HL Deb 11 May 1993 vol 545 cc1205-16

4.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I have already confirmed the Government's commitment to this summer's tests for 7 and 14 year-olds. There is abundant evidence of the importance of testing the progress of our children. Our main competitor countries do so as a matter of course. So should we.

"It would be a betrayal of a further generation of pupils to postpone what is acknowledged on all sides to be a much needed educational reform. It would be to set aside the tremendous efforts made by the great majority of hard-working teachers to implement the National Curriculum since 1989. Tests for 7 year-olds are in their third year. We know that they work. Tests in 1991 and 1992 have improved standards of teaching and learning. Last year's pilot tests for 14 year-olds were well-received: attendance went up on test days. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector said only yesterday that the evidence provided by a good testing system was essential in order to assess the progress of our schools.

"Children have been working towards the tests for several years. Abandoning the tests would leave conscientious teachers, concerned parents and the wider community in the dark about our schools, depriving them of vital information about the attainments of individual pupils and denying Sir Ron Dearing information about the quality of the tests themselves which he himself has asked for.

"I turn now to the testing arrangements in 1994. Sir Ron Dearing has been given the widest possible remit. His task is to advise on how the curriculum and assessment framework in the round can be simplified and streamlined in response to the concerns of many teachers.

"I have discussed with Sir Ron the implications for 1994. He has advised me that the tests next year should focus on the basics. I agree. The Government have therefore decided that mandatory tests for 1994 for 7 and 14 year-olds should concentrate on the core subjects of English, mathematics and science and on Welsh as a first language in Wales. We shall decide later whether to add technology at age 14 in the light of this summer's tests.

"The testing arrangements in these subjects will he streamlined, with some substantial changes to coverage and style. I have asked Sir Ron to advise by July on how this can best be done, including what the balance should be between tests and teachers' own assessments.

"Sir Ron will, at my request, consider carefully the merits of external marking of the tests of 11 and 14 year-olds.

"The current obligation on teachers of 7 year-olds to make assessments of classroom work in technology, history and geography will be lifted in 1994 and will not be introduced in music, art and P.E., allowing these teachers to concentrate on the basics.

"Next year's tests for 11 year-olds in English, mathematics and science will take the form of a national pilot, leading to mandatory tests in 1995.

"The introduction of mandatory tests for 14 year-olds in history and geography which had been planned for 1994 will be postponed pending Sir Ron Dearing's review.

"Finally, to ensure that Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations about changes to the curriculum itself can be rapidly implemented, the Government propose to suspend for a period the consultation procedures specified in Sections 20 and 21 of the Education Reform Act. We shall move an appropriate amendment to the current Education Bill. This will preserve during the interim the duty on me and the Secretary of State for Wales to consult about changes, but will be designed to enable us to proceed to make changes after a single stage of consultation in cases, like this, where the need for change is widely recognised and the changes themselves are the product of extensive prior debate. These decisions will significantly reduce the work load on teachers in 1994.

"It is in the interests of properly taught children, informed parents, employers and the nation as a whole for the testing arrangements I have described today to go ahead without interruption. If not, we will have an education system without adequate rigour, and will have conceded a decade's advantage to our international competitors".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I am sure that the entire House is grateful to the Minister, particularly after such a late night, for repeating the Statement here this afternoon.

What an upheaval! Another 11th hour conversion, all too characteristic, I fear, of the indecisiveness and dithering of the present Administration. Over and over again, we are confronted by intransigent, insensitive, blinkered government, plodding relentlessly ahead until, at the 11th hour-plus, with maximum damage done, the Government do an inelegant U-turn, usually involving a kick for touch, a delay till next year, with Sir Ron Dearing wheeled into the firing line on their behalf.

In this House we have to face the fact that the crisis is right now; it is an immediate crisis. It is now, in May 1993, that there is a total lack of public confidence about what is happening in our schools. It is a sad emblem of this Administration that they are not only incompetent but have had the obstinacy to carry on for so long with a completely moribund system. Perhaps the noble Baroness opposite will care to comment later on the reasons that the Government have been so determined to carry on with a system which parents, teachers, the Government's own advisers and even some politicians from Conservative ranks have so roundly condemned.

