HC Deb 26 January 2000 vol 343 cc47-68WH

Motion made and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Clelland.]

9.56 am
Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), it might be helpful if I explain what the consequences are of the parallel sitting of the two Chambers. In Westminster Hall, it is Wednesday, and under the Standing Orders of the House our debates will continue according to their allotted time span. However, the Standing Orders are equally firm that we must finish at 2 o'clock, so there will be a fairly large fallout relating to the last scheduled debate. None the less, the debate on which we are about to embark will receive its full allotted time of one and a half hours, even if it is further interrupted. That is the knock-on effect, which is obviously something that might have be to reconsidered when these matters are further examined, but those are the Standing Orders that govern our proceedings at the moment. Without wasting any more time, we should proceed to use the time available as best we can.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In view of the exhausting events of yesterday evening—or is it this morning?—I am pleased that so many hon. Members have come to listen to, or participate in, today's debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate a debate on league tables—I use the term "league tables" rather than "performance tables" because the terminology draws attention to some of the issues that I wish to highlight. I draw the attention of the Chamber to the increasing concerns of parents, schools and many hon. Members about the way in which the existing league table system functions. I shall comment on the moves towards a value-added system, and suggest other methods by which the performance of schools could be made clearer to parents, local authorities and government.

It is several years now since the annual publication of league tables was introduced and, for many people, its full implications have begun to sink in as each year has gone by. I must confess that I am obsessively interested in league tables. I find them compulsive, as I am sure many hon. Members do, and I spend many hours poring over them. Having said that, I believe that the current system, which we inherited, is indefensible because of its damaging consequences for many schools and because league tables do not represent the full range of achievements of individual schools.

Over the past few years, it has been difficult to question league tables. In many respects, it has been assumed that if one questioned league tables, one was also questioning the whole national curriculum, the testing regime and other issues established by the Education Reform Act 1988 and, more recently, the drive to improve standards that was consolidated in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Therefore, I want to say at the outset that this debate is not a call for the abolition of league tables, but a call for a review of their purpose and presentation. It is certainly not a criticism of the national curriculum or the testing regime. My only comment about that is that I am constantly amazed that it took state education about 125 years to put such a system in place. I acknowledge that, each year, this Government and the previous Government have made slight improvements to the presentation of league tables, which has helped to set the context a little better. I certainly welcome the Government's attempts to introduce value-added measures in due course, and I acknowledge the continuing work that is being done on that.

It is not that I represent a constituency in which the schools en bloc have a grievance about league tables. Neither the schools in my constituency nor the local authority has any grievances about league tables because schools in Bury, especially in Bury, North, perform extremely well under the existing conventional criteria of publishing test results. I am fortunate to have an efficient and progressive local education authority in Bury which, some months ago, received an outstanding Ofsted report describing it as delivering school improvement and high standards without "fuss or rhetoric". I hope that our debate will also be without fuss or rhetoric. Bury primary schools have been in the top 10 for the past three years at key stage 2, which is an exceptional performance. They were ranked eighth in 1998 and seventh in 1999. Until I pored over the national league tables again, I did not realise that our primary schools are second in the table on gender gaps in English. That means that boys in Bury perform almost as well as girls in English, which is not the case in most of the country.

We are always ahead of our statistical neighbours in primary education and we compare with districts that represent some of the most affluent parts of the country. Only the LEAs of the Isles of Scilly, City of London, Richmond upon Thames, Wokingham, Rutland and Surrey perform better than Bury which, in terms of socio-economic indicators, is a middling district at key stage 2. In 1999, I was fortunate to be able to use an Adjournment debate to praise the achievements of primary schools in Bury.

Last year, our secondary schools were in the top 25 at GCSE level and we achieved the best increase in performance with the exception of Rutland, for which there were exceptional circumstances. Our GCSE results increased from 47.7 to 53.5 per cent. I shall avoid the temptation to list the many exceptional results of individual schools in Bury. We are confident in Bury that our schools will continue to perform well when we move towards value-added measures. Although I do not want to digress, I must stress that Bury schools deliver those results with a level of funding that is in the bottom 20 of all LEAs, even though our indicators of deprivation put us in the middle. However, I shall not go into area cost adjustment and standard spending assessments. Instead, I shall discuss the problems of the system and why people are increasingly dissatisfied with what we inherited from the previous Government.

When the league table system was established, there was a confusion of purpose. Some people argued that league tables would provide parents with greater freedom of information, but of course the information that was provided more freely was selective; it was simple test results. Some people argued that they would provide better information for teachers so that they could monitor children's progress more effectively. Some people argued that they would give an incentive to schools that were performing less well. That reflected the newly emerging market in schools in which competition would drive up achievement in all schools. Those schools that could not compete would decline, lose pupils and go out of business. Some people argued that league tables would provide comparative indicators that would be useful in extending models of good practice from school to school and local authority to local authority.

In recent years, league tables have been used for all those purposes, which are not always mutually compatible. The instrument that might best increase parental choice is not necessarily the instrument that works to drive up standards for all children. There is a complex interrelationship between the needs, which I support, of interested parties. There is a need to allow parents and the wider community access to freedom of information; to provide parental choice; to monitor progress and set targets within individual schools; and to reflect the importance of national policies for driving up standards of achievement.

We have not always been clear about the primary purpose of league tables. We have sometimes been obsessed with making league tables the sole indicator of quality at the expense of alternative methodologies for raising standards in schools. We have put our schools in a framework with good schools at the top, less good schools that are aspiring to be good schools in the middle, and failing schools at the bottom. Schools as institutions—the process of teaching and learning—cannot be reduced to that simplified model. The system provides an enormous amount of invaluable raw statistics, which are fascinating for people who love to pore over such information, but they can have a devastating effect on individual schools and communities.

