I beg to move,
That this House
believes that every child deserves an excellent education which enables them to grow and thrive;
notes that the Government has published figures showing that a lower proportion of children were meeting the expected standard at the end of Key Stage 2 overall in 2016 than in 2015; further notes that, as a result, in 2016 47 percent of children will be told that they have not reached the expected standard in at least one of their SATs papers;
regrets that the Secretary of State for Education has pushed ahead with chaotic and confusing reforms which mean that thousands of children will be unnecessarily labelled as failures, and that the Secretary of State is steadily losing the confidence of teachers;
and calls on the Government urgently to review primary assessment and the 2016 SATs results and to clarify that these will not be used for measuring and judging school performance.
The 2016 key stage 2 standard assessment tests, which assess children in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation and maths, are the first to assess the new primary national curriculum, which was introduced in 2014. The Government claim that they have raised expectations for pupils at the end of key stage 2, but those at the chalk-face—primary school teachers and school leaders—say that the expected standard for SATs has been set at a level that is beyond the reach of the majority of children.
Our children are being set up to fail. Almost half of England’s 11-year-olds will now go on to secondary school, having been told by this Government that they are failures. However, the real failures are this Government, particularly the current Secretary of State for Education who pushed ahead with this flawed system despite all the warnings from the education profession that the primary assessment system was not fit for purpose.
Under this Government, children who fail to meet the totally unrealistic expected target at the end of key stage 2—47% of children—will be required to resit these tests in future. School leaders were told yesterday that the catch-up funding for secondary schools will not increase despite the rise in the number of pupils deemed to be below the expected standard. For these pupils, the first year at big school—and all the excitement and anticipation that it should bring—will instead become an anxious replay of drilling for tests in English and maths, which they sat in primary school. I can only imagine the impact on those young lives—to have to go through it all again, to feel a failure, to see their friends getting on when they should be looking ahead to new challenges and new opportunities.
I remember being told that I would never amount to anything, but look at me now. I want—teachers want—every child to know that they are amazing. I want an education system that helps every child realise their full potential.
The hon. Lady may remember that under the last Labour Government we had such a system. It was fantastic. Every child was told that they were succeeding. It was just that when we looked at the international league tables, we went down, down and down. We had grade inflation. Whatever her critique of SATs results this year, does she not agree that we must have high standards and we must maintain those standards over time; otherwise we will go back to those days under Labour when we let down the future of young people by pretending that they were successful when, in fact, they were not?
I remember that under Labour we had Sure Start, we had Every Child Matters, we had new schools, we had teachers in the profession, we had people and children feeling that they were happy. At present we have teachers taking unprecedented industrial action and leaving the profession at record rates, so I take no lectures from those on the Government Benches regarding the current situation.
The Opposition recognise that ongoing assessment and consistent testing in schools is extremely important to help teachers and parents support and provide new challenges for all children. Such tests can identify and close any gaps in knowledge so that all pupils can do well. But a proper assessment regime needs consistency and needs to be understood by all.
The Government have utterly failed to deliver on this. The current SATs tests go too far. The Secretary of State has chopped and changed too much. She has caused disruption and chaos in our schools and extra bureaucracy for our teachers. The key stage 2 assessments have been an unmitigated disaster and a nightmare for thousands of children, ending in disappointment and prolonged uncertainty. They also have serious consequences for thousands of schools because of the way this Government use them as part of the school accountability system.
KS2 SATs are used to rank schools in league tables. They are scrutinised by the Department for Education and regional schools commissioners, who form judgments on schools’ performance. Ofsted uses SATs results when forming its inspection judgments, and parents take them into account when choosing their children’s school. Schools’ reputations are heavily dependent on how their pupils perform in these tests.
The National Association of Head Teachers asked the Secretary of State not to publish the data, as she herself has conceded that it is not to be compared with that for previous years. The NAHT general secretary, Russell Hobby, said:
“Given the changes to SATs this year, and the mistakes we’ve seen, it is hard see how valuable this data will be to parents who want to understand how well a school is performing year on year or compared to other schools. But the government does love a league table, regardless of how accurate it may be.”
Worryingly, the schools commissioners are already using the provisional results from these tests to identify those schools to which they can apply their extensive legal powers to force them into academy status on the spurious grounds that they are failing, coasting or underperforming.
Does all this remind us of anything—children who are judged failures at an early age, being separated from their primary school classmates; schools which are being wrongly condemned as second class? That sounds to me like the dark days of the 11-plus, with children branded failures before they have even reached their teens and separated from their classmates, with all the stigma that that can bring. Many adults today still recount the lasting effects that that had on them.
I have to confess that I myself am one such failure—of the 12-plus system. However, does the hon. Lady agree with any form of testing? If so, what type of testing would she bring forward?
I made it quite clear in my opening remarks that the Opposition recognise the need for testing, but it is the chaotic way in which the Secretary of State has brought in the new key stage 2 SATs that is damaging and that potentially makes people feel a failure. Given what the hon. Gentleman has just said, I am sure he recognises that the 11-plus and 12-plus caused uncertainty and that feeling of failure. I remember how I felt when I was branded a failure, and these things do not help our young people today.
The Government seem hellbent on bringing back the 11-plus through the back door. They can deny that, but the evidence is right in front of us: children are being selected on the basis of muddle-headed tests into two separate groups—winners and losers, successes and failures—and their primary schools are being branded in exactly the same way. It is the 11-plus by any other name.
The tests do not give a rounded picture of the work of individual pupils or their schools. I could not put things any better than Mrs Jane Grecic, the headteacher of Lansbury Bridge School in St Helen’s, who wrote to one of her 11-year-old pupils, Ben, about his SATs results. Ben is autistic, and Mrs Grecic congratulated him on his fabulous progress, writing:
“these tests only measure a little bit of you and your abilities…Ben…is made up of many other skills and talents that we at Lansbury Bridge see and measure in other ways…These tests do not measure…Your artistic talents…Your ability to work in a team…Your growing independence…Your kindness…Your ability to express your opinion…Your abilities in sport…Your ability to make and keep friends…Your ability to discuss and evaluate your own progress…Your design and building talents…Your musical ability”.
This fine headteacher concludes:
“we are so pleased that all of these different talents and abilities make you the special person you are and these are all of the things we measure to reassure us that you are always making progress and continuing to develop as a lovely bright young man. Well done Ben, we are very proud of you.”
I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating young Ben on his development at the tender age of 11 and, indeed, his headteacher, on showing in very real, human terms how these test results should in no way make a child feel they are not developing well.
My hon. Friend makes a persuasive case. Does she agree that we should be encouraging children and giving them confidence, particularly in areas such as mine, where there are high levels of deprivation, and where children are told by many people that they cannot achieve or go far in life? These things add to that, and we should be encouraging our children and giving them confidence, not discouraging them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have to heed the concerns of the professionals. It is a real tragedy when we set children up to fail. The Government need to work with the profession to make sure this year’s mistakes are not repeated and to build a system that works better for children, parents and schools. These results do not reflect the dedication of teachers and the many extra hours they have worked to ensure that all children can fulfil their potential, despite the turmoil caused by the Secretary of State’s chaotic and confusing reforms.
Is the shadow Secretary of State aware of the real danger of children leaving primary school and heading to secondary school without adequate maths and English? Once they have done that, there is only a one in nine chance they will cover the ground necessary for them to develop into proper adults. Is that not a serious matter, and should it not at least be addressed through some form of knowledge about outcomes?
