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House of Lords

Thursday, 22nd November 2001.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Oxford): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.


Baroness Brigstocke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the light of the recent Ofsted paper on the teaching of phonics, what further action they will take to secure the proper teaching of phonics in primary schools and teacher training colleges.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, Ofsted reported last month that the amount of phonics teaching had increased substantially since the implementation of the national literacy strategy in 1998. We have made excellent progress, but there is still much more to do. We are continuing to provide a comprehensive programme of training and support to teachers and to teacher trainers on phonics, which is critical to children's early literacy.

Baroness Brigstocke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I agree that a start has been made, but I hope that she agrees that many of the comments in the Ofsted report are still worrying. Does she have any plans for improving the teaching of phonics, which are acknowledged to help enormously with the learning of reading and writing, particularly for year 3—the eight and nine year-olds—where the inspectors found so many lessons to be less than satisfactory?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes some excellent points. It is worth pointing out that in five out of six schools the teaching of phonics in years 1 and 2 was considered by Ofsted to be satisfactory, which I interpret to mean fine. The teaching of phonics is also good in the majority of reception classes. The noble Baroness pointed out that the teaching of phonics in years 3 and 4 is not so obvious. In a sense, that does not surprise us, because if a good grounding has been made, we do not expect every lesson to put the same emphasis on phonics as was the case when the children were younger. However, we have trained all reception and year 1 teachers in phonics and we continue to give teacher trainers professional development in phonics. We have endeavoured to spend good resources this year to ensure that that happens. Last year, we trained 38,000 primary teachers in phonics teaching.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, given the tribute that the excellent Ofsted report, mentioned by the noble

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Baroness, paid to the role of phonics in the overall success of the national literacy strategy, which has raised the achievement of many thousands of children of all ages in primary schools, will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the teachers and classroom assistants who are working in such effective partnership to raise standards across the country?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am sure that, as my noble friend has said, the whole House will wish to congratulate teachers on the excellent work that they do and to pay full recognition to the role of classroom assistants, who play a fantastic part in the development of children's education. We have seen significant progress in reading, writing and spelling over the past four years. The number of seven year-olds achieving the expected level in reading has gone up from 80 to 84 per cent. In spelling, the figures have gone up from 62 to 75 per cent.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are as many factions in the teaching of reading as there are among the Northern Alliance? Does she also agree that different children learn to read in different ways? While it may be good to start off with a good grounding in phonics in the first two years in primary school, it is important for teachers to be aware of and trained in other methods of teaching reading so that they may respond to individual needs.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have no information about the factions in the Northern Alliance, but I understand the noble Baroness's point, which is a good one. That is why we put the emphasis on phonics teaching in reception and year 1, but we recognise that by years 3 and 4 teachers are diversifying their strategies. We believe that phonics provide a good grounding. The proof is in the results of those schools that put an emphasis on phonics in the early years. However, we have fantastic teachers and we recognise that they develop strategies that are appropriate to their classes and to individual children as they get older.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, will the Minister define phonics for us and tell us how they are used? I do not know exactly what she is talking about.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I do not believe that I have the time to answer that question properly, but phonics are essentially about groups of sounds that are put together. My guess is that the noble Baroness was taught phonics, because the method has been used over the years, though it was felt to have been lost along the way in the teaching of children. It is about groups of sound coming together so that children recognise the sound and attempt to turn that into writing. It is a simple and basic way of exploring a language, but it is very important for small children, who get confidence in language as a result.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the important thing is that the classes are

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taught by a fully qualified teacher who knows the children, and preferably not a supply teacher? Will she assure us that however many classroom assistants the Government employ, classes of that age will always be supervised by a fully qualified teacher, who is in a position to make a judgment between the different reading schemes available?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is very important that teachers teach. The purpose of classroom assistants is to support them in that role and to do some of the work that teachers unnecessarily do or feel that they have to do because they do not have enough support. Classroom assistants can work with groups of children under the supervision of a qualified teacher. That is applicable to all years. It is important that we enjoy a range of adults coming into our schools to support teachers. We must free teachers to teach.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that some of us never lost our support for the teaching of phonics? There was a movement in education that lasted throughout the 1960s and 1970s which decided that creativity was more important than phonics. I hope that the noble Baroness agrees that a great deal of damage was done to young people at that time. It is all very well to be creative, but unless children understand the fundamentals of reading and writing, creativity has no home.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to get a balance in education. We want children to be creative and to explore and express themselves, but the noble Baroness is right about the basics—hence the national literacy strategy.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, have the improvements among children whose first language is not English mirrored those among English-speaking children since the introduction of the literacy strategy?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I cannot give exact figures. I understand that the pattern is varied, but with good teaching and good support, children for whom English is a second language are doing very well. However, that is not universal. As noble Lords are fully aware, there is more to do.

Foot and Mouth

3.8 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether their decision not to give evidence to the Devon foot and mouth inquiry was influenced by the number of permanent staff at their Exeter office who have been suspended since August 2001.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, there is no connection whatsoever.

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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, is there a connection between trying to avoid answering questions on animal welfare, trying to avoid justifying the abuse of the Official Secrets Act with which farmers were threatened if they discussed their compensation payments, and trying to make sure that there is a barrier against the possibility of any public inquiry, which would see the Prime Minister being cross-examined for his sorry role in this whole disgusting saga?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I said the other day, I really am getting fed up with this. There is no doubt that I and my predecessors at this Dispatch Box have frequently answered every question that has been put to us on foot and mouth. We have done so in depth, in writing and orally. The same applies to my colleagues and their predecessors in another place. We are continuing to supply information to everyone who asks for it. We were dealing with an extremely fraught situation at the beginning of the disease in particular and there were problems of communication, which we have acknowledged. We have set up an independent inquiry which will be open and will look into all the facts. The noble Earl is welcome to contribute to that, but any further imputation in the House that the Government are trying to cover something up deserves the contempt of this House.

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