HC Deb 03 August 1976 vol 916 cc1410-2
4. Mr. Goodlad

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will institute an inquiry into the numeracy of children.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

We are convinced of the importance of numeracy, but we are not equally convinced at present that an inquiry is the best way of proceeding.

Mr. Goodlad

Will the Under-Secretary accept that many people are worried that a number of children who are likely to leave school this year can barely add up? Will she consider the possibility of establishing an emergency teaching course, using the so-called cascade system, which has been so successful in the United States and which might go some way to alleviating the likelihood of a large number of teachers and school leavers being in the dole queue in the autumn?

Miss Jackson

Views about the ability of people to be numerate or literate are based on subjective comment rather than on statistical evidence. We are concerned about this matter and it is now being studied by the Assessment of Performance Unit, whose report we await.

As for the hon. Gentleman's comments about an emergency teaching course, the only proposal put to me so far about such a course indicates that perhaps people who are now emerging from the training colleges should be used to train school leavers to teach those who are backward in particular subjects. We are not convinced that this is an adequate way in which to use resources.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On what evidence does the Department believe that there is no real problem of numeracy? If the Department is now seeking to rely on a future report by the Assessment of Performance Unit, what has the Department been doing in the last 20 years?

Miss Jackson

I have no idea where the hon. Gentleman got the idea that I believe there is no problem of numeracy. He seems to have made it up, because the idea came from no words of mine. Work is being carried out by such people as the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Schools Council on numeracy training in mathematics and allied subjects over the years. Furthermore, Her Majesty's Inspectorate is now carrying out a survey of primary and secondary schools, which we are coupling with the work of the Assessment of Performance Unit into difficulties and ways of removing difficulties associated with numeracy. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman drew his conclusions before he even asked his supplementary question, which he based on something that had never been said.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Is not the hon. Lady aware that the situation concerning numeracy is even worse than that in regard to literacy? Does she not appreciate that a recent conference of vice-presidents of technical institutions stated that pupils coming to them at the age of 16 had obtained a standard of numeracy of only 11½ years? Will she please be less complacent on this vital issue?

Miss Jackson

I am aware that many comments and assumptions are made by many people in education, and not just about standards of numeracy. However, I am not aware of any sensible, valid statistical evidence. Indeed, it comes ill from the Opposition to be arguing and commenting on numeracy when basing their comments on a total lack of understanding of what is involved in the statistical evidence in judging any kind of assessment of numeracy.

Mr. Flannery

Does my hon. Friend agree that Conservative Members are characterised by a negative approach to the educational system, about which most of them know very little, and seize avidly on every condemnatory report which is published and never pay the slightest attention to the workings of the system in general? It would do them all good to study the primary sector system, because they would then discover that it is the pride and joy of international education.

Miss Jackson

I fear even more the results of Conservative Members having studied published works. In spite of their claims about the efficacy of past education, when presumably they were at school, their dislike of present standards of education does not lead them to draw sensible conclusions and the standards which they apply in judging the findings of published reports is such that they wildly extrapolate anything that seems to convey their own prejudices in a way that makes people quail.