Education: Proficiency Levels — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 3 December 2013.

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Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 2:37, 3 December 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of progress in achieving satisfactory levels of proficiency amongst 15 year-olds in reading, mathematics and science.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, OECD’s PISA results allow us to compare ourselves with the world’s best. The UK’s performance in mathematics, science and reading has not changed significantly since 2009. It remains at the OECD average in maths and reading, and above in science. The highest-achieving jurisdictions are in east Asia. We understand the significance of this and the need to ensure that our children are just as prepared as others to compete in the global economy.

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, today’s PISA report makes for gloomy reading about mathematics education in our secondary schools. We are stuck in 26th position, and 22% of our 15 year-olds are ranked as low achievers. The situation looks as though it is going to get worse. A quarter of our secondary school maths teachers have only A-level mathematics. Only half of our newly qualified maths teachers have a maths degree, and well over half of training posts for maths teachers are unfilled. What additional steps will the Government take to halt this very steep decline in the number of qualified maths teachers?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, we are well aware of the importance of ensuring that we have sufficient numbers of maths teachers, and have been putting a great deal of effort into this. We recruited 2,230 maths teachers in 2013-14, and we are continuing to focus efforts on recruiting the best graduates for the subjects we need most, which of course include maths. We have increased the number of maths places and the scholarships for teacher training. These scholarships amount to £25,000. We have increased the value of maths bursaries because we need to attract the top graduates. We have also introduced bursaries for graduates with good A-levels in maths or physics who train to teach maths, because we recognise the importance of what my noble friend is saying.

Photo of Baroness Perry of Southwark Baroness Perry of Southwark Conservative

Does my noble friend agree that the hugely encouraging increase in performance that has taken place in many of the new academies bodes very well for the results of the PISA in three years’ time, when the young people who have been through them will be tested?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My noble friend is right that we need to make a long-term assessment. Obviously, the 15 year-old students being assessed at the moment have had a number of years of education, and these results represent how they have done during those years. We hope to move things forward in the way that my noble friend suggests.

Photo of Baroness Hughes of Stretford Baroness Hughes of Stretford Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

In the area performing best in the OECD results published today, all teachers must have a teaching qualification and have to undertake 240 hours of professional development in the first five years of their career. In the UK now, academies and free schools can employ an unqualified person as a teacher even in these core subjects. The South Leeds Academy has just advertised for an unqualified person to teach maths, with a minimum qualification of just four GCSEs. Given what the Minister has just said, how does she think that unqualified people can make a contribution to raising standards in English, maths and science?

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

The noble Baroness will know that the proportion of qualified teachers in the state sector has increased. It now stands at 96.7%. I am sure that she heard my right honourable friend Michael Gove in the other place giving the numbers of unqualified teachers. In 2009 there were 17,400 unqualified teachers. Now the number has dropped to 14,800.

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative

My Lords, is the performance of our children not to be admired because of their achievement in mathematics? That subject is far more difficult that it should ever have been allowed to become, granted the fact that Magna Carta specifically requires the establishment of single, uniform system of mathematics and measurements, such as has been achieved in many other former British colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand, and even including the United States and Ireland. In almost all other territories, what should have been achieved has not been achieved in the simplicity of our measurement systems in this country. There is all the more reason to do so, given our abolition of the Metrication Board, which we introduced to give us one system during my time as Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs. Alas, I confess that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I abolished the Metrication Board, disregarding its achievement, and so created the difficulties which I felt I had to spell out with candour in posing my question.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I pay tribute to my noble and learned friend for what he achieved—using the metric system rather than anything else certainly made things much easier when my kids were studying—and for his candour. I note that the PISA report is extremely long, complex and very interesting. I urge noble Lords to have a really good look at it. If they look at the breakdown on maths, for example, they will see that students in the United Kingdom do relatively better than some countries on uncertainty, data and probability, but are less strong on space and shape. In east Asia, they are doing much better in the other direction.

Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her replies. I am interested that she acknowledges that the only way to enthuse young people is with a committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher. The Government need to do more to recruit the very best. We know that if you get the top 10% of graduates into education, you will do much better. I ask the Minister to look again at the messages that have been given to free schools and academies—I declare my interest as a governor—that qualifications do not matter.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I thank the noble Baroness for her initial tribute. It was very striking to see a steady increase in the number of high-quality candidates entering teaching. That is immensely encouraging, and we have to take it further forward. The proportion of postgrad entrants with a first class or 2.1 degree is now 74%, compared with 61% in 2009. That is moving in the right direction and shows that students recognise that it is worth teaching. The noble Baroness is absolutely right that all of us remember our outstanding, inspiring teachers. The report emphasises that autonomy for head teachers, along with accountability, is crucial to moving things forward.