HC Deb 20 May 2003 vol 405 cc847-60 12.31 pm
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

(Urgent Question): Will the Secretary of State make a statement about the changes to the primary school tests and targets that he has announced this morning?

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I have published a document today, "Excellence and Enjoyment—A Strategy for Primary Schools", that sets out the Government's approach to primary education, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. It outlines an approach that joins high standards through a varied, rich and exciting curriculum with high standards of excellence and achievement through testing, targeting and tables.

We support the testing regime that we have established. We believe that tests mean that teachers and parents can track the progress of every single child. They help to identify those pupils who need extra support, as well as those who need to be stretched. Targets show what we need to achieve, and provide clear focus and an important means of measuring progress and improvement. Every organisation that wishes to succeed sets itself goals and targets, and we confirm that approach in our document. We believe it important to maintain the regime of performance tables, which gives information to parents in a way that enables them to use the information and make choices about schools.

Following our conferences of primary head teachers, we have taken a number of the sensible suggestions made by them to modify the application of some of these principles. Four points in particular should be noted. First, in future the target-setting process will begin with schools themselves for key stage 2, and local education authority targets will be set afterwards. Schools will set targets based on what they know about individual children's abilities, but also on high aspirations for the value that the schools themselves can add. We want schools to aim to add more value each year, and to look at the performance of other schools in similar circumstances.

Secondly, I have listened to concerns about testing and key stage 1. I believe that robust assessment is a vital learning and teaching tool, and that most teachers support that strongly. I do not accept that the sort of tests and tasks that children are set at key stage 1 are too stressful for them to do, but we will look at the way in which the tests and tasks are used, and we will trial an approach in which tests and tasks underpin teacher assessment, rather than being reported separately.

Thirdly, I have listened to concerns about the reporting of the achievements of children with special educational needs. We will consult to establish precisely how we should consider modification of our approach to deal with those needs. Finally, we are prepared to consider ways in which schools' broader achievements than those measured purely through the tests can be better reflected in the performance tables.

As well as outlining the changes that I have mentioned, the document that I have published today sets out how we will support schools in taking more control of their own improvement, and in providing children with a broad, rich curriculum, which we will support. I commend our statement to the House.

Mr. Green

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which enables this House to do its proper work of scrutiny.

The Secretary of State launched this morning what he calls a new primary schools strategy. I welcome this tacit admission that the Government's previous complacency about standards in primary schools has been completely misplaced. Just as his Department has caused uncertainty and demoralisation in secondary schools and among university students, so it has signally failed even to meet its own targets on primary school standards. Does he accept that the strategy does nothing to deal with the key issues affecting schools at the moment? Will he admit that it will have no impact on the school funding crisis that his Department has created, and will be of no comfort to head teachers faced with budget cuts? It is significant that, as he introduces the strategy for primary schools, thousands of the assistants whom he must rely on to implement it face redundancy because of the funding crisis. If he talks, as he did this morning, about more skilled adults in the classroom, what does he say to teachers and teaching assistants facing redundancy?

A signal of the Secretary of State's problems—indeed, it is always a symbol of a Secretary of State in trouble—is the fact that in his tour of the media this morning he consistently tried to misrepresent our policies. He has been saying, on the basis of my speech to the National Union of Teachers—I know he has read it because he keeps quoting from it—that we would abolish the tests. He knows that we are committed to testing—but not to the arbitrary targets that he insists on setting schools. I know that he would not wish to mislead the House, even though he wishes to mislead the media, so perhaps he will take the opportunity to set the record straight. The shift in his position on testing and the use of targets is breathtaking. Only last month, he told the conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers: The tests are here to stay, and so are the targets". Today, he is changing the testing regime and abandoning one of his own targets. Is he genuinely moving towards abolishing the destructive regime of national target setting that has caused so many problems in schools? If so, I welcome his first tentative step towards our policies. However, given the problems that the targets created for his predecessor, I can understand why he would want to abandon them. If he is genuinely interested in scrapping these national targets, will he now confirm that he will abandon all of them—for secondary schools, colleges, and the 50 per cent. university admissions target—because they have had such a destructive effect on our education system?

