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Secondary Schools

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

Since 1997, education has been this Government’s top priority. We have doubled spending per pupil, and there are now 36,000 more teachers and 150,000 more support staff. We are investing more than £1 billion in personalising learning by 2008. The secondary national strategy is improving the quality of teaching and learning with training and support for teachers. Our 14-to-19 reforms, including the introduction of diplomas, will enhance our focus on functional skills. Attainment has increased at all levels in secondary schools since 1997, and the number of schools with fewer than 25 per cent. of pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs is down from 616 in 1997 to 47 this year, and 85,000 more students achieve that standard each year.

Will the Secretary of State explain why in Milton Keynes, where we are having to build new schools, English Partnerships will charge full price to the local authority for a piece of land if a secondary school is being built, but if the same site is used for a primary school, it will transfer the land at zero cost? Why is there an imbalance between the two different types of school? Since the Secretary of State has such commitment to secondary education, will he look at the matter? And will he meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it?

That does not sound right to me, and I would happily meet a delegation from Milton Keynes to discuss it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the figures that are coming out about the success of extended schools are quite remarkable and should be applauded? Will he begin a campaign to get more Members of Parliament to go out and visit more schools? As I go round the country visiting secondary schools, I see improving achievement, whereas many Conservative Members seem only ever to have been to the independent schools that they were raised in.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am getting to the age when as I look around at the new intake, some of them look as though they have just left secondary school. I think that we would all agree that it is a very fulfilling experience to go and visit our local schools—much more so now than it was 10 years ago.

The Secretary of State is no doubt aware of the decline in the study of languages in secondary schools, following the Government’s decision to relax the curriculum. We all want to see the study of languages prosper, and we now have the Dearing proposals to try to address the problem. Does the Secretary of State believe that following those proposals there will be an increase in the number of candidates in our secondary schools for public examinations in languages at GCSE and A-level?

Lord Dearing has done a valuable task, and his report is full of good sense. We have accepted his principal recommendation that we should make languages compulsory in primary schools, and we will do so at the next available opportunity when we review that key stage. As for children in secondary schools, we need to do much more to encourage schools to go for a much higher benchmark. On Saturday, I was at Wakefield city high school, which is in the middle of a council estate and has a large intake of pupils who have free school meals. The number of students taking languages has not changed since we moved from compulsion to entitlement. That is because of inspirational, very good-quality languages teaching and a method of teaching that enthuses youngsters. That represents a large part of Lord Dearing’s recommendations, and we should ensure that it happens in every secondary school.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Wakefield city high school with me on Saturday, when its inspirational head teacher, Alan Yellop, told us how he took a school where just 7 per cent. of pupils were getting five good A to C grades at GCSE in 1994 to one that is not only performing above the national average in absolute terms but is in the top 5 per cent. of the country, in value-added terms, for maths. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider the need for capital financing to rebuild that school? Following our tour, I am sure that he will agree that we urgently need a significant investment in the school to ensure that its high-quality teaching and inspirational leadership continue.

There we have it. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), I can say that MPs are not only visiting schools but doing so on a Saturday. [Interruption.] There were children in attendance. My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a tremendous school with tremendous leadership, great teaching and improved results. The capital spend needs to go in, because the school is in a poor condition. We understand that. That is why we are refurbishing and rebuilding every single secondary school and have targeted the capital funding available to local authorities to deal with schools such as Wakefield city high. I hope that that school will soon have an infrastructure to match its tremendous teaching.

The Secretary of State will know that one of the measures that the Government have taken to improve secondary schools is to allow them to move to trust status. Ryeish Green school in my constituency is undergoing a consultation on closure. It is a much improved school that wants to be a trust school, and it looks as though it has the strong support of a very good local organisation. The only problem is that the local education authority needs some persuasion. Will the Secretary of State meet people from the school, the local education authority and me to bring all parties together to ensure that this opportunity to raise secondary school standards is taken?

I will certainly facilitate such a meeting. If the circumstances are as the hon. Gentleman describes—I have no reason to doubt him—we should include the school among the many that wish to introduce trust status in the next couple of years.

Educational achievement in Hartlepool has doubled in a decade, facilitated largely by a doubling of spend per pupil by the Labour Government. Whereas fewer than 30 per cent. of pupils in 1996 achieved five good GCSEs, 60 per cent. now achieve that. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, following the current comprehensive spending review, which is acknowledged to be tighter than previous rounds, education will continue to be a central focus of the Government’s policy so that pupils in Hartlepool can continue to benefit from rising standards and increasing spending?

The achievement in Hartlepool is truly remarkable. It should be a beacon to other areas of the country, which have similar circumstances but have not managed the same achievement.

I obviously cannot comment on the comprehensive spending review. However, we are locking £66 billion of funding into the Department this year—record amounts are being spent on education and I hope that we will retain that and have a real-terms increase on top.

Despite the record spending on education and the plethora of initiatives that the Secretary of State has described this morning, only 75 per cent. of youngsters this year reached the level expected of them in key stage 2 tests in English, maths and science. Is it not time that the Secretary of State took on the left-wing, liberal establishment, which dominates education, brought an end to all-ability comprehensive schools and mixed teaching classes, and introduced traditional methods of teaching English?

