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Lord Parry: My Lords, is the noble Baroness absolutely certain that that was the child's creation? Each Christmas I receive about 50 letters from Japan that are identical with one another.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I must advise the noble Lord that I was in that classroom when the children were writing those letters. That youngster continued—and I can relate to this:

    By By. I wait for your letter, Abiahaunyan Anna".

Perhaps I may quote again:

    "Dear Friend,

    My name is Tanya. I live in Stepanakert ... I am twelve years old ... Our family isn't large"—

the apostrophe was in the right place—

    "I have a mother, a father and a brother and a grandmother. My brother is sixteen years old. His name is Vanya. He wounded....I read books of foreign authors such as Mark Twain, Goerge Sand, Alexander Duma. Can you write your letter in English"—

I think that letter had been written in the mother tongue. The letter continued:

    "I shall wait for your letters with great impatience. I'll be very glad to make friends with you".

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I have to ask how many British 12 year-olds can write as well as that in English, let alone in a third language and a third script. Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord who intervened that those youngsters could also speak English fluently. I was there—

Lord Parry: My Lords, I accept it.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I had a very lively and spontaneous discussion with them. Their English flowed easily and spontaneously. The discussion touched on many issues, ranging from my age to current geopolitical problems.

I believe that there are serious lessons here. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, pointed out in his recent excellent lecture: we have to take very seriously the evidence that we in this country have failed too many of our young people by adopting attitudes to education and methods of teaching which have left them sorely bereft of educational attainments of which they are capable: low expectations; failure to set homework; failure to challenge pupils to give of their best; and ideological commitment to methods of teaching reading which manifestly have not worked for too many children. All these deficiencies in many schools have left too many of our young people in a different league of knowledge, skills and attainment from their counterparts in war-torn Karabakh—and in many other parts of the world.

It is a similar story with mathematics. As long ago as 1979, the Institute of Mathematics published a disturbing study showing an alarming proportion of 16 year-olds—those of school-leaving age—incapable of accomplishing the simplest mathematical tasks. One quarter of pupils in London secondary schools who were tested in that survey could not even multiply 79 by six—with a pencil and paper. Other parts of the country also showed disturbing numbers of 16 year-olds incapable of carrying out the simplest calculations needed for everyday life. That study should have sent alarm bells ringing through the system and instigated urgent remedial measures. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, and others have already said, research by Professor Prais shows that we are still lamentably behind in mathematics. In a recent study, Schooling as Preparation for Life & Work in Switzerland & Britain, Professor Prais shows:

    "the scores attained by the top 40 per cent. in England would be attained by the top 65-70 per cent. in Switzerland".

Those situations bespeak a crisis—a crisis for our young people, who are being lamentably ill-prepared for life; and a crisis for our country, as so many of the next generation will enter national and international arenas woefully incapable of appreciating the priceless treasures of our and others' cultural heritage, and disadvantaged in the inevitable competition for employment, which will increase as national boundaries disappear.

As I have used personal experience to illustrate the poignant reality behind statistics, I draw to a conclusion by offering one other telling vignette. Only last week I was in Moscow, and my Russian interpreter told me that she had been studying as a postgraduate student in

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Oxford and had been invited to continue her studies there. She had declined, because she had a son, now aged 12. He had attended a middle school in Oxfordshire—Oxfordshire has already been referred to—and she was so alarmed by the lack of education he was receiving in that middle school that she felt she had to take him back to Russia.

My interpreter described how she kept hoping that her son would study Shakespeare in the land of Shakespeare; but whenever she inquired she was told that the class would "do Shakespeare" by the end of the year, but it never did. It was still reading books for young children, and in her words, "I felt he was old enough to read more grown up books than stories about rabbits and butterflies". She said that in England he always came home with his schoolbag empty and with no homework. So she has reluctantly terminated her studies at Oxford to take her son back to Moscow to study Shakespeare there and to bring home a schoolbag with homework in it—homework that he wants to do.

I finish with a plea. In 1972, the noble Lord, Lord Briggs, wrote a report on nursing in which he argued that,

    "Nursing should become a research-based profession".

The time is overdue for teaching to follow suit. The scene is well set. The Government deserve great credit for establishing procedures to make that possible. To quote HMCI again:

    "Recent legislation has created a new and coherent framework within which schools can work".