I suspect, however, that today's announcement is merely a convenient way for the Government to shift responsibility for their own failures. Will the Secretary of State admit that his Department has failed to meet the targets that it set for literacy and numeracy among 11-year-olds, meaning that every fourth child leaves primary school unable to read, write or count properly? Will he also admit that his use this morning of the language of autonomy for schools is merely a hollow vehicle for shifting the blame, as his Department has admitted that it will fail to hit those targets? There will be no extra autonomy for schools that have already set local targets because the national target will still exist—it will just be deferred to 2006, conveniently after the next general election.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the real problems for schools lie in his Department's addiction to a regime of central command and control that sends teachers up to 20 pages of paperwork every school day, instructing them how to do their job? When he said this morning that primary education should be magical, did he not realise that that would be greeted with hollow laughter in hard-pressed staffrooms throughout the country?

This is not a new strategy. It is a smokescreen designed to hide the central fact that the Government are failing in primary schools, just as they are failing in secondary schools and our universities. With every week that passes, it becomes clearer that the Secretary of State is presiding over a Department in disarray, letting down hard-working teachers as well as pupils and parents. Unless and until the Government stop interfering and start trusting professionals while giving parents real choice, his policies will continue to fail. Will he reverse those policies, because if he does not the failures of the present will be repeated in future and he will let down further generations of schoolchildren, teachers and parents?

Mr. Clarke

Let us start with the facts—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear them, but, compared with 1998, about 84,000 more 11-year-olds are achieving the expected level for their age in maths, and about 60,000 more in English. The percentage of schools achieving below 65 per cent. in English and maths has been halved since 1998. The percentage of schools achieving 80 per cent. or more in English and maths has more than doubled since 1998. The lowest achieving local education authority is now performing at about the level of the average LEA of five years ago. The international test—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study test—demonstrates that England's primary school pupils are the third most able readers in the world, behind Sweden and the Netherlands, and that England is the most successful English-speaking country in literacy among 10-year-olds. We have a record to be proud of, which is why we will maintain the tests and targeting regime that we have established, as they have achieved so much.

Why? Because we know that, despite the advantages, more than one in four pupils are still leaving primary schools without achieving the expected level in English and maths. That is not good enough and it must improve. We also know from the different levels of free school meal provision, that there is a massive range of achievement—not just between suburbs and inner cities—at SATs level 4 at key stage 2.

We need a test regime and a targeting regime. That is the main contrast with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who told his new friends in the National Union of Teachers that he was announcing—I quote his words, as he wanted me to do so—"a bonfire of targets". He went on to say that he wanted to scrap the targets. Both the key stage 2 targets would be abolished and the key stage 3 targets would go, too. He said that he would get rid of the target for English and maths for 12-year-olds and GCSE targets. That amounts to a clear set of policies to abandon children who are not achieving, whereas it is our aim to help and support them in every possible way.

Why? Simply because 70 per cent. of pupils who achieved level 4 at key stage 2 went on to get five or more good GCSEs, and of those pupils who did not reach level 4 in 1997, only 12 per cent. achieved five good GCSEs. That reveals a serious failure, which, under the previous Conservative Government, led to 7 million to 8 million adults in this country being unable to read and write at the essential levels that we need. We are not going to repeat that, and I hope that the House will decide not to go down the path recommended by the hon. Member for Ashford.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

The Secretary of State knows that I do not often rush to be the first to praise him for the documents that he produces, but this morning's discussion paper "Excellence and Enjoyment" is very good. In view of the inheritance bequeathed to the Labour Government in 1997—with appalling levels of achievement in literacy, numeracy and GCSEs—many of us understand why a strict regime of testing and targets was necessary. We have now reached a time for softening the approach, as demanded by schools, teachers and parents. Speaking personally, rather than as Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, I welcome the softening of the approach and the manner in which the Secretary of State has listened to so many of the articulate voices in the education sector.

