HL Deb 06 February 1997 vol 577 cc1766-8

3.23 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the degree of improvement in school performance noted in the latest Ofsted report.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment Lord Henley

My Lords, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools' report shows that the quality of teaching is satisfactory or better in the majority of schools. It also shows a fall in the number of unsatisfactory or poor lessons from 18 per cent. last year to 16 per cent. this year. These improvements are encouraging, but HMCI's report shows that there is still some way to go. The Government's education reforms are central to improving standards in our schools.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and for being less than euphoric about the improvements detected by the inspectorate, which in all conscience are modest. Does not the position remain serious and grave in respect of literacy, numeracy and above all, according to the report, information technology? Does the Minister agree therefore that in the face of vociferous, if sadly predictable, opposition and criticism levelled against the chief inspector, he is right and deserves our strongest support in forthrightly addressing the inadequacies in our system and the continuing weaknesses in leadership and teaching, since only thus will we be able to concentrate minds on pursuing improvements? Further, will he agree that, in recognising the vital importance of excellence in head teachers, we should recognise equally the need for excellence in the production of young teachers so that the heads will have a pool of good resources from which to recruit? Therefore, can the Minister assure the House that efforts to revise and rigorously reform teacher training are pursued?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, has asked a number of quite different questions. In no way do I wish to sound complacent, but I believe that it is excellent news that the proportion of badly taught lessons has fallen, albeit slightly from 18 per cent. to 16 per cent. I suspect that if the fall had been much bigger some would have doubted whether it was genuine. I also accept that the figure is still far too high. For that reason over the years we have introduced a range of different measures to ensure that schools improve their standards. That is why we will continue with our reforms. Therefore I am sure that the noble Lord will welcome the Education Bill that comes before the House for its Second Reading on Monday. I also agree with the noble Lord on the importance of adequately trained and qualified teachers. We seek a national curriculum for initial teacher training and we believe that to get that right is one of the most important tasks that face us. I echo the praise of the noble Lord for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, Mr. Woodhead, who I think does an excellent job in getting into schools and seeing what is going wrong, but also in pointing out just how much is going very well.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, while everyone welcomes the improvements and gives great credit to those who have achieved them, there are still problems? Current research shows that there are massive differences between schools of a similar type. The Ofsted report itself shows the need for a substantial improvement in one in 10 secondary schools and between one in six and one in 12 primary schools. Therefore, the priority must be to ensure that all schools achieve the highest possible standards for their pupils.

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I and the report have made clear, many schools do a wonderful job. The report also makes it quite clear that resources are not the major factor in determining the success of schools. Therefore the bleats from certain people within the profession that the whole of education is under-resourced are palpably untrue. I ask that all of those schools and LEAs that have been identified as performing badly should look to the success of those that are performing well and possibly take a leaf out of their book.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, now that Ofsted has given us admittedly accurate figures for the number of incompetent teachers and head teachers, can we expect to see in the next report figures for the number of incompetent inspectors? My experience of the last inspection of the excellent state school which my own children attended was that teachers lacked confidence in the competence of the inspectors. That was a matter which caused me extreme worry. Is the Minister confident that all of those who currently carry out school inspections for Ofsted have the qualifications that they need?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have every confidence in the ability of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector and those whom he appoints in Ofsted. I believe that the criticisms of inspectors by the noble Lord are quite unjustified. I stress that the contents of the report are a matter for Her Majesty's Chief Inspector, not for Ministers, he being independent of the department.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that some time ago the Labour Party proposed that there should be a new head teacher qualification to improve leadership and management skills of new heads, and that a new register of qualified heads to enable school governors to appoint the best person for the job should be established? Will the Government now formally welcome and wholly support that very useful proposal?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I might consider doing so if the noble Lord would welcome the Education Bill, which will be coming before this House and which will be taking forward the Government's reforms which have done so much to improve education in so many parts of the country. Sadly, as he well knows, it is not true in all parts of the country. He might be interested in some statistics which I acquired recently from Islington where, I understand, some 43 per cent. of parents in Islington do not make use of the secondary schools in that area but, like Mr. Blair, send their children to schools in other boroughs.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in sections 87 and 88 of the report the inspector says that one quarter of schools are still providing personal and social education which is unsatisfactory, and that one eighth do not have a sex education policy as they are required to do by statute? Is he satisfied with that situation?

Lord Henley

My Lords, as I made clear with regard to the generality—the same is true of the particular—we are obviously pleased that the proportion of badly taught lessons is falling, but it is still too high, as the other failings which the noble Lord pointed out are still too high. We hope that when these matters are pointed out to schools they will seek to address them.

Lord Annan

My Lords, will the Minister accept that for 30 years I have been urging in this House that teachers of mathematics and science should have a differential in their emoluments, because those subjects will never be taught correctly until we have courses to help teachers learn new methods of teaching those difficult subjects?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a valid point. There are some shortages of teachers of science and mathematics, although I do not believe that they are as serious as the noble Lord seems to imply. In the end it must be a matter for the LEAs, and the schools themselves where they are responsible for their budgets, to address those matters to ensure that the appropriate people are recruited. Pay is not the only matter. Obviously the status of the profession is important in attracting the appropriate people.