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Point of Order

3.30 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not against the Standing Orders and procedures of the House that on a day allocated for Opposition time, the Government should make a non-essential statement, particularly when the contents of that statement have been trailed all weekend in the media?

Mr. Speaker: I understand the hon. Lady's concern, but the statement is not against the procedures of the House. The Minister is entitled to make a statement before the House.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: It must be a point of order relating to the statement; otherwise I will take it after the statement.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Further to the original point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you advise the House whether you have any discretion as to whether to allow a statement to be made? The Minister should ask your permission to make a statement, and the request should be judged not least by whether the statement is genuinely urgent, particularly on a day that is supposed to be allocated to the Opposition as a Supply day. Do you accept that in order to protect the House, there must be an element of discretion? We cannot be ruled and dictated to by Ministers.

Mr. Speaker: I have stated that the Minister is entitled to come before the House and make a statement.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As both Speaker and Deputy Speaker, do you recollect that almost every week since 1997, the Tory Opposition have demanded a statement from the Government on this, that and the other? I have never heard so much hypocrisy in my life.

12 Feb 2001 : Column 22

Schools Green Paper

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): Well, Mr. Speaker, you cannot win.

With permission, I shall make a statement. I begin by thanking all those who assisted in drawing up the proposals, including my ministerial team. I put on record my appreciation of teachers and non-teaching staff across the country for the work that they are doing, day in, day out, to turn policy proposals into reality in the classroom and beyond.

Four years ago, we promised that we would improve school standards. Last week, the chief inspector of schools confirmed improvements in literacy and numeracy, which have transformed primary schools. Standards are rising fastest in schools where under-achievement was most pronounced, in education action zones and through the excellence in cities programmes. We have seen more than 650 schools successfully removed from special measures. We will deliver our class size pledge ahead of schedule.

We are laying the early foundations, with 120,000 more young children in free nursery places than four years ago. We are committed to universal free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, and to providing child care places benefiting 1 million children by 2004. We have expanded the sure start programme, and I am pleased to announce that the number of early years excellence centres will be increased to 100.

Our task now is to build on those foundations, to sustain change in primary schools and to transform secondary education. We have made a good start, particularly through excellence in cities, the considerable expansion of specialist schools and our investment in buildings and repair. In partnership with teachers and parents, we need to move further and faster.

Today's Green Paper, "Schools: Building on Success", sets out three key challenges for the future. First, we need to improve standards still further. For primary schools, we are consulting on a new target for achievement at age 11 so that 85 per cent. will gain level 4 in English and maths by 2004 and 35 per cent. will reach level 5. We aim to achieve a step change in performance in early secondary years. We shall set demanding targets for achievement at age 14, building on success in primary schools. Attainment at that age is a key determinant of GCSE performance, and 93 per cent. of those who reach level 6 gain five or more good GCSE grades. That is why we are already taking action.

We have introduced new programmes of teaching with more challenging targets in 200 schools, as well as catch-up provision and tests for 12-year-olds who have fallen behind. From September, we shall extend that programme to all English secondary schools, backed by £82 million of investment in this year alone. We are concentrating renewed attention on secondary schools with low levels of success and, through new pupil learning credits, helping those schools that face the largest economic and social disadvantage.

The second challenge is a new focus on diversity and choice to ensure that the individual talent of pupils is fostered and that their weaknesses are addressed. Through a more diverse curriculum and improved support, we can

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transform their life chances. The national curriculum remains a basic entitlement, but, in addition, we shall ensure that all children have access to sport and the arts and to teaching on citizenship and democracy. I can announce today our intention that, over time, every primary school child will have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and to experience one of a range of sports. However, we need to do much more to offer real choice.

We shall accelerate pupil achievement with experimental programmes for youngsters, who will take tests at 13 rather than 14, and ensure that there is more early entry for GCSE. I can announce today the establishment of a new centre, which will spread best practice in addressing the needs of gifted and talented pupils. We shall offer a new vocational route, providing choices in work-based as well as full-time practical GCSEs that will lead to apprenticeships for those who would benefit.

The third task is to extend diversity among schools so that every secondary school develops a particular ethos and plays to its strengths and also contributes to the community and the wider education system. We shall double the current number of specialist schools with a new target date of 2003 for the first 1,000, leading to 1,500 schools within five years. Consistency is important. Therefore, I can announce today the creation of advanced specialist schools, which will extend their role to assisting in teacher training and school leadership.

We have already announced the first city academies in inner-city areas. Today, we are proposing new forms of partnership with the voluntary and private sectors to support schools. Beacon schools enable the best of our schools to share best practice with others. I can therefore tell the House that, as well as making 1,000 offers of beacon status by the autumn, we shall also expand the programme to some schools that show excellence in working with their communities.

The Government have been the first to support new voluntary-aided schools for different faiths. We believe that it is important that, where there is parental demand, we support such schools. We recognise that the cost to Church and other faith schools of funding 15 per cent. of capital investment has been considerable, especially with the improved funding from Government. I can today announce that, following discussions with Churches and other faith groups, we intend to reduce that contribution to 10 per cent.

To succeed in reforming standards in schools, we need to recruit and retain good teachers. There are 2,250 more people training to be teachers today than a year ago. That is a direct result of the action we took last year. This year's pay settlement is also an important step, and helps new recruits and experienced teachers in particular. There has been a 12 per cent. increase in applications for teacher training, and more than a twofold increase in inquiries. We need to consider further how we can persuade good graduates to consider teaching, and how we can help them to stay in the profession.

The Green Paper proposes that we consult universities about developing teacher modules in a wide range of undergraduate courses, so that young people get a taste and experience of what teaching has to offer, and some are able to complete the in-school, graduate teaching programme on

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a fast track. Furthermore, in shortage subjects--maths, English, languages, science and technology--we will assist new teachers by paying off their student loans at one tenth of their debt in each year they remain in teaching in the state sector. During that period, they will not have to repay those loans. That is a substantial new incentive to graduates to come into and to stay in teaching.

The programme that I have announced sets a clear direction for schools over the next five years. It builds on the policies that work. It offers consistency and continuity with modernisation. Teachers will be supported by improved training, and by policies aimed at cutting bureaucracy and addressing teacher work load. That will be backed by increased autonomy for head teachers of successful schools, building on changes in inspection and funding and on the curriculum, and improved pay and conditions for staff. The programme will be underpinned by the substantial increase in investment that we have provided in the day-to-day running of our schools and in the fabric of the buildings.

Our policies are designed to develop the potential of and offer equality to every child, whatever his background and whichever school he attends. We have today moved beyond the old arguments to create a schools system appropriate to the 21st century. I commend the Green Paper to the House.

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