Mr. Clarke

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's remarks and I pay tribute to the way in which he, unlike some Conservative Members, has studied the issues and come to a clear view of them. It is critically important to maintain a national regime of tests, targets and tables. However, it is also critically important to implement them in a way that gives possession of the system to teachers and governing bodies in primary schools throughout the country. That is what our proposals are all about and that is what I believe they will achieve.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting the urgent question today. It is appalling that, on such a significant issue for the entire primary sector, an urgent question is necessary before we can bring the Secretary of State before the House to respond.

Liberal Democrat Members are constantly fed up of hearing successive Secretaries of State say that their targeting and testing regime is responsible for improving the quality of education in our schools. It is the work of our teachers, not the Secretary of State's targets, that has achieved that. If the Secretary of State spoke to teachers—including those in the National Union of Teachers, which he boycotted last Easter—they would tell him that the one thing that prevents them from raising standards even higher in our schools is his regime of narrow targets and testing.

Having said all that, we welcome the partial U-turn that the Secretary of State has made today. In lifting the pressure of tests on seven-year-olds, he has gone some way towards meeting our requirements. Does he agree that the key issue for parents—not for the Secretary of State—is the progress of their children? What they want is testing that is geared towards their children, to determine their needs. By retaining the element of central testing, the Secretary of State will remove opportunities for schools to achieve what parents want. How does he reconcile allowing schools to set their own targets for literacy and numeracy at key stage 2, while retaining a national target for other stages? That is contradictory. Does he accept that we have seen progress in science, at key stage 2—for which no targets have ever been set—rocket forward faster than either literacy or numeracy?

We also welcome the Secretary of State's comments about special educational needs. The tragedy is not the inclusion of children with SEN in the league tables, but the damage that is done to individual children with SEN and their learning. Regimenting those children into a target and test regime often does enormous damage to their learning opportunities, arid I hope that the Secretary of State will address that.

Mr. Clarke

If the hon. Gentleman did listen to teachers in primary schools, he would hear them say that the numeracy and literacy strategy has been a tremendous success that they welcome and applaud. That is why we have today announced the extension of that approach to subjects other than mathematics and English. The hon. Gentleman would also hear teachers say that despite initial reservations about the operation of Ofsted, it has positively improved the provision of good quality schools throughout the country and has dealt with problems where they have occurred.

We have listened to teachers on these proposals. On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raises, I completely agree that testing has to be geared to the needs of every individual child, but parents want to have some sense that their children at the age of 11—the end of key stage 2—are achieving certain basic national standards in maths, English and science. We need a national testing regime to ensure that parents know what the situation is.

The statement contains important news about our targeting approach. We believe that targets will be more effective if they are owned, controlled and determined by schools locally, and then aggregated. However, we would be failing in our responsibility as a Government if we did not seek to set national targets to raise the quality of English and maths at all levels throughout the school system. That is important, and it is genuinely extraordinary that some of the Opposition parties do not identify with such targets.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned special educational needs. We will consider that issue to meet precisely the point that he made. We need to ensure that the regime considers the specific needs of every child with special needs, and I believe that we can do that very effectively.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. The big improvement in primary education is a result of the extra resources that the Government have put in and the professionalism of primary school teachers and head teachers. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in implementing the changes that he has proposed today the Government will have a lighter touch on regulation and perhaps show more faith in the professionalism of teachers in primary schools, with less need for the rigid regime that, to some extent, has begun to reduce some of the flair they can show?

Mr. Clarke

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he requests. I am the first to say that the people who make the changes happen are the teachers and the teaching profession, but others support them. For example, they are supported by classroom assistants; by the provision of more teachers, as has happened; by the production of good quality material, such as the numeracy and literacy strategy, which we will now extend to other areas; and by the provision of good quality data about students that enables teachers to focus specifically on the needs of each student. Each of those initiatives requires support, so while I pay tribute to the teaching profession, and the individual professionalism of teachers, I also confirm that we will continue to support that professionalism in a variety of ways, rather than casting teachers on the waves and telling them to get on with it.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Secretary of State will forgive all of us for considering that he has created an impression of a certain degree of incoherence and panic. Last week's debate on school funding proved to many of us that the funding provided by his Department, and not by LEAs, was seriously lacking. Today, the right hon. Gentleman has been dragged here to make this statement, which shows that the Government's policies have failed. Will he explain why teachers, teaching assistants and school governors should believe that his current policy this week will be in place in two or three months? What credibility does his policy have with teachers?

