HC Deb 11 May 1993 vol 224 cc639-41
8. Mr. Anthony Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what measures he is taking to improve standards in the teaching of English in schools.

11. Mr. Thomason

To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement about the proposals for the revision of English in the national curriculum.

Mr. Patten

The new proposals for English, which I published together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales on 15 April, aim to simplify, streamline and strengthen the present curriculum by defining more clearly the essential skills which English teaching should promote and reducing the number of requirements to be satisfied. We believe that the proposals will provide a firmer structure to ensure that pupils acquire knowledge and understanding of the English language, grammar and vocabulary, as well as the ability to speak it with confidence. They should also ensure that pupils learn about their literary heritage and study the works of our greatest writers.

In the light of consultation on our proposals in England and Wales, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I expect to publish a draft order for a revised English curriculum later in the year for further statutory consultation.

Mr. Coombs

In view of the difficulties in reading and writing experienced by a significant minority of 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds according to the National Curriculum Council and given the streamlining of the English curriculum mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, does he agree with Sir Ron Dearing and Stewart Sutherland that it is crucial that tests for 14-year-olds in English go ahead this year? Does he further agree that it is craven almost to the extent of Pontius Pilate for the Opposition to argue in favour of tests on principle while refusing to condemn the boycott of the tests by many teachers which would damage the tests so badly in practice?

Mr. Patten

To answer the second of my hon. Friend's two questions first, many people say that they are in favour of a national curriculum and testing but are afraid to come forward and set out exactly what they mean. That behaviour has been characteristic of the Opposition throughout the past year.

On my hon. Friend's first point, testing is critical not just for 14-year-olds but for seven-year-olds. As Sir Ron Dearing and Professor Stewart Sutherland, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, said yesterday, the testing of seven-year-olds has not only led to some improvements and a greater expectation among teachers of what they can expect from their children, but demonstrated that two out of three children aged seven cannot read the simplest words. It is those children who need to be helped throughout their school careers and that is why we need the testing regime that we have introduced.

Mr. Thomason

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is totally unacceptable that 30 per cent. of 16-year-olds are unable to master the basic reading skills expected of people of that age? Will he ensure that under the national curriculum, to which he referred a moment ago, the proper teaching of English is introduced?

Mr. Patten

It is entirely right that the National Curriculum Council recommendations should concentrate to a greater extent on the basics—standard English, reading and writing. It is always right to reveal problems that have been hidden. It was only in this past year that we discovered, for the first time, that some 300,000 16-year-old school leavers going on to further education had a reading age of 14 years or less. That must be put right and that is why we need the slimmer national curriculum English orders, which are now in draft. That is why we need testing and why, and how, we must catch up with our international competitors. In France, for example, the testing of eight and 11-year-olds has gone on for decades.

Mr. Enright

Will the Secretary of State explain how affixing captions to "Pam's Paper pictures" assists in the tests for 14-year-olds? Would he not be better advised to correct the English used by the other Departments of Her Majesty's Government, which send out to us appallingly written documents in appalling numbers?

Mr. Patten

I remember that during our most recent debate on education the hon. Gentleman got into a muddle about the membership of his own union. He could not even remember the name of his union, to which he referred incorrectly. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] Order. I think that when the testing of 14-year-olds takes place this summer and the results have been published, some time after those tests have been taken, people will wonder what on earth the fuss was about and they will see exactly what good those tests will do.

Mr. Dafis

The Secretary of State will be aware of the views of the Curriculum Council for Wales on the rather questionable entity of standard English. It strongly disapproves of the principle that children aged six or seven should have their English corrected to bring it into line with the so-called standard form. I wonder whether the Secretary of State would care to congratulate that organisation on its good sense. As part of the process of making the proposed curriculum and assessment authority for Wales genuinely autonomous, will he ensure that the council's recommendations are accepted in Wales?

Mr. Patten

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not responsible for education in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is consulting on the draft proposals from the Curriculum Council for Wales and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's views are drawn to his attention.