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International Comparisons

Volume 469: debated on Monday 17 December 2007

2. What international comparative assessments of school performance he has commissioned or evaluated in the last 12 months. (174105)

England has participated in two recent international comparative studies: PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study, which looks at 10-year-olds’ reading attainment; and PISA, the programme for international student assessment, which is on 15-year-olds’ attainment in science, with limited surveys of reading and mathematics. Both enjoyed much higher levels of participation by other countries than previous studies. Independent analysis shows that educational standards in this country continue to improve. We have moved from below average to above average, but, as we said in the children’s plan, we have further to go to achieve world-class standards. We have also recently commissioned a piece of research to benchmark our primary curriculum against high-performing countries in literacy, numeracy and science, the results of which will feed in to the review of the primary curriculum.

The OECD international study, which the Minister mentioned, showed that the UK had fallen from eighth to 24th in the maths league table. Why is that?

The OECD’s study, and a more complete report that it produced a month ago, said that educational performance in England remained very strong. The OECD’s PISA study said that the sampling for reading and maths was too small to use for comparative purposes. The science study, in which England’s 15-year-olds were found to be among the best in the world, should be the baseline for future comparison, not historical comparison.

The English language is this country’s greatest export, but our decline down the international league tables for literacy shows that hundreds of millions of children around the world are learning to read and write English better than children in our own country. Is that not a source of national shame? What is the Minister going to do about it?

Naturally, we are doing a number of things to improve literacy standards in this country, but it is simply wrong to suggest that they are falling; they are continuing to improve. It is great that other countries are improving their literacy standards too, and as I said, more of them are entering the comparative studies. It has been said that one of the studies of literacy should not be used for comparative purposes because the sample was too small, and the basis of most of this country’s fall in the other was the fact that higher attaining readers are not spending enough time reading, and are being too distracted by computer games. Society as a whole needs to tackle that together.

On performance, my hon. Friend probably knows that my county has encountered substantial problems in schools, despite recent improvements. Will he say how he will work with some of the underperforming education authorities to ensure real sustained improvement in schools, so that children can benefit from the increased investment that has been made?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to share responsibility for improvements in literacy with local authorities. National strategies resource is out there working both with local authorities and directly with schools to improve literacy, and to ensure that the findings of Sir Jim Rose’s first review, which promoted the use of synthetic phonics, are used effectively throughout our primary schools so that we can continue to raise standards.

May I urge my hon. Friend to be very cautious when looking at international comparisons? A couple of weeks ago, UNICEF published a report indicating that child poverty in Canada had worsened by 20 per cent. since 1989. Upon investigation, it turned out that a UNICEF official admitted that some of the figures were made up, and further investigation showed that there had been no marked change in child poverty in Canada since 1989. So will my hon. Friend be careful when examining statistics from bodies such as UNICEF?

We do proceed with a certain amount of caution, but we do decide to participate in some of these projects. We need to take forward certain things as a result of the comparative studies—for example, the very large gap in performance between the lower achieving and the highest achieving pupils in this country. Such a gap seems to be more particular to the UK than to elsewhere, and that fact lies behind a lot of the policies in our children’s plan. Concerns about such studies also exist, and we are taking some of those up with the responsible bodies. For example, it is odd that one week’s literacy study shows one country at the top, whereas the following week’s literacy study, carried out by a different organisation, shows that country way below the United Kingdom, in the second division.

How can we ensure that specific science subjects are taught more in our secondary schools by teachers who are specifically qualified in those subjects?

We have had a problem for some time with the number of specialist scientists teaching science, but we are starting to see an improvement. The last time we had oral questions, I announced that, for the first time, we had exceeded 3,000 for the number of new recruits who are specialist scientists. We are also developing a conversion qualification for biologists, because we have plenty of them, so that they can change to physics and chemistry, for which there are shortages. We are doing a number of things, and things are moving in the right direction.

