HC Deb 10 June 1999 vol 332 cc766-8
3. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

How many schools are piloting the use of masterclasses for more able pupils. [85395]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

Ten schools are involved in the pilot of masterclasses for gifted and talented pupils. We are also developing a separate pilot of about 40 summer school projects, based in a range of schools and education action zones. Further details will be announced shortly.

Mr. Chapman

We still need to improve the education of all our children and to provide lifelong learning for others, but are not special measures needed for gifted and talented children, in particular in inner-city areas, as they are still not given the priority that they deserve? What are my hon. Friend's plans for masterclasses for those gifted children and for ensuring that those are more widely available?

Ms Morris

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For too long, there has been the feeling that able children will do well despite school rather than because of it. It is about time that we recognised the fact that allowing every child to reach their potential means giving attention to every child, including those who have a particular ability or talent. My hon. Friend will know that a key strand of our work on the excellence in schools project is to ask those participating to work with their most able, gifted and talented children to ensure that they achieve their potential and that they achieve at a level that has not until now been available to them.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I recognise that masterclasses may indeed be beneficial for the more gifted child, and no doubt the trials will be carefully evaluated, but does the Minister recognise that able and gifted children should be assisted in mainstream education and that, from the word, go there should be streaming in secondary schools to ensure that those children are given the challenges that they need? Does she further agree that perhaps, in addition, special help could be provided at the end of the school day to continue that impetus?

Ms Morris

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Lady has just said. It is absolutely crucial that the needs of those children in mainstream schools, whether primary or secondary, are met. For too long, schools have been good at meeting the needs of children who are thought to be less able and struggling—which is right and may it continue—but have often left those who are doing well to get on at their own pace. We are looking for a change of culture. We need to work with schools and teachers so that they develop strategies and teaching styles that will extend the abilities and the potential of every young person.

Every school should look carefully at pupil grouping. Certainly there is a lot of evidence showing that setting children can raise standards. That is setting children by ability for different subjects rather than streaming children, to which the hon. Lady referred, which puts them into the same stream for all subjects. Again, under the excellence in cities initiative, we are requiring all schools to look carefully at the way in which they group students and seriously to consider setting, unless they can prove to us that another way of grouping children is achieving the same high results.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

I welcome the Minister's responses to these questions. As she knows, the Select Committee on Education and Employment recently published a report on the needs of highly able children. I agree with her comments that we have tended to neglect this group because of the concern about struggling children and average standards. Does she agree that, although the masterclass initiative is a very important one, perhaps the key, as the Select Committee suggests, would be for every school to have a policy for highly able children and probably a named senior member of staff with special responsibility so that that group is no longer neglected?

Ms Morris

That is absolutely right. I welcome the Select Committee report on gifted and talented children and I look forward to my appearance before the Committee in about four weeks' time. The main theme of the report is absolutely right: in all our schools there are able and talented students who need to be recognised and supported. I know that the Chair of the Select Committee will welcome the fact that, as part of excellence in schools, we are requiring every school in the 25 pilot areas to designate one member of staff to be responsible for monitoring gifted and able children. Over the next few months, we will draw those teachers together, provide them with training and make links so that they can support each other. I have every confidence in saying that much that the Committee espouses in training will be delivered through excellence in cities over the next 12 months.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

The masterclass initiative and the excellence in cities initiative, which includes masterclasses, are, like so many Government initiatives, strong on rhetoric and weak on delivery. How many children will be moved to another school for some part of their education as a result of these initiatives? The Minister has talked today of the need to meet the needs of more able pupils, but the masterclass initiative within excellence in cities is based on selection by ability. Last week, the Prime Minister told head teachers that there should be no return to selection by ability because it was too devastating for those who were rejected. What confidence can parents, pupils and teachers have in statements made by the Secretary of State and the Minister on meeting the needs of more able pupils when the Prime Minister so obviously disagrees with them?

Ms Morris

I find it amazing that the hon. Lady has failed to grasp the central difference between her policy for gifted and talented children and that of the Government. Unlike the Opposition, we do not believe that gifted and talented children exist only in selective schools. We believe that, in every school, there are groups of children who are gifted and talented and whose needs have been ignored. The thrust of our policy is to ensure that a gifted and talented child does not have to be in a grammar school to get extra support. That will give parents confidence that, whether their child goes to an existing selective school or to a comprehensive school in a city or a rural area, there will be policies to support the child in realising their potential. That is what parents want—not a few children siphoned off for extra attention.