Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

10 July 2007 : Column 1311

academies: Brunel Academy, Bristol; John Cabot Academy, Gloucestershire; Shireland Collegiate Academy, Sandwell; George Salter Collegiate Academy, Sandwell; and St Michael and All Angels Church of England Academy, Southwark.“On the basis of today’s announcement to abolish the £2 million entry fee, the following nine universities have already expressed their interest in sponsoring new academies: University College London, Imperial College, the University of Nottingham, the University of Manchester, Queen Mary University of London, Aston University, the University of Central England, the University of Wolverhampton and the University of the West of England. “In this way, by backing strong leadership and backing teachers, we can now focus our efforts not on structures but on standards in the classroom and on giving every child the best possible education. To build a national consensus, to engage universities and the wider public and private sectors, and to drive forward our ambitions for children and young people’s education, the Prime Minister and I will now chair a new National Council for Educational Excellence. “This council and its members will act as advocates and champions to transform expectations and aspirations for the education system, to mobilise every section of the community behind our national mission to become a world leader in education and, in particular, our aspiration that every secondary school should have a business and university partner. “Sir Michael Barber has agreed to act as senior adviser to the council, which will meet for the first time later this month. My department’s focus is on raising standards in schools, backing teachers and promoting strong school leadership, but schools cannot bear the whole burden. All the evidence shows that a child’s life chances—and their chance of having a safe and happy childhood—are decisively shaped by their experiences in the first 22 months of life, by early years education, by family income, a supportive family environment and by diet and the opportunity to play and do sport. We need excellent universal services for all children and families, but there will always be some children and families who face additional challenges. “We must tackle the causes of child poverty, youth crime, family breakdown and wasted potential so that we can strengthen our society and deliver security and opportunity for all. We recognise the importance of early intervention and of targeted support for children with special educational needs and disabled children. As the new department takes over joint responsibility for youth justice with the Ministry of Justice, it is vital that here, too, we spot problems quickly, before they escalate into crises. “This is a complex agenda. We will shortly publish our 10-year youth strategy, our national strategy on safeguarding and our strategy on teenage parents. I intend to use the opportunity of the new department and the remaining months of the spending review to consult widely on how we can use all the levers at

10 July 2007 : Column 1312

our disposal to promote strong communities and strengthen family life before we set the goals and direction for this department and children’s policy for the next 10 years. “In the coming weeks, we will launch a nationwide consultation to draw up a children’s plan for our country. To help draw up this plan, over the next four months, we will consult teachers, children’s professionals, universities, colleges, the voluntary sector, parents, children and young people themselves. To do so, Ministers in my department will co-chair three working groups alongside a leading practitioner. The three groups will look across the range of education and wider services affecting children and young people—with one group for nought to seven year-olds, one on eight to 13 year-olds and another on 14 to 19 year-olds—and involve experts from schools, colleges, children’s services, health partners, the criminal justice system and the wider public, voluntary and private sectors. I plan to be able to report the results of this consultation and set out the emerging children’s plan in the autumn. “This is a challenging agenda, but getting it right is critical to the future of our country. Every child has talent; and, with the measures I have set out today and the consultation we now begin, we will now ensure that every child gets the best start in life and the support they need to make the most of their talents. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.55 pm

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place. It is large and comprehensive, so I will concentrate on only a few issues this afternoon. No doubt, we will have many weeks and months to discuss this in detail.

As my honourable friend Michael Gove said, a new commitment to aspiration, excellence, diversity and discipline in our schools is to be applauded. It goes without saying that we all have a responsibility to ensure that every child has a chance to develop their full potential, because every child matters. So, we welcome much of what has been announced, which is hardly surprising given that a good deal of it chimes with Conservative Party thinking—not least, good discipline in our schools and access for all our children to good after-school activities.

The proposals announced this afternoon are ambitious, but we have doubts about the Government’s ability to deliver, based on their record of the past 10 years. If a child is deprived of the basics in literacy and numeracy, then all the exciting things that education has to offer will be lost, which is why we campaign vigorously for the teaching of synthetic phonics in our schools and welcomed the findings of the Rose review. Can the Minister assure us that phonics will be incorporated in the Every Child a Reader programme?

