TIMSS showed that between 1995 and the last tests in 2007, England’s primary school maths performance improved by a greater margin than any of the other

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15 nations that had pupils taking tests in those years, including Singapore, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. Our score went from below the international average in 1995 to comfortably above it in 2007. Our ranking improved from 12th out of 16 countries in 1995 to seventh out of 36 in 2007. It was an expanded table in which we had gone up. An example of that kind of performance would be the hon. Member for South West Norfolk going from 10th in Norfolk to 1st in East Anglia.

Dr Coffey: No chance.

Kevin Brennan: “No chance” says the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal from a sedentary position. I did not notice her sneak back into the Chamber; I would not have said that if I had.

The most recent round of TIMSS brought even more good news relating to other tests. In secondary maths, England was the joint third most improved of 20 countries during the period 1995 to 2007, rising from 11th out of 20 to seventh out of 49 in the table. In science, the country was seventh most improved out of 16 at primary level, with its ranking moving from sixth out of 20 countries in 1995 to seventh out of 36 in 2007. It was the fifth most improved out of 19 at secondary level, its ranking improving from seventh to fifth between those two years, even though the number of countries taking part had increased from 19 to 49. I could go on—I am going on until 5.15 pm if the Minister wants to know. However, there is no mention of the alternative picture reflected by TIMSS in any of the things that the Secretary of State says.

We have had an extremely interesting and serious debate this afternoon about what we need to do to improve the education of our children, to improve our schools and to improve our economic performance. We should be doing that in the spirit of thinking about what the real evidence is, examining the statistics and accepting that we should all be striving for continual improvement.

Taking only one part of the picture, subjecting it to the extreme hyperbole of the Secretary of State, with his rather dramatic style, and making that the only basis for policy making is a serious mistake and undermines our shared wish to improve educational performance in our country, to improve opportunity for young people and to improve our economic performance. I therefore make a plea for a higher plane of debate than we have had from the Secretary of State—one that involves less flummery and exaggeration and that is more evidence-based. If that were the case, we could seriously have the kind of education debate that we need and that we want in order to improve our economic performance and to improve education in this country.

5.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this very important debate, which has seen excellent contributions and consensus on the need to improve our education performance. Her excellent opening speech reiterated many of the points made in her

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CentreForum report published earlier in the year entitled “Academic rigour and social mobility: how low income students are being kept out of top jobs”. Both her speech today and that policy paper are worthy of much wider circulation, and I hope that they will receive that, because she has made very important points.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend’s analysis and, in particular, with her forensic dissection of the UK’s educational performance in recent years: her insightful thesis, if I may describe it thus, that equivalence of qualifications has failed the poorest children; her conclusion that comprehensive reform of our education system is urgently required; and her suggestion that there is much more that we can learn from the best performing nations and regions of the world.

There have been excellent speeches from other hon. Members. It is heartening that a debate on education has been so dominated by my hon. Friends, almost all of whom are, as they say, fresh from the people, having been elected in 2010. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) spoke of her own educational journey and emphasised the importance of the foundation subjects of English and maths and the service that the Russell group provided in publishing details of the facilitating subjects, which just happened to match, if I may say so, the subjects in the English baccalaureate. It is a real concern, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) said, that only 4% of students on free school meals achieved the E-bac last year compared with 15.6% nationally. That figure itself—one in six—is lamentably low.

I wonder what the former Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), would have thought when he looked at the five GCSEs or more figures and the increase over the years—it is up to more than 50% today. I wonder whether he thought that most of those achievements would not be in the English baccalaureate subjects. Did he envisage that only 15.6% would achieve a C or more in the English baccalaureate subjects, compared with the more than 50% achieving five or more GCSEs?

Stephen Twigg: The Minister raises a serious point. As I said in my speech, I am passionate about the particular subjects involved—history, geography and modern foreign languages—but I think that I would have recognised that some people would be achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE with one of the subjects being religious studies or perhaps music. My concern is that in a laudable attempt to celebrate the subjects that he has added, other subjects will be crowded out.

Mr Gibb: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but of course there is plenty of room outside the English baccalaureate to study RE, music and art and, indeed, for some pupils to take a vocational subject. We have deliberately kept the English baccalaureate small to enable that to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) spoke of consistent application of school rules and pointed to how dramatically a school can improve its academic performance once behaviour is sorted out. He is absolutely right. He called for more flexibility in the movement of heads going back to teaching. The Government certainly intend to allow more flexibility in terms and conditions for our

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schools. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby was right to pay tribute to Teach First, and I welcome his support for its expansion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) said that the paucity of aspiration was a key characteristic of poorly performing schools. He is absolutely right. We must grapple with that in all our schools, to ensure that we do not sell children short, particularly those from homes where there is not much aspiration; we need to replicate that aspiration in school. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for synthetic phonics. I hope that young Master Field is already reading at the age of three and a half.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) is right to be concerned about the growing gap between the independent and state sectors. The OECD has commented on the fact that the gap in the UK is one of the widest among OECD countries. I assure her that we are committed to raising the standard of alternative provision, and to including the voluntary sector and other providers that have a proven record of helping children with challenging behavioural problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) said during her contribution that more widely based GCSEs, such as the pilot GCSE in boxing that she cited, can be valued without necessarily having to claim that they are the equivalent of academic GCSEs. That is an important point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) provided an important analysis of the PISA figures from 2000 to 2009. We are determined to address the long tail of underachievement, another factor that was found in many PISA surveys.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) quoted Andreas Schleicher. However, as politicians tend to do, he failed to give the full quotation. It is true that he said that there has been

“very little change over the last 10 years.”