I am only too aware of that, because I failed my GCSEs—I did not get grades A to C. We had a well-attended Westminster Hall debate about early years intervention and it is important that we put the structures in place to help children, not make them feel like failures through our own failures.
These SATs undermine the morale of our dedicated primary teachers, who have battled against the odds to prepare children for tests they knew were inappropriate while trying to protect them from their worst consequences. They could result in thousands more schools being forced to become academies. They do not reflect the hard work of children with special educational needs or those for whom English is an additional language. These tests are designed to measure what children cannot do, not what they can do. Nor do they measure the many ways in which our children learn to develop and succeed every day of their young lives.
The impact of these SATs on children is best illustrated by their parents. Rachel McCollin from Birmingham says:
“My son is tired, stressed and paranoid that he’s going to fail—I can’t wait for this week to be over.”
Katharine Lee from Bath says:
“My son hardly slept on Sunday night and was a nervous wreck on Monday morning, despite us telling him that these tests are not the be-all and end-all. It’s way too much pressure at 11.”
We have already forced the Government into a U-turn on forced academisation, but they are using these results to compel even more academisation through the back door. It is hardly surprising that teachers and school leaders have lost confidence in the Secretary of State and her education policies. Guidance arrived late and changed frequently. Test papers were leaked and the design of tests was poor. Preparation for the SATs had a negative impact on children’s access to a broad and balanced curriculum. Ninety per cent. of teachers thought that this year’s changes had had a negative impact on children’s experience at school. Teachers spoke of demoralisation, demotivation, and physical and mental distress. This is a damning indictment of the Secretary of State’s performance. She has been entrusted with the future of our children and the future of our country, and she has failed; we do not need any test to see that.
I wanted to give Angela Rayner the benefit of the doubt, because she has not been shadow Secretary of State for Education for very long and I can sense her passion for the subject, in terms of her own experiences in education and her family. However, her speech captured everything that is wrong with the Labour party at the moment: mad conspiracy theories, deferring to the unions, and zero answers to the problems facing this country. This is about young people who were let down by a Labour Government who consistently sold them short in terms of their life chances.
The hon. Lady was wrong on all counts—wrong on tests, wrong on selection, and wrong on giving young people the best start in life. Nothing—nothing at all—is more important than making sure that young people master the basics of the three R’s, and master them early. If they do not, they face a struggle for the rest of their lives and are denied the opportunity to realise their full potential. That is why making sure that every child in this country has a good grasp of literacy and numeracy is a matter of social justice.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is particularly sad is that Labour Members appear to think it is more important to let children think that they are ready for secondary school than actually to ensure that they are?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, a former Chair of the Education Committee. He is absolutely right that Labour Members appear to want to sell young people short, rather than being clear with them about the standards that are needed to compete not just with the best in this country, but with the best in the world.
When this Government came to office in 2010, too many young people entering secondary school were not able to read, write or add up well enough. England’s pupils were far behind their peers in top-performing countries right across the globe. International test after international test showed other nations surging ahead while England’s performance stagnated. In fact, the OECD identified England as one of the few countries in which the basic skills of school leavers were no better than those of their grandparents’ generation. To me, that is nothing short of a scandal, and central to that scandal was that the curriculum being taught in many primary schools, and the tests that the pupils were taking, were not up to scratch.
My constituency has some spectacular primary schools and some outstanding secondary schools, but as I go around the schools in my constituency, I find that too many young people are let down at the secondary stage of their education. They come out of primary school with very good results, but slip back over their five years in secondary school. What is the Education Secretary going to do about standards in secondary education as well as in primary?
I will not give the hon. Gentleman all the details that I could set out if we were having a broader debate about education, because that would risk straying off the subject of key stage 2 SATs. We are, however, reforming GCSEs, introducing the EBacc, looking at technical and professional education and increasing the number of young people over the age of 16 in apprenticeships. Last Friday we launched the skills plan. I do not disagree that there are challenges at both stages of education. The chief inspector of Ofsted has identified those first three years at secondary school as a time when children, particularly bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds, slip backwards. To me, that is also a matter of social justice, and I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can find common cause on the need to tackle it.
The trouble with the attitude of the Labour party is that while it allowed Labour politicians to trumpet ever higher pass rates, the price was low standards that let down the young people trying to master these vital subjects.
To reinforce the Secretary of State’s point, is she concerned by the observation of National Numeracy that 78% of this country’s adult population scarcely reach level 2 in maths? That is appalling and we must work with total devotion to put the situation right. The SATs under discussion are one tool in a toolbox that we must use.
I agree entirely with the Chairman of the Education Committee. Numeracy and literacy are basic skills and building blocks—the Prime Minister has called them the ultimate vocational subjects. Everybody needs to have confidence in them. On post-16 funding, this Government have required those who do not have a grade C at GCSE English and maths to continue to take the subject. It is worth noting that 70% of key stage 2 pupils who took the new test last week achieved the expected standard in mathematics. They are to be congratulated on their hard work.
This Government refused to accept the status quo that let young people down. That was why, in consultation with experts from across the education sector, we introduced a new, world-class primary school curriculum. That curriculum raised the bar on what counts as a good enough standard in the three R’s so that children would leave primary school genuinely ready for success in their secondary studies.
To measure how schools and pupils were performing against the new curriculum, new tests were required. I know that some oppose testing, but they could not be more wrong. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne was challenged by my hon. Friend Graham Stuart about what tests she would introduce, but she could not answer that question. I think we can agree that tests are a vital part of teaching because they allow teachers to know whether a pupil has understood key subjects, give parents confidence that their children are on track and allow schools to identify where extra support is needed.
These tests are not about holding children to account and they are not exams. The best schools try to make sure that taking SATs involves as little stress as possible. As one teacher said to me just last week, “The children had such a positive attitude towards the SATs, which definitely paid off.”
My right hon. Friend knows about teachers’ concerns on this issue. What is she doing to assuage these concerns and to engage with the profession? More importantly, what is she doing to ensure that, next year, more than 53% of children in our primary schools meet the expected standards?
I am of course aware of the concerns. I read emails and letters from teachers, and I have conversations with teachers at every school that I visit. Those concerns were inevitable, given that this was the first year. This was always going to be a challenging year, as is the case for the first year of any new tests. I say that as someone who took the new GCSEs in their first year, way back in the late 1980s. We have made moves to tackle the workload and we are, of course, listening to the feedback that teachers have given us this year as we think about the structure of the assessment frameworks for next year. We will continue to do that.
I talked about a positive attitude towards SATs because that is not unique. Polling from ComRes of 10 and 11-year-olds found that 62% of pupils either “don’t mind” or “enjoy” taking the tests. That is far more than the number who say that they “don’t like” or “hate” taking the tests.
As I said, I know that in the first year of these tests being rolled out, the administration was not as smooth as it could have been, and for that we have apologised. However, in the few cases where errors occurred, we took immediate action, ensuring that the overall roll-out of the new SATs was a success. Lower results do not represent a failure of our reforms. I have been very clear that it is not possible to compare this year’s results with last year’s. We have always been clear that because we not only introduced a new curriculum but raised the bar, results would be lower as the new curriculum is bedding in.