There has also been a good deal of concern that so much of the modern maths curriculum now requires reading skills, so children who have not mastered reading will also fall behind in maths. So, we were pleased that in their new focus on standards and

10 July 2007 : Column 1313

rigour the Government are reviewing the way that maths is taught in our schools. Almost half of 11 year-olds do not reach expected levels in maths, and the proportion of pupils with good GCSEs in maths has fallen since 1997. The targets for numeracy have been missed in every spending round since 1997, and Ofsted has reported that the national numeracy strategy is having “limited effects”. Why, I wonder, have we had to wait 10 years for this review? Fewer than half the maths teachers in our schools have a maths degree. What is being done to attract more talented maths and science graduates into the classroom?

The Government, as we have heard today, are placing a great emphasis on personalised learning. We agree that ensuring that teaching is tailored to the needs of each child is valuable. Can the Minister explain how this will be achieved, given that the number of pupils in classes of more than 50 has risen in the past two years? That is particularly important among our youngest children. There is, however, concern that lots of children will get their personalised learning from computer screens. While technology has an important role to play in education, it is not and nor should it become a substitute for a teacher or whole-class teaching.

An important part of personalised learning will be setting by ability. Twice last week I tried to tease out from the Minister the Government’s intention on setting, and I shall try for a third time. The Minister said quite rightly that it would be up to head teachers to decide what to do; but, with only 40 per cent of lessons in secondary schools set by ability, how will the Government persuade the rest?

The Minister’s commitment to academies, which build on the Conservative Government’s city technology colleges, is beyond question. There is an energy and sense of purpose in academies. We are pleased that there are to be more, that the Government have spotted a good policy when they see one, and that they have adopted our proposals for relaxing the barriers to involvement in setting up new academies. However, one of their strengths is their ability to run their own affairs. I wonder whether the Minister shares our concerns that their very attractiveness may be undermined by placing them under the control of local authorities once more.

In 2001, my right honourable friend Iain Duncan Smith, in looking to new ways of delivering policy, created a shadow department for children and families, so we welcome the creation of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families, which has one of the most important briefs and faces some of the most difficult challenges. As the Secretary of State said, getting it right is critical to the future of our country. Conservatives have always had at their heart a commitment to expand opportunity and to champion aspiration for all. We will work with the Government where such measures that they propose are clearly in the best interests of our nation’s children.

5 pm

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I join the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement. I assure him that all sides of the House agree with him that every child matters.

10 July 2007 : Column 1314

The Minster talked about turning the tide, and I imagined a rather amusing picture of him standing on the beach trying to hold the tide back. The Government have of course done a great deal to raise standards, which we willingly acknowledge. The Minister gave a long list of the wonderful things that the Government have done, but forgot to mention one or two things. For instance, although 58 per cent of 15 year-olds achieve five or more good GCSEs, the numbers where that includes English and maths are still disgracefully low. About a quarter of young people leave school with no better than a level D GCSE. Teenage pregnancy rates are at a 20-year low, but we still have one of the highest rates in Europe. Although 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, the Government’s target was 1 million. However, I do not wish to sound a sour note. The Government have done a great deal, but there is such a lot more to do.

The Minister said that parents want a greater focus on standards. However, parents really want every school to be a good school. They should not be forced to use what choice they have to choose a school on the other side of town, taking their child all the way there with the consequent effects on traffic congestion and global warming.

I was happy to hear the Minister say that the Government’s priority must be standards and not structures. That is a U-turn, because the Government’s agenda has been structures rather than standards, producing a dizzying variety of schools about which parents need a great deal of information to make whatever choice they have.

The Minster raised a large number of issues. First, he talked about the importance of ensuring that all schools and nurseries teach phonics properly. I have some reservations about that idea. There are many good reading programmes and it should be up to the professionalism of the teacher to decide what is appropriate for each child and at what stage. For example, it is simply not appropriate to teach phonics to a child until they have reached the appropriate level in listening and speaking. Here I mention the need for more speech therapists in schools—and, indeed, in nursery schools, because early intervention is so important.

