Previous Section Index Home Page

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The other day I met in Parliament a primary school teacher from Bristol who raised with me several concerns about the testing regime. I am sure that he will welcome some of the Secretary of State’s announcements, although he may feel that they do not go far enough. One of his concerns was about how much of the school budget is spent on extra support for pupils who are just under the cusp of passing the test to ensure that they get through it, and whether that means that children who do not stand any chance of reaching the required level are left by the wayside. What assurances can the Secretary of State give to teachers and to the parents of such pupils
7 May 2009 : Column 371
that children will not be abandoned because there is not much chance of their reaching the level of the test in the time scale required?

Ed Balls: I can give this assurance. We are changing the nature of school accountability away from the current focus on the performance of the average child, which, as my hon. Friend says, incentivises focusing on children just below that level, to give schools proper credit for the progress not only of the most talented children but of the children who fall behind. The report card is the right way to do that. As teachers, head teachers and parents look at our proposal in detail in the coming weeks, they will see that that situation, rather than the testing regime, needs to be changed in order to ensure that we achieve the outcome for every child that my hon. Friend supports.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Notwithstanding the reams of statistics that the Secretary of State mentioned and the learned groups and experts whom he prayed in aid, does he accept that there is a widespread public concern, which my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) expressed, about the degree of rigour in education and the level of attainment in difficult subjects such as sciences and languages, which goes right the way up to university level, is often found by employers, and is reflected in university applications? Will the Secretary of State bear that in mind, or does he think that it is completely ill founded?

Ed Balls: We recently had an international and independent report, the Tymms study, which showed that in maths and in science, English education is now right up there with the best and ahead of our European partners. Instead of listening to the rhetoric of his Front Benchers, he should study the facts, where he will find real progress and rising standards year on year, internationally verified. We are legislating to introduce the independent body, Ofqual, to try to give greater assurance to parents and teachers that standards are rising and to find an antidote to the continual attempts by Opposition Front Benchers to talk down the achievements of teachers and children in our country.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement; no doubt his report card will say “Reasonable progress to date”. However, when he refers to student learning and school accountability, is he sure that he does not mean student learning or school accountability? Student learning comes with a report card on the progress that a student has made; school accountability comes from the summation of the added values for those children shown by their report card. He is up to date, but so that he is not fixed in stone, will he keep an open mind in future as regards getting rid of these set tests, finding a way of spot-checking the progress children make in our schools, and reinforcing school accountability?

Ed Balls: We have shown over the past few months that we are willing to reform the system on the basis of the best expert advice and try to build a consensus on the way forward on testing and accountability. As the expert group says, many of the concerns are not about the tests themselves but about how they are then used. My hon. Friend is right that as well as focusing on average attainment in the class, we must look at the
7 May 2009 : Column 372
progress that children make and the disadvantage that they start with and experience while learning, as well as the views of parents and children and their wider well-being. All those things are what parents value in a school and what head teachers want to deliver for all the children in their school.

I am not seeking to abolish old-style league tables—that would be the wrong thing to do. I want to put in place a simple and compelling report that compares school by school but does so fairly on the basis of some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises. That is the biggest reform that we can achieve, and I hope that we will have support not only from Labour Members but from the Conservatives—although I will not hold my breath.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Clearly the Secretary of State’s report card would say, “Shocking; could do better; should be kept back a year” or something along those lines, because his explanation today has not been very good. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) asked him what the major difference was between maths and English and science that meant they were being treated differently. I agree that there should be enhanced teacher assessment, although I rather hope that that is what good teachers would be doing in any event, because they would want to know where the deficiencies were with any of their youngsters, but we must still have the important external rigour and independence.

Surely part of the problem, as my hon. Friend said, is the simplicity of some of the questions that youngsters are now being asked. They are hardly challenging. They cannot be, because even I could answer some of the questions that my hon. Friend read out—not all of them, but some, and I am not good at science. Surely we ought to be trying to enthuse our youngsters into being attracted to science not only in primary school but in secondary school and on to university. Sadly, over the past few years university science courses have shrunk, and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Ed Balls: I fear that the explanation for the hon. Gentleman’s self-confessed lack of progress in and understanding of science is that, unfortunately, he almost certainly went to school under a Tory Government. Today, young people going to school under a Labour Government are getting a quite different experience of science education. If he would like some remedial learning, I can absolutely have that arranged.

