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PISA Results

Volume 571: debated on Tuesday 3 December 2013

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your words about the tragedy in Glasgow. Of course, the whole House wishes to associate itself with your expressions of concern and condolence.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the PISA—programme for international student assessment—league tables of educational performance published today by the OECD. Before I go into the detail of what the league tables show about the common features of high-performing school systems, may I take a moment, as I try to in every public statement I make, to thank our teachers for their hard work, dedication and idealism. Whatever conclusions we draw about what needs to change, I hope that we in this House can agree that we are fortunate to have the best generation of young teachers ever in our schools. The data show that the new recruits now entering the classroom are better qualified than ever before. I would like in particular to thank those head teachers who are, through the new school direct programme of teacher training, recruiting more superb new graduates to teach in our state schools.

Although the quality of our teachers is improving, today’s league tables sadly show that that is not enough. When people ask why—if teachers are better than ever— we need to press ahead with further reform to the system, today’s results make the case more eloquently than any number of speeches. Since the 1990s, our performance in these league tables has been, at best, stagnant, and, at worst, declining. In the latest results, we are 21st in the world for science, 23rd for reading and 26th for mathematics. For all the well-intentioned efforts of past Governments, we are still falling further behind the best-performing school systems in the world. In Shanghai and Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong—indeed even in Taiwan and Vietnam—children are learning more and performing better with every year that passes, leaving our children behind in the global race. That matters because business is more mobile than ever, and employers are more determined than ever to seek out the best-qualified workers. Global economic pressures, far from leading to a race to the bottom, are driving all nations to pursue educational excellence more energetically than ever before. Today’s league tables show that nations that have had the courage radically to reform their education systems, such as Germany and Poland, have significantly improved their performance and their children’s opportunities.

No single intervention, or indeed single nation, has all the answers to our education challenges. But if we look at all the high-performing and fast-improving education systems, we find that certain common features recur: there is an emphasis on social justice and helping every child to succeed; there is a commitment to an aspirational academic curriculum for all students; there is a high level of autonomy from bureaucracy for head teachers; there is a rigorous system of accountability for performance; and head teachers have the critical power to hire whom they want, remove underperformers and reward the best with the recognition they deserve. Those principles have driven this coalition’s education reforms since 2010.

The first reform imperative, of course, is securing greater social justice. It is notable that all the high-performing jurisdictions set demanding standards for every child, whatever their background. Germany, in particular, has improved its standing in these league tables by doing more to promote greater equity to ensure that more children from poorer backgrounds catch up with their peers. The good news from the PISA research is that in England we have one of the most progressive and socially just systems of education funding in the world, but we in the coalition Government believe that we must go further to help the most disadvantaged children. That is why we have made funding even more progressive with the pupil premium. We have extended free pre-school education to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds and changed how we hold schools accountable so they have to give even greater attention to the performance of poor children. I hope that today the Opposition will acknowledge those steps forward and give their support to our accountability reforms.

The second imperative is a more aspirational curriculum. In successful Asian nations, all students are introduced to more stretching maths content at an earlier age than has been the case here. In the fastest-improving European nation, Poland, every child now follows a core academic curriculum to the age of 16. Our new national curriculum is explicitly more demanding, especially in maths, and it is modelled on the approach of high-performing Asian nations such as Singapore. The mathematical content is matched by a new level of ambition in technology, with the introduction of programming and coding on the national curriculum for the first time.

In our drive to eliminate illiteracy, we have introduced a screening check at age six to make sure that every child is reading fluently. Our introduction of the English baccalaureate, which is awarded to students who secure GCSE passes in English, maths, the sciences, languages and history or geography, matches Poland’s ambition by embedding an expectation of academic excellence for every 16-year-old. I hope today that those on the Labour Front Bench will confirm their support for our new curriculum, the phonics screening check and the English baccalaureate. Our children deserve to have those higher standards adopted universally.

The third reform imperative is greater autonomy for head teachers. There is a direct correlation in the league tables between freedom for heads and improved results. That is why we have dramatically increased the number of academies and free schools, and given heads more control over teacher training, continuous professional development and the improvement of underperforming schools. The school direct programme, by giving heads control of teacher recruitment, has improved the quality of new teachers. The creation of more than 300 teaching schools has put our most outstanding heads in charge of helping existing teachers to do even better. The academies programme has allowed great heads, such as those in the Harris and Ark chains, to take over underperforming schools such as the Downhills primary in Tottenham. I hope today that those on the Opposition Front Bench will signal their support for these reforms and show that they, like us, trust our outstanding heads to drive improvement.