That brings into sharp relief the contrast between this Government and the Labour party. We want children to really understand the curriculum so that they can compete with the best in the world. We do not want to run the risk of them leaving school without the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed. The Labour party, in contrast, clearly appears quite happy for that to happen. Labour Members forget that it is not the children in schools in leafy areas with supportive parents who read to them every night who most need their primary curriculum to set them up for life. It is the ones who are not brought up with high aspirations and interested parents who need their teachers and schools to aim high for them, and that is what these tests and the new curriculum are about.
In fact, the results showed that schools have resoundingly risen to meet the higher bar: two thirds of pupils achieved the expected standard in reading; seven in 10 achieved it in mathematics; and almost three quarters achieved it in writing. Despite the doom-mongering from Labour Members, more than half of young people achieved the expected standard in all three subjects. That number will rise as schools and pupils experience more of the new curriculum.
What does this mean for children who did not meet the expected standard? It means one thing: secondary schools are now aware of that and are able to give those pupils the support that they need to catch up. It absolutely does not mean, and never has meant, that those children have somehow failed. The only people who have used these results to label children failures are the National Union of Teachers and now the Labour party. That is absolutely shameful.
No, I am not going to give way.
Let me also be clear about what this means for schools. Conservative Members believe that schools have to be held to account for the results that their pupils achieve. However, they need to be held to account fairly, which is why we are judging schools not just on the standards that they achieve, but on the progress that they make with every child, so that schools with challenging intakes get proper recognition for the achievement they are making by pushing their pupils to success. On top of that, in recognition of the fact that this is a transitional year, I have also announced that the proportion of schools judged to be below the floor when the new progress bar is set will be no more than one percentage point higher than last year. That progress bar will be released in September, and no school can be identified as being below the floor before then.
Having listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, I was struck by just how easily it could have been written by the NUT’s acting general secretary. It represented the final stage of the Labour party’s transformation into the parliamentary wing of the NUT.
No, not at the moment.
It was noticeable last week—this is noticeable today—that there was a greater presence on the Labour Benches for an urgent question about the NUT strike than there was for the previous day’s Education questions.
No, I am not going to give way at the moment.
In our March White Paper, we set out plans to tackle areas of entrenched educational underperformance. What we did not expect was that one of those areas of entrenched underperformance would be the NUT itself. Its readiness to use the word “failure” about children, and to oppose every reform that is designed to recognise and reward great teaching and to enable schools to tackle the not so good, is yet a further example of the chronic underperformance by that union on behalf of its members. More importantly, it is a failure for the children with whom its members work.
We now see the same attitude from the Opposition. In my two years as Secretary of State for Education, I have seen the transformation of the Labour party’s attitude to our education reforms from the secret support of Tristram Hunt to the hedged bets of Lucy Powell. We now have the outright hostility of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne to the raising of standards. I hope that Pat Glass will forgive me for lacking the time to work out where she stood.
The Labour party has firmly chosen, as the motion indicates, to become the anti-standards party, devoid of ideas and determined to protect vested interests and union barons rather than putting children and parents first. It has gone from the party of education, education, education, to the party of low standards, low aspiration and low expectations.
I do not want to end this speech by focusing on the collapsing Labour party; I want to end it by saying thank you. Rather than doing down the achievements of schools, teachers and pupils, I want to celebrate them and commend their exceptional work.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I say thank you to the teachers, who once again have risen to meet the challenge and to deliver for young people. I reiterate today that teaching is the most noble of professions. Last week’s achievements in helping young people to demonstrate their mastery of the basics is yet another example of why that is so. I urge the House to reject the motion.
Sometimes in debates such as this, criticising the Government can be quite difficult. When the Secretary of State describes the debacle of SATs as a great success, however, criticising Government policy becomes relatively easy. It is like shooting fish in a barrel.
I start by referring to a headteacher in my constituency—headteacher of the largest primary school in the north-west; it is a standard, middle-class school—who put his pupils through SATs recently. He was so shocked by the outcome that he felt it necessary to write home to the pupils in the following terms. He told the children to look on the bright side, and he wrote:
“The only thing people will remember about the tests from 2016 was that they were one big mess! Your result will not stop you achieving really well at high school and going on to be a fabulous success in the future. Put whatever you got to the back of your mind and move on!”
He told the children:
“Fairness is always vitally important in whatever we do in life. Unfortunately, these tests were really not fair.”
This is a very experienced headteacher of a large primary school, in a standard, middle-class area, which has a record of success behind it. He said to the pupils:
“They were much harder than usual and this meant that you didn’t get the chance to show how much you have learned. There has been lots in the news about this in the past week and schools all over the country are feeling the same…I think we all feel a bit let down.”
“You feel let down because you worked so hard and maybe you didn’t quite get what you deserved. Your teachers feel the same because they have tried everything in their power to help you achieve and they are frustrated because it hasn’t quite turned out as they would have wanted.”
He went on to say what a great experience it had been to have the children at the school and that, compared with everything they had enjoyed at school,
“a few test scores mean very little, particularly when the test was unfair anyway.”
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is as disappointed as I am that when we had inflation in standards—when we had the perception of success, but not the reality—headteachers such as the one he speaks about did not write letters home to parents. It would be good if, in response to that selling out, they had showed outrage similar to that which they showed at the early implementation of a new, higher standard.
I am sure that this headteacher would have done whatever was professionally necessary at the time. I am not sure that he was a headteacher at that time, so I cannot really comment for him. He concluded his letter to his pupils:
“We don’t need tests to tell us how great you all are.”
The worst thing about the letter is that it shows that there was a clear need to remove the feeling among those good, hard-working children that they had failed. I do not think that anyone here is against the summative assessment of primary school children’s progress. I do not think that any Labour Member said that. Nobody is against meaningful feedback or having a tool to establish a baseline for improvement. No one wants to go back to the days of total freedom where there were no reasonable expectations, but we must all—including the Government—be prepared to learn something. We must learn from places such as Finland, which has few tests like our SATs but which, as everybody knows, does very well. We must learn from experts and from teachers who have to implement what we impose. We need a sense—this is clearly lacking from the Secretary of State’s comments—of common enterprise between the teaching profession and the Government. I know that the NUT is the teaching profession, but the Secretary of State needs to incorporate some measure of support for what teachers have been trying to say to her.
We need a bit of humility, which perhaps I can illustrate by using the vexed issue of grammar—I took a look at the grammar sections of this year’s tests. I think that grammar has its place. It provides a recursive definition of a living language and, like a language, it evolves. I happen to think that grammar helps more in understanding foreign languages than our own, and I argue that the greatest orators in this place are not necessarily the greatest grammarians. If someone was stopped mid-sentence and asked what type of clause they were using, they might be in some difficulty. Most people have been speaking grammatically for most of their life with a fair amount of success—it is rather like Molière’s character Monsieur Jourdain, who found, with some surprise, that he had been talking prose all his life.
There may be value in trying to understand the rules that one unconsciously follows, and there is genuinely value and fun in a bit of clause analysis—I certainly enjoyed it when I was at school. However, it is arguable how far that benefits the users of language, and how much meta vocabulary one needs to acquire, particularly as there seems to be no particular consistency as to what vocabulary one ought to have, and there seems to be some opacity in what terminology one needs to pick up. Fronted adverbials certainly were not there in my day. I did Latin, preferring the imperfect to the past progressive. All these things are fairly arcane, esoteric stuff, and it is arguable how far you can go down that road without descending into the kind of pedantry that dismisses split infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions. But it is simply unarguable that imposing, in haste, a curriculum and test of limited value, with scant preparation, and discouraging well-intentioned pupils and teachers in the process, is rash. It is rash, and it requires some serious explanation and apology.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to talk about SATs this year. I remember that when I chaired the Education Committee a number of years ago, we had the SATs fiasco under the previous Government. That was when a true mess was made of SATs. This year a new assessment has been brought in, and I can share with the House, having chaired the Committee—my hon. Friend Neil Carmichael is in that Chair now—that whenever new assessments are brought in, there is some level of volatility. We will not get everything right, and I would not try to claim that we necessarily have this year, but at first there is volatility and then, over time, outcomes improve.
