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Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I congratulate the right hon. Lady, and welcome her to her post.

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the great concern expressed on the doorsteps by pupils, parents and teachers about the way in which AS-levels were introduced, and about their long-term consequences? Is she satisfied that it was right to introduce them without any parliamentary debate, and will she instigate an inquiry into the mishandling of the process and its long-term consequences and bring the results to the House?

Estelle Morris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments and for his congratulations. He is right: there is concern about AS-level examinations at the end of the first year six. That is why, well within a week of taking up the post, I asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to conduct an inquiry. My instinct is that we should not go back from supporting a broader curriculum for sixth form students. Indeed, that was the common starting point for us all. It is all right having parliamentary debate, but no one in this House or outside wanted us to keep the narrow range of A-level specialisms. Indeed, compared with our competitor nations, we fall behind by making children specialise too early.

Therefore, I want to keep that breadth, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman is right. My instinct is this. Children are doing two years' study in first year six and second year six. They are interrupted too much by having to prepare for exams at the end of the first year six. It disrupts that continuity and gets in the way of their learning.

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I do not think that that huge change was got entirely right. That is why it is right to ask the QCA to take the matter forward. Although I understand why the right hon. Gentleman makes the point--I accept that people will score points on the issue--it is important not to confuse young people. I give this assurance to sixth formers who are taking those examinations now. They have not wasted their time. Their exams and results will be recognised by universities and employers and they will be praised for having studied a greater breadth of curriculum than they might otherwise have done.

For decades, a fatalism has been embedded into the system: a belief that some schools, some people and some neighbourhoods could not improve. That is beginning to change, too. Whatever the global figures are--I could reel them off until the end of the week almost--this is what is important about the statistics and raw data from the past four years: literacy and numeracy levels have gone up across the nation, but they have gone up more in areas of greatest deprivation.

I was in Tower Hamlets this morning. The greatest thing about Tower Hamlets is that the literacy and numeracy of its 11-year-olds has improved more than in any other borough in the country. If it can be done in Tower Hamlets, it can be done anywhere. It is about embedding high aspiration. GCSE results have improved. That is great, but they have improved the most in education action zones and excellence in cities areas. The excellence challenge, which supports children from deprived backgrounds going into education, is on course too and that will make a difference.

Education action zones and excellence in cities areas serve some of the most difficult communities. For too long, we have said that they have done well, given where they come from. Now we see better attendance rates, lower exclusions and higher achievement rates. If we learn anything from those figures, it is that we should never give up on any school, any child or any local education authority. The evidence of the past four years is that, if we get the strategies right, we can make a difference throughout the nation in every sector of our community.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): In properly commending improvements in schools, will the right hon. Lady recognise what every teacher knows: in schools, there are good cohorts and bad cohorts, and some years can be pretty dreadful and others better? Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect schools year on year to record improvements in things such as SATs--standard assessment tasks. Will she judge schools according to the trend over a reasonable period and remove the pressure on head teachers? Every year, irrespective of the cohort, schools are supposed to be better than the previous year.

Estelle Morris: I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. I was a teacher and I remember only too well that cohorts tended to differ. What I do not accept--I do not think that there is any evidence for it--is that the whole nation's year-group cohort will differ that much. Therefore, I would expect improvements year on year in the nation's results as a whole. I do not think that we would find too much difference.

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We must keep the focus on the results, but we want to move to value added as soon as we can for two reasons. First, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it may appear that a cohort has attained less because of the starting point. Secondly, we must also address the complacency issue, as some schools take in relatively good cohorts but do not improve them to the necessary level.

Therefore, we have not only to avoid complacency but to recognise achievement where it exists. The sooner that we can achieve value-added results, the better it will be. It is about getting the key indices in place, which I reckon we will be able to do in 2002.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): As the Secretary of State knows, I have much sympathy with her comments on value-added league tables. However, the Government were elected in 1997 promising value-added league tables. They have not delivered that promise. Will she give a target date for the implementation of value-added league tables?

