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Public Service Agreement Targets

Volume 403: debated on Monday 10 March 2003

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If he will make a statement on progress in meeting his public service agreement targets in relation to (a) literacy, (b) numeracy and (c) truancy in schools. [108249]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Stephen Twigg)

The standards of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools are at their highest levels ever. We are committed to taking extensive action to raise standards further, and to reduce truancy to achieve the challenging targets that we have set.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his reply. Given that the trumpeted public service agreement targets on literacy and numeracy were missed in 2002, and that the target on truancy was missed and then scrapped, why cannot the hon. Gentleman see that for the Government to fail to meet targets set by independent experts would be disappointing, but to fail to meet targets that they themselves have set requires incompetence on a truly spectacular scale?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should make those remarks in a week when the international reading literacy study has demonstrated that the standards achieved by 10-year-olds in this country are the third best of any country in the advanced industrialised world. That is a great tribute to the success of the national literacy strategy.

We have set very ambitions targets. Since 1997, the numbers of 11-year-olds achieving the expected level in English have risen from 63 per cent. to 75 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to join me in praising that great achievement. Yes, we did not hit the target, but we are not lowering it. We have an ambitious target of 85 per cent. of pupils achieving the expected levels in both English and maths from next year, and we aim to sustain that target through 2005 and 2006. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will support us in seeking to ensure that the vast majority of 11-year-olds reach the expected levels in English and maths.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned primary schools quite specifically. That theme is consistent with what the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the shadow Chancellor, has said. In his piece in The Guardian earlier this week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that 25 per cent. of primary school children could not read, write or count. How does my hon. Friend feel that that compares with the 1997 figure, when 40 per cent. of primary school children were unable to reach level 4?

My hon. Friend is right. The 1997 figures show that 63 per cent. of pupils achieved that level in English, and 62 per cent. in maths. There has been a very substantial improvement. The national literacy and numeracy strategy and the hard work of teachers in our primary schools have ensured that that improvement has come about.

Is not the most common cause of truancy the fact that a pupil cannot keep up with classmates? Does the Minister agree that setting helps to raise standards and reduce truancy? Is not it therefore a cause for concern that the overwhelming majority of lessons in our secondary schools are mixed ability?

The causes of truancy are complex and varied. Different practices are adopted in different schools and areas to tackle that. The evidence on setting is mixed. There is evidence of successful setting in certain subjects at certain stages, and other evidence that shows successful mixed-ability practice. What is important is that we enable head teachers to study the evidence that is available and to make the best decision on setting and mixed ability for the children in their schools.