The fourth pillar of reform is accountability. Those systems that have autonomy without accountability often underperform. Accountability has to be intelligent, which is why we have sharpened Ofsted inspections, recruited more outstanding serving teachers to inspect schools and demanded that underperforming schools improve far faster. The old league table system relied too much on a narrow measurement of C passes at GCSE, which generated the wrong incentives and wrote off too many children. We have changed league tables to ensure that every child’s progress is rewarded. We have also ensured that children are not entered early, or multiple times, for GCSEs simply to influence league tables. I hope today that those on the Opposition Front Bench will endorse those changes and join us in demanding greater rigour and higher standards from all schools.

The fifth pillar of reform is freedom for heads to recruit and reward the best. Shanghai, the world’s best-performing education system, has a rigorous system of performance-related pay. We have given head teachers the same freedoms here. I hope today that we can have a clear commitment from all parts of the House to support those brave and principled heads who want to pay the best teachers more.

The programme of reform that we have set out draws on what happens in the best school systems—identified today by the OECD—because we want nothing but the best for our children. Unless we can provide them with a school system that is one of the best in the world, we will not give them the opportunities that they need to flourish and succeed. That is why it is so important that we have a unified national commitment to excellence in all our schools and for all our pupils. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State both for making Government time available to discuss this important topic and for his statement, which I received 11 minutes ago. I am disappointed that he has adopted—both today and in various media outings—such a partisan approach to the data from PISA. Rather than throwing chum to his Back Benchers, he should concentrate on the lessons we can learn from today’s important study.

The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. If, as he said in The Daily Telegraph, the Labour party should take its share of the responsibility for these results, would he not agree that it should also take responsibility for, in his words, delivering the

“best generation of teachers this country has ever seen”?

It is clear that for all the hard work of our head teachers, teachers, parents and learning support staff, whom the Secretary of State rightly praised, we have a long way to go in English, maths and science to match our global competitors. These findings are a wake-up call for our schools. The PISA data reveal the continuing strength of east Asian countries and although there are important cultural differences that we should seek to understand, there are also pointers to reform in our schools system. So, can the Secretary of State confirm that part of the success of Singapore and Shanghai is down to the high quality of teachers in the classroom?

In Shanghai, all teachers have a teaching qualification and undergo 240 hours of professional development within the first five years of teaching. Under the Secretary of State’s deregulation agenda, the South Leeds academy can advertise for an “unqualified maths teacher” with just four GCSEs. We have seen a 141% increase in unqualified teachers in free schools and academies under this Government, so will he join the Schools Minister and me in working to secure qualified teachers in our classrooms?

Secondly, can the Secretary of State confirm that part of the east Asian education system is that schools work together, collaborate and challenge each other? Under their system, no school is left an island. Will he now abandon his aggressive discredited free-market reforms to schools and follow the Labour party’s lead in developing the kind of middle tier that brings schools together to work with, challenge and collaborate with one another?

In 2008, the Secretary of State informed the Daily Mail, his journal of choice:

“We have seen the future in Sweden and it works.”

Will he confirm today that that is no longer the case? In fact, no other country has fallen as abruptly as Sweden in maths over a 10-year period. Across all three measures—reading, maths and science—since 2009 Sweden has performed very poorly indeed. Many in Sweden regard the ideological programme of unqualified teachers and unregulated free schools as responsible for the drop in standards. The lesson from PISA is clear: we need freedom with accountability, autonomy with minimum standards, or else we end up with the chaos of the Secretary of State’s Al-Madinah school.

Finally, does the Secretary of State believe that a culture of zero tolerance for low expectations in other education systems produces high results across the board and that no child should be left behind? Will he use this opportunity to join the Deputy Prime Minister and me in condemning the unpleasant whiff of eugenics from the Mayor of London and instead use the opportunity provided by the PISA data to pursue excellence for all, academic and vocational, in all our schools?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He taxed me for demonstrating partisanship and indulging in personal attacks. I am glad that we had the opportunity to witness four minutes entirely free from those sins.

