HL Deb 22 February 1995 vol 561 cc1121-7

3.20 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark rose to call attention to the importance of pupil and student achievement in schools and further education, and to consider the role of parents, teachers and schools; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity this afternoon to celebrate the achievement of pupils and students. Such achievement must be at the heart of all educational policy. It is crucial to the welfare of every individual: to the goal of full employment through a better skilled and educated workforce; and it is crucial to the creation of a successful and competitive economy.

Achievement is the benchmark against which all educational policy should be judged: whether the issue is of how much to pay teachers, how to deploy resources, or what should be the content of the curriculum, the first question to be asked should always be, "How will it help pupil achievement?" The revised Parent's Charter published last year made the absolute commitment to parents: You have a right to expect the school to do its best to make sure every child does as well as he or she possibly can". It is against that commitment and that benchmark that the reforms of the past decade must be judged, and on that judgment they passed with flying colours.

Although, of course, the time-scales in education are long —a child may spend a minimum of 10 or 11 years in the system and perhaps as many as 17 years, so results do not appear within days or months—nevertheless we can today celebrate how much progress in the achievement of pupils and students has been made in the past decade.

When I first entered the teaching profession in the 1950s, I asked to be sent to one of the most deprived areas of the West Midlands, to a secondary school in what we then called the slums of Wolverhampton. I asked to teach there because I wanted to help to raise the aspirations and achievements of the young girls who lived there. I believed then, as I believe now, that educational achievement is the most valuable gift for the individual as well as for a society at large. It is for that reason that I want to pay tribute today to all those parents, teachers, schools, further education colleges and, above all, the young people themselves who have contributed to the surge in educational achievement of the past 10 years beyond even my wildest hopes and dreams.

I am not much given to looking backwards, but lest we hear today any notes of nostalgia for some imagined golden age of the past creeping in, perhaps we need to remind ourselves of where we were at the beginning of the 1980s against where we have come to today. To do so, I have looked back to the HMI reports of the late 1970s and early 1980s based on surveys involving thousands of visits to primary and secondary schools.

The system at the beginning of the 1980s was designed to create failure. Less than half of our pupils remained in the educational system after the compulsory leaving age. Only one-in-eight moved on to higher education. Three-quarters—76 per cent.—of young people left school with no marketable record of examination achievement to show for 10 or more years of their lives. That was not the fault of individual teachers. It is too easy to blame them for a system which was failing and not, on the whole, the professional people working within it. Low expectations were built into the systems and low expectations led, inevitably, to low achievements.

Primary education throughout the 1960s and 1970s saw teachers confused by the dogmas of progressive education: teachers who had been confident in class teaching methods were made to feel incompetent and insecure in the new orthodoxy. New teachers emerged from training which gave them more knowledge of educational theory than of the subjects that they were to teach. They had inadequate skills in teaching reading and arithmetic and little knowledge of science, mathematics or technology on which a modern economy depends.

Of course, many primary schools happily continued ignorant of, or ignoring, the new orthodoxy. They were staffed by skilled and intelligent teachers, with motivated children and good home-school links. They were heartening places to visit as HMI. But a sizeable minority became places of uncontrolled and wild confusion with demoralised, sometimes frantic, teachers and with very little learning taking place. The orthodoxy of child-centred education assumed that a model developed by a handful of brilliant teachers, with talent and time to make it work, could be generalised throughout the 300,000 or so other teachers in the country.

In retrospect, that form of primary education was a disastrous marriage of the politically correct with the educationally misty-eyed, unable to see beyond the social engineering ambitions of that political orthodoxy. Experts told us, unforgivably, that, "Teachers are in truth social workers". So the one true key to social engineering, which is the raised expectations and achievement of pupils, was lost in that ideology. Low expectation was introduced as a gift and "What can you expect?" was the theme of so many schools, especially in our inner-city areas.

At secondary level the system at the beginning of the last decade had become critical. Although the top 15 per cent. or so were still receiving adequate education, the system was disastrously failing not only the "bottom 40 per cent." but also the middle band who left school underskilled, under-educated, under-qualified and often with a low sense of their own worth.

The secondary school curriculum was left to the individual choices of schools, with very little help from local education authorities (as the DES survey of their policies for the curriculum in the late 1970s revealed). It was also a major cause for concern. Individual children were leaving school with no broad span of basic skills. Indeed, HMI found that the wider the choice on offer the narrower, often, was the individual experience. While heads would boast of 35 choices available at O-level, they failed to note that pupils could, and did, make their five-subject choice at GCE within one narrow area. One example was a boy who had chosen sociology, politics, social science, social history and European studies: effectively, he was studying one subject area from the age of 13.

