Primary Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Science – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25 February 1992.

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Photo of Mr Sydney Bidwell Mr Sydney Bidwell , Ealing, Southall 12:00, 25 February 1992

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what proposals he has arising out of the report on primary education by Alexander, Rose and Woodhead.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I commissioned the report to stimulate debate within the teaching profession and in primary schools about how best to deliver the national curriculum and to raise standards. The effective introduction of the national curriculum will require changes in practice in many schools and the report will assist the teachers concerned in planning the necessary changes.

Photo of Mr Sydney Bidwell Mr Sydney Bidwell , Ealing, Southall

I welcome the right and learned Gentleman to the Dispatch Box—I did not think that he was going to answer this question as he looked a bit tired sitting on the Bench there. I am glad that he did answer it, as I wanted to ask him this: has he learnt any lessons from the report, particularly those related to ability streaming? He is known to have favoured that, but it is rejected by the report as a a crude device which cannot do justice to the different abilities a pupil may show in different subjects and contexts".

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. If he were to read it with a less selective eye, he would benefit considerably. He would discover that the report advocates the grouping of pupils according to ability in many circumstances, in order to place the pupil in a specific ability group for a particular purpose as that is a more flexible device for teaching older children in a number of subjects. I hope that he and other members of the Labour party will eventually be talked out of their past commitment to mixed ability teaching at all levels, for, as the three wise men have confirmed, that is not suitable for delivering the broad and balanced curriculum at which the Government are aiming.

Photo of Mr James Pawsey Mr James Pawsey , Rugby and Kenilworth

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Conservative Members welcome the report of the three wise men? Does he further agree that the report condemns the trendy, discredited methods put forward by Labour and calls for a return to traditional teaching? What plans does my right hon. and learned Friend have to implement the report, and what is the time scale likely to be?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

My hon. Friend is right. The report stated that the progress of primary pupils had been hampered by the influence of highly questionable dogmas, which had led to excessively complex classroom practices and devalued the place of subjects in the curriculum.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the Labour party has been closely associated with the development of those dogmas over many years. We are circulating the report to all primary schools so that primary school teachers can benefit from its advice. The National Curriculum Council will take account of the report in monitoring and reviewing the manageability of the national curriculum. The Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education is to advise me on the implications of the report for primary initial teacher training in future. I intend to use the report to review the present arrangements for the induction of newly qualified teachers and in-service training. Considerable changes are required in classroom practice in many of our primary schools if we are to raise standards to the levels demanded by today's society and parents. The Government are determined to raise those standards, and the report will be a valuable instrument to enable us to do so.

Photo of Hilary Armstrong Hilary Armstrong , North West Durham

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is now evidence that standards in the basics, which the report identified as the key skills on which other learning depends, have fallen? Does he further accept that the report identifies that there has been serious disturbance in primary schools in recent years? Will he abandon his ideological dictation from the centre and work with teachers to bring in the changes in the curriculum for which the report calls?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

First, I personally do not accept that there is any evidence such as the hon. Lady describes. I find it odd that the position has so changed compared with 15 months ago when I became Secretary of State, when some Conservative Members were alleging that standards had declined and Opposition Members were denying those allegations. The recent report of the National Foundation for Educational Research did not attribute any decline to the national curriculum; the interpretation placed on it by the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) is based on a deliberate misreading of the report.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

Will the Secretary of State explain how he was able to commission a review of teaching methods in a matter of a few weeks, although his minimum standards—first laid down in 1981—were not met in the 10 years that the Government allowed themselves, and the current review will not now report until the autumn? Is it fair to assume that, in this general election year, the right hon. and learned Gentleman expects the review to lead to a cut in the Government's minimum standards for education facilities, designed to meet the requirements of the national curriculum?

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Secretary of State for Education and Science

Most of the minimum standards have been met. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the review will go ahead in the autumn.

The reason why the "three wise men" report was produced so quickly is that the three people whom I invited to deliver it—Mr. Alexander, Mr. Rose and Mr. Woodhead—had behind them a lifetime of experience and close involvement with primary schools, and they were able to distil that lifetime's knowledge very rapidly. As far as I am aware, no one has criticised my choice of those three experts, or challenged their conclusions. It is slightly absurd for people to pretend that the "three wise men" report is anything other than a valuable contribution to the raising of standards in our schools.