Education (Standards)

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 11:37 am on 9th December 1994.

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Photo of Mr Derek Enright Mr Derek Enright , Hemsworth 11:37 am, 9th December 1994

First, I apologise and say that I am genuinely disappointed because I probably will be unable to stay long enough for the concluding speeches. I have a surgery in Hemsworth in the early afternoon and I must get back for it.

I should like to take a somewhat picaresque look at the debate on education. In view of many of the remarks that have been made, we should recall how universal education came about. It was not because of a wise and percipient House of Commons—indeed, least of all that—but because local people urged upon their communities the value of education.

Education grew from the grass roots. It sprang up from there: it was a natural creation. A lot of people, including many Irish immigrants, worked extremely hard to ensure that there was literacy in the working classes. The old elementary schools were founded and did a fine job. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have one of the oldest elementary buildings still standing in your constituency. Whenever we talk about education, it is important that we relate it to local people as well as to our national aims.

I should like to examine two important aspects of education that have not been considered this morning. The first is the teaching force.

As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) declared an interest, I suppose that I had better do the same. My interest is that I am an adviser to all my constituents in Hemsworth on education and to no teaching union. Teaching unions have a proper job to perform—I do not knock them in any way—but they are not the key to the success of the teaching force. We really must do something about dynamising that resource.

Our document proposes a general teaching council. That is not a new idea, or something that has been instantly thought up. It has been around for a long time. The importance of a general teaching council is that it could unite teachers who are currently fragmented into their various unions, as the hon. Member for Bath illustrated in declaring his interest. It could look at what teachers do and say to them, "You must have pride in yourselves. This is how you can improve yourselves. This is the assistance that we can give." A general teaching council would not be about sacking teachers but about giving teachers enhanced standards. There are good teachers, mediocre teachers and poor teachers. A general teaching council could bring up best practice to ensure that, within the teaching force, we could have pride in the profession. I make no political point when I say that it is objectively true that, for one reason or another, teachers have become extremely depressed about their standing. A general teaching council could give that pride back. It could provide practical courses. It could ensure the sort of the training that is not occurring now. It could be a body well qualified to recommend training.

A general teaching council is important in enhancing the standard of teaching of all our children. Equally important is a British association for the advancement of education. That is another proposal we make. I accept that it would be a quango, but it would certainly not be a political quango. We would consider putting in charge a person such as Claus Moser and peopleof that ilk, including representatives of parents and teachers to ensure that teaching and the general aims of the Government's policies in teaching were put into a world perspective as well as a national perspective.

There is a general problem in educational research. Some of our colleges of higher education have become so squeezed that less and less educational research is being done except in very specialised areas. No one is able to sit back and take a long, cool and calm look at practices in other countries and whether they would apply here. I am bound to say that some of the experiments properly carried out in schools rely on American experience and research, but that research has not been confirmed here.

That can be dangerous. The research can apply and the experiment can work well, but what is desirable for New York is not necessarily desirable for Hemsworth.

Indeed, I would go further. This is a tripartite point. Far too often, we have had a look at London and what was wrong with the Greater London council and the Inner London education authority, and then decided to apply that to the entire country. That is wrong. I hope that, in their first attempt to put right policy on nursery schools, the Government do not fall into the trap of seeing what works in London and letting it go forth. That would be a disaster.

The curriculum has been much on everyone's mind. I must confess that I am not a great devotee of the national curriculum and particularly not of the way in which it has been expanded. In his interventions, the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) showed precisely what could be wrong with the national curriculum and testing. What he talked about was a sort of quiz show: we put together a body of knowledge, and when the various buttons are pressed people bring out the appropriate response.

That is not education. It is stuffing information into people. It is not drawing out of people their capabilities, but putting in bits of information. It is not teaching them. I do not say that the national curriculum is completely bound up along that path, but it is in grave danger of going that way.

The link between the curriculum and testing has to be carefully examined to make sure that we do not get in the way of real education in the process. I have no objections whatever to testing. It is perfectly valid to test. Most teachers did their own tests before testing was introduced, because it was a quick and easy way of finding out whether our pupils understood what had been said.

One of the difficulties with grant-maintained schools is that they have diminished the ability of education authorities to provide certain specialist services. The balance between the education authority and individual schools must be maintained. That includes the provision to every school of services for children with special needs and, perhaps above all, what we used to call truancy officers and now call educational welfare officers.

Educational welfare officers are crucial in solving the problem of truancy. It is a genuine problem, particularly in inner cities or deprived areas. It is much more likely that people will truant in those areas than elsewhere. We need a good supply of educational welfare officers.

Two things militate against that. One is that LEAs are sometimes too small to afford the experienced team which is necessary. The second is that that is compounded when central money is taken away from LEAs and given to grant-maintained schools. LEAs have to perform a service without having the money to do so, so the service declines. We have certainly seen that happen in the past five years. I hope that the Minister will take the problem seriously and examine it to see what can be done. Of course, what can be done is simply to provide extra resources.

The same problem occurs with LEA educational advisers. LEA educational advice services have been run down. Clearly, an authority which is strapped for cash will get rid of such people first, because they are not in schools. That has consequences for the curriculum and for the quality of education in the local schools. An outstanding example of that is in religious education.

Religious education in state schools is in a considerable crisis because we do not have enough full-time RE teachers. We do not have enough people who may teach physics, French or English but who are willing to do a couple of periods of RE. That is not necessarily because they are opposed to religious education, but because they are not confident about how to teach it. They are certainly not confident about teaching it to the quality which is essential if religious education in schools is to be worth while.

Previously, that function was fulfilled by local authority advisers in religious education. They were able to run very good courses on a curriculum that had been agreed locally among a multitude of Churches. That worked very well, but if one is cutting one's local authority advisers, they are the people who will go before one's adviser in physics, one's adviser in English or one's adviser in mathematics. I do not blame local authorities, of whatever hue, for doing it that way round, but it is a problem of which we should be aware, and about which it is crucial that we do something.

On the principle of grant-maintained schools, I hope that I have put grant-maintained into a specific context, so that it is not simply about grant-maintained. The policy of the Labour party, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, is absolutely clear: when we come into Government, grant-maintained schools will return to local democratic accountability. There is absolutely no need for grant-maintained schools to worry about that. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) had something to say about that.

I quote from a letter from a head teacher whose school, incidentally, is one of the top schools, whose results, even on the raw statistics, in a working class area, are as good as any: I read with interest a front page article in the Times Educational Supplement last week which refers to Grant Maintained Schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) is quoted as saying 'I want to know the underlying reasons for schools becoming Grant Maintained, apart from those which are purely ideological'. I offer the following comments which may be of some help…I recently attended a conference for Catholic Grant Maintained Schools. Though we are not a Grant Maintained school and are more than happy to be within the LEA maintained sector it is important that we are made aware of the alternatives which are open to us. It was in this sense that I attended the meeting in Warrington. I listened to several of my colleagues extolling the virtues of Grant Maintained status but was struck with the very small difference between their independence and our own. Most of those Catholic schools which are Grant Maintained took the step before having any deep experience of LMS and have therefore not had the freedom as LMS Voluntary Aided schools that we have enjoyed … None of them had done anything which we either had not done or could not have done had we chosen to do so.The only exception being that generous government grants direct to the school had made it possible for them to replace and renew accommodation and facilities. It made me quite envious. My envy was short lived since it is clear that government resources at the disposal of these schools in such generous amounts has denied them to more deserving schools: hardly the generous sharing or concern for the weak required of Christians. It was comforting too to appreciate the extra bureaucratic procedures which are involved and the demands made in terms of accounting procedures in order that the government department or FAS can be satisfied.