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House of Lords

Tuesday, 14th February 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Baroness Hogg

Mrs. Sarah Elizabeth Mary Hogg, commonly called the Honourable Mrs. Douglas Hogg, having been created Baroness Hogg, of Kettlethorpe in the County of Lincolnshire, for life—Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone and the Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

Nutrition Task Force

2.48 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are their intentions for the future of the national nutrition task force.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, the nutrition task force was initially set up for a period of two years and was subsequently given until the end of 1995 to oversee implementation of its programme. There are currently no plans for the task force to continue beyond 1995.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, does my noble friend realise that that is quite a disappointing reply? Is she aware that the general picture now is in marked contrast to what it used to be when all the various interests—farmers, food manufacturers, retailers and consumer groups—were always at loggerheads over what should be food policy? Does she agree that in respect of the targets that are now accepted in the immensely valuable document The Health of the Nation, the work of the national nutrition task force has united all those varied interests in support of a common programme? Given that this is one of the ways in which the Government's health targets will be reached, is now really the moment to wind up a body which seems to be doing such valuable work?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his kind comments. I agree that the nutrition task force has achieved a very great deal. But it was set up for a specific purpose. That purpose has been achieved, and we believe that the progress made will continue with the individual bodies concerned.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I echo the response of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, that the Minister's Answer is disappointing. Does she agree, in the light of what we now know, particularly from the Rowntree Report on social inequality and health, that this is precisely the moment when the nutrition task force should not be wound up? Is she aware of the very valuable

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work of its working party on low income and nutrition, which precisely reflects the concerns of the Rowntree Report and others?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the project team will continue. It will arrive at recommendations which it will report to the Government. It is not necessarily true that a healthy diet is an expensive diet. In fact, sometimes junk food is very expensive and of poor value in terms of feeding a family.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, I declare an interest as a governor of the British Nutrition Foundation. Does my noble friend agree that an organisation such as that foundation can well carry forward the work of the national committee on a national and perhaps even on a European level?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, there are many bodies that can take on the work. As the task force was set up to achieve specific purposes and those purposes have now been achieved, it is time that it went. We do not wish to proliferate the number of committees in this field.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls: My Lords, in view of the answer that my noble friend gave to a previous question, what is the difference between "not true" and "not necessarily true"?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, perhaps that is an unnecessary question.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: You cannot follow that!

Schools: Performance Standards

2.53 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, with the national curriculum now established in its revised form, they are confident of a rapidly improving performance in schools.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools has confirmed that the national curriculum and its assessment are already helping to improve standards in schools. The revised national curriculum will give added impetus to that improvement, notably by putting more emphasis on the basics of English and maths.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the degree of cautious encouragement that he has felt able to offer. But, in view of the serious concerns recently expressed by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Mr. Woodhead, does he not agree that efforts must be made to offset the influence of a minority of teachers on the work of the vast majority, who are striving to enhance their pupils' career prospects? Furthermore, given the stimulus to professional competition through testing and performance tables, and given too that the 14 year-olds in this country are believed to be worse at reading, writing and sums than the 14 year-olds in several neighbouring countries, would he not also

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agree that our teachers might usefully be encouraged to emulate best practice abroad, through the regular scrutiny of soundly based international comparisons?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I can answer both those questions. With regard to the noble Lord's first question, that is one of the principal reasons why we set up the Teacher Training Agency, which is to give a great deal of added emphasis to the initial training of teachers and their continuing education. That, if not the most important factor, is certainly one of the most important factors in improving our children's education. With regard to international comparisons, yes, we take them seriously. They are difficult to make and there are always many extraneous factors to be considered, but they provide a very valuable benchmark. I can give some comfort to the noble Lord. The best surveys indicate that we are not in a disastrous position. We are somewhere in the middle of the league and we should like to do a great deal better. We shall continue to participate in the surveys and to learn from them.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the revised and streamlined national curriculum has been widely and warmly welcomed? Does he also agree that research has shown that there is a great need to look at teaching methods as such, particularly in primary schools and particularly with regard to literacy, where a growing number of seven year-olds are unable to read? Will he accept that that must surely be a priority area, if the objectives of the national curriculum are to be achieved?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I agree entirely with what my noble friend said.

Lord Glenamara: My Lords, how can the Government hope to get a rapidly improving performance in schools, when they have reduced morale in the whole education service to the lowest level ever known by their ill-considered reforms over the past few years?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am delighted to discover that there is still someone on the opposite Benches who has not accepted all our education reforms. From what I read in the paper, I understand that most noble Lords opposite—certainly Members in another place—had decided that what we had done over the past 16 years was a good thing. At least the noble Lord's view is consistent with those that he held when he was in office.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether sport, and particularly team sport, is now built into the curriculum? We have heard a good deal of talk about it; but can he confirm that that has in fact taken place?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, sport certainly plays an important part in the work of schools. We put a lot of emphasis on encouraging schools to improve their team sports. The noble Lord will realise that,

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particularly for some inner city schools, there are considerable difficulties in expanding the provision that they have at the moment.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that it is almost impossible to find a parent who believes that standards will be raised in primary schools if class sizes rise? Will he also confirm that the reduction in the number of teachers will damage the morale of the teaching force as a result of the Government's policy?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as the noble Baroness realises, the whole question of class sizes is very interesting. All the research that is available to us indicates that changes in class size, either up or down around the levels that they are at the moment, make very little difference to the quality of education. The principal determinants of the quality of education are the quality of teaching, the teaching methods and the spirit of the school.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, if things are every bit as good as the noble Lord would have us believe, why, all over the country, are school governors threatening to resign in such significant numbers?

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