HL Deb 23 June 2004 vol 662 cc1245-9

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What contribution is made to the education of five year-old children by the written judgments which teachers are required to make alongside the test scores of each pupil.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the foundation stage profile is an assessment based on teacher observation of what five year-old children do in class. The information is used by teachers in the next class to make sure that each child gets the best out of the next stage in its education. There are no tests for five year-olds.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Can she justify a requirement for teachers to make and record 117 different judgments on each five year-old child, backed up in each case by photographic or written evidence, entailing, so the teachers say, writing up to 100,000 words for a class of 30 children? Does she not feel that this bureaucracy is diverting teachers from the much more important job of teaching children?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I could not agree more that the most important job is teaching children. Teachers are not being asked to write reports of 105,300 words on five year-olds. There is no requirement or expectation that teachers should collect evidence for each child. The document that has 117 opportunities within it is 12 pages long. I have a copy of it that noble Lords might wish to see. It is meant to be an aide-memoire to be used during the year to enable teachers to tick the box when they have observed that a child is doing well. I think it is an appropriate tool.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, given the amount of time that it is likely to take to produce these profiles, including the qualitative part, are we not in danger of falling into the same trap with teachers that we have fallen into with police officers and social workers? Some of them spend up to 80 per cent of their time in the office filling out forms instead of being out on the streets fighting crime or working with clients. Would teachers' time not be better spent observing children as individuals and helping them to develop intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness that teachers should observe children and work with them so that they grow in all the important ways: intellectually, emotionally, and academically. That is precisely what the profile is designed to do. It is meant to be a very simple tool that teachers can choose to use, or not, to identify how well children are doing in a very simple way by observation. That is the critical aspect. The form is a tool that can be used by teachers if they would like to do so.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the performance of five year-olds in school is enormously affected by the preparations for school that they have had in their home, and by whether parents and teachers send the same message in terms of their attitude to education? Before teachers make the reports, do they have an opportunity—are they encouraged—to visit children in their homes, to indicate what contribution the family is making and whether any help is needed?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, individual schools have very different ways of working with parents. Some visit children in the home, while others invite parents into the schools. We would not want to suggest that one was better than the other. By observation and working with a teacher through the course, particularly in the foundation year, it is possible to identify and pass on to those working with children at key stage 1 areas where they might need extra support and where they are doing well. It is nothing more than that. Baseline assessment is something that noble Lords know already existed in schools. The measure is simply an opportunity to make it sensible across the system, so that we can see how well children are doing.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is it not overambitious that a five year-old should be expected to understand, that s/he can expect others to treat his or her needs, views, cultures and beliefs with respect"? Is that not too much for a five year-old to understand?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the profile covers six areas of learning, and the noble Baroness is obviously looking at the detail. It is very important and easy to take that as an example to identify where children are able to learn, grow and develop. She is pointing to ensuring that children not only learn academically because, picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the social interaction of children at that age and their enjoyment of school are critical.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, as we have time on our hands, where does the Minister stand, in the old debate in the context of written reports, on whether "fair" is better or worse than "very fair"?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, that could be described as slightly wide of the mark. I am not in a position to know quite what lies underneath the noble Lord's question. I have learned one thing in this House—never to presume that one understands the genesis of a question without first talking to the noble Lord involved. Perhaps I could have that conversation with him.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, as a former governor of two schools for the very youngest children, I support the Minister in what she has said. It is very important that children be passed on from their first class to their next class with as much information attached to them as possible. Progression through the school is very much helped if the system is well integrated and conducted.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness's comments. The profile was developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research, in partnership with Birmingham Education Authority. It is designed to look at how well children are doing, and to be a tool and aid to make sure that we give them the right support. That is really important.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if it is necessary for people to look at children to see how they are doing, is that not a reflection on the teachers? Are they not the people who best know how the children are doing?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Precisely, my Lords, which is why the teachers are the people doing the profiles.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a lot of the information collected will only gather dust in the archives?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, it does not. The purpose of the information is for the teacher to be able to pass on to the next class teacher, in a well rounded way, precisely how well the child is doing. The information that we receive, which of course is not determined by individuals or schools, enables us to see where our strategies ought to be based. For example, if we discover as we collect the information that boys need more support with their reading—we have discovered that that is the case later—we can ensure that the primary strategy on literacy recognises that from day one. That is important research to support children.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, for whom is all the information being gathered?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, first, the information is gathered in schools to support the work of teachers, so that the teachers of children can see how well children are doing as they progress through the school. Secondly, we have a national pool of information that tells us about not individual children or LEAs, but the national trends that we see in children when we need to give additional support, perhaps on communications or personal, social and emotional development. That is all designed to provide optimum support for children at the earliest possible age. As I have said a thousand times, by the time children are aged 78 months, we begin to see the crossover of children with ability determined by social background.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, the Minister said that teachers were not required to spend a great deal of time on the measure. Can she explain why the Chief Inspector of Schools, Mr David Bell, said that his inspectors report that an average of 45 hours is spent compiling the reports? He said that they were of very little value to the year ahead.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, one question that Mr David Bell picked up in his report was on whether teachers collected information repetitively. There is an issue about ensuring that, when we move to one system, other systems do not need to be kept as well. That is about the role of schools and education authorities in not asking teachers to keep information more than once or write it in different ways. It is the first year of the profile, and our ambition is to see a reduction. The independent review unit made up of head teachers said that it was very pleased with the profile. It did not suggest that there was a bureaucracy problem, and it is its job to do so.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that one reason why Greenhead College in Huddersfield has the best Ofsted report of any sixth-form college is its systems for collecting data on how students progress? Most important of all are its systems for making use of those data and ensuring that they are used to support students, help teachers to teach better, and look after students throughout their progress in the college. Will she make sure that, beyond that admirable collection of data, there are ways in which they are made use of? Will she look at the sort of systems operating at Greenhead College to see whether they can be translated to primary level?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not know about the specific example of Greenhead College, and I am grateful to the noble Lord for mentioning it to me. There is little point in collecting data if one does not make use of them. It should always be our ambition to make sure that what we learn from data is put to the best possible use, which is to support our children in schools.