Although some schools, including many in my constituency, look forward to the publication of league tables with great pleasure, because they know that their excellent exam performance will be recognised, for a large minority of schools and LEAs, that serves to reinforce not just their sense of inferiority but the hopelessness of their predicament. They cannot aspire to the top of the league table under a system that simply measures output. Thousands of schools serve less affluent communities, which are not always in inner cities. They cannot get to the top of the league table because of the community that they serve. They know—every hon. Member will have constituency examples of this—that, every time league tables are published, the comparison between schools becomes sharper. Schools in more difficult areas become conscious of the comparison between their neighbours in more affluent areas and a great number of parents become aware of that comparison. As a result, the number of pupils on the school roll declines the following year. That reduces the budgets of those schools further, which makes it more difficult to deliver the necessary improvements. I shall not go into the recent well-publicised and spectacular examples of such schools, but we all have less well-publicised examples in our constituencies.

The operation of league tables has helped to drive up standards in many schools because of the incentive that is provided by competition, but it has often served to widen the differentials between schools and, ultimately, weaken the comprehensive principle and system in primary and secondary schools. Parents have understandably exercised their freedom of choice to examine the newly available selective information about school performance. They have exercised that freedom of choice with a vengence and the education of hundreds of thousands of children in hundreds, if not thousands, of schools has suffered as a result. Parents cannot exercise their freedom of choice in schools in less affluent areas because they are not socially mobile, they are constrained by geography and they lack financial resources. Those schools cannot succeed in the current system. We have allowed ourselves to be locked into the thinking behind the fatuous concept that schools are like football teams and can be measured only by their position in a league table.

I want to draw attention to specific problems with the system. First, it purely measures output; it makes no reference to input. Every year, I look at the league tables and the schools in my constituency and I know which schools will be towards the top and which will be towards the bottom. I know, too, that the league tables for primary and secondary schools in my constituency reflect not the broad quality of individual schools, but the social structure of the constituency. The league tables are a description of geography, of population and of social class, not of a school's achievement.

Secondly, there is a spiral of decline for schools with poor catchment areas. As more parents exercise their freedom of choice, strong schools get stronger and weaker schools get weaker, to the point at which intervention is needed. Either the weaker schools become failing schools and there is official intervention from the centre, or there is a spectacular collapse, as there has been in schools in some parts of the country, or there is a more subtle intervention, which involves a huge injection of cash, which is far more expensive than it would have been if the problem had been solved earlier.

We must consider the statistical significance of the comparatively small difference in raw scores. We deal with it in one sense, in that small primary schools with fewer than 10 or 11 pupils who are eligible for key stage 2 tests, for example, do not appear on the league tables; but many schools have 12 pupils eligible for the test. A slight variation in that figure because of the illness of one or two children on the day of the test can have a significant impact on the percentage figure.

In the league tables overall, the GCSE scores in Bury last year were, as I said, exceptional. It was the best improvement on the previous year in the country. Is our score of 53.5 per cent. gaining five A to C passes significantly worse than one of our neighbours with 53.7 per cent? I suspect that it is not. I suspect that some of the issues that determine those figures are the policies on exclusions and on entering pupils for exams, which vary widely between schools.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I strongly support the Government's policy of inclusion of special needs children, but does he accept that, if a class has one or two special needs children with severe learning difficulties, for example, a school that has made an effort to include those children could go from the top of the league table to the bottom for no reason other than it had complied with Government policy and parental wishes?

Mr. Chaytor

I was about to come to exactly the point that the hon. Gentleman has made so well. When we consider the impact of special needs children, it is just a matter not of looking at the effect of statemented children in mainstream schools, but of considering how special schools feel when the league tables are published. Special schools are completely wiped out of the picture.

One of the Government's most urget priorities should be the role of special schools, an example of which is Elms Bank school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), which serves all children in Bury. My hon. Friend and I visited that school recently; we are conscious of its enormous achievements. It has a wide range of children with different special needs. The school has worked very hard to establish a system of certificates of achievement for 16 and 18-year-olds, but they appear nowhere in the national league tables. There is a huge amount of added value in special schools and for children with special needs in mainstream schools, but that is not recognised anywhere. The effect of that lack of recognition is to marginalise the issue of special needs children.

I shall focus on the impact of choosing to highlight five A to C grades at GCSE. We know that five A to C grades are chosen because it is the admission ticket to A-levels, but its impact is that any other achievement at GCSE is seen as a failure. When the GCSE was established, the idea was to get away from the old divide between O-levels and the certificate of secondary education, one exam being considered less relevant and prestigious than the other. The difficulty in focusing on A to C grades is that there may be some evidence that borderline children receive more attention—logically, in terms of the approach of individual schools—in order to push children who are functioning at about grade D to get a grade C, at the expense of children who achieve less well. The children who score Es, Fs and Gs may thus be at risk.

I highlight a slight contradiction in the Secretary of State's speech at the North of England conference in which he argued strongly for a restructuring of the curriculum so that post-14 there would be greater attention on vocational achievements, a much closer link between schools and the workplace, and more work-based training for children still at school. That is absolutely the right direction in which to go, but that new area of achievement is completely ignored by the current system, which focuses on the need to gain the admission ticket to A-levels—they will always be for only a small minority—and, ultimately, on the demands of the universities. We must consider children's achievements across the board, across the range of ability.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I differ with part of what my hon. Friend said. League tables have to show the numbers who are not entered for GCSE, or who get one GCSE or fewer. The Ofsted inspectors at the school where I taught, and the local press, focused on that aspect as much as they focused on the five A to C grades. Is my hon. Friend therefore arguing about how we can ensure that that is given equal worth and attention? It is there in the league tables.

Mr. Chaytor

I agree with my hon. Friend: it is there in the league tables, and that is welcome. My hon. Friend has a sympathetic local press if the total number of GCSE passes gets the same attention as the number of five A to C passes. Schools in my local authority have an exceptional performance in terms of total GCSE passes, with only 2.2 per cent. of children not getting a single GCSE. That record is one of the best in the country. I take my hon. Friend's point that it is in the league tables; that is welcome, but it does not have the same status, and that is the problem. As Government policy moves towards giving greater emphasis to young people who will not achieve five A to Cs at GCSE we need to reconsider the issue.

