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House of Lords

Wednesday, 4 July 2007.

The House met at three o’clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham): the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Select Committees: Barnett Formula

Lord Barnett asked the Leader of the House:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, it is my role, as a member of the Liaison Committee, to consider carefully all such proposals, along with the other members of the committee. If my noble friend Lord Barnett decides to submit a proposal to the committee in the next Session, I would of course welcome the opportunity to give it full consideration.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I note what my noble friend has said, but she has not been a member of the Liaison Committee for very long. I hope that she is aware that the Chairman of Committees has replied already to my request, indicating that, although he could not agree to an ad hoc committee this Session, because one has already been appointed, he will accept an application from me in the next Session. I can tell my noble friend that I will apply.

My noble friend will be aware that recently I quoted the latest Treasury figures, which showed that expenditure per head is £1,500 less in England than in Scotland. Clearly, that is unacceptable. However, as both major parties are opposed to change, I am asking only for support for a review, which I am sure she will accept. Is she aware that she has a unique opportunity—indeed, the House of Lords has a unique opportunity—to review this whole question by agreeing to set up an ad hoc Select Committee, especially as the Government, following yesterday’s important announcement, now agree to a great deal more parliamentary democracy? Now that she is a member of the Liaison Committee, will she give me an assurance that she will not oppose but support my request? She will note that I put my Question not to the Government, but to her personally, although I did not know at the time that she would be a member of the committee.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, one thing that I have learnt in the past few days is how many unique opportunities I have apparently been given, as noble Lords have been keen to point out. Indeed, as my noble friend knows, I have been a member of the Liaison Committee, with which I have not yet met, for only a few days. I will consider very carefully what is put before it. I have seen the correspondence and I

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completely understand that a new ad hoc committee has just been set up. I will consider the matter carefully, but my noble friend must understand that I cannot make a commitment at this point.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, if the noble Lord’s proposal does not find support among unionists on all sides of this House, it will clearly be untenable for Scotland to continue to receive more expenditure per head while implementing policies such as having free tuition fees for Scottish students when English students have to pay, allowing Lucentis, which prevents blindness, to be prescribed on the NHS in Scotland but not in the UK, and having free care for the elderly north of the Border. I accept that the Scottish Parliament is entitled to take these decisions, but it has to do so in the context of a funding system that is seen to be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the noble Lord makes powerful remarks and I am well aware of his knowledge of Scotland. I am sure that the views of your Lordships’ House, not least those expressed in our discussions today, will be taken into account by the Liaison Committee when making its decisions.

Lord McNally: My Lords, has it not for a long time been the policy of all political parties to try to make sure that resources are spread throughout our United Kingdom? Therefore, it is a little dangerous to play the politics of resentment by suggesting that one region or one part should get this or that much money, as we are seeing happen again in London’s politics. It is important to look at this in terms of ensuring proper levels of aid and development throughout the regions and nations of our United Kingdom, while making sure that, at the local level, there is an opportunity to raise taxes and spend them.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, a whole range of taxation issues emerges from the noble Lord. We believe that the Barnett formula has served us well, but it is reasonable and understandable that from time to time representations are made about whether it should be reviewed. They are made from different viewpoints; that is probably why the formula has lasted so well and been so successful. As my noble friend Lord Barnett knows, if the committee believes that this is an interesting and worthwhile project, it will consider it properly.

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market: My Lords—

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, is not the key to this to look at not just expenditure but also the amount of tax raised in different parts of the United Kingdom, including the different regions in England? That would neutralise the separatist forces that now exist in parts of the United Kingdom, which have largely been brought about by the Scottish Parliament.

