HC Deb 22 May 1997 vol 294 cc832-3
10. Mr. Connarty

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what policies his Department is considering to ensure that quality assurance is focused more on children within schools than between schools. [199]

Ms Estelle Morris

The Government's overriding priority is to raise standards of achievement for every pupil, hence the clear targets that we have set for improvements in literacy and numeracy. However, we shall achieve those targets only if the weakest schools improve to the level of the better schools.

Mr. Connarty

I welcome my hon. Friend on her appointment from the chalk face to ministerial office and, at the same time, welcome the Government's special measures action recovery team to deal with failing schools and to help them to succeed, underlining that everything about this team is SMART. Does my hon. Friend share the concerns expressed that under the previous Government judgments on failing schools were made too late? Does she accept that local authorities' quality assurance processes and schools' internal quality assurance systems must be strengthened to deal with problems in schools?

Ms Morris

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments and for welcoming the SMART programme. He is absolutely right. This week, the Government took action in respect of 18 schools that had been failing pupils for at least 18 months. The previous Government had taken no action to ensure that those schools improved. We should aim to have no schools failing pupils and to identify problems before that happens so that improvements can be made. One of the problems with the system has always been that, whereas an external inspection system can identify weaknesses, there has been no programme of support for schools that are in that position. That is exactly the area with which we wish to deal in the forthcoming months.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Are not parents—and tax payers, too, for that matter—entitled to know about the relative performance of different schools? I accept that it may be uncomfortable for a school to come low in a league table, but at least it is identified as being in need of some assistance.

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman is right. All parents have the right to know how their children perform, whether they are reaching the targets rightly set for them and how the school is performing. Parents also want to know that, if there are problems in the school and the school is not achieving at the level expected, action will be taken. That key element has been missing from the system so far. We have made it clear that we will not accept failure in any school, no matter where it is. All the partners in the education service—school governing bodies, local authorities, central Government and parent—must now accept their responsibility for ensuring that we raise standards for all children in our schools.

Mr. Steinberg

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment, which she fully deserves. However, why was it necessary to publish the names of those failing schools? I am all in favour of help being given to failing schools but I cannot understand why those schools' names had to be published because it decreases the teachers' morale and I do not believe that it is necessary

Ms Morris

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments and note the "however" that followed thereafter. It will have come as no news to anyone in the communities served by the schools that their school was failing. Parents, head teachers, governors and local authorities will have known for at least 18 months and, in some cases, for as long as two years, that their school was not up to scratch so the public airing of the school's name was not new.

It is important to state that that gave a clear message from the new Government that we will not tolerate failure. Not only that, but where schools are not delivering the goods, we will accept our responsibility to support them in raising standards. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that this Government offered help to the schools that are struggling, and did not just criticise them. A task force will go in to help, and I hope that many of the schools will take up our offer of an experienced adviser to help them tackle the problems that they face.