HL Deb 20 May 2003 vol 648 cc694-703

3.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

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

"I have published a document today that sets out the Government's approach to primary education. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House. This is a document called Excellence and Enjoymenta Strategy for Primary Schools. It outlines an approach which joins high standards through a varied, rich and exciting curriculum with high standards of excellence and achievement through testing, targeting and tables.

"On testing, we support the testing regime that we have established. We believe that it ensures that teachers and parents can track the progress of every single child. It helps identify those pupils who need extra support as well as those who need to be stretched.

"Targets show what we need to achieve, provide clear focus and provide an important means of measuring progress and improvement. Every organisation that wishes to succeed sets itself goals and targets and again we confirm that approach in our document.

"Finally, on performance tables, we believe that it is important to maintain the regime of tables which gives information to parents in a way they can use to make choices about schools.

"Following our conference of primary head teachers, we have taken a number of the sensible suggestions made by primary heads to modify the application of some of these principles. I refer to four points in particular.

"First, in future the target setting process will begin with schools themselves at key stage 2 and local education authority targets will be set afterwards. Schools will set targets based on what they know about individual children's ability but also on high aspirations for the value they themselves as schools can add. We want schools to aim to add more value each year and to look at the performance of other schools in similar circumstances.

"Secondly, I have listened to concerns about testing at key stage 1. I believe that robust assessment is a vital learning and teaching tool and that most teachers support that strongly. I do not accept that the sort of tests and tasks that children are set at key stage 1 are too stressful for children to do, but we shall look at the ways these targets and tests are used and we shall trial an approach in which tests and tasks underpin teacher assessment rather than being reported separately.

"Thirdly, I have listened to concerns about the reporting of the achievement of children with special educational needs. We shall consult to establish

precisely how and in what way we shall consider modification of our approach to deal with those needs. "Finally, we are prepared to consider ways in which schools' broader achievements than those purely measured through the tests can be better reflected in performance tables.

"As well as outlining these changes which I have indicated, the document I published today also sets out how we shall support schools in taking more control of their own improvement and providing children with a broad and rich curriculum".

My Lords, I commend the Statement to the House.

3.13 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss the points raised by the Secretary of State for Education in another place. However, we have to draw attention to the fact that this Government, once again, have treated Parliament with contempt in that they continue to make important announcements of this nature through the media and at conferences rather than through Statements to both Houses in the conventional and appropriate manner. It was only pressure and a PNQ in another place which led them to tell Parliament anything.

Today the Secretary of State, Charles Clarke, in a speech at the Institution of Civil Engineers, launched Excellence and Enjoymenta Strategy for Primary Schools and claimed that it was the most significant reorganisation of primary schools in 10 years. Is it not in fact rather an acknowledgement of the continued failure of the Government to improve standards in primary schools, and of the increased stress that their addiction to tests, targets and tables has placed upon teachers and young children?

Does the noble Baroness agree that despite the Prime Minister's assertion to have "plainly succeeded pretty much with education", the Secretary of State's department is in considerable difficulty which is entirely of its own making?

This new strategy does nothing to deal with the key issues that affect schools at the moment. It has no impact on the school funding crisis that we discussed only last week. It does nothing to comfort the head teachers faced with yo-yoing budget cuts and the loss of thousands of teachers and assistants through redundancy because of those cuts.

The Secretary of State is keeping targets, tables and tests. Can the Minister explain what is the difference between yesterday's 3Ts and today's? Last month the Secretary of State told the conference of the NASUWT, The tests are here to stay, and so are the targets". Today the Secretary of State says that he is radically reducing the testing and abandoning his own targets. Is he not simply redefining the targets and the tests to suit his own purposes? We on these Benches have long advocated the complete abolition of the national

target setting which has caused so many problems in schools. We cannot support such half measures as we are seeing today.

If the Secretary of State is genuinely interested in disposing of these national targets, will he go so far as to abandon all national target—for secondary schools, for colleges, and the 50 per cent university admission targets that have had such an invidious effect on our education system? Will he allow schools the independence to set their own targets to raise standards and not impose the destructive regime of national target setting?

Today's announcement is merely a convenient way for the Government to shift the burden for their own failures. The real problems for schools lie in the Secretary of State's infatuation with a regime of central control and command that instructs teachers on a daily basis, via reams of extra and unnecessary paperwork, how to reach the Government's national targets.

