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Westminster Hall

Thursday 12 May 2011

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Backbench BUSINESS

Education Performance

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)

2.30 pm

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. Underlying many of the key questions facing us, such as where our future growth will come from and issues about youth employment, is our country’s education performance, and how it compares with that of our international competitors. There has been much soul-searching around the world about education performance, so when Germany did badly in the programme for international student assessment tables in 2000, it upped the academic standards in many of its technical schools to address the issue. Other countries have delayed specialisation, and the US has introduced new policies in teaching. In Britain, there is not enough soul-searching, either in politics or in the wider education community and establishment, about our performance.

I want to talk about how our results compare internationally, the impact of that, and the main causes. I have identified two. The first is the false choice that is often presented between quality and quantity in our education system, which has led to a decline in standards, and the second is our process-orientated system, which does not rely on the student driving it. I also want to talk about how we can start to move towards the high-quality mass education system that should be our goal in Britain.

There has been much coverage of the hourglass economy. The number of high-skilled jobs has grown by 30% in the past 10 years, and the number of medium-skilled jobs has declined by 10%. There is an increasing return to education throughout the global economy, and if the 20th century was a human capital century, surely we will see an acceleration of that in the 21st century.

The US was very successful in the 20th century, having universal high school education and increased college access, but it has acknowledged that the quality was not there, although the quantity was. There has been a catching-up with that in the UK, where participation has increased at high school and university level, but unfortunately quality has fallen. We see the evidence for that in the PISA league tables. Although flawed, as all international comparisons are, they at least represent students sitting the same test in each country. They show that Britain has dropped to 28th in maths, 16th in science and 25th in reading. Some people will cite TIMSS—the trends in the international mathematics and science study—which shows that the UK came seventh, but we were still behind the Asian elite countries,

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such as Japan and Hong Kong, and France and Germany were not included in the comparison. However we look at the issue and however it is sliced and diced, we are performing worse than we should as the sixth largest economy in the world.

As well as our current standards not being good enough, our historical standards have also been poor. The problem is deep and historical. According to a CBI survey, 40% of people in the UK do not have basic skills, compared with 34% in the US, 28% in France and 22% in Germany, yet the political debate in this country has been dominated by the idea that our standards are rising year on year, despite the fact that we are clearly not producing enough rigorously educated students to fill available jobs. Schools are producing strings of A* students, when there would previously have been a smattering of As. According to Durham university, a maths A-level grade E in 1988 would now be a C or even higher.

There is still a persistent failure in basic qualifications, with 45% of students not achieving a GCSE in England and maths at grade C or above. The economic impact of all that is clear, and I see it in South West Norfolk, where companies struggle to recruit skilled engineers and graduate business managers, and we have a shortage of teachers in critical subjects such as maths. Between 1997 and 2007—the boom years for our economy—the number of jobs increased, but the majority were taken by people from overseas, many of whom filled our skill gaps. Employers consistently say that they are not satisfied with the quality of people leaving school and university—71% are unhappy with language skills, and half of all universities have remedial courses in English and maths to bring students up to standard. I have spoken to academics at Cambridge university, Greenwich university and throughout our university sector who say that our education system is not delivering people who are ready to learn and able to think for themselves. That is a crucial problem.

Some people say that it is inevitable that if we have more people in our school system, send more people to university, and have higher participation, standards will decline. They claim that there is a trade-off between mass education and standards. I have heard it said during the past year that some students are not suited to such education and are not up to it because they are not academic. I think that belief is holding our country back, compared with other countries, and has driven an unwelcome change in our school system.

Encouraged by the crazy equivalence in league tables and UCAS points, media studies has been given the same value as mathematics in our league tables. I studied both subjects, and I know that they are not equivalent. That has hastened the flight from academic subjects, particularly in comprehensive schools in this country. Employers and universities are absolutely clear about what they want: they want maths, languages, science, and people who can think and analyse. Nevertheless, fewer and fewer people are studying those subjects, and there has been a fall in the number studying GCSE languages from 79% to 44%. There was a fall in the number studying core academic subjects at A-level from 60% to 50% between 1996 and 2010.

That is a uniquely British phenomenon. It is not happening elsewhere. In fact, academic standards elsewhere are being tightened, so at the end of high school in a top

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US state such as Massachusetts, students will be studying maths, science, humanities and languages. In France, all students studying for the French baccalaureate study maths, French and foreign languages. In Japan, 95% of 18-year-old students are studying maths, sciences, languages and humanities. We are an outlier. Indeed, the Nuffield Foundation produced a report that showed that we are unusual in not requiring maths from 16 to 18, and that is feeding through into our school system. Unfortunately, we now have primary school teachers—I have seen this in classrooms—who do not understand maths concepts, and are unable to communicate those concepts to the next generation.

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): My hon. Friend makes interesting international comparisons. Does she have any data for China and India, the two great economic superpowers of the 21st century that she rightly heralds? The great changes being made in schools in those countries, and their passion for what my hon. Friend would regard as hard subjects, is equally important, and augurs badly for the state of our education system.

Elizabeth Truss: My hon. Friend is right, and I believe that the Shanghai region of China is included in the study that I mentioned. The appetite for education in some of those countries—as shown by the thousands of applications for the Indian Institute of Technology—shows a cultural attitude towards education that will help drive those countries in the future.

In Britain, we hear the idea that introducing new subjects is somehow modern, or that it is inclusive to different types of people and that is what is wanted by employers in the broader world. That is simply not the case, and the accusation that it is somehow retrograde or old-fashioned to want those core subjects is wrong. We can see the subjects studied by our international competitors. The reason why those subjects are taken is that an in-depth study of an academic discipline provides a level of rigour and the ability to analyse and think, which prepares a person for any kind of job. Technology is changing rapidly, and we do not know what skills and abilities we will need in 20 or 30 years’ time. Studying an academic discipline to a high level gives a person that vital ability to think and learn. Such study is not an elitist or minority pursuit. If it were, how come 95% of students in Japan already study in that way? Why do many emerging countries aspire to study those subjects?

The system in Britain actively encourages students to study subjects that provide little return. I was pleased to hear the announcement earlier by the Secretary of State for Education that some of those qualifications will be removed from the league table, but I think we should go further and also remove low-quality GCSEs and A-levels that are not equivalent to the more rigorous core subjects. Our system hampers young people’s chances of going to university, particularly our country’s top universities. Computer programming can be studied at Oxford, but it requires maths, not an A-level in information and communication technology. A student is 20 times more likely to study A-level law if they attend a sixth-form college as opposed to a private school. If they take that subject, however, it will not help them to study law at a

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Russell group university, because that is specifically prohibited. Students are being misled about the kinds of subjects that will help them get ahead in life.

This debate is not only about the sort of subjects that people study, but about the way some subjects are studied. A combination of modular examinations and bureaucratic intervention has damaged the intellectual integrity of many subjects at A-level. I frequently hear academics in universities complaining that students do not have a holistic view of the subject, and that they have been taught a pick-and-mix of various elements and therefore do not have the deep understanding and practice that they need to move to a higher level.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Before the hon. Lady leaves the topic of subject choice, I recently visited many schools around the country, and the strong message coming across from young people was that they become interested in, and start thinking about, what they want to do quite early—perhaps as early as year 6 of primary school or the first year of secondary school. By the time they receive what they regard as good advice, it may be too late to have an influence on the subject choices that they need to make to achieve their aspirations. The hon. Lady makes an important point; it is about starting early and not underestimating pupils’ competence.

Elizabeth Truss: I agree completely with the right hon. Gentleman. Too often, limiting choices are made early in a student’s educational career. I support the English baccalaureate because if that becomes a more general qualification, people will not limit their choices early on. The lesson from other education systems seems to be that delayed specialisation is a good thing, and that too much early specialisation has a damaging effect. I oppose the suggestion that GCSEs be taken earlier, for example, as I think that would be damaging.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The hon. Lady makes a thoughtful speech. On early specialisation, and given the point made by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), does she believe that selection at age 11, for example, is a good idea?

Elizabeth Truss: I would not personally have such a system, but existing grammar schools do very well, and to abolish the most successful schools would be a mistake; we should improve the other schools instead. My point is about how wide a choice students are given in each school. I am all for freeing up schools and enabling them to select should they so desire. A school in my constituency, for example, wants to select the 20% of pupils who find school hardest. That is a good thing, because it will put a group of learners together to study and achieve academic qualifications. I am in favour of more flexibility, although I am not in favour of imposing mass-selection across the education system.

I was speaking about examinations and how they have changed. One of my concerns is that in trying to ensure that examinations are fair for all students, a lot of use of judgment has been removed. For example, rather than having multi-step questions in which a student has to think about where they want to get to, we

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have one-step questions that ask for a simple response. That has damaged the ability of young people to think, be flexible and solve problems.

Our system has also diminished the role of teachers, who, for too long, have been forced to jump through hoops. We have a textbook regime; many textbooks are designed by exam boards and are essentially “how to” guides on how to pass the exam, rather than engendering a deep knowledge and interest in the subject. I speak to a lot of teachers who spend their weekends preparing lessons for the week ahead and essentially reinventing the wheel in subjects that have been taught for decades, if not centuries. Teachers in other countries often use a respected textbook that enables students to study in their own time, rather than only in the classroom. One of our problems is that not enough responsibility for study is given to the student; instead, it is passed to the system. The student is seen simply as a cog in the wheel, or a sausage in the factory. A process that focuses on getting through the exam encourages students to value education as a piece of paper, rather than as a way of gaining and developing capability.

I am an ardent free marketer, and in answer to the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), I generally support freedom. However, I question our current set-up of examination boards, which is not a free market but an oligopoly of three organisations in a system. The innovation mentioned by those exam boards often involves innovating a race to the bottom to put easier qualifications into schools. The system also involves an incredible amount of regulation from Ofqual, which I have criticised in the past and which consumes a lot of public money. There is a strong reason for us to look again at the examination system and at how it can be better delivered. If we are to have national standards for exams such as the E-bac, and if we are to regulate exam boards, does it make sense to have those three exam boards in their current structure?

The issue of textbooks urgently needs to be addressed. We are one of the only countries in the world with this exam board structure, and where textbooks are set by the exam board. In my view, that is a conflict of interest. It would be better if independent bodies produced textbooks that students could study, and with which they could take responsibility for their own learning.

I mentioned subject choice. I want particularly to address the issues relating to low-income students, because one of the worst aspects of our educational performance is how much we let down low-income students compared with other countries. The OECD particularly highlighted that in its report; 77% of the performance in UK schools is down to socio-economic background. That is the second highest percentage after Luxembourg.

On the point about subject choice, someone at a private school or grammar school is twice as likely to study A-level maths as someone at a comprehensive school, and three times as likely to study a modern language. Students at comprehensives are seven times more likely to study media studies than students at private or grammar schools. What we have is essentially a reintroduction of the secondary modern in our school system. That huge segregation is a big problem. I have met bright students who are studying subjects such as psychology and media studies. Realistically, they will not have the opportunity to go to Russell group universities. We need seriously to address that.

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The other point to make about Britain is that a study from Chicago showed that we have the largest differential between the teaching qualifications of teachers teaching low-income and high-income students. We are actively giving worse teachers to low-income students compared with other countries. The present Government have made excellent progress in reforming the supply side of our education system—opening up academies, developing the free schools programme and reforming the teaching profession. I would like further reforms, including an abolition of national pay bargaining. I would like teaching to become a really well-respected profession, and would like teachers to lead on some of the issues that I have been talking about.