The expert group makes it clear that:

It explains why science learning and understanding is better suited to a different type of testing from that for English and maths. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will study the report.

The hon. Gentleman mentions being held back. There have been a number of Opposition proposals on testing and assessment. About a year and a half ago, they proposed that 11-year-olds who do not make the grade in primary school should be held back for a further year. We do not hear much about that from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), although it was his party’s leader who set that out in The Sunday Telegraph in September 2007. The reason why the
7 May 2009 : Column 373
Opposition do not talk about it is that it was roundly condemned by head teachers, teachers and parents, who were horrified at the prospect that a child in year 6 would suddenly be with a whole load of pupils who had been held back for another year. The hon. Gentleman says that people should be held back, but that was a Conservative proposal that was rejected by parents, although the Opposition Front Benchers have not yet withdrawn it. Maybe they will do that today.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I am pleased to hear that continued consideration will be given to the effectiveness of testing and assessment. I should like to put it on record, and I should like him to acknowledge, that in Stockton we have seen seriously improved assessed standards in primary schools, driven by highly professional teaching staff and head teachers.

During the conducting of this valuable study, did any teachers or head teachers make the statement that their teaching now lacks creativity as a consequence of testing and assessment?

Ed Balls: I am sure that there are some head teachers and teachers who believe that the way they approach testing in year 6 reduces creativity. I do not find that that is the general pattern, and in fact the best teachers and outstanding leaders know that the way to get pupils to succeed, including in their tests, is to inspire them and have a creative curriculum. The reason for the rise in standards in recent years has been in part great teaching but also the focus and accountability that the tests bring. I pay tribute to the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, because after years of stagnation under the Conservative party, standards have been rising because of investment and great teaching. We want to keep that investment flowing in future years, so that standards can keep rising for her constituents.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The chief inspector of schools told the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families yesterday, when asked who she thought would write the school report cards, that she was not sure. When pushed, she said that she assumed it would be the Department, and then said that really she had no idea. Can the Secretary of State tell the House who will be writing and signing off school report cards? If he does know the answer to that question, will he explain why he has not shared it with the chief inspector of schools?

Ed Balls: I hate to chastise a member of the Select Committee, but one would have thought that he might read some of the published documents and discussions
7 May 2009 : Column 374
about the school report card. If he had, he would not have asked a question that was so far off the mark.

The school report card, as we set out in the autumn, will be compiled on the basis of a series of different data sources, all of which need to be objective and externally verifiable. They will include data on attainment, progress, the views of parents and children, education outcomes and health outcomes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I are working together closely to ensure that progress on the health of children will be reflected in the school report card.

The report card will not be written; it will be compiled from a series of externally validated data sources on the basis of clear, widespread consultation. That will be done through statute, which will be brought to the House, and on the basis of an agreement that we believe can be reached consensually. As I said, the report card will be published for every school based on those external data sources, according to a formula that we will consult on and agree. We will bring forward proposals for that formula in the White Paper. It will be externally verifiable, but it will be done school by school—

Mr. Stuart: By whom?

Ed Balls: By the school, of course.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Has the Secretary of State completed his remarks? [Interruption.] No, no, I am not insisting, but he is taking interventions from a sedentary position. Is he happy to finish there?

Ed Balls: Well, I have not answered the question.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With respect, the Secretary of State has already spent quite some time doing that.

Ed Balls: I was instructed that it was quite important that I took a bit of time, Mr Deputy Speaker.

We will ensure that this is done in such a way that each school will be able to produce its own report card in the public domain, based on objective criteria on which we will consult widely and which will be independently verified. Each school will be able to produce and publish it. Of course that will be done in consultation with Ofsted and Ofqual to ensure that is objective and done properly. The reason why I was rather surprised by the question is that if the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who is a member of the Select Committee, had studied the reports properly, he would not have asked such a ridiculous question in the first place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Well, I think that we can now move to the next statement.

7 May 2009 : Column 375

Swine Flu Update

1.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a further statement on swine flu. The World Health Organisation alert remains at phase 5, which means that although the current outbreak is not yet classified as a pandemic, it could become one at any point as the disease develops.

