HC Deb 18 October 1990 vol 177 cc1395-407 4.20 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. John MacGregor)

Following discussions with and advice from the School Examinations and Assessment Council, the Secretary of State for Wales and I have today decided on the scope of the tests to be used in the first national assessments of all seven-year-olds in 1991. I am arranging for copies of the specification for drawing up the actual tests themselves to be placed in the Library of the House.

The national tests will concentrate on what is of key concern to parents—reading, writing, arithmetic and basic scientific skills. Because the ability to read is vital to pupils' future development, all seven-year-olds will be tested separately on their ability to read. To help ensure consistency of standards, that test will be based on a range of common texts.

I believe that it is important that at this age the tests concentrate on the basics. That is not only right in itself, but means tests that will be manageable in the classrooms. The tests will take up the equivalent of about a week and a half of classroom time in the first half of the summer term. The message from this summer's pilot tests was that they overloaded the schools. I have decided that next year's tests will be simpler and will concentrate on what really matters. In addition to the external tests, teachers will also carry out their own tests of all seven-year-olds across all aspects of English, maths and science in the national curriculum.

For the first time, we shall have a national system in all schools which will enable parents and teachers to know how their children are progressing in the basics of education. All parents will be able to get clear and objective results and to talk to teachers about their children's progress. For each child, teachers will be able to build upon strengths and tackle weaknesses.

The national curriculum sets clear and demanding national targets for pupils of all ages and abilities in English, mathematics and science. The tests will show how pupils—individually and collectively—are measuring up to those targets. For the first time, we shall have clear, national information about what is happening to standards. The arrangements that I am announcing today for testing seven-year-olds are the key to raising those standards.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this afternoon's announcement represents a major and humiliating U-turn—[Interruption.] I appreciate why Conservative Members do not like that news, but it is true. It represents a major and humiliating U-turn by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet against the whole concept of the national curriculum and testing contained in the Education Reform Act 1988.

Is it because the Secretary of State understands the extent of the Government's embarrassment that, as the Order Paper makes clear, his original intention was to slip out this announcement by way of a written answer and that this oral statement had to be wrung from him?

The Secretary of State must know that the Labour party and virtually everyone else told his predecessor, now the chairman of the Conservative party, that the national curriculum was too inflexible and that the complex testing of seven-year-olds—for which every Conservative Member voted—in English, maths, science, history, geography, technology, music, art and physical education was not only ludicrously impractical but would seriously damage the education of a great many children.

Is not it a sign of the Government's profound arrogance that they refused to listen and instead have subjected teachers and other people's children to three years of experimentation, while of course ensuring that their own children, in private schools, remain immune from the national curriculum and therefore from this chaos? Against that background, is it any wonder that public confidence in the Government's handling of education and in the Secretary of State has never been lower since the last world war?

If, as a junior education Minister said in July, the pilots were too unwieldy, and if, as the Secretary of State has admitted today, they caused an overload to the curriculum, why did Ministers allow them to go ahead, since others told them clearly in advance what the consequences of those pilots would be? How much has this experimentation with other people's children cost the taxpayer? How many million sheets of paper have been wasted? How much has teachers' morale been damaged?

In contrast to the confusion of the Government's position, Labour has always been clear. We have sought tests in basic subjects such as reading, writing, maths and science as an aid to raising standards, to diagnose children's strengths and weaknesses and to help provide information about the performance of schools. We shall judge this afternoon's proposals by those criteria, and for that reason we welcome the separate reading test, which is long overdue.

What will be the cost of these proposals for testing? Who will prepare and evaluate the tests? What will be the link between these tests and the national curriculum? What will be the status of the separate teacher tests in relation to the standard assessment tasks?

There have been a good many suggestions in the newspapers that the tests announced by the right hon. Gentleman today cannot be in place in all schools by the summer of 1991. Can he guarantee that that will not be the case?

At the beginning of his statement, the Secretary of State said that he had received advice from the School Examinations and Assessment Council. Did he accept that advice—and, if not, to what extent did he depart from it? Will he also explain the exact status of the document entitled "Specification for the Development of Standard Assessment Tasks in the Core Subjects"? Is it to be the basis of the proposals for contracts for the new tests? What additional support will schools be given to help children when strengths are noted or weaknesses diagnosed?