However, the reform that we look to across our education system cannot be just about Government. We have been through 25 or 30 years of education reforms that Governments have tried to drive from the centre. That has happened under both Labour and Conservative Governments. It has shown that a wand cannot be waved by central Government. There must be a change in education culture in this country, and that must involve many institutions and people. One reason why I was so keen to have the debate today was to open up the discussion, not just in Parliament but at national level, about what sort of education system we aspire to.

We need to end the mindset that trades off quality and quantity. It is possible to have a high-quality, high-quantity education system. Countries such as Japan and Germany show that. Germany shows that it is possible to reform a system that has previously educated just the elite so that it becomes a much more broadly based system. The Germans are doing well on that basis. The English baccalaureate is a good start to focusing on the core subjects. We need to widen the number of people taking it. Reporting it on a points basis would be a good idea. Reporting how every student does proportionally on the E-bac would be a good idea. I would like that to be extended to A-levels, so that we get rid of the divide in what A-levels students are studying in different types of schools.

There is a strong case for removing low-value A-levels and GCSEs from the league tables. I said earlier that I thought that there was mis-selling of some vocational qualifications that were given the same value as other qualifications. We are lying to students if we say that those qualifications are of equal weight and worth when they are not. All we are doing is putting our universities in a very difficult position, because they are not getting the necessary applications. We are not getting people ready to enter the top universities because they simply have not studied the necessary subjects.

Simon Hughes: I will intervene just once more; I have come here specifically to hear the hon. Lady. Will she accept that another thing that might help—consensus appears to be growing on this—would be for all schools to have to publish information about their successes in widening participation and access? That would enable people to know where young people go on to from a school—what they do after 16 when they have those choices. Once we start showing that to the wider world, people will start challenging those schools that have a poverty of ambition and a poverty of aspiration.

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Elizabeth Truss: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that transparency is the way forward. I would like every school to find its 10 brightest pupils and suggest to them that they apply to the top universities—Oxford and Cambridge and the Russell group universities—so that we monitor how many people are applying from each school. I plan to write to every school in my constituency, asking them how many students from their school applied to Oxford and Cambridge and encouraging such applications next year. There are six secondary schools in South West Norfolk. I am sure that there are six secondary schools in many other hon. Members’ constituencies, and that is something we can all do.

My dad is an academic, so I was strongly encouraged in that direction, but many students at the Leeds comprehensive that I went to did not have aspirations in that direction and, frankly, a lot of teachers were not very supportive of those aspirations, perhaps because they had not been to such a university themselves or because they did not have any knowledge of them. There is a culture that needs to change, particularly in our comprehensive schools, so that those universities are seen as a place for the brightest students in the country, not just those who fit into a social perception.

I have already talked about reforming the examinations system so that we stop the tail wagging the dog. It is important that we understand what subjects ought to be examinable at that level, and ensure that the quality holds, rather than allowing a system of downward innovation, which is what we have seen in the past few years.

I hope that this is the start of a debate. I am very pleased to see so many hon. Members here on a Thursday afternoon. That shows the interest in the subject. Other countries have shown that it is possible to have a high-quality mass education system. We can do that here, but we need a lot of things to change, and it is about time we changed them.

2.57 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing the debate. I was delighted to support her in securing it, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating the time.

I will start with a quote that might ruffle your feathers, Mr Rosindell: “Education, education, education.” Perhaps that is the one thing on which I agreed with the former Prime Minister, Mr Blair—how important education is in our country. It is very important that we give our youngsters the best chance in life, to allow them to cast their net further and wider, so that they can reap a rich catch in life and become big fish in a big pond, not minnows in shark-infested waters.

Education performance matters for our country at different levels. At macro level, it is about preparing people to be innovative, and making them ready for business and work—ready to be our future doctors, nurses and teachers. It is about creating people who are flexible and skilled—people who will do the everyday jobs, as well as the ones that involve scanning the world for new wealth to come to this country. At micro level, it

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is about having people who are cultured and enlightened, and having a social country in which we live at peace with one another in a culture of respect and tolerance. At individual level, there is no question but that education is the passport to a bigger choice in life and to social mobility, that magic phrase that we often hear now. For me, nothing else fits the bill as well as education.

Educational performance is about preparing not only for university, but for life. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk said that there is a risk of imbalance between vocational and academic choices. Trying to say that one degree is worth the same as, or a similar amount to, another perhaps suggests that not going to university means that one has failed in life. Far from it; we need people to develop all their talents in whatever way they can.

I genuinely believe that every child has talents that can be nurtured through school and later in life, but every child needs a good foundation in reading, writing and mathematics to allow them to succeed. There is no one more disadvantaged than the voter I met in the streets of my constituency the other day, who said that he could not read. He had struggled all his life to find work that did not involve him using his hands. I am not saying that he did not have a valuable skill, but how much more he could have achieved! For instance, he could have set up his own business or something similar. Frankly, even Wayne Rooney and David Beckham need a good educational foundation if they are not to be reliant solely on their lawyers and accountants and are to get the best out of them; they need to be conscious of that.

I will not rattle off a lot of statistics. My hon. Friend has already given us some good evidence, and I know that others are prepared to do so. Instead, I shall take the House on a bit of a personal journey. I do not pretend that my educational history is typical. I did my first O-levels when I was 13; I then did some A-levels and finished my schooling in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). I went to university and then changed universities; I effectively stopped attending one and moved to another because I could not cope with the way of learning at the first. I then went on to do a PhD. I do not pretend that that is typical, but during that journey I found out that, in a way, standards have changed, and that is unfair on those who are slightly younger than me. That leads me on to the challenges that the country is struggling with 20 years later. I know of them as a result of my science education.

I am old enough to have taken O-levels; I took them a bit early in 1986. When I went on to do A-levels, I happened for whatever reason to do physics for a year. I was working with students from the lower and upper sixth forms, doing a combined kind of crash course. When I was with one group—I should keep up to date; we now call them year 12 students—I was often told, “Oh, Thérèse, you’ll have to do an extra half hour because year 12 does not need to learn that any more, but you can add that topic during your extra learning out of class.” That happened quite regularly throughout my physics A-level studies.

Some might argue that I took a harder A-level, but that is not strictly fair. I genuinely believe that the year-on-year debate about A-levels, O-levels or GCSEs not being as difficult as they used to be gives rise to a

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false argument about standards. I do not want to make this into a generational slanging match. I would not say that those studying physics 20 years ago were any brighter than the youngsters doing it today, but the opportunity to stretch the learning, to stretch the imagination, may now be constricted. The differentiation, with more children getting A and A* grades, is the result of youngsters today having to learn a lot less. Frankly, if children now have to learn their times tables only up to three, when before they had to learn them up to 12, it does not surprise me that more children now get their sums right.

Mr Mark Field: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s journey. As she is a Liverpudlian, it must have been a magical mystery tour. Although I agree with much of what she says, I am not sure that she is correct about the exam system. There has been an utter debasing of the results system over the past 20 years in GCSE and O and A-level exams. The results are now largely discredited, and there needs to be an urgent rethink. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) said, someone who got a grade E in an A-level exam only a decade and a half ago could now receive a mark as high as grade B. That does not allow great confidence in the system. There has been a debasing of the system, and we need to consider it afresh.

Dr Coffey: I fully accept what my hon. Friend says, but I am trying not to turn this into an inter-generational slanging match. There is nothing worse than getting these wonderful results in August and then, all of a sudden and from whatever quarter—not from politicians but from others—people say, “Oh well, standards are getting lower.” I imagine that that is really hurtful to those receiving their results because, frankly, they are doing the best they can with the course and the exams that are set. It is not their fault, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to challenge the education establishment and the Government.

That brings me to another part of my speech. We should not be ashamed to challenge the education establishment, and even ask it to pause and reflect, in order to improve educational standards and performance. The Government are already doing that with elements of the English baccalaureate. We saw it also with the acceleration of academies under the previous Government. I note that academies have longer school days, and that they build other activities into their school day; school is no longer a half-past 8 to 3 o’clock existence, with pupils then being sent out. Academies allow a much wider existence; they are building an education for the entire person, not just slotting pupils into classes. I accept what my hon. Friend said, but I do not want to attack the young people or teachers of today, because they are already in the system. It is our role to challenge it and to get it changed.

Stepping back a little further, I am sure that many Members who went to university did three-year degree courses. I did my BSc in three years. Just as I was finishing my PhD, I saw that many universities were starting to move to four-year courses, and that is now almost the standard; the degree is now called MSci. Although not many universities will say so, the reason for the change is that when students had finished their A-levels, they did not have enough of the curriculum to

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grab the university course in year one. It is not that they were doing a remedial year, but they needed a foundation year at university. They could then continue. Some courses were perhaps not really four years; they were three and a half years with an extended research project to make up the time. As a consequence, students now spend four years at university, and with fees going up, that means more money being spent on university courses.

It would be honest to ask whether A-levels are at the right standard for entry to university, so that we ensure that we do not leave the universities with the challenge of making up the gap. The Russell group universities have done a great service to schools and teachers—and, most importantly, students and parents—with their brochure “Informed Choices”, in which they give a list of subjects. The facilitating subjects are maths, English, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and languages, classic and modern. The Russell group believes that those building blocks allow students to go on to do almost any subject. I accept that those who want to do a degree in art need to study art, and that it would probably help those who want to do music if they have studied a bit of music on the way, but for most degrees, it almost does not matter what subjects have been taken at A-level; students simply need the ability to think and to analyse, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber yesterday when the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) said that he had no idea where the subjects that made up the English baccalaureate could possibly have come from. Would the list from the Russell group university be a suitable response?

Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) has read the brochure; I shall be sure to send him a copy. I do not doubt that some of the softer subjects mentioned, such as media, photography and business studies, are popular. I see them when I visit sixth forms in my constituency, and I accept that they are valid A-levels. I do not decry them, but we need to get the message across to students that such subjects will not necessarily lead them to the wider choice of career and life to which they may aspire. It may take them down a narrow career path, and they should be fully aware of that.

Kevin Brennan: Given what the hon. Lady has said, does she think that I wasted 10 years of my life teaching A-level economics?

Dr Coffey: I would not say that the hon. Gentleman had wasted any of his life, although if he had had the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as a pupil, we might be in a better place today. However, I studied a bit of economics at university, and I can assure hon. Members that I did not do A-level economics beforehand. As to whether someone teaching business studies at school will have ever run a business, I do not know, but that may well be a possibility with Teach First and Teach Next.

Elizabeth Truss: When I speak to economics academics at university, it is interesting that they often say that they would rather that people did mathematics than

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economics as a precursor to the subject. There is a question about what level we are studying subjects at, and that is particularly true of law. One thing that economics—

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Lady that she should make brief interventions rather than a second speech.

Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend was perhaps going on to say that we should never forget mathematics as one of the core subjects.

Kevin Brennan: In defence of economics, I should say that it is a rigorous academic subject, and mathematics is an extremely important skill to bring to the study of it. However, when a subject is left out of prescriptive lists such as the one the hon. Lady mentioned, we can understand why that can be insulting to some people—not to me, but to those who study it.

Dr Coffey: I understand that point. The hon. Gentleman will know the famous joke that there are different kinds of economists: ones who can count and ones who cannot. However, I think the Russell group is trying to help students and parents in choosing options. That can be early in someone’s life—we have talked about children aged 11, and some people have talked about even younger children. If people are not careful, they can narrow their choices later in life, which would be a shame. The Russell group is doing people a good service by making sure that they fully understand the choices they make. We are talking not about people making poor choices, but about people deciding not to do certain subjects in the full, conscious knowledge that that will restrict them later in life.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned selection. I am not suggesting that we return to selection, but I do praise efforts to differentiate and to ensure that people reach their full potential. One school I attended was a grammar school; it was not a particularly flash grammar school, but it produced Lord Birt, Roger McGough and Brendan Barber, who have all gone on to do extremely well in their chosen fields.

