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Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I have already set out the timescale for reducing the amount of material to be sent to schools. None of the reports will be abolished. I do not believe that it is possible to abolish a report that is already in the public domain. Perhaps it would help the noble Baroness if I told her that most of the paperwork sent out to schools during the past year has been in support of the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies and the revised national curriculum, which gives more flexibility to schools. Almost three-quarters of the paperwork sent to primary schools concerned literacy, numeracy or the curriculum. The same applied to nearly one-half of the paperwork sent to secondary schools.
Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Conservative Party has pledged to abolish the literacy and numeracy hours? Can she confirm that we have seen a considerable improvement in the academic attainment of 11 year-olds as a result of those policies, introduced and sustained by this Government?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend is right on both counts. I understand that the Conservative Opposition have declared that they wish to abolish the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. The Government find that very surprising,
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that during 1999 the average school received each month nine consultation papers, 16 sets of regulations, 18 sets of guidance and were asked to contribute to five data surveys? I am delighted to hear that the Minister will lessen this burden. Is she further aware that this level of administration impinges not only on head teachers but also on teachers, in the occupation that has been singled out as suffering the highest levels of work-related stress? What does the Minister propose to do about this?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I have already set out the pledge that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment made on 1st June. That is what the Government intend to do about it. Moreover, the Government will be inviting six head teachers from both the primary and the secondary sector to take part in the work that they will introduce to monitor the situation. It is absolutely right to try to cut down the amount of material that is sent to schools. But the Government make no apologies for their commitment to raise standards in our primary and secondary schools. Some of this material provides teachers with much-needed guidance on how to achieve just that.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, the Standards Fund, which is central to the report, has been increased by £1.7 billion this year. How much of the increase is new money? Will the allocations from the Standards Fund be made separately to LEAs and schools? If not, does the LEA decide on the allocations to each school? If they are made separately, does not that imply that all these decisions will be made by central government?
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Standards Fund is a good mechanism for making sure that resources are targeted on areas of high priority. However, the Government accept that the fund needs streamlining to make it simpler for schools. Next year, we shall reduce a number of separate ring-fenced grants in order to give schools greater freedom to determine their spending priorities. We shall also make payments to LEAs automatically so that we can cut the paperwork in filing claims against actual expenditure. Certainly, we want to introduce a light touch in the arrangements for monitoring payments from the Standards Fund. I can confirm to my noble friend that the allocations from the Standards Fund are new money.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the Government work very closely with head teachers. I am delighted to say that the vast majority are competent to run their schools, although there are occasional exceptions. As I believe the majority of head teachers would agree, there has been a case for working to raise standards and, indeed, head teachers are collaborating in doing so. The Government have delegated greater authority to head teachers by providing them with more freedom to spend their budgets as they wish and as they think appropriate in their particular schools. Indeed, the Government have delegated more funding from LEAs to schools so that heads have that extra freedom.
Lord Peston: My Lords, while one always opposes unnecessary bureaucracy, the Government have the ultimate responsibility in this area. If they are to know what is going on and to be able to monitor the situation, do they not have a duty to collect data on a considerable scale, and to use it to let us know whether we are achieving higher standards and, more generally, what is going on in schools? We may favour a decentralised system, but a centralised database is necessary in this area.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, my noble friend is right; he is showing his background as a social scientist. We need adequate information in order to inform policy. If we do not collect data of this kind from schools we shall have no idea where we are going; we shall be unable to tell whether we are improving our performance--an objective which I am sure all Members of this House share. We are trying hard to lessen the burden for head teachers of data collection. One way in which we shall be doing so is by computerising far more of the data, so that they can be updated more readily than is possible using more traditional methods.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the number of funding streams in the Standards Fund has been reduced to 14 and is being reduced further, to seven. The Government agree that there was a need to streamline the fund and make it easier for head teachers in primary and secondary schools to operate. However, I stand by my earlier remarks. The
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the Minister referred several times to the literacy hour. Is she aware that, when it was first introduced, some parents were told--and I know of such cases--that their child was already far in advance of the average literary achievement for the class but would nevertheless have to take part in the literacy hour as designed for that class? Has greater flexibility been introduced--as was the hope of the primary school teachers involved--now that the literacy hour is established?
Baroness Blackstone : My Lords, the Government have introduced flexibility in the national curriculum in a variety of different ways. However, as regards the literacy hour in primary schools, even a child who is reading very well can benefit from continuing to read, and from being given the opportunity to read more demanding, more advanced and more difficult books. I believe that that is indeed what teachers in primary schools are doing.
The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to say a word about the demonstrations that took place outside Parliament yesterday afternoon. I have received a number of representations from Members on all sides of the House, drawing attention to the difficulties which many of your Lordships experienced in reaching the House yesterday afternoon. Many noble Lords who were anxious to be here for an important vote on the Financial Services and Markets Bill found that their progress was impeded on Westminster Bridge, in Whitehall and all around Parliament by a large crowd of demonstrators.
As noble Lords will be aware, this House passes an order at the start of each Session that the Commissioner of Police shall ensure that passage through the streets leading to this House is kept clear and open for the duration of the Parliament. Clearly, that was not done yesterday afternoon.
I take this matter extremely seriously. It is unacceptable for Members of this House to be kept from an important vote by disturbances in the streets. I understand that Black Rod is already pursuing with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police the question of the earlier disturbance which, as your Lordships will remember, took place in Whitehall on 22nd May. Black Rod has also written to the head of security in the Palace of Westminster in relation to yesterday's incident. Both lines of inquiry will be vigorously pursued.
I take the view that yesterday's disturbance is precisely the kind of occurrence which a sessional order is designed to prevent. I assure your Lordships that I shall take a close personal interest in ensuring that adequate answers are received on this occasion.
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