Teachers in secondary schools who came through the B.Ed route had, even more disastrously than their primary colleagues, no specialist subject which they could teach. The "woman on the Clapham Tube" might assume that teachers were experts in the subjects that they taught. But the politically correct orthodoxy was, "we teach children not subjects"—a grammatical error, if I may say so. So the B.Ed degree of the 1970s put "Education Studies" as the main subject of study, rather than what the teacher was to teach. The curriculum was therefore, in its turn, necessarily distorted to match the teachers' lack of expertise; and the downward spiral began.

I remember talking to one boy who said to me as his visiting HMI, "I don't do subjects, only the bright ones do subjects, I do `studies'."—and so he did: environmental studies, social studies, European studies and so on. That was his total curriculum, while his brighter contemporaries were taught by the subject graduates and enjoyed a richer curriculum of physics, chemistry, history, modern languages, and so on, for subjects.

The examination system at the time was the single most divisive factor, designed to reward only one kind of academic achievement. It ensured that the majority of children failed rather than achieved. From the age of 13 (and, in some secondary schools, even earlier) children were divided into the "GCE" group, the "CSE" group or the "non-examination" group. That long shadow of certain failure stretched down to the 11 and 12 year-olds in the non-examination group. No wonder so many opted out emotionally and often physically from the early stages of their secondary schooling. Within this failing system what was the role of parents? All too often they were kept outside the school gate. Their experience and knowledge of their children was not used and their co-operation and joint partnership in the education of the future generation was an opportunity lost. Parents were frequently told nothing of the school's examination results or the values which it considered important. Little information was given to them on which to make the decisions critical to their children's future.

The schools themselves—those "living cells of the body educational" on whose robust health the life and wealth of the nation so depend—where were they? They had little control over their own destiny. The freedom they were given to determine the curriculum—a misplaced freedom which many resented—was not matched by freedom in choices about expenditure, resources and staffing. New teachers were "sent by the authority". Their allocation of money was rigidly determined and their ability to win resources was dependent on "being nice to the LEA inspectors and advisers". This is exactly the opposite position to that which we now have and which ensures maximum efficiency; that is to say, partnership and consensus with the community on what should be taught and professional judgment about how best to deliver it.

From this low base of increasing national concern it is encouraging to see how far we have come today. Of course problems still remain and the performance of individual schools and individual pupils is only recently beginning to respond to the reforms which have been put in train. There may be many years yet before all our children are able to achieve to their full potential. Nevertheless, so much has been accomplished.

The curriculum from infant stage through to school leaving age has at last been agreed in a clear and simplified form, and every child's entitlement to a broad and balanced education enshrined in legislation. After some traumas in its early introduction, the national curriculum is now having a clearly discernible effect on improved provision, as we see from the chief inspector's report of last year. Although there is still much to be done to ensure that the basic skills are embedded in the curriculum, and that children who still have reading difficulties as they move to the top of the primary school are given help, nevertheless there is every evidence that this far-reaching reform is having the desired effect.

A common system of examinations at 16 has, at a stroke, recognised the wide range of talents—academic, creative and practical—in our young people. Together with the national vocational qualifications it has given every pupil the opportunity to achieve, and to have evidence of that achievement, to take into employment or further study. The long shadow of failure which hung over pupils in the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced by the brightness of expected achievement. The dramatic change in the staying on rate at school and beyond is evidence of the strength of that expectation. From the 42 per cent. only who stayed on beyond 16 at the beginning of the previous decade, now 73 per cent. remain in full-time education and one-in-three, not one-in-eight, goes on to higher education. This balance of vocational and practical achievement alongside academic achievement has been a theme of much of the recent reforms, bringing us at last into line with some of our major international competitors and shaking off some of the inbred elitism and implicit academic snobbery of the previous system. No modern economy can survive without the practical and applied skills of its people.

The government initiatives of technical and vocational education, the highly developed system of national vocational qualifications, the expansion of further education and, above all, the measurable progress towards national education and training targets have succeeded in changing long-held attitudes. The vocational work of our further education colleges and the practical and applied work of our schools are now becoming the princesses of the system. Alongside the traditional academic qualifications, the national vocational qualifications and the general national vocational qualification—the vocational A-level —are increasingly seen as an attractive and positive option for our young people. They must be. Without achievement in vocational skills we cannot hope to match the success of the giants of the international global economy.

The national targets, accepted and maintained by government and implemented by the training and enterprise councils working with their educational and industrial partners, are a visible measure of the progressive achievement of our young people and of the educational institutions that help them. If we are to achieve the national targets—that four-fifths at least of our young people should reach the level of five good GCSEs, or their vocational equivalent, by the end of the decade and that in the same time span over half will be brought up to the level of two A-levels, or its equivalent—then the colleges and schools must continue to increase the achievement levels of pupils and students. In the past five years remarkable progress has been made towards those targets, as I shall shortly describe.