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I said yesterday in our discussions of the Statement, we believe very strongly in the union. It is a very important part of the way in which we wish to be governed and it is important in terms of what we do in this country and our relations with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All these matters will be discussed in your Lordships’ House on many occasions. On the question about the Liaison Committee, I say again that that depends on the work that the committee wishes to do, having taken account of the views of your Lordships’ House.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, when the formula was introduced in 1974, it was accepted that it would last for only a year or two? It is only subsequent Governments who have failed to realise the importance of that and to adjust it in the light of circumstances.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is interesting that many things that have been brought in for a year or two survive the course. We believe that the arrangement will survive the course and have no plans to review it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the larger the number involved, the cheaper it is to administer? The 50 million people in England cost much less per head than the 5 million in Scotland because of the numbers involved. Scotland has an enormous area of moorland and so on, which involves much more expense. Furthermore, Scotland produces a lot of doctors who work in England.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, needs assessment is one of the issues involved and, within the formula, it is for the Scottish Executive, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Welsh Assembly to consider needs. That will include where the population is, the sparsity of population and where resources need to be placed. It is appropriate for them to do that.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the needs of patients in England who require medication but who are refused by the NHS are just as great as the needs of patients in Scotland, who seem to get their medication quite easily? I ask that because the right honourable Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, when he was trying to describe the difference in money given per capita in England and Scotland, said:

Do not patients need certain things?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which has done a fantastic job making sure that we are able to provide the right quality and quantity of medication and supply. We should all support its work.

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Schools: Boys’ GCSE Results

3.08 pm

Lord Northbourne asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, boys' GCSE performance has improved, but the gender gap has remained 10 percentage points since the 1980s. This differential begins in primary schools. Literacy has been, and continues to be, our priority. The revised literacy strategy promotes best practice in synthetic phonics teaching, and other initiatives, including “Boys into Books”, are encouraging boys to read for pleasure. A wider secondary school curriculum, including new work-related diplomas and an expansion of apprenticeships, is also essential.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for those figures, which I was going to quote but now do not need to. They must be very disappointing to all of us who believe in equal opportunities. Even in the limited sphere of employment, good GCSEs lead to better jobs. There are many disadvantages for those who do not achieve in the academic world. Could the noble Lord outline the principal factors that the Government see as causal in this extraordinarily unsatisfactory situation?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, of course the situation is disappointing; the noble Lord is completely right about that. However, I would note that differential performance in literacy between boys and girls is a common international pattern. The international OECD PISA study showed that girls have significantly better reading scores than boys in all participating countries except Lichtenstein, apparently. The gap in England is statistically significant but smaller than the OECD average. We are dealing here with international forces.

We think that the main cause is differential performance in literacy between boys and girls in primary school, particularly in the acquisition of effective writing skills, which are essential to access a curriculum thereafter. That is why we have given primacy to improving literacy in primary schools—not only in the teaching of early reading under the Rose review and in the emphasis on synthetic phonics and programmes for teachers to use which give primacy to it, but in catch-up schemes for pupils who are falling behind, including the Every Child a Reader scheme, which ensures small-group or individual tuition for children who are falling behind at the end of their first or second year of primary school. The early research work on Every Child a Reader has been hugely positive and children have made substantial gains from that one-to-one or small-group tuition in a very short period. The Government intend to invest more in it so that fewer boys in particular start falling behind in reading skills from the earliest years of primary school.

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Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I start by saying how pleased we are to see the Minister back in his place. His knowledge and passion for education are widely acknowledged, and so we were delighted when rumours of the headmaster of Grange Hill being given a peerage proved unfounded.

The marked gender gap in the educational attainment of boys and girls is a worrying feature and getting worse. Can the Minister say whether any consideration has been given to the recommendation of the chief inspector of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, that boys should be taught separately to stop them falling further behind?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very kind remarks—and may I say how pleased I am to see her in her place as well? Indeed, fewer people appear to have returned to their place on the opposition Front Bench in another place than have returned to their places on our side. Her survival is a remarkable tribute to the strength of her own convictions and the success with which she has shadowed me in this House.

The noble Baroness is right that there are a number of different options in teaching techniques for boys and girls. Separate teaching up to particularly GCSE level is one that is favoured by many and is being taken forward in many schools. There is not a single tried-and-tested model that is shown to be universally successful, so we think that these decisions are best devolved. However, we are certainly not standing in the way of the piloting of new models of single-sex teaching within what are otherwise mixed schools, particularly in the earlier secondary years, when the progress of boys tends to slip behind.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have not been placed yet?

