§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Joan Ryan.]9.30 am
§ Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)
I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting me this opportunity to debate education, which is of the highest importance to pupils, parents, teachers, governors, local communities and the country at large. The title of the debate was chosen deliberately because the country and the Government must get education right in the cities, which contain most of the population and the greatest spread of economic and social living circumstances. If they do not, what hope is there for the education of children who live in all the constituencies?
Like all my hon. Friends who carry the education brief for the Conservative party, I am a parent. Since being elected, I have made education a priority, and I served on the Select Committee on Education and Skills—formerly the Select Committee on Education and Employment—and on its Education. Sub-Committee until assuming Whip responsibilities for the Opposition Front-Bench education team.
I welcome the Minister for School Standards to his new role, and I pay tribute to his predecessor, who is now the Minister with responsibilities for e-commerce and competitiveness. Despite our common and contemporaneous university college background, we had widely diverging political opinions. Those were displayed not least during consideration in Committee of the flawed and centralising Education Bill, in which the present Minister was also involved. The former Minister was well into his stride, but, somewhat extraordinarily, the Prime Minister peremptorily shuffled him off to look after e-commerce.
When last in power, the Conservatives introduced many excellent measures to improve education provision, but we did not get everything right. However, despite the Labour Government's electoral rhetoric and spin, the situation that they inherited was considerably better for children, families and teachers than what we have now, after they have been in power for more than five years. To substantiate that, let us consider the evidence.
On GCSEs, there is now a widening gap between the best and worst-performing local education authorities in England. The Department's figures are based on the GCSE achievements of 15-year-olds who gained five or more A* to C grades in each English LEA by the end of 2000–01. All the worst-performing LEAs are city configured and, in terms of the number of children, the gap between the best and the worst increased significantly, from 25 per cent. to 26.3 per cent. between 1996–97 and 2000–01. That proves that the most 170WH deprived areas and the most vulnerable children are being left behind because of the Government's failure to deliver.
Taking those same measures, we find that all of England's cities fall far below the Government's 2002 national learning target of 50 per cent., and that excludes special schools. The figure was only 31 per cent. for Nottingham, 32 per cent. for Manchester and 35 per cent. for Liverpool. The last two cities are, of course, in the north-west, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and I have a direct interest. The figure was 34 per cent. for inner London's Hackney and 43 per cent. for Sheffield, and even the Secretary of State's own LEA, Birmingham, achieved only 42 per cent. Disturbingly, the average in her constituency of Yardley was a mere 29.5 per cent. At the end of 2001, the average in the Minister's constituency of South Shields was 35.4 per cent.—down from a seriously under-performing 37.6 per cent. in 1999. Labour has been in control of the LEA for 30 years, and the area has had a Labour Member of Parliament for 60 years.
In 1997, the Government relied heavily on their promise to reduce class sizes. On 1 May this year, however, the evidence that I have cited compelled even Matthew Taylor of the Institute for Public Policy and Research—a think tank that is not unknown to the Minister or for its new-Labour leanings—to tell the Press Association:I think the Government made a mistake in 1997 and that was the class size pledge. Reducing class sizes from 32 to 30 makes no difference at all. Nonetheless, I think the money should have gone to the schools with the worst problems and should have massively reduced class sizes to those of the independent sector. We know from US research that it would have made a difference.That is the line that should be taken. In areas of worst under-performance, the Government should aim for class sizes in line with those in the independent sector; substance, not headlines, is needed in the worst-achieving areas of our cities.
Why am I, a Member with a predominantly rural constituency, taking such an interest? Apart from my broad concerns about education, in Eddisbury, the principal town of Winsford has some wards with the characteristics of an inner city. There is significant economic and social deprivation. I want cities to do better so that my three Winsford wards can be measured on the same basis, and can qualify for the support that is given to areas with the worst education problems in the country. They do not currently get that because of the sparsity factor—the relative prosperity and educational achievement of other areas of Cheshire counts unfairly against them. Winsford needs and deserves, but does not yet get, a sure start programme similar to that up the road in Warrington. Imagine how much worse the unfairness will be if county councils are killed off by the Government as they seek to make real the Deputy Prime Minister's ghastly dream of English regional government. If the north-east is the first area to be so established, South Shields will come off even worse than it does now, as will Eddisbury if the north-west, heaven forbid, follows suit.
For further evidence of the Government's failure to deliver—despite their much-trumpeted March 1999 excellence in cities programme, another headline initiative that has failed to deliver for children in 171WH England's cities—we need look no further than London. Inner London is undershooting the national targets for GCSE passes by 12 per cent. There is only 38 per cent. GCSE achievement, against the 2000 national target of 50 per cent., according to the Department's figures, research by the Institute of Education and other sources.
That is a scandal, and a cause for deep anxiety for all. I know, as a former employer in manufacturing, that if the current low GCSE pass rate goes unchecked, education under-performance will result in 219,000 unfilled skilled jobs by the end of the decade—and that is in new Labour's inner London. Demand for qualified labour will outstrip supply by more than 7 per cent., with profound effects on the capital's economy.
Despite Labour's rhetoric, average class sizes in London are higher than the national average in both primary and secondary schools. Since 1997, class sizes in London's secondary schools have risen from 21.7 to over 22.1 pupils and those in London's primary schools have remained static. So far as discipline is concerned, secondary school exclusions are higher in Conservative-run councils, showing that those councils take a firmer stance on discipline. On average, 4.8 per cent. of pupils were excluded by Conservative councils, compared with 3.15 per cent. by Labour and 2.13 per cent. by Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] I have also looked at special measures. Schools in Conservative-run councils are less likely to be put into special measures—only 1.1 per cent., compared with 2.5 per cent. under Liberal Democrats and 2.8 per cent. under Labour.
We should consider the evidence. It is no good trying to make the rhetoric work when the evidence does not support it. When all that data are coupled with the finding of the National Foundation for Educational Research, backed up by Ofsted, that 20 per cent. of children in London and the other cities of England achieve the standard assessment test targets in the last year of primary school, but get lower grades a year later, in the first year of secondary school, the evidence is overwhelming that education in our cities is in dire trouble. Standards have declined under the Labour Government.