The Minister talked about personalised learning and the importance of adding extra people to help children who are struggling with their literacy. We mentioned last week that diagnostic reading software can be a very useful tool in the armoury of a teacher in helping children who are struggling with reading—not just at the beginning, but at the end of primary—to get their reading up to an appropriate level so that they can benefit from the materials put before them at secondary school. Very often, they stop after their second SATs and do not go any further. That is why we have this transition problem. I shall not repeat the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about maths teachers, but we are equally anxious about the answers.

The Minister talked about a greater focus on personalised learning with appropriate support. Does that mean that he will be looking at the process of statementing? We on these Benches feel that it is important that statementing is done by an appropriate group of professionals and that it is separated from

10 July 2007 : Column 1315

the providers of the services. We welcome the extra resources, but do they also mean additional counsellors and family outreach workers outside the classroom as well as teachers in schools?

I also welcome the fact that the Government are thinking of allowing teachers to make more of their own judgments about when children should be tested. However, the problem is not so much the assessment as what is done with it, and so I come to league tables. These Benches feel that there is a need to broaden the criteria for them to include more value-added information to help parents to make their judgment about what the school is doing.

We accept that the social and emotional aspects of learning programme has been very successful. The Government seem to put great emphasis on it, but I am still puzzled about why they will not make PSHE mandatory. Will there be any development on that?

We also welcome the additional money for extended schools, but two hours a week is not very much and could be gobbled up in using the breakfast club so that there would be nothing left for leisure and other broadening activities. Is there any ambition to make that more in future? I also point out that, when schools have extended hours, there are child protection issues and issues about children travelling home a little later at night. That needs to be thought about.

We look forward to the legislation coming before us to increase the age for leaving education to 18. I am pleased that the Minister said “education leaving age” not “school leaving age” because it is crucial that the curriculum offered is appropriate. The provision must be of high quality if young people are being forced to stay until 18. These Benches are still worried about the level of preparedness for the 14 to 19 diplomas. Some local authorities and schools seem to think that it is way off down the track and are not prepared at all.

The Minister mentioned that schools will have reduced prescription about what they teach beyond the core curriculum. However, that is not new. The Education Act 2002 gave schools the power to innovate, and not many of them have used it.

The Minister mentioned the new statutory powers to tackle disruptive behaviour and restrain violent pupils. I repeat my plea for all teachers to have training in this, otherwise we could have disasters.

Can the Minister clarify whether the story in the Financial Times that no LEA will be forced to have an academy if it does not want it is correct? Even if that story is true, it would only be cosmetic if having a brand-new school building where it is much needed is linked to that school being an academy. Having said that, we welcome the £2 million barrier being taken away from those who know about education and who want to open an academy or sponsor one. Universities do, and they are the people who should be sponsoring academies, if we are to have them.

The noble Lord again mentioned the duty to collaborate with all other schools in the area. No school is an island; every brand-new, shiny school has an effect on the applications to all other schools in the area. Only the local authorities can plan this sort of

10 July 2007 : Column 1316

provision across the board. I encourage the Government to do what they said that they would and make sure that they take into account the local authorities’ views on this. Now that we will have 400 academies, can we stop this pretence that all academies are replacing failing schools? They are not.

We also welcome the council that the Minister announced, but how much is it going to cost and how will value for money be assessed? How will its work be reported to Parliament? We certainly agree that we need excellent universal services for all children and families. Only when these services are universal will there be no stigma to any family taking them up. Universal services to children and families promote social mobility and social cohesion from the earliest days, when children all grow up together.

Youth justice is one of the new responsibilities coming into the Minister’s department. When I visited a young offender institution recently, I was most concerned to discover that many of the release plans break down so quickly and frequently. Part of this is because there is nobody there to make sure that it all happens as planned. We all know that when young people go into these institutions, the release plan is worked on from day one. They go out with all flags flying, but often, sadly, it all breaks down and their education plan or whatever just does not happen. With that new responsibility, will the Minister look into that? If the plans were implemented, we could reduce reoffending.

