HC Deb 18 March 1999 vol 327 cc1243-5
3. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

What is his assessment of the effectiveness of the literacy hour in primary schools; and if he will make a statement. [75576]

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

Almost all schools are now teaching the daily literacy hour, which is having a positive impact on teaching methods and organisation of lessons. The literacy hour has already raised standards in schools that took part in the pilot national literacy project. Evaluations of the project, published in December by Ofsted and the National Foundation for Educational Research, show that, in less than two years, children who started some way below the national average in their reading scores made progress of between eight months and a year above what would normally be expected.

Fiona Mactaggart

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware of the Scottish Office-funded research into synthetic phonics? That research showed not only that children taught by that method were nine months ahead in their reading ability but that less than 10 per cent. had reading ages more than 12 months behind their chronological age, as compared with nearly a third of children taught by the analytical phonics method? Does the Minister agree that, in this era of national targets and nationally agreed teaching strategies, the Government have a duty to ensure that classroom teachers are aware of the most recent research so that they can improve and develop their teaching methods and achieve the demanding targets for success in reading at key stage 2?

Ms Morris

I think perhaps we should not pick arguments with our Scottish colleagues when no arguments exist. My hon. Friend's comments show that the Government have succeeded in getting phonics accepted as a good way of teaching children to read. That is the focus of her question. We shall always reflect on the evidence about which phonics are best. However, synthetic and other phonics are included in the national literacy strategy that is taught to children in England.

I believe that the research conducted in Scotland involved between eight and 12 schools, whereas the national literacy strategy is based on good-quality evidence gathered from the national literacy project. As always, we shall base our policies on good evidence to ensure that children are taught to read and write in the most effective manner. That is our standard.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Minister agree that the best step that could be taken to improve literacy in primary schools would be to publish the results of the tests that children take at seven as well as the average amount of money that is spent on each child and the average class size in each school? We could then see whether there is a correlation between money spent, class sizes and performance or whether the correlation is between performance and the persistent use of out-dated self-discovery teaching methods in too many schools.

Ms Morris

One wonders why the Conservative party did not do any of those things when it was in power.

Dr. Lewis

I wasn't here.

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman will not be here much longer if he tries to wriggle out of any responsibility for the previous Government's actions.

There is nothing more important than ensuring that youngsters between five and seven learn to read and write as effectively as possible. If they do not learn those basic skills by that age, they will not be able to access the rest of the curriculum and they will become disaffected and disillusioned. The Government have already taken action not only on the literacy strategy but on class sizes. We have also ensured that information is available to parents. We have acted speedily to ensure that the information that is available to the public and to the wider community is more meaningful in terms of value added and can be measured from baseline assessments.

There is already evidence that small class sizes in the important first year make a real difference. The Government are definitely taking credit for the fact that all the essential elements are in place. We will ensure that today's youngsters aged five to seven get a chance that their predecessors did not enjoy under the previous Government.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

I have attended four or five literacy hours, and already my spelling is showing some improvement—although there is no room for complacency. More important, I have found that children enjoy literacy hours, which are becoming a popular feature of primary school life. Does the Minister have any observations to make at this stage about the applicability of the literacy hour—particularly the reading of the text at the beginning—to the most able children, who may want to turn to the next page or even the next book, and to those who are struggling with literacy and who may need more intensive support on a one-to-one basis?

Ms Morris

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. My experience of visiting primary schools in September was that children welcomed the literacy hour. Children like the sense of order, the pattern and the pace, and they know that they are improving. I take seriously my hon. Friend's points about our most able children and those who learn less quickly. He will be pleased to hear that the evidence demonstrates that all children, whether the most able or those with special needs, make progress under the national literacy strategy. That is good news for all children.

We shall reflect on further advice to make sure both that the hour is used to the best effect for more able children and that those with special educational needs are properly supported. The Government will base our proposals on evidence of what works and will return to the matter in the near future.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

The Minister will know that that is not the evidence of the recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which revealed that 80 per cent. of teachers questioned believed that the literacy hour was not helping pupils with special educational needs and that 60 per cent. thought that it was not helping especially gifted children. Do not the questions of the hon. Members for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) provide two examples of the rigidity and inflexibility of the hour, which does not properly take account of synthetic phonics teaching methods or the needs of gifted children and those with special educational needs?

Ms Morris

The hon. Gentleman must decide when he would prefer to believe. If he wants to believe the evidence of the ATL and teacher unions, let him do so, but I would sooner believe the evidence of Ofsted, NFER and independent research, which demonstrates that the literacy strategy works for all children. That is the bottom line. The policy is not about what teachers think; it is about which strategy the evidence demonstrates works with pupils. Pupils' reading standards are crucial.