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School Standards In Maths And Science

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 February 1999

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3.1 p.m.

How they propose to achieve in state schools other than grammar schools the standards in mathematics and science now achieved in grammar schools.

My Lords, we are committed to high achievement for all children, not just the few. To pursue high standards more widely, we are ensuring that all schools set themselves challenging targets, make marked improvements in the core areas of literacy and numeracy and improve access to further and higher education.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer; but is he aware that the grammar schools, which account for only 3 per cent. of the school population of the relevant age, produce 12 per cent. of the relevant A-levels in maths and science? As the Government are working to establish specialist schools in specified subjects such as maths and science, will they, as they profess to believe in excellence for all, consider making the grammar schools into such specialist schools, based on their present performance in those subjects?

My Lords, given the highly selective nature of grammar schools, it is to be expected that they will do well in examinations. Our concern in raising standards in numeracy is to ensure that we raise standards in all schools. That is why we have established a number of initiatives on raising numeracy standards. The noble Lord asked about specialist schools. Schools with a specialty, whether in maths, arts, languages or technology, have a role to play in helping those children whose potential lies in certain areas. We see some extension of the role of specialist schools. As the noble Lord knows, we said in our manifesto that we would leave to parents the decision about the future admission arrangements of grammar schools. We have fulfilled that commitment.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is wrong and misleading to point to the achievements of grammar schools without also considering the achievements of the non-selective schools grammar school areas; namely, the secondary modern schools? Can my noble friend help me by comparing the achievements in maths and science of secondary modern schools in grammar school areas with those achieved by state schools in general?

My Lords, that is an extremely interesting question. At grades A* to C, an average comprehensive with a low level of disadvantage would achieve a pass rate of 59 per cent, for maths and 62 per cent, for science. The figures for secondary moderns are 26 per cent, for maths and 28 per cent, for science. Those figures tell their own story.

My Lords, as both noble Baronesses are on their feet and we have some time, perhaps we can hear first from the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if grammar schools were to be abolished, the result would be neighbourhood schools, which are what we had in the past and are of no help to children who live in the wrong area?

My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear. We said in our manifesto that changes to the admission procedures of grammar schools must be decided by local parents. We have legislated for that to happen. A vote in favour of change in an admission procedure is not a vote in favour of the closure of a school; it simply requires a grammar school to amend its admission arrangements. We are leaving it to local parents to decide the future admission arrangements of such schools.

My Lords, as I think it is agreed that we now have a general shortage of maths and science teachers, what immediate steps are the Government taking to try to attract maths and science graduates into the teaching profession?

My Lords, there have been reports of schools having difficulty in recruiting teachers, particularly maths teachers. However, we should not overstate the problem. It is a fact that 99 per cent, of all maths posts are filled at present. Nevertheless, it is clear that we need to improve on that. The Green Paper on teachers which was published last December will, I believe, transform our approach to recruiting across all subjects and will ensure that we attract a greater share of talented people to be teachers by offering better pay, prospects and support. I should mention in addition the short-term package which was announced last October to seek to address recruitment difficulties. It contained financial incentives for maths and science teachers and provision for funding recruitment advisers to help schools in areas which are experiencing particular difficulties.

My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister was not able to answer the question about the performance of neighbouring secondary modern schools because there is overwhelming, irrefutable evidence about what happens in secondary modern schools in areas where there is a widespread availability of grammar school places. I refer, for example, to Northern Ireland, where the secondary modern schools do very much better than other comparable schools in other parts of the country.

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to Northern Ireland which I suggest is very different from other parts of the United Kingdom. Perhaps I may point out that in Scotland, where there is no selection, the equivalent results are also higher than those in England. There is no consistent relationship between the structure and the performance of the different secondary education systems.