First, let me turn to the whole question of qualified teachers. It is the case that there are now fewer unqualified teachers in our schools than under Labour. In 2009, there were 17,400 unqualified teachers, in 2010, just before Labour left office, there were 17,800 and there are now only 14,800, a significant reduction. Indeed, those teachers who are now joining the profession are better qualified than ever before. In 2009, just before the Labour party lost office, only 61% of teachers had a 2:1 or better as their undergraduate degree. Under the coalition Government, the figure is 74%, which is a clear improvement that has been driven by the changes that we have introduced. It has been reinforced by the introduction of the school direct system, which I invited the hon. Gentleman to applaud and welcome—he declined to do so—and which has secured even more top graduates with a 2:1 or better, including a first, in our schools.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Sweden. Unfortunately, it is the case that in Sweden results have slid, but as I said earlier, not only do we need to grant greater autonomy, as has been done for school leaders in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and elsewhere, but we need a more rigorous system of accountability. We heard nothing from him on how we would improve accountability. There was no indication as to whether or not he supports, as he has indicated in the past, our English baccalaureate measure. There was no indication from him, as there has been in the past, as to whether or not he supports A-level reform, and there was no indication, as there has been in the past, that he believes in a rigorous academic curriculum for all. The terrible truth about the situation that we face in our schools is that Labour does not have a strong record to defend, and it does not have a strong policy to advance. That is why the coalition Government are committed to reform, and that is why, I am afraid, the hon. Gentleman must do better.

Today’s figures are extremely sobering. They are an indictment of the previous Government’s education policy. There was a massive investment in education, a huge effort was put into education, and we went nowhere. We need to hear from the Secretary of State how his reforms will ensure that in future years—probably not so early as three years from now, but six years from now—we see the change that we require. In particular, will he tell us what he can do to promote maths and science for girls, because we cannot have so many females left behind in this country?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education for his wise words. He is absolutely right—there was a significant increase in investment and, as I mentioned in my statement, we have one of the most socially just systems of education funding in the developed world. However, we did not move forward as we should have done. My hon. Friend asks, of course, when we will see the fruits of our reform programme. As Andreas Schleicher of the OECD asked yesterday: is it too early on the basis of these results to judge the coalition reforms? Absolutely, we could not possibly judge the coalition Government on these results, he said. We are “moving from” ideas “to implementation”, and 2015 would be the very earliest.

My hon. Friend makes the vital point that we need to do more to promote mathematics and science. The English baccalaureate does that. The increased emphasis in many academies and free schools that have opened under the Government does that, but there is still more that we can do, and I shall meet representatives from higher education and our best schools just before Christmas to see what we can do to encourage more girls to do even better in mathematics and science.

I think that our young people deserve slightly better than the regrettable remarks from the Chair of the Select Committee.

In the four years in which I was privileged to serve as Education and Employment Secretary, I tried to persuade the world that it would take time before change achieved results. The world decided that it would hold me to account for the measures that I took. What makes the Secretary of State, after three years and seven months, think that he should not be held to account?

I absolutely do believe that we should be held to account for the changes that we have made, which is why I look forward to Ofsted’s report in a fortnight. It will report on what has changed in the course of the past year, and it will reflect, I believe, improved teaching standards in all our schools. Earlier, I ran through some figures—I know that the right hon. Gentleman took note of them—that recorded the increased number of highly qualified teachers in our classrooms. As I mentioned, Andreas Schleicher pointed out that it would take time for the changes that we have introduced to take effect. Just as members of the Opposition Front Bench want to take account of PISA and the OECD, so they should take account of Andreas Schleicher’s comments, which seem to me to be fair and proportionate, and all of us should draw the right lessons from them.

I refer to my interests in the register.

My right hon. Friend is right to conclude that Britain’s poor standing in the PISA rankings is a reflection of Labour’s education policies and its supine relationship with the teacher unions. Does he share my view that university education faculties, which have trained generations of teachers, should take their share of blame? Should not the Institute of Education and Canterbury Christ Church, two of the biggest teacher training institutions, be held to account, not only for today’s poor figures but for the country’s long tail of underachievement? Education academics are quick to condemn much-needed reform, but there is always a deafening silence from them on days—

Order. I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We must have short questions and short answers.

Not for the first time, and I am sure not for the last time, my hon. Friend hits several nails squarely on the head.

Twenty years ago, the greatest underachievement in schools in this country was in London and other big cities, which is why the Labour Government introduced programmes such as the London Challenge and Teach First, which the Secretary of State has praised. Andreas Schleicher has talked about autonomy, but he has also talked about collaboration. What have the Government done to implement Ofsted’s report from June, “Unseen children”, which called for new sub-regional challenges modelled on Labour’s London Challenge?