The Government have an opportunity to put the United Kingdom—particularly England and Wales—back at the top of the class. We need an A* and we need “education, education, education” to be the Government’s mantra. I am confident that we can carry on this journey, but I hope that we will accelerate and that the three R’s will no longer be a dirty word, but the founding blocks of a successful education.

3.13 pm

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for calling me to speak in this vital debate. It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship.

I want to focus on the improving performance of schools in our education system. I speak as a parent, an employer and a former governor of a large secondary school. As a parent, I know that it is vital to us all that our children make the most of the opportunities they have and meet their full potential. As an employer, I

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need—indeed, we collectively need—a good supply of well-educated, well-motivated and engaged employees at every level. They need not only the ability to learn, but the basic core skills to make their way in the world. As a former governor of a secondary school, I care deeply about the school system and the service that it provides to society. I want to ensure that we always recognise and applaud schools’ efforts.

The Government have made great headway in the short time they have been in post. I particularly welcome today’s statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education on Professor Wolf’s report. However, there are other good things to celebrate, including the £2.5 billion for the pupil premium, the emphasis on vigorous and rigorous academic attainment, the encouragement given to schools to go for academy status and the fact that we are attracting more good graduates into the teaching profession. We also recognise the value of high-quality vocational education.

I want to focus on three issues. The first is the role of the head teacher in improving education performance. It is universally recognised that good schools have good head teachers. An energetic, dynamic head teacher really sets a school’s ethos. Their energy can drive forward improvements, and they set the framework in which the school functions.

One key aspect of that framework is discipline across the whole school, which is as much about the staff as it is about the students. If a head sets out clear and high expectations of the staff, that can quickly filter down into the student body. The consistent application of school rules means that everyone knows precisely where they stand. If that ethos is instilled in staff and students from day one, it can avert the problems that students may otherwise have had later in their school careers.

Teachers, too, have to set down clear guidance for behaviour and stick to it. Whether that guidance relates to uniform policy, behavioural standards or classroom etiquette, it must be consistent. A flaky approach to discipline undermines students so that they do not know where they stand from one day to the next. If schools get their approach right, that can dramatically improve their performance. We must recognise and accept that the head teacher plays a vital role in that.

Mr Mark Field: I entirely agree. In our time as Members of Parliament, all of us will have visited schools, and the single most important difference between well-performing schools, which have positive results and a positive attitude among parents, and less well-performing schools is the leadership of the head teacher, as my hon. Friend rightly said. Does he not agree, however, that clamping down on paucity of aspiration, which was mentioned earlier, and having zero tolerance for it, is an important part of that leadership?

Stephen Metcalfe: Absolutely—I agree 100%. I picked on discipline as one aspect of the framework that a head teacher can put in place in a school, but aspiration, energy, drive and ensuring that all staff want to get the maximum out of every pupil they come into contact with are also vital. There are other things, but I wanted to focus particularly on discipline.

Unfortunately, a good teacher does not always make a good head teacher, because the two roles require very different skills. I therefore want to ask the Government

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to examine a system that would allow for greater movement across the senior management team. I am aware of senior managers—members of a school’s top team—who may have had excellent pastoral skills and data manipulation skills, but who have been promoted to the role of head only to find that they did not have the entire skill set to do the job.

Unfortunately, the school and the individual are then left with few options. There is always the nuclear option of going down the competency route, but that is a painful experience for the individual and the school, and it normally results in someone who was a highly skilled professional leaving the service, which means that we have lost a good teacher, their skills and their commitment. Just because someone cannot be a good leader and a head in a school, that does not make them a bad teacher. I would therefore very much like to find a flexible system that would allow someone to recognise that they are perhaps in the wrong role.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Is my hon. Friend aware that in Australia, after someone has been in a job for 10 or so years, they are entitled to a year or six months off? I think that that is true in most walks of life. It is certainly true in most professions, including teaching. The state provides for that by taking a section of salary to ensure that the person is paid throughout the period. The benefits to a teacher are that they have a break and an opportunity to go elsewhere, perhaps into industry or whatever, and they come back refreshed. It also means that everybody is in a position to act up in another position to gain experience of being a head teacher or head of department, which is fantastically valuable.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Lady that interventions should be brief. She is not on my list to speak. I would have considered putting her on my list if she had asked me to do so, but a long speech should not be dressed up as an intervention.

Tessa Munt: Forgive me.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): You are forgiven.

Stephen Metcalfe: I am aware of the system my hon. Friend mentions, and she is right that it is along those lines, but it is about more than that.

When an individual recognises that they have entered a role that they cannot fulfil properly, they are trapped. If we adopted a system that allowed them to move back to their original role or transfer to a similar one, without losing their skills in the profession, it would create a system that could allow more movement in senior management, which would ensure that we got the right people in leadership positions more quickly. As we accept, good leadership leads to good schools and we want to ensure that the right people are in the right roles.

Secondly, we must remember that education is about the students, not about the school, and we have touched upon that. Performance tables and comparisons among schools with similar backgrounds can be useful and help to drive improvement in performance, but we must not forget that at the heart of it lies the student. We all want to create a system that maximises the full potential

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of each and every student, makes the most of their talents and helps them to find their true vocation and motivation. For some, that may be a rigorous academic university or higher education experience, but for others it will be high-quality vocational work, other employment or apprenticeships. We must find some way of judging whether schools are making the most of the potential they are given. Although competition can drive up standards, it is not the be-all and end-all. We must remind schools that it is not about being better than the school down the road, but about being better at making the most of the potential of the people in their care and delivering on it.

We must accept that the potential that pupils come through our education system with each year will vary. It is highly unrealistic to expect a good school to deliver year-on-year improvements in exam results. Surely we must accept that different cohorts—year groups—have different potential and therefore different outcomes. If we do not and we end up in the trap of expecting exam results to be higher and higher every year, people, rightly, will begin to lose faith in the system because it does not reflect real-world experience.

We are not saying that students are any brighter now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Although there have been improvements in how we deliver education, it is unrealistic to expect that to go on and on. If a school consistently achieves good results, one or two poor performances do not necessarily mean that it is failing. I ask that we expand how we compare and judge schools in a way that looks at every pupil and their performance and experience in the school. We could use the contextual value added measure more often, and educate the public about its potential value to create greater understanding in society, so that parents and pupils can better understand what a particular school can deliver.

Thirdly, a good experience across the whole education system is important. I am fortunate in my constituency to have six secondary schools all of which are performing or about to perform very well under excellent leadership—vigorous, dynamic and energetic. The one concern that is repeatedly expressed to me is that when schools receive their year 7 pupils, it takes time to prepare them for the rest of their school career in secondary education. They have to bring them up to speed, which can sometimes last well into the second year of secondary school education. That is not unique to my patch. There are reasons for it, including issues about communication between primary and secondary school, but we must put greater emphasis on the importance of primary education so that we attract the best teachers into the early years.

I suspect that when a teacher is training and looking at where they want to place themselves within the education system, those with more rigorously challenging academic degrees will look to teach in secondary schools. We need to bring some of that excellence into the whole of our education system. There are many excellent teachers and heads in our primary system, but that does not mean that we cannot do more. I would like to think that we can make primary education as attractive as secondary.

We also need to encourage more collaboration among primary schools. Many primary, infant and junior schools are quite small, and we need to encourage them to work more closely with their secondary schools and other

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schools in the system, to see if the intimacy and familiarity that they enjoy as a small school can be maintained while benefiting from the ability to share resources, staff and perhaps even head teachers. The recruitment and retention of good head teachers is particularly a problem for small schools. I would like to think that we can find a way to encourage local education authorities and schools to work more closely across the whole education system to see if we can deliver a better experience for all students.

Education is one of the most important gifts we can give our children. A good education that suits an individual’s strengths and talents will help them to make the most of a life full of opportunities. It falls to all of us to ensure that we do what we can to help schools to deliver that improving educational performance. We must recognise the vital role that they play in the future prosperity and success not only of our country, but of our children.

3.27 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for being late for this important debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)on initiating it. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who I assume went to St Eddie’s in my constituency, and the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe).

The starting point of my contribution is the importance of us all taking seriously the available evidence and data about education performance. It may be legitimate self-criticism for all of us, wherever we stand in terms of our parties or on the issues discussed today, to say that we all have instincts and prejudices. We all went to school, many of us have children at school and we all have schools in our constituencies. Understandably, those things, as well as our political philosophies, inform our outlook on school policy, but we need to supplement those instincts and prejudices by looking at the data and evidence.

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the importance of evidence when comparing countries, so is he a little concerned that we were not listed in the 2003 PISA results because schools did not provide the requisite amount of information? Does he welcome the fact that this Government will make it mandatory for schools to provide such information?

Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman anticipates the next part of my speech. I absolutely share his concern. In fact, I was Schools Minister at the time—I do not know whether he intervened on me with that knowledge—and I remember the difficult conversations we had to have. The subsequent judgment was that the figures, for both 2000 and 2003 I think, were invalid because there were not sufficient schools. All we have to compare is 2006 with 2009.

The hon. Member for South West Norfolk spoke about PISA before I came into the Chamber. I apologise for missing what she said. The Secretary of State has spoken about the PISA outcomes on a number of occasions. Clearly, we must all share his concern about how low down the PISA league table we are for maths,

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science and reading. There are issues about its methodology and about the new entrants that were not in previous studies, but I will not dwell on them. I share the concern of the hon. Lady and others that we clearly still face a very big challenge.

The hon. Lady referred to Shanghai, which is a part of China that was not in the previous PISA table in 2009 and that went straight in to the current table at No. 1, which is what they used to say on the top 40. It is now top of the PISA league table for maths, science and reading. Clearly, there are lessons that we need to learn from that part of the world.

Kevin Brennan: Let me caution my hon. Friend on this matter and recommend that he read the article in The New Yorker, which asked whether help had been given to those taking the tests in Shanghai.

Stephen Twigg: I will read that article.

Whenever we discuss test scores, there is always this argument about whether people are being taught to the test. Of course there are other pieces of research that show rather different outcomes. I know that this has been referred to in previous debates, but the trends in international mathematics and science study, which does not cover English or reading, looked at scores in years 3 and 9 between 1995 and 2007. In terms of progress in both mathematics and science, the United Kingdom was towards the top of the most improved countries in the world.

Elizabeth Truss: I mentioned TIMSS earlier. Part of the concern about TIMSS is that it is based on the curriculum of a particular country. It is not a standardised test that people sit across countries in the way that PISA is. Moreover, France and Germany did not take part in that study. We were still trailing all the Asian tigers, such as Japan and Hong Kong.

Mel Stride rose—

Stephen Twigg: Allow me to respond to the hon. Lady and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he still wishes to intervene.

From the information that I have in front of me, I can see that the hon. Lady is correct in what she said about Germany and France. As for Japan, we performed better in science and mathematics in year 3-4 and year 8. I accept her point about the validity of different forms of comparative research. None the less, on TIMSS, we were ahead of Japan and the United States. I know what she will say to that. What I am measuring is the improvement on the absolute score. After the improvement, we are still slightly behind Japan, but in that period we improved faster than Japan, although from a lower base.

Mel Stride: Is it not the case that our apparent improvements in the TIMSS can to some degree be attributed to the fact that the cohort of countries that we are looking at in each year has changed and that a number of non-OECD African and Asian countries have entered in more recent times, thus slightly flattering our figures?

Stephen Twigg: I do not believe so. I am relying on the particular table in front of me. In each case, it examines a country that was in the 1995 cohort and the

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2007 cohort. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman’s criticism is valid. The hon. Lady’s implied criticism is a fairer one because I was relying on the improvement. She is right to say that, if we look at the absolute score for Japan, it is, in every case, slightly better than ours, but we have made a greater improvement in that period. Interestingly, the United States is behind us on not just improvement but the absolute score in every case.