The central question is, how are we going to raise standards? Well, actually, the first question is: are we doing a good enough job? That would have been a good question for the shadow Secretary of State to ask. Were we doing a good enough job in 2010? Are we today? Things are always partial, and it is always hard to get data that are entirely comparative, but the answer is that, in the context of what is happening around the world, it would appear that too many of the children in England are not given the requisite skills, capability and knowledge to flourish in secondary school, with lifelong negative impacts on them and their families.
That would appear to be the evidence, but we did not hear that from the shadow Secretary of State. Instead—I do not mean to be too harsh on one of her first outings—we had a rather incoherent if passionate denunciation of testing, because if we feed back the results of tests to people, some will be told that they are not at the required standard and others will be told that they are. The hon. Lady’s speech seemed to be an attack on that in principle, yet that passionate denunciation was married with a public statement that she and her party believe we should still have tests. I do not see how those two things can be put together. It seems an extraordinary conjunction. The shadow Secretary of State needs to think clearly: that is what education policy requires. It is not just a political fight in this House; what happens in schools has real-world effects on children. That was disappointing and it would be really good to hear what the Labour party thinks about tests.
The shadow Secretary of State’s strong, lurid language around failure and failing is unwelcome. We aspire to a high standard. Not everyone is going to reach it, but that is the nature of high standards. It does not mean that everybody else is worthless and it does not mean their learning is worthless. It does not mean that they have not done a good job or worked hard. None the less, do we not have to give people objective ideas about where they would ideally like to be, or do we throw that away because it might demoralise some? She appeared to contradict herself on two sides of the argument.
It is a great pleasure to have an opportunity to comment on my predecessor’s observations. Does my hon. Friend agree that the tests are part of a wider mission to improve standards? They are linked to differences in the curriculum and to the attitude we have, which is to give young people aspiration and the tools to deliver on that aspiration. Does he agree that that is part of our complete determination to give young people more opportunity in life?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Although I defer to John Pugh, who made such a fine speech, I would have to say that I did not agree with him about his use of the split infinitive and would prefer it was not used in this House, orally or otherwise; but that is because I am a bit of a pedant in that respect. There is a genuine argument to be had.
The hon. Member for Southport rightly started to unpick some of that grammar. How practically useful is it? What exactly is it designed for? Is it excessive in its extent and application, compared with what is sought from it? Those are legitimate questions and perhaps we do need to row back. I do not know. I have not studied it and I would like to hear more. Focusing on those practicalities might be a much more useful dialogue. Instead, the shadow Secretary of State moved on from her two contradictory positions to a rather crazed assessment that this was like the 11-plus. The whole point of the 11-plus was to divide children and select them. I do not think that anyone can suggest that that is what has happened with the SATs this year.
To stop this becoming a sterile debate, let me say from the outset that I do not think there is anybody in this House who is in favour of not trying to improve standards in schools. I think there is also a consensus that testing is part of improving standards in schools. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State’s speech did not address the very real problems with the SATs tests this year. The hon. Gentleman has made that point, but we did not hear from the Secretary of State what she intends to do about those problems to put them right for next year.
As I said a few minutes ago, all new assessments and tests go through, and create, additional volatility. Members will remember the changes to the English GCSE. They were called a fiasco; I would call them a furore. The unions said they were a disaster and a disgrace, and the schools said it was nothing to do with them, but when they went to court they lost on every single count. It was a new test and it took time. The following year, with pretty much the same test, the schools that had done badly had learned how to do it better. They read the spec in a way that they had obviously failed to do previously, and other technical changes were made.
This is a new assessment. It is not a disaster. We need to unpick its components and look at them carefully to find out whether there is the right balance between raising standards, having high standards and not creating something that is negative in the way it is perceived by children and schools.
This year, of course, it will be very difficult to embed the new assessment. Does my hon. Friend agree that the new curriculum assessment gives children a mastery of the subject before they move on? That is far preferable to them moving through the system without having that grasp of the subject.
I agree with my hon. Friend. If the answer to my first question—about whether we are doing a good enough job—is no, it is not because we have lazy teachers. Fundamentally, if we are not doing a good enough job or as good a job as our neighbours and competitors, we need to raise standards, and when that happens, there is going to be a shock to the system. That is partly because of the volatility and adjustment and partly because the system needs that shock. It needs to be told.
I sometimes clashed with the hon. Lady’s predecessor on the question of what simply raising the bar did to raise standards. It is a mixed answer, but I have seen standards in the system raised partly because the bar was raised and there was clarity about what was required. Whatever the difficulties—there are all sorts of issues and complexities, including academisation—and notwithstanding some of the downsides, we have fundamentally better schools now than we did six years ago, and that is partly because we have stated clearly what we want and asked schools to meet the challenge. I have absolute confidence that next year, as schools learn to adjust to the challenge and headteachers work out how better to use their people and their funds, including the pupil premium, more than 53% of children will meet the standards.
Going through change is difficult. Do the Government have a role to play in keeping our teachers with us, which is what I worry about most of all? Change is hard for the children and teachers, but our teachers are under unprecedented stress, and I worry for them. Do the Government not need to keep a close eye on that and listen to teachers at all times?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole House has a role to play and ought not simply to trumpet the negatives, as Angela Rayner did, in this early outing as an Opposition spokesperson. It might have been more devastating to be understated than to suggest that this was a return to the 11-plus, which it clearly is not. But there are issues about maintaining engagement with teachers.
People might think that the Secretary of State’s fairly vicious assault on the NUT was over the top, but, given my experience of the NUT, I do not think it was. The NUT opposes almost everything. It is tragic. All I can say by way of uplift is this: when I go to primary schools, yes, I meet teachers concerned about the changes in the curriculum and the assessment and about the speed, from their end of the telescope, so to speak, at which they feel the change is happening—they genuinely find it difficult and challenging—but I find them to be a lot more positive than their national representatives on the NUT. It is unfortunate that the NUT is so often seen as speaking for all our teachers. I do not think it does.
My hon. Friend Heidi Allen is right that we need to keep teachers on board. We must recognise that the teacher is the most important person in the system. Teacher quality is the key. The one thing I learned in five years chairing the Education Committee was that teacher quality was the most important thing. Leaders are important only insofar as they help to bring out the best in teachers. Teacher quality is transformational.
What does the hon. Gentleman make of the example of Finland, which is very light on tests but very strong on teacher buy-in? What conclusions does he draw from its favourable ranking in the PISA table compared with us?
The hon. Gentleman is right to lay down that challenge—though before mentioning Finland, he said he remained in favour of tests too. When a system moves to a certain level of excellence, as in Finland, and starts to recruit teachers from the top 30% of graduates in the country, and when 10 people are competing for each job—these are old data, admittedly—not only does it get people with high academic ability but it can select on empathy, enthusiasm and other skills as well, and then has a first-class workforce.
