§ 2. Mr. Dobson
asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what has been the increase in mixed age teaching in maintained and voluntary-aided schools in England since 1979.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)
Figures are not available, but Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools has noted an increase in the incidence of mixed age teaching as a direct consequence of the fall in school rolls.
§ Mr. Dobson
Will the Minister acknowledge that Her Majesty's inspectorate also points out that mixed age teaching in primary schools almost automatically leads to a reduction in the ability of children to learn to read and to use mathematics? Will he therefore ensure that the cuts that have led to this state of affairs are restored so that educational standards are at least maintained under the Conservative Government, who were elected on a promise to improve standards?
§ Dr. Boyson
The move to mixed age teaching arises not from any cuts but fom a decline in the number of children in the schools. There are now half a million fewer children in the schools than there were a few years ago. That being so, either schools must close or amalgamate or there must be more mixed age teaching. The hon. Gentleman is right. All the evidence shows that when 25 or more children from two or more age groups are taught together, scores in English and mathematics are lower than for those of children taught in single age groups.
§ Mr. Greenway
Is my right hon. Friend aware that for many years there has been mixed age teaching, which I deplore, in primary schools controlled by Labour authorities, and that this system of teaching has been advocated by a number of Labour educationists for many years?
§ Dr. Boyson
As my hon. Friend knows, there have been various fashions in education in the past 10 or 20 years. Vertical or family grouping was one. Fortunately, it is now passing. There are two reasons for mixed age teaching. Either the school is too small to have separate classes, as in village schools, or the philosophy is that if children are brought together they will integrate socially, even at the expense of academic standards.
§ Mr. McNally
Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's inspectorate forecast that about 70 per cent. of primary schools would have some mixed age teaching by the mid-1970s? Are not some local authorities using that as a soft option to make cuts? Does he agree that mixed age teaching is bound to fail unless it is backed up by specialists in special subjects and by good use of part-time teaching, which he is not encouraging?
§ Dr. Boyson
The pupil-teacher ratio in our schools is now the lowest ever, so that mixed age teaching has nothing to do with cuts. The ratio is lower than it was when the Labour Government were in power. There are fewer children in the schools. Therefore, unless schools are closed or amalgamated so that single age teaching may be carried out, there will be more mixed age teaching. There are 10 per cent. more primary schools than before with between 100 and 200 children. This shows the importance of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the need to consider teaching and schools overall to ensure that children have the best deal.
§ Mr. John Wells
Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who represent rural constituencies would rather have mixed age teaching than see village schools closed? Does he agree that the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) made a very good point on this in his supplementary question to question No. 1?
§ Dr. Boyson
I take my hon. Friend's point. The decision is made because there is no other way to keep schools close to parents and children. That is very different from mixed age teaching in schools in cities where alternatives can be arranged.
§ Mr. Kinnock
Will the Minister either withdraw his statement that mixed age teaching has nothing to do with cuts, or write to Her Majesty's inspectorate telling it that in his considered judgment it was absolutely wrong to report in paragraph 59:Further general restraints in spending and falling school roles have, together, continued to affect primary schools in similar ways to those described in last year's report"?Is he aware that the report also states:The number of mixed age classes have increased"?.This is very important, as the Minister has either inadvertently or deliberately misled the House and the record must be put straight. The report continues:Where such classes are larger than about 25 in number the children's performance can suffer".What is the Minister's response to that?
§ Dr. Boyson
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is reading the HMI report. One can make quotations on both sides. I actually said to his hon. Friend that cuts have nothing to do with the increase in mixed age teaching. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will listen to my reply, he may learn something. I said quite clearly that cuts have nothing to do with the increase in mixed age teaching, because if the authorities in whose areas the number of children has declined decide how to reorganise their schools to have economic numbers, single age teaching can continue. That is what I said. If the hon. Gentleman did not understand it the first time, I am delighted that he does now.