HL Deb 30 October 1990 vol 522 cc1769-70

Baroness David asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the statement by the Secretary of State for Education and Science of 6th September 1990, what is their assessment of reading standards among seven year-olds at present in this country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the Government announced in July a programme of action to obtain information about reading standards nationally. The Government commissioned the School Examinations and Assessment Council to survey existing evidence on reading standards held by local education authorities and invited Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools to focus on the teaching of reading in their inspections of primary schools in the autumn of 1990. It would not be useful to anticipate the outcome of that programme of work.

Baroness David

My Lords, I am glad that the Secretary of State is doing something positive. However, will the Government dissociate themselves from the report Sponsored Reading Failure by Martin Taylor which has been so strongly condemned in the TES by Professor Cox, Chairman of the National Curriculum Working Group, who described it as: a farrago of wild emotional outbursts, confused arguments and extravagant rhetoric"? Is the Minister aware what harm unsupported allegations against teachers such as appear in that report could do to teacher morale?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Turner report revealed to the nation, and in particular to parents, the fact that we do not have that important data. The introduction of the national curriculum and a system of testing and assessment will remove the reasons for such speculative reports since we shall know what is going on in our schools.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that since Professor Cox was chairman of a so-called working group which recommended the elimination of the study of grammar and spelling from the teaching of English, his views on reading are not to be taken all that seriously?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall not be drawn into making personal comments either about Mr. Turner or about Professor Cox. I can say that concern has been highlighted about the standards of reading in our schools. The more objective the survey and the sooner we all know the standards of reading that are being achieved in our schools, the better. As I said, when the new system is in place, we shall know very much more and that system will not give rise to this type of speculation.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Minister has admitted that there is a great deal of public anxiety about reading standards in schools. In the light of that, and of the new commitment to monitor standards, can the Minister say why the Government abandoned the Assessment of Performance Unit and its work in 1988 and in doing so gave up monitoring national reading standards?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, we are not in a position to say that there is anxiety about standards until we know what those standards are. There is considerable anxiety that we do not know what those standards are. Some people have an intuitive feeling that something is wrong and therefore we need the survey to tell us whether that is the case. The work of the Assessment of Performance Unit has been overtaken by and subsumed in the work of the School Examinations and Assessment Council. The expertise of the unit will not be lost in the work of the new council.

Lord Peston

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that her right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said, first, that he does not know whether teaching standards have fallen; and, secondly, (at col. 1397 of Commons Hansard of 18th October 1990) that if they have fallen it is the result of: certain teaching methods introduced by socialist educational practices and philosophies"? Will the Minister ask her right honourable friend the Secretary of State whether he is aware that the Conservatives have been in power since 1979—which is 11 years—and that every child in school between the ages of 5 and 16 has been educated under the auspices of a Conservative Government? If there has been a fall in standards I should have thought that that was the fault of the other side.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, there is undoubtedly a very strong feeling that some teaching methods leave a great deal to be desired as regards the teaching of reading to our children. We shall only know the true position regarding the achievements in reading in our schools when we have the results of the survey. It is essential that the objective testing should evaluate methods of teaching. The Government have always taken the view that it should be professionals who determine methods. When we know whether or not those methods are effective, that will be the time to modify teaching methods.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, if the Government wish to encourage higher reading standards among pupils in school and to encourage children to read more, why have the Government presided over a major reduction in spending on school libraries?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I do not accept that we have presided over a major reduction in spending on school libraries.

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