HL Deb 05 February 1998 vol 585 cc739-42

3.9 p.m.

Lord Annan asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will ensure that children under the age of 11 continue to have a properly broad-based education.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, all primary schools will be required to give priority to literacy and numeracy within a balanced and broadly based curriculum. They will continue to teach all 10 national curriculum subjects and religious education. Contrary to some press reports, no school will be allowed to abandon any subject. However, schools will have more opportunity to offer tasters in other subjects—for example, modern foreign languages—if they wish.

Lord Annan

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I should like to ask two questions. First, does the noble Baroness accept that it is just as important for children at the age of 11 to understand the significance of 1066, 1588, 1802 and 1940 as it is for them to know the nine times table? Secondly, I know of a primary school in south London, which is an extremely good school, but after three years in that school a form will have reached only the eight times table. I recognise that the eight times table is an exacting table—indeed, a Minister of the Crown recently showed that he had not yet absolutely mastered it—but surely we ought to be able to make more progress than that. Does the Minister agree that a well tried way of getting the tables learnt is for the teacher to stand in front of the form and to drill the children through the tables until they can gabble them by heart and then begin to dodge them?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I believe that it was the seven times table that tripped up my honourable friend. I hope that no Member of your Lordships' House will try to test me! In response to the noble Lord's point about the teaching of history, it is important that there should be a broad and balanced curriculum. Although not wanting to become involved in a debate about the specific dates to which the noble Lord referred, I agree that it is vital that all primary school-children have access to teaching about our history. With regard to numeracy and the teaching of the tables, there are a variety of approaches which teachers might want to adopt when deciding how best to teach numeracy, but this Government are determined that our targets for both numeracy and literacy at 11 will be met. It is for those reasons that we are making some changes; we are loosening and providing greater flexibility in the primary school curriculum to allow that.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is still serious under-achievement in both reading and mathematics in many primary schools, and that some pupils go on to secondary school unable to read, while in some primary schools pupils are over five years behind the pupils at other schools in mathematics and three years behind in reading? What is being done to improve those essential skills of numeracy and reading, without which one cannot understand any other subject?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, as I intimated just now, the Government have set tough targets for all primary schools to achieve with regard to the scores that children at the age of 11 obtain in both literacy and numeracy. It is extremely important that children do not go on to secondary school without having reached the scores that they should, otherwise they are in danger of falling behind. The Government have also decided to make it clear to all primary schools that the amount of time that they allocate to both literacy and numeracy should be increased. It is because the curriculum was somewhat over-burdened in terms of the number of national curriculum subjects with prescribed programmes that the decision was made to lift the prescribed programmes in the six foundation subjects.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that children with special educational needs also need access to a broadly based curriculum, more especially in the light of the debate in this House on 3rd February and MENCAP's innovative work with children with profound and multiple disabilities? Is not their claim one of the highest priority?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords. My noble friend will be aware that the Government have published a Green Paper concerning children with special educational needs, on which we are consulting. We are looking, and hoping, for a debate on how to improve opportunities for children with disabilities, whether slight or more profound. Every child should be given the opportunity to reach his or her potential.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister accept

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree—

Noble Lords


Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister accept the enormous importance of equipping teachers to teach in methods that we regard as traditional and simple but which from the 1660s became regarded as old-fashioned—

Noble Lords


Lord Elton

My Lords, I am not sure which table I have fallen foul of! I refer to the enormous importance of equipping teachers to teach children. Merely addressing teachers who are already teaching will not suffice. We need a professional teaching body. Urgent attention must be paid to this matter in the teacher training colleges so that teachers are taught how to teach in such methods before they begin their careers.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am not sure what the curriculum was like prior to 1660, but it is extremely important that all teachers are adequately trained. That is why in the Teaching and Higher Education Bill that is now before the House we are introducing new arrangements for the induction of teachers when they arrive in school. The first year can be vital in terms of the qualities that teachers can later reveal in their classroom performance. We are also looking at ways of improving the quality of teacher training. Again, that Bill contains provisions to ensure that Ofsted is able to inspect all teacher training courses, including those in universities.

Lord Tope

My Lords, does the Minister agree that not only is a broadly based curriculum important in itself, but it is also essential in providing a proper framework for the promotion of literacy and numeracy? Is the Minister aware that the initial relief felt by teachers at the fact that the Government had at last recognised that the national curriculum was over-burdened has now been replaced by confusion about exactly what they are going to do? Can the Minister tell us when guidance will be issued to teachers on how they are to achieve the objectives of both giving priority to literacy and numeracy and providing a broadly based curriculum?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, teachers are aware that they are required to continue to teach the six foundation subjects as well as the core subjects of English, Maths, Science and IT. However, the Qualification and Curriculum Agency is currently working on new guidance to inform teachers, and to reassure them, about exactly what breadth in the curriculum should mean.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the extreme anxiety among musicians about the effect that the reduction in the time given to music in schools will have? There have been letters in The Times, particularly from Sir Simon Rattle, about the poor quality of music that will result if children are no longer required to be taught music in primary school as a serious part of the national curriculum. Can the Minister reassure the public in general that special steps will be taken to improve the quality of music in primary schools?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am of course aware of the anxieties as I have been lobbied as somebody with a long-standing interest in the teaching of music and of other arts subjects in both primary and secondary schools. The Government have no intention of seeing music knocked out of the primary school curriculum. On the contrary, we very much value the excellent work of many teachers in providing music tuition. Sir Simon Rattle has been invited to join a new government committee which will consider innovation and creativity in young people and how to develop it in our schools.