Mr Mark Field: In the midst of this battle over evidence—I accept that evidence is important and that getting the figures right does matter—surely the hon. Gentleman does not disagree with the assertion of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk that there is a problem. We are going down the league table, although perhaps not by as many places as might have been predicted. More importantly though, there is a lack of rigour in the choice of subjects that the average student is taking for A-level. We are not looking at academic subjects in the way we were in the past, and that is in stark contrast to many of our most important economic rivals in the 21st century.

Stephen Twigg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. At the end of the hon. Lady’s speech, she said that there is no contradiction between a high-quality and a high-quantity education system, and that is something with which I passionately agree. I do not necessarily agree with everything that she said in constructing that argument, but I certainly believe that we should be aspiring to that.

Let me take up something that the hon. Lady said and that has also been said by other Government Members. We face a real challenge in changing the attitude of many state comprehensive schools to getting their brightest kids into Oxbridge. As someone who went from a comprehensive school to Oxford—okay, it was quite a long time ago, as the hon. Gentleman will know—I relied on a particular teacher who mentored and encouraged me. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and I was doing A-level economics. Without him, I am not sure whether I would have made that application. I do not think that that situation has changed as much in the subsequent 25 years as I would like. It is not just about Oxbridge, but if we are rightly to criticise Oxbridge for the comparatively low numbers of state school kids getting in, part of the challenge is for the schools as well as for Oxbridge.

Kevin Brennan: We are all in danger of confessing our educational backgrounds. I also went to a comprehensive school and ended up studying PPE at Oxford. That just shows how predictable MPs are.

Stephen Twigg: Did my hon. Friend study A-level economics?

Kevin Brennan: Yes, I studied A-level economics and got an A in case anybody asks. Cambridge Assessment sent me an article this week about the PISA studies in which Andreas Schleicher, who is often cited by the Secretary of State as his hero, seemed to suggest that there is no evidence of decline in English pupil performance.

Stephen Twigg: I think I will move on from this part of my speech, partly because a lot of Members want to participate in the debate.

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Elizabeth Truss: In response to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), we are not arguing that the standards have necessarily gone down, but rather that the standards in other countries are going up faster. That is the key issue.

Kevin Brennan: In one study.

Elizabeth Truss: From a whole series of studies, including TIMSS.

Stephen Twigg: I am not sure whether TIMSS shows that, but I want to move on. When the hon. Lady spoke about China, she mentioned the cultural attitude to education, and that is clearly a factor. We know that in our own country from the data for achievement by ethnicity. Chinese and Indian children consistently outperform all other sections of the population in tests and exams, even when they are from the poorest families, as measured by free school meals, so there clearly are cultural factors.

In my remaining time, I will say a little about progress over time and highlight some successes in Liverpool. I will say a little about the factors that shape success and then something about learning from elsewhere. I want to say a bit about Teach First and about the US and Swedish experience of chartered schools and free schools respectively and then finish by saying something about E-bac and the surrounding debate around measuring achievement.

Between 1997 and 2010, we saw a significant improvement in the scores in the key stage tests—the SATS—A-levels and GCSEs. The national improvement in the five A* to C measure was from 32% in 1997 to 55% in 2010. I wanted to use that fact to pay particular tribute to the schools in Liverpool, which improved by a more significant margin—from a miserable 24% in 1997 to 53% last year, which was just two points below the national average. Linked to that, because of the success that those children and young people have had in their GCSE results, more of them are staying on at school or college after the age of 16. Nationally, there has been an improvement from 64% in 1997, just below two-thirds, to 79% last year, just below four-fifths. Again, in Liverpool, there was much more significant improvement, from just over 50% in 1997 to 78% last year.

There is a very important debate to be had about why those rates are changing. I agree with the hon. Member for South West Norfolk that improving educational performance is not just about Governments waving a magic wand. We will always have a debate about resources. Resources are not the focus of today’s debate, but spending is clearly a factor. There is also a debate to be had about the appropriate accountability measures and I will return later to that issue. However, improving educational performance is actually about what happens at the school level and the local level. We know that, because we know that schools with very similar intakes that have very similar amounts of money spent on them perform very differently from each other. Improving educational performance cannot be only about the context or the amount of money that is spent, although clearly both those things matter.

I agree with the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock that the head teacher in a school is critical. The quality of leadership around and below the

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position of head teacher is also important. Governors are important, too; the hon. Gentleman referred to his own role as a governor. All those positions are also vital.

Let us consider what we can learn from elsewhere, because it is important that we examine all the evidence available. I have praised the Government for the expansion of Teach First. One of the earliest decisions that I had to make when I became a Minister in 2002 was about whether we should support a programme that was initially called Teach for London, but eventually became the Teach First programme. We can learn a great deal from the Teach First programme.

The hon. Member for South West Norfolk—or perhaps it was one of her colleagues—spoke about the attractiveness of teaching in some of the toughest schools and how the best teachers often may not want to teach in them. As I say, Teach First began in London before expanding to other parts of the country and the whole basis of the programme was to place some of the brightest graduates from some of the top universities in some of the toughest inner-city schools in London as teachers.

Some of the examples of teachers who have gone through the Teach First programme are truly remarkable. Moreover, the number of teachers who went through the programme and stayed in the education world rather than following other careers that are probably much better paid has been another truly remarkable achievement. Research by Manchester university shows that schools in challenging circumstances where Teach First graduates are first placed have seen a statistically significant improvement in their GCSE results and that there is a positive correlation between the degree of improvement at GCSE level and the number of Teach First graduates in a school.

Teach First is a great programme and a great example of learning from another country, because it was modelled on a scheme in the US that enjoys strong cross-party support. Whatever else happens in the field of education policy, we should all continue to support and encourage the further expansion of the Teach First programme.

Having said that, I should add that there is a need to be cautious when we are studying school reform movements in other parts of the world. When the case is made for the Government’s policy on free schools and academies, great emphasis is placed on the experience of the US charter schools and the Swedish free schools. In preparation for today’s debate, I have looked at some of the evidence from the US and Sweden, and I think that it is fair to say that the evidence from both countries is mixed.

I think that the Secretary of State for Education and the Minister who is here today have both referred to a US programme called KIPP, which is the Knowledge is Power Project. I had an opportunity to visit KIPP schools in New York and Texas some time ago and I was hugely impressed by what was being achieved in those schools. KIPP schools are a great example of how some of these new, more autonomous schools in the US are delivering, particularly for children from some of the poorest backgrounds. There is no doubt that both the US charter schools and the Swedish free schools are hugely popular with the parents of the children who attend them.

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However, the evidence about the impact on standards of those schools is mixed. There have been a number of studies in New York that suggest there has been real improvement in the charter schools compared with non-charter schools and that in particular some of the poorest children from ethnic minorities have done better than they might have done otherwise. On the other hand, the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford university published a report in 2009 that suggested that there is a much more mixed picture across the US, including significant state-by-state variation. That suggests that the extra autonomy granted to those schools may in itself bring benefits—but there are clearly other factors at play in addition to that extra autonomy, which help to determine whether those schools are successful or less successful.

In some ways, the picture in Sweden is quite similar. The Swedish free schools are popular with parents. One piece of research that I looked at showed higher grade point averages in free schools compared with those achieved in other Swedish schools. It has been suggested that in an area with a concentration of free schools, there was a wider positive impact. On the other hand, other significant studies that I looked at earlier today suggest that there has been a general worsening of performance in the Swedish school system in recent years, so that it is perhaps the case that the free schools have not delivered the national system-wide improvement in Sweden that their proponents originally anticipated.

Furthermore, there is real concern in Sweden—this is different from the experience in the US of the charter school system—that the gaps in terms of socio-economic achievement have widened in the country. Admittedly, those gaps in Sweden have always been much narrower than the gaps in the UK, so I still think that we have a lot to learn from Sweden and from some of the other Scandinavian countries. Nevertheless, we still need to tread with care on both sides of this debate, because I have heard both advocates of the Government’s proposals and critics of them somewhat overstating the case for or against by citing evidence from the US and Sweden. As I said, the evidence from those countries is decidedly mixed.

There is a very difficult debate to be had about how we measure how well schools are doing—and, indeed, how such measurement can itself have an impact on what happens in schools. That is really the debate about E-bac. That is a very difficult debate; I do not think that it is easy or straightforward at all. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock said something that I passionately agree with—that we should make the contextual value added the key indicator of schools. He then added a very important caveat by saying that we must also find a way to make CVA understood. I remember that when I was a Minister I said, “Why can’t people see that the value that this school is adding is actually far more significant than the raw score?” But people did not look at the value that was being added. They looked at the raw score.

The dilemma that all of us who care about education policy face is how we best measure schools and how we ensure that that measurement does not distort choices. I am concerned about E-bac, but that is not because I am not passionate about history, geography and modern foreign languages; I am passionate about all three of those subjects. However, I am not convinced that making

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them compulsory for all children, which could happen as a consequence of the E-bac, or emphasising them over other subjects, is necessarily the wisest way to encourage more children to have a passion for, and therefore to learn, foreign languages, history and geography.

The jury is out. We need to look at that issue further. As a Minister, I had some responsibility for the work that we did on modern foreign languages after they were made optional. I had mixed views. In the end, I think that it was probably right that they were made optional. What we sought to do was to encourage primary schools to take up modern foreign language teaching. We have seen a big expansion in such teaching in our primary schools in recent years. I hope that that will result in primary schoolchildren having a passion for foreign languages and that they maintain that passion as they go on to secondary school. That was the thinking behind encouraging language teaching in primary schools.

I can understand the desire of a new Government who are in a hurry to do something quick on E-bac, but I worry that it is effectively being introduced retrospectively. As I said in the Education Bill debate yesterday, there are schools in my constituency that are getting year 10 pupils who are midway through the year to change subjects so that they do E-bac subjects, because the school thinks that it will be measured by the performance in those subjects. I am not convinced that that will either prepare those children well for the world of work or give them a passion for those subjects that they have been told they must switch to.

I will finish by referring to the other thing that I agree with the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock about—the importance of recognising that progress takes time. The political and educational cycles are not exactly the same. When the Minister responds to the debate, he will say that of course the Government want to see progress. We were the same when we were in government.

We all want that progress for good reasons; it is not only to gain political kudos, but because all of us are passionate about children and young people being able to do well at school, so that they are fully equipped and have the best possible chances later in life. However, we often expect change in schools to happen too quickly. We set hurdles that cannot be crossed. As the hon. Gentleman said, schools cannot necessarily improve every year, because they have a different set of children each year. That is not an excuse for failure; it is just a recognition of reality.

When we assess how well schools do, let us look at subjects beyond English and maths, but let us not lose that vital core of literacy and numeracy. Let us look at a school’s progress over the previous five years, and let us look at value added—at how well particular children do at age 16 compared with how they do at age 11.

I very much welcome the opportunity I have had to participate in this debate, and I apologise for taking a bit longer than other Members. However, as I am the only Member on the Opposition Back Benches today, I can assure everyone that everything I have said is on behalf of all Labour Back Benchers. It is vital that we regularly debate education because, in spite of our real policy differences, we all know that education is vital if we are to be a successful economy and a fairer society with greater social mobility.

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Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): May I suggest that Members try to restrict their remarks to something in the region of 10 minutes? If that happens, there is a chance that everyone can be called and have a chance to contribute to the debate.

3.51 pm

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this extremely important debate. I shall try to make my comments even briefer than you have asked us to, Mr Rosindell. The debate has been very interesting and we have touched on a lot of issues to do with aspiration, but I just want to say a little about education for excellent pupils, a matter about which the Minister and I had a brief exchange on the Floor of the House only yesterday.