Estelle Morris: Had the previous Tory Government done some of the leg work and ground work, we might have been able more quickly to achieve the results that we now hope to achieve in two years. In 1997, when I took up my previous post in the then Department for Education and Employment, I did not find research and plans on value-added results. However, I think--I shall correct myself if I am wrong--that the first value-added results will be made available in 2002.

We have already introduced improvement indices. Although they are not the same as a value-added index, they show schools' annual improvement. I am glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House want both the raw data to measure results nationally and the value-added results.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her recent appointment. She will probably know that the improvements in the New Addington education action zone, which she has visited, have been achieved more quickly than those that have been made across the board in Croydon. Does she agree that such improvements are not only about investment but about lifting children's self-esteem? Many children are told by their fathers, if they have a father at home, that they will not be good at school because their fathers themselves were never good at school. We must work both with families and with schools to instil in children the confidence to believe that they can succeed in school. Such action, with investment in education, can deliver previously unimagined results in areas of deprivation.

Estelle Morris: I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. I had the privilege of visiting with him the New Addington education action zone, of which he has been a strong advocate. I pay tribute to the teachers and others who have worked there. Their message to children of self-esteem and self-worth has probably done more than anything else to achieve the results that my hon. Friend has described.

There is a strain of pessimism that seems to hold that we cannot do anything about some schools and some local education authorities, but that pessimism has been questioned in the past four years. The statistics say it all.

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In the past four years, 740 schools have come out of special measures, and 18 local education authorities have been subject to intervention measures.

Although we had headlines for decades about poor LEAs, previous Governments did absolutely nothing about them. If LEAs really are worth something and have an important role to play, it is very important that we move in and take action when they are failing. In the years to come, we shall continue to use those powers to allow schools and LEAs to get on with it when they have shown that they can do so, but intervene when necessary to prevent failure. Nevertheless, for all the improvement and progress that have been made in areas such as that described by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) where there has been a culture of low expectations, there is still a whole lot more to do.

It is a cruel irony that, at the very point in the development of this nation when education is more important than ever before both for economic prosperity and for social justice, the gap between different sections of our community is still too wide. The gap between the performance of schools in similar circumstances is still too wide. In almost all parts of the education service, the gap between the relative performance of boys and girls and of different ethnic groups is still too wide. The gap in performance between people from different economic backgrounds is still too great.

Although we can celebrate this week's report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that we have the OECD's highest level of bachelor-level graduations, the fact is that an estimated 7 million adults in the United Kingdom have not got the basics right in reading, writing and arithmetic.

I welcome the expansion in higher education, and acknowledge that some of it happened under the previous Government, but only 17 per cent. of young people from the lower socio-economic groups go on to higher education as opposed to 45 per cent. from the more affluent groups. That is part of the challenge that we face. We will not close the gap unless we invest in education and training. Spending on all sectors in education increased in the previous Parliament and will continue to do so in this one.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, spending will continue to increase by an average of 5.4 per cent. in real terms over the next three years, meaning that we can build on the investment that we have already made and continue to invest in people and their life chances. It will mean that, by 2004, we will be spending £500 million on sure start, reaching a third of all poor children aged four and under.

We will be able to fund 1.6 million child care places by 2004, and we will have more and better trained teachers and assistants. More child care places have been provided in the past two years than in the previous 20. That is the mark of progress, but the mark of how much more we have to do is that we still cannot satisfy the demand of every parent.

I said that there were 7 million adults without basic skills. Our investment will mean that 750,000 fewer will lack those skills, and we will set a target of 50 per cent. of under-30s going on to higher education by 2010. We will be able to build on our programme for gifted and talented children. We will work with universities and colleges to ensure that we expand that sector, but this time

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we will do something about broadening access as well. Expansion alone is not enough. We do not want the figures about the balance of socio-economic backgrounds to remain the same in 2010.

The Queen's Speech makes it clear that our priority in this Parliament will be to deliver on our commitments and make real changes to secondary schools.

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