The Minister appears unconvinced. Will he demonstrate, when he speaks at the end of the debate, that he is prepared to be accountable for his Government's actions, rather than for their relentless spin? Initial literacy and numeracy targets for 11-year-olds—80 per cent. of pupils reaching the standard for English and 75 per cent. reaching it for mathematics—were announced as part of the comprehensive spending review for the public service agreements 1999 to 2002, published in December 1998. However, the Government's figures show that last year only 75 per cent. of 11-year-olds reached the literacy standard—no change from the previous year—and 70 per cent. reached the numeracy target, which is a decrease from the previous year. The then Secretary of State for Education promised to resign if those targets were not met, but surprise, surprise, he was moved on ahead of his mistakes, and his successor has so far refused to meet his commitment.
172WH The problem of truancy is most pronounced in cities. It is also a real problem in schools in Winsford in my constituency. Between 1999–2000 and 2000–01, in key inner-city areas, the number of half days lost through unauthorised absence rose by 16 times more than the national average. Yet in 1998, the Government announced that they planned to cut unauthorised absences from school by one third by this year. A written answer, however, reveals that truancy has risen by 12 per cent. under the Labour Government. We are told that the Secretary of State still regards benefit cuts to parents of truanting children as being on her agenda, despite reported Cabinet disunity. No wonder there is disunity, because the measure will hit the poorest parents hardest. I am not surprised that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has said that the idea is a disaster, especially for single parents, for whom it would be an injustice.
As if the Government's record on truancy were not bad enough, the tale of ill-discipline in city schools takes one's breath away. According to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, pupil and parent assaults on teachers rose fivefold between 1998 and 2001, and that is compounded by the Department's complacency. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked the Department for Education and Skills how many teachers had been the victims of serious assaults by pupils and parents in each year since 1997. In his reply, the then Minister for School Standards replied:My Department does not collect this information."—[Official Report, 10 April 2002; Vol. 382, c. 195W.]That is in sharp contrast to other Government-employed staff, such as those employed by the Benefits Agency, for whom data on both physical and verbal assaults are collected.
For too long, the Government have undermined discipline in schools by insisting on a reduced number of exclusions, regardless of the circumstances, and despite all the "tut-tutting" that we heard earlier from Labour and Liberal Democrat Members when the statistics comparing various local authorities were read out.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
I apologise for tut-tutting earlier, but will the hon. Gent, explain to the House why he regards the number of exclusions as a measure of success?
§ Mr. O'Brien
I did not paint the number of exclusions as a measure of success. I know from my experience as a parent—I expect that the hon. Gentleman will know this both from his experience as a parent and as a teacher—that one of the greatest difficulties is having disruptive and unruly children in a class. Although, in an ideal world, it would be possible to help such children to feel included, there are cases where it is appropriate to consider exclusion and to make available special opportunities for those who are disrupting other children, who are willing to work, and distracting teachers. That is especially prevalent in our city schools. In my son's primary school, because of the Government's agenda, the teacher had to hold the hands of two of the most unruly children, who were not excluded, although everyone concerned thought that they should be. The teacher had to hold their hands because, as soon as those children were released, they wanted to put the fingers of all the other children into 173WH pencil sharpeners, so the education of the entire class was completely disrupted. Therefore, far from exclusions being a measure of success, we should properly evaluate all the issues to determine what is in the best interests of children and teachers.
As I was saying, for too long, the Government have undermined discipline in schools by insisting on a reduced number of exclusions regardless of the circumstances. Real powers should now be given to headteachers and governors to take decisions about discipline in their own schools. Then, there might be some improvement in the dire statistics that show us, for example, that permanent exclusions have declined by 51 per cent. in south Tyneside. There are similar figures for the surrounding areas, including a staggering 90 per cent. in Middlesbrough.
It is the teachers in inner-city areas and elsewhere who need more support from the Government, under whom it is pitifully clear that violence on teachers by some children and parents is greater in inner cities and is significantly on the increase. To take a favoured Government gimmick, how many parenting orders have been issued since the Government introduced them? Teachers need the Government to protect them: it is clear, from everything that I am being told both locally and throughout the country, particularly in the cities, that they do not feel that they are getting that protection.
It is no wonder that there is a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Teachers in Lambeth schools, for example, have to cope with children arriving zonked out on drugs because of the softly, softly approach to certain drugs that is apparently being blessed by the Government. I pay tribute to my MP, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who so rightly and courageously spoke out recently against that policy at Prime Minister's questions. Teacher vacancies have doubled under Labour, which is not surprising given the terrible truancy discipline problems in the cities, the Government's gimmick-a-day announcements, the relatively high costs of housing and living in some cities and the fact that core funding is being seriously diminished and adversely affected by this centralising Government holding back money for their pet ring-fenced schemes. One need look no further than the Education Bill to see how obsessed the Government are with their centralising agenda, despite all the rhetoric of autonomy.
According to the National Union of Teachers, only 42 per cent. of final-year teacher trainees will still be in the profession three years after qualification. To emphasise that point, a class of GCSE pupils at Our Lady and St John RC high school in Blackburn have been taught by seven different teachers as reported in The Mirror on 8 February 2002.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
On teacher retention and recruitment, is it not an additional problem that so many long-serving and experienced teachers in London are nearing retirement? The problem of replacing them with newly qualified teachers will be even more difficult in view of the cost of housing, administrative problems, discipline in schools and the entire package, which deters students at teacher training colleges from going into the profession. The problem will be exacerbated. 174WH We will also have an imbalance in schools with a lack of long-serving and experienced teachers and too many newly qualified teachers.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. She makes a real and palpable point. Increasingly across many sectors, the transfer of functions to the younger, less experienced element is all too real. That is particularly serious in the teaching profession. Not only does one lose the experience, which is half the secret of motivating pupils and delivering education, but the Government's actions and the raising of false expectations have led to a serious crisis in morale, which is exacerbating the problem of the teacher demographic time bomb.
In our cities, as elsewhere, more and more teachers are being forced to teach subjects in which they are not trained in a desperate attempt to meet teacher shortage problems. That acts as a deterrent to those thinking of entering the profession and exacerbates the difficulty of attracting teachers, resulting in even higher percentages in city schools of teachers on supply teaching contracts, which eat away at the stability of a school. I hope that we can all agree that that is an essential element for raising pupil confidence and thus standards.
In addition, the Government have inundated schools with centrally produced paperwork. In the 12 months to March this year, the Government issued documents totalling 4,440 pages to primary and secondary schools. On average, that equates to 17 pages of Government documents for each working day. Many of these involve surveys that have to be completed by busy teachers. A recent report by the National Union of Teachers found that 57.8 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession said that one reason for doing so was the work load. There must be an immediate reduction in bureaucracy to ease the bureaucratic burden on heads and teaching staff, but with the current regime at the Department for Education and Skills, and the Government's obsession with centralisation and control, evidenced not least in their attitude to further education colleges, I am pessimistic that the desperately necessary shift in that direction will take place, to the huge detriment of teachers' morale, their recruitment and retention and the interests of children alike.
