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Educational Attainment

Volume 450: debated on Thursday 12 October 2006

4. What additional measures his Department has considered in order to reduce the number of school leavers not attaining basic standards of literacy and numeracy. (92860)

Since 1997, the number of children achieving five or more A* to C GCSEs, including English and mathematics, has increased by almost nine percentage points. We are determined to ensure that every child masters the basics. From this year we will measure the proportion of children achieving five A* to C grades, including English and mathematics. We are investing £990 million in personalised learning to provide more catch-up lessons in English and maths. The key stage 3 curriculum and English and maths GCSEs are being reviewed to emphasise functional skills.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I welcome the Government’s response and the investment that they are making to improve standards of literacy and numeracy, but does he agree that many school leavers do not achieve the basic standards, and that there is still a genuine problem? Even with the Government’s best efforts, we have to do more about that. Will he consider carefully what additional help he can give to try to alleviate the problem, and will he consult people in schools to find out exactly what is required to bring such children up to standard?

My hon. Friend is right that there is more to do, and I have just described the initiatives that we are introducing. At the heart of the issue there is an expectation of high attainment and absolutely no excuses. If we get the basics right, and if, for instance, we can ensure that children succeed at level 4, that key stage at which they leave primary school with the basics of English and mathematics, everything else in their future education can be built on that platform. All the evidence shows that that is the crucial stage. We have moved from 63 per cent. of pupils reaching that stage in English to 79 per cent. of pupils doing so, but we need to move further. I agree with my hon. Friend that more has to be done, but of course that does not detract from all the excellent work that teachers and head teachers—not politicians—are doing in our schools to bring about the enormous improvements that have taken place in the past nine years.

The Government were quick to require schools to teach phonics, but that was only one area highlighted by the Rose report. Why have the Government not addressed other areas, such as speaking and listening skills, which are a foundation for achieving literacy and numeracy?

We have concentrated on phonics, but that does not mean that we have ignored the other excellent suggestions in the Rose report. Phonics has received coverage, and the issues that the hon. Lady mentions have not, but they are a crucial part of the foundation stage. Jim Rose and his people are absolutely right to highlight the importance of listening and speaking skills. In addition, the “social and emotional aspects of learning” project is hugely successful, and is being rolled out across primary schools. The teachers to whom I have spoken think that it is long overdue and will bring about a huge improvement in those soft skills that pupils increasingly need in the modern labour environment.

Why do we allow children to keep progressing through the school years when they have serious difficulty in reading? Frighteningly high numbers of children in the higher years of our secondary and upper schools cannot read well. The head teachers to whom I speak in my constituency would like the flexibility, within existing budgets, to give intensive remedial reading provision to those children. Why can they not do that?

In my reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), I said that £990 million is being invested in personalised learning. We have asked Christine Gilbert to produce a report on the subject, which is imminent. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) is right: we should concentrate on catch-up, and on ensuring that children who do not reach the right standard at level 2 and level 3 receive the kind of attention that they need to reach that key stage at level 4. Some 66 per cent. of children who reach the right standard in English at level 4 aged 11 will go on to obtain five good GCSEs, but only 9 per cent of those who do not reach that standard will do the same. Level 4 is a crucial stage. The hon. Gentleman is right, but that is why I spoke about almost £1 billion going into personalised learning and catch-up, which is crucial to improving results.

Millions of Britons, without the ability to read a story to their children or write a letter, feel cheated. One in three employers send their staff for remedial training to teach them to read, write and count; and even if the Government reach their targets in 2020, 4 million Britons will not have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. With 50,000 school leavers each year functionally illiterate or innumerate, do not the Government realise that they must tackle the skills problem at its root, in primary schools, or is it just that the Secretary of State does not have the skills to do the job?

I shall ignore that barbed remark, which wounded me deeply. It is extraordinary that anyone from the Conservative Front Bench should stand up and make criticisms about literacy and numeracy. The National Foundation for Educational Research published a report in 1996 that showed that for 50 years we had flat-lined on literacy and numeracy. Jim Rose, whom I mentioned earlier, said in the opening paragraph of his review of teaching of early reading—an independent review—

“Over the first nine years of the National Curriculum”—

that is, 1989 to 1998—

“very little impact was made on raising standards of reading. . . That changed markedly with the advent of the National Literacy Strategy in 1998.”

I applaud the previous Government for introducing accountability, introducing the regulator and ensuring that there were standards. However, nine years after they did that, nothing had happened, so we have put a huge amount of effort through teachers and head teachers to give children the skills that they need. We have raised educational attainment in literacy and numeracy massively, which is why people from countries all round the world are coming to the Britain to see how we did it.