HL Deb 12 February 1998 vol 585 cc1259-63

3.13 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are their views on the latest annual report just published by Ofsted.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the annual report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in England confirms that there have been improvements in standards of teaching and learning. Schools and teachers are to be congratulated on that. It also confirms that there is still much work to be done before we achieve our aim of creating a world-class education system in which every child has an equal opportunity of success.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he not agree that the congratulations that he has made to the teaching profession ought also to go to the inspectorate for their part in improving standards and congratulations also for the clarity with which they identify areas in which further improvement can be made. In this connection, would the Minister agree that an area of vital importance is that of initial teacher training? May I refer him, in the hope that he may share it, to the concern expressed by the chief inspector on page 61 of that report with reference to a sample 25 per cent. of teacher training institutions which were inspected and which had, some areas where the quality is clearly less than satisfactory", with student teachers showing "serious weaknesses" in the very skills that, had been judged at least adequate by the providers"?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, first, I fully endorse the words of the noble Lord in relation to the teaching profession and, indeed, the work of the inspectorate. Teachers have often received a lot of stick from politicians and I think where improvements are seen this House should record them and pass on congratulations to the teaching profession.

As regards teacher training, we are concerned at the inspectorate's findings. We have already identified that there are problems in that area and we have taken steps to improve teacher training. We have introduced new standards for initial teacher training and we are in the process of introducing a national curriculum, starting with the vital basics of English and mathematics at primary level. That will be extended next to science and information and communications technology at both primary and secondary level and English and mathematics at secondary level. The Teacher Training Agency is currently consulting on those ambitions.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the best training in the world cannot turn people into good teachers unless they themselves have a high quality of education and a great deal of skill and affinity with the job that they are doing? Will he tell the House what the Government are doing to improve the recruitment of the really top students in sixth forms to attract them towards teaching?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Teacher Training Agency is engaged in a new process of recruitment. We hope that that will begin to bring dividends. We do indeed need to attract the best teachers into the teaching profession and to keep them there. That is a question both of recruitment and sustaining the morale of teachers throughout their careers.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does my noble friend share the concern expressed in the report about the schools' understanding of their role in teacher training, particularly in secondary schools? Does he agree with the chief inspector's view that: School-based subject mentors have become key figures in the training process"? Does that not raise the problem of who trains the trainers? In those circumstances, in view of the chief inspector's comments, is that not a matter which should be looked at urgently?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I broadly agree with my noble friend that clearly in-school and in-service training in general are vitally important aspects of the quality of the teaching profession. Because we have moved more towards a mentor system, that raises a question of whether the quality of mentoring in schools is in all cases at the level that it should be. The Teacher Training Agency will certainly be concentrating on that particular aspect.

Lord Tope

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Ofsted is charged with assessing the attainments of pupils? That being so, will he explain why its annual report contains no statistical data whatever on the attainment of pupils in schools which have been inspected?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the annual report of HMCI is directed at the quality of teaching and the quality of education. There are substantial reports on the attainment of pupils in league tables and elsewhere, which are published in other government publications. The report is concerned with the totality of educational quality.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that I, and many other noble Lords on this side of the Chamber, very much welcome some of the new systems which have been introduced into education? However, in relation to the teaching profession, does my noble friend agree, first, that professional salaries attract professional people? In that regard, are the Government looking very carefully at the salaries which are paid to teachers?

Secondly, does my noble friend the Minister also agree that it is completely unacceptable that, in primary schools in particular, only 18 per cent. of teachers are men? What are the Government doing to increase that proportion? I believe that that is essential if our children, especially boys, are to be taught and brought up in a way that will enable them to be better behaved than has been the experience in the past.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the question of teachers' pay has recently been a matter for the Pay Review Body and the Government have made their position clear in that respect, at least in the short term. In relation to the gender balance of teachers, clearly some concern has been expressed about the number of men going into primary teaching at present. However, that does not in any way undermine the quality and effectiveness of many women teachers in primary schools, upon whom the main burden of the initial years of education has tended to fall. Therefore, I am not sure that I would agree with my noble friend that discipline and attainment in schools necessarily depend on the gender balance.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, in relation to the problem of the recruitment of teachers, especially in an inner-city area like Islington, does the Minister agree that, even if a local authority wished and was able to pay extra salaries, it is constrained by the fact that its education budget is not matching inflation; and, indeed, it is having to make cuts in its education budget? One of the difficulties in such an area is that teachers are expected to compete for housing with people earning £1 million bonuses in the City and perhaps paying the same top rate of tax. In the light of all those difficulties, can the Minister give us an assurance of greater real increases for education spending in the future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in recent months the Government have allocated a total of another £1 billion to education for the immediate period and another £1 billion over the next few years in relation to much-needed capital expenditure in education. So we have made a serious start on putting additional resources into education. In particular, the capital budget will be geared at those inner-city schools to which the noble Baroness referred.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, given that Ofsted is paying particular attention to the three "Rs"—as, indeed, is the department's own consultative document Targets for Our Future—can the Minister endorse what Mr. Woodhead has to say today in The Times assuring us that this concentration upon core skills will in no way mean that the six or seven other subjects of the National Curriculum will be downgraded or, still less, marginalised?

Lord Whitty

Certainly, my Lords, the position on the primary curriculum is clear: we wish to ensure that basic time within the primary curriculum is allocated to literacy and numeracy. However, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced on 13th January, more time will be devoted to those subjects, but there will also be plenty of time to cover the other subjects which are within the National Curriculum and covered by primary schools. Therefore, some of the alarmist reports—for example, that music will be squeezed out of primary schools—will not he the consequence of that emphasis.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a simple equation that if more time is devoted to some subjects then, unless the school day is lengthened, less time will be devoted to others? There is a very real concern about art and music in particular in schools. If the national curriculum has been disapplied, the Government cannot ensure that those subjects will in fact be covered in every school.

I believe the whole House—and, indeed, anyone with an interest in education—should be grateful to Chris Woodhead for the clarity of his reports. Ever since he took office he has produced very open and honest reports on how he finds things in education. Does the Minister also agree that the introduction of regular assessment and testing of young people, the better record keeping of the progress of young people, the much improved and regular inspections which are carried out by Ofsted, and the better and increased information that is now available to parents and the wider public first, allow the Government, to know what is going on in the educational system; and, secondly, provide information which allows the Government to identify and address weaknesses and build on strengths within the system?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in broad terms I am happy to agree with the noble Baroness in relation to the quality of the reports that we are receiving. However, in terms of measures of attainment, some of them need further refinement before schools can be realistically assessed on what are sometimes still relatively crude figures. Nevertheless, great improvements have been made in that field and I am happy to acknowledge that fact.

As regards the first part of the noble Baroness's question, clearly, mathematically, if more time is spent on core subjects then slightly less time is spent on other parts of the curriculum. However, it is the intention of the department and the Government to ensure that all those subjects are still covered effectively at primary level so that a broad-based and creative education is achieved, as well as ensuring improvements through concentration on the core subjects of numeracy and literacy.