Mr. Clarke

The process that has led to the publication of this document is precisely the opposite of that described by the hon. Gentleman. As with our documents on secondary education and education in London, we identified some months ago what we needed to do with this document. We identified that we needed to set out a clear strategy for our approach, to consult the professionals—which is why we consulted more than 2,000 primary school head teachers—to listen to what those professionals told us and to see whether we could improve our policy. The final step was to publish the document for public debate.

That is precisely what we have done. The policy will not be changed according to any time scale of the sort that the hon. Gentleman might suggest. It is in fact a tribute to our approach that we have published the document after considerable discussion and debate, and after paying considerable attention to the key issues that need to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman would do better to give the Department credit for that, instead of trying to score a cheap and inaccurate point.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend explain how the new strategy will help three primary schools in my constituency, where 95 per cent. of the children enter without being able to speak a word of English, and without having heard much English? Key stage 1 is therefore a very difficult exam for them, and the staff, to cope with. It does not really reflect the value added gained by staff and children in the period that it covers.

Mr. Clarke

I very much respect my hon. Friend's commitment to fighting for the schools in question. She and I have discussed these matters on other occasions. The proposal made today will meet her concern precisely, as it will ensure that it will be teachers' rounded assessments of children entering school, such as those to whom she referred, that will form the report to parents and the public as to what has been achieved. That report will take into account the national SATs at key stage 1, but no more than that. The result will not be that two different scores are published side by side, as it were: one account will be produced by the teacher, and it will take account of the problem described by my hon. Friend. I believe that it will help teachers in her constituency properly to look after the needs of the children whom she has described in a coherent and comprehensive way.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The column on page 7 of the document entitled "Realising the Vision" states: Schools need stable and predictable funding arrangements. Primary schools in my very rural constituency created stability this year by cutting their budgets to keep teachers and classroom assistants. Next year, however, the situation will be very unpredictable, and schools do not know whether they will be able to retain staff. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Lady must not have been in the House last Thursday, when this matter was discussed at some length in an Opposition Supply day debate. I am sorry that she was unable to participate in that debate. I agree with her to the extent that it is right that there needs to be certainty about funding next year, 2004–05. I set out last Thursday a clear set of ways in which that will be achieved. However, I must say that the uncertainty caused by Opposition talk of 20 per cent. cuts in education is extremely destabilising for schools in the hon. Lady's constituency.

Colin Burgon (Elmet)

Having spoken to several primary school head teachers this morning, may I pass on to my right hon. Friend their congratulations—[Laughter.] This comes from the chalk face, and it is true. May I pass on those teachers' congratulations that my right hon. Friend has listened to teachers on this matter? Does he agree that the changes at key stage 1 are not causing a decline in standards, as teacher assessment is increasingly accurate because teachers constantly review the effectiveness of their work? Is not the change a real vote of confidence in teachers, allowing them to improve standards in a broader and wider curriculum?

Mr. Clarke

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. I believe that the experience of primary teachers in his constituency will be widely shared, including by their colleagues in the constituencies of Opposition Members. However, I want to reinforce a key point made by my hon. Friend. One reason why we felt able to take the steps on key stage 1 that we have taken is the increasing evidence that teacher assessment at key stage 1 is close to the SATs assessment. We can therefore have confidence in the professionalism of teachers to make the assessment in that way, as long as it is underpinned by the national SATs results. My hon. Friend is right to say that the change is a sign of our confidence in teachers. It is precisely because of that confidence that we can make the announcements that we have made today.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent statement by Britain's leading performance musicians that the current regime of testing, tables and targets is driving subjects such as music out of the curriculum, with very damaging long-term consequences? The same is true of sport. How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to rebalance the primary sector's priorities?