At present, there are 1,518 confirmed cases across the world, and 29 deaths from swine flu have been confirmed in Mexico and two in the United States. The Health Protection Agency will announce this afternoon that there are currently 34 confirmed cases in the UK, but there is not yet evidence of sustained person-to-person transmission—that is to say, people in the community who have no obvious link with each other catching this disease.

Ten people who are not known to have travelled to Mexico caught the virus in the UK from other infected people who are close contacts. We can reasonably expect the number of such cases to increase considerably over the coming weeks.

Of the UK cases, 13 are children. Following expert assessment, four schools closed on the advice of local health protection officers to contain any potential outbreak. A fifth school and a linked nursery decided to close of their own volition after two pupils at the school were confirmed to have the disease, though they had not been at school when symptomatic. I can confirm that one of the two additional cases announced today is a child at that school.

We recognise the enormous disruption that school closure can cause pupils, parents and staff. I would like to reassure parents that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has well established plans, including procedures to handle any disruption to exams.

Although the overall number of cases in the UK is still relatively low, the situation remains serious and could rapidly escalate. Our current approach is one of containment while preparing for a further phase when that is no longer possible.

As I announced to the House last week, we have taken steps to increase our already substantial stocks of antivirals to enable us to cover 80 per cent. of the population, although I stress again that we do not expect anywhere near those numbers to be affected.

We are also increasing our stockpiles of antibiotics, which are essential for treating any potential complications caused by swine flu, so that we have enough to cover 30 per cent. of the population by September. We have ordered an additional 227 million surgical face masks and 34 million respirators, which, if used properly, can prevent transmission to NHS staff who are in close and frequent contact with patients.

As the World Health Organisation has made clear, one of the critical elements of any country’s response to the situation is how the public are kept informed of developments, the steps they can take to protect themselves, and what they should do if they or a family member fall ill.

7 May 2009 : Column 376

A mass public health campaign has begun with print, television and radio advertising. Leaflets are being delivered to every home with information about the outbreak and the preventive measures people can take. Recorded information is available on the swine flu information line: 0800 1 513 513.

The evidence so far shows that the message is getting through, not only in making people generally aware of swine flu, but, critically, in conveying the importance of good respiratory hygiene. The response from the public has been both responsible and proportionate, as, indeed, it has generally been from the media, which also have a vital role to play.

I turn now to the steps that we are taking to contain the current virus, all of which are based on the best scientific evidence. We can be thankful that we know a great deal more about these issues than Governments who had to deal with pandemics in the last century. However, we still do not know enough about the nature of this specific virus. Leading scientific experts in this country and across the world are urgently studying whom the virus is most likely to affect, whether it will mutate, and the possibility of its re-emergence in the autumn as a more dangerous strain.

While it seems that those who developed the disease outside Mexico have generally experienced only mild symptoms, there has been a second death in America, of a woman who apparently had chronic underlying health conditions. The Health Protection Agency and the scientific advisory group on emergencies, which is jointly chaired by the Government’s chief scientist Professor John Beddington and by Professor Sir Gordon Duff, chair of the scientific pandemic influenza advisory committee, are clear that it is still too early for confident predictions about the possible severity of the flu in the UK.

The current containment phase means that all those who contract the virus are given antivirals to aid recovery, and close contacts, whether they have symptoms or not, are given antivirals prophylactically to reduce their chance of developing the disease and spreading it further. That strategy has been adopted because there is good scientific evidence that, in the early stages, it will stop some outbreaks and delay for as long as possible the establishment of an epidemic.

However, through that approach, we can hope only to delay a more widespread outbreak; we cannot stop it altogether. Once the virus becomes more established, providing antivirals prophylactically will be a less effective strategy. People who take antivirals who are not ill, and then cease taking them, could still contract the disease, and we would risk depleting our precious antiviral stockpile. There is also some evidence to show that widespread use of antivirals may drive the development of a resistant strain of the virus, making our major weapon in the fight against the disease less effective.

We will therefore need to consider moving beyond the current strategy of containment, in which antivirals are provided to all contacts, to a strategy of mitigation. At that point, we will need to take a view on how best to use our stock of antivirals to treat and limit the spread of illness. However, we would consider such a measure only if there is clear evidence of sustained transmission within communities and on the advice of the scientific advisory group on emergencies and the Health Protection Agency. I expect to be able to report to Parliament if and when such a change of approach becomes necessary.

Next Section Index Home Page