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of good points. It is the case that the London Challenge was a success. Other systems of sub-regional collaboration introduced under the previous Government were less conspicuously successful. If we look at the ingredients of the London Challenge, we find that they were primarily growth in the number of academies, greater autonomy for head teachers and a rigorous approach—[Interruption] —and a greater and more rigorous approach to underperformance in schools that needed new leadership. Through the academies programme, we have ensured that schools across the country that have underperformed are under new leadership. It has been called the “forced academies programme”, and there has been no support for it from those on the Labour Front Bench. I hope that now they will show their support for this rigorous attempt to tackle underperformance, but I fear that they will remain silent, and will continue to have their strings pulled by their union paymasters.

Order. Nearly 50 colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, but I fear that many might end up disappointed. If I am to have any chance of accommodating the level of interest, what is needed is a question without preamble—that is to say, a request for information, which might be thought to be the meaning of the word “question”.

Does the Secretary of State accept that instead of always looking abroad for good practice he might come to my constituency, where the quality of education is superbly high, as it is in neighbouring constituencies in Hampshire, and he could look at how it achieves the excellence from which my daughter benefited?

I visited Eastleigh several times in the past 18 months, and I learned a great deal. It is the case, as the hon. Gentleman points out, that in Hampshire there are many excellent schools and sixth-form colleges. It is absolutely right that we should applaud success and excellence in this country as well as abroad.

Last week, I met Swedish journalists on behalf of the Education Committee, and it is true that they are really worried about their dramatic fall down the international league tables, which they partly blamed on the free school experiment. They told me that their equivalent of Ofsted had closed 20 such schools since September. Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is time to learn from such mistakes and puts schools and pupils before ideology?

It is absolutely the case that there is a difference between Sweden and this country. Sweden did not have an equivalent of Ofsted until 2008, and it does not have the external system of accountability through testing that we have had in this country. Autonomy works, but only with strong accountability, which is why it is important, and why I hope the hon. Lady will encourage her Front Benchers to support the English baccalaureate.

The Secretary of State said that a common feature of high-performing schools is their ability to remove underperforming teachers, but between 2001 and 2011 only 17 of England’s 400,000 teachers were judged to be incompetent by the General Teaching Council. What can he do to fight trade union protectionism of failing teachers, and root out all the dead wood?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have introduced a system of more effective performance management and performance-related pay. I hope that the Labour party will support it in the interests of all students.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that the message goes out that the reaction to the PISA results is positive? The teaching profession and the people who work in and run our schools must know that we have a good education system. It is not perfect, but we undervalue the work that many of our teachers do. At the moment, however, they do not do enough for the 30% lowest-achieving students. That is where we should concentrate our activity.

A head teacher recently told me, “The Secretary of State is a dreadful person, and absolutely hopeless, but his policies are absolutely right and I’m implementing them with gusto.” Is it better to be right rather than liked?

My hon. Friend is both right and liked universally across the House. If I agree with him, I hope that I am right, but I can never aspire to be as liked or as popular as he is.

When did the Secretary of State last meet the Minister for Education in Northern Ireland to discuss educational performance with an emphasis on the fairer distribution of financial resources?

I had the opportunity to talk to Minister O’Dowd several months ago, when I also talked to the Welsh Education Minister. It is striking that Northern Ireland is broadly at the same level as England in these results but Labour-run Wales is significantly behind. I think that we can draw the appropriate conclusions about that. I hope to visit Northern Ireland in the new year to talk to head teachers and others about how we can work together to ensure that our examination systems are aligned in a way that promotes social mobility across all these islands in the interests of a truly united kingdom.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for yesterday meeting Kate Forbes, an excellent young English teacher from Bourne academy in my constituency, to discuss her ideas for the implementation of grammar in the secondary system. It is people like Miss Forbes, who share his determination that the child should come first, whom we should be listening to in implementing his reforms.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was a pleasure to meet the teacher from his constituency, who is wholly committed to implementing the reforms we have introduced, utterly committed to raising standards for every child and, to my mind, representative and emblematic of the idealistic and supremely talented young people now entering teaching.

Does the Secretary of State think that the Singapore authorities would employ untrained teachers, and does he back their system, which sees children put under immense pressure to work from dawn to dusk and beyond to compete with their peers and with us?