Within the framework of our educational system parents are now in their rightful place with direct access to the schools, and especially in the grant-maintained schools, with a direct say in the government of the school (though, quite rightly, not in its management). All parents now have a wide range of information available to them about the performance of the school and, through the Parent's Charter, a means of asking questions and registering concern where they believe things are not going well. It is my personal hope that schools will increasingly feel confident enough to bring parents into the setting of targets for pupil achievement to ensure that parents' views are taken into account when the school determines its level of expectations for its pupils.

Teachers are now able to move into their rightful professional role. They have the necessary avenues to achieve consensus and partnership with parents and with society at large about the aims of their teaching, and the targets for pupil achievement are now clear and explicit. The training of teachers has been revolutionised in the past 10 years. Since 1984, when the then Secretary of State, our much missed noble friend Lord Joseph, first announced new criteria for the training of teachers, together with new arrangements for the inspection and approval of all courses which train teachers, a steady upward path has been consistently reported, and it is good to see this continuing in the most recent chief inspector of Ofsted's report. The knowledge base of teachers in the subject they teach has been much strengthened, and more practical training is given school-based. More still needs to be done to help create the specialist teachers needed for primary pupils, particularly in their later years. But the increasing partnership between higher education and schools in the training is now further developed with the initiation of the teacher training agency. These reforms have ensured that educational theories are being rooted in practical educational experience. The professionalism of teachers has been recognised in their enhanced responsibility for the induction and training of new members of their profession.

We may perhaps hear from some speakers today of low morale of teachers, of shortage of money and of teacher redundancies. I am unimpressed by those arguments. The teachers I meet are as professional, as committed, and as delighted by the true rewards of their job as any generation of teachers in the 40 years since I first entered the profession. The progress of the past few years, the sheer productivity of pupil and student achievement, could not have been accomplished by a demotivated or underfunded profession.

Schools, too, are now in control of decision-making about their own resources, and about the employment and development of their teaching staff, thanks to the devolved budgeting policies of recent years. Grant-maintained schools, and to a lesser extent local authority schools also through the local management of schools initiative, now have a real and welcome opportunity to decide how best to provide for their pupils, to put their resources where they see their own priorities, rather than having them dictated from outside. As one who previously ran an institution delivered from the shackles of local authority control, I cannot speak too strongly in praise of government policies which have released first the polytechnics, then the further education colleges and now the grant-maintained schools, to be in control of their own destiny in this way.

Overall, the reforms have been comprehensive and far-reaching. They are: a national curriculum; regular testing of pupils and publication of their results; regular inspection and reporting on every school; greater autonomy through devolved budgets for all schools; opportunities for self-government for schools; direct parental involvement in the governance of schools; tighter control over the training of teachers; wide recognition of the importance of technical and vocational education and a system of vocational qualifications developed in partnership with employers, and targets nationally recognised for the achievement expected of young people in both academic and vocational qualifications to achieve a workforce skilled for the coming century.

As we know, there are still many problems to be tackled. But now, through regular inspection of individual schools, these are being exposed and addressed. Failing schools are identified and action taken to rescue the educational opportunities due to their pupils. The achievements of successful schools are published and good practice is widely disseminated.

I said that the criterion for the success of any educational reform should be its effect on the achievement of pupils and students. On that criterion the last decade of reforms passes the test. Let us look at the facts of pupil and student achievement.

In the past five years alone the number of young people achieving five GCSE passes at the highest levels or its vocational equivalent has risen from 47 per cent. in 1988 to 64 per cent. in 1994. The number achieving two A-levels or their vocational equivalent has risen from 26 per cent. in 1988 to over 39 per cent. in 1994. That is indeed a remarkable achievement. Similarly, in the two years since the publication of performance tables for schools and further education colleges performance in one-quarter of our secondary schools has risen overall by 10 per cent. and in some individual schools by even larger percentages. The inner city Fartown High School in Huddersfield increased the number of its pupils achieving five GCSEs from only 15 per cent. to 32 per cent. in a single year. That is success in the only terms that matter.

Our children are sometimes described as the arrows we shoot into the future. How important it is that the aim of those of us who bend the bow and place the arrow should be straight and true as we launch those precious arrows into a future which is still largely unforeseeable but in which they will have to live, work and thrive. We owe it to them to have patience, to take the political infighting out of their education and to allow the reforms which have been put in train, with wide consensus, to embed themselves and bear fruit. I beg to move for Papers.