I want to highlight another anomaly in the system to give a flavour of some of the problems. We now have the results at 18-plus—the A-level points scores—as well as at 16-plus. The published tables list the individual institutions; there is also an A-level points score for each local authority. In many parts of the country—arguably, in most parts of the country—A-level students are not entirely the responsibility of the local authority. The tables are misleading insofar as further education and sixth form colleges educate increasing numbers of A-level students. Many of those institutions do a superb job, yet the results appear in the tables as the collective achievement of the local authority, when it is nothing to do with the local authority.

I have drawn attention to my specific concerns, which are shared by many people. I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to introducing value-added measures. It is self-evident that school should be not about simply producing good results for children who are already performing well when they enter the school, but about adding value to each pupil's individual achievement and bringing out his or her full potential.

The added value debate is a paradise for acronym lovers. Acronyms include ALIS, YELLIS, PIPS, MIDYIS and QUASE. Most schools now use one of those systems or a variant. We are beginning to understand the significance of the value added system, and we recognise the complexities associated with establishing a foolproof methodology.

Since the publication in 1997 of the value added national project, there has been a lively debate about differing methodologies. Head teachers were unhappy about the Government's plans, and the intention is to adopt the individual pupil number system, which I hope will be implemented as soon as possible. I welcome that shift of focus, which will give a huge boost to schools in poorer areas which perform extremely well and bring out children's potential.

However, there will be limitations. The problem remains that, in most parts of the country—although perhaps not in Gedling—parents regard five A to Cs as the be-all and end-all. Non-national curriculum achievements in mainstream and special schools are not recognised. Moreover, there is the thorny issue of comparing like with like. Even an individual pupil number system that tracks children's progress from one year to the next, or one key stage to the next, may not enable us to make such a comparison. The communities that schools serve vary widely, as does the level of funding for schools. I again draw attention to the historic funding problems in my constituency and many others, and to the campaign of the special interest group of municipal authorities to change funding methodology, and that of the newly formed E40 group of local authorities for a national minimum level of funding for all children.

When we compare the fabric, resources, quality of materials and general environment of schools, we discover huge variations, which I am not sure even the new value added system will fully reflect. My feeling is that historically under-resourced schools that serve poorer areas will continue to appear near the bottom of the table.

With regard to 16-plus results, various factors come into play: the impact of the local education structure, be it 11 to 16 or 11 to 18; the number of schools that opted out under the previous regime, and thereby gained enormous financial advantage; and selection policy. There are no level playing fields for authorities or schools within authorities. Once the value added system is in place, the Goverment must consider what else needs to be done to reflect more accurately schools' achievements.

Regarding a school's league table position as a precise indicator of how bad or good it is in comparison with other schools is a gross over-simplification. The issue is far too complex to say that certain schools are good and others bad. A study of Hampshire schools was undertaken by Professor Goldstein of the Institute of Education. He concluded that it is impossible to categorise schools as good or bad. That contradicts the thinking of both this and the previous Government, the approach taken by the chief inspector of schools and the perception of parents. On the basis of his study, Professor Goldstein argued that, to a greater or lesser degree, different schools add greater or lesser value for children of differing abilities in different subjects. In other words, for most schools, there are things at which they are very good things at which they are merely good, things at which they are less good and things at which they are lousy. We are failing to reflect that variety and complexity.

We must ask ourselves what else is important about a school's performance. What other measures could appear in the annual performance statement? I am loth to use the phrase "performance tables" because it implies a rigid hierarchy and simplistic stratification. There is also the question of pastoral care. Schools that find it easy to attract able children at the age of 11 and produce good GCSE results in 16-year-olds and good A-level results in 18-year-olds provide hopeless pastoral care.

There is the general question of quality of leadership and its impact on teaching and learning, school morale, the sense of school loyalty and corporate identity. There is the further question of standards of behaviour, which are usually—but not always—related to performance. Moreover, there are the issues of the quality of governance, parental involvement, the range and richness of extra-curricular activities in sport, art, music and drama, the quality of teaching, the use of new technology, and teaching children to learn how to learn, rather than simply imparting facts.

Most indicators are published in an Ofsted report, which is rarely read in detail by parents. I wonder whether some judgments in such reports could be converted into simplified performance indicators that would provide a brief, broad and more accurate reflection of a school's range of achievements. Every teacher in the country would doubtless groan at the prospect of Ofsted having yet more influence on their activities and the according of greater significance to Ofsted reports, but I mention that merely as one example.

I would also draw an analogy with the further education sector. Since their incorporation, and since becoming subject to the Further Education Funding Council inspection regime, further education colleges have marketed themselves more ruthlessly than many schools. Colleges with achievements to boast about have published in their literature and in the press not only raw examination results but their FEFC inspection report gradings. I have some anxieties about such a marketing ploy, but it seems entirely reasonable to make available to parents a factual record of achievement.

There will always be some institutions that perform less well than others in respect of certain issues, and there is no point in concealing that fact. Freedom of information is essential and will help to drive up standards across the board, but the key question is: what information are we providing? In the past, we have provided highly selective information that focused exclusively on outputs and academic achievement in tests. We have ignored the entire range of other school achievements and the complexity of the education process.

I realise that I have spoken for a long time and that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the Government's position on value added measures and tell us when they are likely to be introduced. I should also be interested to hear her observations on how we might go beyond the value added system. Is the system the end of the Government's thinking, or is there scope for a broader annual statement of school performance that would give due recognition to the qualities that make a successful school?

