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Primary Schools (Attainment)

Volume 507: debated on Monday 8 March 2010

8. What steps he is taking to improve standards of attainment in primary schools; and if he will make a statement. (320682)

Primary school standards have improved significantly over the past 12 years, with 100,000 more children now leaving primary school secure in the basics than in 1997, and a 19 percentage points increase in pupils achieving the expected standard in English and maths. There is still more to do if every child is to succeed at primary school. That is why last December we launched the world-class primaries programme, which will support local authorities in helping to bring all primary schools up to the level of the best.

As a governor of a primary school—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] As a former governor, I should say, of a primary school—[Interruption]and, indeed, a former pupil, I quite understand the urge of Ministers to interfere from the centre, given the lunacy of what has sometimes passed for education in primary schools. However, does the Minister understand that the sheer volume of initiatives and prescriptions is becoming part of the problem, and that is certainly what the profession is complaining about?

One of the things that the Government are doing, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is to provide that from 2011 national strategies will have ended, with the money passed down to schools, including primary schools, to enable them to choose how best to spend that money within their own school. That will make a significant difference. As I said in a previous answer, one of the best initiatives—some initiatives are indeed better than others—in improving practice, whether or not it involves the primary school at which he was a governor, is to allow the sharing of best practice between schools that are achieving significantly better results than others to try to help and support those others to bring them up to the level that we all want.

Will my hon. Friend congratulate all the primary schools in my constituency on their excellent improved standards, much assisted by the reduction in class sizes brought about by the transfer of £2.25 million within the constituency from the Tories’ assisted places scheme? Will he congratulate them also on the wonderful rebuilding that is taking place, for instance at St. Agnes Church of England primary school and the Acacias community school? All that is because of a Labour Government.

I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the head teachers and teaching staff in primary schools in his constituency, and all the teaching profession across the country, on the work that they are doing and have done to improve standards.

My right hon. Friend refers to class sizes, and I can inform the House that in 1997, 29 per cent. of pupils were in classes of more than 30. Now, just 2.1 per cent. are in unlawfully large classes, and the overall average is 26.2 pupils per class. That is a significant improvement as a result of this Government’s investment.

Even given that improvement, it has been reported that more than 10,000 pupils in primary schools are in teaching groups of more than 40. How will that help to raise school standards? Is it not time that the Government considered the Liberal Democrats’ proposal for a pupil premium, which would put extra money into schools with disadvantaged children and enable the head teacher to choose to have smaller classes sizes, if that is the best option?

I suppose at least the Liberal Democrats are saying how they are going to pay for their pupil premium, although we do not agree with cutting tax credits to provide the £2.5 billion to support it. As I have said, we have invested significant sums of money into primary schools. In virtually every primary school across the country, there have been significant reductions in class sizes alongside additional teaching staff. That is one reason why we are seeing a significant increase in results. The Government are committed to ensuring that front-line services are protected, which is why we announced in the pre-Budget report a 0.7 per cent. real-terms increase in school funding, a promise that—

One of the most effective ways of improving attainment in primary schools is to encourage reading at home. The evidence from my constituency appears to be that the good work being undertaken by Sure Start is bringing that about. Will my hon. Friend assure us that that work will continue under the next Labour Government?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the importance of Sure Start, in which we will of course continue the investment. He is absolutely right that if we want to tackle the reading and writing problems of some of our poorest pupils, the involvement of parents and reading at home makes a significant difference. That is why many schools that are trying to tackle reading and writing problems invite parents in, work with them and in some cases offer them literacy classes, as those parents themselves often have very poor reading and writing skills. It is not that they do not want to read to their sons or daughters, but sometimes they simply do not have the skills to do so even if they wish to.

A number of recent reports from Cambridge down, including from the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, have expressed great concern about the need for even better-quality teachers in our primary schools, where some teachers have got on to teacher training programmes with no A-levels at all. Does the Minister share those concerns, and does he agree that as well as encouraging more specialists into teaching, we should ensure that primary school teachers have secured at least grade B level GCSEs in English and maths as a basic requirement, to help guarantee quality teaching for all primary school pupils?

What we want in our primary schools is good teachers, and many of them are excellent. We have the most highly qualified and best teaching work force that we have had, according to Ofsted. Rather than lecturing me about standards for teachers, I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider whether Carol Vorderman is the right person to be the adviser to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), under whose proposals, as he will know, she would not be regarded as appropriate because she does not have the right class of degree.

Order. We started making very good progress at Question Time, since which time questions have tended to get longer and so have answers. We need to speed up.