Previous Section Index Home Page

10 Feb 2009 : Column 353WH—continued

Any primary education review that leaves out the testing regime leaves out something of great importance and relevance to the curriculum debate, because one cannot debate the curriculum without debating the
10 Feb 2009 : Column 354WH
pressures on schools through the testing regime, which is so crucial. I certainly do not want us to get rid of key stage 2 testing in its entirety; it is important to know in primary schools the proportion of youngsters who achieve basic skills in maths and English. I do not want the testing regime to become more onerous through the introduction of single-level tests, either. The debacle of last year’s SATs results gives us an opportunity to consider whether there is a greater role for teacher assessment with external moderation, because credible tests are still essential for testing the right things in the basic subjects and for giving us an idea of how schools and youngsters are doing in a particular age range.

We also need a much better system of assessing youngsters as they enter primary education, and of ensuring that the interventions that they need, particularly in speech, language and other special educational areas, are delivered. The testing regime should not just be about assessing the performance of schools. More significantly, it should be about the actions that we need to take to improve opportunities for young children. That is why some of our proposals on school funding and the pupil premium, which would put additional money into schools to help the most disadvantaged youngsters, are crucial, and will become even more important in an environment where education funding is being squeezed, as it will be after 2011.

10.20 am

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing this important debate. I disagree with most of what he said, but I do agree with his view that Romans, Saxons and the middle ages, as well as the oceans and continents, the rivers of the UK and the countries of Europe, should be taught in primary schools. I disagree with his comment that primary schools should not teach about kings and queens: they are an important part of understanding our history, and I hope that they remain in the primary curriculum.

Dr. Gibson: Also the Scottish kings and queens.

Mr. Gibb: And the Scottish kings and queens as well.

I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) that there is no clamour among primary teachers or head teachers for further changes to the primary curriculum, and that what is desperately sought in the primary sector is a period of stability.

The interim report of the Rose review of primary education is both disappointing and confused. It is disappointing because it fails to refer to and therefore to address the fundamental problems in our education system that it was designed to tackle. There is no reference in the report to the fact that one in five 11-year-olds leave primary school still struggling with reading despite seven years of primary education; the fact that 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds leave primary school not having reached level 4 in reading, writing and maths combined; the fact that, in 2007, 37 per cent. of six-year-olds on free school meals failed to reach the national standard in their key stage 1 writing assessment, up from 28 per cent. in 2002; the fact that nearly 3,000 fewer six-year-olds from the most deprived communities achieved a level 2 or above in key stage 1 maths last year than in 2005-06; or the fact that the number of six-year-olds
10 Feb 2009 : Column 355WH
from the most disadvantaged communities achieving the national standard in writing has fallen by 18 per cent. since 1997. None of those key issues is addressed in the interim report.

One of the main problems facing our education system is literacy, yet, despite using the word “reading” 35 times, there is not a single mention of the word “phonics”, let alone the phrase “synthetic phonics”, in the 68 pages of the report. There is not even a reference to Jim Rose’s report on the teaching of reading, which recommended the early and systematic teaching of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading. How can a review of the primary curriculum not refer to how reading is taught and how it should be taught?

It was the Conservatives who initiated the debate on how reading is taught in primary schools. It led to the report of the then Education and Skills Committee and then to the previous Rose review, which was about reading, and the change in Government policy under Tony Blair and Lord Adonis. However, under the current Administration, there appears to be no understanding of the importance of the issue. Is it not odd that Jim Rose appears as the author of both reports? I believe that the Rose review on reading was actually written by Jim Rose himself, whereas the report we are debating today, while claiming to be independent, is actually written by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, as the remit letter instructs. It is therefore hardly what one would call independent.

I take the point that the hon. Member for Yeovil made about mumbo-jumbo in paragraph 1.51, which contrasts starkly with the clear and simple language and direction of policy in the Rose review on reading. It would be hard to believe that the two reports were written by the same person.

