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Educational Standards: Ofsted Report

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 8 February 1996

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3.25 p.m.

What action they propose to take on poor achievement in English and maths following the latest Ofsted report on Standards and Quality in Education 1994–95.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said on Monday, every school should study the analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of all the nation's schools set out in the Ofsted report referred to. The schools should set improvement targets and choose the most effective teaching methods to deliver them. It is clear that the reforms collectively are improving educational quality but further action will be taken.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I hope that I live long enough to share the optimism that he has ventured to express. Meanwhile, however, after years of apparently tolerating a wide range of educational modalities and fashions (some of them pretty daft ones), is it not time to give a firm steer to all schools towards: first, whole class-teaching; secondly, tackling the teaching of reading and literacy through the matching of sounds to symbols (in accordance with the basic phonemic structure of English orthography); and, thirdly, the teaching of maths by means of tables and mental arithmetic, possibly with the banishment of pocket calculators in the early years of schooling?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to refer to the report. One should make the point that it came forward with positive evidence and showed that much good is happening in the schools. As regards the noble Lord's point, I can assure him that Her Majesty's chief inspector stressed in the report the importance of phonics. Paragraph 9 on page 9 states:

"The place and purpose of teaching phonics, however, rarely features strongly in school reading policies. Consequently, the teaching of phonic skills is not as thorough as it should be and is often used mainly for those who are showing signs of reading failure rather than as an established part of a well-structured reading programme for all pupils".
The report said much the same about the teaching of mathematics. I can assure the noble Lord that we are looking at the testing and assessment arrangements for Key Stage 2, age 11. We are considering suggesting that those are done without the use of calculators. As regards whole-class teaching, the chief inspector also made clear that he felt that the inspection evidence showed that whole-class teaching, which is well suited to the efficient communication of new knowledge and understanding, figures significantly in seven-tenths of all lessons judged to be good.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that hard on the heels of the report comes the report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research which highlights an alarming and widening gap in maths performance between children in Britain and their counterparts on the Continent? Is it not a fact that despite having been in school for 18 months longer than their Swiss counterparts, our 11 year-olds are lagging behind them in mathematical achievement by as much as two years? How does the Minister account for that?

My Lords, I do not accept the validity of some of those comparisons. International comparisons are always difficult to make, particularly if they are to be fair between the different countries. Those comments were somewhat simplistic in comparing purely arithmetic without looking at some other aspects of maths. However, as the chief inspector's report makes Clear, there are singns of concern in some schools ānd a degree of reurning to traditional forms of education could only be for the benefit of most pupils.

My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied that the current Reith lecturer's views will he helpful as regards standards of English?

My Lords, I am not sure that it is for me to comment on her own particular views. I have not yet heard her lectures; I believe that the first was broadcast only last night.

We take the teaching of English very seriously. That is why my right honourable friend made it quite clear, in an announcement earlier this year, that she would be setting up 20 literacy and numeracy centres aimed at improving the teaching of English.

My Lords, there clearly are some inadequate teachers. What arc the Government planning to do about them? Will they improve on the amount of money that will go to in-service training; or are some inadequate teachers to be got rid of?

My Lords, we want to improve the training of all teachers where possible. The Teacher Training Agency will be looking at just that. As the noble Baroness will recognise, there are some teachers who quite obviously should not be in the teaching profession. It is a matter for the schools and for LEAs —so long as they do not have some rather ridiculous "no redundancies" policy, as I understand some LEAs do —to sack those teachers who are inadequate and unable to deliver the right service to the pupils they are supposed to be teaching.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the establishment of Ofsted has enabled us to judge far more accurately what is happening in schools? Its establishment was, I recall, fought vigorously by the party opposite when the legislation was passing through this House. Will my noble friend further agree that it now enables us to identify those schools that are weak, and also under-performing teachers, so that we can attempt to improve standards?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the importance of inspection, and of Ofsted. We now hope to be able to inspect schools about once every four years —as opposed to roughly once every 200 years in the past!

My noble friend is also correct to point out that Ofsted and the inspection regime were opposed by the party opposite, as was the national curriculum, the greater choice offered to parents, testing and performance tables —which we are now extending to primary schools —and the provision of greater information to parents.

My Lords, bearing in mind that the recent report refers largely to the primary sector, are the Government preparing to suggest increased funding —even targeted funding —for that sector? Or do they simply intend to require local authorities to transfer funding from the secondary to the primary sector?

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Baroness has not read the report, which makes it quite clear that the problem in any sector, primary or secondary, is not a lack of resources. The problem very often is inadequate teaching. That can he addressed by the schools themselves.