We are a much bigger country with different challenges, and we do not recruit our teaching workforce from the same pool as Finland. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman ever saw the work by McKinsey about how good systems keep getting better. It is a fairly basic thing when one hears it, but one has to hear it to realise it. Systems are different and require different interventions at different points in their development. I look forward to the day when we have such a self-confident, self-critical, self-improving education system that we can slowly cut down Ofsted and the accountability system and leave it to keep improving by itself. The reason why the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friends have not reached that point is that we do not yet have the confidence, but I hope that one day it will come.
I have one final point on the issue of children’s stress. It is important not to talk up lurid references to failure and it is important to say to schools generally that they should look at the schools where the children are not showing any stress. Does the system mean that all children have to be stressed? No, because we can find many instances where children are suffering no stress. They can be prepared for SATs without it feeling like some great ordeal coming down the road on which their whole future depends.
The message that the House should send—hopefully from all sides—is that schools should look at and learn from the schools that do not put stress on kids and use the SATs as an “assessment for learning”—call it what we like—rather than making them into an ordeal. Teachers and headteachers need to ensure that whatever the stress they are feeling—they are accountable for their results, so they should be feeling some—they do not pass it on to children. It is possible for that to happen; it does happen; it needs to happen everywhere.
Let me state from the outset that am a child of the ’70s when grammar purism was not much taught. I think the Secretary of State and I are of the same vintage—from 1972—so I am not going to be a grammar fascist or purist in this debate. We used to play in the sandpit in those days rather than learn the declensions of nouns.
I want to contribute to today’s debate because of a case raised with me over the weekend by a constituent. She is deputy headteacher of Christ the Saviour, a Church of England primary school that is outstanding in all four categories. This is not a Bash Street school gasworks comprehensive or anything like those sort of places. The deputy head, Katie Tramoni, is someone I was at school with. I have lived 44 years in Ealing, so I have spent a lot of time there, and both the schools I attended are in my constituency. I am now a mum, bringing up my own children in the borough.
As I say, Christ the Saviour is a well-regarded school and I was at school with Katie. This weekend, I went to the Acton carnival, and she literally grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Can you tell Nicky Morgan this from me?” When I saw this debate coming up, I thought, “Now is my opportunity.” Katie is worried about the floor standards of key stage 2. Like everyone else, I have read the headlines saying that almost half of 11-year-old primary pupils will not reach the required standard, but Katie’s issues are with the marking, so let me raise them directly.
Katie tells me that the KS2 reading paper was so poorly marked that 55 out of 86 papers—64%—had to be returned for re-marking. The quibbles sometimes seem very minor, but it costs the school £9 per paper if the complaint is not upheld. That does not seem to make sense economically, and the school is in fear of sending things back because of that £9 penalty. For the GPS paper—on grammar, punctuation and spelling—the complaint was that the marking scheme was exceptionally harsh. If, for example, a pupil inserts a semi-colon in the correct place in the sentence, but in too large a size so that it comes out larger than the letters, it is marked as wrong. A zero mark is given, and there are many things like that. Katie said, “I know I go on and on. Don’t get me started on SATs report; let me know if you need more; I must dash.” It was at 7 o’clock this morning that I noticed this debate was on.
The point has been made by Government Members that we are anti-testing, but that is not the case. We presided over tests for all those years in power. As the Secretary of State pointed out, it was Tony Blair’s mantra that his top three priorities were “education, education, education”. We have never been against testing as such, but the particular tests this year have been a dog’s dinner and a shambles. I know this from numerous examples in my inbox, in my postbag and when people literally collar me when I am trying to go to a fun event at the weekend. Surely it is the Government’s responsibility to make sure that these tests are marked properly.
I appreciate the constructive way in which the hon. Lady is raising her constituent’s concerns. If she writes to me or to the Minister for Schools, we will of course convey her views to the Standards and Testing Agency. I should point out that any comments relating to the review of the marking should be submitted by
I thank the Secretary of State for those constructive and collegiate remarks.
I conduct a great many assemblies in my constituency. Ealing is a leafy suburban borough, and my seat was a Conservative seat as recently as May 2015. While I am standing opposite the Secretary of State, let me point out that one of the issues that arise is the retention rate of teachers in a borough such as Ealing. Headteachers tell me that they can easily recruit trainees in their 20s, but once those young people want to put down roots and settle, they are off to Slough, Milton Keynes, or whatever is the nearest affordable place to live near the M25. I know that this is slightly off the subject, but headteachers have suggested the introduction of tied housing, which exists on some university campuses, because that would make the jobs more attractive. Some heads say that they have lost people to schools where new arrivals can be accommodated in a caretaker’s house.
Conservative Members have suggested that this is just an NUT diatribe. That is why I wanted to raise the subject of real people—the kind of people who would naturally have been on their side. If the Government are losing the good will of people who would naturally be conservative with a small “c”, I think that they have problems. My constituent told me that education was in crisis. The word “crisis” is much overused, but she was in despair, shock and anger as she told me that.
Both the Secretary of State and I were guinea pigs in 1988, the first year of GCSEs. I realise that any system will have teething troubles, but I understand that teachers and educationists have begged the Government not to introduce these changes so rapidly, and to wait for a year. We are where we are. I know that “NUT” has been portrayed as something of a dirty word during this debate. However, the NUT’s Kevin Courtney has described the key stage 2 SATs as rushed and inappropriate, and has said that the curriculum is wrong and bad tests have been poorly marked. I talked about poor marking earlier. This kind of tinkering has led to chaos and confusion. It seems that these kids are guinea pigs as well. Schools should not be exam factories.
“So much rides on SATs that the real purpose of education is lost” in “statistical positioning”. It seems that we are being seduced by the numbers, and not recognising the whole child for who that child is. According to some assessments, one in 10 teachers has left the profession as a result of falling morale. The housing issue is intrinsically linked with that in areas such as west London, and something must be done about it. It is worrying that Ealing should be a borough in which its teachers cannot afford to live. We are seeing a hollowing out of our capital, and that is obviously wrong.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for spinning out an excellent intervention.
I suppose that what frustrates Conservatives is that the Labour Party wants tests, but then talks about the tensions that they can cause. What kind of tests are required that do not already exist? We have heard nothing constructive from Labour Members. John Pugh at least suggested that the grammar test might be a bit over the top. What is wrong with these tests that could be put right, and should be put right, for next year? Any suggestion would be helpful.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening to the anecdote from the deputy head that mentioned earlier, but it seems that this time round the proper curriculum has not been in place, and the marking is all over the place. It is not testing per se that is wrong; it is the maladministration of this year’s key stage 2 SATs.
In the recent Brexit debate the Lord Chancellor said we have had enough of experts. That is a real mistake; we ignore the professionals at our peril. These are people at the chalk face. Educationists, heads and deputy headteachers like Katie Tramoni and—dare I say it—the NUT have been warning about this. I hope these problems can be rectified and that we hear from the Secretary of State what will be done to minimise next year’s disturbances so that there are no disturbances; otherwise, it will feel as though we are losing sight of the child.
I share the sentiment expressed in the first sentence of this motion: that every child deserves an excellent education that enables them to grow and thrive. In order to deliver this aspiration, it is vital that children are assessed to enable parents and teachers to determine whether the education received is meeting that desired outcome. I therefore welcome the testing at both key stage 1 and key stage 2. The latter is of importance because it will inform parents and secondary schools on the progress reached and development required. The former is of particular importance, for both child and school, in order to assess progress in the intervening four years between each test.