Has my hon. Friend noticed the PISA report on science competencies, which concluded that the governance of schools, especially autonomy, had little effect on educational outcome? What has a real impact is the steepness of socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, will my hon. Friend move the agenda on from school governance to offering opportunity to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, who struggle so much to attain the educational level of the rest of the population?

My hon. Friend will be pleased that the children’s plan shows that we unambiguously set out to narrow the attainment gaps between those from advantaged areas and those from disadvantaged areas. He is right to highlight that aim. However, that is not to say that governance does not have a role. The most important factor in achieving educational success is to combine the engagement of parents with their child’s learning, high-quality teaching driven by good leadership, and good leadership driven by strong governance. That is the model of school improvement that we want, so that we can narrow the attainment gap that my hon. Friend rightly points out.

May I join the Secretary of State in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and every Member of the House a merry Christmas?

Among the torrent of Christmas cards that the Department will be receiving, last Friday the Secretary of State received a letter from more than 500 authors, co-ordinated by Channel 4, pointing out that 10 years after the Government came to power, our literacy performance was plummeting. As Ian Rankin said,

“this shouldn’t be happening in the UK”.

They can have 100 per cent. literacy in villages in Kerala, in one of the most deprived parts of India, but here the Government are going backwards. New targets published under our new Prime Minister show that the Government have actually dropped their more ambitious literacy plans and are now happy to accept that one in six children will leave primary school without being able to read ploperly—I mean properly. [Laughter.] It is terrible—it is happening everywhere! Why is the Government’s approach to literacy leaving children unable to read, and the nation’s authors in despair?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is on the Prime Minister’s Christmas card list, but to help launch the national year of reading next year the Prime Minister has commissioned an illustration for the front of his Christmas card from Shirley Hughes, an esteemed children’s author. I am sure that that will set the national year of reading off to a good start. The national year of reading is an important initiative to encourage the whole country to read, and especially to read with their children.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Channel 4, and I was interested to read the Channel 4 fact-check on his claims that standards in literacy are declining, informed by the OECD report that we are talking about. It states that

“the OECD say that the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards.”

It also says that he has

“failed his exams”

and that

“a man of Gove’s legendary intelligence really has no excuse for trotting out these obviously misleading stats one more time.”

It is interesting that the Minister is now rubbishing the OECD figures, although in 2000 his own Government used those figures to claim, “We are the stars.” The Government quote those figures liberally when they are convenient, but when they are inconvenient, they run away from the truth. What the Minister did not tell us is that in his children’s plan published last week there is not a single mention of the tried-and-tested method of teaching reading which works—synthetic phonics. There is not a single mention of that, two years after the Government appeared to accept Sir Jim Rose’s report; synthetic phonics has been buried under a torrent of strategies on rusks and gloop from the Secretary of State. Should not Ministers, instead of caving in to the educational establishment by getting rid of rigorous testing, simply concentrate on getting children to read?

Certainly the hon. Gentleman should listen more carefully. I was not rubbishing the OECD; that was the OECD rubbishing him. Researchers from the OECD itself said that

“the results do not show any evidence of a real decline in standards.”

In terms of the other stuff that the hon. Gentleman said—[Interruption.] It really was “gloop”, which is the word that he likes to use. The importance that we place on Jim Rose’s synthetic phonics is embedded in the fact that we have asked Jim Rose himself to carry out the review of the primary curriculum, which will ensure that the work he did on synthetic phonics will be carried out and integrated into a reformed primary curriculum.

Is my hon. Friend aware that what the international comparative assessments agree on is that it is a profoundly mistaken idea to force children to learn to read at the age of five, and even more so to drag them off to primary schools a few days after their fourth birthday? The assessments show that the countries that start formal education at the later age of seven are those that do best in the international comparisons.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that we should not be too rigid about what we do for every child. We should ensure that every child has momentum in their learning and that we have more personalised learning. For example, he will be pleased to see that on page 71 of the children’s plan there is an explicit mention of phonics. That does not bear out the reading of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who perhaps needs to read paragraph 3.85, which says:

“The review will build on Sir Jim Rose’s review of the importance of phonics in teaching children to read”.