I think that we can learn a great deal from Singapore’s education system, not least the way in which its principals have great flexibility over whom they employ and how they reward them. As for working harder, I think that we have to acknowledge that we all must work harder to ensure that our children have more opportunities in future. We need to explore ways of extending the school day and ensuring that there are greater opportunities for all our children to learn more.

We have inherited a situation in which the best indicator of a child’s future educational achievement is the parents’ income. Does the Secretary of State agree that until the attainment gap is narrowed, the UK will be unable to make significant leaps up the international league tables?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the weaknesses in our education system, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) pointed out, and indeed in our whole nation, is the fact that we labour under the problem of having a stratified and segregated schools system, and it is more stratified and segregated than most. One of the things that is helping to tackle that, of course, is the investment in the pupil premium, championed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Schools, which we are happy to implement as part of a coalition Government.

In 2010 the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) promised to learn from the best education systems in the world with the most highly qualified teachers, so why have the Government removed the requirement that teachers be qualified to degree level?

As I pointed out in response to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), there are now more highly qualified teachers than ever before in all our schools. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in championing the reforms we have made, which have brought hope to her constituents, who I am afraid suffered in the past as a result of a failed, leftist, National Union of Teachers orthodoxy, which I hope that she, like me, as a Blairite, will now vigorously condemn.

Is it any wonder that Britain’s youth have not been prepared for the global race? Under Labour, one in every three pupils left primary school unable to read and write, the number of pupils sitting hard-core subjects halved and our employers totally lost faith in our exam system.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the things that has changed under this Government is that more students than ever before are studying physics, chemistry and biology, and we have seen a revival in the number studying modern foreign languages and an increase in the number studying geography and history at GCSE. Those are the subjects that give students the chance to succeed and that advance social mobility. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will at last endorse the English baccalaureate, which has driven those changes.

May I remind the Secretary of State that in the mid-1990s some schools in my constituency had roofs that leaked and fewer than 10% of their pupils got five or more good GCSEs? Will he acknowledge that at the core of the many improvements that have taken place since has been a teaching work force who are both highly motivated and properly qualified?

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. He is right that one of the things we need to do is ensure that there is proper investment in every part of our schools system. That is why it is so important that the PISA report confirms that we have one of the most socially just systems of education funding. It is also critically important that we have reduced the cost of new school building so that we can spread our investment more equitably. He is right about more highly qualified teachers, which is why it is good that there are more graduates with better degrees than ever before in our schools.

The Secretary of State has rightly highlighted the need for exam reform, but when I taught year 1 it was obvious that too many children turned up ill-prepared and ill-equipped for school compared with their peers, so early intervention is really important. I urge him to look closely at the imagination library model we have set up in North Lincolnshire, which now provides free books every month to 3,500 children in the area.

It sounds like a fantastic initiative, and it reinforces the additional investment we have made in the early years.

Is there any connection between the fact that the UK is struggling in international league tables when trying to develop a globally competitive work force and the fact that there are unqualified maths teachers in our schools?

We have more highly qualified teachers in our schools than ever before, particularly in mathematics.

Does my right hon. Friend remember visiting Falmer high school in my constituency, which has now been replaced by the excellent Brighton Aldridge community academy, which is driving up standards and improving chances for young people who really need it?

I do remember visiting that school and applaud my hon. Friend’s commitment to advancing educational achievement for all students. Let me take this opportunity to thank Rod Aldridge and all the sponsors behind the academies programme, who have done so much to tackle underperformance in our weaker schools. They are heroes.

The Secretary of State has said that accountability should be intelligent, but for too many schools in my constituency the Ofsted inspections over the past decade have not felt intelligent. They have failed to take account of the progress that has been made and the ability of the schools to progress further, focusing instead on an attainment level. Is it not now time to reform the process so that real improvement can be supported and encouraged further?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The chief inspector agrees with her, as do I. We are changing the way schools are measured in league tables in order to ensure that it is progress that matters, rather than simply raw attainment. Ofsted inspections are becoming more sophisticated, with more serving senior leaders conducting them.

We see in these results that in the highest-performing countries children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more than twice as likely as similarly disadvantaged children in the UK to make it into the world’s top quartile in mathematics. Does that not demonstrate how necessary it is that we have the additional pupil premium money, ensuring that every child has a decent chance to get on in life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The investment in the pupil premium, the investment in additional pre-school education for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds and a concentration on helping students who are falling behind in year 6 at the end of primary school to catch up—all policies championed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Schools—are integral to advancing social mobility.