I must declare an interest: having failed my own 12-plus exam, and having attended a secondary school which, by its definition, was for those who had similarly failed, I am disappointed that the motion says that children will be labelled as failures. Instead, these tests should be viewed as methods by which to benchmark progress, not talk about failure.
The motion focuses on the fact that only 53% of children have reached the standard in all three papers. When broken down, the Department for Education’s statistics show that 66% have met the standard in reading, 70% in maths and 72% in grammar. The motion is correct in that the rates for 2016 have reduced compared with those for 2015. However, the very aspect of a comparison is wholly misleading because the tests have been changed and made more difficult. It is therefore unsurprising that we now have grade deflation.
What we have now is a rigorous regime that will help drive up progress and standards and help give every child an excellent education that enables them to grow and thrive. Children will not thrive if the tests are set at a level that do not stretch them and inspire them to do better. We should not be alarmed by this benchmark; we should embrace it and do all that we can to help our children to reach their potential.
Rather than turn back to previous methods, we need to give this new regime the chance to bed in. We also need to give our teachers more time and space to teach our children. In that vein, may I make a few positive suggestions which I hope the Department can take on board?
First, teachers have had to spend time getting to grips with the new curriculum. Can we please therefore give teachers some time back so they can focus on inspiring and teaching our children? As my hon. Friend Heidi Allen said, too many teachers are working long hours and we need to help them.
Secondly, I embrace the need for all children to master English and maths so they have the basics aged 11 years. However, there is more to learning than these two subjects. Last weekend, I spent another morning with my seven-year-old and 10-year-old. One had maths homework, the other English. Can we please have time for science, art, history, geography and other subjects, or at least ask our teachers to use them as the basis for maths and English?
Thirdly, comparing our children with those of other nations whom they will be competing with in the global jobs race is helpful, but can we not be as obsessed about it? Perhaps not all our children master maths as well as, say, a child in India or Singapore. However, if we teach our children to be leaders, to be creative, to think outside the box and to inspire, they will probably end up managing a maths genius from India without the need to be one themselves.
A rigorous educational assessment underpins our desire on these Benches to give better life chances to everyone. There are numerous examples in public life of people enjoying a successful education and going on to have a successful career as a result of having had the support and drive of parents and, perhaps, a private education. However, there are not enough examples of success among those who have endured a difficult start, and who may have grown up in deprived communities where parental emphasis on education was lacking and where there was no one to support or inspire them outside the school gates. For those children, their schooling offers them the only route to a better place. This can make a difference to their health, wellbeing and, ultimately, life expectancy. I urge the House to think of that and to embrace the need to assess our children, as this Government are doing, so that every child can reach their true potential.
I want to make a couple of brief comments which I hope the Minister will be able to address when he winds up the debate. I very much agree with what Heidi Allen has said on this subject, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to attend the debate today. I am sure that the Secretary of State would also agree that, whatever the rights and wrongs of the way in which SATs are currently administered, there can be no doubt that for many of our outstanding schools and dedicated headteachers and teachers, the harsh reality of the way in which the results have been presented to them has been a huge shock. Some have seen a huge drop in the standards that their schools have attained. In my view, the Secretary of State would have done well to address that point in her speech.
I am sure that we all have outstanding schools in our constituencies. Some of them, for reasons that they find difficult to understand, have seen their results almost collapse. That does not help them, it does not help the Secretary of State in her desire to raise standards, and it does not help any of us. In the end, it is the partnership between the Government, parents and schools that delivers the standards that we all want.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that when schools do better than expected, it might sometimes be because the children have been taught very closely in order to get them through the tests, with the breadth of education that my hon. Friend Huw Merriman mentioned being ignored?
That is a good point. There has always been a danger of teaching to the test. The guidance for Ofsted during my time as a Minister—to be fair, it is the same under the present Government—was to look at the breadth of the curriculum and to see what emphasis was being placed on subjects outside those specifically designed for the SATs. The good schools have drama, history, sport and other things going on alongside the SAT subjects. In my view, the schools that do best in the tests—especially in relation to young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—are often those that have that breadth of curriculum and that do drama and all those other things as well. Those subjects can give young people the self-esteem and confidence to achieve in the more academic subjects—for want of a better term—that they have to study.
Will the Minister tell us what he is going to do restore confidence among our teachers? Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, some people in my constituency have been absolutely distraught at the results they have been given. That cannot be right. I am not saying this to make a point; this is a statement of fact. Even in schools that are regarded as outstanding, headteachers have been crying. That cannot be what we want. Let us just reflect on all that. We know that 53% met the Government’s targets, while 47% did not. Perhaps we do not want to use the word “failure”. Is there something of particular concern in the three components? Is one area weaker than the others? Do we need to do something about maths? How are the Government, working with both sides of the House and the unions, going to ensure that we tackle the 47%?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about partnership. Where the tone of this debate has gone wrong today is that we have had comments like “Tory bad, Labour good,” “Labour bad, Tory good,” “Unions right, Government wrong,” and “Government right, unions wrong.” However, we owe it to our schools and teachers to work in partnership, because we all want our children to succeed, standards to improve and the United Kingdom to rise in the global league tables.
I agree. Standards have risen over the past couple of decades, but we want them to rise faster. There is still too much inequality and social background still determines educational attainment. We should not blame people; we should ask what is preventing this country from overcoming something that has bedevilled the education system for decades. No one would stand up and say that we want the situation to continue. The question is how we best meet the challenge.
Given the embarrassment of the leaked and abandoned tests, what will the Minister do to improve security in the future? What is his response to the criticism of how the new tests relate to the new curriculum? It was introduced in 2014 and tests are being set on it in 2016—two years for a four-year course. Will that be taken into account? What has been said to schools? Next year, we will be three years into a four-year programme, so will that mean anything for next year’s testing? We all want to hear about that. It would be ridiculous to pretend that this year’s SATS have been an unmitigated success given the real problems. What are the Government going to do about that? How will they improve things? That is what parents, schools and all of us want to hear.
What will the key stage 2 results mean for schools’ Ofsted categorisation? If a school has seen its results collapse, what will that mean when Ofsted go in in September? I do not know the answer, which is why I am asking. The Secretary of State is nodding her head, but I do not know the answer. People want clarity. What will the results mean for a school’s Ofsted categorisation? If the Government set a standard and large numbers of pupils fall below it, including those at schools currently categorised as outstanding, what will that mean when Ofsted inspectors go in? Will the school get cast out? Perhaps not, but that is what schools want to—[Interruption.] The Minister will respond to that to reassure people—thank you.
The SATs have had real problems. Everybody in the House agrees that we need to improve standards. We will never reach a point at which we are all satisfied. Everyone will always want more, but what are we going to do about the problems? How will the tests that have been introduced allow us to build on any progress? What are we doing to reassure schools? What are we doing to reassure headteachers, teachers and parents? What will be different next year to prevent what has happened this year from happening again? Those are the sorts of questions that I was trying to intervene on the Secretary of State to ask. I was not trying to get up and say, “Tories wicked, Labour brilliant.” I just wanted to ask, because, with respect, I thought that people were not going to get answers to their detailed questions. My hon. Friend Mr Marsden will no doubt ask similar questions, but I will be grateful if the Minister answers some of them and makes some other points.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I should comment on the uniformly thoughtful and interesting contributions from Back Benchers. Let me begin by mentioning the intervention by my hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne, who challenged the Secretary of State on the whole issue of secondary improvements. Although that is not the subject of this debate, secondary schools would be assisted if they and their heads did not have to worry about how to play catch-up on key stage 2 SATs fails.