If we do not move in that direction, the same schools will appear year after year at the top of the league tables, and the same schools will appear at the bottom. The result will be demoralisation. I want a system that recognises the full range of achievement and abilities, and in which children with special needs are included. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said, the way in which special schools and special needs children in mainstream schools have been treated is scandalous. Their remarkable achievements should be recognised nationally. We want a system that provides information for parents, management information for schools staff and information to support the Government's efforts to prise up standards. That is the priority. In not paying attention to these issues for many years, we have fallen behind, and I applaud the Government's attempts to put standards at the top of the agenda. As recently published league tables show, those attempts are bearing fruit.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

Order. Although the hon. Gentleman's speech was commendable, and a learning experience for us all, it was fairly lengthy. That reduces the time available to us. The agreed protocols of this Chamber are that the Opposition spokesman and the Minister are allowed the last 30 minutes of the debate. Therefore, I appeal to others who wish to contribute to make their points forcefully, clearly and as briefly as possible.

10.31 am
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on an impressive tour d'horizon and on the gracious, non-partisan way in which he introduced his remarks.

I agree that the possibility of school league tables arises only because we have a national curriculum—a system of national testing. The hon. Gentleman put it well when he said that it was remarkable that it had taken about 120 years for such a system to be put in place—that was done by the previous Government. I also agree with him that under both the previous and the present Governments the league tables have evolved, improved and been refined. They are much better now than when they first appeared. I share his hope that, in five or 10 years' time, they will be considerably more useful, informative and fair than they are now.

I may take issue with one or two of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but I want to adhere to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to be brief, so that others can contribute. First, I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to a question that a number of schools in my constituency—one in particular—have raised with me, which is the way in which those pupils fortunate, able or well enough taught to take GCSEs a year early are treated, or ignored, in the league tables. That problem needs to be dealt with more precisely. If one takes GCSEs in year 10, it does not count towards the figures for that school. Not only is there a distortion in the figures because those able pupils are taken out of the reckoning, but when they turn 16, a year later, they appear in the league tables as not having sat any GCSEs at all. That bias in the system needs to be tackled along with the many other issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Bury, North.

My second point concerns the availability of the league tables. We are all familiar with the newspaper educational supplements, which seem to have a large circulation. They are well used by parents, who seem to rely on them. However, we are living in an age of new technology. The league tables are made available on the internet, but I am not sure whether the Department has a clear strategy for using some of the search functions available. One can search within some of the other internet websites—for example, those dedicated to financial issues. One should be able to search not only for the name of a school but for particular categories. One should be able to take account of some of the value added characteristics once they are made available.

The technology can provide a great deal more information to parents than simply a printout of the details of the three or four schools in which they are interested. It should be possible to search geographically, by particular characteristics, or according to attendance or numbers of pupils not sitting examinations. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and also about the progress that is being made towards the full exploitation of technology.

I am also interested in the Minister's clarification of the concept of value added. I have a slight difference of opinion with the hon. Member for Bury, North on that issue. The concept is important and I hope that progress can be made towards it. However, as the hon. Gentleman listed the many criteria that he would like to introduce under that heading, I became worried that the waters might become muddied. Far from providing clear information to parents, we might end up in a position in which no one understood the figures or the league tables, or we might return to the position of 10 or 20 years ago, when only the education professionals understood the data. We must guard against that happening.

As the hon. Gentleman said, we must also be clear that we are comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges. We have been talking mainly about GCSEs, but the Government are now encouraging schools to look sympathetically at the provision of the baccalaureate alongside A levels. How will that be treated in the league tables? How are those apples and oranges to be compared? Can one compare them?

Finally, on the use to which the league tables are put, it is now common ground among hon. Members, across party divides, that the tables are a useful information tool for parents and that freedom of choice for parents, although it will always be limited and never perfect, is, none the less, an aim towards which we strive. League tables are a useful information tool in achieving that aim.

In that context, the practical implication of the Government's otherwise commendable policy of limiting class sizes at primary level has been that many parents who would otherwise have had a choice of primary school for their children have lost that choice. I am sure that other hon. Members have experienced this. Siblings are being separated. Families in my constituency are having to make long journeys to take their children to two different schools—often, in a rural community such as mine, the schools are many miles apart. If that problem persists up the age scale into secondary schools, it could have serious implications for parental choice. I would like to hear the Minister's response, because if parents are to have this information, they must have a real chance to use it.

I do not expect the Minister to respond to my final point, but my constituents would expect me to raise it. It is that school league tables have certain implications in an urban area, where schools are often close to one other and transport between one school and another is often not especially difficult. In rural areas such as mine, parents do not have much choice, especially of secondary schools. Until and unless the problems of rural school transport are properly and thoroughly tackled—which did not happen under the previous Government either—parents in rural areas will study the information in school league tables with interest but without a realistic expectation that it will influence their decision over which school to choose for their children.

10.39 am
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I am grateful to be invited to speak in this debate and I should like to make a number of matters clear before I begin.

I have a daughter with a moderate to severe learning difficulty. She is now 12 years old. Everyone tells me that she is lovely. I am normally offered that information in a rather patronising way, because what is not normally said is that she is lovely but she will not amount to very much. I have far greater aspirations for my daughter than that. I am delighted by some of the measures that have already been implemented by the Government to recognise that people with special educational needs and with learning difficulties, of which there are a variety, have a right to exist and to be recognised in society.

The first major improvement was in the new deal programme when, suddenly, local authorities and employment services were being called to account about their efforts on behalf of people with learning difficulties. It is wonderful for parents with children in that position to think that someone, somewhere, will take note of them and try to assist them to be fully integrated into our society by virtue of employment. That was an excellent start because a group of people became identified through statistics. Statistics matter when, hitherto, one has not even been considered worthy of a statistic, or worthy of recognition in any formal sense.

I applauded the introduction of the White Paper "Excellence in schools", which was launched by the Department for Education and Employment in October 1997. That set out a programme for consideration by all those who have a vested interest in the development of children with special educational needs. It offered a wonderful blueprint that I, as a parent in that situation, very much welcomed. Commendably, the White Paper referred to target setting and national curriculum assessment qualifications. How are those activities, achievements and targets made manifest in the statistics? The short answer is that they are not. Achievements by special needs schools in relation to the White Paper have never been recorded in the league tables. I reiterate the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). They are not performance tables, but only league tables.