I shall leave my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West to deal with the misery, stress and highly questionable educational efficacy of AS-levels, which are having such a negative drag on teacher and pupil morale and on our city schools—I hesitate to suggest that my hon. Friend or, indeed, anyone, can be called an expert on these embryonic and unproven exams—and the Government's failure to widen access to higher education, which the Minister responsible for higher education appears to have admitted.
I draw to a conclusion by saying to the Minister that there are only a very few simple answers that I and the teachers, pupils and parents of schools in cities and elsewhere are looking for. These are that the Government, despite their dangerously arrogant self-belief, admit that they do not have a monopoly of wisdom on education; that they admit also that they have failed to deliver for more than five years, despite their rhetoric, electoral and post-electoral spin and after raising so many hopes and false expectations; that they 175WH are now willing to think again and go back to the drawing board—not least as the Secretary of State is now saying she would not touch some schools with a bargepole, having sworn undying allegiance to the one-size-fits-all comprehensive system for the whole of her career—and recognise that the way forward is for the Government to back off setting more and more targets for a demoralised teaching work force, especially in cities, as that will not raise standards.
Above all, the Government must trust teachers with the resources to deliver what we all crave, for the sake of the children and the future of this country: an improving—not as it currently is, declining—education system in our cities, where the most vulnerable children in the country, on the whole, reside. The Government need to break their meddling, gimmicky habits, stop slagging off teachers and trust them to teach children in cities and elsewhere, and free the necessary resources from the centralised diktat of the Government so that they can run schools for the children of our cities, not for the daily diet of new Labour-spun headlines.
§ Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing this important debate, which is on a matter of great interest to many of us in the Conservative party.
I welcome the Minister to his new post; he and I have known each for half our lives. We were together as undergraduates, when we were also on opposite sides of the political divide. At that time, the Oxford university students union was run by the Liberal Democrats—it was then the Alliance party—which provided an opportunity for us to co-operate. I hope that we can continue in a similar vein today, and beyond.
The issue is most important. Looking through the speeches that I have made in my first year in Parliament I see that this is the first time I have spoken on education, which is not to say that it is not an issue close to my heart—rather, it is the opposite. Many people of my age who have gone into Conservative politics, in particular, were scarred, having been at a grammar school, by worries about those schools being pushed into the comprehensive system during the 1970s. It was a central, defining totem of my political beliefs.
I am glad that there are several Conservative Members present. I do not wish to make a churlish point at this juncture, but it is sad, especially as there are 55 London Labour Members, that none of them is present. It looks as though no cities south of Nottingham are represented on the Government Benches in the debate. However, I appreciate that these are important issues that affect all of us.
As the product of a state school education—I was the first Member of Parliament to represent the historical constituency of Cities of London and Westminster who was not privately educated—I am proud to be able to say a few words about the matter. I will not introduce a blizzard of statistics; I left those to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. The Minister will no doubt digest them in full before his summing-up speech.
I want to say a few things about the local education authority in Westminster, and in Kensington and Chelsea where I served as a councillor for eight years 176WH until May this year. They are inner-city local authorities that traditionally have been run by Conservatives, and have surprisingly strong academic results, given the catchment area. More than 40 per cent. of Westminster's pupils live outside its boundaries. A significant number of relatively affluent parents opt out of the state sector and send their children to the private sector, which makes Westminster's results all the more admirable. It is to be regretted that the middle class has been determined to withdraw from the system to such a large extent.
As I said, as a grammar school boy it struck me that the grammar school system was the antidote to the thriving private school sector. I do not wish to make a narrow point about grammar schools—the Labour party has thankfully moved away from that campaign—but it is often articulate middle-class parents in areas with grammar schools who can make a real difference to parent-teacher associations as governors. There is no doubt that such schools begin to decline the moment those parents vote with their feet and get out of the public sector. Westminster's education system has been in place only for a dozen or so years since the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority. To its credit, it has strongly improved its standard assessment tests for seven to 1l-year-olds in recent years.
I want to say a few words about my own educational background. I was educated at Bishop Wood school—a Church of England school in Tring, Hertfordshire—before going to Reading grammar school. Bishop Wood was an excellent school with a positive aspirational ethos which has stuck with me throughout the years. I entered it at the age of seven, and it was a great guiding force for respect, honesty and security. It allowed pupils to flourish academically in a mixed area of middle class and council estates.
A fortnight ago, I was reminded of my experience there when I visited Hampden Gurney school, a local inner-city Church of England school off the Edgware road in the city of Westminster. The school was opening a brand new building, which took me back almost 30 years to the opening of the building of the school where I had been a young pupil. As an aside, Jarvis—the large construction concern—was responsible for the excellence of the building work on an entirely new site a stone's throw from Marble Arch. In recent weeks, that company has been in the headlines for perhaps the wrong reasons. However, it is fair to say that it had done an excellent job, which parents, governors and local residents widely praised. Much of its work is outside the railway sector, a fact that has been widely forgotten.
Mrs. Evelyn Chua, the headmistress of the school, leads from the front as one of the best head teachers in the Westminster area. As anyone who has been in education will know, and as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will confirm, the best schools are led by the best head teachers. That leadership is all important.
I was struck by a comment made by a member of the parent-teacher association, Mrs. Candida Coghlan, that the school was such a success because it maintained high behavioural expectations, acknowledged that all children had special learning needs and ensured that all children had the opportunity to fulfil their potential 177WH whatever their ability. Nothing is nearer the truth. The lack of aspiration and the low expectation in many inner-city schools are of great concern.
A minor criticism of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury is that there was a negativity about the statistics, especially in the London areas, which he brought to bear in his otherwise excellent speech. The central idea is that we must raise expectations. We should not have any excuse for failure and, above all, if we are to encourage middle-class parents to use the state sector again, we must impose on schools the view that special educational needs are not just for failing children but for all children. Each child must be treated as an individual.
I appreciate that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall start to wind up. There are some specific problems for London schools, and I should like to address one or two. On pay and conditions, Unison and other specifically teaching unions have insisted on national pay bargaining, which undermines the interests of many London public sector workers. The cost of living and working in central London is much greater than in, for example, South Shields, Middlesbrough or Liverpool. A far more reasonable London weighting is needed to take account of the increased costs and greater inconvenience. Many teachers in my constituency have to live in the suburbs, or even outside Greater London, and have long commutes both to and from work. We all know about the difficulties with the transport system, which the Mayor of London confessed would remain scratchy for at least a decade to come.