It is typical of the modern management of the party opposite that they have considered that continuing with a system which is universally unpopular is a sign of strength. Does the noble Baroness really believe that a glossy advertising campaign could have sold such a rotten product? Such an attitude has been patronising to parents and teachers alike. It has also wasted still more of the money which the country's education system so desperately needs.

Support for the Government's education policies is at an all-time low. Parents have already clearly made their choice—a choice to disagree with the Government's educational policies. Sixty-two per cent. of the public said in a Gallup poll last weekend that they sympathise with the teachers' boycott of this year's tests; only 50 per cent. of the public were in favour of testing at the ages of 7, 11 and 14. A large majority is against testing at the age of 7. A poll in the Independent newspaper found that 52 per cent. of parents were in favour of abandoning the tests this year, not next year.

What choice do parents have, if the Government are still determined to grind on this year with testing, in opposition to the clearly expressed wishes so frequently put forward by the parents themselves?

What will the Government do to parents if they withdraw their children this year from tests with which they profoundly disagree? Does the noble Baroness really come to this House agreeing with her colleague Mr. Clarke, who contemptuously put down the opposition of parents to tests to teacher agitation? Does the noble Baroness really believe that parents are not intelligent and caring enough to know what is bad and good for their own children?

We on these Benches trust parents; no one is opposed to testing and assessment per se, but the tests for this year are high on administration and low on education value. That is why parents do not have confidence in them.

Why, if there are to be changes next year because present arrangements are seen to be untenable, must children this year be subjected to a continuing disaster? Where is the justice in that? What about the damage to the children this year?

We must, of course, welcome the Government's long overdue decision to concentrate, from next year at least, on core subjects and to recognise the case for greater flexibility. But can the Minister tell the House more specifically about the future of English testing and of published league tables, about whose inadequacies the public has convincingly registered its anxieties?

Meanwhile, will the Minister also explain to the House why the Government have refused even to consider the Scottish assessment system in which teachers and parents appear to have more confidence? We on these Benches believe that the Scottish system could well have been used, at least until the review is completed.

We are determined that the children of this country should get the education they deserve. Our children are not guinea-pigs; they are in the firing line of any dispute between this Government and teachers. They are the ones who suffer most and, by implication, so does the country's future. It is surely a sorry pass when the Prime Minister has to persuade the Secretary of State for Education to take action. Does the noble Baroness not agree that those in charge of education for the Government should take responsibility for the problems which they have created and not push the problems on to the Prime Minister and a Cabinet committee?

Of course, we are glad that the Government are acting at last. We hope that the review of the curriculum and of testing generally will be thorough, independent and that it will take into account the views of teachers and parents. However, it is far from reassuring that the Government have decided to cut out even the existing consultation procedures, and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify exactly what that entails.

For the future, we are convinced that the membership of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority must include a majority of those responsible for educating children rather than ideological placemen. As we argued last night, the authority must be ratified not by the Secretary of State for Education but by the all-party Select Committee on Education in the other House.

The way forward in education is through creating consensus. The crisis of confidence is because it has been made a partisan totem pole around which Right wing ideologues have frenziedly danced. We hope that the noble Baroness and her colleagues in the other place will, above all, now learn to listen. Insensitive arrogance has, I fear, so far been their hallmark—arrogance, which stems from anything but strong government.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in thanking the Minister for so clearly repeating the Statement, particularly after her late night last night. Indeed, she may have to endure other late nights later this week.

The Statement says that there is abundant evidence about the importance of testing the progress of our children. There is abundant evidence of concern about the tests this year, 1993, which the Statement does nothing to allay. In support of the success of last year's pilot test, comment was made that attendance went up on test days. If that is the extent of the evidence of support, it is poor evidence. I am appalled—I have to use strong language—that the Government propose, in order to go ahead with their programme, to suspend the consultation period provided by the Education Reform Act enacted only in 1988. To override consultation, or even to be thought to override consultation, can do no more than confirm the despair of teachers, parents and indeed pupils.

