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House of Lords

Monday, 15th June 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.

Schools: Truancy and Exclusion

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what extent the measures to reduce truancy and exclusion from school (Cm. 3957, May 1998) will depend upon changing the content of what is taught.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, the Government acknowledge that many factors contribute to pupil disaffection. As part of our general review of the national curriculum, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority will be focusing on a number of themes to ensure that it better meets the needs of disaffected pupils. We have announced our intention to take early action to promote work-related learning for 14 to 16 year-olds to re-engage disaffected young people. The authority has consulted on criteria which would enable schools to adopt innovative approaches to increasing the focus on work-related learning. The Government are currently considering the authority's advice on the outcome of the consultation.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and for her references to the way in which the new curriculum will be making allowances for, as she puts it, disaffected pupils. Given that teachers cannot teach to more than one curriculum at a time, and given that this document, in a dozen places, makes reference to making special appeal to disaffected pupils, could we be given some assurance that the sweeteners designed to woo the disaffected pupils will not result in a reduction in rigour in classes for pupils, the majority of whom, I believe, really want to learn?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely accept what I think lies behind the noble Lord's Question. One accepts the case for some flexibility in relation to the national curriculum, but it is extremely important that we do not undermine standards for the majority, particularly in key areas such as literacy and numeracy. It is important that rigour is at the centre of all that we are doing in relation to pupils, whether in primary or secondary schools. The move towards some work-related learning relates to Key Stage 4--to 14 to 16 year-olds in our secondary schools.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Answer, but is she aware that many schools which are already adopting the innovative approaches described--for instance, through GNVQ foundation work at Key Stage 4--feel that they are penalised in that they have a lower place in the rather competitive school league

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tables? Does she agree that other schools are reluctant to adopt such an innovative approach for exactly the same reason; namely, they fear that they will lose their standing in school league tables? How do the Government propose to address that problem?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I entirely accept that the place of GNVQs, whether at foundation, intermediate or advanced level, is incredibly important in the secondary school curriculum. It is a qualifications route that is much more appropriate for many young people than the academic route. It is therefore important that those schools that are successful in keeping young people at school, and in keeping them motivated and involved in the curriculum, should in no way be penalised. The Government are examining ways in which league tables can take into account success in GNVQs at various levels.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that music is a particularly effective subject, not merely as a complementary subject in the teaching of young people, but especially for those children who have difficulty in learning and for those who may be disaffected? It is a very good subject indeed. The educational spin-offs are enormous. It has been disapplied in the national curriculum. Therefore it is a matter of chance as to whether schools teach music; there is no requirement for them to do so. Is that not a retrograde step in relation to the attempt to raise standards in our schools?

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords, I do not believe it is a retrograde step. The reason for disapplying some parts of the primary school curriculum was to ensure that primary school teachers could reach the very ambitious targets that we have set for literacy and numeracy. The Government's view is that children at any age will not succeed unless they reach those targets. I refer to learning to read and write and to all the requirements of basic numeracy. The Government have asked the QCA to issue guidance on how to ensure that there is a broad and balanced curriculum in our primary schools. Music will play a central part in that.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that much of this problem is created as a result of not diagnosing dyslexia in children in the early days? Does she accept that, if they are diagnosed, many of the problems will go away?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, disaffection, truancy and failure to be motivated by the national curriculum are complex areas. There are many possible causes of children being turned off by the schooling they receive. I entirely accept that, as my noble friend said, where dyslexia is a factor it is important to try to diagnose it as early as possible and then take remedial action to support children who suffer from it.

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Lord Annan: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that part of the clue to the problem lies in the teacher training colleges and institutes, which ought to teach the tricks of the trade of teaching--namely, the way in which one can make even irregular verbs and valencies fun to learn by using various tricks?

Further, does the noble Baroness agree that the place in to which we ought to put our major effort is nursery education for children between the ages of three and five? Physiologists tell us that the human brain learns more in the early stages of life than in the whole of the rest of life. The human brain is particularly receptive to learning at that time. Very interesting studies of that kind, with which I shall not bore the noble Baroness, have been made in America proving the point. Could the Minister encourage the growth of nursery education, ensuring that children receive the opportunity to learn? If they do not learn then, the difficulty is that they may never learn.

Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords. For the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Annan, stated so eloquently, the Government are committed to providing a nursery place for all four year-old children. They intend in the longer term to provide a nursery place for three year-olds as well. The noble Lord is right that this is the stage at which children learn fastest.

On the noble Lord's second question, it is vitally important that teacher education is such that it allows students to receive good teaching practice where they learn the "tricks of the trade", as he put it.

Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund

2.44 p.m.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect the managing trustees of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund to include a trustee from among the pensioners of the fund.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the current regulations governing the managing trustees of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund, under the Parliamentary and other Pensions Act 1987, preclude the appointment of a pensioner by stipulating that no person shall be appointed a trustee unless a sitting Member in another place. The chairman of the managing trustees has just written to the Leader of the House of Commons pressing for the regulations to be amended to enable pensioner members to be appointed trustees. The proposal is now under consideration and I will ensure that the House is kept informed of progress.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, is he aware that pensions legislation introduced since the Maxwell pension scandal has advocated that a third of trustees should be elected by the membership of the scheme? Is he

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also aware that a huge majority, over 50 per cent. of the membership of the parliamentary scheme, which was chaired by my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester for about 18 years, comprises pensioners? Does the Minister agree with me that, in terms of equity and plain common sense, there should be at least one representative on the trustee panel of the parliamentary pension scheme?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that the Pensions Act 1995 provided that one third of trustees should be from the members of the fund. But since 1972 the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund has had all its managing trustees as Members of the House of Commons. Therefore, it anticipated and went beyond the provisions of the 1995 Act. My noble friend is also right that the pensions review body under Professor Roy Goode recommended that there should be pensioner members of the trustees. That recommendation from Mr. John MacGregor, the present chairman of the trustees, is being considered by the Leader of the House of Commons.

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