I should like to praise Westminster city council's innovative policy of assisting teachers with lifestyle coaches. The idea made the press on Sunday and is designed to help to differentiate with a benefits package at a time when central Government have put ever more pressure on the funding settlement. If I may make one small point of special pleading for London as a whole, I hope that the Minister will work with the Chancellor to ensure that the area cost adjustment, which has previously been inadequate in taking account of the genuine cost of living in London, is enhanced as far as possible. There has been great speculation that London will suffer with the area cost adjustments for the employment of public sector staff. That would make unbearable what is, for many schools, a crisis situation.
I wish the Minister godspeed in his new post. I know that he will have an exciting time and that, like me, he is the product of a state education. We used to discuss that when we were at Oxford together. I hope that he can make an impact that will ensure that many other middle-class parents entrust their children to state schools so that we have a thriving sector that genuinely competes with what the private sector can offer.
§ 10.2 am
§ Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing this important debate. We all believe that education is vital to the success of children throughout the country especially in disadvantaged and economically deprived city areas.
One problem that the Government have encountered is that they have had high expectations and made great promises, but have failed to improve children's 178WH education, particularly in cities. Many failing schools are in city areas, and it is interesting that last year's Ofsted report, produced by Mike Tomlinson, notes thatthe gap between the highest and lowest attaining schools remains too large.He points out:Although at primary level, the gap between the highest and lowest performing schools is narrowing, at secondary level, despite improvements within the lowest performing schools, the gap has widened.That analysis of secondary school education is proved by statistics. In Sunderland, which is the adjacent local education authority to South Tyneside, although grades have improved, the relative gap between it and the rest of England has deteriorated since 1997, widening from 10.7 per cent. in 1997 to 10.8 per cent. in 2001. At A-level, the points increase in Sunderland between 1997 and 2001 was slower that in the rest of England. In Sunderland the average increase was 0.7 compared with 1.2 for England as a whole. The Government have yet to tackle that widening gap. A similar pattern emerges in South Tyneside. In 1997 the gap between that area and England as whole in respect of the number of 15-year-olds achieving five A to C grades at GCSE increased from 9.4 per cent. to 10.9 per cent. For AS and A-levels the improvement in South Tyneside between 1997 and 2000 was 0.7 compared with 1.2 for England as a whole.
That reveals a significant problem in those areas. Although the Government have improved results in absolute terms, the gap has widened relatively. The same Ofsted report affirms that education action zones made no difference between the best and the worst schools. Although improvement to zones was faster in key stage one than in schools nationally, the report states thatthe gap between schools in zones and schools nationally&has not reduced significantlyin the other key stages. It is not surprising that education action zones collapsed into education excellence in cities. However, as Mike Tomlinson again points out in his Ofsted report:At this early stage, the initiatives had not yet resulted in rates of improvement in attainment, attendance or teaching quality significantly higher than schools nationally".Even excellence in cities, which is supposed to be a better scheme, has yet to yield the results that the Government want and has yet to narrow the achievement gap between the best and the worst schools. Increasing centralisation under the Labour Government has failed to achieve a narrowing of the gap in educational attainment.
These problems are exacerbated, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said, by further difficulties with bullying and with teacher recruitment and retention. All those problems are far worse in areas of socio-economic deprivation at the heart of our cities. If we are to improve the education of children in this country, we must tackle those problems.
When they talk about overcoming the barriers of social exclusion, the Government make great play of improving participation in higher education. Ministers regularly trot out the target of 50 per cent. participation in higher education for this age cohort. The Government have always managed studiously to avoid explaining what higher education means, but the aspiration remains. It is a pity that social inequality in 179WH universities has deteriorated rather than improved under the Labour Government. The Minister for Lifelong Learning acknowledged that fact at the weekend. Given that the gap between the best and the worst schools has widened, not narrowed, that deterioration is not surprising.
The answer is not to lower standards of admission to university for certain groups—a huge mistake because it amounts to recognition and toleration of under-achieving schools in cities. We should be raising educational standards in all inner-city schools to narrow the gap and ensure that children from those areas can gain access to university without the need for Government targets for greater social inclusion. We risk leaving a whole generation of inner-city children behind.
Education is an important issue in the north-east. I was born and brought up in the area. I do not share my university with the Minister for School Standards, but I did at least fight South Shields in the 1997 general election. I know the area well. The Minister will know that education is viewed as a ladder of opportunity to gain greater skills, improve access to higher education and escape low-paid industrial jobs in the region. That was the message of voters on the doorsteps in 1997. I suspect that the message was not dissimilar in 2001.
It is interesting that South Tyneside local education authority has been Labour controlled for nearly three decades, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury said. Indeed, there has been continuing pressure from Labour-controlled LEAs across the north-east over decades, which has led to a decline in standards rather than an improvement. By embracing comprehensive schools and not encouraging a meritocracy and educational attainment, they have consigned vast numbers of people in the north-east to poor educational standards.
A flagship reform of the previous Conservative Government was grant-maintained schools, which gave schools in particular areas the opportunity to raise standards and develop their own ethos. However, attempts by schools in the north-east to attain grant-maintained status were very much stamped on by LEAs, which shows that Labour-controlled authorities want children and parents in their areas to be dependent on their education.
What happens in those areas? Parents, whether wealthy or on average incomes, try to send their children to the local private sector day schools, thereby removing articulate parents and bright children from the other schools. They do not believe that their children will receive the education that they deserve in those schools. However, the vast majority of pupils, whose parents cannot afford to take that decision, are left behind to suffer a substandard education.
If the Minister wants to achieve anything in office and show that he has changed the educational culture in the north-east, he must contribute to improving the life chances of children throughout that region, particularly in the cities of Newcastle and Sunderland.
We must create a new agenda for education in our cities. The Government's centralising tendencies have so far failed to produce the narrowing of standards that we want. Given that many Labour Members have served 180WH their time on education authorities throughout the country, it is not surprising that those same authorities have not backed children in their areas, in that they have abolished grammar schools and diminished academic values. It is therefore left to Conservative Members to try to create a new education system that encourages children and teachers to give of their best, and that encourages teachers to teach in schools in inner-city areas, which have the greatest problems.
Picking up on the work by Matthew Taylor of the Institute for Public Policy Research, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made a valuable suggestion about focusing more money on those schools and giving them the opportunity to set their own agenda and excel. Far too often, we hear about centralising diktats from Government and schools not having the opportunity to decide how to develop their own ethos and how the money should best be spent in the interests of their children.
