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Literacy and Numeracy

Volume 635: debated on Monday 29 January 2018

In 2013, we published a new primary school curriculum that significantly raised expectations in both English and maths, and promoted the use of phonics in the teaching of reading. In 2012, we introduced the phonics check for six-year-olds. The results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—showed nine-year-olds in England achieving the highest ever scores, moving England up from joint 10th to joint eighth out of 50 countries worldwide.

I am grateful for that answer. Thanks to some tough decisions by the Minister and sheer hard work by our teachers, reading standards are the highest for a generation. Sadly, disadvantaged children still lag behind, so what are he and the Department doing to address that issue?

The PIRLS survey links strong performance in the phonics check with high scores in the PIRLS text. Particularly pleasing is the fact that our rise in the global rankings has been driven by improved performance by low-ability pupils. We are now focusing on strengthening the maths, reading and writing elements of the early years foundation stage to help prepare children for year 1 of primary school. The attainment gap has closed by 10.5% at key stage 2, but we want to go further and close the gap altogether.

I do regular phonics practice with my children, which, as the Minister has said, is helping children get better at reading. However, there does not seem to the same focus on practising core maths skills in primary schools. What is my right hon. Friend doing to improve maths in primary schools, especially the learning of times tables?

I thank my hon. Friend for making sure her children learn their phonics, and she is right to emphasise the importance of children knowing their times tables by heart, up to 12 times 12 by the end of year 4 at the latest. That is why we are introducing an on-screen multiplication tables check for all pupils at the end of year 4 of primary school. The prize is to have all pupils leaving primary school fluent in their multiplication tables, ensuring they have the essential foundation for success in mathematics at secondary school.

The reality is that children can improve their literacy and numeracy only if they are in school. In North East Lincolnshire, children lost nearly 3,500 days of education last year alone. What will the Government do to make sure that another 825 children in my borough next year do not miss out on their education through exclusion?

We have made it clear that attendance at school is vital. We changed the definition of “persistent absence” from 15% to 10%, and we have increased the fines that would be applied to parents who do not send their children to school regularly.

The Minister will have seen independent research by the Education Policy Institute showing that Harrow is the best place to send children to school, so perhaps he will come to my borough to see what is working in terms of literacy and numeracy. If he does, he will meet headteachers who are very concerned about cuts to their budgets as a result of a lack of sufficient funding from the Government. What is he going to do about that?

I congratulate all the teachers and pupils in Harrow on their receiving that accolade from the Education Policy Institute. We are spending record amounts on school funding—some £41 billion this year. No Government have spent that level of funding on schools in our history. That will rise further to £42.4 billion next year.

The Minister will know that only 1% of children who move from mainstream to alternative provision during their GCSE years achieve good GCSEs, including in English and maths. What more can be done to support this important group of students?

I do not want the House to get the wrong idea; we seem to have gone from Harrow to Rugby, but that does not mean that others cannot take part. We are focused predominantly on the state sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) raises an important point. The standards of achievement in the alternative provision sector are not high enough. The children who attend those schools are vulnerable and we want to do more to improve the situation, which is why we have recently commissioned new research into the relationship between schools and alternative provision to find out what more we can do to raise standards.

The situation in Wirral is that we have fine teachers but insufficient Government resources. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, I want all the schools in my constituency to be good or outstanding. In the case of one rapidly improving school, Bebington High School, an administrative delay seems to be getting in the way of teaching and learning, and there is an issue with the resources for that. Will the Minister meet me to find a way to use our leadership to stop red tape getting in the way of children’s learning?

I share the hon. Lady’s ambition. We want all schools to be good or outstanding and we want parents to be confident that their local school is a good school that will provide a very high standard of education. I am pleased that there are now 1.9 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the particular circumstances at Bebington High School.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Greenfields Primary School in Kettering? It has just been ranked in the top 1% of schools in England for progress in reading and writing. Prior to becoming an academy in 2013, it was one of the most challenged schools in Kettering, with progress levels significantly below average.

I am delighted to congratulate Greenfields Primary School in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am almost certain that I have very recently signed a letter to its headteacher to congratulate them on the superb achievement at the school.

Evidence from last year’s key stage 2 SATs shows that the attainment gap between children on free school meals and their peers has widened since the year before. The results for the Minister’s precious key stage 1 phonics for kids on free school meals actually went backwards last year. At least the previous Secretary of State talked the talk on social mobility. Is it not clear that the Government do not walk the walk?

The hon. Gentleman is not correct. The attainment-gap index at key stage 2 has closed by 10.5%. We have seen a significant increase in the proportion of children who achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths: it rose from 53% last year to 61% this year—an increase of 8 percentage points—and the SATs are significantly more demanding than they were in previous years. We are producing a cohort of primary school leavers who are far better equipped in maths and English, ready for the demands of secondary school.