John Pugh, in a thoughtful speech, was rightfully caustic about some of the Secretary of State’s newspeak on SATs. His quote from one of his respected local headteachers about this being “one big mess” is devastating, so we should all take it into account. It is worth mentioning that, in a survey, 97% of primary teachers and leaders expressed concern that schools were preparing pupils for the tests at the expense of the wider curriculum, and other Members have spoken about that today. The hon. Gentleman also talked about a sense of common enterprise. His contribution, like others, pointed out that we need not only a sense of common enterprise, but evidence-driven policy.
Graham Stuart, the former Chair of the Education Committee, used the interesting word “volatility” to describe what has happened this year. That was not a great word to use; his five years as Chair might have given him a choicer set of words to describe the fiasco of the process and outcomes that this year’s SATs have left us with. He also talked about the need for people to row back in, but surely the whole problem is that the specs were not there in time for them to do so. That point needs to be taken on board.
Heidi Allen struck a chord with many Members by talking about the way in which we need to keep our teachers with us. My hon. Friend Dr Huq regaled us with tales of her days, and perhaps the Secretary of State’s days, in the sandpit. Apart from that, the most enlightening thing in my hon. Friend’s speech was when she relayed what her local headteacher, Katie, said. Perhaps it should have been what Katie did and what Katie did next. To be fair, the Secretary of State was gracious and told us what Katie needs to do next: get her thoughts in before
Huw Merriman said that the tests should not be set to a low benchmark. Nobody in the House would dispute that point. He said that there needs to be more time for prep and more time for learning subjects other than English and maths. Perhaps we can welcome him as an additional recruit to those of us who talked to the Minister last week about the need to widen the EBacc.
My hon. Friend Vernon Coaker rightly expressed concerns that some of the outstanding schools in his constituency have had bizarrely low results. He also rightly asked what the Government would do about the security of the tests. I hope that the Minister will take on board those issues in his response.
My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State got an unfair blistering from the Secretary of State. My colleague painted a stark picture of the strengths and skills of the young people who took the tests this year being cast aside or ignored because they have been the guinea pigs and victims of the Department’s shambles this year. She did show passion, and she needed to do so, because the pupils who took this year’s key stage 2 SATs have been very badly let down. Why is that? It is because the Department’s resources and Ministers’ focus were obsessively trained on their national programme of academisation. As my hon. Friend Nic Dakin, among others, said when the previous statement was made, they took their eye off the ball. Tens of thousands of children have suffered, and for what? For a humiliating climbdown on forced academisation under fire from the Government’s own side, which now means that the Secretary of State will have to swerve and dodge in the academy-lite education Bill that may or may not come this autumn or under this Secretary of State.
“serious mistakes in the planning and implementation of tests this year” and
“with the delays and confusion in guideline materials.”
The Minister for Schools said in this House on
The Secretary of State wanted to cloud talk of her failures by saying that this was all driven by an NUT plot. If she were to pause for a moment from her rant about the NUT, perhaps she would like to look at the joint statement that the National Governors Association and the NAHT put out. They said that schools did not need to draw conclusions from the SATs data because they provide
“no intelligence on the rate of improvement of teaching and learning.”
They went on to point out that many will be “feeling demoralised”, saying:
“Pupils, teachers and parents and all involved in schools should be proud of the work they have put in to implement”— the new curriculum and the testing regime—
“in what has been a very short timetable.”
It is simply not good enough for the Secretary of State to be complacent about this matter. The Government’s complacency has already been commented on by the Public Accounts Committee, although that does not seem to have affected the Secretary of State’s ability to be Madam Pangloss on the issue. In her first response to the results, she said that they had been a “good start”, but Anne Watson, who was the emeritus professor of mathematics education at the University of Oxford, said:
“The aim to raise standards has resulted in a new way to measure performance so that no comparative judgments can be made…This means we do not know from the data alone whether the Government has done a good job or a bad job and whether the test designers and score-scalers have done a good job or a bad job.”
After all, these results mean that, according to this Government, 47% of children in this country are not ready for secondary school. How do we tell children and their parents that?
The Secretary of State—the Minister has said this on another occasion—talked about the fact that pupils either “don’t mind” or “enjoy” taking these tests, and the ComRes poll gave them some comfort in that respect. Pupils might not mind taking the test, but they mind with absolute justification the test being taken out of context and their teachers being left frustrated that they are not able to engage at an early enough stage.
When the Minister made his statement in May, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe made an absolutely key point:
“By rushing ahead with the policy without properly involving professionals or parents, the Government failed to spot the fundamental flaw in the design, which was that the test that they had developed were insufficiently comparable. As a result, they were forced to abandon their approach to baseline test entirely.”
He went on to say:
“There has been a constant stream of chop and change in primary assessment under this Government. Since September, the Department for Education has updated or clarified on average at least one primary school assessment resource every other working day.”—[Official Report,
We do not regard that as good enough.
On the floor standard, I think the Secretary of State said that the details would be made available in September, yet her Department told Schools Week that the results would not be published until December. Whether it is September or December—the Secretary of State or the Minister is welcome to clarify this—what an indictment it is that schools should have that sword of Damocles over their head for four or six months.
Ultimately, this comes down to what happens in individual Members’ constituencies and the responses that they get. In my own area of Lancashire, the spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers said that, with 94% of Lancashire schools judged good or outstanding by Ofsted,
“there is something wrong in the assessment process”, and that schools need to support their children and their staff
“and carry out what is effectively damage limitation.”
Last Friday I visited one of my primary schools in Blackpool, where the head and others are doing some extremely good work. I observed a session with an excellent Pobble literacy tutor, but when I spoke afterwards to the head, he had a huge sense of frustration that the school had not been able to structure its exam preparation because of the continuous chopping and changing to which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe have referred. The head said, “I fear it will put more pressure on testing in these students’ first year in secondary schools.” The schools will not regard the tests as useful, and the consequence will be deflated students and pressured parents—those are my observations, not those of the head.
The years between the ages of nine and 11 are almost as crucial for young people as the time of transfer to secondary school. I am old enough—I suspect that others in the Chamber may be old enough—to remember the nine-plus. I remember from doing the nine-plus that it was a testing time, so it is not good enough for the Minister and the Secretary of State to draw a veil over this year’s results by setting up straw people and saying that the Opposition or other critics are not interested in testing or in standards. We are interested in both, but we are also interested in their being delivered competently, and this Government have not shown competence.
This has been a good debate, if a short one, about how we ensure that children leave primary school fluent in the basic building blocks of an education. Over the past six years this Government have been determined to ensure that our education system is properly equipping the next generation of school leavers with the knowledge and skills that they need for life in the modern economy, and the ability to compete in an increasingly global jobs market.
Under the remarkable leadership of the Prime Minister and of my right hon. Friend Michael Gove, now the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and my right hon. Friend the current Secretary of State for Education, we have introduced the most far-reaching education reforms for generations—reforms which are working.
