Skip to main content

Literacy and Mathematics

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152074)

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152078)

15. What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils attain basic levels of literacy and mathematics before leaving school. (152089)

Before I answer the questions, may I say on behalf of the House that you, Mr Speaker, would want us to pass on our best wishes to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who has recently suffered an accident from which he is slowly recovering. We all miss him. He was a fantastic constituency MP and great scrutineer of education [Hon. Members: “He still is!”] He still is, and we look forward to him being restored to full health.

The new national curriculum includes more demanding content in English and mathematics. In line with high-performing south-east Asian countries, mathematics will have more emphasis on arithmetic, fractions and decimals. There will be a new professional development programme for mathematics teachers at key stage 3, which will help them teach fractions more effectively, with robust evaluation of the results. We are, of course, also reforming GCSEs and making changes to nursery education.

Given the evidence that parents who have lower levels of literacy and numeracy can be motivated to improve themselves in order to support their own children’s learning, will the Secretary of State explain what measures are being taken to support family learning programmes?

It is absolutely right that if parents are given the opportunity to play a part in their child’s education and if they are given additional confidence in their own grasp of literacy and numeracy, the whole family can benefit from it. It is a commitment of myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who has responsibility for skills and adult learning, to make sure that family learning programmes can be supported as effectively as possible.

A recent study has found that just under a quarter of residents in Wolverhampton have no formal qualifications, which is double the national average. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend make a commitment to ensure that learners of all ages have the necessary skills and qualifications to enter employment and bridge the skills gap?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to make sure, of course, that we intervene early to ensure that the next generation succeeds at a higher level than ever before, but we also need to ensure that older people who, for whatever reason, failed to benefit from the education on offer during their time, are given the chance to re-engage with the world of education to improve their literacy and numeracy.

Last year, the CBI reported that two thirds of businesses were complaining that too many school leavers were struggling with basic literacy and numeracy and were unable to use a computer properly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable to ask our employers to set up remedial classes in these most core basic skills?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No young person can confidently take their place in the world of work unless they are secure in literacy and numeracy. That means having secured a GCSE equivalent or better.

Does the Secretary of State agree that teaching assistants play a vital role in raising standards in numeracy and literacy in many of our schools, especially those facing the most challenging circumstances? Can he therefore assure me that teaching assistants will not be the next target of his ever more regressive education policy?

The only target for our education policy is to ensure that all children have a chance to succeed. Of course it is the case that teaching assistants and others can play a part, but the single most important person is the teacher. We need to make sure that the changes we have made to attract more talented people into teaching, building on the work done under the last Labour Government, continues.

If the Secretary of State is to ensure that children attain basic levels in mathematics and since he is clearly in need of enough well-trained teachers to do the job, will he explain to my constituent, Stephanie, why she is unable to train as a maths teacher either through School Direct or the postgraduate certificate in education? With initial teacher training having moved out of higher education into schools, there is no capacity in Plymouth, so she has the choice of one school, which can take only one student. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain that?

I will be happy to do everything possible to help the hon. Lady’s constituent to be a maths teacher. We should encourage that aspiration among all people, but it is the case that School Direct, the new programme that allows graduates to train in schools, has been hugely popular. It is also the case that a higher proportion of people with great degrees in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—are choosing to enter teaching.

With the Secretary of State having given his support in principle to Labour’s concept of a technical baccalaureate, will he also support Labour’s requirement to ensure that, as part of the awarding of the tech bacc qualification, all students will have to study English and maths as a requirement?

It is certainly the case—I am glad there is consensus on this from both Front-Bench teams—that students who have not secured a GCSE pass at English or maths at the age of 16 must carry on studying until they secure it. Anyone who wants to apply for the technical baccalaureate—a new and explicitly demanding measure of achievement—will have to go beyond that and secure a level 3 qualification, a technical term, in mathematics and produce an extended piece of writing showing that they command the literacy skills necessary for the modern world of work.

The poet Ted Hughes said of children:

“When they know by heart fifteen pages of Robert Frost”


“Swift’s Modest Proposal… They have reefs, for the life of language to build and breed around. A ‘globe of precepts’ and a great sheet anchor in the maelstrom of linguistic turbulence”.

In the light of those words from the late poet laureate, will my right hon. Friend confirm—[Interruption.]

Members of the Labour party, the enemies of rigour, want to shout down any defence of standards. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that he will ensure that there is a role for rote learning in the schools of tomorrow?

It was Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, who said that we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose. This Government, however, are governing in poetic terms—heroic couplets, in particular. With the help of Andrew Motion, another distinguished former poet laureate, we have organised a competition to ensure that children learn verse by heart and that, for all the days of their lives, the great works of English literature can be there, ready to be recalled and to illuminate every corner of their minds and lives.

I am amazed that the Secretary of State thinks he can produce a nation of six-year-olds all of whom can spell Tuesday and know that there are two ways of spelling pear/pair. I think that even Hansard will have some problems with that! Is the Secretary of State not aware that pushing children to do things that they are not ready to do is totally counter-productive? In most European countries, they are not even at school at the age of six. Does the right hon. Gentleman not know that, according to the results of a UNICEF study, the one feeling that British seven-year-olds understood was how it felt to fail?

I feel sorry for some seven-year-olds because they will have lived through years of Labour government when failure was all around them, but at last there is a Government who have high expectations for every child. I am sorry that the spirit of consensus that has prevailed so far has been shattered by the hon. Lady, because I had assumed that Labour was committed to ensuring that children in their earliest years had an opportunity to enjoy the very best teaching. It seems to me that it is not just in east Durham that there is a poverty of aspiration on the part of the Labour party.