It is, I think, in a bid to dampen some of the political furore over tuition fees that fresh debate has recently emerged over access to our best universities. As everyone has been admitting which university they went to, I should say that I, too, was at Oxford but, as I had the misfortune—at least in the eyes of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—of coming from a grammar school, I did not do a Mickey Mouse subject such as PPE, but read law—[ Interruption. ] Yes, I know, it has been downhill all the way from there.

It has been suggested that the Government would grant permission to charge more than £6,000 a year in fees only to universities willing to widen their intake, and suggestions of measures to avoid penalties have included lowering grade offers and taking background into account when handing out places. We all know that, in practice, that could mean preferring a less-qualified pupil from an inner-city comprehensive over a student with top grades from an independent school. It is not clear how that might objectively be regarded as fair or evidence-based, but I suspect that it was hoped that the airing of such plans might take the sting out of any accusations that the new fees system was making our higher education system too elitist.

I have long contended, and will continue to, that our education system cannot be elitist enough. For far too long, the British attitude has been one of slight embarrassment and discomfort at the notion of high performance, excellence and the pursuit of academic rigour. I am not sure that the rest of the world feels the same, at a time when the likes of India and China are relentlessly pushing forward in global league tables. The two economic superpowers of this century have the pursuit of excellence and academic rigour at the heart of their thinking.

The domestic access-regulation plans have also betrayed an expectation that politicians seem to have had in recent years that our higher education system should somehow miraculously make up for the lack of genuine attainment by children in their primary and secondary-school years, particularly in the state sector. If universities fail to take in students who are not up to the mark, we blame not a child’s upbringing or education but the university itself for being too exclusive.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and I were almost contemporaries at Oxford, and he will remember the outreach efforts that our

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colleges made almost three decades ago, which have continued—




The hon. Gentleman went up in 1985 and I went up in 1984, so it was almost three decades ago. Even at that time, tremendous efforts were made by the student union and, more importantly, by colleges via their tutors, to open up access. It is worth putting that on the record.

I do not believe that universities have an innate bias towards students from independent schools, but our top institutions are international leaders with worldwide reputations for excellence, which they aspire to maintain. In their admissions policies, they most pride themselves on recruiting the brightest and best globally. If the brightest and best have a tendency to come from a particular sort of school, we might be wise first to examine the deep shortcomings of the state sector.

That the private education sector has so flourished in recent years is a mark of how many parents have lost faith in the state’s ability to deliver their child a rigorous, thorough and excellent education. When articulate, active parents turn away, local state schools lose the key stakeholders that have traditionally helped to drive improvement. As a result, the poorest and most vulnerable children suffer, and they will not be helped by the state’s facilitating places for them at the best universities if they do not have the tools to make use of such places.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I cannot make a lengthy intervention, but my mind has been shifted somewhat, on the topic that my hon. Friend is addressing, by a visit to King’s College London, one of the universities in his constituency. I urge him to visit the medical department there and see for himself the fantastic work being done with state school students with lower grades who are enrolled on the extended medical degree. They struggle not with the science but with some lifestyle factors which, with additional support, they are able to overcome.

Mr Field: I very much accept that. I have visited King’s College on a number of occasions and get on very well with the authorities there. Funnily enough, a lot of the evidence suggests that medicine is one of the very few subjects in which a lot of the comparators about school performance and expected academic performance at degree level break down to a certain extent. I suspect that King’s had that very much in mind when it set up its very innovative and important programme.

It seems to me, however, that the relentless focus of the Minister, who I know has a passion for driving up standards, should be on giving state sector students the tools they need to compete on a level playing field with their peers in the independent sector, and I admire a lot of the work that he is doing in that regard. He instinctively understands the damage that has been done in recent years by the levelling down of standards and opportunities to the lowest common denominator that has so entrenched underachievement. I particularly praise him for his emphasis on phonics, which is an essential learning tool. Given my experience of day-to-day life with a three-and-a-half-year-old son, I can entirely vouch for what the Minister has said on that matter. In some respects, however, the Government could be more radical in promoting choice and competition in the state sector.

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Yesterday, I spoke briefly in the House about the importance of looking after the special educational needs of the most gifted children in the state sector, in the same way as we strive to help children who are less gifted, because all too often their needs are ignored. My words provoked an e-mail later that afternoon from a teacher in Norfolk:

“What a breath of fresh air it was for me, as a retired educator, to hear your intervention. My wife and I are both graduate teachers who have experienced at first hand the consequences of an absence of special provision for the brightest of our pupils, to the serious detriment of their educational development and realisation of their full potential, not to mention that of wider society. The needs of the talented must be formally brought under the SEN purview and schools and Ofsted should be expressly required to give as much attention to these needs as to those of lower achievers.”

I ask the Minister to give greater consideration to that issue. We want to retain the most gifted students in our state schools, bring them to their full potential and use them as exemplars for other students, so that a golden thread of aspiration is sewn through each and every school, as has been suggested by a number of other Members.

I am the product of a grammar school, and I remember various episodes when I was there that allowed me to aspire to the university place to which my parents could never aspire, and also to running my own business, becoming professionally qualified and eventually becoming a Member of this House. We must push pupils upwards and not hold back their talents.

I finish this brief contribution by returning to a theme that runs through so many of my speeches, but which nevertheless is important to drive home once again. Our wont in recent years has been to tinker with our educational system to engineer particular social outcomes, but the attitudes of our competing nations could not be more different; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk covered that matter skilfully and in great detail. It is that sense of being in a highly competitive globalised world that will, and should, remain an important element of all our thinking. One need look only at the high number of highly skilled school leavers and graduates, not just in India and China but in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, to understand that the world is not waiting for Britain to churn out the brightest and best any more.

In my 10 years as a local MP, I have regularly visited primary and secondary schools and higher education establishments to talk to students. Contrary to the negative image of young people sometimes portrayed in the media, I am always impressed by students’ sharp and inquisitive minds. Our country is brimming with talent, including here in our inner cities. That talent exists to be developed and can compete with the likes of India and China in the decades ahead, but that will happen only if we pursue excellence relentlessly and equip our young people with the tools to take on their peers. We do everyone a disservice by suggesting that there are shortcuts in this world.

4 pm

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and her colleagues on securing this debate.

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I will not comment further on standards and international comparisons, because those points have been well made. The decline in standards in certain subjects and the decline in the study of foreign languages at GCSE level, to less than 50%, are worrying. The problem has many causes.

The first thing that strikes me from my experience as a school and university governor is that our expectations of students at independent and academically selective state schools are very different from our expectations of students educated in the state comprehensive sector. As politicians, we regularly congratulate our schools on increasing the percentage of pupils who pass five GCSEs with a C grade or above, including in English and maths, yet for those of us who aspire to send our own children to independent schools or pray that they get into state academically selective schools, that is an uncomfortable, almost hypocritical situation to find ourselves in.

We celebrate that standard, yet if it were applied to our own children, we would be aghast. For students in independent or academically selective schools, the standard is nine or 11 A grades, and we ask how many are A*. There will be a smattering of Bs, but not many. That division is intolerable. One would not expect the same standards in non-academically selective schools as in the independent and selective sector, but it is reasonable to expect them to be far closer than they are.

In my view, the league tables have contributed to the problem in a couple of ways. I recognise that there must be some externally validated way for parents to compare local schools, and I am mindful of the words of the former Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), about how difficult such problems are to solve. However, the obsession with C grades has led to far too much teaching emphasis on children who are borderline D-C achievers.

In addition, it is a statutory requirement for all children with special needs—not only statemented, but on school action—to have individual learning plans and a huge amount of support. I argue, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), that too many schools put far more effort into children of lower ability than into stretching more academic children, who are on course for at least a B, so that they get A grades in the right subjects.

The second problem to which the league tables contribute is that too many children are encouraged to start studying vocational subjects at a young age, for no other reason than to boost their schools’ league table rankings. An ambitious boy aged 14 from one of the secondary schools in my constituency told me, while doing work experience for me, that he liked history. When I asked him what GCSEs he was doing, I was surprised to hear that history did not feature among them because he had been encouraged to take leisure and tourism instead. He was a bright boy. That is an example of how average schools, obsessed with league table rankings, have piled into BTEC qualifications.

That is the start of a slippery slope, as has been said. At age 14, many children, especially from families that have never benefited from higher education, make GCSE subject selections that narrow the choices available to them at A-level and finally divert them into a further education college or new university. I am not dismissing BTEC and other such qualifications, but we must be

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honest with students and their families—by taking such subjects, students set themselves on a vocational route in life.

In Stourbridge, just 25% of students now take history at GCSE level, and fewer than 20% take geography. I do not believe that only 25% of children in my constituency are academically gifted enough to be challenged intellectually and be candidates for top universities.

The prevailing culture militates against improving educational performance. Too many of us have talked in euphemisms about education. We have doled out excessive praise for mediocre performance, and we have eroded competitive sport by declaring no winners and prizes for all. Instead, we should stress that gain without pain is rare. Hard work, study, the pursuit of excellence and the productive use of time, including leisure time, should be imbued in all our children, as they are imbued in the children at our independent and academically selective schools.

The last of the myriad roots of the problem that I shall address is the restrictions on schools involved in contracts between schools and teachers, which I trust the academies and free schools will help overcome. Under the present system, it is virtually impossible for poorly performing teachers to be removed; at best, they are recycled to another school. As has been said, we all know that the important thing is quality of teaching and leadership by the head. I am pleased that the Education Bill will address that problem.

Other hon. Members have mentioned the length of the school day. When I was first selected in Stourbridge, I wondered what was happening when I saw children in school uniform milling around the streets at 3 o’clock, halfway through the afternoon. Then I realised that their day had ended. That was compounded when I toured schools and found that in the middle of the school day, children were playing football, netball and other such worthy pursuits and studying drama.

In independent schools, such things are studied between 4 and 6 o’clock and on Saturday mornings. Of course children taught in independent schools do better: they get hours more educational teaching work a week. It is no surprise that they come out with better grades and have time to pursue more academic subjects, as well as access to all the other pursuits that make up a good, rounded education. They are there for longer. It is almost as simple as that.

I am mindful of the time; I want to speak for only 10 minutes. I end with a plea for pupil referral units. I am a great believer in opportunities for late developers and children who go off the rails early in life, because I am one such. I think that I am the first speaker in this debate who did not go to Oxford. I am sure that there are some good PRUs, but provision in my area is patchy, they are not given enough priority and they can be seen as dumping grounds.

I know of one PRU in the black country where there is absolutely no discipline and no boundaries, which are precisely what children who end up in PRUs require. I suggest that that is an area where we need to encourage passionate voluntary sector providers to participate. We must not forget about those children. The same could be said for looked-after children, who also face many hurdles. We must ensure that voluntary providers are encouraged to come in. There are so many other things

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that we could discuss in this debate, but I end by congratulating those hon. Friends who helped secure it. I hope to hear so much more from other Members and hon. Friends.

4.9 pm

Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North) (Con): I congratulate colleagues who helped secure this important debate, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). We often talk about budgets, structures and strategies, but we do not discuss performance enough. It is a key issue for my constituents in Portsmouth. We have heard some great speeches that have taken us over the globe, but I hope that Members will forgive me for concentrating on my constituency.

We have some serious challenges and low educational performance in Portsmouth, although it is slowly improving. To name one of the many challenges, we have particular problems in primary education, which means that a lot of children going into secondary school education have a 5% or less chance of getting a GCSE. Although we have very good services for high special educational needs, we do not, in my view and in that of Ofsted, have good provision for medium to low needs or, indeed, for gifted children either. Someone with dyslexia or a pragmatic language disorder really struggles to get the help they need. There is very little support for parents in getting access to the services that their children need. There is also a reluctance to intervene in particular cases and to have a focus on and a drive to get the services that a particular child needs.