That centralising tendency has been the downfall of education over the past five years, and I hope that the Minister has learnt from what has happened. I am sure that he has been sent to the Department for Education and Skills to look after it on the Prime Minister's behalf, so that we may see a change—I do not hold out much hope—for parents in the north-east and other city areas, and great improvements in educational standards. The Government seem bent on destroying academic excellence, lowering standards and removing parents' and teachers' ability to run schools as they want, but they have an opportunity to make changes. The past five years have seen a tendency towards greater centralisation; now it is time for that to change. I hope that the Minister will assure us today that that will happen.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
As a Back Bencher on this subject, I am grateful to be able to say a few words on it, because it interests me greatly. I declare two interests: I am the chair of governors of St. James's Church of England primary school in Bermondsey, and a trustee of Bacon's city technology college. I take a close interest in both, as I do in education throughout the borough.
I welcome the Minister. My local authority has just changed hands for the first time and become a Liberal Democrat council, and I know that our new executive member with responsibility for education, Bob Skelly—a competent and experienced individual—is looking forward to working with the Government and the Minister. Given the Minister's past close links with Downing street and the Cabinet Office, and given that there has been great interest in both places in trying to move the educational agenda on, I look forward to seeing a constructive partnership.
It may surprise the Minister to hear that I will not say anything critical about Government policy. That is not because I have no criticism, but because it would be more useful to make constructive suggestions that I hope he will consider.
My constituency and borough contain a wonderful educational diversity, and there are some brilliant examples of good practice in nursery, primary and 181WH secondary schools and special schools, such as the Spa school, which greatly impressed a Conservative spokesperson during a visit this week. There is also good practice in further education colleges such as Southwark college and universities such as South Bank university, King's college and the London school of economics. We must not forget important places such as Morley college, which has provided excellent adult education for years. In that great diversity, there is evidence that often the leadership of an institution determines how well it does. Similar schools with the same numbers and mix can do very differently depending on how they are run, the impetus and enthusiasm of the head teacher and the contribution of the governing body.
There is a big issue in our community about faith schools. I repeat my view as a member of the Church and from experience: it is important for whomever runs the school to move away from faith-based admissions policies. I have seen them do no good, and although it is important to have a minimum number of pupils of the faith of the school's management, it does more harm than good to exclude people because they do not have a particular faith.
With an ever-changing school family—in inner cities, people come and go out of the school community every day, week and month—I am sure that the Minister understands that we must improve the way in which housing is allocated. That is a local authority matter, but if people are moved around from one community to the next, their children are moved too, which is not helpful in their community.
I want to put my community's shopping list. We have a great shortage of nursery places and schools, which is hugely important for inner-city development. The Government understand that, but the quicker we can move in that direction, the better start many children will get. We still have major problems with admissions at nursery, primary and secondary level. I urge the Minister to come with a fresh mind to the debate about the Greenwich judgment and re-examine whether local authorities can give the first opportunity to the children resident in that authority. There are many good community cohesion reasons for that. Will he be able to ensure, as we hope to do in a year's time in Southwark, that there is the same common admissions policy for schools that we have for universities? There is a terrible unfairness between those who know how to work the system to their advantage and those who do not. Every summer, many children in inner cities are left not knowing where they will go in September, which causes great pain and anxiety and often makes them feel undervalued.
One or two schools still do not have an independent appeals system like that of city technology colleges. I hope that the Government will review that and ensure that every state-funded educational institution has a system that allows appeals against a school's decision. Lastly in my shopping list for institutions, I hope that the Government will re-examine the funding formula for further education colleges. It is unfair that they get so much less per pupil than schools teaching sixth form pupils of the same age. FE colleges feel significantly disadvantaged.
As I have said before, to make the most of children we should provide mentors for final-year primary school pupils who share a strong interest in a subject such as 182WH cars, rockets, ballet, fishing and football. Those children would then be more likely to be motivated as they go into secondary school. If the mentor system can remain throughout secondary school, it will work best. Such role models are a valuable addition to those provided by teachers and parents.
In addition, we must maximise the opportunities for teachers. There is still a desperate shortage of male teachers in my local authority, and in many other places. If boys and young men are to have the role models that they need as they grow up, we need to ensure that we have a greater ethnic mix and a better gender balance in our teaching staff. That case was made strongly at the conference about excluded black teenagers, convened by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), which I attended and found impressive.
Perhaps we should insist that, in future, every time a school is extended or a new one is built, planning permission is given for housing and accommodation for every sort of staff. Schools have great difficulty in attracting staff, and one head teacher tells me that congestion charging may make the situation worse.
To ensure that more parents are involved, we can follow the example of the faith communities. Many of them run schools on Saturdays and Sundays and out of hours in school buildings. We have to get away from the idea of nine-to-four school buildings and consider what has been done for years in Cambridgeshire, where all schools are seen as community institutions that need to be open during daylight hours, seven days a week.
Buildings need to be well used, but we in inner cities have suffered badly from a lack of outside space where children can be energetic. Children must enjoy adequate play and sport—including competitive sport—from the beginning. Competitive sport is important; I have never understood the argument for non-competitive sport. We do not see children watching the World cup and not feeling competitive about it; they understand the idea that somebody wins and somebody loses—the chance of winning is an incentive to do better. There must also be adequate playing fields and swimming facilities, and the charges must make it possible for them to be accessed not just during school curriculum hours but outside them.
Finally—I know that the Government are reviewing the issue—unless we go back to a way of funding university places that does not put off people from lower-income families, we shall continue to distort the cohort of people who go on to the sort of further and higher education that many of us have enjoyed. We must ensure that, for those who want it, education at all ages is seen as an option, but we should not drive 16-year-olds who do not want it into further education.
I hope that we can have a more flexible attitude to work and work experience. I have seen brilliant examples in Leeds and elsewhere of work experience for kids aged 10 or 11 who have no working role model in the family. If they want to work, we should encourage them to go down that route; they can come back to education later when they are motivated and know what they want to do. I look forward to a dialogue occurring with the Minister, and hope that we can help by learning from the Southwark experience and sharing with the Government to mutual advantage.
§ Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)
I welcome the Minister to his place. He comes with an excellent pedigree, and I hope that the lessons that his father taught him on his knee are part and parcel of his psyche. I remember, as a young student, listening to his father and being inspired by his views on society—on education, in particular. There is a significant difference between what Professor Miliband said and what the Minister's mentor says at No. 10—perhaps that is a debate for another day. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on having secured the debate. It is an important one and he made a serious contribution. He put on record a series of facts that have been repeated at least 10 times, every time someone has spoken from the Conservative Front Bench.