Problems are created in primary schools by the absence of those statistics. Every primary school accommodates children with a wide range of educational abilities, but some schools fight shy of taking children with special needs—that is as true in my constituency as in any other. If schools manage to accommodate such children, they move them on or omit them from standard assessment tests. Although that is unfortunate, we all understand why it happens. It is primarily driven by concern about the likely impact of those children on league tables. Having spoken to nearly all the head teachers in my constituency, I know that they are worried about it.

There are two sorts of school. Some are passionate about delivering good education to children with special educational needs, while others are immobilised by their lack of understanding of such children. That is not because they want to be poor at delivering good academic provision, but because they are inadequately supported in that task. The role of head teachers is also important. Some have a personal crusade with regard to children with special educational needs, while others do not.

Two outstanding primary schools in my constituency, Waterloo and Freshfield, have embraced such children—they have taken them from other schools when those schools can no longer support them. Those at the schools work hard and believe that they achieve a great deal, yet the league tables do not reflect that achievement in any way, shape or form. There is no information to tell me, as a parent, how well they have done with that group of children.

For most parents with normal children, a league table offers some choice. Despite its crudity, they can use it to assess which schools are better than the rest. I cannot. There is no choice for parents with children with special educational needs. When we look at league tables, it is impossible for us to tell which schools are striving and performing well for those children. That is unsatisfactory. I want the same choice that is afforded to other parents.

What is happening in secondary schools is even worse, if that is possible. I have before me the league tables for Sefton metropolitan borough, to which I referred when I was considering a senior place for my daughter. Most schools display a range of statistics relating to GCSEs and GNVQs. However, there is nothing about the six special needs schools. In every case, statistics are replaced by the words "not entered". There is my choice—it is "not entered". I do not believe that the thousand or so children who participate in those schools are incapable of gaining some form of qualification. I know that they are capable of it. I also know that there are teachers in those schools who are desperately trying to get the best out of the children. Where is their performance reflected? The answer is that it is not. Although a disproportionately large number of the children will not gain GNVQs or GCSEs, they will gain certificates of achievement. I want that to be reflected and so do other parents who find themselves in a similar position. They want to be able to make an informed choice.

I applaud my hon. Friend's comments about added value. It is a meaningful step forward for schools that are trying to deliver in all sorts of ways other than generally accepted qualifications. There must be some way that people outside the process can recognise that. Statistics are important not only for parents, but for target setting within schools—setting goals for which schools can strive. In Sefton, six special educational needs schools have no public standards against which they can strive to improve. I resent that. They should have those targets so that they can rise to the challenge of improving—in comparison not only with their own record, but with that of other providers in the same area.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could clarify the Government's intentions for added value, referring in particular to how special educational needs schools that do not enter any statistics in the league tables can be encouraged to do so. That will enable people like me—please forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for taking such a personal view—to be better informed as parents and providers.

10.47 am
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) has no need to apologise for taking a personal view. It is a strength of debates such as this that personal experience can be brought to bear and I am sure that hon. Members have been moved by her contribution. I remember a debate in Worcestershire about the inclusion of special schools in league tables. There was some unhappiness about the fact that they were shown to be right at the bottom of the pile when the league tables were published. I sympathise with what the hon. Lady said and I hope that the Minister has taken her comments on board.

In the eight minutes that are available to me before we move on to the Government's response, I wish to draw the Chamber's attention back to the big picture. I had hoped to spend some time discussing middle schools in Worcestershire. The Minister recently experienced a rather painful reorganisation of the school system in Redditch—we share a local education authority. Particular problems surround the publication of results as they relate to middle schools. Those schools complain that they are judged on the results of first schools and high schools complain that they are judged on the results of middle schools.

In view of the limited time, however, I prefer to concentrate on the big picture. When the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) opened the debate, he rightly drew hon. Members' attention to problems with the publication of league tables. He spoke convincingly and well and I had great sympathy with what he said. However, he gave the game away a little by saying that he is fascinated by league tables and spends a long time poring over them—as do many other people.

The big issue is that publication of league tables has driven up standards and improved parental choice. I understand that to be the view of the Government. When I began to think about what I wanted to say today, I had a text in my mind, like a preacher: "Never make the best the enemy of the good." When one has a good idea—particularly if one takes it to able and talented civil servants, who are able to see problems in every good idea—there is a dreadful tendency to get so bogged down in worries that one fails to see that moving ahead, even imperfectly, can bring real benefits. We politicians have to be careful about being seen to justify reasons for keeping people in the dark. We have no privileged access to such information.

There is paranoia—or schizophrenia—in the Government's attitude to the subject. I thought that they were radical converts to publication of all sorts of results. I agree with a press release on 8 December which stated: The tables show that 11 year olds achieved higher standards in English, Maths and Science in this year's National Curriculum Tests than last year. Some of the most successful schools from across the country have been invited to an event held today at the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre to celebrate their achievements. It is right to celebrate the achievements of successful schools, and I am delighted that the Government are doing so. I hope that, in the same position, we would do the same. However, publication of key stage 1 results must be examined. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will refer to that, so I shall not detain hon. Members with that now.

Another issue, which the hon. Member for Bury, North did not emphasise sufficiently, is that the measures are not just of school successes but the successes of local education authorities. I carefully examine the results for Worcestershire schools, particularly because I have a grievance about the funding received by my local education authority, as does the hon. Gentleman. I still hope that the Minister will be able to do something about that during her tenure at the Department for Education and Employment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

Ten years?

Mr. Luff

I said tenure. If there were a Labour Government for 10 years, I could think of no better Minister than her to fulful the role for that period, but I hope that that will not be so.

There is no doubt that Worcestershire's low educational funding leads to concern among my constituents that their children are receiving an education that is less good than it should be, and that concern is well founded. It is a great tribute to the education authority and the schools in Worcestershire that we have such good results in the league tables. They show that the desperately low funding does not, mercifully, cause bad results, which is a great tribute to all involved. I believe that the education authority is currently subject to an Ofsted inspection which, I am sure, will prove what a good authority it is.

