HC Deb 28 January 1992 vol 202 cc805-7
12. Mr. Squire

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the results of testing seven-year-olds.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The national and local results of the tests of seven-year-olds which I published on 19 December give, for the first time, a clear picture of how our seven-year-olds are performing.

We should remember that over 70 per cent. of seven-year-olds did reach the targets for that age in English, mathematics and science. However, the wide fluctuations in the performance of individual local education authorities cannot be fully explained by variations in social and economic circumstances or by variations in spending on education, and show that there is plenty of scope to improve standards.

Mr. Squire

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that school children in my borough of Havering came fifth overall in the national listings. That is a considerable achievement.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that my local Labour party is circulating a leaflet, from which I shall now quote—

Hon. Members

No quotes.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Paraphrase, please.

Mr. Squire

In deference to you, Mr. Speaker, I shall do so.

According to the leaflet, testing at seven is harmful and impractical. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that our talented children deserve better than a Labour council, let alone a Labour Government?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is certainly right. The publication of the results allowed tribute to be paid to the local authorities whose results were good and where the hard work of teachers was showing results. The publication of results need not be taken as a threat to a good education system. I also share my hon. Friend's regret that some people still seem to think that one can teach a national curriculum sensibly without testing children's progress in an organised fashion. I am astonished that for so long we decided that the results of such tests should be kept secret from the public. It is a great pity that such reactionary ideas are still harboured by the Labour party in Havering and elsewhere.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

I am glad that the Minister recognises that the results confirm previous studies—including those by Her Majesty's inspectorate—that most children, teachers and schools are getting or offer a good education. Will he commission a report to consider in detail and with expertise the fluctuations to which he referred rather than, as he has, jumping to his own conclusions about why such fluctuations should exist? After all, some areas include children with special needs and some do not; in some areas children have English as a second language and in others they do not; and, as he admits, teachers have had problems with the tests themselves. Will he commission such a report?

Mr. Clarke

I do not think that we have had such a clear picture before of the extraordinarily wide variations between different parts of the country. I believe that the publication of these results will cause people to focus on the reasons for the low standards in some places, except for hon. Members representing Bradford and Newham—the two lowest scoring local authorities—whose reaction is that one should not have such testing and that it is merely a problem forced on the local authority. The report that I commissioned to get a debate going on why some schools were failing was commissioned from three people whose expertise has not been challenged and nor, as far as I know, have most of their conclusions. However, I agree with the three wise men and with the hon. Gentleman. The vast majority of teachers are working extremely hard to achieve good results under the national curriculum and our aim is to get all schools up to the standards of the best.

Dr. Hampson

Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice that last summer the independent report into Leeds primary schools showed clearly that the schools that had had enhanced resources and more teachers could not show a positive correlation between extra resources and higher standards and, moreover, that the report highlighted the problem of teaching methods? It said that far too many teachers had the perception that unless they followed the good practice set down by local authority advisers, their career prospects in the city would be blighted.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend. The report by Professor Alexander into the Leeds primary school experience should be read carefully by anyone who is interested in primary school methods. There was a project that led to considerable extra expenditure in primary schools which was closely steered into the dogmatic application of a version of teaching methods and which had harmful consequences in schools. It showed not only that there was no correlation between expenditure and results but that the rather ridiculous pursuit of ideology involving child-centred education led to a reduction in standards because of the pressure on teachers.

Mr. Straw

Is the Secretary of State aware that according to figures provided in a parliamentary written answer by the Minister of State about the proportion of seven-year-olds reaching the highest level of attainment —level 3—Labour-controlled Haringey is equal top and that Labour-controlled Merton, Camden and Hackney are in the top five placings, streets ahead of Tory Wandsworth which is the source of so much dogma about Tory education policies? Will the Secretary of State now applaud those London Labour boroughs for their excellent results?

Mr. Clarke

When I announced the results I paid tribute to places such as Wigan and St. Helens— [Hots. MEMBERS: "And Hackney".]—and to Hackney if the figures are accurate for level 3 attainments. The hon. Gentleman resisted publication of the information on which he now relies. He reduces it to this petty party political level and then he makes excuses for all the lowest-performing local authorities, which are Labour-controlled, and resists any idea that we should address the teaching methods that have so badly let down children in Newham, Bradford and all the other areas in the bottom 20, almost all of which are Labour controlled.