Skip to main content

English and Mathematics

Volume 473: debated on Monday 17 March 2008

As a result of our investment and reform since 1997, there has been an unparalleled rise in primary and secondary school standards in English and maths. Primary standards are at their highest ever, and record numbers of pupils left school in 2007 having gained five good GCSEs, including in English and maths.

I begin with a declaration of interest: I am a product of the international baccalaureate, so I did not do A-levels or GCSEs. As we are talking about raising standards in maths and English, why is the Secretary of State introducing a new form of diploma that has already proved very unpopular with the universities, when we have the international baccalaureate, under which English and maths are taught up to the age of 18, and which is popular not only with schools but with universities and employers? Why is the Secretary of State reinventing the wheel?

I am pleased to hear that the IB did a good job for the hon. Gentleman, as it does for many pupils throughout the country. We have been trying to put together a qualification that can combine academic and vocational learning, and I must say to him—I can get him the detailed information if he would like it—that the diploma has been welcomed by a wide range of universities, including Cambridge university, whose admissions tutor said that a diploma in engineering could be better preparation than A-level maths. The diploma has also been welcomed by a wide range of employers. Conservative Members would do well to reconsider their opposition to our new diplomas, as they are the best chance in more than a generation to break the two-tier system in academic and vocational learning. It is revealing that the Conservatives remain on the two-tier side of the argument when it comes to educational qualifications.

My right hon. Friend will probably agree with me that the evidence taken by the Education and Skills Committee shows that standards have been rising in both English and maths. Will he, however, look at the experiment in Warrington, where five schools are using different forms of information technology to advance teaching in maths and English? Will he also look into whether we can improve the training of maths teachers so that both the teaching and learning experiences can be improved?

My hon. Friend is an expert in these matters, and he knows that 100,000 more young people are now making the required grade at key stage 3 in English than in 1997, and that 95,000 more are making the grade in maths. It is because we want to improve the teaching of maths and teacher training in maths that we asked Professor Williams to produce a report for us on mathematics, and it will be published shortly. Also, our new master’s qualification in teaching will enable teachers to get in-career training in mathematics. I am happy to listen to my hon. Friend’s points, and to look at the Warrington example and see what further lessons we can learn.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is arranging to build on the work on maths teaching of Professor Adrian Smith of Queen Mary college. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers get a list of the relevant secondary schools where A-level maths could be taught, find out which of them has not had a grade A in A-level maths in the past five years, and ask whether none of the pupils would have had the ability or aptitude to achieve that?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the primary school teachers in my constituency? Over the past five years, there has been a greater than 40 per cent. increase in the children’s English ability and more than a 25 per cent. increase in their maths ability. That is astounding delivery by the primary sector. What are we going to do to improve further primary school education?

My hon. Friend is right, as the facts show. In 1997, only 63 per cent. of children reached key stage 2 level 4 at the age of 11; that proportion has now increased to 80 per cent., and in maths it has increased from 62 per cent. to 77 per cent. That is a real improvement in standards, but it is not enough; we want to get to much higher levels even than those. That requires us to do even more to back the learning of our primary school pupils and to tackle the barriers to learning both in and out of school. One way to make sure that we can do that is to improve even further the teaching of reading in the earliest years. Along with Lord Adonis and Professor Jim Rose, I visited a school on Friday to see how it is using phonics in the curriculum. That is now being done extensively in three quarters of all schools, but we want to get to 100 per cent. and we will do so over the next year.

Speaking of phonics, Sir Jim Rose in his report into the teaching of reading said:

“‘synthetic’ phonics is the form of systematic phonic work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers.”

However, the Secretary of State, in his press release on Friday, in which he reported that a quarter of primary schools were not using phonics to teach children to read, and indeed in his response just now, does not use the term synthetic phonics. Can he therefore confirm the Government’s policy? Is it that schools should use synthetic phonics, as recommended by Jim Rose, or is it a return to the mix of strategies that was the hallmark of the national literacy strategy?

I know that no one is more keen on taking forward the issue of phonics and synthetic phonics in our curriculum than the hon. Gentleman. I am very pleased, therefore, that he read my press release. He will see that the first quote in it came not from myself, but from Sir Jim Rose himself; it was his findings that I was quoting. He was reporting on the progress on implementing his report and he says that all schools are using phonics, but that only three quarters are using them in the way that he would like—and we would like—which probably means using synthetic phonics in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. That will differ school by school, depending on the needs of different individuals, but Jim and I are clear on what needs to be done. We need to make sure that this is across all schools in the curriculum. The school that we visited was really interesting: 95 per cent. of children did not have English as a first language, and phonics was being taught not just in reading but in PE and right across the whole curriculum. I can therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that we are taking forward this agenda with determination, and we will make sure that the right kind of phonics are taught in all schools for all pupils.

In September 2004, the Government appointed Celia Hoyles as the mathematics tsar to promote mathematics in our schools, colleges and universities. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the tsar’s progress in promoting mathematics in our schools?

Celia Hoyles did a wonderful job, and we are really grateful for her work. She has laid the foundation for the strengthening of maths in the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, and we are taking that forward, including through the Williams review.