The Secretary of State speaks of standards, but he must know that maths standards have fallen and that that has coincided with a decline in the number of properly qualified maths teachers. He must also know that there is evidence that reading standards may have fallen, but the Government abandoned the national monitoring of reading standards in 1988 and cannot say whether they have gone up or down. Furthermore, it is simply untrue for the right hon. Gentleman to say that, for the first time, we shall have clear national information about what is happening to standards, when we were already receiving that information from the Assessment of Performance Unit, established in 1975—and abolished by the present Government in 1988, with the consequence that the monitoring of reading standards ceased.

Given the continuing confusion and continual changes in regard to the national curriculum, does the Secretary of State agree that he must now publish a comprehensive White Paper on testing in the national curriculum, setting out exactly what the Government expect of schools, pupils and teachers and how these changes are intended to raise standards?

From the retreat that the statement represents, is not it clear that our children and our schools have paid a high price for that near-lethal combination of doctrinaire intransigence and administrative incompetence which is the hallmark of the Government's education policies?

Mr. MacGregor

That is the biggest load of nonsense that I have heard in a long time. I am astonished at the attempts by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to build bricks out of air—[HON. MEMBERS: "Straw!"] No, there was not even any straw there.

Let me deal first with the points that the hon. Gentleman made about standards. When he spoke about maths standards falling, he entirely neglected the fact that assessments made between 1982 and 1987 showed that in a number of areas maths standards had actually improved. When he draws our attention to an area in which standards may have dropped, the hon. Gentleman does not mention all the areas in which they may have improved much more than they have dropped.

By constantly harping on the aspects that still need to be improved in schools—and, of course, improvements will always be necessary—the hon. Gentleman destroys the confidence of the many good teachers who are doing so much to raise standards. That is already happening with the national curriculum.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned reading standards, but the evidence in that regard is not clear; those who presented it described it as prima facie and not certain. We do not know whether reading standards have fallen in some cases, although I am taking steps to check the figures nationally. But, if they have—here I choose my words with care—it is nothing to do with teaching resources; it is to do with certain teaching methods introduced by socialist educational practices and philosophies. If there was indeed a decline earlier in the decade, it was due to that approach.

The hon. Gentleman is way off beam when he talks about a U-turn. We are introducing the most carefully prepared educational reforms that have been carried out for a long time: that is why the advisory body's pilot projects were undertaken. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), said from the outset that the assessment of seven-year-olds would consist of a combination of external tests and teacher assessments. For the past two years we have been undertaking pilot schemes to ensure that we get the balance right. That was the whole point of the pilot project.

During the summer I said that I believed that the pilot schemes undertaken by agencies developing the tests showed that the system was overloaded. I could see that that was the case and I made that clear early on. However, big benefits have been gained from the pilot schemes, apart from our being enabled to reach these decisions. A great deal of work has gone into developing the tests, which we shall use for seven-year-olds within the national curriculum, and experience has been gained from the pilot tests.

The hon. Member asked about the cost of the scheme. Much of the cost of the schemes intended to be undertaken in schools next summer will be within their normal expenditure. Through specific grants this year I have supported a total expenditure of about £35 million for assessment in the coming year.

The hon. Gentleman's next question was about who will prepare and evaluate tests. The School Examinations and Assessment Council will now go out to tender to agencies to draw up the tests. The evaluation will be done by SEAC.

I am astonished that the hon. Member for Blackburn does not understand the link between the tests and the national curriculum. The curriculum is all about raising standards and extending the range of education. Assessment and tests will be linked with the development of the national curriculum in the particular subjects—English, maths and science—that we shall be testing next summer.

I confirm that we shall be doing national testing in the summer of 1991, for the first time. As the national curriculum develops I expect that we shall learn that some things need to be changed. The hon. Member for Blackburn shows an astonishing ignorance of how these things are done if he expects everything to be absolutely right from day one. We shall continue to develop on the basis of experience. The reason for carrying out the pilot tests was to learn from two years' experience before we tested nationally for the first time. We have concentrated the tests on certain areas, but we have not changed their nature.

