There were aspects of the Labour Government’s approach to education with which I did not agree, but I agree that they did have some real success. That was at its most obvious in many of the London boroughs, so the hon. Lady makes a fair point about that project.
One of the main reasons for the improvement in school standards in recent years is the emphasis that the Conservatives have put on ensuring that children are taught to read using the most effective methods. Thanks to the hard work of teachers and the Government’s drive for phonics, the results of the phonics screening test introduced in 2012 have improved significantly.
As we have already heard in today’s debate, efforts have been made to tackle grade inflation. In the Blair-Brown years, employer and university confidence in the school exam system was eroded. The reforms made by this Government and their coalition predecessor to make GCSEs and A-levels tougher and more rigorous are bearing fruit. The exams are now more stretching for students, ensuring that they have a better grounding for further study or indeed for life in the workplace. I for one particularly welcome the increased focus on good spelling and grammar, which I think are important life skills for any young person.
The striking improvement in schools over recent years means that state schools are now beginning to catch up with the independent sector, as acknowledged in evidence cited by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at the University of Buckingham. Even more importantly, the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and other students has closed by 10% since 2010.
It is important to highlight that an effective way of improving standards in schools is to ensure that we have the best possible early years education. Delivering high-quality early years and pre-school education can play an incredibly positive role in improving educational standards in schools, but also in delivering social mobility and opportunity. Research demonstrates that if children fall behind in the early years, many simply never catch up. Their life chances can be permanently blighted by being held back at that early stage.
I would always urge Ministers to have a strong focus on helping parents access the highest-quality affordable early years education and support. The reformed early years foundation stage profile will have an important role to play in that. I hope the Minister will update the House on progress on that initiative when she sums up the debate.