Is it not shocking that a Government that came to power in 1997 with, as one of their key objectives, "Education, Education, Education" should six years later have so completely lost the confidence of head teachers, teachers and parents and become so fixated with statistics and targets as to have lost sight of the primary purpose—teaching our children?

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, in regretting the fact that the Government were not of their own accord going to make a Statement to Parliament and that it had, to some extent, to be squeezed out of them.

While saying all that I welcome the content of the Statement. As the Minister will know, as I have put repeated questions to her, for a very long time we on these Benches have suggested that the testing regime was not totally necessary and that in particular the standard aptitude tests (SATs) for seven year-olds put unnecessary pressure on them. Tests have been used as a diagnostic tool and teachers will need to continue using them. Any good teacher would use them. However, the imposition of the national tests was totally unnecessary and, as I say, places undue pressure on children. We are absolutely delighted that the Government have now accepted the wisdom of the argument that we have put forward for some time and are thinking of modifying the system although it is not clear to me exactly what modifications they propose. I should like, if possible, to have a little more detail from the Minister on that issue.

In relation to the tests for 11 year-olds, my understanding is that the tests will continue but that here again the targets will be set by individual schools. We welcome that. It is clear that in some schools, where reaching the targets is extremely difficult, not only pupils but also teachers are put under extreme pressure. We welcome enormously the fact that the Government recognise the need to differentiate between schools and

to recognise the professionalism of teachers. Head teachers and the teachers of the classes concerned have a right to set their own targets. Of course, one wants the targets to progress from year to year. One wants schools to achieve progress. However, there comes a time when a ceiling might be reached. We have recognised that.

We should also recognise that in the one area to date in which the targets are set by the individual schools—the science curriculum—schools have achieved extremely highly. That indicates that leaving professionals to make up their own minds on targets achieves what we want to achieve, which is the raising of standards generally.

We welcome the step very much. Will the Minister tell us a little more about the performance tables and the whole question of taking other factors into account? As she knows very well, the crude performance tables that have been published are very misleading and can result in some schools in particular areas being dubbed "sink schools" quite unnecessarily. Will the performance indicators take into account the wider aspects of the school? Are we continuing with value added tables, or has it been decided to stop them?

Finally, I welcome the move in relation to special educational needs. Schools with disproportionate numbers of students with special educational needs have felt a great deal of pressure and despair about ever meeting the targets that Ministers have set until now. The news is extremely good, but the Minister could tell us a little more about what is planned in relation to such children.

3.21 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I begin by saying to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that we produced a written Statement in another place at 9.30 this morning, in accordance with what I understand is parliamentary procedure. It is always a delight for me to discuss the issues in this House, so I am personally very grateful for the opportunity, however it has been given.

I do not accept that we are in any sense building on an education department in difficulty. We have had robust debates in the House about the issues of school funding. I believe that I have been as clear as possible, and that my right honourable friend has done all that he can to work closely with local authorities to make sure that we resolve the difficulties. I do not underestimate those difficulties, but believe that we have found some way through them.

We are not abandoning anything. In our conferences, we have had the opportunity to talk with more than 2,000 primary head teachers, which I am sure that noble Lords would admire and applaud. We discussed with them what more we can do in the context of recognising the value of targets, testing and tables—the three Ts, as they have become known today. In that process, we have not lost any confidence with head teachers. Indeed, I believe that they have enjoyed the opportunity and have built on it in terms of their relationship with us.

We are looking to enhance the structures that we have. It is the job of government, particularly in education, which is our priority, to make sure that we build on what we have learned and make the system better, year on year. I do not accept the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, about bureaucracy. I accept that we have work to do on what we have already started, in terms of the unit that we have set up to work directly with head teachers to ensure that all the documentation that schools receive is relevant. On our timely Education Act, noble Lords said that some of the documentation was absolutely critical for schools to receive. I understand their points, but we need to establish an important balance.

I want to deal specifically with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, but address those of the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, about the detail as well. I shall briefly say what we are trying to do in the key areas. For key stage 2—for 11 year-olds—we have said that in future we want schools to set their targets. Noble Lords will know that, for a long time, schools have been working with us on that, but have also developed their own system to make sure that they work with their own children, to assess the children's development and growth and therefore where they will have got to by 11. We want that to be stretching; we make no bones about that. We want targets to be designed by the school to get the very best that they can for their pupils. That will then form the basis on which the local education authority targets will be developed.