What has struck me about the debate is how little it has moved on. I looked up the Second Reading of the Education (Schools) Bill, which took place on 19 November 1991. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is now the Home Secretary, but was then the shadow spokesman on education, said: We now need to see some Government investment and leadership on how local authorities and school governing bodies can best provide information on and do research into the effectiveness of schools, into their creation of value added, so that that information can be given to parents and governors alongside the crude, raw data. He was right, but the lack of progress in achieving that added value data, which is so important, is disappointing—I also criticised the previous Government for that. Intriguingly, when my then hon. Friend, Mr. Tim Eggar, wound up, he said something that is resonant today: Apparently the only sort of publication that Labour Members will allow is one that is so hedged around with correction factors, socio-economic variables and explanatory footnotes that only a parent with a PhD in statistics and specialisation in sociology could understand it."—[Official Report, 19 Novenber 1991; Vol. 199, c. 174–234.] That is where the logic of the hon. Member for Bury, North was taking us.

I am Chairman of the Agriculture Committee and we often discuss labelling, which is apparently the answer to all our problems. We label for animal welfare, fat content, genetic modification and so on. The label will eventually become so large that the shopper will be unable to make any sense of it. That is the danger with school league tables. We must not allow the label to become so large that it is impossible for parents to understand what it describes. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) were important and I hope that the Minister will assure us that, whatever changes are planned for league tables, they will not fall into the tempting trap of making the best the enemy of the good. If league tables are to be effective, it is crucial that they are comprehensible.

I turn to added value, which is an ugly phrase, but I cannot think of a better one and it has entered the education lexicon, so we must live with it. It is a vital concept and I was pleased that the Government seemed to be committed to it. That is what their early statements during debates and questions in the House suggested, but there are now worrying signs that they may be resiling from that. A DFEE report in March 1999 stated: In the medium term, the performance tables will include measures of the value added by schools to the education of their pupils. What is the medium term? As Keynes said, In the long run we are all dead", but what about the medium term? A report in The Times Educational Supplement on 26 November 1999 stated: no 'value-added' measure is now expected to be published until at least 2003, prompting accusations that the government plans to scrap the idea. The report continued: Harvey Goldstein, professor of statistical methods at the Institute of Education in London, said: 'They are effectively saying that they are not going to do it. They are talking about 2005 or 2006 for a KS2 to GCSE measure, by which time we will be two governments further on."' I urge the Minister to reaffirm the commitment of her Government to value added measures and to ensure that she will not make the best the enemy of the good.

10.56 am
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) for introducing the debate and agree with almost all he said, so I shall be brief.

We have no problem with publication of information on schools, but we question the value of the information that is published and the use to which it is put. League tables are good for Government because they allow them to demonstrate that they are meeting their targets and help them to impose and enforce national norms, which is increasingly the case in the education system. However, they are of little use to parents and pupils.

Most parents send their children to local schools and there are good social reasons for that. The children can play outside and can be allowed to walk to school. Some Government initiatives will be satisfied only if parents continue to choose local schools. League tables fire up a notion of parental choice which cannot be satisfied in urban or rural areas. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) referred to the problem in rural areas, but it is equally a problem in urban areas where it is often too risky to choose a school other than in the catchment area. In Sheffield, people come to me every year saying that they tried to exercise parental choice by examining league tables to decide which school was best, but when they failed to obtain their first choice, their catchment school had become full and they were told to ship their children across the city to a school with surplus places, which was, by definition, unpopular and probably poorly performing and which required their children to take two or three buses to go to a school the parents did not want them to go to. That is the reality in urban areas and the notion that parents can sit down, examine league tables and choose schools for their children does not exist in most areas and certainly not in Sheffield. Government pressure is to take surplus places out of the system and parental choice is not possible without surplus places.

We question the value of the Government's original intention to engender parental choice to develop a market. That has not happened and will not happen, unless someone is prepared to fund the sort of system that the Conservatives have proposed with totally free access to schools. The cost would be phenomenal if schools could balloon to a greater size one year and reduce in size the next year as parents made their choices.

Parents are sending their children to local schools. They may examine the league tables and become concerned about their local schools, but they have no option of removing their children. The tables may be interesting, but they do not provide any practical benefit.

When a school is perceived to be poor and remains at the bottom of the league table, great harm can result to its morale, year after year, because no one rises to low expectation. A culture of low expectation is generated within the school and that does an incredible amount of harm.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) spoke eloquently on the issue of special needs. Nether Green junior school in my constituency has an emotional and behavioural difficulty unit. It does a tremendous job with its pupils, and is as good as any other school in the area, but it is consistently down the league tables. Year after year, parents say, "I want to send my child there, but I am a bit concerned because it is down in the league tables." The school does a tremendous job with special needs and non-special needs pupils, but it is aggrieved by those comments. I have every sympathy, but I have failed to get anywhere in changing the system, so that the school can take its rightful place and not have to face the stream of parents every year. The hon. Member for Crosby expressed that effectively.

The hon. Member for Bury, North made a good point about the broadening of the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds. It can be a tremendous achievement for some pupils to get a grade D at GCSE, but that is not recognised. We fully support the broadening of the curriculum, which would make both the GCSE and the A-level league table factors irrelevant when deciding whether a school is doing well. There is tremendous work with advanced GNVQs going on at present. We are expecting more, and we need to acknowledge that when considering a school's performance.

One group that may have felt the benefits of league tables is estate agents, who frequently cite them in their publicity. I would argue that they are of limited benefit, even to estate agents, because most parents knew before league tables were introduced what was going on in their area. People from outside may find them beneficial in deciding where to live, but most of them will have chosen where to live by their profession, income and so on. We know that the socio-economic group of an area is a factor in creating a better or worse school. The estate agents' argument is a minor part of the equation, and I would question whether the league tables have added much value.