In one case with which I am dealing, for example, a young lad who is due to take his GCSE options next year has never been to a secondary school. He has a very low special educational need that could easily be addressed and sorted out through a number of options, including a travel grant. It is a scandal that it has now taken more than two years—we are approaching the end of the third year—for any solution to be put on the table for that family.

A lot of children in Portsmouth have a challenging home life. A lot of our schools do amazing things in supporting such children, but one message that I want to get across today is that although intervention, behavioural support and all the things that those children need, such as being taught life skills, are important, they are no substitute for enabling them to follow an academic path. Sometimes and all too often, they are a substitute. We have to do much better for children from those kinds of backgrounds who do not necessarily have a strong parental advocate.

As an aside, we have discussed media studies and other softer subjects, and I agree absolutely with Members who have said that they are not equivalent and that we do young people a disservice by pretending that they are. However, I should like to mention the Heart of Portsmouth boxing academy, which has piloted a GCSE in boxing. It has been a hook for getting children who would otherwise never be in school to attend lessons. Until recently, 400 pupils a year in Portsmouth spent more than three months of the school year out of school. Pupils who study the GCSE get a taster of more

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academic subjects—human biology, maths and so on—and all those who have taken it are now involved in further education and going on to careers in sport and all sorts of other fields.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Lady is making an interesting point, but is there not a slight contradiction in what she is saying? She is saying that developing imaginative types of qualifications can stimulate the interest of young people to go on and study and succeed in what other Members have called the core subjects.

Penny Mordaunt: There is a role for those types of subjects, but I do not think that we do young people any service at all by pretending that they are equivalent qualifications. They serve a particular purpose. One reason why the boxing club and the GCSE were set up was to address a particular problem facing the individuals involved. It has led to them going on to do other things, but it is not an equivalent GCSE to a language, maths or those other core subjects. We do our young people a disservice if we pretend that it is. It is important, however, to pay tribute to some of the work that has been done in that area.

Another point—I shall not dwell on this, but it is key—is that there is a lack of aspiration. That is a consistent theme that I hear from secondary head teachers. It is one of the biggest long-term problems that they face. What can be done about it? I welcome the rigour that is being put back into the curriculum. I am particularly pleased about the focus on the fact that spelling, punctuation and grammar matter in GCSEs. I endorse what previous speakers have said about incentives for choosing particular high-return subjects. Part of that is better careers advice for young people when choosing those options.

We need to do better for those with a special educational need. Every child must get the support they need. I am dealing with the case of a very bright girl who has dyslexia. She is four years behind the reading age that she should be at, but her case is not considered critical or in need of any intervention by the local authority. We need to be smarter about how we provide those services. Some services are just not available, or they are supposed to be available but are not being provided in schools. Needs are dismissed and it is very difficult for parents to get some clout and make sure that the services are delivered.

Another area of great concern in Portsmouth is that about 50 children are not in a school—not because they have been excluded, but because nowhere can cater for their needs—and are being home taught, but not through the choice of the parents. A lot of those parents themselves have a learning disability but zero support. There is no support from the local authority to help them teach their children. In fact, if they admit that they are teaching their children at home, they are struck off the list to get a school place. That is a real problem.

We need to look at the flow of funding. I am dealing with a case in which a child has a high dyslexia need and has to have a specialist, full-time teacher who is accredited by CReSTeD—the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils. Only one school in the city provides that kind of service, and it is in the private sector. It would cost the local authority less to send the child to that school than to try to bring in extra facilities to one of its own schools. Where it makes sense for that

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happen, I think we should allow funding to flow and to follow the pupil—even if they do not have a statement—if there is a clear, well-documented special educational need. I have a quick plug: on 8 June, I will ask the House whether I can table a Bill to address some of those issues.

Finally, we need much more vision in Portsmouth for our young people. We have some tremendous opportunities in the city. We are surrounded by high-tech industry. We have an MP who is a member of the British Astronomical Association. We have a university that is in the top five in the country for astrophysics and cosmology. Not only do we build aircraft carriers and Type 45 destroyers, but we build spaceships at Astrium. We also have the Navy. I would very much like to see a university technical college set up in the city in the near future.

Speaking of vision for the city, I would like to end by paying tribute to all those who work and volunteer to educate children in Portsmouth. I am very grateful for their time, effort and energy in helping me to put together a vision for our city. I need to ensure that they are properly supported—if not by education expertise in the local authority, then by expertise and support from elsewhere. The Department should be responsive to their needs. As their MP, I will play my role in debates such as this and in providing practical support on the ground.

4.20 pm

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. I am afraid that I have to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) that I am another Oxford graduate and, to compound her concerns, that I went to the same college as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field)—although, of course, he was there much later than me, which is why he is looking so much more youthful and fresh.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this extremely important debate. Education is one of the most important policy areas considered by our Government. It is important to the individual because a high level of educational achievement correlates to higher earnings, a lower propensity to be unemployed, better health outcomes and, indeed, greater longevity. As she eloquently pointed out, in a world that is increasingly dominated by global competition and where knowledge-based industries are king, education is also important to the economy.

I shall illustrate that point. In 1978, 6.5 million people worked in manufacturing. That figure is now down to 2.5 million. The scope for less-skilled jobs in our economy has diminished considerably. As my hon. Friend pointed out, in a recent survey, the CBI indicated that some 40% of the UK’s population could be classified as low skilled compared with just 22% in Germany. That is a serious problem for the economy.

Many hon. Members have mentioned social mobility. My parents left school at 15 and 14 for reasons of economic hardship. For them to have dreamt of becoming a doctor or a scientist would have been about as fanciful as any Member in this Chamber dreaming of walking on the surface of the moon—it was simply never going to happen. One of the most striking and pitiful statistics

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I have heard since becoming a Member of Parliament is that, in the last year for which figures are available, of the 80,000 children who qualify for free school meals, only 40 achieved places at Oxford and Cambridge, which is down from the princely figure of 45 in the previous year. That is simply not good enough.

I have listened with great interest to the debate about the programme for international student assessment figures and trends in international mathematics and science study statistics and so on. Of course, the problem is that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. The Government will rightly point to what they see as a diminishing level of education performance over the past decade, and the Opposition will start to unpick those figures and say that they are unfair comparisons. As the shadow Minister may tell us in a moment, I accept that there is an issue with the 2000 PISA figures having a cohort of just 32 countries and the 2009 figures having a cohort of 65 countries. Of course, such factors make comparisons difficult. However, the Government make a good point that, of those new countries coming into the later figures, many of them are outside the OECD and are therefore lowering the average standard involved.

Kevin Brennan: I may or may not make the point about the figures when I speak, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that the OECD itself has said—not just me—that we cannot make the comparison between the 2000 figures, the 2003 figures and the latest figures for the reason my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned earlier: the inadequate size of the sample. Given the hon. Gentleman’s Oxbridge education, he would not want to make that mistake.

Mel Stride: From one Oxbridge man to another, I accept that that certainly is the case with the 2003 figures, where the lack of information provided by UK and English schools meant we were not included in the league tables. Although there was a paucity of data in 2000, we were included, as the hon. Gentleman will know. Therefore, some level of comparison is justified if we go back to that year.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): My hon. Friend is making a good point about the PISA surveys. Of course, Ministers and civil servants were not slow in coming forward in trumpeting the fact the 2000 PISA figures were so high.

Mel Stride: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for helpfully reminding me of that. I am sure that the shadow Minister will address that comment in due course.

Whether we have gone up or down a bit in such surveys is not the main point, as a number of hon. Members have said. At the end of the day, as I shall demonstrate, being average or around average is simply not good enough—as I think the Opposition accept, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) who very much stressed that point. According to the 2009 league table, if we were to have achieved at the level of the best—for example, Finland—67% of students in this country would have obtained five A* to C grades, including English and mathematics.

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The actual figure is just 49.8%. That is a huge loss of human capital and is to the enormous detriment of students who did not achieve those grades as a consequence of us not being the best. Average performance is clearly changing through time because those countries with good education systems that consistently put them at the top of the table are good at adapting and innovating. Such countries are not standing still and they are getting better.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Interesting evidence given to the Select Committee on Education this week from the OECD demonstrates how complex the matter is. What does the hon. Gentleman have to say about the OECD’s report that, although Finland is very good in terms of attainment, it is very poor at getting young people into employment? The UK is better at that than, for example, Finland. These issues are complex.

Mel Stride: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. Of course, these matters are complex. That is exactly what I have been arguing. However, there is no getting away from the fact that we have remained average for far too long across too many measures—PISA, TIMSS, the progress in international reading literacy study and so on.

PISA is, indeed, a complex study. It looks not just at 15-year-olds in terms of reading, mathematics and science, but at the background of those students. It looks at their aspirations and attitudes and how the schools in which those students are studying function. One of the key conclusions that is drawn by the OECD from those studies is that education in this country is not promoting social mobility to the extent that it should. One of the ways of identifying that point is to look at the different achievement levels of individual pupils. There is a high correlation between social deprivation and poorer students, and lower achievement. In fact, 13.9% of a student’s achievement can be attributed to their socio-economic background. That figure is far lower in other countries, including in Finland at 8.3% and Canada at 8.2%.

That brings me on to my next point. This is not a zero-sum game where having excellence and achieving well in these league tables means letting down poorer students. It is quite possible to achieve both—to make sure that we are at the top of the league table and that we are doing well by students from less advantaged backgrounds. That has been shown not just by Finland and Canada, but by Japan and South Korea. In this country, we have for too long tolerated a long tail of underachievement in the distribution of education performance, which is why I am pleased that a lot of the Government’s very radical education policies are specifically designed to address that.

My final point—I will be brief—is that the PISA studies also highlight the link between various underlying factors in education and performance, for example, the key effect of operational independence of schools on results. There is a clear correlation between schools being allowed to get on with it and good educational achievement. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the free schools and academies programme we have put into effect. Standards-based external examinations are also key drivers of performance in education. I also

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welcome the English baccalaureate and very much subscribe to the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk made about it.

The quality of teachers lies right at the heart of the issue and is absolutely key; in fact, it is referred to in the title of the White Paper that we have brought forward. It is absolutely right to raise the bar on qualifications for teachers and to be more rigorous in selecting them. That includes taking a close look at interpersonal skills as well as academic qualifications. I urge the Minister to look very carefully at the point about interpersonal skills for teachers. We can all remember from our student days—in my case, at Portsmouth Grammar school in the constituency next door to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Denny Mordaunt)—those teachers who were highly-qualified, but could not inspire. It is very important that we do what we can to identify them.

The final point that comes out of the PISA and OECD analysis is the importance of the culture in a school, specifically as regards discipline, an issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). I welcome the Government’s approach: 24 hours’ notice will no longer be required for detentions; pupils may be searched if teachers are concerned; anonymity will be provided to teachers who face serious allegations from pupils; and head teachers and governing bodies will have more autonomy over exclusion. As a governor of a school, I think that all those things are absolutely spot on, and I congratulate the Government.

This is an important debate. For too long, measuring success in education has been with reference to the past. It has been done with reference to inflated examination results—results pumped up by resits, continuous assessment and diminishing examination standards—and we have simply disguised failure by doing that. Worse, we have also failed far too many of our young people. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk on securing the debate, and the Government on placing international standards right at the heart of our education policy.

