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Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me a copy of her statement in advance, and join her in praising Mike Tomlinson and his inspectors at Ofsted.

The right hon. Lady was assiduous in picking out the positive aspects of the report, and of course no one can blame her for that. I too pay tribute to teachers and all others working in schools for the hard work they are putting in and the successes that they are seeing, but in her honest moments the right hon. Lady will admit that serious problems have been identified by the chief inspector, and that, alarmingly—she did not mention this—some are becoming worse year by year. The report reveals that the right hon. Lady's strategy of centralising and interfering as much as possible can yield some short-term successes, but it sows the seeds of its own destruction by demoralising the work force—the teachers whom she and I both admire.

Let me start with the primary sector. As the House knows, it is the part of the school system that the Prime Minister thinks has been "sorted". I hope he reads the report, and notes that of Ofsted's six main findings on primary schools one is positive, three are neutral and two are negative. This, remember, is the Government's best area of attainment—but there are many questions that the Secretary of State did not address.

Can the right hon. Lady tell us why she thinks reading standards have fallen among 11-year-olds, why performance in maths has become worse at the same stage, and why spelling is becoming worse in tests for 11-year-olds? By any standards, those are basic skills for our 11-year-old children. Can she also explain why Ofsted says that underperformance by boys—by comparison with girls—in English is becoming worse by the year?

Will the right hon. Lady address questions relating to the curriculum? Ofsted says that all the primary head teachers it surveyed are finding it difficult to sustain as broad and balanced a curriculum as they would like.

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Indeed, using a bland phrase that it must have hoped no one would notice, it says that one school in five can provide a curriculum that is broad and exciting, and challenges pupils across the full range of national expectations.

Let me translate. According to Ofsted, four out of five primary schools are not providing a broad, exciting and challenging curriculum. Is the right hon. Lady as alarmed by that finding as I am, and does she accept responsibility? Does she accept that the very strategies about which she boasted in her statement contribute to the narrowing of the curriculum?

In the secondary sector, problems are getting worse under the right hon. Lady's stewardship. Can she tell us why the gap between high-performing and low- performing schools is becoming wider? Can she say what steps she is taking to reverse the erosion of foreign language teaching identified by Ofsted, which she did not mention? Why—most alarming—is truancy so rampant? Ofsted says that more than a quarter of our secondary schools have unsatisfactory attendance levels, and the figure rises to 37 per cent. among those that have been inspected fully. That is a terrible figure, which should really frighten the Secretary of State.

Will the right hon. Lady address herself urgently to the underlying cause of these growing difficulties—the crisis of teacher retention, which has been brought about by some of the policies of which she is so proud? Ofsted says that the quality of teaching is in jeopardy in some schools, and that this is no longer an inner-city issue. Equally important are the findings that more teachers are being asked to teach outside their specialisms, and that the proportion of poor teaching is, in Ofsted's words, "considerably higher" among temporary or supply teachers—which is what we would expect.

The right hon. Lady is asking teachers to do jobs for which they are not trained. Every interfering directive from her Department adds to teachers' work load, and persuades a few more to bale out for a quieter life. The Department is not the solution to the crisis in teacher numbers; it is the main cause of the problem.

As Conservatives, we know that every day teachers, pupils, parents and governors put in an immense amount of hard work so that our schools can flourish. We worry that the interfering, centralising, bureaucratic way in which the Government behave towards schools and local government makes that task harder. The report shows that any improvements based on centralised command and control are fragile at best. Will the right hon. Lady heed its message and for once start trusting heads, teachers and everyone else in education to get on with their job?

Estelle Morris: I thought that that was a bit grudging. The hon. Gentleman started with a sentence or two of praise but his analysis quickly declined.

I think that there is general agreement about the progress made. The chief inspector talks about the finest ever teaching, fewer lessons being taught unsatisfactorily, fewer schools going into special measures, and those that are in special measures being removed from them more quickly. That does not happen with a teaching work force who are demoralised and are not doing their job well. It has happened because there is a true partnership

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between central Government and local authorities to support teachers, governors, classroom assistants and others to raise standards in schools.

Let us talk about central prescription. If the Government had not introduced the literacy and numeracy strategies, improvement would not have taken place in the schools that needed it most. The good schools—those that were already improving and those achieving at the highest level—would have taken what the literacy and numeracy strategies had to offer, but those that were probably not teaching effectively would not have done so.

Teachers have got to the stage where they take from the literacy and numeracy strategies, bring their professional judgment to bear and mould those strategies to the needs of individual pupils. If we had not insisted that teachers address the problem and if we had not supported them through money for professional development, that would not have happened over the past five years. Tory Members, particularly Tory spokesmen and spokeswomen, are the only people in this country who do not acknowledge that the literacy and numeracy strategies have been the success story of this Department.

Other things would not have happened without the Government, who are accused of central prescription. Mike Tomlinson said in his report that where support and effort are targeted through the excellence in the cities and education action zone initiatives, progress is made at a faster rate than elsewhere. That is a success.

We were always straight about the rate of progress. We always said that in the first four years we would prioritise primary and early years education. We did so. We delivered and it worked. At the second election, we always said that we would prioritise secondary education. That is exactly what we will do because we are addressing the difficulties at secondary school. We will build on our work in the first term. The results show that with targeted effort, financial support and partnership between the Government and others, standards can be raised.

I share the concerns of the hon. Gentleman that no progress has been made on truancy and attendance. A number of people, including the Government, must do all that they can to ensure that we improve that record. First, there is a responsibility on parents. Mike Tomlinson notes that 80 per cent. of children who miss school do so with the permission of the parents. As I say repeatedly to parents, letting their child miss school when there is no need damages their child's life chances. We must get that message across.

Schools need to do their best and they must be more assiduous in following up early absence as quickly as possible. We need to give support by spreading good practice and through measures such as electronic registration, but the hon. Gentleman is right; the report says that little progress has been made on truancy. It remains a concern. If children are not at school, they cannot learn. If they do not learn in our society, their life chances when they leave education are not as good as they should be.

On teacher recruitment and retention, Mike Tomlinson says in the report:


I know that. It is precisely why the Government have introduced golden hellos and training salaries. In the Education Bill currently before Parliament, we are

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introducing measures to pay off loans. It is not the case that there are now fewer teachers than there were last year. In fact, there are 7,000 more teachers than there were last year and 12,000 more teachers than there were in 1997. More people are going into teacher training than at any time during the past decade. In the past year alone, 7,000 more teaching posts have been created because heads have more money in their hands. The dilemma is that additional money has led to more vacancies and I have never pretended anything other than that.

I conclude by quoting the chief inspector again:


Mr. Damian Green: What about language teaching?

Estelle Morris: The United Kingdom has a long history of failure to teach modern languages. It is a cyclical problem and it is not improving. As we teach languages more ineffectively, fewer students study them at A-level, fewer take a university degree in them and fewer train to teach languages. In due course, the Government will announce how we intend to tackle the problem.


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