Of course, it would have been easier not to have engaged with the reforms, and to have allowed the continued inflation of results—the year-on-year increases in GCSE grades and SAT test results—masking our decline in standards compared with the most successful education systems in the world. It would have been easier not to take on the vested interests; easier not to embark on raising the bar; easier not to demand phonics; easier not to look at better ways of teaching maths; easier not to challenge the publishers and demand better textbooks; easier not to insist on more pupils taking the core academic subjects that make up the EBacc; easier not to increase the numbers taking foreign languages; easier not to encourage more take-up of maths and physics A-levels.
But we were determined to halt Britain’s decline in the PISA international league tables, which showed the UK falling from seventh in reading in 2000 to 25th by 2009, and from eighth in maths to 28th, and we fell further still in the 2012 PISA survey. We therefore appointed a panel of experts, who examined the curricula of those countries that topped the PISA rankings. We produced a new primary national curriculum, which we consulted on in 2012 and finalised in 2013, and which came into force in 2014, with the first new SATs tests taken two years later, in May 2016.
The new curriculum requires fluency in reading, and it requires phonics in the early years of primary school, followed by a focus on developing a habit of reading. Spelling and handwriting techniques, and grammar and punctuation, which were neglected for decades, have been restored to the school curriculum.
In maths, we looked to the Singapore primary maths curriculum, ensuring fluency in calculation technique, long multiplication, long division and fractions. We reduced the age by which all children should know their times tables from 11 to nine. This year, we piloted a computer-based multiplication tables test. I visit schools up and down the country, and I see more and more pupils fluent in their times tables. That was not so six years ago.
The academic year 2015 was always going to be a challenge, with the new maths and English GCSEs being introduced for first teaching from September 2015. The new, revised GCSEs are on a par with the qualifications taught in the best-performing countries in the world. That is what the education reforms are about: raising academic standards in our schools, raising expectations and raising aspiration. And they are working. The focus on phonics has raised reading standards. In 2011, when we trialled the new phonics check—a short test to ensure six-year-olds are mastering the basic skill of reading simple words—just 32% passed. In 2012, 58% passed, and that rose to 69% in 2013, 74% in 2014 and 77% last year. That means that 120,000 more six-year-olds today are reading more effectively than they otherwise would, because of this Government’s reforms and the focus on phonics.
The new SATs in reading are designed to resist teaching to the test. As my hon. Friend Heidi Allen hinted, the way for pupils to do well is to have read a lot during their time at primary school—to have read increasingly challenging books and to have developed the habit of reading regularly. That is why 88% of pupils at Harris Primary Academy Peckham Park reached the expected standard in the new reading test. It is why 88% at Elmhurst Primary School in Newham reached at least the expected standard in reading.
The new maths SATs are made up of one arithmetic paper and two maths reasoning papers. The only way to do well is to ensure that pupils are not only fluent in mathematical calculation, but have a deep, conceptual understanding that comes from practice and good teaching. That is why 94% of pupils at Elmhurst Primary School achieved at least the expected standard and 96% of pupils at Harris Junior Academy Carshalton reached at least the expected standard.
John Pugh read a letter from an experienced headteacher in his constituency to his pupils. However, the tests are designed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, to hold schools to account, not pupils. We know we are asking more, but we are doing that because we are committed to giving young people the best start in life.
This year’s results are the first to be released following the introduction of a more rigorous national curriculum, which is on a par with the best in the world. The results show that there is no limit to our children’s potential, and that schools can rise to the challenge of ensuring that pupils meet the new, higher standards. As my hon. Friend Huw Merriman pointed out, neither schools nor parents should try to compare this year’s results with those in previous years; they simply cannot be compared directly. We have published data to show the national averages for the number of pupils meeting the new expected standard. That allows schools to see how their pupils have performed against the national average, which is a much more useful comparison for schools and parents.
The hon. Member for Southport also raised the challenge of the new grammar test. I have to tell him that the national curriculum tests that were sat this May took over three years to develop. During that process, they go through three rounds of expert review, which includes teachers, curriculum experts, markers, special educational needs and disability experts, inclusion experts and cultural experts. The questions are also trialled twice with pupils at the appropriate age—once to check that the questions are functioning as required and that children give appropriate answers, and once to determine the difficulty of the questions, which are improved throughout the process.
My hon. Friend Graham Stuart asked the relevant questions about whether we, as a country, are doing a good enough job in educating our young people. As he said, too many children are not given enough knowledge and skills to flourish in secondary school. He is right to point out that there are always challenges when new tests are introduced, but as the tests bed down, teachers become more familiar with the curriculum.
Dr Huq cited the headteacher at Christ the Saviour Church of England Primary School, an outstanding school in her constituency, as being worried about the floor standards. The Secretary of State has made it clear that given the greater challenge of the new SATs, the number of schools regarded as being below the floor will not be greater than 1 percentage point more than last year. In response to Mr Marsden, we are publishing provisional progress figures early in September so that schools will know if they are below the floor. The December figure is the finalised figure after adjustments for errors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle pointed out that there is more to education than English and maths, and that we need more time in primary school for science, for art, for history and for geography. I totally agree. A knowledge-rich curriculum is key, and that is what the best primary schools in this country are delivering.
Vernon Coaker says he knows of too many schools that have seen a sharp drop in their results this year. He is right that the results will focus the minds of the schools that are struggling to deliver the results that other schools in similar circumstances are delivering, and we will help them with that challenge. The stage 1 national funding formula consultation shows that we are proposing to introduce a lower prior attainment factor that will provide extra support to help children catch up.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Ofsted and the impact that it will have through the new, more challenging assessments. I have acknowledged that point. I have already written to Sir Michael Wilshaw to ask Ofsted to take into account, when inspectors examine schools, the fact that this is the first year of much more challenging tests and a much more challenging curriculum.
For me, this is one of the most fundamental points. What does the phrase “take into account” mean? Does it mean that Ofsted reads it and then does nothing about it? I appreciate its independence, but this is a fundamental point. I have been where the Minister is in taking these things into account and looking into them, and so on, but schools absolutely want reassurance about whether they are going to go from being outstanding to being at risk. It would be helpful if he said a little more about that.
Experience so far is that inspectors are already taking my letter into account and adjusting their judgments. They are not looking at raw data in an unintelligent way; they are looking at it intelligently, reflecting the concerns raised in my letter. We have also now introduced the progress measure, which means that progress will be a much more important part of determining whether a school falls below the floor.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about Pearson. It has investigated the leak and taken a number of steps to ensure that rogue markers do not deliberately release marking schemes in future, and it is tightening up its contractual arrangements.
As a result of this Government’s education reform, 66% of secondary schools and 19% of primary schools now have academy status, with the professional autonomy that this brings. A total of 1.45 million more pupils are in schools rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted than in 2010. More pupils are taking and securing good grades in the core academic subjects at GSCE that employers and universities most value. More pupils are studying foreign languages and taking A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry. As a result of our reforms more children are reading fluently, and doing so earlier.
I was saddened by the approach taken by the new shadow Secretary of State, Angela Rayner. Yesterday, in a Westminster Hall debate on term-time holidays, she supported our reforms to improve school attendance. Today, she is reverting to the approach of her predecessor-but-one, Lucy Powell, in opposing the rise in academic standards and the rise in expectations that the new SATs reflect and assess. She is, alas, simply kowtowing to the NUT “line to take”. This Government are about raising standards, raising expectations and delivering successful and effective reform. I urge the House to reject Labour’s motion.
The House divided:
Ayes 178, Noes 278.