The hon. Member asked about the specification that has been drawn up for developing tests, which will go to the agencies. It also contains information for teachers, although a great deal more information and training for teachers will be provided in the early part of next year.

I am simply astonished at the hon. Gentleman's charges this afternoon. We are carrying out precisely what we said we would do at the beginning: raising standards with national testing for all seven-year-olds as a basis. The tests have been based on the most careful evaluation of the pilot tests in the past two years.

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement will be widely welcomed by parents? Can he confirm that the tests will be sufficiently rigorous to ensure that any shortcomings in a child's education can be identified quickly? Does he agree that if there is a problem with a child's education the quicker that it is identified, the sooner it can be put right, to the benefit of that child's further education?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is one of the main purposes of assessment and testing. Yes, the tests will be rigorous, stimulating, imaginative and they will be external—the child will not see them in the classroom beforehand.

Above all, the tests will enable the teacher to assess the pupil's ability and to identify weaknesses, and they will enable the parents to know what level the child has reached. It is a more systematic way of ensuring that children have the benefit of such an approach in all schools.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

My colleagues and I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement, and his decision to abandon the more complex and unworkable proposals envisaged by his predecessor. This scheme is a great improvement. However, will not parents be much more concerned about what the tests show than the fact there are tests? Is not the reality that, in more than 10 years of Tory Government, standards in literacy and numeracy have fallen dramatically in many areas? Is not the key question what will be done about standards and resourcing education so that they rise, which is much more important than what sort of tests we have, although they will be helpful in proving just how badly off and badly educated some of our young people are?

Mr. MacGregor

I reject absolutely the charge that what I am doing is different from that which was envisaged by my predecessor. What he so rightly set in train were pilots and work done by specialists to develop the basic concepts of the national curriculum and to carry them through into testing. As a result of what they did during the summer, we have learnt that the way in which they were trying to develop the tests was too cumbersome. What they were doing, for example—this is very much a technical matter—was to ask the teachers in all the classrooms where pilots were undertaken this summer to start the children at level one, and if they passed that, to let them go on to level two, and then, if they passed level two, to go on to level three. The teachers know broadly the level at which children come in. Therefore, it makes much more sense to go straight to the level that the teacher thinks is right and then, if the tests prove that to be wrong, to drop back or to go forward. That is a technical point, but it led to overloading and to too cumbersome tests this summer.

That was my conclusion after studying the results of the pilots undertaken by the educational advisers. I reject absolutely the charge that what I am doing is different from what was envisaged by my predecessor. I am sure that he would have come to the same conclusion as I.

The hon. Gentleman must surely acknowledge that standards of literacy and numeracy and many other standards have risen sharply during the past 10 years. That is why many more children are taking GCSE and A-levels and getting better grades, and that is why many more young people are going into higher education.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement most emphatically does not represent a retreat but a very important advance? Is he also aware that there is widespread appreciation of the great thoughtfulness and care with which he has approached the matter? That is crucial if we are to establish higher standards in British education.

Mr. MacGregor

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. He knows a great deal about these matters. I agree with him. I believe that this will strengthen the national curriculum because it concentrates the standard assessment tasks—the external tests—on subjects that really matter and which concern parents. It will enable teachers to carry out assessment in other subjects. I am sure that it is the right way to proceed. We have learnt from the pilots that were conducted by the education experts that the system was overloaded and cumbersome in the classroom. I believe that we have now got it right. That is the point of pilots and experiments.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that teachers will greet his statement with a great sense of relief. Is there, however, any school in England or Wales in which the scheme that is to be adopted has been tested? What is to happen in schools where Welsh is the first language? I notice that the Minister of State, Welsh Office is here today. Are we to have a brief statement from him about that? Many parents in Wales will want to know what is to happen.

Mr. MacGregor

During the summer I talked to large numbers of teachers, including those doing the pilots, and found that there was a warm response to the tests. They felt that the tests had been imaginatively developed. We shall be building on them for the full national testing next summer. The tests already carried out have resulted in a positive benefit, and we shall build on them. The teachers found themselves in difficulties because there were too many tests. Overloading was the real problem. Among other things, it made management of the classroom during the period of the tests very difficult. That is what the teachers, including the National Association of Head Teachers, came to talk to me about.