I mentioned parents. The confidence that parents in this country have in the teachers who are teaching their children has become abundantly clear over the past few days. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the recent opinion polls and other reports of the support of parents. I do not believe that as a body parents by and large are against testing. I believe that they would like to see the programme work but not the programme as it is now. In fact, I suspect that they find it quite difficult to follow the current rows that are going on. It is an indicator of their confidence in the teachers of their children that they believe the expressions of concern voiced by those teachers and are prepared to say so.

I believe that parents would like to see a good and appropriate system. It is a tragedy that the Government have messed that up. The Government do not even seem to recognise the need to stop digging the hole that they are in or even to feel the pain when they shoot themselves in the foot.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, first of all I thank the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for responding so fully to the Statement at very short notice.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, started by referring to another eleventh hour conversion. I ought to make clear at this point that what was announced today was confirmation of the testing arrangements for 1993. But quite rightly, while there is a review pending, it is important to turn our sights on arrangements for 1994. It would be wrong further to delay those arrangements. September will be the start of the 1993-94 academic year and it is important that the framework for 1994 is made known to the schools in particular, the teachers and the parents. That is the reason that we have come forward today with those arrangements. I welcome what the noble Lord had to say about the 1994 proposals—namely, that children shall be tested on the basic subjects and that there will be some suspension of the other subjects that were planned to come on stream in 1994.

As for the 1993 tests, which the noble Lord believes should not take place, where children have been studying for three years now for those tests it is important that they should sit them. The children have worked hard for three years. Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and his colleagues did not make such comments last year. However, there was some very successful piloting last year of the science and mathematics tests. Indeed a very high percentage of schools took part in that pilot test. There were concerns but they were addressed and the information gained from that very large-scale pilot test informed this year's science test. We believe that the tests will continue to improve as we work with teachers to make sure that their concerns are met. The tests were received well and it is absolutely true to say that there was a record attendance of 14 year-olds in the days when those tests took place.

We responded and have continued to respond to suggestions for improvements. We listened and continue to listen to teachers and to respond to their concerns. We responded, for example, to the very first year tests for seven year-olds. They were better in the second year and even better in the third year. We extended the period over which the testing takes place and it is now possible to test seven year-olds from the middle of the spring term to one month before the end of the summer term, thereby making it much more manageable for schools and teachers. We also know that many of the tests for seven year-olds are now well under way in a large number of schools. The tests are not entirely completed, but there are some schools that are very close to completing them.

It is also important to keep the whole debate in perspective. We know that teachers have been concerned and we have already responded to some of them. We will continue to respond to those concerns —hence the Sir Ron Dearing review. But those concerns do not amount to a reason for pupils not taking the test. I have to say to the noble Lord and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that when those tests have been taken this year we shall be showing those test papers to the world. Many parents who have been led to believe that somehow the tests are harming their children, when they see the test papers will wonder what all the fuss was about.

I was asked specifically about the future for testing English. I am not sure at what the noble Lord's question is aimed. English is a cornerstone subject in the national curriculum and it is absolutely fundamental that it should be tested rigorously. But the nature of the testing is part of the review. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, along with the rest of us, must await the outcome of that review.

The noble Lord also asked about the future of league tables. My department does not produce league tables. We produce information about the results of tests of children in our schools. We believe that that is important information for the child, the parent, the teacher, the school and the area in which the school is located. It also happens to be very important for us as a nation to know how well our children are achieving.

We can no longer stand by and wring our hands over our competitor nations doing better than we do —France, Germany, America or Japan doing better —if we are not even able to know how well our children are performing. We can only know when information is publicly available and measured against a national standard.