One of the most serious issues is the disparity between the achievement of boys and girls in maths and science, which is the result of deep-seated cultural and educational bias within the system. One of the ways of addressing that is to engage businesses, particularly manufacturing, in schools and to have schools assessed on their ability to get students into vocational as well as academic occupations. Unfortunately, the Government have not been prepared to take up the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recommendation on that. Will the Secretary of State look at it again?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is vital that we build on and improve the links between business and schools. The university technical colleges programme is designed to do just that, but there is much more we can do. I have been talking recently to Sir Charlie Mayfield, of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, to see how we can go even further. Of course, it is vital that we all embed the reforms set out in Alison Wolf’s report, which are designed to improve technical education and ensure that all education is more relevant to the work of business.

Last week I attended an inspirational awards evening at Hall Mead academy in my constituency, where the pupils are high achievers not only in academic subjects but in sport, drama, music, art and social and interpersonal skills. Does that not demonstrate how the Secretary of State’s reforms have given head teachers the freedom to enable their standards to rise continuously?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no tension between academic excellence and a rich range of extra-curricular activities; in fact, they reinforce each other, as the best schools recognise, including the academy in her constituency.

Between 1998 and 2010 in constituencies like mine, there were significant improvements in educational attainment and the quality of school buildings and equipment, due partly to the hard work of teachers, the support of the local authority, and the core funding that was put in. What is the Secretary of State doing to promote collaboration between these excellent and outstanding schools and head teachers and other schools, and what happened to the promise of £35 million in 2010?

We are doing that through academy chains, multi-academy trusts, and the establishment of teaching school alliances. There are now more than 300 teaching schools, which have head teachers who are working with underperforming schools to provide continuous professional development and to enhance the quality of every interaction between every teacher and every child. The programme is being led by the inspirational head of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, Charlie Taylor.

I gather that this morning my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to listen to the piece on the “Today” programme about maths in Singapore. It is difficult to believe that children in Singapore necessarily have any greater cognitive skills than their UK counterparts, so I wonder what work is being done to look at the process and technique of teaching mathematics in Singapore to see whether any lessons need to be learned.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Some schools, including academies and free schools such as those established by the ARK chain, explicitly use the Singaporean mathematics curriculum, but our new national curriculum has also been informed by practice not only in Singapore but in other high-performing jurisdictions.

These figures will mask a lot of differences between the performance of children from different economic backgrounds. Given that children from poor backgrounds tend to perform much less well because of economic and educational disadvantage, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the performance of those children is improved and that resources are made available to them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is a teacher himself, so he knows how important it is to make sure that learning is targeted at children in an appropriate way to recognise the different abilities that different children have at different stages in their lives. Through the pupil premium, we are making sure that more money is spent at every stage of a child’s life if they come from a poorer background. We are also changing the way in which league tables operate so that more schools have to pay more attention to children from underprivileged backgrounds to ensure that we get the most out of them.

An outstanding school is invariably led by an outstanding head teacher. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that every school has an outstanding head teacher? Will he consider introducing a system that allows excellent teachers who have been promoted to head teacher to move back down if they do not have the necessary skills to be an excellent head?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is not necessary to be an outstanding head teacher to be an outstanding contributor to excellence in one or in many schools. It is important that we recognise the different ways in which teachers can be celebrated. Our system of performance-related pay will ensure that people who are outstanding and want to lead and to exemplify great teaching will be rewarded appropriately. I therefore hope that Labour Members will support it.

The Secretary of State keeps claiming that there has been a reduction in the number of unqualified teachers, but will he confirm that there has been a whopping 141% increase in unqualified teachers in academies and free schools and explain how that will improve our international standing?

There has been a significant reduction in the number of unqualified teachers overall. However, some schools in the free schools programme were formerly independent schools that did not have teachers with qualified teacher status. For example, University College school in Hampstead has had teachers who did not have qualified teacher status, as have outstanding schools like Liverpool College that are now in the state system. I am very glad that, thanks to the work of Lord Adonis in the other place, schools like Liverpool College have now entered the state system. We are nationalising these private schools, and that is a worthwhile, progressive goal with which, I hope, Labour Front Benchers would agree.

What lessons does the Secretary of State take from the widening discrepancy in the PISA tests between English pupils and pupils in Labour-run Wales?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am afraid that in Wales, a country for which I have enormous affection, the Welsh Labour Government chose to abandon league tables and external accountability. The current Welsh Administration are unfortunately not matching our commitment to spending in schools. The conclusion that we can draw is that if people want to know what our education system would be like if the country were foolishly to vote Labour at the next election, they need only look over the Severn to see a country going backwards.