The reference to liberals certainly created a stir on the Liberal Democrat Benches.

The hon. Gentleman talks about 75 per cent. achievement in three subjects at key stage 2. He needs to consider the position in 1997, since when a tremendous amount of progress has been made. That is due not to politicians, educationists or civil servants, but to teachers and head teachers. They do a tremendous job.

Much of changing the culture has to do with building aspiration, especially, as I said yesterday, among working-class boys. That matter is being addressed, but with a teaching profession that is in better shape. There are more teachers and they comprise probably the best cohort of teachers that we have ever had in this country—whether they are left-wing liberals is a matter for them.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that the key to raising standards is good teaching. Yet time and again, the Select Committee in its investigations finds deficiencies in teacher training. Teachers will face far more demands in future with the changing curriculum. When will my right hon. Friend examine the content of teacher training courses for initial training and continuous professional development to ensure that we have a teaching work force that is adequately trained for the demands of the 21st century?

I very much agree with that sentiment. If it were in my gift—which it is not—my hon. Friend would be a Minister. She raised an important point, which the Select Committee has made on occasions. Its distinguished Chair is sitting near my hon. Friend—perhaps another ministerial job approaches?

Both my hon. Friends would agree that we have done much to improve teacher training and the work that goes into that from the Training and Development Agency and others. Much work is going into school leadership and getting teachers to aspire to it. The challenge of introducing diplomas and the various other measures that we are taking requires us to redouble our efforts to ensure that our teacher training and our career professional development is of the highest quality that we can make it. We are working towards that and I believe that we share that objective with my hon. Friends.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the previous question, does he agree that the curriculum is critical to raising standards in secondary schools? Given his comments last week about the danger of the new diplomas going horribly wrong and becoming “secondary-modern” qualifications, will he now rethink and implement Tomlinson in full?

No, I will not, although I understand the balance of the arguments over Tomlinson. Tomlinson himself, of course, is now our diploma champion, to use a terrible term, with the education profession and he says that the report provided 90 per cent. of what he was looking for. I actually think it would be wrong—for parents, for pupils, for everyone—just to throw everything up in the air and get rid of the A-level, which has been our gold standard since the early 1950s, when we have this opportunity for children to follow such diverse routes. They can go down the GCSE, the A-level, the international baccalaureate or the diploma route.

Incidentally, while I have the opportunity to say so, I was giving an honest answer to an honest question. I said that diplomas are so difficult and radical that they could go badly wrong. Short of saying that introducing these diplomas will be a breeze, we have to acknowledge that it could go wrong, but we are determined that it will not, which is why we are putting considerable resources and effort into ensuring that this most radical change takes off and becomes the success that we all hope it will be.

The reference to the left-wing liberal establishment by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who I believe is a refugee from teaching, encourages me to my feet. Does the Secretary of State agree that the sort of genuinely comprehensive schools of which I am a governor—Ibstock community college and Ashby school in north-west Leicestershire—provide very high-quality education and a model for all types of local education authority? Does he further agree that it is no surprise that genuinely comprehensive LEAs outscore and outpoint parts of the country, such as Kent, Buckinghamshire and Northern Ireland, in respect of the quality of education supplied?

I agree that all-ability, non-selective schools right across the country are good schools. Some of them are comprehensive, some are academies and some are trust schools, but what we should focus on is not the terminology, but whether or not the schools are good. Where they are good schools, it is not particularly because they are labelled comprehensive or anything else, but because of good leadership, good teaching and a good ethos in the school. I accept that it is the all-ability, non-selective feature that is important, and we need to continue to hammer home the fact that that is the way forward. There are still some people harking back to a golden age, though not the Conservative party nowadays—[Interruption.] No, not the Front Benchers, and perhaps not many behind them. All our experience suggests that the sort of schools of which my hon. Friend is a governor produce astounding results year after year. We want to ensure that every school is in the same situation.

One of the main focuses of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s secondary curriculum review appears to be to encourage schools to move away from discrete academic subjects towards more joint subject teaching and themes. The QCA’s director of curriculum thinks it would be “lovely” if the PE teacher turned up in the history lesson, and Professor John White, an external adviser to the curriculum review, believes:

“The academic, subject-based curriculum is a middle-class creation”


“rationale has long fallen away”.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that quality and rigour are maintained in our curriculum, and can he reassure the House that the revised curriculum is not being used as a pretext to impose a potentially damaging and untested educational fad on our schools?

It is not too difficult for me to give the hon. Gentleman those assurances. The reason why we are so keen to introduce functional skills, for instance, in English, maths and science is to ensure that we make life more difficult for ourselves by having an absolutely staunch benchmark that we can test against. As to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I see the views of educational theorists all the time and some of them are very interesting. I would point out that Lord Dearing made an important point in his report this week—that languages can be introduced to other subjects to make them more interesting. He made the point that it could be helpful if sports or history and geography lessons had a languages dimension.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but if it is a choice between taking advice from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) or from Lord Dearing, I would take Lord Dearing’s.