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House of Lords

Wednesday, 4th March 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Scottish School Leavers: Basic Skills

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many pupils in each of the past five years left full-time education in Scotland unable to read or write.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, this information is not available in the exact form requested. However, we hold information based on Scottish Qualifications Authority data on qualifications awarded and on the number of leavers who do not obtain qualifications. This provides an indication of those leavers who are unable to read or write. However, it is not possible to give a precise figure. For the session 1995-96, the percentage of school leavers who held a standard grade English award at grades 1 to 7 was 88.5 per cent. In addition, the Scottish School Leavers Survey showed that in the spring of 1995 4 per cent. of 18 to 19 year-olds had no qualifications.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. It has a remarkable similarity to the reply I received to a Written Question some three weeks ago. Therefore, may I commend the Government for their consistency? Does my noble friend agree that it is important to have such information? If the system fails so badly that some children leave school unable to read or write, we have a right to know how many there are. Surely, it would be in the interests of the education authorities for such details to be collected centrally. Will my noble friend ask the department to do so so that if I table the Question at the start of the new Session I shall receive the information?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, we are nothing if not consistent. I am afraid that the department has no proposals for gathering information on the precise number of school leavers who are unable to read or write. I can assure my noble friend that increasingly sophisticated screening processes and monitoring systems are in place to identify any pupils with educational problems and difficulties. There is professional back-up to deal with those cases. Where necessary, a record of needs is opened--that is the equivalent of a statement in England and Wales--and the vast majority would be identified and dealt with. It would be foolish to believe that no children slip through the net, but a sophisticated, closely woven net is in place and constant efforts are made to strengthen it.

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The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, can the Minister explain why no special measures are in place to ensure that the most fundamental skills of reading and writing are acquired by every pupil?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I am not sure why the noble Earl believes that no measures are in place to do just that. The 1996 HMI report, Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools, indicated good standards of reading in primary schools. Constant monitoring is carried out not only to identify the children who have specific educational needs and problems but to assure everyone that standards are maintained. Recently, we launched a paper setting targets and strategies to raise standards.

Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, does the Minister agree that focused resources should be available to deal with such a huge problem? One would then know the measure of it. Will the Minister assure the House that a system will be put in place to identify such children so that special educational resources can be made available to combat the problem?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I am afraid that I must repeat my reply, although I do not wish to waste the time of the House. Such monitoring systems are in place. The Question specifically asks how many pupils left full-time education in Scotland unable to read or write. Some may have slipped through the already closely woven net which is in place to identify the children with problems.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, if the teachers are doing their job, how is it possible for a child to pass through secondary school unable to read or write? Surely, the teachers will be marking the written work and must be able to see that the pages are blank.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I do not wish to be too dismissive of the issue. I am not saying that anyone is leaving school unable to read or write. My noble friend's Question asked how many there are. I have said that constant monitoring takes place in schools. However, sometimes problems arise at the end of a school career when, for many reasons, children may become disturbed emotionally or in other ways and drop out of the school system. It is difficult to monitor such cases.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, at the risk of worrying the noble Baroness, perhaps I may help her. As regards collecting such statistics, is not one of the problems that many youngsters who cannot read or write have long since given up attending school? Will her department consider the reintroduction of attendance officers--they were more aptly called "whippers in"--who went out to ensure that children attended school? Local government could arrange that. Can the Minister also comment on the suggestion that central government could make attendance at school a condition of receipt of child benefit?

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Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I knew that I was right to be worried when the noble Lord said he was going to help me. Of course, he is quite right to say that some children have given up attending school by the end of their school career. In fact, that is what I was trying to point out in my previous reply. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the whole question of truancy is constantly being reviewed by the department. As regards the noble Lord's last point about child benefit, I am sorry but I have absolutely no comment to make in that respect.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that, while reading and writing are essential skills for profoundly and severely deaf children, there is also a third one; namely, the ability to speak? As some profoundly and severely deaf children in Scotland leave their specialist schools without speech skills, can the noble Baroness assure me that she will look into the question of introducing speech therapy as an essential part of the curriculum for those children throughout their school careers?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this point. In fact, during our consideration of the problem, we have found that some children have difficulty in communicating; indeed, it is not just a matter of reading and writing, as the noble Baroness so rightly says.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, if the Government really do not have these figures--it seems quite extraordinary when we consider the amount of time we have spent talking about this matter and concerning ourselves with it--can the Scottish Office refer to the voluntary organisation which attends to adult literacy which, I suspect, does have the figures?

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale: My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says. However, I do not know why she finds it so extraordinary that we have not managed this in the past 10 months when it has not been done previously.

Opencast Coal Mining

2.46 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What response they are making to the review of planning policy with regard to opencast coal mining.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, my honourable friend, the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, will be announcing at 3.30 p.m. in another place that the Deputy Prime Minister has taken into account the responses to the

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consultation on planning policy on opencast coal conducted last year, and the announcement last December by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister of a full review of energy policy. In consultation with his colleagues he has concluded that there should be a full review of Minerals Planning Guidance Note 3 on coal mining and colliery spoil disposal. This will run in conjunction with the present review of energy policy, and will take into account its conclusions. The energy policy will, in turn, take into account the planning issues raised by coal extraction, including the issues on opencast coal dealt with in the 1997 consultation paper.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, especially as she has been able to take advantage of the extraordinary coincidence of a government announcement in another place and the tabling of this Question today. However, can the noble Baroness assure the House that the Government's guidelines to the mineral planning authorities will be consistent with their 10-point plan (which they published when in opposition) which stated, among other things, that opencast mining is one of the most environmentally destructive things in the United Kingdom?

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