For key stage 1, noble Lords who have had the experience of watching seven year-olds undertake the tests will know that the way in which schools run them is extremely competent. Part of the test can be taken at any time between the start of the January term and just before the end of the summer term. During the whole of May, two or three of the tests take place. They are designed in a way that fits with what children learn on a general day-to-day basis. That has worked extremely well for the children. I commend our teachers, who have ensured that.

Anyone who has looked at how we assess a test will see the teacher assessment and the test. We recognise that we need to develop that in a more rounded way, so that the teachers build the tests into an overall assessment. That is what we want to trial, to see whether that approach gives better information to parents and a more rounded view of pupils, both of which I believe that noble Lords will accept.

In terms of our tables—performance tables, as we would call them—we are introducing for the first time value added tables at primary level. That is very important. We are consulting more widely. As information gets more sophisticated, and as we are able to do more with the information that we receive, it is important that we use it to develop the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about recognising the achievement of schools. We would all support that, and we want to do it.

In the document, we floated the possibilities of, for example, looking at the headline judgment that Ofsted made. A very important part of what Ofsted does is to look at how schools are developing across the curriculum. Perhaps an alternative or additional task would be to look at comparisons between schools in very similar circumstances. That is the obvious comparison to make, and we see disparity in the achievements of schools with very similar pupil populations. That helps us to support those schools, and it also gives important information. We are open to other possibilities. It is the beginning of getting performance tables to reflect further the wider way in which schools support children, which we want to do.

Crucially, we are trying to ensure that the idea of special educational needs is not about excluding children from celebrating their achievement. We must get better at celebrating all children's achievement, which requires us to look very carefully at how we measure the achievement of every child and celebrate it in the most appropriate way. We must also celebrate inclusion in our schools, with which 1 am sure that all noble Lords would agree.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am among those who have welcomed in recent years the focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools but, like others, I have been concerned that this concentration has or may have diverted attention from some other aspects of education, notably music. Am I right in inferring from the Statement that, as a result of today's announcement, schools would be able to devote more time and resources to restoring music to the rightful place that it had in primary schools, noting the extent to which music is a language to which children who are not good at maths or English may well respond and become less disaffected in their schooling as a consequence?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I was listening to Evelyn Glennie on the radio this morning talking about the value of music as a tool with which children could reach parts of the curriculum, whether science, history, geography or the arts. I endorse that. I have said in the House many times that there is one curriculum in primary schools, and that it is enriched. I hope that the document that noble Lords will have a chance to read during the course of today and tomorrow will demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that we develop that enriched curriculum, and that we make sure that music, PE and sport, geography, history, modern foreign languages and all other subjects are part of that curriculum.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, would agree that we also want to enhance the opportunities to learn literacy and numeracy skills through other curriculum subjects. It is quite possible to write about football or a piece of music, or to use some of the work of schools, whether through an allotment or geography trips, to make mathematical calculations and so on. We want to develop breadth and depth, which I am sure will be welcomed.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, listening to young carers this morning talking of their experience in school brought home to me the necessity for teachers to have space and time to think about their students. One boy in particular said that his headmaster always asked him how he was and how his father was doing, his father having mental health problems.

My impression is that what the department is putting forward in the paper will enable teachers to be a little less stressed in what they are doing. The value-added tables might begin to identify the special quality of a caring school; one which is inclusive and thinks about children not just as products but about their needs and how they fit into their families. Am I right in that impression?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I hope that is true within this document and also within other actions that we have taken. The noble Earl rightly spoke of the value of teachers in being able to talk to pupils. Some of the work we have done in developing the workforce of the future relates to recognising the role of teachers and other adults in schools who can perform some of the pastoral work. For example, we have provided the opportunity for someone to develop the role of being co-ordinator of that work. Pastoral work in schools is critical. However, as regards this document and the wider issues we have discussed, I agree with the noble Earl.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the modification of the testing procedures. I am bound to say that it sounded as though the tests were becoming more rather than less elaborate. They are therefore somewhat more complex and of less value in enabling comparisons to be made. Can she give me reassurance on that basic point?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, 1 am sorry if 1 gave the noble Lord that impression. It was not what I intended. I was describing the position around key stage 1. There is already quite a lot of flexibility in the delivery of the tests as regards whether the teacher would like to take them with the whole class or with particular groups. We are looking at that approach to see whether it can be developed.