4.32 pm

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this debate, which is indeed important, because while some things have unambiguously improved in education in the past 10 or 15 years—we should all be proud and celebrate that—overall there have clearly been insufficient returns on a very large amount of money spent. Universities struggle to differentiate between students and have to take remedial action, as my hon. Friend outlined. We again had employers in the Select Committee on Education this week complaining about the lack of generic skills in the people they see coming forward, and about a lack of work ethic, too. There is a yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Frankly, far too many young people are left behind, with a million young people not in school, not in training and not in a job.

That has all been happening at a time when we have been breaking records year after year in our presumed education performance. The fact is that many of the

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so-called comparisons are not comparable over time, and not comparable between schools, individual students or groups of students. Although PISA is not perfect, it gives us an anchor point. It gives us an external benchmark with which to compare. It is, of course, not just about our changed place in the league table, as it were. I fully accept that there are difficulties with the methodology and, of course, if the number of countries in the sample is changed, then that will change the rankings. What should concern us, however, is where we were in any year relative to others—both relative to our traditional competitors of Germany, the United States, Japan and so on, and relative to our new competitors, particularly China. A province of China was at the very top of the table, but as everybody knows, a single province comfortably dwarfs the size of our population.

That is doubly important, because the Chinese have already whupped us on low-cost volume manufacturing, and we will never again make t-shirts cheaper than China. It is already ahead of us in natural resources, and what it does not have, it makes up for by bringing it in from Africa and elsewhere. The arenas left for us really to compete and excel in are largely those in which academic achievement is very important, such as advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, the knowledge and creative industries, and education itself. Many of the others in which we need to excel, such as tourism and the non-tradable service sector in general, call for a much higher level of soft skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills and so on than we typically see from 18-year-olds coming out of large parts of the British education system.

I will not talk about what the Government are doing. I was going to say a lot, but most of it has already been said, which is lucky, considering the lateness of the hour. I will talk just about measurement and accountability. The English baccalaureate has filled up our inboxes to a degree that I suppose most of us did not really expect. I have been astounded, actually—

Stephen Twigg indicated dissent .

Damian Hinds: The hon. Gentleman has not. Perhaps it is just me. I have attracted comments on the subject like a magnet—I am a very popular fellow, obviously. They have mostly been from teachers, not parents. In fact, I have not had a single parent or child spontaneously mention the English baccalaureate in any way whatever. People are particularly worked up, as we know, about religious studies, music and other subjects. They are particularly exercised about what they call the retrospective nature of the way the proposal was applied. I can understand teachers’ frustration on that in some ways, but only to an extent. The English baccalaureate tells us one really important thing, and I am not sure that we would have found this out any other way: the yawning gap that I mentioned between the rich and the poor. Among kids on free school meals—free school meals are not the only measure of deprivation, but it is the best and most accurate one that we have—only 4% were achieving the English baccalaureate. Overall, it was 16%, so that is a quarter of the level for the cohort as a whole. Even more worrying than the fact that only 4% of those children passed that set of exams, what really scares me is that only 8% were entered for that set of exams. That is truly shocking.

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Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): Can the hon. Gentleman enlighten us on what the pass rate among private schools was for the English baccalaureate? One of the problems with a retrospectively applied mechanism is that many schools were not doing the courses and subjects involved, so the figures that he mentioned are not really equivalent. Perhaps this is a debate and a point that he might want to make in two or three years’ time, when everyone has been forced to do them by this policy.

Damian Hinds: As the hon. Lady should know—her colleagues may help her—we are not talking about the national curriculum, but a measure of how many children take one particular subset of subjects. The measure is not to be compulsory. The fact that it was revealed that some private schools were not offering those subjects tells us other interesting things. We have not got time, sadly, to debate them all now, but I would love to on a separate occasion.

Conversations with colleagues from all parts of the House on the subject have been interesting. I am sure that there will be exceptions to this, but most colleagues to whom I talk, whether they went to a comprehensive, grammar or secondary modern school, all studied the English baccalaureate. We did not necessarily pass all those exams, but that was pretty much considered the obvious set of exams that kids would take. The fact that that happened in the past does not make it perfect or right, but it does raise the question of why that has changed. As I say, we are not talking about a perfect measure. In fact, I would suggest that any single measure of performance of any particular age group will promote gaming behaviour. A particular issue with the English baccalaureate—I fully accept this—is that not every child is ever going to be in contention, as it were, for making that benchmark. There needs to be a balanced basket of measures. Alongside the English baccalaureate, I would hope that we might see a technical baccalaureate, and perhaps others, too.

Ministers are going down that exact track. We had the opportunity to talk to the Minister about that in the Education Committee the other day. There are more, rather than fewer, measures coming through, but that memo does not seem to have arrived in a lot of staff rooms, where the assumption seems to be that the English baccalaureate will be the sole or primary measure. In fact, in that basket of measures—this was alluded to earlier—the most important measure or measures should be things that track not a snapshot of achievement, but progress over time. That is what school is all about: developing the individual and helping them to fulfil their potential. If we lead on measures of progress, we get rid of any incentive there might be to select only those children who will be, as it were, easiest.

Contextual value added is not that measure. I have now sat on the Education Committee for a year; I am still waiting for the first teacher, head teacher, union leader, educational psychologist, education professional or anyone else to mention contextual value added as a measure of the achievement of any school, local authority or anything else. That has not happened, because it is an impenetrable measure—it is impossible to figure out what it means. When I have asked people to explain, I have quickly wished that I had not.

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The Government are working on a specific measure or measures of the progress of children at the most challenging end of the scale. In our recent Select Committee report, “The role and performance of Ofsted”, we recommended something in which I firmly believe: a metric system tracking the performance of all the different ability groups—by quintile, for example—and measuring the progress of those not only in the middle and bottom of the range, but in the gifted and talented category at the top. We recommended Ofsted as probably being in the best position to interpret the accompanying complex data and to convert them into the English language in a way that contextual value added struggles to do.

There is a real danger of drowning in a sea of measures—uncapped GCSE scores, five or more A* to C grades, five or more A* to C grades with mathematics, contextual value added, raw value added and the English baccalaureate—or, potentially, a technical baccalaureate, the new measure of progress among the most challenging and challenged students. Ultimately, we need one or two lead measures to hold schools to account so that parents know what the key things to look at are.

I am keen to hear the Minister’s comments, but I suggest that the five or more A* to C grades is not that measure for a couple of reasons: first, because of its tendency to focus on the average and on that borderline between C and D grades; and, secondly, because it is a cliff-edge binary measure, which therefore does not take into account enough of the richness going on in that cohort.

I suggest that the best lead way in which to measure school performance is a combination of some sort of average point score measure—perhaps the average point score towards the English baccalaureate subjects, or something else—and a progress measure, whether a simplified version of value added or something more like the progress by quintile that I was outlining.

I still managed to speak for more than the five or six minutes that I thought I was going to, for which I apologise profusely.

4.42 pm

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this timely and important debate. I listened with great interest to a variety of different speeches.

The simple but uncomfortable truth is that, under the previous Government, the British education system let our children down, systematically and consistently. My hon. Friend referred to the UK tumbling down the PISA ranking. We have heard a lot about the related methodological issues, but that is only one of a series of powerful indicators revealing the extent of falling—or at least stagnant—standards, despite the huge amount of money that has gone in. Interestingly, the OECD explicitly criticised the persistent grade inflation at A-level, which has disguised poor outcomes and undermined students’ achievements.

Leading universities have had to offer classes in essay writing to undergraduates who lacked the ability to structure an argument properly—not only the mid-ranking universities, but Bristol, Newcastle and the London

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School of Economics. I heard directly from the former head of Imperial college, Sir Richard Sykes, about the problems with science and constantly having to spend six months redoing the A-level syllabus, because the standards are not what they were a decade or so ago.

This week the CBI revealed that almost half of employers have to invest in numeracy or literacy training for school and college leavers. That situation would be unacceptable at any time, but it is untenable at the beginning of a century in which Britain needs to be delivering a first-class education for young people, so that they and Britain itself can compete in an increasingly competitive and globalised economy.

I welcome the measures initiated by the Minister and the Government to reverse the trend—in particular the plans to raise the professional status and standards of teachers and the respect that we as a society offer teachers. Some of the measures were set out in the schools White Paper. It is right that we expect a lot from teachers, but it is also essential that they get the best training and that they are better protected from violence in the classroom and from spurious and malicious allegations that we know from the polling is deterring graduates from going into the profession.

One of the Government’s most important schools policies is the academies programme. I commend the Minister on the Government’s record to date: the number of academies has more than doubled in the past year, and more and more schools are embracing the opportunity to acquire greater freedom and to innovate. In my constituency, I am delighted that Rydens school in Walton is currently applying for academy status—a great school, led by a dynamic head teacher, with really committed governors. I wish it every success.

Contrary to claims in attacks by the teaching unions, academies are raising standards. The Harris Federation achieved a 10% increase in pupils getting five good GCSEs in schools last year, while ARK academies saw a 12% improvement. That is a strong base on which the Government can build. We are only a year in, however, and challenges remain, one in England certainly being the pressure on school places—in my constituency, I have seen it cause concern to many parents in Elmbridge. I would like to know a bit more about what the Government will do to address such pressures on school places and parental choices, in addition to the academies and free schools programme.

At a time of financial pressure, funding is difficult and contentious, and the allocation of existing funding becomes even more important. The whole issue of the funding formula—its transparency and objectivity—is of acute concern to parents in my constituency. It is probably the No. 1 issue raised with me at open town hall meetings; I have held six recently. The issue comes up time and again. We know that the funding formula will be addressed in the context of the NHS and local authorities, but I am interested to hear more about the process in relation to the schools budget.

What further consideration is being given to the role of profit-based schools in providing extra capacity? I appreciate that talking about this is regarded as almost taboo, but a recent study by the Adam Smith Institute revealed how well placed such schools are to boost the number of free schools, which are a flagship Government policy.

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Proprietorial schools deliver excellent academic outcomes—we all know that—but an impressive one third of them do so while charging less per pupil than is spent in the state sector, exposing one of the great fallacies at the heart of the previous Government’s approach, which is that outcomes are dependent simply on resources. The proprietorial schools also erode the dogmatic argument against any consideration of the idea of vouchers—namely that they allow middle class students to opt into the upper tier of a two-tier system. That accusation cannot be levelled against schools that cost less but deliver more.

Apart from the whole issue of structures, we also need to think long and hard about what we want our school leavers to do and about what they want to do; others have referred to that issue today. The previous Government’s target of 50% of young people going to university was an arbitrary and clunky piece of social engineering, resulting in more degree courses, quite a few of dubious value to the students taking them. Furthermore, quotas miss the point. I suspect that there will be broad agreement, but standards must be improved in our state schools and not dumbed down in our universities.

Does the Minister agree that we also need a cultural shift in this country? We heard one of the leading lights at McDonald’s talk about that earlier in the week. We must certainly do something to reverse the snobbery that insists that people must go to university to be a success in life. That certainly did not apply to my parents, who were both successful without going to university.

Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): I take my hon. Friend’s point about how 20 or 30 years ago not everyone needed to go to university to become a success in life. However, will he acknowledge that, for most jobs nowadays, the requirement is a 2:1 degree, even to get an application through the main gate? Unless employers agree to accept people without degrees, we have a real problem to deal with.

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. That is why the question is not just about what the Government do, but about a much broader cultural shift. In my own profession, the legal profession, we can spend six or seven years training, but once qualified we do very little of what we were trained to do.

It seems to me that some of the high street practices could get young, aspirational, talented youngsters into the profession without the huge cost of going through the red brick university parade and on to postgraduate qualifications. There should be a way to open up the professions. They have been some of the worst culprits, and that is true not just of the legal professions. That is precisely why I welcome the Government’s commitment to increase the number of apprenticeships. When considering the UK’s skills needs, two thirds of employers believe that apprenticeships should be the priority for Government funding. From what I have heard in the House and more broadly over the past few months, I suspect that that is an area of emerging consensus among the main parties.