But he went on to say that we are an average performer and that

“improvement on the equality front from a social perspective somewhat declined; performance is average.”

He meant that in a pejorative sense, not as something to be happy with.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire was right to point to the weakness of the figure for five or more A to C grades, and the inevitable focus on the border between grades C and D. We are considering the matter, but measures that look at the performance of the lowest quintile will help to address the problem. A column in the performance tables will show what schools have achieved for pupils qualifying for the pupil premium. Schools will not then be able to say, “Well, this is our intake and this is why we are performing poorly” if we consider GCSE results only of those children who qualify for the pupil premium.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) asked about school places. We are doing a significant amount to tackle the problem. There has been an increase in the birth rate since 2001, which is now feeding through into an increase in primary school numbers, and there is £800 million of basic need capital funding to cover shortages. Capital funding is a priority, albeit that it rather short in the current circumstances.

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The hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) cited Australia. We are introducing a scholarship fund—an education endowment fund—of £125 million, to be administered by the Sutton Trust. Teachers will be able to bid for funds to allow them to undertake further study in their academic field, or to improve their teaching skills. That important initiative is on similar lines to the one that she mentioned.

I shall now address the debate more generally. The challenges that we face in the 21st century and the opportunities that we now enjoy are more global in scope than ever before, as many hon. Members have pointed out. The days are long gone when we could afford to educate a minority of our children well, while hoping that the rest would be okay. As we heard, China and India are already turning out more engineers, computer scientists and university graduates than the whole of Europe and America combined.

The success of other nations in educating more of their young people to a higher level is part of their resolute determination to secure their future prosperity. It is no longer good enough to say that we as a nation are doing better than we did in the past. What matters now is not so much how we are doing compared to the past, but how we are doing compared to the rest and, in particular, how we are doing compared to the best of the rest.

We need to ask ourselves how our 16-year-olds are doing when compared with those in the US, Singapore, China and Scandinavia. Sadly, the answer is that we are not doing anywhere near well enough. Across the globe, other nations are outpacing us, accelerating reforms, creating more innovation and pulling ahead in international comparisons.

As has been pointed out, in recent years the UK has slipped down the international league tables. Indeed, when the PISA tables were first published, to the disbelief of the German education establishment they demonstrated that its education system was nowhere near being the global leader it had always thought. In Germany, it became known as “PISA-shock”. Most important, it stimulated a furious debate about how Germany could catch up, and that is the approach that we should be taking. We should not be saying, “Now that the figures are low, this academic or that will not believe them.” That was not being said in the years after 2000 by Labour Ministers or civil servants when the figures showed us being fourth, seventh and eighth in science, literacy and maths.

Similarly, when the United States was confronted with evidence showing that that 15-year-olds in the far east were comfortably outperforming their pupils in maths and science, it was described as a “Sputnik moment”. Most important, it again prompted radical reform of science education in the US. The good news is that the coalition Government are determined to ensure that the latest PISA study leads to similar action here. We are doing so by using examples of what works in the best-performing education nations.

As well as the OECD’s findings, another invaluable contribution was made by Sir Michael Barber and McKinsey. The seminal 2007 report, “How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top”, provided a blueprint for all nations serious about reforming their education systems of what they needed to do to catch up. The 2010 report, “How the world’s most

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improved school systems keep getting better”, provided further invaluable insights for all nations aspiring to improve their education system.

Stella Creasy: I am pleased to hear the Minister talking about science being an important subject and something on which the Government wish to measure progress. Will the Minister update us on what assessment his Department has made of the implications of the lack of science labs many schools will suffer as a result of cancelling the Building Schools for the Future fund projects and the lack of investment in science, particularly in areas such as mine?

Mr Gibb: We are concerned about science, of course, and we are concerned about science labs, but the state of our science laboratories came about over the 13 years of Labour Government. Of course there are problems, but we cannot debate now the Building Schools for the Future programme and the capital and funding problems that are the consequence of economic mismanagement over the past 13 years, which we are trying to tackle.

In the remaining minute, I wish to make a final point. If we dismiss what the OECD and McKinsey tell us, and fly in the face of the evidence of what works, we will not genuinely tackle the problems. Our recently published schools White Paper was deliberately designed to bring together policies that have worked in other high-performing nations.

I would have liked to talk about the academies movement. We have increased the number of academies from 203

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to 658, and we have 1,000 applications to convert to academy status. Evidence of what works around the world shows that only by extending greater autonomy to schools, trusting professionals to get on with their jobs, providing stronger accountability to local communities and raising teacher quality can nations become among the best performing in the world. That is our objective.

5.28 pm

Elizabeth Truss: We have had a most interesting debate. I thank everyone who has contributed, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Wells (Tessa Munt), who pitched with me to the Backbench Business Committee to secure the debate. I hope that we have future debates on this important subject, so that we can get to the bottom of what the issue is.

We have had a lot of disputes about what is in the table. My hon. Friend the Minister put it very well when he said that average is simply not good enough in today’s world. We have seen some acknowledgement of that by the Opposition. I am an optimist, and I hope that the Opposition will be less defensive about their record, so that they can focus on the future and on how to raise standards. That is important for everyone. If Japan can get 95% of students from 16 to 18 studying maths, science, languages and humanities, so can we and we can compete internationally.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

Sitting adjourned.