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Literacy and Numeracy Standards

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

Last year 79 per cent. of pupils achieved the target level 4 or more in English and 76 per cent. did so in mathematics. This represents a significant improvement in the standards of literacy and numeracy in schools compared with, say, 1997 when fewer than two thirds of pupils reached the target level in either subject.

Under this Government, schools in Tewkesbury, the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, have made a 14 percentage point improvement for 11-year-olds and a 16 percentage point increase in maths at the same level.

I thank the Minister for that response, which demonstrates how good teaching in Tewkesbury is. However, is it not the case that the increase in standards over the past few years has rather plateaued, and the children who are losing out are those from poorer backgrounds? Given that the previous Prime Minister was elected on the pledge of being tough on not only crime but the causes of crime, rather than looking to build more prisons, would it not be better to tackle the problems that are experienced by the poorest members of society who fail at 11, go on to play truant and then go on to prison? The prisons are full of people who are illiterate or innumerate so, after 10 years of Labour Government, should they not be doing rather better?

I am not the Prisons Minister—right now anyway. [Laughter.] I will therefore not comment on much of that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about plateauing, but he may not know that, in 1996, the National Foundation for Educational Research reported that there had been no improvement in primary standards for 50 years. We have seen significant improvements in the last 10 years that we should celebrate, and the new Prime Minister in his Mansion house speech last week talked about measures that he wants to see us implement in the future to attack some of the problems regarding the children who still need to improve and the narrowing of attainment gaps around income, ethnicity and gender. For example, he talked about the new learning credit that will mean that those on low income receive the support that they need.

Before my hon. Friend becomes Prisons Minister or something else, will he ensure that further research is done on not only the improved literacy and numeracy results, but on the really troubling problems in some areas of selective education where grammar schools exist and the overall package of education is not very good for the entirety of the population? In fact, many of the struggling young people mentioned by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) do very badly in those areas.

My hon. Friend hits upon a very interesting question. I know that it is the subject of much research in the academic community, and I looked at some from the university of York fairly recently that reinforces the point that he makes. Those in selective areas who are not selected into grammar schools suffer from poor outcomes and that is why the Government remain opposed to any new forms of selection and why some Members on the Opposition Front Bench agree with us.

Who does the Minister hold responsible for the decline in the performance of young working-class white children in our schools? Does he take any responsibility for the policies of the last 10 years that have led to that decline?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills and, from his close analysis of statistics, he should be aware of the fact that, although we have concerns about the white working-class boys whose standards have improved but are still not good enough, their improvement is above the national average. We are starting to see the gap narrowed. With, for example, the measures outlined in Christine Gilbert’s review of personalised learning that we published at the beginning of the year and with some of the measures on personalisation and catch-up and stretch that the Prime Minister talked about in his Mansion house speech, we are confident that we will start to address the problem more effectively.

The Minister talked about narrowing gaps and we have seen a real and steady narrowing of the gap in key stage 2 achievement of boys and girls in writing. I am concerned, however, that the gap in reading is more variable from year to year; it seems to me that boys do better in years in which the books that they like to read are published. Does he have any proposals to do more to engage boys with reading so that they can properly compete towards the end of primary school?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the most persistent gender gap being that relating to boys’ reading. We have the national year of reading next year, the roll-out of the every child a reader programme and the success of the reading recovery programmes. We want to see those things expanded to address the persistence of that gap. Naturally, if people are struggling with their reading, in time they will be struggling with the whole of the curriculum, because it is difficult to learn without the ability to read well.

In spite of the moderate improvements in standards in primary schools over the last decade, which the Minister referred to and which I acknowledge, 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds still leave primary school without having mastered the basics of reading, writing and maths. Synthetic phonics—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] They expected me to say that. Synthetic phonics will clearly help to improve literacy, but the TIMSS—the trends in international mathematics and science study—survey, showed that only 5 per cent. of 14-year-olds in the UK achieved the advanced level in the TIMSS mathematics assessment compared with 44 per cent. of 14-year-olds in Singapore. Does the Minister share my view that, having started to roll back the failed progressive approaches to teaching reading, we need to look closely at how maths is taught in primary schools to ensure that it follows tried and tested methods and international best practice?

The Prime Minister is ahead of the hon. Gentleman. He has already announced the every child counts programme, which involves direct intervention to build on the sorts of things that we have learned have been successful with the every child a reader programme and to apply those same things to maths. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that even one of our harshest critics, Professor Alan Smithers, acknowledges that at primary school level our best improvement is in maths. The hon. Gentleman quoted some perhaps slightly misleading statistics. In maths, the figure is up 17 points, meaning that 76 per cent. are reaching the national standard at 11. That is an impressive improvement given the plateauing for 50 years that I talked about earlier.