being inspired. They are quite prepared to carry out tests, and do so, in their own time and on a more individual basis. Because they know the strengths and weaknesses of the young people they teach, they are able to help them progress.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is the quality of teachers, their enthusiasm and their inspirational ability that make the difference in schools? A good set of well-motivated teachers under a decent head makes for a good school. Does he think that Sir Jim put enough emphasis in his report on the ability for teachers to be flexible and use their skills to inspire children?

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for attending the debate. Certainly, Sir Jim Rose has mentioned that issue, and much more credit could be given to teachers in terms of their contribution to the whole education process. The teaching unions, for example, will be pre-eminent in helping to establish the essential part that teachers play in the whole education process.

Teachers’ assessments and judgments are often sidelined in favour of the crude measurements adopted by Ofsted and the Government, which then appear in league tables. I despise league tables—although not football league tables particularly. I despise league tables for schools for being as pre-eminent as they are, because they bias the whole system and miss lots of tricks about the skills and abilities that young people are developing. I do not want to go on about the kind of tests that exist. All I know is that teachers across the country are not impressed by league tables and the information that they provide.

Of course, we need national standards, and testing must exist to track the progress of pupils, but anyone with any experience, expertise or even common sense recognises that the current regime has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and that it has had a detrimental effect on the education of our young people. I defy any MP to stand up and say that when they go into a school they do not hear that comment time and again from teachers who are absolutely committed to their young people and to their profession.

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Let us look at the changes in the curriculum that Sir Jim Rose has suggested. He wants students to have the following abilities: understanding of English, communication and languages; a mathematical understanding; scientific and technological understanding; human, social and environmental understanding; understanding of physical health and well-being; and understanding of the arts and design. Those are the issues that he has identified as themes; they are the areas where we should be discussing how we inculcate understanding, learning, a love of learning and a questioning attitude.

Understanding English, communication and languages is fairly obvious. We need literacy, of course. Often, however, we miss the importance of communication. Communication is vital. A current instance is the baby P case; it is interesting that at the moment I receive more literature about that case than I do about the Gaza strip. One of the things mentioned over the sacking of the director of children’s services in that case was that communication was very poor.

Communication is a skill and an art. Being able to talk to people, and being confident in doing so, in order to transmit ideas is very important. As an ex-teacher in higher education, I have to say that American students over-communicated. Whenever I held seminars, I could not shut them up. I think that it was part and parcel of their training; they had lots to say, lots to question, and so on. By contrast, generally the English student or the Scottish student—sometimes we get them in England too—used to listen, take notes and then run off to the library to nick the relevant journal before anybody else could. That was their way of becoming involved in a seminar. We should encourage people to talk much more, to argue and not to be afraid of being stupid now and again—they may say something that sounds stupid but might just be on the button in a particular conversation.

As I said, communication is very important. Various groups have written to me on the subject, such as the I CAN charity, which is very active in helping children to communicate; it is specifically a communication charity. It is doing lots of work in that area and I am sure that its work will feed into the Rose report in the next few months.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): If the recommendations of the Rose report are accepted, does the hon. Gentleman expect that there will be more teaching of English, including communication skills, and maths, or does he expect that type of teaching to contract to give more time to other aspects of the curriculum?

Dr. Gibson: Yes, I think there will be a slight contraction of that type of teaching. There is an argument that people can be over-teached, and I think that Sir Jim Rose is asking whether over-teaching happens. What are the essential things that a young person needs in today’s world? There will be some people who say that they should be taught financial ability. We will certainly not get bankers to come and tell us anything about financial ability, but handling finances is very important and it is a skill that must be fed into the curriculum. Whether that is done through mathematics, literacy or whatever, young people must be able to handle finances; they must be able to talk about the issues and argue them out.

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I think that some of the classic rote stuff that we teach will disappear and I do not think that we will miss it very much. There has been an acceptance in the past that some things are essential and the Rose report has started to ask, “What is really essential?” I am not sure that our answers will ever be 100 per cent. correct, but we will get close to that mark—in the 90s, anyway. That process should be encouraged, so that we really look for what is essential.