I understand the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She said that it was wrong to override consultation. I understand that she was referring to the possibility of suspending Sections 20 (and 21 as it pertains to Wales) in order to allow for speedier implementation of the reforms. I understand that. But it is important to remember that consultation is already under way with parents, teachers and all interested organisations.

I should like to put on record that Sir Ron Dearing has written to 1,400 schools inviting comments. He has met all the teacher unions and plans to meet them again. He has already held the first of a series of regional conferences with heads and teachers covering the full range of his remit. He has invited comments from every single school through The Times Educational Supplement. So there is a serious consultation process taking place.

I make an appeal for understanding to all noble Lords. When that consultation period stops—it can be as extensive as is necessary for Sir Ron Dearing to come to a view about his advice to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State —and my right honourable friend has properly considered that advice and decided on a way forward for the medium and long term, I believe that it is in the interests of children and teachers that it should be implemented as quickly as possible. We simply ask for the forbearance of the House. We must speed up the legal process that follows the process of consultation to enable us to effect those changes as speedily as possible so that we have a long-term framework of national curriculum and an effective system of assessment and testing.

5 p.m.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, I am utterly astounded at how insensitive and stupid the Government can be. They completely ignored last week's election results; they completely ignored the public opinion polls at the weekend; they completely ignore the fact that every teachers' union in the country, including that of the head teachers and the most moderate union of all, are opposed to the tests. They still push forward with them.

The tests will not take place. The Government want confrontation with the teachers and that is what they will get. I have been involved in teacher politics all my life. In persisting with this ludicrously complicated 14 year-old test this year the Government will cause a great deal of bad feeling which will persist in the education system for years to come. If they had an ounce of statesmanship in them, they would do this year what they propose to do next year and limit the tests to the basic subjects. If they did that, there is half a chance—I put it no higher—that the teachers would co-operate. I do not know, but it is worth trying.

Why do the Government push forward this crazy 14 year-old test system? They have taken leave of their senses. The seven year-old tests are cruel nonsense. At least one-third of children do not learn to read until they are seven. Also, I wonder whether noble Lords realise that half the children who take the so-called "seven year-old" tests are only six years of age. Yet they are solemnly tested and the results recorded and published. It is utter cruel nonsense and the results published are not worth the paper on which they are written. The tests are cruel to the children and to the parents. They give a completely misleading impression. I am shocked and disgusted by the Government.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I know that the noble Lord's experience in education is much more extensive than mine. But I wonder whether he has physically been in a school when the seven year-old tests have been carried out. What happens in practice when children are tested in reading is that one day they are heard to read by a teacher, but this is not called testing; another day, when they are sitting reading one to one with a teacher, it happens to be called testing.

In most cases, in the hands of a good teacher, the child hardly knows that testing is going on. Testing the reading of a child at seven is fundamental to the progress of that child. If one goes into many of our secondary schools, as I do, one often finds large remedial departments. When one inquires why some children are in the remedial department, one frequently finds that it is because they did not acquire and consolidate the basic skills early in their lives in primary and infant schools. It is therefore fundamental to their progress that they learn and that the effectiveness of that learning is properly tested.

The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, said that one-third of children do not learn to read until they are seven. That is precisely the rationale for introducing a national curriculum—so that we do not wait until they are seven before they learn to read; in fact, that they learn to read from the moment that they go into school and by the ages of six or seven they are making some progress—progress that matches their potential to learn.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that unlike other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the Statement? It is a positive response to public anxiety, and all of us who are interested in the important subject of education are aware of some of the difficulties that have been encountered.

I support standing by the testing arrangements this summer. I am glad to hear that we are going to look to 1994 for focusing on the basics, if I understood it correctly, of English, maths and science at 7 and 14. However, there is no doubt that we shall learn from the 14 year-old tests carried out this summer and they will be helpful in identifying the way forward.

It is worth remembering that when we introduced the Education Reform Act 1988—I will be corrected if I am wrong—many teachers did not want a simple test. They said it would be unfair. The Government therefore went into this much more complicated system of testing and assessment which now everybody complains is too complicated. There must be a way through all this and I am glad that Sir Ron Dearing is looking at it. I hope that he will find a way through.

