On Wednesday the Leader of the House, Robin Cook, announced proposals for modernising the procedure of the Commons which has been largely unchanged for a century or so. The headline change will be the shift of Prime Minister's Question Time from 3pm to noon; the idea behind this may be that MPs will not by this early hour have had their liquid lunches, so the backbenchers will be less rowdy than they traditionally tend to be. It is also thought that more people will be able to see the PM in action on the lunch time TV news bulletins. Mr Cook's proposals include a number of sensible reforms, such as a shorter summer recess and a rollover procedure for parliamentary Bills so that they can be carried forward from one session to another instead of being lost if they are not completed, as at present. Most importantly, Mr Cook has proposed various measures that will strengthen the role of the crossparty Select Committees which do such valuable work including one that will take the appointment of Committee chairmen away from the party whips. There should be a wide welcome for Mr Cook's initiatives which broadly return rights to MPs that have been lost in recent years to the executive. However, the welcome among ministers may not be so warm; they will find themselves more acountable to Parliament as they should be.
League tables of school achievement are becoming a familiar, but still controversial, feature of debate about the quality of education today. Teachers often dislike them because they may take little or no account of what has been achieved with pupils of limited ability. Nonetheless the tables provide information for parents, educationalists and politicians that previously was not available at all. An interesting extension of the league table concept is the international ranking of educational attainment. A study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has looked at the results achieved by 15yearolds in Reading, Maths and Science in 31 countries in Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The study is packed with fascinating, and sometimes depressing information for instance, internationally 40 per cent of boys said they never picked up a book unless they had to. But it is the rankings that have attracted the greatest interest: Finland's 15yearolds did best overall, with pupils in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea also doing well in each of the three categories. Britain came seventh in Reading, eighth in Maths and fourth in Science a creditable result since only Finland did better among EU countries.
Spain's results were disappointing 18th, 23rd and 19th as were those of the United States 15th, 19th and 14th. Surprisingly, Germany was placed in the below average section in each category.
Despite the reservations and qualifications that must be made about any international research of this kind, the results merit close investigation and analysis. In Britain's case they may give some encouragement to a teaching profession that is becoming increasingly demoralised.