I am acutely conscious of time. I shall close by saying that I am optimistic that the Government’s policies will reverse the decline and stagnation in the standards of

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teaching and education in our country. The recipe for success is not complicated and bureaucratic. We must trust teachers and parents more, demand academic rigour, and free up schools to innovate. I wish the Minister the best of luck in those endeavours, and I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk on securing this important debate.

4.51 pm

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I want to touch on some of the points that may help. I know that the Minister is already familiar with much of what I will say, but I will make my points none the less.

I have a particular passion for ensuring that children have a smooth progression and that we get the best out of them, and it will be no surprise to hear me mention middle schools. I am a big fan of middle schools because they provide an opportunity, particularly in rural areas where we have very small schools, for children to move from being a big fish in a small pool to being a medium fish in a medium pool. In view of the vast number of students in upper and secondary schools, we should think about how children fare when they move at the age of 11 from a school of perhaps 100 or 150 pupils to one of 300 or 350 in a year. We should consider what happens to their performance at age 11.

My second point is about teacher training. I hope that the colleges have been listening, and are aware of the evidence. So often, we have heard from teachers, the unions and others that little time is spent during teacher training on learning about behaviour and how to cope with it. I am sure that we could do something to help newly qualified teachers, because it can be traumatic for some of them when they are faced with situations that they are unable to cope with.

I mentioned during an intervention the Australian long-leave system, and I cannot emphasise enough what a good thing that is, because it provides teachers with a career break with the security of knowing that they can return to teaching. It allows them to broaden their experience by going into business or another area, or perhaps by following a personal interest for six months or a year. That must mean that they come back with a fresh look and a fresh start, ready to take on the next 10 years. It also provides the opportunity for teachers to try all levels of management. Comments have been made about whether some people are well suited to being heads. If they have a test run for six months, they may find that it is not their bag and may choose to take a different route.

It might be helpful if we made it possible—and perhaps even recommended—that newly qualified teachers should spend a period in a special school so that they become familiar with the difficulties of communication and of social and life skills that face young people who go into the special school system. That would be helpful, because it would allow people to build knowledge and have strategies to identify early and support children who may be in the mainstream system, but need a little extra help.

When Martin Narey was chief executive officer of Barnardo’s, he made it clear that people who naturally surround young children—nursery teachers, health visitors and so on—can spot difficulties coming when children are two and three. If we ensure that all teachers can spot

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difficulties as they occur, we may be able to interrupt what need not necessarily be an inevitable downward process. We should concentrate on that, and ensure that people have the opportunity to gain the skills that they may need.

They may not always be right, but there are stats for dyslexia, for example, suggesting that we may not always be able to identify children, particularly boys, who develop dyslexia at the ages of seven and eight—rather than six, when the Government are considering doing a screening test for reading and understanding skills. Ensuring that teachers have that extra ability and experience will help them.

I have spoken at length elsewhere about the fact that I am completely enthused about measuring students’ performance and progress, instead of spending the whole time looking at achievement and league tables. We have seen what happens, and it has been explained this afternoon. I have shown the Minister a 16-year-old boy’s report. It clearly shows the effort that he put in was generally marked as A in all subjects, with one or two exceptions, and attainment was generally marked at A, with one or two exceptions. However, the target grades were C, C, C, C. It is ludicrous to give such a report to any child because it will smash any chance of personal aspiration and desire to achieve. It is barmy for someone who is trotting along with As in a subject to be told to aim for Cs.

I have visited many different schools, and have spoken at length about the fact that primary school teachers are completely tuned into measuring progress. They may not do so formally, but they are used to the idea. They know every child in the class, their rate of progress, where the blocks are and where there may be problems. We must develop a system so that we do exactly the same in middle schools, senior schools, upper schools and so on. That will deal with those quintiles, and children who are achieving will be pushed a bit further so that we get to the point where every local school is a good school and measures the performance of all students.

Again, I have discussed this with the Minister, but I want to place on the record my dismay—this may be another aspect of what I have just said—at the examination system and the obsession with resitting and multiple attempts. We must stop that. We need a balance. I do not mean that no one should resit an exam, but there should not be automatic resits. A 16-year-old lad who had 102 questions right out of 106 in his GCSE maths was automatically put in for a resit. That just says, “Sorry, you’re not good enough”, but four marks off perfect is not so bad, is it? We should concentrate on extending such a child into a different sort of exam at the next level up, or whatever—it does not matter. But resitting the same exam is a disincentive.

I have two minutes left, and I apologise for taking up all this time, but I want to consider the impact—for me, it is a positive impact—of “Jamie’s Dream School” on the debate. When I visit my local pubs, schools and so on, people talk about education in a different way having seen the programme. Opportunity, inspirational teaching and genuine care clearly change outcomes. The other factor that is absolutely clear is that parents’ involvement is needed—they had to sign up to allow their young people to be involved in Jamie’s dream

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school—and that is the one parallel that I would draw with the independent sector, where parents’ involvement is absolute because they write the cheques.

4.59 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on securing this important debate. We have heard contributions from 11 Back-Bench Members, and it has been a useful opportunity for an extended discussion. The hon. Lady commenced the debate with a thoughtful and serious speech, and as the parent of a 17-year-old girl who is currently studying for AS-levels, I have a lot of sympathy with some of her comments about examinations. When I return home tonight, hopefully I will help my daughter to prepare for her English AS-level next Tuesday.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is no longer in her place as I think she is contributing in the main Chamber. She took us on a fascinating personal journey around her education, although I felt slightly upset when she did not mention economics as one of the core subjects that should be studied by everyone. We also heard a thoughtful and interesting speech by the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). Later I shall study it again as it will be worth reading on the page.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) pointed out—quite rightly as a former Schools Minister—the consequences of some of the policies that he set in train nearly 10 years ago, including the improvement in the numbers of those achieving five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A to C. He reminded us that that number rose from 32% in 1997 to 55% by 2010, and was even higher in his area of Liverpool. Despite the carping about that achievement, there is no evidence to suggest that a significant dumbing down of GCSEs took place during that period. Instead, it is evidence of real improvement in schools and of attainment by our young people.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) made a thoughtful contribution, and the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), who to the relief of us all pointed out that she is not an Oxford graduate, went on to make important points about looked-after children and children who are referred to pupil referral units. I am sure that the House can work together on such issues. I did not agree with her remark about competitive school sport and perhaps she might like to walk to another place at the other end of the building and talk to Baroness Sue Campbell about the improvements that have been made in competitive sport over the past 10 years. As a former Minister responsible for school sport, I recommend that conversation. The Baroness is a Cross Bencher and will not be parti pris.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) made an important contribution and provided the best pun of the debate when she told us that GCSE boxing was a great hook to get people on to studying other things. We heard contributions from the hon. Members for Central Devon (Mel Stride), for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Wells (Tessa Munt). The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) sounded as if he were supporting something akin to the

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report card proposed by the previous Government. Perhaps he should discuss his ideas with the Minister; I thought they were interesting and had some promise as a way of finding a more valid way to measure progress. He spoke a lot about the E-bac, which slightly contradicted what he said at the end of his speech. Perhaps I can ask all Government Members to raise their hands if they passed the E-bac.

Mr Gibb indicated assent .

Damian Hinds indicated assent .

Kevin Brennan: Just the Minister and the hon. Member for East Hampshire. [ Interruption. ]I see there are a few other late developers. Since I asked that question, it is only fair to say that I did not pass the first time round, and I admit to the hon. Member for Wells that I had to do the dreaded resit. We should be careful about banning resits; the Secretary of State would not be able to drive had he not been able to resit his driving test on several occasions. The hon. Lady should be careful what she recommends.

Let us move to the substance of my remarks. The context for this debate was reflected in the e-mail sent out by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk, and concerns the way that the Secretary of State has used data from international surveys as the evidence base for his reforms. We have debated some of those reforms elsewhere—the Minister and I were recently on a Public Bill Committee and I know he is sick of the sight of me.

Part of the context for this interesting debate was provided by the Secretary of State in the White Paper and concerns international evidence. Quite frankly, I thought that all hon. Members present today made a better effort than the Secretary of State to put that evidence into some sort of context, which is why it has been a better debate. When the Secretary of State speaks about our educational performance in international comparisons, he quotes only from the PISA survey. He did not turn up for the Education Bill’s Third Reading, but on Second Reading he stated:

“We moved from fourth to 14th in the world rankings for science, seventh to 17th in literacy and eighth to 24th in mathematics by 2007.”—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 167.]

It is, however, misleading to quote out of context the UK’s raw rankings in figures from the PISA survey between 2000 and 2009 because, as other hon. Members have pointed out, the number of countries that take part in the PISA survey dramatically increased over that period. I am sure that if a survey took place in Norfolk, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk would be found to be the best MP in Norfolk—there is probably no question about that and since there are no Labour MPs in that area, I can say it with safety. If that survey were extended to the whole of the UK, and for the sake of argument, the hon. Lady finished in 11th place—this is purely hypothetical; I am sure she would still finish first—that would not mean that she had become a worse MP, but simply that there was more evidence and more MPs included in the survey. That is exactly what happened with the PISA survey—over time, there has been a huge expansion in the number of countries that participate. Furthermore, the OECD has stated that it is not statistically valid to make the

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comparisons over time on which the Secretary of State has relied, because there was no statistically valid sample from this country in the first place.

There is no consensus among statisticians and educationalists that the PISA survey can be relied on, let alone treated as a sort of religious text in the way it is by the Secretary of State—I must be careful because the hon. Member for South West Norfolk is an expert in this area. The Secretary of State likes to say that Andreas Schleicher, who compiles the PISA tables, is the most important man in our education system, but if he wants to base his policy on evidence he should consider all opinions, not just that of one person.

The PISA statistics will be examined in the months and years ahead, but I warn the Secretary of State not to rely too heavily on them. A Danish academic, Professor Svend Kreiner, is preparing a paper that will soon be published. He says that the PISA survey does not compare like with like across all countries, and is not therefore an objective performance benchmark. In this country, Professor Stephen Heppell has long contested the accuracy and usefulness of the PISA results, and his website cites research into PISA’s methodology. Professor Alan Smithers doubts its ability to compare like with like. S. J. Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London has previously used the example of England’s results to demonstrate serious flaws in the response rates and sampling of Pisa, which necessarily lead to biased results.

Gjert Langfeldt of Agder university questions the validity and reliability claims made by PISA, pointing to

“constructional constraints, methodological mishaps and the cultural bias embedded in the PISA design”.

Svein Sjøberg at the university of Oslo analysed PISA items and found that some involved confusing and erroneous material. For example, he observed that the title of an article about cloning, “A Copying Machine for Living Beings”, was translated literally word for word into Norwegian, rendering the title totally incomprehensible. The questions are supposed to be culturally neutral.

I could go on, but the point that I am making is that it is not accepted universally or even in a widespread way among academics and educationists that PISA can be relied on solely to provide the evidence required. I would forgive the Secretary of State on this if it was the only evidence available to him, but he did not mention in the Second Reading speech that I referred to, which he did turn up for, that other pieces of evidence were available. The hon. Member for South West Norfolk did, but the Secretary of State did not. We might have presumed from what he said that PISA was the only evidence available, but as has been mentioned in the course of this debate and as the hon. Lady mentioned in her remarks, because she is a very honourable lady, there is the trends in international mathematics and science study—TIMSS. She rather played TIMSS down. I will not at this point, having just tried to trash some of the PISA methodology, say that the TIMSS methodology is perfect. All I am saying is that it should be cited at the same time by the Secretary of State when he is making policy that is supposed to be based on evidence.