Perhaps I may mention a few examples of recent legislative and policy reforms which set the scene for significant improvement: first, successive measures have been taken in recent years to make information about schools available to parents and to the public in accordance with the principle of accountability—those have made available important information on school performance; secondly, the streamlined national curriculum should help to ensure that all pupils attain at least minimal knowledge and skills in key subjects; thirdly, Ofsted can highlight, through its inspection procedures and reports, good practice which can be emulated, and less good practice which can be remedied; fourthly, systematic research into the effectiveness of different methods of teaching children to read has been published, is now available, and should be made available for teachers and for those responsible for teacher education; and my last example is the establishment of the Teacher Training Agency. That should help to enhance the preparation of student teachers for their professional responsibilities.

It is my hope that we shall now learn the lessons of the past; rigorously assess the present; and build a firm foundation for the future, so that we can give each and all of our children the education which they need in order to realise their potential and to enjoy lives which are as fulfilled as possible. They deserve no less, and, as a nation, we cannot afford to give them less.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by asking for your Lordships' indulgence if I am not in my place for the wind-up speeches. I apologise for that

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discourtesy, but I have a long-standing engagement. I add my thanks to my noble friend Lady Perry for the clear way she described the considerable advances that have been made. She has given us an opportunity to debate this important matter.

It is now four years since I had the great privilege of becoming a Member of your Lordships' House. My maiden speech was on a subject which has been of particular interest to me over many years. My chosen topic was the role of education in the life of our nation's women. Today's debate is an ideal occasion for me to turn once again to that concern and to consider the Government's progress in that vital field.

Over recent years, major strides have been made in ensuring that greater equality of opportunity exists between the sexes. In Britain, women have long been encouraged to believe in their capacity to achieve. Britain was the first Western country to elect a woman Prime Minister. In recent years, the first British astronaut was a woman. Today we hear of the appointment of the first woman Tornado pilot, and, dare I say it, we are all now aware of the position achieved by Mrs. Stella Rimington. It is not surprising that there is widespread acceptance of the fact that women and men are equally capable of attaining success in their chosen careers.

The most effective way to reinforce that view is to start in the classroom by ensuring that children, regardless of their gender, are given their full entitlement to a good education. It is only then that they can enter with confidence through the door of opportunity. And what opportunities there are! In all aspects of education policy, pre-school, primary, secondary, further and higher education, the Government are offering our nation's young every possible means of achieving their potential.

It gives me immense pleasure to illustrate just how successfully women are performing in education. Let us remember that government are only the enabler who set in place the mechanisms through which girls can develop skills. It is up to women themselves to rise to the challenges offered by education. I must say that they are doing so magnificently.

Successive Conservative Governments have transformed our education system by introducing an extensive programme of reforms which have raised standards across the board and have encouraged choice and diversity in education. That commitment to parental choice means, for instance, that all parents wishing to send their daughters to single-sex schools can obtain the school of their choice, and once at school the majority of girls work hard and excel.

At GCSE level, girls now do better overall than boys. In 1993, nearly 46 per cent. gained five or more passes at grades A to C, compared with under 37 per cent. of boys. In subjects such as English and modern languages, the gap was even larger. After school, more 16 year-old girls and boys elect to continue in full or part-time education. At A-level girls continue to be high achievers. Girl entrants now score higher success rates than boys—in English, yes, but also in mathematics, physics and technology.

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The fact that such subjects were seen traditionally as a male preserve has proved no impediment to the present generation of young women. One development which gives me special satisfaction is the exciting growth in the range of vocational opportunities available to women. GNVQs have proved immensely popular. The Government's message to women is unmistakable: whatever your interests, whatever your aptitudes, our education policy exists to help you succeed.

The years since 1979 have seen a massive expansion in the number of young people entering higher education, and, as was outlined by my noble friend Lady Perry, it was one in eight at that time and is now one in three. Over the years the proportion of girls in the intake to higher education has steadily increased. In the past decade alone it has risen from 42 per cent. to over 47 per cent. Today, we are almost at parity. Gender equality in our universities is a real achievement, unmatched in most other European countries. Once again, in advancing equality of opportunity, Britain is leading the field.

I should like to say a word about graduate employment. I preface my remarks, however, with a word of praise. In one particular profession women greatly outnumber men. That is the teaching profession. More and more women are choosing to follow a career in teaching. Indeed, there are some 50,000 more women teachers and lecturers than men. To choose teaching as a career is to take on an enormous responsibility—the role of shaping and moulding the next generation. The role of teacher is crucial in determining the future of our nation. Thus I pay tribute today to the excellent work of so many young women who see in teaching their true vocation.

So how do other women graduates fare on the jobs front? As it happens, they are extremely successful in entering employment after completing higher education. In 1991 the employment rate among female graduates was 91 per cent.—much higher than the rate among men. Recent surveys have shown that the dramatic expansion in the employment rate of women graduates is continuing. In ICL, women occupied 65 per cent. of the graduate intake. At Abbey National, half of its 600 branch managers are women, compared with only a dozen 10 years ago. Twenty years ago, only one in 10 newly qualified accountants was a women. Now women number nearly half.