It is a sad reflection on the present Conservative party that the hon. Gentleman failed to make any positive comments about the huge successes that many of our schools have achieved against great odds, particularly in the inner cities. He swept all that aside in his catalogue of moans and groans.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on one fundamental issue. He enunciated the Dutch philosophy of funding students according to their needs, and I hope that the whole House can ultimately get behind him on that. The Liberal Democrats have adopted such a policy, and we commend it to the Minister. It would be useful to have his comments on it. The Dutch philosophy says that children in the education system have certain entitlements and that we should fund them according to their needs so that they can enjoy those entitlements. We should all be able to agree on that basic philosophy, which we could use to build a new school system. I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning it, and we will be pleased if his party moves in that direction.
I also agree with the hon. Gentleman on the Government's failure to make huge inroads into some of the core problems. I am saddened, however, that he does not accept that 18 years of Conservative rule led to 7 million adults being functionally illiterate and to one in four being functionally innumerate. It will take significantly longer than one Parliament to deal with those problems.
§ Mr. Stephen O'Brien
On that point, the figure of 7 million includes many adults who went through their education in the 1960s and 1970s, when the comprehensive school experiment was introduced. The hon. Gentleman's attempt to relate the figures to a particular Administration is somewhat tendentious.
§ Mr. Willis
The hon. Gentleman has made his comment, but he cannot simply ignore 18 years of Conservative control over education, or excuse the failure to tackle even the literacy and numeracy problems of older adults. That is quite sad.
As always, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) made a telling contribution, on which I hope he will reflect. He referred to the flight of the middle classes from state education, and I agree that 184WH people in many of our communities see the private sector as their only salvation. That is incredibly depressing, but the fact that 10 out of 11 members of the Conservative shadow Cabinet send their children to private schools hardly puts them in a position to tell voters, "Follow our example." They live in some of the most privileged areas, with some of the most highly performing schools and local authorities, but that is still not good enough. They prefer to send their children to the private sector; the state sector is all right for somebody else.
I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to the cost of living in London, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) returned. A policeman cannot get £6,000 in additional allowances for looking after unruly youngsters after 4 o'clock, when a teacher gets half that during the day. We must deal with that fundamental issue, but it is not the long-term solution. In the long term, we must do something about chronic housing problems for key professionals in London and other cities.
The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) made an important point about the gap between the highest and lowest achievers, and drew attention to issues relating to higher education. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey commented on the issues that the Government need to address, including the admissions policy. Unless the Minister is prepared to consider the admissions policy as a key tool for ensuring that children from the poorest homes get access to the best schools on an equitable basis, we will continue to fail many of them. In winding up the debate, I hope that the Minister will say something about the plethora of admission arrangements, especially in our big cities and in London, which are aggravated by the Greenwich and Kingston judgments.
I was appalled to hear the Secretary of State's astonishing comments about our comprehensive system. Of course the system is not perfect; it has never been allowed to work or flourish, because no Government of any political persuasion have ever had the courage to create a fully comprehensive system. However, to say that she would not touch many of our schools with a bargepole and to announce the end of comprehensive education is a most appalling thing for a Secretary of State to say. I hope that the Minister will condemn those comments and those of his former friend, the Prime Minister's press secretary, which go together. It is typical of the way in which the Government smooch up to the teaching profession and to state schools, but meanwhile have another agenda. The Government's real thinking was revealed in the comments that came out of the mouth of the Secretary of State yesterday. She has sold her soul to No. 10 Downing street in order to keep her job.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for being critical of the Government, but I intend to continue on that theme. The failure of Conservative Members and an increasing number of Labour Members to understand how difficult things are for many schools and teachers in our inner cities beggars belief. The former Secretary of State was right to say that that is not an excuse for failure, but the social deprivation in many schools makes the mountains a little harder to climb.
185WH The comprehensive system has been an enormous success, despite its critics. In 1970, 47 per cent. of our youngsters left school without a qualification. In 2001, that figure was 5.4 per cent. Between 1899 and 1999, the number of 16 to 19-year-olds in full-time education rose from 37.5 per cent. to 75.5 per cent. That is not failure; it is success. In 1972, 14 per cent. of youngsters entered higher education under the age of 21. Last year, the figure was 34 per cent. That is success delivered by a comprehensive education system.
The accusation that we have a one-size-fits-all system is absolute nonsense. Anyone who goes into comprehensive schools, as I do, knows that each school is different. That myth exists because, since 1988, we have had a standardised curriculum and testing system, and we have introduced league tables and a standardised inspection system. What do the Government expect to happen if they move away from a one-size-fits-all system? Their notion of introducing specialist schools in the name of one-size-fits-all is appalling. The Government say that their ambition is for half the schools in Britain to be specialist and to get £500,000 extra—presumably the other half will be bog standard secondary moderns. How can they claim to want to give the poorest and most under-performing students, in the most under-performing areas, a better quality education when they are deliberately dividing them to ensure that those with more get more and those with less get less?
I would love another hour in which to attack the Government's philosophy and the demise of comprehensive education. I and my party are proud of what our schools have achieved. There is more to do, but the appalling divisions that the Conservative party envisaged and which the Minister and his hon. Friends now envisage are not the way forward.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
We are all grateful to you, Mr. Pike, for your firmness in the Chair. I shall try to behave with forbearance in the few minutes that we have left.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing the debate, which he introduced in a magisterial fashion. He referred to the comments of the Secretary of State about schools that he would not touch with a bargepole. The Minister must tell us whether a bargepole school is better or worse than a bog standard school. Perhaps he will indicate how the Government's thinking on that is developing. I understand that the Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury yesterday that he was expecting considerable support from his hon. Friends this morning. I am sure that we are all disappointed that that support did not materialise. We would have loved to hear Labour Members speak about education in our cities. They obviously think it better to avoid the subject.
I welcome the Minister to his debut in his new role. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said that he was making his first speech in the House on education. The Minister is making his second speech on education, so this is an important opportunity for him to put his thoughts on record. Although he is a new Minister and new to the House, hon. Members will know that he does not come 186WH to the job with clean hands. He may talk now about the need to allow teachers the space to do their job and to be professionals with time to undertake what he yesterday called their core function, but he played a key role in the Government's education policy through the years when red tape and bureaucracy were piled on schools and teachers.