Mr. Clarke

I am aware of the reported remarks of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. I am having a meeting with those people later today for an in-person discussion about those matters, but the document is specifically about encouraging and improving the quality of the curriculum in primary education in respect of music, sport, the arts and modern foreign languages. All those subjects need more Government support in terms of materials for teachers, and a greater focus through existing work force agreements. We are therefore trying to meet the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, and the document is major step forward in that respect.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement? I have seen in my constituency that the testing regime has driven up standards, but it must also be right to review the regime with the benefit of hindsight to see how we can make it operate better in terms of meeting our targets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is right that we send a message to teachers that we treat and view them as professionals, setting clear targets is a very important way for parents, as well as the Secretary of State, to hold teachers and head teachers to account?

Mr. Clarke

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I am grateful for his comments. That is why I find so disgraceful the suggestion made in some quarters that targets should be abandoned. Data from free school meal provision show very wide variations at each level in the number of children reaching SATs 4 at key stage 2. If we could only achieve the position where children in the bottom half of achievement got up to the level of median attainment at each of those levels, we would be well past the 85 per cent. target that we have set nationally. Our target is to improve all primary schools so that they can maximise their performance. This document commits us to that target. The Opposition are totally uncommitted to improving our schools.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Good schools, such as Summerfield primary school in my constituency, manage to provide a breadth of curriculum despite testing, targets and tables, as I found when I attended that school's May day celebrations. Why is the Minister for School Standards—who so ably but ill advisedly erected this edifice in a previous life—distancing himself from the Secretary of State by skulking out of shot at the far end of the Treasury Bench?

Mr. Clarke

I am glad to say that all my colleagues are very proud to be in shot. We may not have generally commendable physiques, but we are very proud of what we achieve. I know that in the Isle of Wight the idea that the Conservative party is the party of the poor has already taken root. In that context, I am delighted that, as part of the new ideological shift, the hon. Gentleman was present at the May day celebrations to deal with the situation. However, I hope that he will agree that, in any school in his constituency, there must be room for improvement and for getting more children to read and write properly at the age of 11. He ought to be committing himself to that goal, as the Government are doing.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is showing extra confidence in the professionalism of teachers. However, will he say a little more about the importance of our strategy on tests and targets, especially in schools in poorer areas? An example of that is Northcourt primary school in my constituency, which, although it is the most improved school in Kent, is threatened with closure by the Conservative-controlled county council.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a critical point; the people who most gain from our testing and targeting regime are children in the poorest communities and from the poorest backgrounds. Our obligation is to drive standards up for them, even more than for everybody else. In the past, the Conservatives have not bothered about those people. That is their privilege. However, we, as a party, are going to focus on ensuring that the poorest people get the best opportunities.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Has the Secretary of State consulted his colleague in Northern Ireland, where there is not quite the same scrutiny on education? I welcome his comments on statementing, as we often seem to fail in that regard. Does he agree that in areas of need there may be a role for after-school homework clubs to help children? Experienced adults could help them at home or in the community rather than in the classroom.

Mr. Clarke

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is a great deal in the document about extended schools, including after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, weekend and holiday activities and so on, for exactly the reason indicated by the hon. Gentleman. The more we can ensure that children in some of the worst-off communities have opportunities for engaging and learning, the better will be their prospects in the future.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Following this change of policy by the Secretary of State, will he reconsider another decision, namely his extraordinary refusal to see a cross-party delegation of MPs from Leicestershire to discuss primary schools in the county and their funding? Better still, will he visit primary schools in Leicestershire, especially Cosby primary school and John Wycliffe primary school, as both schools, according to a report in the Leicester Mercury, are apparently having to make two teachers redundant? Perhaps he will listen to the primary school head teachers who are having to make cuts and the 24 teachers who face the axe. Perhaps then he will be able to tell the House how he has been listening to teachers.

