The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, we have confidence in the assessment arrangements to provide reliable results of pupil attainment at all key stages. The reading test at key stage 2 is designed to provide information about children's ability to read for accuracy and knowledge of language as well as reading for meaning. The Government are fully satisfied that the outcomes from the reading tests provide the information needed for the improvement of literacy skills.
Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and I have no doubt that she recognises the crucial importance of key stage 2; that is the point at which children move from primary schools, where the teachers know them, to secondary schools where the teachers do not.
First, is it not the case that the present SATs at key stage 2 (which blandly lump together all four of the English skills) provide secondary schools with next to no help in identifying what may be 20 per cent of the new intake who will need special reading lessons in order to engage properly in secondary education?
Secondly, is the Minister aware that, in consequence, secondary schools--not least specialist schools like the John Cabot in Bristol with an intake from literally scores of primary feeder schools--have to use their resources and time to set their own reading tests and assessments in order to identify those who need help?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is not true to say that the SATs scores lump everything together. Children's performances are looked at in terms of a whole range of different aspects of English. Indeed, the reading scores, for example, have improved rather more than the writing scores. But I entirely accept that it is important that, when children transfer from primary to secondary schools, the secondary school teachers are given the maximum amount of information about the performance of those pupils so that they can work with them to improve the areas where they are weakest. It is important to remember also that the SATs are not the only measure of a child's
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, this may be anecdotal evidence, but many noble Lords will not understand the technicalities of the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, and the Minister. What worries us, and what teachers tell me, is that literacy is less than it was in 1900. Do the Government worry about that?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, it is difficult to come to any firm conclusion as to whether or not literacy is worse now than it was in 1900. I do not know what anecdotal information the noble Lord is basing his statement on. I do not know how many people he knows who learnt to read before 1900, though there are a few of them around.
However, the noble Lord is right in drawing attention to the fact that we all need to be concerned about levels of literacy in our schools. Indeed, with that in mind the Government introduced a national literacy strategy in order to put more emphasis on the teaching of reading, not just in our primary schools, but also in our secondary schools where young people do not perform at the level they should.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, can the Minister advise me whether, in her opinion, the literacy hour has been a success? If she evaluates it as a success, perhaps she can give us her view as to how that success has been manifested.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for asking that question. It is early days to judge the literacy strategy but so far it seems to be working. The percentage of pupils achieving the expected level for their age at key stage 2--in other words, at the age of 11--rose by 5 per cent last year up to 70 per cent. But we must not be complacent about that. We have an ambitious target to take that figure of 70 per cent to 80 per cent and will want to raise it even further when we reach 80 per cent.
Lord Tope: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while reading ability is obviously important, so too is understanding what is read and the two do not necessarily go together? Can the Minister tell us what information she has in relation to an increase in standards or otherwise at key stage 2 in comprehension as distinct from simply reading ability?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the tests do not simply measure an ability to read; they also measure comprehension. The improvement to which I referred applies to comprehension as well as straight reading skills.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about the importance of early identification of children who are dyslexic. We must ensure that we identify them as soon as possible and give them the extra support and help that they need. This is a difficult area where teachers obviously need as much training as they can possibly get, together with the experience of knowing how to apply that training. I believe that a considerable amount of work is being done in this respect, including in-service training of primary school teachers in particular and the making available of tests that will help to diagnose this impediment.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, again, this is anecdotal, although I cannot go back to 1900. However, does my noble friend the Minister accept that between the 1950s and the 1970s the proportion of primary school children who entered secondary education as free readers improved dramatically? If there is a weakness in the present situation, is that not due to the fact that there may not be the time or the opportunity in secondary schools to promote reading as much as it should be?
Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords; I accept that. However, we must not forget the huge importance of primary education from this point of view. Secondary schools should not have to be teaching reading. They should really be getting on with the business of developing the National Curriculum for key stages 3 and 4. If they have to spend a lot of time on remedial work teaching children to read, it gets in the way of progress in other areas.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the reading section of English key stage 2 has nine parts and that they, in turn, contain a total of 48 areas of study--areas which cover a very wide range of topics? Can my noble friend say what degree of success is being achieved in what appears to be a very demanding range of study? I have to say that I thought I heard perhaps a little over-confidence in my noble friend's first reply. I should like to have further information in that respect.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, in order to test children adequately it is right to consider a wide range of different skills; otherwise it would be very easy to accuse the QCA and others who are involved in developing these tests of focusing too narrowly and on too-limited a range of items. However, I have to tell my noble friend that I do not believe that I was being in any way over-confident. I recognise that we still have
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that some of the very best of our primary schools, which are achieving very well for their children, find the literacy strategy much too prescriptive and inhibiting in that it does not allow enough professional freedom, whereas those schools that could do with improving welcome it? Instead of having a blanket policy, would it not be better to allow the schools that are achieving very well by their pupils the possibility of varying the literacy strategy?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, when establishing a strategy of this kind, it is more important to make sure that it is universally being adhered to. I take the point that the noble Baroness is making. We need to make the system sufficiently flexible to enable those schools that are already reaching the target to go beyond it. Indeed, that is what we are working to achieve.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have no plans to review the penalty fares system. Train operators' penalty fares schemes are a matter for the Rail Regulator.
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