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16 Oct 2002 : Column 328—continued

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Leader of the Opposition that today's A-levels are worthless?

Mr. Green: That is not what my right hon. Friend said. Mike Tomlinson has said that schools are left with no idea of what an A-level is. If this Government believe that they have not damaged the reputation of that exam—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is the Chamber, and hon. Members should be listening to the debate, not shouting.

Mr. Green: If Labour Members seriously believe that the Government have not damaged the reputation of A-levels, I can only suggest that they visit secondary schools when they return to their constituencies. They will find a lot of angry students and teachers, who feel that they have been working very hard for a long time but that they have had their efforts undermined by an incompetent Government.

The point that Mike Tomlinson makes is that the QCA had direct responsibility for the problems, and I think that that point commends itself to the Secretary of State. Where the Secretary of State is at her most evasive is in denying that she is responsible for the QCA. It is perfectly simple. If she can sack the chairman of the QCA, then she is responsible for the QCA. If the QCA is responsible for the A-level scandal, she is responsible for that scandal. That is the inescapable conclusion of all the facts that have come out so far.

I hope that the Secretary of State is suitably embarrassed by what she said about the QCA as recently as 17 June. She said:

That is what the Secretary of State thought in June. By September, when she needed to save her own skin, she sacked the very official to whom she had paid tribute.

What brings all those disasters together is the characteristic new Labour cocktail of centralisation, meddling from Whitehall, and lack of trust in the professionals on the ground. The Government fiddle the figures when they can, and ignore them when they cannot. They show a touching faith that a press release equals ministerial action. Our schools deserve much more than the Government offer. Heads deserve real

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power to run their schools. Teachers deserve to be trusted to know how to teach. Pupils deserve an exam system that they can trust, and parents deserve to know that their children will be safe from disruption in the classroom. The present Government are failing on all those counts, and their failures are a betrayal of young people across the country.

I commend the motion to the House.

4.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris) : I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I was not impressed by the words—many of them—of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). Many people who work in our schools and many parents whose children are educated in our schools will not recognise the picture that he painted.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The right hon. Lady always says that.

Estelle Morris: I always say that because it is always the case.

Before we go on to the specific allegations, let us clarify what progress has been made during the past five to six years and what we have achieved in partnership with our teachers, governors and all who work in our schools. That achievement was made against the background of massively increased investment in our schools. By 2005–06, we shall have invested more than #1,100 extra in every school pupil, and every Member of Parliament will be able to see evidence in their constituency of the huge capital investment that we have made—not only in primary and secondary schools, colleges of further education and universities but in nurseries, where previously they did not exist, and in sure start. Almost all three and four-year-olds now have a nursery place.

All that investment and leadership from the centre has brought real results. Nearly 500,000 five to seven-year-olds are no longer in classes of 30. We made that pledge in 1997 and we have met our target. Ofsted notes that almost seven classes in 10 are good, compared with four in 10 only five years ago. People with children in classes

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where Ofsted judges that the quality of teaching is better are glad that a Labour Government are in power and are showing leadership.

More than nine in 10 schools have made satisfactory or better progress since their last inspection. Fewer schools are going into special measures: last year, there were 137, compared with 230 in the previous year. Ofsted rates the current generation of teachers as the best ever.

I am not complacent about that, but I take pride in the contribution that the Government have made, as a partner in the education service, in ensuring that none of our infants is in classes of more than 30 and that all our four-year-olds and 70 per cent. of our three-year-olds have the chance of early years provision. Yes, a quarter of our 11-year-olds have still not reached the standards in reading and writing that we expect of them, but only six years ago half of them had not done so.

That is a massive improvement. Not only the Government but the whole nation should be proud of the literacy and numeracy strategies. They are world class and world leading. They are admired throughout the world. I do not think we could find anyone in the education system—head teacher, teacher or parent—or in the wider community who would not give thanks for the introduction of the literacy and numeracy strategies.

Yes, the strategies have stalled, but they did so after increases of 12 percentage points for maths and 11 percentage points for English over five years. The question is: what do we do now? If the hon. Member for Ashford had chosen to examine the figures in a little more depth, he would have found that each year we assessed the results not only for literacy and numeracy in general for each of their component parts; that in the next year we invested more money, training and support; and that we often saw progress.

It is interesting that two or three years ago, writing standards were falling behind, whereas those for reading were increasing. What did we do? We made extra investment, adjusted the strategies and provided extra training. What happened? Writing improved. However, reading has stalled. What that reveals is not a political point but an educational one: the capacity of the system to concentrate on writing, which we required, while maintaining the necessary focus on reading.

As a politician, I do not have an answer to that problem, but we are looking into it. We know that we attained higher levels for writing. We know that previously we reached higher levels for reading. The task is to build capacity into the system and to ensure that heads, teachers and all those who work with them can maintain their focus on both reading and writing. That is how we shall move closer to our target.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) rose—

Estelle Morris: I shall finish dealing with this issue before giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

The literacy and numeracy issue is really difficult. No generation of educationists, nor any previous Government, have ever even tried to crack the problem of people leaving our education system without the basic skills. That is why 7 million adults do not have the reading and number skills that we would expect of 11-year-olds. We are making a good attempt. We are

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investing the money and our approach is evidence based. We are working with those in the profession, whom I thank. We have made immeasurable and massive progress. No, we are not there, but I would tell the hon. Member for Ashford one thing: we will not give up, and we will continue to invest and to try until we have moved even further towards our target.

Chris Grayling: The most recent research into why teachers are leaving the profession says:

it has risen by 4 per cent. since 1999. It also says that nearly 40 per cent. of those leaving the profession cite Government initiatives as one of the reasons that they are going. Does the right hon. Lady think that our education system may have stalled because so many experienced teachers are leaving the profession?

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