If there is one positive success story that comes out of this, it is the seven year-old tests. It cannot be said too often that they have already raised standards—something for which we should all be grateful. The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, may laugh and say that they are "cruel nonsense", but I too have taught for primary school teachers. I have looked at the test papers to see their content. Nobody will say that they are perfect but they have raised standards. I do not believe for one moment that seven year-olds are hurt by them. On the contrary, there is a broad measure of support for the testing.

I know what the polls said at the weekend because I read the results. But the fact is that when one looks at our education system as a whole, the brightest children have always been tested. They take A-levels because that is a qualification for higher education. The children that have suffered are the average and less average children because they are not being tested. That is where we are failing them. It is no use continuing to complain without bringing forward something positive. The Statement is a good way forward. I accept that the tests need amendment and I am sure that my noble friend would agree with that. But when the consultation period is over, we should be able to look to what should happen in 1994 and beyond.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her welcome for the proposals. My noble friend makes the point well and it is true that evidence from this year's testing will be most helpful to Sir Ron Dearing in his work with teachers to effect and develop the tests in the future.

My noble friend is right when she refers to the importance of what is happening to seven year-olds. I wish to put on record that our infant and junior school teachers have risen magnificently to the challenge of the national curriculum. It has meant great changes for them. They have acted in an extremely sensitive way when testing seven year-old children. I have witnessed it at first hand.

But the most important point made by my noble friend, which I want to emphasise, is that it is as important to recognise and record progression for a child that starts at the bottom of the ability stream as it is for a child at the top of that stream. That is the rationale for both the national curriculum and for systematic assessment and testing.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, I speak with some reluctance because I do not like to disagree with the noble Baroness, to whom I have listened often with agreement. Today I am disappointed. The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, was a headmaster of a school in the North of England. He later became Secretary of State for Education and Science and through his life, like myself, he has kept in touch with the teaching profession.

In the 60 years that I have been linked with the teaching profession I have never known such overwhelming feeling from differing and rival unions. I believe it is unwise for Her Majesty's Government to say, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Shawcross, said in 1946, that Whitehall knows best. He was proved wrong then. I believe that the Government are making a profound mistake in not doing this year what they propose to do next year. The noble Minister said that it would reduce the work of teachers. Why not do it now? I realise that in politics face-saving is very important—I like to save my own face from time to time—but there is an undoubted movement in the country, of which the Government are obviously aware (otherwise we would not have had this Statement today), to the effect that the will of the people is to take the advice of the teaching profession and to say that on this matter teachers know best.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, that I hope I have not detracted from the great experience and expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara. I said at the outset that his expertise outmatched my everyday experience. This House and indeed the country have benefited enormously from his enormous experience in government.

The Government understand the widespread concern but cannot ignore Thursday and what teachers and parents are saying. I believe I have made the case that the Government have not ignored it. That is why the tests for seven year-olds are better this year than they were last year and were better last year than the year before. It is only by working with teachers in the classroom and listening to their concerns that we can respond.

The problem arose because of the enthusiasm and perhaps zealousness of the professionals in drawing up the subject orders. It was when the national curriculum started to come together that an unmanageable package was produced, particularly for primary schools. Sir Ron Dearing and his review team will be looking at manageability, the issue of overload —which we have admitted is particularly an issue for primary schools—and the formulation of a less complex assessment system. My noble friend Lady Young talked about trying to satisfy teachers who did not want straightforward tests that simply tested achievement but wanted diagnostic and summative testing all in one form, which led to a system that was too complex. We are looking at that too.