We have all been evaluating the pilots. I repeat again that that is the point of pilots. During the past year we have tested the tests. On that basis, we can test the pupils next year. During the summer the teachers dealt with this admirably and did everything that they could to make sure that the pilots were worth while. Therefore, I am sure that they will welcome the statement that I have made today.

As for the hon. Gentleman's question about the Welsh language, the standard assessment task material to assess Welsh in Welsh-medium schools will be available to teachers next year, but the first statutory requirement to assess the language will be in 1992.

Sir Rhodes Boyson (Brent, North)

I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. I am sure that an overwhelming number of teachers will welcome this simplification. They are worried about the layer after layer. This is, therefore, a sensible proposal.

My right hon. Friend's statement was admirably short. Let us hope that the examinations will also be admirably short. We are talking about a week and a half. The much-maligned 11-plus took one morning. I do not see why the examinations cannot be carried out within a day, or half a day. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider cutting the time down even further.

I have considerable sympathy with teachers who feel that if one called a meeting of six classroom infant school teachers and six infant school heads, chosen at random from a list of teachers, and brought them together for a day, they could solve all these difficulties by drawing the tests up themselves, instead of leaving it to the educational establishment which did so much to destroy standards and which is still playing around with all these wrong ideas.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his opening remarks. We are being very thorough over the tests for children aged seven. We are testing a wide range of knowledge, skills, understanding and practical application. Children will be tested individually. Most of the tests will be written tests. Reading tests have to go far beyond one and a half weeks. They have to be done individually with each child. There will be a thorough and wide range of tests. It will be impossible to carry them out in half a day.

Teachers have been involved in drawing up the tests. The tests that have been carried out up to now were used in some local authorities but not in others. They did not apply to the whole of the national curriculum. It was necessary, therefore, to build on them in order to develop a wider range of tests for the national curriculum. I hope that my right hon. Friend will find that the tests are practical and rigorous. The tests will be external and I am sure that they are the kind of things that he would want us to do.

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)

I welcome the proposals for testing seven-year-olds, so long as they are carried out sensitively and constructively and are never used to brand such young children as failures. However, the purpose of the tests is to identify specific needs—both strengths and learning difficulties. Unless we can be reassured that adequate resources will be made available to meet those identified needs, the tests will not be worth while. At the moment many children who have been identified as having special needs—I include children with strengths as well as those with difficulties—have to wait far too long for far too little.

Mr. MacGregor

The whole point of testing at seven is to summarise for parents and teachers the stage that a child has reached at the end of its time at an infant school. It will enable teachers to assess weaknesses and the areas in which further work needs to be done with that child. Children will be graded at different levels. It is a process of, among many other things, identifying special needs.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

I welcome the simplified tests, but does my right hon. Friend think that they will have an effect on the way in which the national curriculum is taught at primary stage in schools? Does he agree that at present the national curriculum gives children a broad level of information instead of concentrating on basic skills? Will not these changes inevitably mean, therefore, changes to the way in which the curriculum is introduced?

Mr. MacGregor

The national curriculum is all about obtaining a broader range of knowledge and skills from the age of five to 16. I believe strongly that that is necessary if we are to have an education system for all our children relevant for the 1990s and beyond. A broad range of skills and the understanding and knowledge of practical application are all important. My announcement about concentrating the external tests on the basics—reading, writing, arithmetic and basic scientific skills—means that the tests will deal with matters about which parents are most concerned.

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar)

The Secretary of State spoke of testing as a method of improving standards. It is teaching which improves standards, not testing. The time spent in testing is time taken from teaching. I do not believe that there is a school in the country where children are not regularly tested so that the teacher knows how well they are absorbing what is being taught. There is a case for trying to standardise tests, particularly in mathematics, but does the Secretary of State agree that when devising the tests it must be remembered that a child who is allowed to play with balancing apparatus at an early stage will understand quadratic equations easily later on, but may not do well in formal arithmetic tests, which will be no prediction of future standards or ability? Does the Secretary of State agree that the tests must be—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but will she ask her question because there is an important debate after this?