We do not want to make the tests more complex, but head teachers have raised, for instance, the disparity in ages between children. Some children take the tests when they are six and others at age seven. We are looking to see whether within the flexibility one needs to be addressing the age, development and so forth of the child. We want to look at how to deliver the tests but not to make them more complex.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, will the Minister agree that outcomes for children in tests, particularly key stage 1, must greatly depend on their experience in the first five years of their life in the family and in pre-and nursery school? How do the Government propose

to avoid some children being traumatised because they do badly in tests in the first key stages because they have not had the same start in life as others?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, that must be a queue from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for me to talk at length about Sure Start. I shall not do so on this occasion, but point out that the development of early years' education is an important part of the Government's work. Noble Lords who have had the privilege of looking at the EPPE research will know that we can conclusively demonstrate the value of that early start in terms of breaking them out of the cycles of poverty, if they are disadvantaged and also poor, and ensuring that they have a good, sure start in life.

There is no desire on the part of the Government, and I am sure no noble Lord, to see trauma as going alongside key stage I and the testing. The purpose behind this is for us to be able to see what more we need to do to support our children. That has to be the ultimate objective and why it is important to have that. It is why we know that the schools which were doing badly a few years ago are now the average school. We have been able to move upwards and onwards with the ability of our children to learn and develop and to avoid, as is now the case, 7 million adults who do not have the literacy and numeracy skills of the average 11 year-old.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I listened with interest to the Minister when she told us that a Statement was made in another place at 9.30 this morning. Given that I. too, heard Evelyn Glennie on the radio, I know that the Minister of State for Education was on Radio 4 before 9.30 this morning telling us precisely what the noble Baroness told us in the Statement. Is it therefore the case that Parliament was not put first?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am clear that we put a written Statement before another place this morning at 9.30, which is parliamentary procedure. I do not believe that the statements that were made and the discussions that took place this morning in any way detracted from that. Indeed, the conversations and debates around the primary strategy have been taking place in campuses all over the country with primary head teachers and on local, national and regional radio and television stations for some time.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve

My Lords, too, welcome the Statement that the Minister has read, particularly the emphasis on reducing the number of tests. However, I want to ask the Minister about the thought that the tests are significant for parents. The tables of test results are only comparative information. Parents face what is relevant only in their own area and the tables can tell them only what is measured as better or worse by them. Parents could obtain far better information, which is already in the public domain, in the form of Ofsted reports. Those are narrative and well-informed reports. They may not be as good as they could be, but they still give a well-rounded impression of schools.

Cannot we get away from the simplicities and distortions of ranking schools in a linear way better and worse? Will we not be stuck with that if we simply go for more complex tables, including value-added tables? Parents need rounded information rather than comparative judgments.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, and that is precisely what we state within the document that we are looking to achieve. Hence, we shall say whether alongside the information in tables we should add the headline information for Ofsted or do a comparator with other schools in similar circumstances.

Value-added tables move us in the right direction. It is not our intention to make them more complicated; it is our intention to give better information. However, we must also always keep in mind that for many parents the ability to delve in and find the right kind of information about schools is not easily done. Therefore, it is critical that we give parents more information. It may be too simplistic at present, but it will continually improve in terms of being rounded. The Government have always made it clear that in addition to looking at the tables they should look at the Ofsted reports.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, plans have changed in primary schools during the past 10 years. Following on from the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady O'Neill, is there any real reason why the Government should not trust primary school teachers to teach children and assess in their own way how they are progressing? Cannot the comparison between schools, which parents need, be based on what the inspectorate says and not on the result of structures within the schools, as proposed by the Government?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, in making that point, perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, does not recognise the value of literacy and numeracy strategies as they have been seen by teachers in primary schools. I believe that most primary school teachers would say that those strategies have been an extremely useful tool that they have modified—and that is appropriate—to fit their children and circumstances. They have provided them with the core need to ensure that children achieve to the right level.

Within the document, we propose to try to support teachers in that way across the curriculum. We want to give them more support not in terms of the specifics of the teaching but in terms of the way in which lessons are taught across geography, history and other subjects. That is the way the Government want to take this forward.

We trust teachers. We trust them to modify, use and develop the ways in which they teach, but it is our responsibility to obtain the highest possible standards for all our children if they are to achieve in later life.