We have been asked why we do not change the system this year. We are only about four weeks from the tests that are to be sat. These children are being tested on a very small number of subjects. Many of the seven year-olds are more than half-way through their tests at the moment. We believe that primary school teachers will welcome the fact that we are to take a more fundamental look at the whole of the national curriculum and assessment and testing system. I do not believe that it will do the children any harm to sit the tests this year, but they will provide very important evidence for Sir Ron Dearing and his team to use in working with teachers to develop better and more effective tests next year and for years to come.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the Statement this afternoon has merely compounded the confusion that already exists and creates more chaos in the education system than has ever appertained before? Is she also aware that the examination system has now been reduced to farce and the education department is the laughing stock of the country, if not the world? Can we expect the Secretary of State for Education to resign?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I certainly take issue with what the noble Lord has just said. We have not yet heard a response from other people to the Statement today. The Statement has put two things before the House. The review that is taking place at the moment will look at the national curriculum and the assessment and testing system and take into account the concerns of teachers, head teachers, governors and parents. It is important for us to let the schools, teachers and parents know what we plan to do for 1994. Far from confusing people, we have said that we will strip away those subjects which were planned to come on stream next year and test only on those basic subjects. We will look at how in the interregnum we can simplify and streamline the testing in 1994. I believe that that makes the position clearer and there is much less confusion, which is the opposite of what the noble Lord has just said.

Lady Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, I too welcome the Statement, particularly the last part of it which speaks of the speedy implementation of decisions once finally made.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, has said that he admires the Scottish testing system. I also admire it. But I would draw to his attention the fact that my predecessor in office, the chairman of the education committee in Tayside (who is a member of the Labour administration in Tayside at the present time), has for some months been stirring up a boycott to try to prevent testing in Tayside, using very much the same language as the noble Lord has used. I sometimes wonder whether or not the Labour Party is in favour of testing as part of the education process.

Perhaps I may refer to a speedy conclusion of the results of the current consultation and the final arrangements to be implemented in schools. I hope that my noble friend can assure us that the procedure she has suggested will result in quick implementation. Children are only 7, 11 and 14 once and they desperately need these tests. Teachers need them and parents want them. It is extremely important that Parliament, through its enjoyment of intruding into the education system by way of political discussion, does not hold up the implementation of those tests.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may thank my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour for her welcome of this proposal. As to the point about speedy implementation, I can give her the assurance that, as pointed out to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the Government want to carry out a thorough exploration of this issue and then go for the speediest possible implementation in the interests of children and teachers. As to the Scottish system, because there is no national curriculum in Scotland, the testing system is basically different. I also make the comment made by my noble friend. I do not believe that noble Lords opposite support testing, and I know that they do not support public information and public accountability for that testing.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I have seldom seen so many red herrings swim past the Government Front Bench. In the first place, we must get absolutely clear that teachers are not against testing. They are as keen, enthusiastic and dedicated about testing as the Government profess to be. What they are against is the present form of testing. I remind your Lordships that the objections that have been voiced are two-fold: first, that the tests are fundamentally flawed, which is a matter of professional judgment, and, secondly, concern about bureaucracy and the time that is being taken up in the classroom itself. Last week, following the Government's humiliating defeat in the elections the first thing that the Prime Minister said, very properly, was that he would listen to people. By an overwhelming majority all of the unions, except for the NUT—and there is no question what the declaration of that union will be on Thursday—have expressed their view. If the Government will not listen to that, heaven help the education system. I end by putting a practical question to the Minister. Who will administer the tests this year? That matter has not been touched upon. If the Government do not get proper co-operation after a proper ballot, which they are obviously not getting, who on earth will do the testing this year?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, pre-1988 it is not possible to say that all children were tested in schools. For many children going through schools the first public testing they had—or the first testing against any kind of standard—was the GCSE at the age of 16, which for many children was much too late. The noble Lord mentioned the National Union of Teachers. It is worth recording prior to the result of the ballot, which I think is fairly predictable, that the National Union of Teachers is opposed to all national curriculum testing in all subjects at all levels for all children. I do not believe that is constructive in this debate.

The noble Lord's final question was about obligation. There is a statutory obligation on head teachers and governors to see that the tests are administered. We would expect them to make all reasonable efforts to see that the tests were administered.