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Educational Standards

Volume 467: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

Standards have risen over the past decade and the reforms that I have announced to offer more personalised learning in schools and to give teachers more power to enforce discipline in the classroom, as well as our local strategies to tackle poorly performing schools, will all help to drive standards up even further, especially when backed up by the doubling of real-terms per pupil spending since 1997.

Will the Secretary of State take responsibility for the fact that the brand-new £24 million Bishops Park college in Clacton, which was opened by the previous leader of the Labour party a week before the last general election, now faces closure? Does he agree that closure after only two years represents appallingly bad value for public money and appalling failure to raise local standards?

I will not take that responsibility. The decisions to open the school and to plan places in the local area are both the responsibility of the local authority. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about how those responsibilities have been taken forward, I suggest that he raises them with the local authority rather than with myself.

At the launch of past education policies, the Prime Minister and Ministers rushed down to the flagship private finance initiative Highlands school in my constituency. I appreciate that it is more awkward now that Enfield, Southgate benefits from Conservative representation, but I invite the Secretary of State to visit Highlands school to explain why it should rush to introduce diplomas next year, given that the school has only just decided not to go ahead with the international baccalaureate tests, which failed the school, so it is now setting about reintroducing A-levels. On second thoughts, perhaps the Secretary of State should keep away from Highlands school and let it get on with doing a better job of A-levels.

I am very happy to come and visit. When I do, I will discuss with the school—and with local parents, if the hon. Gentleman would like me to—our policy on diplomas. Let me be clear that we are not going to force parents or schools to teach diplomas, as it will be a matter for local schools and parents to decide, but we will ensure that diplomas are introduced in a comprehensive way. We have added in new diplomas for science, modern languages and humanities to ensure that we have a comprehensive and first-class choice of diplomas, which should be available for all young people by 2011. As I have said, I believe that the diplomas system can be comprehensive and first class and that diplomas could become the qualification of choice, but that will be a matter for the market, parents and schools to decide and not for me to impose.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although standards have risen progressively at secondary level, there is something in the “Teach First” document that is to be published this week about the size of schools? Does he agree with the authors that in the secondary world, small can sometimes be beautiful?

The “Teach First” report is very interesting. It does not say that smaller schools are the way forward, but rather that within schools a case can be made for using house systems or mixed-year tutorial groups to help drive up performance while at the same time providing pastoral care in a more personal form that can be achieved in very large schools. I do not think that the evidence shows that standards have risen either faster or slower in larger or smaller schools. As my noble Friend Lord Adonis said at the weekend, the “Teach First” report definitely deserves study.

The Secretary of State will know that all the research shows that good quality sports facilities and having sport in schools raises standards. Why, then, given the welcome building schools for the future programme, is a school such as Stockwell Park in the most deprived part of Lambeth, which currently has a good 25 m swimming pool, to be totally rebuilt minus its swimming pool? Surely that does not show that we mean what we say when we talk about joined-up thinking, bringing together and tackling obesity in our inner-city areas.

As my hon. Friend will know, a quiet revolution has been happening in school sports over the last few years. In 2002, 25 per cent. of young people were doing the required amount of sport a week; 85 per cent. are doing it now. Just a few weeks ago, I visited the school that my hon. Friend mentioned and met the head teacher—and I know that she did an excellent job. We will ensure that “Building Schools for the Future” provides the flexibility that we need in order to drive up standards and provide the facilities necessary to support the needs of all children in our society.

How can the Secretary of State talk about improving discipline in schools when even the most basic elements of home-school contracts are not legally enforceable and when, in dealing even with the most disruptive pupils, head teachers and boards of governors can be overruled by independent panels?

The fact is that we have implemented the Steer review and given head teachers and governors the powers that they need. I stand ready to give any extra powers that they ask for, so that we have the discipline in the classroom that we need to ensure that we continue to drive up standards in our schools.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should congratulate the city of Nottingham on the fact that the number of pupils who attain GCSEs at A to C grade has gone up by six times the national average, admittedly from a very low base? Does he have further plans to alter that persistent attainment gap?

I join my hon. Friend in passing on those congratulations. In the figures that I published a few weeks ago of the top 20 local authorities that had the largest improvement in grades in the last year, Nottingham was, I think, fifth on the list and therefore deserves all the congratulations of my hon. Friend, myself and all hon. Members. However, there is more that we can do. The extra funding that we have given to personalise learning to make sure that we have extra help for those who fall behind in primary and secondary schools will do more to ensure that we help Nottingham to do even better in the years to come than it has done already in its GCSE performance.