Mr. Clarke

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to be in the Chamber last Thursday for the debate called by the Conservatives on that matter. Had he been present, he would have heard us discuss that question in great detail. Many Members raised constituency questions on the issue. We set out a clear strategy to deal with the precise issues that he mentioned.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that, in considering more flexibility, more self-regulation and more local self-targeting, we continue to be aware that we introduced targeting because so many of our children did not meet the aspirations that we wanted for them as they go through our school system? Many Members may have the wherewithal and the confidence to be happy with their own evaluation of their child's progress, but many parents throughout the country do not have that confidence. They rely on the state and the schools for testing and targeting to ensure that their children get a decent education.

Mr. Clarke

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's comments. She is correct in every respect and I can give her the assurance she seeks.

What I find so depressing about the position of the Conservatives is that they have abandoned ambition and aspiration for children throughout the whole country, especially for poorer children. We do not do that; we say that everybody can achieve and that investment needs to go in at the primary point. The Government have an obligation to do what we can to help teachers and to strengthen their professionalism. These proposals are intended to achieve just that.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Secretary of State agree that his earlier statement about the need for a broad, rich curriculum and his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on music and sport are an admission that, after six years of a Labour Government, those aspects have been squeezed out of primary schools—otherwise there would have been no need to take this line? Will he confirm that 75 per cent. of our primary school children are not receiving even the minimum of two hours physical education a week, with the result that our youngsters are less fit than ever and obesity is rising to record levels?

Mr. Clarke

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's figures, although I know that his obsession with Colchester United—the reason for which escapes me— can sometimes blind him to the general situation. However, I make the serious acknowledgement that we need to do far more about sport in schools, far more about music in schools, far more about art in schools and far more about modern foreign languages in schools. That is precisely what the document is trying to achieve.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

I commend the excellent work being undertaken in Preston primary schools, especially at Moor Nook community primary school, which has seen huge improvements as a result of the Government's policies. Will my right hon. Friend comment further on the improvements in schools where there are difficult socio-economic backgrounds?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I recently visited Preston to see some of the achievements there and the way in which creative projects, like the playing for success project with Preston North End football club, can help teachers with their professionalism in precisely the aspects that he describes.

The choice is clear. There is our position, which is saying that we trust teachers, have confidence in them and want to support them, and that we want to set aspirations and do what we can to help; or there is the Opposition's position who say, "We don't care about ambition. We don't care about aspiration. We are not going to help and we are not going to move things forward." I prefer the Government's position for my hon. Friend's constituents.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

The Secretary of State will be aware from the recent National Audit Office report that 23 per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly, compared to only 7 per cent. in Sweden. He will also be aware that in Switzerland, where synthetic phonics are used to teach reading, children learn to read in two terms, compared to between two and three years in this country. His document refers to strengthening phonics, but how does he intend to tackle the problems highlighted by Ofsted, that at key stage 1 teachers still do not give enough emphasis to the application of phonics and that there has not been enough improvement in the teaching of phonics in Years 3 and 4"? How does the Secretary of State intend practically to tackle those criticisms from Ofsted?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman raises entirely legitimate points. I have met delegations from those who are concerned about synthetic phonics, to see how we could move things forward. The Department has held a number of discussions involving various academic experts in the field to consider how we could improve the programme. Our commitment is to ensure that the literacy and numeracy strategies are based on the best international knowledge and I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman's points are legitimate parts of that discussion. I am not going to commit myself here and now to any change of approach on those matters, but only to ensuring that we listen to the best possible evidence before deciding precisely what to do.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the outer estates of Nottingham, North are among some of the toughest educational environments in the United Kingdom, and that the combination of effective testing and clear literacy and numeracy programmes, allied to some heroic local head teachers and primary teachers, has raised standards immeasurably in that area? While bringing flexibility to testing, will my right hon. Friend none the less ensure that that clear framework is maintained so that, as he said earlier, the poorest children—those from the most educationally deprived backgrounds—can continue to aspire and to attain?