Can the Secretary of State explain how the appointment of an unqualified maths teacher will help to design and deliver a course with a more stretching mathematical content?

The fact that there are more highly qualified teachers in our schools than ever before is a very good thing that I hope the hon. Lady would support. If she is referring to South Leeds academy, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) did, the advertisement was misleading: it was not advertising for unqualified teachers but advertising for classroom assistants who would train in due course, as classroom assistants currently do. If the hon. Gentleman contacted the school, he would know that he has made a mistake. I hope that he will contact the school to apologise for his unfair and inaccurate depiction of the situation and show himself to be big enough to apologise for having got something wrong.

Can my right hon. Friend explain why, while English schools have sadly fallen down the league tables, GCSE rates have soared?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Last time the OECD issued a report, I am afraid that Opposition Front Benchers rubbished it because, so they said, GCSE results improved under Labour. It is therefore clearly the case that our children are significantly more literate and numerate. The truth is that there was improvement under the previous Government, but, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) pointed out, there was also grade inflation. That grade inflation has been laid bare by international studies showing that while we have improved, other countries have improved far faster, and it is vitally important that we recognise that and learn from them.

The results in Wales are disappointing, but they are also disappointing in other parts of the UK, so making political capital is the wrong approach. Does the Secretary of State agree that a common lesson is the need to focus relentlessly on underperformance, and that that is a job not just for governors, head teachers and school teachers but for parents, communities and political leaders, not least those in areas of deprivation and disadvantage?

I cannot disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s conclusion. I would say, however, that the Welsh Administration chose to follow a different path than the reformist path set out by Tony Blair in his education White Paper in 2006. Labour in government deliberately got rid of Tony Blair and abandoned the path of reform during its last three years in office. There is now an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman, who calls himself a Blairite, to embrace reform by agreeing with us. I hope that he will, and that he will learn the lesson from history and from Wales that if you abandon reform, the electorate abandon you.

Will performance-related pay help to incentivise heads and teachers to hold teacher training days during the school holidays and not on the first day of term? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friend makes not only an acute but a popular point. An interesting thing about the situation in Shanghai is that teacher training—20 days of it, in fact—takes place during the summer holidays. I am not suggesting that we embark on that road now, but I would underline that when we are learning lessons from abroad, we need to acknowledge the vital importance of making sure that continuous professional development is implemented in a way that helps teachers and takes account of parents’ needs.

If Hackney schools’ results were extrapolated nationally, we would be about third in the international league tables. That is a direct result of inspired Labour local political leadership, collaboration between excellent head teachers, and the right sort of Government support. What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that such collaboration is nationalised—to use his word—so that children of all abilities and backgrounds across the country are achieving as they are in Hackney, where the poorest children are progressing as well as the richest?

I have often had the opportunity in the past to draw attention to how well Hackney performs and, indeed, how effectively Hackney is represented in this House by its two MPs when it comes to educational matters. As both the hon. Lady and her parliamentary neighbour acknowledge, it is an emphasis on academic excellence and, indeed, the growth in academy schools that has driven Hackney’s improvement. It is really important that she keeps her Front-Bench colleagues honest by making sure that they back academic excellence and the spread of academisation.

The Secretary of State has rightly touched on the comparative poor performance in Wales. Would he blame that primarily on the fact that we have a £600 per head funding gap as a result of Labour policy or on the fact that the Labour Government in Cardiff have accepted teaching union dogma for the past 15 years?

These figures are actually further evidence of the lamentable failure of successive Governments and our country in general to take education seriously enough, so will the Secretary of State set aside his partisan point scoring and agree that what this country needs is a royal commission in order to get cross-party agreement and the support of the teaching profession, business and parents to make education our No.1 priority and to back policies and long-term funding to transform the quality of education our children receive?

I have a lot of time and admiration for the hon. Gentleman. I am not in favour of a royal commission. As someone once said, royal commissions take minutes and last years. I agree that we need a sense of national urgency and a unified commitment to raising standards. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees in almost every respect with the details of our educational reform, and I look forward to working with him further in the future.

