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Secondary Schools (Attainment)

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

4. What recent steps he has taken to increase the level of attainment of pupils in secondary schools; and if he will make a statement. (320678)

Standards are rising in our secondary schools due to great teaching, the doubling of per pupil funding and the biggest investment in school buildings since the Victorian era. We already have 96 local authorities in our Building Schools for the Future programme, and I can announce today approval for the next six authorities to enter the programme. These authorities are Buckinghamshire, Cornwall, Gateshead, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Sutton, with a total investment of £420 million. In addition, Birmingham, Cumbria and Gloucestershire fell just short of being ready, but with some extra work they will be first in line to enter the programme at the next available opportunity.

I note the Secretary of State’s response, but far too many schools are still not making the required level of progress. Is he aware that in almost a quarter of state-funded secondary schools, fewer than half the pupils made the expected progress between key stages 2 and 4 in English and maths? Is that not an indictment of his record, and his Government’s record, over the past 13 years of failure?

I know that the constituents of Bexleyheath and Crayford will be hoping, along with 50 other local authorities, that they will have the chance to come into Building Schools for the Future in the coming years. As he knows, that is a guarantee that Labour will make but that the Conservatives will cut. As for one-to-one tuition, which is vital to make sure that every child can make progress if they fall behind, it was in our fifth-Session Bill, which the Conservative party voted against on Third Reading. That is why there would not be progress under a Conservative Government.

Is not a real picture of our success given by Halton, where the percentage of children getting five grades A to C has gone up by 36 per cent. since 1998 to more than 70 per cent. today? Congratulations must go to the teachers and pupils there. Is it not also important to recognise the role of local education authorities? Will he examine the important contribution that Halton has made to increasing and improving standards there?

I know that some people do not think that there is a role for local education authorities, but the reason why we have made progress is because of those authorities that have been willing to support and challenge where progress was needed. The fact is that in 1997 only one in 20 schools were getting five GCSEs, including English and maths, whereas the number today is not one in 20 schools but one in three. That is a real measure of the progress on standards that we have seen in the past 10 years.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Thomas Lord Audley school in my constituency on exceeding the Government’s 30 per cent. GCSE target and on achieving the best results in the school’s entire history? Does he agree that, given those circumstances, Essex county council should not be shutting such a successful school, particularly given that last September’s admissions were the highest for many years?

In 1997, some 1,600 schools—more than one in two—were not achieving that benchmark of 30 per cent. for English and maths. Now, the number is not one in two, but fewer than one in 13. I congratulate the leadership of Thomas Lord Audley school on the progress that has been made. On the other issue that the hon. Gentleman raises about school improvement, and on the matters that are being discussed at length between him and Essex county council, I know that one of the numerous meetings that he is having with the Minister for Schools and Learners is happening this afternoon, and I shall look forward to receiving a personal report on the issues that have been raised—I am sure that playing fields will come up as well.

High schools in my constituency have, like many others, made dramatic improvements in attainment in recent years. That is down to a number of factors, including dedicated, high-calibre teachers, but above all to a return to rigorous teaching methods. Will my right hon. Friend seek to make sure that such teaching methods are adopted nationally, so that we can get national improvement?

We have a national curriculum that specifies the particular areas that need to be covered, including, for example, in history, the first world war, the second world war and the slave trade, but how teaching is done is really a matter for head teachers and teachers, rather than for the Secretary of State to prescribe. We have the best generation of teachers and some of the best school leaders that we have ever had. I think that starting to tell people how to teach and what to teach would be over-centralising. That may be the approach of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), but it will not be my approach.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, in the last year for which we have figures, of the 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals—the very poorest—only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge. Why are so many poor children being failed by Labour?

There has been repeated discussion on these matters. I have attempted to correct the hon. Gentleman on his statistical failings, but he keeps refusing to listen. What he does in his comparisons is to look only at the children on free school meals who go to schools. He repeatedly ignores the performance of young people on free school meals who go to further education colleges. His statistics therefore always give a very unfair and biased picture of what is going on, which I guess must account for why he keeps saying that his school reforms would lead to rising standards, while the head of the Swedish equivalent of Ofsted has said that they would lead to falling standards and greater inequality. I think that he should do his homework a little bit better.

I think that it is the Secretary of State who will get an F for fail. The Association of Colleges has looked at our figures, and the 80,000 whom we are talking about are all people who were in school in 2002. Whether or not they went on to school or sixth-form college, we looked at those who went on to Oxbridge. The right hon. Gentleman’s deputy, the Minister for Schools and Learners, repeated that mistake two weeks ago and had to acknowledge that it was an error. I hope the Secretary of State will have the good grace to acknowledge his error when he comes back to the Dispatch Box now. When more than 40 per cent. of the people who go on to Oxford and Cambridge come from fee-paying independent schools, where they have access to the high quality IGCSE, why does he deny poorer pupils in state schools the chance to have that high quality qualification? Why the prejudice towards the poor from his Labour Government?

Order. I am sorry, but I counted four questions there. In the next set, we must not have a repetition.

I will do my best to answer all four questions, to the extent that I followed them. The point that I was making is that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) regularly alleges, as he did only a week and a half ago, that only 189 pupils eligible for free school meals got three As at A-level, but he counts only pupils at maintained schools’ sixth forms and excludes those who go to sixth-form colleges or further education colleges. I have written to him and contacted him to try to get him to correct that mistake, but he refuses to do so. Similarly, he refuses to acknowledge that his free schools initiative will not only divert money away from other state schools, but will lead to falling standards and greater social inequality. I would have thought that he would join me in congratulating the six areas which today have been given more than £400 million of school investment. Let me read a quote from EducationInvestor[Interruption.]

Order. Mr, Gray, calm yourself. It is not good for your health. The Secretary of State may quote very briefly.

Very briefly, the quote is:

“‘What we’re saying is if financial close has been reached, it will go ahead.’ If not . . . Decisions about whether to continue with projects will be made on a ‘case by case basis.’”

That was the shadow schools Minister. What that means is that schemes at 700 schools in 50 areas could potentially be cancelled by a Conservative local authority. That is the threat to school building. That is why the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will not talk about the Swedish model or his school building—