Ms. Gordon

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the tests take into account cultural differences, class differences and ethnic minority differences so that the results will not be unfair? Does he agree that the external aspect of testing can be very damaging to children aged seven? It can destroy the self-image of many children who are not able to succeed. The tests must be devised so that children can succeed, because success lays the pathway to future improvement in education.

Mr. MacGregor

It is important to have assessment and testing at the ages of seven, 11 and 14 as well as at 16. It is important so that teachers can assess the progress of the child, so that parents can know what is going on and so that, nationally, we all know the progress that is being made. Therefore, I make no apology for introducing tests and assessments at seven, 11 and 14. There will be a wide range of ways in which the assessment is made. The reaction from the majority of the teaching profession to the national curriculum and concept of assessment has been very favourable. We are introducing a systematic means of checking what children have learnt, checking the results and assessing their progress.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the important Public Accounts Committee debate that will take place immediately after this statement. I understand the importance of this subject and I know that many hon. Members wish to participate. If they are brief, I hope to be able to fit them all in, but I shall have to stop questions to the Secretary of State at 5.10 pm. Therefore, I ask for brief questions now.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I welcome the clear guidelines for testing at seven set out by my right hon. Friend. I wonder whether Members of Parliament would achieve good scores if they were allowed to take the test. I should like to ask two clear questions—

Mr. Speaker

Order. How about asking one question? That will give other hon. Members a chance.

Mr. Greenway

Will the test include the spelling of words learnt phonically by children? That will be important. Is my right hon. Friend aware that if teachers are to be asked to spend one and a half weeks testing, it will have serious implications for staff time? They will need help and someone to take the class while they are doing the testing. What will be done?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, spelling is included. It is one of the eight attainment targets outside reading. On my hon.

Friend's second point, testing will be one and a half weeks carried out over three weeks. We believe that that is manageable.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I and my colleagues also welcome the Secretary of State's statement. We welcome the reduced scope of the tests which will make them more manageable for children and reduce the heavy load on teachers. I see that the assessments will be introduced in 1991. Will the tests come into operation in Northern Ireland in 1991?

The Secretary of State is referring to national assessments and one wonders sometimes to what nation he is referring. Statements of this nature should be made on a United Kingdom basis, not just an England and Wales basis. The Parliament of England and Wales went out of existence nearly 300 years ago.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am responsible for education in England. I shall check up on the points he has raised and ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland gets in touch with the hon. Gentleman about it.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his positive statement with its emphasis on diagnostic testing of pupils and improving quality and standards contrasts with the destructive and negative attitude of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)? It is the same negative attitude that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues exhibited a few months ago when they repeated the allegation—now proved to be untrue—in the National Union of Teachers' advertisements about the quality of our schools which did a great deal to damage morale among teachers.

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Can the Secretary of State say what consideration, allowances or weighting will be given to children of seven who take the test but whose first language is not English and to teachers whose first language is English?

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon), unless these matters are dealt with in an extremely sensitive way, there is a danger that both children and parents will have their self-esteem damaged. I suspect that some of this may be connected with the recent statement to allow first and primary schools to opt out. If children and their parents become greatly dissatisfied, there will be pressure to opt out of the maintained system.

Mr. MacGregor

This has nothing to do with my recent announcement about extending the option of grant-maintained status to all primary schools. That stands supremely on its own merits. On assessment, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the approach of the national curriculum is that children reach different levels of attainment in different age groups. Some children will reach a certain level at a different time from others. Next summer, in the assessments at seven, there will be three levels—first, second and third. The point is to show parents and teachers what level a child has reached in a certain subject. It may vary from subject to subject. It will show what needs to be done to help the child move to the next stage. It is a means by which a child can assess its own progress.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

Will my right hon. Friend give me an absolute assurance that the levels of attainment in the tests will equal or surpass those achieved currently in the best systems on the continent? In other words, can he assure me that this will not prove to be another example of the insular complacency that has afflicted our system? If he can give me that assurance, will he explain how it will be achieved, given that on the continent there is a far more advanced and extensive system of nursery education? At the end of the road, whether it is mathematics or English, we want A-levels. Although we have confidence in the Secretary of State, we do not have confidence in the education industry. That is why vice-chancellors are saying that they will need a fourth year at university for mathematics and it is why A-level English is being diluted, despite my right hon. Friend's assurance to the contrary.