Our real criticism is, what have the league tables done for the worst off in the education system—for that small, but still too large, percentage who are always on the wrong side of the target and are perceived as failures? Ninety per cent. success means 10 per cent. failure; 75 per cent. success means 25 per cent. failure. We are concerned about the social exclusion unit report, which shows that 9 per cent. of our 16 to 18-year-olds—161,000 young people—are not socially and economically engaged. One of the prime factors identified was educational failure and educational disadvantage. The Government's obsession with targets is laudable in as much as they want to get so many pupils up to a notional average, but if we do not pay attention to the small number who continue to fail by all measures, there can be no true success. I hope that the Minister will say what she believes league tables do for the young people who are most in need, other than simply confirming year on year that they are continuing to fail.

What do league tables do for schools that deal with the most difficult children in the education system? The Government must continue to focus on improving opportunities for the lowest performers, as well as on trying to raise standards generally. They should consider methods such as individual education plans, mentoring and other imaginative ideas that have been suggested to deal with pupils as individuals. We should move away from looking at the averages across the mass of pupils and consider the individual. We hope that the Government will do that, thereby proving that they are interested not only in the many, who make up the mass of the figures in the league tables, but the few who are often on the wrong side of the statistics that people use to judge schools.

11.3 am

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing the debate. I know that he takes a particular interest in the subject, and he gave a thoughtful speech this morning. I am not sure that I want to go all the way down the road that he took us, but I recognise his interest in the matter. I note that the Liberal Democrats are interested in traversing that road, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) showed.

For our part, it is now generally accepted that parents have a right to know the information that is contained in the tables; it should be published. It acts as a spur to better performance. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was right when he said that publication has been one of the factors that has driven up standards. It is worth recalling that that was not always the case. The previous Government began to collect and publish information, in the face of bitter opposition from certain quarters. It certainly was not greeted with acclaim on all sides. That Government had the wisdom and foresight to persevere in the face of all that was thrown at it. By the end of their period of office, there was more general acceptance of the publication of tables. The Government were engaged in preparatory work on including a measure of value added in the performance data, to give an even fuller picture. I refer to performance data based on prior attainments. I shall say more about the different forms of value added later. We are interested in prior attainment and have reservations, to say the least, about other notions of value added.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister the latest state of play in the Government's plans for measuring value added on the basis of prior attainment. I do not want to repeat the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, but it did not escape my attention either that there seems to have been a bit of back-sliding on the part of the Government. Having started out stating that they intended to work on value added, they are slipping back. We were told in the departmental report of last year that, in the medium term, the performance tables will include measures of value added by schools for the education of their pupils. It is entirely right to ask what the medium term is in that context.

The Minister should also answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Bury, North. We are interested in the same question, but from a different direction. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he wants to go on, after prior attainment has been taken into account as value added, to look at other measures as well, based on factors other than prior attainment. What is the Government's attitude to that? When they talk about value added, do they mean simply prior attainment, or will they consider other factors, such as social factors and educational performance, as suggested by the hon. Member for Bury, North? We think that that is a dangerous route to take. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) is right to say that it muddies the waters and makes things less clear. The hon. Member for Bury, North gave a thoughtful speech, but I was not entirely clear whether he wanted the measures of value added, as he would have them, to be in addition to the league tables that we have, which are based on prior attainment, or whether he wanted them to be replaced.

Mr. Chaytor

I should confirm that they would be in addition. My criticism of the current system is its selective use of freedom of information. I want a more comprehensive presentation of information.

Mr. Clappison

If that is so, we need to know the Government's attitude. Do they want to go down that route? Do they want value added to be measured according to social factors? We think that that would muddy the waters and complicate the picture for parents. There would be difficulties in selecting the factors that need to be taken into account in measuring value added. Many factors and considerations would complicate the picture greatly when what parents really want is a measure of the performance of schools and the value added that is given to the pupils through good teaching. The Government need to clarify matters.

There is still work to be done on information about performance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, we want publication of the results for reading and maths at key stage 1 in national performance tables on a school by school basis, to enable parents to see how well those schools are performing. Exactly the same arguments apply in respect of the publication of performance data at key stage 1 as now apply at key stage 2. Parents have the right to know and it will help to drive up standards if such information is given to them. What is the Government's attitude to that? It is an entirely natural development of the existing system that will help to drive up standards. What is the Government's timetable and approach at key stage 2 on value added based on prior attainment? We are aware that the Government said a lot about that early on in their Administration, but we have not seen much action. The Minister needs to say clearly what the Government intend and where they are heading.

The hon. Member for Bury, North is not alone in his fascination for league tables; we are all interested in them. They are widely available and appear in many newspapers. Indeed, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale in hoping that they will become available on the internet. The media do not publish such information out of curiosity; they know that parents are very interested in it. It is good that parents receive it, but we would like them to be given even more information. We believe that they have a right to know, because it is good for the education of their children and it helps to drive up standards. We now need some clear answers from the Government on where we go from here.

11.10 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

Given that some hon. Members have been up all night for the sitting of the House, the quality of the debate has been particularly high. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on securing further discussion of school performance. I am aware of his interest in the progress of schools—in Bury and nationally—and of his concerns, which are shared by the Government. However, I do not necessarily agree with his solution that we need to publish fair, accurate and genuinely comparable information on achievements in schools.

I commend the schools in my hon. Friend's constituency. I congratulate the teachers, pupils, governors and the local education authority on their good work, which is represented in the performance tables and, as my hon. Friend said, in other sources of information.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to say a few words about the value of performance tables—and their limitations—and about the Government's progress on ensuring that they are accurate and truthful, and that they give a fair representation of what is happening in our schools. The clear consensus is that the debate is no longer about whether tables should be published, but about what information should be published and how.

The Government are aware of the challenges that have been mentioned this morning. We are also aware of the difficulties of publishing the information. We must ensure that tables promote accountability, but we must do so in a way that supports the Government's educational objectives of raising standards and promoting inclusion. We should celebrate improvements in schools and properly reflect what schools have achieved, given the challenges that they face. However, performance tables should not create perverse incentives because of the manner in which the information is publicised.