The Minister is right to concentrate on literacy, and of course boys very often lag behind girls. However, does he accept that the national literacy scheme, welcome though it is, leaves some students behind, and that the reading recovery programme and other initiatives he mentioned are very expensive, because they are one-to-one? Will the Government now do some research on the excellent computer-based diagnostic literacy programmes which are available regarding their effectiveness in helping children who for one reason or another are not learning to read and getting their reading up to the level required to really benefit from the materials that are put before them when they go to secondary school?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, first, may I say how devastated I am that the noble Baroness has not joined us on this side along with many of her noble friends? There are many more advisory posts that we could create. Indeed, I sense that she could fill one very well on the use of computer techniques in the teaching of literacy. I shall take her comments very closely to heart and see that we do the assessment that she called for.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend’s comments about literacy strategies and how important and effective they are,

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but has he taken account of other research that shows, for example, that sporting activities in schools improve the performance of both boys and girls from an early age?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about the importance of physical activity and a wider curriculum in schools. Her personal contribution in the field of cricket is well known. We are seeking to extend sporting opportunities more widely in schools, starting in primary schools. I pay tribute, for example, to A Chance to Shine, the cricket initiative with which my noble friend has been associated. We want to see a significant extension of sporting opportunities for children of all ages in our schools.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, is the Minister considering encouraging Afro-Caribbean professional men to act as mentors for Afro-Caribbean boys—to read with them, assist them with their learning and take them to their places of employment?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Earl is quite right about the importance of mentors and role models, and that extends throughout the teaching profession too. We are seeking to encourage a significant increase in the number of teachers recruited from among able graduates in the ethnic minorities, not just as teachers but as school leaders as well. For example, we have a scheme called Investing in Diversity which identifies able school leaders from the black, African and Caribbean communities and encourages them to come forward for school leadership positions. It is based at the Institute of Education at the University of London. It has been a highly successful programme and is promoting a significant expansion in the number of very able school leaders coming forward from among the ethnic minorities.

Schools: Grammar Schools

3.16 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, no.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree that the purpose of any school is to improve achievement and to foster love of learning across a whole range of skills, attitudes and values? Can he say precisely what programmes and strategies are in place to encourage learning and improve achievement?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, my noble friend the Leader of the House is encouraging us to be increasingly brief, so I followed suit with my Answer. A whole

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range of programmes are in place to improve the quality of teaching and learning, but I would start with the teachers themselves. We will achieve nothing in education without good quality teachers. Over the past 10 years, we have significantly improved the average pay of teachers and head teachers. We have invested more in their training, establishing a National College for School Leadership. We have particularly concentrated on recruiting teachers in areas such as mathematics and the sciences, where we were previously under-recruiting and had severe shortage problems in the profession. We have piloted successful new routes into teaching, such as Teach First and the graduate teacher programme, which are encouraging graduates and mature switchers into teaching from backgrounds which previously did not go into it. I could answer on many other aspects of the education system, but the vital first priority is to get the quantity and quality of teachers we need in our schools. Once we get that right, all else will follow.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, the advantage of grammar schools is that they teach outstandingly well and teach each child to their ability. These are values and aspirations we should wish to see extended to all our children, yet decades of mixed-ability classes have failed a generation of young people. What measures will be taken to ensure proper academic selection within our schools, given that the Prime Minister now supports the Conservative policy of strong discipline and setting as a mechanism for raising standards?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, it is a great relief to know what Conservative education policy is. I am glad that the noble Baroness has helped us. I was only recently reading an excellent speech called “The Future of Conservative education policy”, delivered by the then Conservative education spokesperson a month ago—he has changed, since—which says that,

What an excellent description of the Labour Government’s policy, and I welcome the noble Baroness to our position.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, what about setting?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, there is a great deal more setting in schools than there was 10 years ago, too. That is another policy being taken forward by this Government.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords—

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

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