The Minister spoke yesterday to the Select Committee on the importance of the creative side of education—music, art and other cultural activities in schools. I agree with him strongly. However, he sat in the policy unit in Downing street while music was squeezed out of the school curriculum up and down the country and while all creativity was squashed by AS levels and Curriculum 2000 for vast numbers of our sixth formers. He may now champion discipline in schools, but he was in a key position when the Government introduced the now infamous circular 10/99, which did more than any other single factor to undermine discipline in our schools, especially in urban areas. That in turn had an appalling effect on recruitment and retention of teachers which, as my hon. Friends have said, is a particular problem in cities. In short, the Minister may be new to his role but he has form as long as one's arm. He has much to do if he is to absolve himself of blame for the Government's failures to date.
None of us would be here today, Mr. Deputy Speaker—
§ Mr. Brady
I am sorry that you are not a Deputy Speaker, Mr. Pike—I am sure that it is only a matter of time and that you will be one in short order.
None of us would be here if we did not care passionately about education, and especially about improving city schools whose achievements are all too often the worst—what the Minister calls the diversity of achievement, or the Secretary of State calls the schools that she would not touch with a bargepole. We wish him well in the challenges that he faces. The Government will have our support where they are right, for example in the specialist schools initiative or the expansion of city academies, but we will oppose them where they remain misguided. The debate gives the Minister the opportunity to engage in genuine debate about education in our cities.
I freely admit that Conservative Governments did not do enough for education in the past, although I am sure that the Minister will give us credit for establishing the city technology college movement, which is the precursor of the academy policy, and that improvements in test results began before 1997. However, he and I should accept that test results may be open to question. Performance indicators in primary schools—PIPS—results, and other measures of attainment, may have remained flat while standard assessment test results have generally improved, but there is real concern that improving SAT results may be the result of teaching to the test. Many experts in measuring educational attainment believe that that would have a stronger, sharper effect on improvement at the bottom end of the scale. Does the Minister accept that there is a pressing need for a full inquiry into the examination system, and a thorough investigation of how standards have changed over time?
187WH With regard to the underperformance of schools in cities, the Minister was open enough yesterday to say that the Government were still at the point of pinpointing what holds us back. Hon. Members who are less charitable than me may say that, after five years, it is not good enough for the Government to be only at the point of pinpointing what holds them back. However, he will agree that discipline, truancy, and difficulties in recruiting and retaining good teachers are all important factors.
Does the Minister also agree that low expectations and poverty of ambition are the most important factors of all? His colleague, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, suggested that lower standards for university admission should be set for children from urban schools. Does he accept that that would set in stone a lower expectation for the schools that are performing worst? It would legislate for poverty of ambition, not seek to improve it, and would send a message from Government that schools in our most challenging inner-urban areas are not expected to provide the same standards of performance or levels of attainment as schools elsewhere.
Will the Minister also take the opportunity to disown the idea that he floated on 19 April in an article in The Times Educational Supplement that university places should be guaranteed for the top performing pupils in any school in an urban area, regardless of their ability or attainment? Does he accept that guaranteed university admission, which he suggested only a few weeks before he was appointed to his current post, would create an unfair system that penalised genuine achievement and operated against the interests of those from less-privileged backgrounds who have achieved? Such a system could operate unfairly across a spectrum of schools where low achievers are concentrated in one school, but where other schools in a similar area with similar challenges and levels of deprivation are succeeding and giving their pupils the ability to compete openly for places in universities. Will he instead bend himself to the urgent, harder and nobler task of raising standards in our worst-performing schools throughout the country?
Yesterday, the Minister used a telling phrase in front of the Select Committee. He said that if the Government believe something, they must try to put it into practice. Perhaps his appointment indicated the despair that is felt in Downing street at the Government's inability to put their education policies into practice over the past few years. We should all remember that the last agent of Downing street to be parachuted into the job of School Standards Minister was the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers). We must all hope that the new Minister meets with more success both in his career and in his objective of putting the Government's policies into operation.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House must accept that the challenge of raising educational standards and levels of attainment in schools, particularly inner-city schools, is vital and urgent. We must all work together to address it. I have made it clear that we will oppose in the most responsible manner and will support the Government where they get things right. But if we are to do that and to move forward in a 188WH mood of consensus over some of the Government's thinking on specialist schools, greater diversity of provision and having freer schools by giving them greater autonomy, the Government must accept at the core of their policy that there must be no excuse for failure. That phrase was used tellingly by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster.
We expect our schools in the cities, as elsewhere, to perform at the highest level. They owe it to our children. It is for Ministers and for all of us in the House to give our support in the best and most effective way possible. I wish the Minister well in his new brief. It is vital. It cannot be neglected. We look forward to what he has to say. We all hope that he will be open and will make it clear where he has the courage to break with the failures of the last few years. I do not say that everything that the Government have done has been wrong, but he must have the courage to admit what has been wrong, to break with those failures and to show us how they intend to move forward.
§ The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)
It is an honour for me, Mr. Pike, that you are presiding over my first Adjournment debate. I want to address four sets of issues that have been underlined in this debate. The first is the challenges of education in cities; the second is the role of targeted programmes in meeting those challenges; thirdly, I want to pick up some of the other matters that have been raised in the debate; and, fourthly, I want to flag up some of the challenges ahead.
Before I do that, I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on securing this important debate. He and I served on the Education Bill. He walked out only once. I hope that we manage to get through the next 13 minutes with a fair degree of harmony. I should also like to pick out two hon. Members. I hope that the wing of the Tory party that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) represents comes back into fashion so that his merits are finally recognised and he makes his way up within his party. I am always pleased to hear about people who have had experience of South Shields. The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) fought the 1997 election. I think the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) also fought his first parliamentary election in South Shields. If we are nothing else, we are a breeding ground for Conservatives who later win other seats. Since 1882, South Shields has been the only constituency in the UK never to elect a Conservative.
I was genuinely disappointed by the tone and approach of the hon. Member for Eddisbury. He must be living on a different planet from the rest of us if all he can see in 24,000 schools up and down the country is failure—a word he used half a dozen times. The world that I see is confirmed by the international research conducted by the OECD, which says that England has the fastest improving education system in the industrialised world. That is a tribute to teachers, pupils, parents, classroom assistants and learning mentors all around the country. It would be a crying shame if the message that everyone in the House wants to pay tribute to those efforts did not go out loud and clear. I hope that every speech and intervention has made that clear.
