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Education: English

Volume 716: debated on Monday 11 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that measures are in place throughout the education system for improving performance in spoken and written English.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are committed to improving performance in spoken and written English. Our drive to improve whole-class teaching is promoting enhanced pupil achievement. The new primary curriculum will support this. Programmes, for example, one-to-one tuition, Every Child a Writer and Literacy Plus, provide additional help to pupils where needed. The accountability framework, to be underpinned by our new Pupil Guarantee, helps ensure continued school improvement, enabling all children to achieve their potential.

My Lords, I thank the Minister who is, of course, well aware that English is the foundation and the gateway for employment as well as for all future training and education. She will no doubt have shared the general dismay at the figures published last month by the Office for National Statistics, which showed that there had been a decline in performance of a remarkable 5 per cent for the second year in succession. I have two questions therefore. First, how can this be when relevant expenditure has more than doubled in the past 10 years to a staggering £64 billion? Secondly, if, as is widely rumoured, the unloved SATS are being dumped, what measures will the Government put in place so that we can have some idea in the future whether standards are improving or continuing to fall?

My Lords, that is a very important question for which I thank the noble Lord. He is right to talk about literacy being the foundation for a positive future for all our young people. I absolutely support that analysis. By working in partnership with employers, the Government are developing a comprehensive strategy to ensure that when they leave school all young people have the functional skills that employers expect in this day and age.

The noble Lord asked about measures. The most important measures that this House and others will be looking at will, of course, continue to be, for example, our performance at GCSE level, but the Government will incorporate a whole range of measures through the development of the school report card, which will, I hope, very much include a clear measure of how well schools promote functional literacy.

It is important that measures apply consistently across the board. The noble Baroness referred to children and young people for whom English is an additional language. This is a matter of great concern to the Government. The number of children with English as an additional language is increasing, but we have been working very closely with schools to ensure, through our national strategies programme, that we are providing the kind of tools that schools need to ensure that, as standards of literacy are improving in this country—and they are—children for whom English is an additional language can keep in touch and that the gap does not increase.

Does the Minister agree that speech and language therapists have an important role to play in the performance of spoken English? Given that the posts of these therapists in schools are funded by the NHS through the local PCT and that their professional training is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, what are the Government doing to ensure that there is co-operation between the two departments so that there are sufficient funded posts and properly trained people to fill them?

My Lords, I shall have to think about whether or not my answer was adequate for the noble Baroness, because the important thing is to point to the very strong partnership that exists between the DCSF and the DoH. In response to the Rose review, which looked at the primary curriculum, we have launched the communication, language and literacy development programme, which is very much about the two departments working in partnership. However, I am prepared to look more closely at her question and come back to her in writing.

Does my noble friend agree with Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, that reading—in particular, reciting—English poetry, whether ancient or modern, is one of the best ways of developing spoken English?

My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. We need to be absolutely clear that spoken English—as well as listening and written English—is a key part of the GCSE curriculum and is very much a part of the culture of teaching and learning in our primary and secondary schools. Of course poetry is key throughout that. Encouraging children and young people to enjoy poetry is absolutely essential.

Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government are not completely concentrating on one-to-one tuition, because it is generally agreed that that is not always the best way to encourage children to talk, to listen and to articulate their thoughts? Teaching a small group of children is very often much better than teaching in a one-to-one situation.

I can reassure the noble Baroness because, as I have tried to explain, our strategy is about improving and supporting whole-class teaching—we have national strategies to help schools that need support there—and intervening early where children and young people are falling behind and are not achieving what is expected of them for their age. That is where the essential contribution of one-to-one tuition comes in. Therefore, I would not say that the Government are focusing too much on that, but we are very proud that we will commit significant funding—£138 million this year—to supporting one-to-one tuition where that makes a difference. Of course the noble Baroness is right to say that listening in groups and group work are important, but one-to-one tuition has a difference to make.

My Lords, will the Minister answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, that, according to the ONS, educational standards have been dropping at the same time as expenditure has been rising? Is this because there is not a direct link between rising standards and spending money?

My Lords, I completely disagree with the analysis that educational standards in this country are falling. For example, 80 per cent of 11 year-olds are reaching the expected target of English attainment compared with 63 per cent in 1997. That is 100,000 more young people every year achieving the expected standard for their age. That is a product of unprecedented investment. We must do more and go further to achieve better for our young people. We must ensure that all young people can achieve to their potential.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that confidence in spoken and written English needs to be built very early? Will she join me in congratulating the arts organisations in this country that have contributed through the work that they do in schools to building that confidence, particularly in children of primary school age?

My Lords, I join my noble friend in congratulating arts organisations throughout the country on working with schools to build children's and young people's confidence in spoken English. This is now assessed much more as part of the formal qualification system, but spoken language in drama, performance and poetry is very much a part of every school community in this country and is something that we must value and promote further.