Secondary Schools

Oral Answers to Questions — Children, Schools and Families – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 26th July 2007.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Senior Parliamentary & Political Advisor To David Cameron 10:30 am, 26th July 2007

What steps his Department is taking to raise standards in secondary schools.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I start by welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan, to the Front Bench for his first Question Time, and also by welcoming Michael Gove to the Opposition Front Bench for his first questions on this subject.

Standards in secondary schools have risen dramatically over the past decade, with more than 86,000 more pupils now achieving five good GCSEs last year compared with 1997, and 62,000 more achieving five good GCSEs including maths and English. This is as a result of rising investment, a relentless focus on standards, support for teachers and improved discipline, and targeted intervention to tackle poor performance.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Senior Parliamentary & Political Advisor To David Cameron

In welcoming the Secretary of State to his very important new role, may I urge him to be more flexible in pushing up standards? Surely that means both setting and streaming in every subject in secondary school. When is that going to happen?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I agree that we need to be flexible, and that means giving teachers and head teachers the flexibility to do the right thing for their children in their schools. I have said that I believe that setting is the right way to go, and setting is rising in our schools, but I have also said that I do not think that selection, either through grammar schools or through grammar streams, would be the right way to go. I think that grammar streams would be divisive. That would be the wrong way to go. I do not think that the Conservative party is right on this subject, but I do think that setting is the right way to go.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho PPS (Rt Hon David Hanson, Minister of State), Ministry of Justice

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of the year-on-year improvement in GCSE pass rates and grades from pupils across Dudley. What further progress does he envisage for the pupils of Stourbridge, with the recent announcement of an extra £25 million for the black country learning challenge?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

The standards have been rising in my hon. Friend's constituency, but they have not risen fast enough and we want to do more, and in particular to do more for every child in her constituency. That is why, learning from the London model, we have established a black country challenge to help her and her colleagues to drive up standards in every school in her constituency.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Shadow Minister (Education)

There is a growing movement within the education establishment to try to reduce the amount of testing in our secondary, and indeed primary schools. Testing has been an extremely valuable tool in raising standards. Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that there will be no retreat from testing in our schools?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I think that it is the Conservative party that has advocated a reduction in testing; that was certainly the previous shadow Minister's view. In my view, testing is essential for parents, for head teachers and for pupils themselves, to be able to track progress. We want to ensure that we test more through the curriculum, but do it in a personalised way that enables us to drive up standards for every child, and to give teachers the information they need to ensure that we drag up poor performance as well as promote excellence. So I can tell the hon. Gentleman from this party that there will be no retreat from the testing agenda.

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T

Hold on! Wasn't it the Conservatives who introduced this testing and grading and school performance malarky in the first place? Weren't the Labour Party opposed to it back then? Methinks the "education" process has fallen into the trap of presuming that every child/person is in some way a robot commodity which the Government can mould into a little cog in a great big machine called...

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Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

May I too welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position? I am delighted with the way in which standards are being driven up in our secondary schools, but will he place particular emphasis, especially in secondary schools, on encouraging young people to go into the crafts? I am talking about engineering, carpentry, plumbing, electrics and whatever. We are really getting short of such skills, and secondary schools have a big role to play in encouraging people to go into them.

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

My hon. Friend is completely right, and we need to make sure that our programme for diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds both promotes academic excellence and gives people the skills that they need for life—whether for university, for college or for work. Two days ago I visited South Bank university to launch the first engineering diploma, and with the other four diplomas that we are launching in the next couple of weeks, I think that he will see that in the areas he described—related to the built environment—we will both promote learning and give people skills for life. I assure him that this Department will drive forward that vocational agenda in a way that promotes academic excellence.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I welcome the Secretary of State to his first question session. In his first statement to the House as Secretary of State, he said that he would make standards rather than structures the priority. In almost his last speech on education, Tony Blair, the previous Prime Minister—if I am still allowed to mention him—said:

"over time I shifted from saying 'it's standards not structures' to realising that schools structures...affect standards."

Could the Secretary of State explain why he has changed the Government's position on that issue since coming to his new post?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I made it very clear that standards for all children would drive this new Department and I said that it is all about what happens in the classroom, and about backing teachers, but also about backing leadership change in schools when that is needed. That is what our academy programme does. In the end, the test is standards rather than simply structural change for its own sake, so I am clear that standards are the ultimate test of our policy. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to all Members of the House that when shadow Ministers say:

"Academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it", they are making the case for why we reject structural change through grammar schools in favour of an agenda of standards for all in our country.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon Rosie Winterton, Minister of State), Department for Transport

Is not a major factor in success in secondary schools excellence in leadership? Will my right hon. Friend give his commitment to the support and training for head teachers and senior management teams? Does he agree that we must never overlook the very valuable contribution made to good leadership in our schools by the massive army of unpaid school governors?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

My hon. Friend is completely right. The voluntary work done by governors contributes hugely to the leadership agenda that I have spoken about. It is also about teachers, head teachers and the support staff who play a valuable role in the classroom every day in our schools. Backing leadership in every classroom by recognising the professionalism of every teacher and every support worker is essential so that head teachers and governors can do their job and deliver for all the pupils in their area.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

May I welcome the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to their places for their first Question Time? And may I say how much I look forward to working with him, with his team—and, indeed, with the Liberal Democrats—to advance the cause of pragmatic reform wherever possible?

In his first statement to the House, the Secretary of State said that his priority would be core subjects such as maths and science. That is a priority that Conservative Members share—but can he tell me how many students are now taking A-level maths and physics compared with 10 years ago?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am concerned by the fact that the number of A-level pupils doing physics has gone down—although I am pleased to see that the number of pupils doing physics GCSE has gone up. Since 1997 the number of pupils doing one science GCSE has risen from 87 per cent. to 92 per cent. and the number of students doing the single science GCSE has gone from 9 per cent. to 11 per cent. We are laying the foundations in the GCSE curriculum to promote more science. We are delivering, but there is more to be done in order to deliver more A-level students, and I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to make that happen.

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Photo of Michael Gove Michael Gove Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The answer was a simple sum; we did not need an extended essay. There are now 15 per cent. fewer students taking physics A-level and 7 per cent. fewer taking maths—something that the Secretary of State ignored. A quarter of state secondary schools have no physics teacher, and fewer than half our maths teachers have maths degrees. As Winston Churchill might have said, if he was still in the curriculum, "Never in the field of maths and physics have so many been taught so little by so few." How does the Minister explain that failure?

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Photo of Edward Balls Edward Balls Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

I have just said that our performance in science GCSEs has been going up, not down. I have also said that I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to make sure that we do more. In my statement to the House a couple of weeks ago, I said that I wanted a national consensus on driving standards up for all children. I have also said that there are things that we have to do to make that happen. We should raise the level of state school spending to the private school level. We should raise the education-leaving age to 18. We should promote excellence for all students, not just some in a grammar stream. We should roll out our extended schools programme and our Sure Start programme to every area in the country. I want a consensus with the hon. Gentleman on these matters. I know that this is difficult for him—there are difficulties on these issues; I understand that. As he said himself:

"in their reluctance to endorse any of these schemes the Conservatives are left embarrassingly mute"—

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