The Government agreed that tables should be more than a simple annual report of a school's raw results. We should focus firmly on measures of improvement. I emphasise that I am speaking about performance tables, not league tables. I believe strongly that the tables produce information about the relative performance of schools, although I fear what local and national newspapers might choose to make of the information. The Government can take some responsibility for what is published. However, if we have the power to control the message that goes out about schools, please believe me—we would use it. Some of the messages that hon. Members have mentioned this morning show that the information that we want to emphasise about our local schools is not necessarily what gets into the newspapers.

We have taken steps to ensure that the performance tables reflect matters that we believe are important, and that they do not result in perverse incentives. Our first step in 1997 was to provide information showing the changes in GCSE results, to enable readers of those tables to see whether schools improved their results over the next four years. I note that three secondary schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North maintained or improved their performance between 1996 and 1999. They deserve to be congratulated on that.

We now include information showing trends in GCSE, A-level and AS-level exam results and trends in key stage 2 results. That gives people the opportunity to focus on whether schools are improving their performance. When publishing the performance tables, we single out the top 100 primary and secondary schools that have managed to sustain an improvement over the previous four years. Those schools certainly deserve to be praised for their achievements. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) mentioned the event that took place in December to celebrate success. It is important to note that that event was about celebrating the success not only of those schools at the top of the league tables that are published by others, but of those schools that have shown improvement over a period.

We place great emphasis not only on those pupils who achieve five A-star to C passes, but on those who leave school with no GCSE or general national vocational qualification passes—a matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). I hope to reassure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) that we want the performance tables and other published information so as to ensure that schools focus on raising standards for all young people, and that all young people are included in the improved standards.

We have also provided new information on GCSE and GNVQ results by introducing an average points score per pupil. That is quite important, as it addresses the concerns of those hon. Members who thought that the target of five A-star to C grades did not recognise the achievement of teachers who help young people to achieve a D instead of an E grade, which I fully accept can be a great achievement. The average points score ensures that the results of all the young people entered for GCSE exams are represented.

We have improved the information provided on pupils with special educational needs by showing how many pupils with statements of special educational needs there are in the cohort of pupils to whom the results relate. The information provided in the tables will help readers to put a school's results into the context of the school's work with children with special educational needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) made a powerful contribution. She eloquently highlighted what I accept is a difficulty, which is how fully to reflect the achievements of special schools and ordinary schools that make an effort to include children with special educational needs. In fact, we receive as many calls for pupils with special educational needs to be excluded from the performance tables as we do for more information to be published in the performance tables about students with special educational needs. That is not an excuse, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises the difficulty. The fact that we have not solved the problem does not mean that we believe that those achievements are not important. We must continue looking for ways to ensure that those achievements are reflected.

Certificates of achievement are important. When including new qualifications in the performance tables, we must be clear about their equivalents if we are to make a true comparison. That answers the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who spoke of the importance of ensuring a rigorous analysis of the equivalents of existing qualifications. I can assure him that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has undertaken rigorous work to ensure that that equivalence on GNVQs is included in performance tables. I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the way in which young people who take GCSEs a year early are included in the league tables. The results at year 11 are cumulative in terms of results achieved, regardless of whether they were achieved that year or in the previous year. However, if he writes to me on the particular cases that he is concerned about, I shall follow that up.

To turn to some of the substantive points made by the hon. Member for Bury, North, we have also stepped up the pace of developing value-added measures for publication. We face certain constraints in regard to performance tables: we must ensure that we do not overburden schools with checking the information or overload parents with too much information, so that even those who are not performance-table junkies—as most hon. Members present seem to be—will be able to get the information that they need from it.

It is also important to point out that tables are not the only source of information available. I would strongly emphasis the need for parents to look at the whole range of information available on a school—the prospectus, for example, which already gives parents the opportunity to analyse, to take up the point of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), information about key stage 1 results. We encourage parents to look at the whole range of information. Our parents' website, launched last year, also gives parents the opportunity for parents to access it on a geographical basis, or on the basis of their children's ages; it provides information about the school's performance, linked to the Office of Standards in Education and the schools' website. So I hope that we are keeping up with the technological revolution.

The issue of value added is very important. We need to clarify the uses to which we put it. The Government have done important work in their publication of the autumn package, which gives schools the type of benchmarking information that is important in enabling schools to consider how they can use value added to improve the school. The hon. Member for Bury North, mentioned, among other acronyms, the YELLIS and the ALIS schemes, which I used myself when I was teaching and found useful in ensuring that targets are set for individuals in the school. However, there is a difference between the use of the information for school improvement and its use in terms of the publication. There are many calls to introduce socio-economic measures or other factors to adjust the real results published in the performance tables. Although I can understand the motivation for those calls—it may be important for schools to use such adjustment factors within their schools improvement process—we will continue to resist them. We do not want to create a situation whereby schools feel able to use such factors as an excuse for poor performance. There is a big distinction between the best and the least best performing schools in the same socio-economic band and we need to address that.

Considerable progress has been made on value added measures. We need to emphasise that one of the challenges that the Government have faced in bringing them forward has been the need to base them not only on prior attainment, as the hon. Gentleman stressed, but on a pupil's individual progress. He said that the previous Government had made preparations for that, but we found that the mechanisms were not in place to measure pupils' individual progress, which we believe should be the basis of publication. We have now put them into place. We expect the individual pupil information that was first succesfully captured in 1998 to come to fruition in the near future; without having taken that rigorous approach to individual pupil attainment, we would have run the risk of attracting the criticism of those, for example, who have highlighted mobility as an issue that affects schools. We expect to publish in the league tables for 2004 value added for key stages 2 to 4 based on individual pupil attainment. That will be very important. We are already working on pilots for the publication of value added in sixth forms and FE colleges.

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