There is no reference in the report to how maths should be taught: for example, whether so-called reform maths—the multiple-strategy approach to the teaching of arithmetic—is actually working. The Conservatives have established an inquiry into maths teaching in our schools. It will be headed by Carol Vorderman and will consider whether children should learn their multiplication tables by heart, so that they instinctively know that eight sevens are 56, for example. Children need to know number bonds automatically, so that they can say that eight plus four is 12 without having to count on their fingers. That can be achieved only through practice and direct, whole-class teaching. Automaticity is as vital in arithmetic as it is in the playing of the piano, if one is to progress to more challenging maths or to more complex pieces of music.

None of that is discussed in the report. What is discussed is a proposal to move to more cross-curriculum teaching using themes and projects—all the old 1950s and 1960s mantras that have failed whenever and wherever they have been tried. A 1992 analysis of primary education by the three wise men, including Sir Jim Rose, concluded:

Page 17 of the Rose review highlights a major survey published by Her Majesty’s inspector of schools in 1978, noting that

10 Feb 2009 : Column 356WH

The review goes on to state that it is

No, it is advocating a return to a new style of topic and project work and cross-curricular teaching, but it is not how one implements the approach but the approach itself that is the problem. The report does not explain why continuing with the same ’50s and ’60s approach that failed so badly will succeed now, nor does it say how implementation today will differ from implementation in the ’50s and ’60s. I do not believe that the results will be any different if we go back to an approach that failed when it was tried in the ’50s and ’60s, in the ’70s, and even in the ’80s and ’90s.

Mr. Laws: I have sympathy with some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but does he agree that many schools succeed in blending different elements of the curriculum? I hope that he does not want to impede the work of good schools that are capable of blending parts of the curriculum together in a useful way.

Mr. Gibb: There should be flexibility in the curriculum. My concern is that the review will replace one set of prescriptions with another and will not increase flexibility. Schools will now feel that they have to do what is in this report rather than what they were doing before.

Of course there are cross-curricular activities: for example, when a class is asked to write up something about the middle ages—a story or what they have learned from the textbook that they have been given—doing so improves their literacy skills. That is the right approach to cross-curricular teaching, not attempts to shoehorn literacy, numeracy and other parts of the curriculum into themes, whether chocolate or rocks, in which one loses the structure and can miss out important parts of what needs to be taught, compared with teaching distinct subjects.

On page 25 of the report is a list of the ideological debates that have plagued education since this ideology was introduced into the British education system in the 1950s. It originated in the United States in the 1920s at Teachers College, Columbia university, under John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick. The report lists:

The report itself clearly comes down on the ideological side of cross-curricular studies and child-initiated learning through play.

On the 50-year debate about whether schools should teach knowledge or skills, page 27 of the report states that

But the next paragraph states:

10 Feb 2009 : Column 357WH

In effect, that is an endorsement of the cross-curricular skills approach that the preceding paragraph dismissed. However, no evidence is given in the review about how and why that approach might be effective now when it was so ineffective in the past.

Paragraph 1.48 says:

Yet, despite dismissing these answers as poor, the review, on page 41, recommends:

Herein lies the confusion in the report, which is at the heart of this review. Evidence that the 1950s and ’60s approaches do not work is cited, but the report proceeds to recommend those same approaches. The review appears to endorse and promote an ideological approach that has failed.

E. D. Hirsch, in his book, “The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them”, sets out clearly the problem in American schools, which also applies to British schools: he says why that ideological approach has never worked and goes into the roots of the ideology. I tried to find a quote from the book that best summarises the argument, but the best quote is from the blurb on the reverse of the book, which says:

That is the point that the hon. Member for Norwich, North made: love of learning comes from learning well in primary schools. Throughout his book, Hirsch talks of the damage that the “naturalistic”, “project-orientated”, “hands-on”, “critical thinking” approach to education has caused.

The communist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, was one of the first to understand the damage that this approach to education was causing. There is nothing new in all this: it all goes back to the 1920s and ’30s; the same old stuff is repeated and fails over and over again, but here we are in 2009 recommending the same stuff again. Gramsci wrote in 1932 that this type of education

That can be seen in all the data showing the gap widening between the children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from middle-class, educated backgrounds. The gap between the state and independent sectors is widening, too. The review is full of recommendations that would move English primary education even further towards the type of education that so worried Gramsci.