Mr. MacGregor

It is my intention to ensure that we have rigour in the tests. Although it is a different approach from some that take place in other countries, I am determined that we should achieve that rigour. On nursery education, my hon. Friend will know that we start full-time compulsory schooling at an earlier age than most countries in the European Community. That must be taken into account.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

About five minutes ago the Secretary of State said that over the past 18 months he has been testing the tests. Will he also accept that he has been testing the practicality of the dafter ideas of his predecessor, now the chairman of the Conservative party, whose tests and practicality have been found severely wanting? Will he accept that the longer his predecessor stays as Conservative party chairman, the happier we will be, since he cannot do any damage to the nation's children or to us?

Mr. MacGregor

That is nonsense. My right hon. Friend had the good sense to ensure that we ran pilots before setting up a national testing arrangement. We did two years of evaluation, from which we learned much. It is to my right hon. Friend's credit that he set up a system under which we now have the most careful preparation for radical education reforms that I can recall. The hon. Gentleman misses the point of testing tests and evaluation in a small number of primary schools before we go national.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the two great tests that his statement has passed? First, it will give parents an answer to the objective question "How is my child doing in school?" and, secondly, he has clearly listened and responded to the hard-working and professional teachers, who have given him and his colleagues advice on how to handle this matter. He has shown that he has heard them and has been able to agree with their professional judgment.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)

Does the Minister agree that testing is educationally sound if it establishes a child's problems and allows remedial action to be taken? Testing can be bad if it is done simply to fill files and, in many cases, to act as PR material for a school or school authority. Will the Minister insist and be emphatic that these tests will not be allowed to be used as PR exercises by a school or education authority?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree that one of the points of assessment at seven is to enable evaluation of the child, his progress and the areas that must be tackled because he is showing weakness in them. Equally, it is perfectly reasonable and right—indeed, I would encourage it—for schools to state, if they wish to do so, and we are not making it compulsory next year, what they are achieving in terms of assessment. Two matters are important in helping to raise standards: first, greater choice, which we are achieving under several of our other reforms and, secondly, comparative performance and encouraging schools that perhaps are not doing as well as others to follow schools that are. That is achieved by showing what is going on in the school.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the children who undertook the pilot tests enjoyed them and found them useful? How does he propose to adapt the testing procedures to schools which deal with children who have special learning difficulties but which are also applying the national curriculum to their work?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend's second point is obviously for experts on the subject and I look to SEAC and the agencies it uses to assist with that. It was clear that teachers and pupils found the individual tests stimulating. It was important that they were rigorous, but they found them stimulating. The problem was that there were too many tests.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As I have been a weekly columnist for the New Scientist for 23 years, will the Secretary of State accept that among the scientific community there is sceptical curiosity about testing at seven for basic scientific skills? If John or Jane aged seven seem to fall down on the testing of basic skills in science, what happens? Does anybody try to help them? Do we have the resources to try to help them or is there a danger of simply breaking their hearts and doing nothing about it?

Mr. MacGregor

The purpose of testing is the exploration of science and scientific concepts at a level appropriate for seven-year-olds. I have seen some very good work being done in schools. Criticism has been made that we have not had enough scientific teaching at the appropriate level in our primary schools, just as we have not had enough technology teaching in the past. That is a valid criticism. We are making great improvements and the scientific community welcomes the fact that such heavy emphasis is placed on science in the curriculum.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I welcome the concentration in my right hon. Friend's announcement on the three Rs, which is precisely the subject of parental concern at present. Will he ensure that the results of testing are issued in a manner that parents can understand by cutting out the education jargon that afflicts so much of these reports? We should bear it in mind that the very parents who will be reading the reports are those who had trouble with the three Rs in the first place.