My experience is that no one ever wants to take anything out of the curriculum, whether in higher education or junior schools. Every teacher wants their subject to be in the curriculum. Sir Jim Rose is trying to establish a different kind of thinking about how we include subjects in the curriculum.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there will be a contraction in the amount of time spent on teaching literacy and communication as a consequence of the report, how does he think that we will tackle the problem that one in five 11-year-olds are still struggling to read when they leave primary school?

Dr. Gibson: I am not trying to say that there will be an absolute doing away with numeracy and literacy. I made the point that there will be some teaching of those subjects. It is just a question of what kind of numeracy and literacy children actually need. If teaching is geared to examinations and league tables, it gives a very different perspective on the curriculum and what is taught than if children are taught what is essential to be a citizen of the United Kingdom and indeed a citizen of the world. There is a bigger debate, which Sir Jim Rose is trying to provoke. Whether or not this country is up to having that debate and whether or not the teaching professionals are big enough to engage in it are questions that will be answered in the next few months.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is being most generous in giving way. Does he agree that many of the one in five 11-year-olds who have just been referred to could read if they decided that they wanted to learn and applied themselves to learning? They just need the inspiration and motivation to do it. Perhaps a more flexible curriculum that gave teachers more opportunity to inspire students and to do their own thing, rather than simply following a set curriculum, would help children to want to learn to read, which would reduce the illiteracy rate at 11.

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make a small point on my little hobby horse—special educational needs?

Dr. Gibson: Fine. I will.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman talked about the skill of communication. We need more speech therapists and we need them now, not in four years’ time. Will he make that point to the Minister please?

Dr. Gibson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention and I absolutely concur with it.

There are charities and volunteer groups that do a lot of work in the field. Volunteer Reading Help is a national charity with a network of about 1,500 volunteers who have helped more than 4,000 children of primary
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age. A huge number of people are prepared to work and confer with the professional teacher about how to help children. There is great recognition of the need not only to read but to be able to write, spell and so on.

Goodness gracious, I spent from the age of six to the age of 11 learning times tables. I am an absolute expert on nine times seven, although I notice that some Ministers get that question wrong sometimes. We had tables hammered into us and brilliance was demonstrated by a student’s ability to do those tests, and by the ability to spell. I think that I am quite a good speller—but gosh, the hours and hours we spent going through spelling books was a waste of time. We should have done something completely different. Politics would have been a good thing to study at a very early age, and I would not have joined the Conservative party either.

Mr. Gibb: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that learning multiplication tables by rote is a waste of time in primary schools?

Dr. Gibson: No, I do not think that it is a waste of time; I was trying to say that we over-elaborate it—trying to get as many youngsters in a class of nine and 10-year-olds to learn what nine times seven is. Okay?

Mr. Gibb: It is very important.

Dr. Gibson: It is important, but overdoing it can put a lot of people off. Perhaps individual help and support provided by volunteers would assist those children who find it difficult to do mathematical things.

David Taylor: In relation to my hon. Friend’s last but one reply to the Opposition spokesman—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb)—I encourage him not to be too apologetic about tackling the obesity of the core curriculum, which has pushed too many other subjects to the margins. Those subjects certainly include the visual and performing arts, which have a part to play in improving communication skills, the importance of which he was talking about earlier. A slimming of certain over-mighty core subjects would not go amiss, as the objectives would be delivered in other ways.

Dr. Gibson: Again, I agree with my hon. Friend. We all agree that it is essential to have mathematics of some kind. As some people will know, I am running a mathematical day for MPs here in a few weeks’ time. MPs are very good at quoting figures, but they do not know how people reach those figures, or what the equations are. The aim is not to make MPs into mathematicians, but to make them sceptical about how figures and statistics are collated, and to make them ask what it really means to say that someone has a 5 per cent. better chance than someone else of not getting cancer. I do not know what that means in concrete terms; if anyone does, will they please tell me?

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