HC Deb 05 November 1991 vol 198 cc58-9W
Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he intends to respond to the third report, Session 1990–91, of the Education, Science and Arts Committee on standards of reading in primary schools.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I have written today to the Chairman of the Select Committee, setting out the Government's response.

The report is an important timely contribution to the current debate on reading standards in schools. Its conclusion that a fall in reading standards has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt provides no grounds for complacency. Rather it highlights the inadequacies of our present data, and the need for a reliable and consistent basis for the measurement of pupils' attainments. This is just what the national curriculum and the associated testing arrangements will provide.

Reading is the most fundamental of skills and the Government are determined to ensure that standards are improved in line with society's ever-more demanding needs for literacy. My response to the Select Committee sets out the steps we are taking to secure such improvements, notably through the implementation of the national curriculum which establishes clear national targets for pupils' reading across the full age range for compulsory education. Pupils' progress will be measured against those targets at the ages of seven, 11, 14 and 16. The results will help teachers to build up a detailed picture of each pupil's strengths and weaknesses to inform their teaching. They will also give parents the accurate information about their children's progress to which they are entitled under the parents charter. In aggregate they will in due course enable comparisons to be made of pupils' performance, for example, between the sexes, between local education authorities and between schools. I shall shortly publish an analysis of the results of the first tests of the performance of pupils at the age of seven.

The recent changes that I have announced to the system of testing of seven-year olds will give more detailed information to parents and the public next year. Teachers will be required to make a more precise grading of the reading attainments of those seven-year olds—roughly half the age group in 1991—who were assessed as of average ability for their age. We shall also be introducing for the first time in 1992 an optional written test of reading comprehension which will likewise be aimed at pupils of average ability and yield a finer grading of their attainments.

All schools should strive to match the standards of the best. The Government have taken a number of measures to promote good practice in the teaching of reading. HMI's findings on good practice based on a report produced last January have been circulated to schools, and discussed at regional conferences for LEA inspectors and advisers. HMI has also provided guidance for schools on how to improve their libraries. Substantial resources have been made available for books related to the national curriculum and the training of school library staff, as well as for in-service teacher training.

Local education authorities should ensure that reading standards in their area are kept under review. The Government have urged all education committees to take an active and critical interest in this. The report rightly emphasises the importance of the active engagement of parents. Schools will be required to include in all reports the name of a contact with whom parents can discuss their children's progress. The Government are also supporting projects designed to strengthen home-school links, particularly in inner-city areas.

Copies of the Government's response are being placed in the Library of the House.