5.10 pm

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I was amused by the image conjured up in the mind of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, of my standing on the beach seeking to turn the tide like Canute. I prefer to put it rather differently. A strong sense of shared purpose has animated us all in education over the last few decades. As a nation together, across parties and across different parts of society, we have made education a much stronger priority. This is not like King Canute trying to achieve the impossible on the beach but a perfectly possible set of ambitions that we have taken on as a nation. A substantially higher proportion of our young people should achieve to high levels, comparable to the proportions that we have seen in other countries. We should get as close as we possibly can to having all our young people mastering basic skills, which is possible with good-quality teaching starting from the earliest years. The failure of our education system and inadequate investment in the past prevented us from getting there. However, through a strong sense of shared national purpose over recent years, including an injection of significant new investment in the past 10 years, we have seen progress towards goals that are readily attainable provided that we have the national will to achieve them. They are not utopian or unachievable in any sense.

I was glad to see in the responses of the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Morris, a strong sense of unified purpose. Usually when I write my notes on responses, it is the hostile points that I need to answer that occupy most of the space. In fact, I agree with most of the points made by the noble Baronesses. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said that we were stealing her clothes. I would say that she

10 July 2007 : Column 1317

is stealing ours, but I am happy that we should engage in mutual cross-dressing on many of these issues, because it matters so much to our schools, young people and families that we do not see these as party-political issues. I do not believe that the questions of discipline in schools, after-school activities, setting, good-quality school leadership, educational participation to the age of 18, valuing our teachers more or any of these issues should be regarded as party-political. The issue is simply one of will, purpose, investment and real determination to achieve results, which I believe we share on all sides of the Chamber.

I welcome most of the comments made by both the noble Baronesses and the support that their parties have offered. On the more specific comments, I agree for example that ICT is not a substitute for good teachers. Hand in hand with the significant investment that we have had in ICT over the past 10 years has gone a significant increase in the numbers of teachers and assistants. I agree that we need assistants of all kinds, including counsellors and family outreach workers, an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. Of course, the big increase in the numbers of assistants has included outreach workers of the kind that she described.

I am glad that both noble Baronesses welcome the steps that we have taken to engage universities much more strongly in the education system, including in academies; I welcome the fact that they agree with us on the relaxation of the financial barriers to participation in the academies programme. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I have differences, in theory, on academies; I simply note, as the Minister, the huge enthusiasm among many Lib Dem authorities for engaging in the academies programme. Indeed, the London Borough of Southwark, whose leader and I engage frequently on the issue of academies, has one of the highest densities of academies of any local authority in the country and, unless my facts are mistaken, it is run by the Liberal Democrats. So in many areas, even where we profess to disagree, the common ground between us is much greater than might be thought from some of the rhetoric.

Let me respond to some of the specific other questions that were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked whether the attractiveness of academies would be undermined by placing them under local authorities. It is very important to understand what we have said today in respect of academies. We welcome the fact that academies that are replacing existing local authority schools are, in effect, jointly commissioned by my department and local authorities. Local authorities are increasingly seeking out potential sponsors, including universities, colleges, businesses and individuals. We welcome that and want to build on it. We want the new local authority of the future to be increasingly a commissioner of services, including educational services, and not the direct provider. However, the management and operation of academies will continue to be subject to their sponsors and their boards of governors; there will be no change in the effective autonomy that they have in that respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, raised the issue of the maths review and said that she had doubts over our ability to deliver. However, the national literacy

10 July 2007 : Column 1318

and numeracy programmes over the past 10 years have been extremely successful. The proportion of 11 year-olds reaching the required level 4 in the key stage 2 tests has risen dramatically since 1997. More than 100,000 children a year now reach the standard required at the age of 11 in maths than was the case 10 years ago. So there has been a significant improvement. But we need to be honest about the fact that one in five 11 year-olds is still not up to that standard. We believe that it is right to look in a fundamental way, after 10 years’ experience of the operation of the national numeracy strategy, at how we can improve that situation. Sir Peter Williams will look not only at pedagogy, which is important, and at how mathematics is taught, but also—linking into another question raised by the noble Baroness—at the qualification and training of teachers. Unless the teachers have the competence to teach mathematics effectively in primary schools, they will not be able to deliver higher standards, particularly at the more challenging end of the ability range where pupils are falling behind.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page