Finally, I must stress that, although education is a great tool, although it equips women for a career, it is also of incalculable value in other aspects of their lives. The joy and contentment, the sense of personal fulfilment, that are instilled through education should never be underestimated. What a good all-round education imparts, above all, is a sense of self-assurance, a training for life itself, and, as well as being necessary for the world of work, education should equally be seen as an essential preparation for the role of wife and mother, no less crucial as we approach the year 2000.

In every area of their education policies this Government are wholly committed to increasing equality for women. As I have suggested, over the past 15 years women have responded to their increased

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opportunities with alacrity. Undoubtedly, there is still room for much greater recognition of the part that women can play in business, in the professions and, I am sure your Lordships will all agree, in politics. But we can be confident today of at least one thing—that in classrooms throughout the land the next generation of women are proving their ability again and again. They deserve our congratulations on all they have achieved. Their remarkable success at school is surely a heartening indication of their likely contribution to our national well-being in the years to come.

7.13 p.m.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in echoing the thanks expressed by many of your Lordships to the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and in congratulating her warmly upon her opening speech, may I with great regret follow the last two speakers by expressing my apologies for the fact that, because of a long standing engagement, I, too, shall regrettably be unable to listen to the closing speeches, though I shall of course read them very carefully?

Since November 1993, when the report, Learning to Succeed, of the Hamlyn Foundation National Commission on Education—I was privileged to chair the commission—was published, there have been, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said, many encouraging developments in education. First, the Government have recognised the crucial role which can be played in improving achievement for all pupils, and even in reducing subsequent delinquency, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said, by good quality nursery education. We have been much encouraged by the commitment announced by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to providing universal nursery education for four year-olds. We trust that the department's taskforce now studying this topic will soon report, that that objective will soon be achieved and that provision will later be extended to three year-olds. The benefits of such education are surely now beyond dispute.

It has also been encouraging to learn that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools has confirmed that Ofsted inspections and academic performance tables have shown that many schools are raising pupils' standards of achievement. The vision, commitment and expertise of the teachers who work in such schools deserve the greatest possible praise. In a break with convention, the inspector listed 52 secondary schools which received very positive reports and which had improved their examination results by 10 per cent. or more between 1992 and 1994. With every respect to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that is a hopeful trend. Happily, too, the slimmed-down national curriculum is now generally accepted and is being implemented, and the teaching profession now at last accepts that regular and appropriate testing of pupils in different age groups is a helpful and effective means of assessing progress.

The GCSE has also proved to be a considerable success. Two-thirds of 16 year-olds now take examinations in science to GCSE standard, compared with the 20 to 30 per cent. who took the equivalent O-levels in 1980, and over two-thirds of them achieve

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results graded A to C. While some have questioned the educational standard of the GCSE when compared with O-levels, there can, I believe, be no doubt that standards have risen. Happily, too, about 30 per cent. of students now go on to higher education each year—more than twice as many as 10 years ago.

It is also good to see that national education and training targets have been established and are being reviewed by the national advisory council. We in the commission wish to urge that the targets for foundation learning should be aligned with what our schools and colleges should plan to achieve. For example, our first proposed target relates to primary schools. We suggest:

    "By 11 years of age, 90 per cent. of pupils will achieve at least a national foundation standard in English and mathematics".

Perhaps this is not sufficiently ambitious, but it would represent a great advance from where we now stand. Such targets need to reinforce and set goals for schools and colleges which they do not do with sufficient force at present.

The educational establishment must surely recognise that, in a knowledge-based society, education and training take centre stage. Only through these can any country hope to compete and prosper in an era of fierce global competition. The new importance assumed by knowledge permeates every aspect of national life—political, social and spiritual activities, health and leisure, the sciences, arts and humanities. Upon all these the economic success and even the future competitive viability of any nation crucially depend. As the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, said, employers now expect—even demand—and are entitled to expect, higher standards in English and numeracy.

Our report was entitled Learning to Succeed, as the vision and goals we defined were aimed at achieving a system of education and training which would enable every individual to fulfil his or her full potential. I accept, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Blatch and Lady Young, said, that in competitive terms we spend a smaller proportion of our gross national product on education than do Germany and Japan. But in both those countries, and particularly in Japan, there is a much greater provision of private education. The figures in this country are distorted. We spend a lower proportion, as the tables in Learning to Succeed demonstrate, in primary and secondary education and a much higher proportion in higher education, which is almost wholly due to the very generous terms we offer to students for maintenance support in higher education.

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