Mr. MacGregor

By no means always, but I agree with the main point that my hon. Friend is making. One of the dangers of the education world is that it is riddled with technical and educational jargon. It is extremely important that reports to parents are written in clear language and in a way to which parents can respond. I share my hon. Friend's concern and will try to ensure that happens.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will these arrangements apply to the private sector, or will Tory Members' children be exempt from the provisions of testing, as they are exempt from the provisions of the national curriculum? How will he prevent the seven-year-old examinations being turned into a seven-plus procedure, with all the accompanying difficulties for the children involved? Would not it be better, rather than lavishing millions of pounds on this system, to lavish millions of pounds on more teachers to get smaller classes, because that is the only way that we shall achieve better standards?

Mr. MacGregor

Parliament decided, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that independent schools should not be brought within the national curriculum. There is pretty rigorous testing in many independent schools at various ages. As I have made clear many times, I hope that more and more will use the national curriculum.

Mr. Cryer

They do not have to.

Mr. MacGregor

No. Under the legislation they do not have to do so, but I believe that more will wish to participate fully in the national curriculum and I will welcome that.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's concentration on the three Rs but particularly concentrate on reading? Will he assure me that the test will be sufficiently diagnostic that it will detect children suffering from dyslexia so that they are not branded as backward in reading and writing? It is of particular importance because I am afraid that a number of teachers do not accept that such a condition exists.

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that that will follow entirely from the assessment at seven, but the assessment of reading will detect children who continue to have reading difficulties, and it will do so on an externally assessed basis. In other words, the tests will be external. That will enable the teachers to identify children who have reading difficulties, which obviously they will be able to do in many other ways.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who has scored a great victory for common sense in his proposals. Many of us will see it as a victory over that part of the education establishment that seemed determined to undermine the Education Reform Act 1988. May we hope that in future announcements on tests he will follow the same policy as he has in today's statement? Will he consider the amounts that we pay those in the education service who advise, write and talk but do not teach, and concentrate more effort in the classroom, where the money is needed?

Mr. MacGregor

I have been evaluating carefully and discussing testing with many people. I have been evaluating the reaction of teachers who have been conscientiously doing the pilots. I have been discussing for some time with my official advisory body, the School Examinations and Assessment Council, and others what lessons we had learnt from the pilots and what decisions I should take. I believe that the decisions that I have taken, based on the advice of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, which is responsible for carrying this through, are absolutely right for the national curriculum. They will ensure that the national curriculum is carried through as we wish. They concentrate on the basics, which is important at the age of seven, and, for the first time, introduce across the country the concept of external tests. That is why I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the remarks that he made about the decisions that I have taken this afternoon.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

As a former teacher, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. It is good news that we are to make progress on testing in 1991. If we are to have a proper compulsory national system of testing of children, with a view to helping those in difficulties and raising overall standards, why cannot we have a proper compulsory national system of testing teachers, with the same objectives?

Mr. MacGregor

I have made it clear that I believe that teacher appraisal is desirable. I am trying to put in place a national framework for teacher appraisal. I do not think that it is right at the moment to move to statutory, compulsory, obligatory appraisal systems in every school, for the simple reason that the key priority at the moment is to get the national curriculum in place and to make those reforms work. I have been conscious of the hard work that many schools are doing in that respect. I do not want to overload the system at a time when we must make the national curriculum work. Many schools have been carrying out appraisals, and I have encouraged that.

Mr. Alistair Burt (Bury, North)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will reject the calls of those who wish individual tests for children to be made so variable, for a variety of reasons, that children's weaknesses may not be exposed or may be excused? Unless children have objective targets at which to aim, whatever their backgrounds may be, we will be selling them short. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to parents and teachers that these tests are only one way of looking at a school, that many other components make a good school and that tests should be seen in the context of whatever else is done in a school? Teachers must recognise that tests are important, but parents must also recognise that there are other components on which to make a judgment.

Mr. MacGregor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The whole point of introducing these external tests is to get the right balance between teacher assessment and external tests. The external tests bring in rigour and uniformity and give parents a much greater guarantee about the progress being made on the basics. It is important to strike the right balance, which is what I think we are doing. I agree with my hon. Friend that many aspects in a school are relevant to a school's performance, as well as what we have been talking about this afternoon.