Coming back to the issue of vocational diplomas, what level of take-up would constitute a success in the Secretary of State’s view?

I am not going to prejudge that now. While the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) continue to call the diplomas “vocational”, I think that they will be both academic and vocational—both practical and theoretical—and can become comprehensive and first class. I disagree that they are somehow a fantasy or second-class qualification. To give the impression that vocational qualifications are second class is quite wrong. As I said, I think that they can become the qualification of choice. That will mean that the majority of them will be taken in schools in the next decade. However, I am not going to prejudge the timetable for that. As I said, I will let the market—parents and teachers—decide. In the end, they will listen not to me, but to universities and employers, which are increasingly saying that these are good, excellent and, indeed, better qualifications for young people to be studying. But of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will see that over the next few years.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that school standards and child poverty are inextricably linked because if a child’s home circumstances are difficult it is very difficult for them to achieve at school, and if they do not get decent qualifications, that poverty is perpetuated throughout their life. Will he take the opportunity to tell the House whether the Government are still committed to the target of abolishing child poverty? If so, what does he hope to achieve in his role to push that forward?

The answer is yes, definitely. As my hon. Friend will know, because she was with me and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in No. 11 only last week when we met Save the Children, it is the view of the Chancellor and myself that the child poverty goal is essential. We will not be able to deliver excellence for all unless we tackle the causes of poor performance in schools. One of those causes is child poverty. Therefore, if we are to be an “Every Child Matters” Government—if we are to ensure that we tackle all the barriers to poor performance—it is essential that we stay on track to meet our child poverty goal by 2010.

The Secretary of State will have seen the comments by Simon Lebus, chief executive of the Cambridge Assessment exam board, who said:

“There is no doubt that confidence in the value of the A-level currency has suffered in recent years.”

Do the Government accept responsibility for that? Are they not making matters worse by creating academic diplomas in science, the humanities and languages, in direct competition with the GCSE and A-level, thus creating a two-tier system? Does the Secretary of State share our view that we need to retain the A-level, but restore its rigour so that it can once again become the gold standard of the British education system?

I am very confused. [Hon. Members: “Yes.”] One moment the hon. Gentleman tells me that A-levels have fallen in their standing, and then he tells me that I am being accused of undermining the excellence of the A-level. It seems to me that on this issue, as on many others, including grammar schools and diplomas, Opposition Members should sort out their own lives before they start asking questions of me.

The fact is that we are taking steps to improve A-levels, but introducing diplomas at the same time. Geoff Parks, director of undergraduate admissions at Cambridge university, has said:

“I welcome the fact that these new Diplomas will be HE-led and anticipate that many of our academics would welcome a role in their development.”

He has also said that he

“strongly welcomes any moves that will encourage young people to study the sciences, maths and modern languages in particular at a higher level.”

At our press conference, he expressed the view that a diploma in maths for engineering would be a better preparation for studying education at Cambridge university than a maths A-level. I think that rather than lecturing me about Cambridge university reports, the hon. Gentleman should listen to Cambridge university himself, and get his facts right before coming to the House with questions of that kind.

So no acceptance of responsibility there, either.

The Secretary of State just said that the market would decide which exams were taken up, but the market is already deciding. At least 200 independent schools have already adopted the more rigorous international GCSE in maths and science rather than the regular GCSE, but state schools are not allowed to adopt the international GCSE. The Government have been reviewing that position for some months. When will they put state schools on an equal footing with the independent sector, and allow them to adopt the IGCSE?

The reason the exams are not allowed in state schools is that they do not conform to the national curriculum. I think that rather than running down the achievements of our state schools, we should celebrate them. The fact is that their share in A grades in A-levels has been rising, not falling, in recent years.

May I urge the Secretary of State to employ some caution before taking the advice of the privately educated Schools Minister in the other place? Downsizing schools does not necessarily drive up standards. In Leicestershire, the comprehensive system produces schools like my old school, Ashby, a specialist technology and languages college with 1,600 students, which is achieving very high standards. I urge the Secretary of State to visit Ashby school, where I used to be chairman of the governors and am still a governor.

I should be happy to go and look at the school, and I commend its achievements. I do not think we should criticise the Opposition spokesman simply on the grounds that he was privately educated. I am not sure whether that is a fair criticism. It would be fairer to say that he should ensure that he is on solid ground before he makes accusations.