HC Deb 15 January 1991 vol 183 cc723-4
11. Mr. John Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has to monitor reading standards nationally; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The national curriculum will secure, for the first time, national monitoring of standards in reading from age seven onwards. This summer's tests for seven-year-olds will supply the first data in what will soon become a much fuller picture. I have instructed Her Majesty's inspectorate to continue to monitor reading standards and provide me with regular reports.

Mr. Evans

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, after nearly 12 years of Tory government, cuts in the education service, our children's reading standards are, not surprisingly, declining? Will he acknowledge that one reason for that decline is the inability of local authorities to maintain their schools library service, due to lack of funds—a situation which is worsening as a result of the poll tax?

Mr. Clarke

Recent reports show that we do not have enough information on the subject, but they also show that the inadequate reading standards being achieved have little or nothing to do with resources or any of the other excuses put forward. What is required is the systematic application of good teaching methods in schools and for local education authorities to pay much closer attention to the problem. That is why I have written to the chairmen of the local education authorities and I have asked Her Majesty's inspectorate to circulate its report to all head teachers. I am sure that we shall address the issue of good teaching methods, properly applied in schools, to get reading standards up to the level that this country requires.

Mr. Pawsey

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that much of the responsibility for poor reading standards must lie with the permissive educational regimes which have been pursued in many of the nation's classrooms? Does he agree that what is required is not necessarily greater funding but greater rigour, greater discipline and greater structuring of reading and the way in which it is taught?

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend's approach. What is required is good, systematic teaching, principally using phonics, as well as other methods, to teach pupils. The reports show that overdependence on some of the stranger new methods of teaching reading which have been introduced is damaging to pupils' performance. That is the key issue which we must address, along with others.

Mr. Straw

Why does the Secretary of State not have the guts to admit that HMI's report on reading is a stark indictment of the Government's shameful record on that issue? It shows that one in five young children cannot read properly. The back of the report, which the Secretary of State evidently has not read, states that there is a lack of non-contact time, a lack of spending on books and a lack of under-five provision, among other factors named by head teachers. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why his predecessor was so complacent about the reading standards of this nation's children that he abandoned all national monitoring of reading standards in 1989?

Mr. Clarke

Why does the hon. Gentleman not have the guts to admit that the Labour party has been closely associated with every change in teaching methods and with moves towards an overdependence on curious child-centred methods which have been responsible for the problem of reading standards in our schools? No one abolished anything in 1989. The hon. Gentleman makes a totally artificial point about the change in the location of a unit which was moved into the School Examinations and Assessment Council, where it is still operating and monitoring reading standards.

Mr. Patrick Thompson

In monitoring reading standards, will my right hon. and learned Friend give more weight and encouragement to traditional methods of teaching reading, writing and spelling? Will he take a closer look at what is going on in our teacher training colleges?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Most parents look for those schools where the teaching methods are reasonably formal and reasonably well oriented and aimed, above all, at achieving success in reading and spelling. Our introduction of national curriculum testing, our extension of parental choice and our insistence that local authorities should pay more attention to all those factors will get our schools back on to a sensible track of getting reading standards up to the quality that we require.