189WH The facts are important. In 1997, almost half of all 11-year-olds in primary schools were unable to read, write or do basic maths to an acceptable standard; today, 71 per cent. reach such a standard in maths and 75 per cent. in English. In addition, more than half of secondary school pupils now get five good GCSEs. Those are important steps in the right direction. In 1997, the Office for Standards in Education identified 1,336 schools as failing; between May 1997 and May 2002, 899 schools came out of special measures. Those are all indicators of growing success in our education system. It would be folly not to acknowledge that.
§ Mr. Miliband
Those reforms are important underpinnings of the system, but anyone who considers primary schools, for example, will recognise that introducing the national literacy and numeracy scheme after 1997 contributed enormously to the step change in achievement.
I remember listening to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) debating pensions in the House when the issue of low interest rates and low inflation was raised in relation to Bank of England independence. He said that the Conservative party was thinking about that in 1997, and I get the feeling that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) might say that it was also thinking about many of the things that Labour has done in education. The truth is that his party did not do them in 18 years in government. Teachers and pupils should take the credit for those achievements; the Government contributed to making them possible.
Before proceeding to my four main themes, I must respond to the attempted character assassination of South Tyneside. I did not realise that this went with being a Minister, but given the remarks of Opposition Members, it is important that I say that, in all the schools that I have visited—32 primary schools and all five secondary schools in my constituency; I will have visited all 36 primary schools in the academic year—I have seen teachers of outstanding commitment and energy. It is a travesty to suggest that they are delivering a failing system. In a constituency with the fourth highest unemployment in the United Kingdom, we are achieving above average results in primary education, and we look forward to that being replicated in the secondary sector.
We must recognise, however, that there are particular challenges for teaching and learning in cities. Obviously, cities are characterised by dynamism and enterprise, but they are also characterised by poverty, generational unemployment, high levels of social exclusion, linguistic and cultural diversity, high mobility levels and transient populations. Those are all challenges for education.
When the excellence in cities programme started, only 33 per cent. of inner-city pupils achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A to C; 13.5 per cent. of inner-city schools had been identified by Ofsted as failing or having serious weaknesses, compared with 5.4 per cent. nationally; and 38 per cent. of inner-city schools had excluded five or more pupils in the previous year, 190WH compared with 26 per cent. nationally. Those are challenges, not excuses for failure, and I have met no one teaching in a city who wants to use those challenges as an excuse for failure. A culture of high expectations has developed over the past five to 10 years, and those challenges are not a list of excuses, although they deserve recognition.
I am a great believer in the idea that we have to get the general conditions right for school improvement. It is not right to believe that there is a programme for every problem; there must be a general system that drives up standards overall. There is now increased investment and increased numbers of teachers. Increased support is going to all schools, including those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, where £550 more per pupil is spent now than in 1997, compared with a real-terms cut of £120 in the last Parliament during which his party was in office.
We must address the particular challenges of education in our cities on the basis of that rising investment. That was the purpose of the excellence in cities programme, which is designed to provide targeted support for city schools. It involves the extended use of learning mentors and the development of learning support units for pupils whose behaviour is causing problems, beacon and specialist schools, and—particularly noteworthy, given the hon. Gentleman's comments—a gifted and talented stream, which is designed to pick out the talents of pupils with particular gifts.
The evidence on the excellence in cities programme is interesting and I should like to go through it: 3,500 learning mentors, 105 city learning centres, 500 learning support units and 383 beacon schools. What standards have they achieved? I was impressed when I learned that in phase 1 local authorities, which have been going since 1999, the percentage of pupils gaining five A to C grades at GCSE rose from 34.1 to 37 per cent. Furthermore, the number of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs improved particularly strongly in London, where the average increase over just two years was from 32.8 to 36.6 per cent. The rate of improvement in English of secondary school pupils was four times the national average, which shows that the programme should be supported, not condemned.
I shall now deal with specific points raised in the debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will forgive me for not dealing with all his points. Some were particularly interesting. I could not agree with him more about extended hours of schooling. Any business using its plant for only 40 per cent. of the time would be viewed as a serious problem. We all know that provision for out-of-school activities has a powerful influence on performance in school. I therefore associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's wish to see school plant used more out of hours. I hope that we can improve after-hour schooling, weekend schooling and summer schools. A start has been made, but we have further to go.
Some hon. Members referred to the flight of the middle classes from the state sector. We should be careful about using that sort of language. There are serious issues about where people send their children to school. However, my figures suggest that over the past 15 years, the number of pupils in the private sector has risen from 540,000 to 560,000—an increase of only 191WH 20,000. No one should pretend that that is a perfect state of affairs, but it does not reflect any notion of a mass exodus from the state system.
§ Mr. Brady
The Minister is making a valid and important point. Does he agree that the true measure of the crisis in education in inner cities is the flight of middle-class people from those areas, which is largely a result of the quality of education available? Middle-class people have the wherewithal to make a change: they are voting with their feet and moving into areas with good schools. That is the flight of the middle classes—a problem that needs to be tackled.
§ Mr. Miliband
That is a broad-brush statement. As someone who lives in an inner city, I know that many middle-class people still live in such areas. I am prepared to consider the data, but without any supporting evidence I would not associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's view. I have not heard him specify any particular data, so he should be careful about making such allegations.
The hon. Member for Fareham mentioned creativity and the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum. Significantly, schools doing best scholastically often do the most to develop creative talents. It is dangerous to counterpose academic achievement and broader activities. The hon. Gentleman suggested that the 192WH emphasis on literacy and numeracy was squeezing out kids' creative potential, but in my experience that is not the case.
In my remaining time I want to speak about the challenges ahead. The main difference between the Government side and the official Opposition is that we are pleased to have the fastest improving education system in the industrialised world, but without being complacent about it. We are proud of the achievements of parents and pupils in schools up and down the country, but we acknowledge that it is not enough. The Opposition say that everything is hopeless, which is a dangerous position to adopt.
The Government want to make further progress in four particular respects. First, primary schools have seen magnificent improvements in achievement, but we cannot be satisfied while a quarter of young people cannot read, write or count well when they leave them. Secondly, reform of the teaching profession is a legitimate issue, particularly regarding the time available to teach, the support that teachers receive and leadership. I shall be addressing those issues in half an hour in north London, if anyone wants to follow me up there.
The third issue is the step change in secondary schooling that is clearly necessary, and the fourth issue is the continued focus on schools in challenging circumstances. In 372 schools, less than 25 per cent. of pupils get five good GCSEs, and 199 of those schools are in inner-city areas. That is our agenda: it is about building on what we perceive to be success, but it is success with which we are not yet satisfied.