Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:27 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 1:27 pm, 29th November 2018

I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention. I was going to come on to that, but I will deal with it now. Education, and the quality of Scotland’s education system, was Scotland’s pride and joy. This is one of the important things that everyone in the country feels very strongly about. I am from Huddersfield, and all of the rest of my family are from Glasgow, so it is something that we all care about. Not having some of new Labour’s reform agenda in Scotland is one reason why school standards in Scotland have gone off the boil. The other problem, of course, is that because of the decisions on higher education funding of the Scottish National party Government—unfortunately there is no one here from the SNP to represent them—pupils from more deprived areas are now twice as likely to go to university if they are in England than if they are in Scotland. That is a radical unfairness in our country caused by the policies of the SNP Government.

Let me just finish the point about rigour. I will say something which Labour Members may agree with. We can restore rigour—we have done that and it is an important move—without having to have terminal exams. I am quite a supporter of modular exams. Young people’s mental health is an increasingly important issue. Many young people I meet in schools feel strongly about it. There is not necessarily a connection between high standards in exams and terminal exams. I understand that there are pedagogical arguments for terminal exams, but there are also good arguments for modular ones as well.

One important reform—this is important in the context of improving teacher recruitment and teacher numbers; I am glad that there are 10,000 more teachers than there were in 2010—is to stop Ofsted being excessively overbearing. When I was the chair of governors at a London primary school, I was struck by the way in which everybody was being socialised into jumping every time Ofsted changed some tick box and we were all chasing around after Ofsted. There was a complaint from the Labour Front Bench earlier about some schools not being inspected particularly often by Ofsted. That is part of an approach that focuses on places where there are problems and does not hassle teachers unnecessarily with inspections that do not need to happen. I agree with the Government’s move towards assessing school improvement on progress, data and outcomes, rather than trying to reach into schools with occasional inspections every three years, as if that were the way to drive school improvement. The way towards school improvement is to have high-performing, multi-academy trusts; I will return to that point soon.

I disagree with Opposition Front Benchers about free schools. According to recent data, they are our highest-performing schools on the Progress 8 measure, phonics and key stage 1. One of the important things about free schools is that they allow innovation into our system, and those innovations can be quite different and from different pedagogies. For example, School 21—set up by new Labour adviser Peter Hyman—has a huge focus on oracy, which Emma Hardy mentioned earlier. That is an interesting innovation. It is a high-performing school from one angle. Michaela Community School, set up by Katharine Birbalsingh, is also a brilliantly high-performing free school that is bringing new ideas into the education agenda, with a strong emphasis on order and discipline. This shows that we can achieve high results in different ways. Free schools have let lots of new ideas into the system that can then percolate through to other schools.