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House of Lords

Wednesday, 10th May 1995.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

The Earl of Sandwich— Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Marie Clay Reading Recovery Programme

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their assessment of the effectiveness of measures to improve reading in primary schools with particular reference to the Marie Clay reading recovery programme.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, literacy is at the heart of the revised national curriculum. The most effective way of achieving high standards of literacy for all pupils is through rigorous teaching of the curriculum backed up by regular testing. The Government have funded a three-year trial of reading recovery in 20 inner city local education authorities, and six local education authorities have provided reading recovery from their mainstream funding. The Government are pleased with the results of that trial and will be disseminating the lessons learned later this year through a report and two conferences. Reading recovery has proved an effective means of improving the skills of pupils who are making a slow start at reading.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, given that the Minister has paid tribute to the effectiveness of the Marie Clay reading recovery programme, does it not follow that the most sensible next step would be for the Government to continue to fund the national network co-ordinators at a cost of some £150,000, to ensure that those local authorities that wish to go on tackling this very serious problem will have the central team that will enable them to do so?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, if a central team is needed the local authorities will fund that need for themselves. I question whether such a team is needed. New Zealand, where the scheme originated, manages extremely well and it is about the size of a large LEA itself.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is most refreshing to see the Benches opposite taking an interest in better education after the many years in which their Left-wing allies in our education establishment did all that they could to stamp out the phonic method of learning to read? For those who may not be aware of it, the phonic method for "a", "b", "c" and "d" is "a", "buh", "cuh" and "duh" and so on.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I shall not attempt to imitate my noble friend. I am sure that the House knows that phonics are now part of the national curriculum. They are an important part of learning to read which, to be

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successful, needs to involve a wide range of strategies. As I said, those strategies include phonics. The conversion of the Benches opposite to excellence in education has not yet gone so far as it might, but progress to date is very welcome.

Baroness David: My Lords, as I happen to have been in the House a little longer and can remember a good many education Bills in which certainly I and my noble friends took part, I hope that the Minister will not assess my contribution in that way, nor indeed the contribution of his noble friends. We have always wanted excellence in education. We have particularly wanted to help those children who have special needs. I hope that he will admit that. In his first Answer he said that "later this year" there would be a report. Will he tell the House how much later and will it be in time to make any positive commitment?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I pay great tribute to the noble Baroness for her contributions to education debates. As she knows, I have only been in the House for three years, but I have paid great attention to what she has said and have always benefited from listening to her. The dates for the conferences are not yet planned. This summer is as exact as I can get.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what percentage of children leaving primary school are officially classified as unable to read satisfactorily?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not have that information with me but I can tell the noble Lord that there are too many of those children. There is clearly much to be done in improving the quality of reading and learning to read in primary schools. The effects of the reading recovery scheme appear to stretch out to the whole school where it has been successfully implemented. Indeed, from the results of the work undertaken to date, we believe that over the next few years there is every reason to expect much better standards in primary schools. The Teaching Training Agency and the institutions that it supports have taken very much to heart the lessons coming from the reading recovery trial and they are being widely implemented.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, will the Minister accept that I am not unduly surprised that he was unable to provide the percentage figure for which I asked? Can he say why, as the reading recovery programme has been high profile and very controversial since at least 1989, the Government and his department in particular have done so little in the way of follow-up appraisal?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, that is entirely inaccurate. We have done a great deal in terms of follow-up appraisal, the results of which have been, and are being, widely disseminated. There are successful reading recovery schemes now in operation in many LEAs in this country.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: My Lords, would not the reading ability in primary and other schools be greatly improved if we removed some of the more gross anomalies of English spelling? I refer to the 10 different ways of pronouncing "o-u-g-h" and the six different ways

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of spelling the sound in the word "see". Would not that be of commercial advantage also in removing discouragement to foreign traders learning English?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am disappointed that such an elegant and frequent exponent of good English should take that attitude to our wonderful language. I celebrate the complexity of English; I celebrate its enormous variety of words and phrases and means of expressing oneself. It is one of the great strengths of our language. If the noble Lord wants an international commercial language, he may care to learn Esperanto.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Japanese is a difficult and complex language, but does not seem to impair Japanese commercial and industrial success? Is he further aware that, like the noble Lord opposite, I am not surprised that he cannot give a figure for the percentage of youngsters leaving school unable to read? After all, we have not had adequate testing. There are still some dinosaurs and diehards in the teaching unions who want to prevent us from having them and therefore prevent us from acquiring the information for which the noble Lord asks.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I could not agree more with my noble friend. He may also have noticed that the diehards or the Socialist Workers Party members of the teaching unions wish to prevent reading recovery. They want to reduce class sizes, which would prevent money being put into reading recovery schemes. There is a great deal to be said for the Government's education policies, but there is a limit on the time now.

Baroness David: My Lords, does the Minister think that the £150,000 needed for the continuation of the reading recovery programme is a large sum of money?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it is not a large sum of money, but it is for the LEAs to spend it if they feel they need it.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, the Minister mentioned Esperanto. Is he prepared to recommend to his right honourable friends that it should be included in the curriculum?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I did not hear the question.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, the Minister mentioned Esperanto. Is he prepared now to recommend to his right honourable friends that it be included in the national curriculum?

Lord Lucas: No, my Lords.

The European Commission and Political Democracy

2.47 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in good time before the agenda of the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference is settled, they will convene an all-party conference to discuss the relationship between the European Commission and

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    the national governments of member states (both as separate entities and as members of the European Council or Council of Ministers) with a view to the abolition of the Commission's exclusive right to make proposals and the establishment of the Council's right to reject such proposals without further explanation.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, we have no such plans.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there is an admirable precedent for calling inter-party talks, particularly those relating to international affairs, when it is uncertain which government will be in office at the particular time—and the tenure of this Government is not altogether certain. Is the noble Lord aware that, although it proved impossible in the past, at any rate in relation to these isles, to destroy political democracy by force, it is possible nevertheless for political democracy to be drowned in a sea of paper? With that in mind, will the Government consider curbing the powers of the Commission to bring pressure on the Council of Ministers by the sheer volume of paper emanating from it? Will they take steps to ensure that the powers of the Council of Ministers are enlarged, preferably by the allocation to the Council's Secretariat of many of the responsibilities at present held by the Commission?

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