10 Feb 2009 : Column 358WH

The review states, on page 49:

That is a clear endorsement of extending play-based education from the nursery to reception and even to year 1. I asked the Minister for Schools and Learners a parliamentary question about how many parents had been consulted as part of the review process, echoing the concerns about the consultation process expressed by the hon. Member for Yeovil. The answer was eight.

One in five children in London attend an independent school. Many centre-left and left-wing journalists I know send their children to independent schools. When I ask them why, they say that it is not the social cachet or the exclusivity of the intake that makes them spend upwards of £8,000 a year, or even the small class sizes, but the fact that vast majority of pre-prep and prep schools have not adopted the so-called progressive approach to education that is so prevalent in the state sector. Those schools have never abandoned phonics in the teaching of reading: they continued to teach children their times tables by heart and they have 40 minutes a week each of history and geography, with no intention of shunting those subjects to key stage 3 and secondary school, as Rose wants to do in the review, thereby narrowing the curriculum and lightening it by shunting those important subjects up to secondary school.

If we are serious about raising standards in our primary schools, we have to eschew the ideological approach that has so dominated this country’s education system from the late 1950s, particularly following the Plowden report in 1967. We need to replace this ideological approach with a practical approach using what the evidence says works.

The paragraph in the review that most alarmed me was 2.44 on page 42, which says,

That is what the report says—“exaggerating”. If Sir Jim Rose and the QCA do not believe that it is a disaster for a child to leave primary school unable to read, they are the wrong people to carry out a review of primary education.

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): Mr. Olner, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. He is right; this is the first opportunity that we have had to debate an important area of education reform. I thank him for his warm welcome for the interim report of the Rose review.

I should like to stress, first, that the report is an interim one and, secondly, that it is on the primary curriculum, not on primary education—some Members may have misinterpreted that point, as a couple of them referred to the review as a report on primary education. That may be what they wished it was, but it is a report on the primary curriculum. My hon. Friend has brought great insight to the debate, as a teacher and from his
10 Feb 2009 : Column 359WH
experience as a constituency Member of Parliament. Unlike the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the primary schools that I have visited welcome the review of the curriculum, so perhaps we are going into different primary schools.

I want to correct one point that was made. Although the QCA provided evidence, Sir Jim Rose actually wrote and authored the report.

The 21st-century job market is rapidly changing, as are the skills that young people will need when they leave school. Our young people, as we all know, are more techno-savvy and adept at communications. Importantly, new jobs are opening up that did not even exist a decade or so ago. The technological and communications revolution has opened up a whole realm of possibilities for more interactive, engaging learning than we could even have dreamed of 20 years ago, when the national curriculum was first introduced. We need to adapt our education system to that rate of change so that it is flexible enough to accommodate and seize on those opportunities and to prepare our young people for the future.

In our children’s plan, we outlined our ambition for a world-class education system and high-quality children’s services and for this country to be the best place in the world for children to grow up in.

Bob Spink: In their plan for a world-class education system, have the Government considered rebalancing the funding between primary and secondary education? We spend much more on secondary education than on primary education, and perhaps that should be rebalanced so that children acquire basic skills before they go to secondary school, where it is much more expensive to correct problems. Perhaps the Government should examine the system in Japan.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The hon. Gentleman will find that many local authorities are rebalancing their funding towards early years and primary education. When I was in local government, my local authority certainly took that policy decision, because it saw evidence of early intervention feeding through into later years.

The review says that we must weave flexibility through the fabric of our education infrastructure from what is taught to how it is taught—the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) referred to that point. Crucially, that flexibility must be underpinned with consistency throughout—high standards, and coherence throughout the spectrum from nought to 19 in education, mirrored by children’s services. The Government created the new Department for Children, Schools and Families more than a year ago to bring that coherence to Whitehall. Looking ahead, we are about to legislate to make local authorities the single point of accountability for all children’s services and provision from nought to 19, and that too will lend greater coherence to the system.

Next Section Index Home Page