My right hon. Friend has highlighted that the best educational systems feature high levels of autonomy. What freedoms is he giving to head teachers to help them get the very best out of pupils?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the academies programme, head teachers have the freedom—as is being used in the King Solomon academy in one of the most deprived parts of London—to vary the curriculum in order to make it fit the needs of individual students. We are also giving all schools greater freedom over who they recruit and how they reward them, in order to make sure that we continue to have more and more talented people in our classrooms.

Andreas Schleicher also said that no education system can exceed the quality of its teachers. How does a 141% increase in unqualified teachers in free schools and academies help improve quality?

As I pointed out in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), the increase in the number of unqualified teachers in academies and free schools is a direct result of the nationalisation of independent schools. Overall, the reduction under this Government in the number of teachers without teaching qualifications reflects the fact that teachers are now better qualified than ever before. Critically, the decision over who to hire should be a matter for head teachers. It is critical to the success of any education system that we respect the autonomy of great head teachers to recruit people with the right qualifications for their community and students.

The Secretary of State will recall meeting some of the outstanding head teachers in Northumberland with me and then authorising the rebuild of Prudhoe community high school. Does he agree with me, Lord Adonis and the other authors of the Adonis report that there is scope for a London challenge-type approach in the north-east?

A lot needs to be done in the north-east in order to improve education. One thing we need to do is ensure that local authorities end their opposition to academisation and free schools and that there is a degree of collaboration among autonomous head teachers who are determined to drive up standards, as we have seen in London.

The architect of PISA has demonstrated categorically that the lowest-performing schools in the OECD have autonomy but not a collaborative culture. Is that not the perfect description of the Secretary of State’s reform programme?

No. The perfect description of our reform programme is that it is based on social justice and recognises that the strongest systems combine autonomy with stricter accountability. We have introduced stricter accountability through changes both to Ofsted and to league tables. Unfortunately, those on the Labour Front Bench have not endorsed those changes to help drive up standards. They should be listening to outstanding head teachers who have the right idea, such as Dame Yasmin Bevan in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The sooner he introduces her to his Front-Bench colleagues, the better for all of us.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that our primary school children are taught by men as well as women, and will he confirm that the number of men training to be primary school teachers is on the rise?

It is absolutely right that we encourage more men to consider teaching, particularly in primary schools, as an aspirational profession. I am delighted that there has been an increase in the number of highly talented men entering primary teaching.

Although it may be politically attractive to try to scare people with the red herring of unqualified teachers, is this not really a question of trusting heads? Non-qualified teacher status teachers have long existed in the state sector, but they are relatively few in number and fewer now than under the previous Government. As it happens, the most improved region—London—employs the most.

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically well-informed point. One of the revealing things over the past 50 minutes or so is that some Labour MPs have been wise enough to acknowledge that there is a great deal of common ground between both parties on the need to reform our schools system, but those Labour MPs who have asked critical questions have criticised us on only one thing and they have used statistics that, I am afraid, simply mislead.

In maths, science and reading, Poland is at least 10 places above us in the international league tables. Does Poland spend more than us on education? If not, what is it doing that we could emulate?

Poland does not spend more than us; indeed, Vietnam, which outperforms us in mathematics, spends significantly less than us. What they do have is a commitment to higher standards that are rigorously policed. Poland’s curriculum is modelled on, or is similar to, our English baccalaureate. Both Vietnam and Poland have a determination to place standards on a higher plane than those on the Opposition Front Bench would contemplate.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the outcomes in Wales are nothing short of a scandal and that they are the ultimate demonstration of Labour’s education policy in action? There are parents across Wales, and even some in this House, who are genuinely worried about the future of their children’s education. Will the Secretary of State encourage the Welsh Government to follow his robust reforms?

Wales acts almost as a controlled sample. Welsh children are as intelligent and motivated as children in England, but unfortunately in Wales there are no academies, no free schools, no league tables, no chief inspector such as Sir Michael Wilshaw and no determination to reform like this coalition Government. It is an object lesson in what happens when people abandon reform and succumb to the NUT orthodoxy, which I am afraid has suffocated aspiration for far too many children in the Principality.

University technical schools have huge potential to transform education through their emphasis on technical education, vocation and science and mathematics. Such a school will open in Harlow next year. Will my right hon. Friend expand the university technical school programme even further in order that young people may gain the vocational and technical expertise from which they will benefit?

University technical colleges are an excellent innovation and we want to make sure that there are more high-performing UTCs.

I am pleased to say that 45 Back Benchers contributed in only 36 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time, which is a commentary on the succinctness of both the questions and the answers. I thank colleagues for that.