Mr. Clarke

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to his personal work in ensuring that such issues are raised; for example, sure start has made a major difference in his constituency. That type of address—the focus on raising standards, improving the quality of schools, bettering the condition of people going to school and providing proper support—will make a difference. The difference between us and the Conservatives is that we focus on that—they do not.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Why is the document not called "Nothing New Under the Sun"? The executive summary states that in future the target-setting process will begin with schools setting their own targets for each child". Is that not precisely what good teachers and good schools have been doing for decades? Why has it taken the Secretary of State six years to catch up with a profession that he clearly does not trust?

Mr. Clarke

The reason that the document is called "Excellence and Enjoyment" is that the whole primary education system should be about promoting those qualities. In many cases it is, but we have to spread that and take it forward, as the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge.

As for nothing new under the sun, when I hear the posturing of Opposition Front-Bench Members, I can only agree.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the inquiry that the Public Administration Committee has been undertaking into government by targetry? Although we have not yet reported, the evidence that has come before the Committee overwhelmingly suggests, first, that targets are important and should be retained by the Government; and, secondly, that they should be more flexible and that more of them should be set locally. I thus commend the approach that my right hon. Friend has announced today.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's expert opinion. The key question is exactly as he suggests: how do we ensure that targets are owned and possessed by those who have to carry them through? The principal reason for the changes that we have announced today is to try to promote that. We have received evidence—we have listened to primary heads—that the current regime does not give enough weight to the views and opinions of those actually in schools in setting targets as they have to do. I hope that the system that we are putting in place will meet the ambitions set out by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I am very grateful to the House for opportunity to consider this urgent question because it is still not clear whether the Secretary of State has moved the goalposts, as it is unlikely that the Government will achieve the targets, or whether he is simply unable to deal with his job, like his predecessor.

Mr. Clarke

The simple answer is that we have not moved the goalposts in any respect whatsoever. The national target that we have established for each of the years 2004, 2005 and 2006 is 85 per cent. We have said that very clearly all the way through. That remains our target, and it is what we seek to achieve and we will continue to press it. Again, I can say only that it contrasts starkly with the policy of the Conservative party, which wants no ambition or aspiration.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Of the 150 local education authorities in the United Kingdom, right at the very bottom of the league table for funding per primary school pupil is the county of Leicestershire. Can the Secretary of State explain how, with the new framework announced today, we can deliver premiership performance on third division funding? Does he accept that the devolved Administrations probably had it right in sticking with the key stage 2 measurements but abandoning the pernicious and counterproductive publication of league tables, which does nothing for schools in poorly funded authorities such as my own?

Mr. Clarke

I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. As I have tried to set out in my answers earlier today, it is important to have a test regime and a targeting regime, and it is also important to publish the data, so that parents can understand exactly what the situation is.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

When the right hon. Gentleman was appointed as Secretary of State, he said that Norfolk primary schools could look forward to a bright future—we are all very encouraged by that—but is he aware that Norfolk may well lose up to 90 teachers, with primary schools bearing the brunt, including Reffley, Fairstead and St. Edmunds county primary schools in my constituency? I was here last Thursday; I listened to the debate very carefully, and the right hon. Gentleman could not give Norfolk any real guarantee that there would be a way out of this funding crisis. Can he tell us today whether there is any real hope for Norfolk in this funding crisis?

Mr. Clarke

I give the hon. Gentleman credit for being present during that debate, which was called by the Opposition, and, moreover, for participating in it and putting the points that he makes now. Unfortunately, I am not able to add to what I said last Thursday, but what I announced then will lead to a better situation for schools throughout the country.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that the reduction in primary school tests and targets urgently needs to be replicated in a reduction in the unprecedented paperwork burden on teachers, can the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House what his quantitative target for that reduction is and, if there is no such target, why on earth not?

Mr. Clarke

We have a whole series of proposals in this area, where a great deal of measures have been taken. The quantitative material sent out to schools by my Department has been very substantially reduced in the past two years, as the data will show. I do not have the quantitative figures to hand, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with them.