Future of the Teaching Profession

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 16th May 2000.

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Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:03 pm, 16th May 2000

I have agreed to speak with my usual brevity in the hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) may catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and make her maiden speech.

On behalf of Liberal Democrat Members, I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of the teaching profession. Sadly, I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said. I am sad because I, too, remember the 18 years under the previous Administration, when I was a head teacher. The Conservative party invented bureaucracy in our schools, but she has repented of the evil doings of former Secretaries of State—I remember Mr. Patten very well—and for every sinner who repents we rejoice.

Teachers have to meet the challenge of change—no Member of the House would disagree with that—and we support the efforts of the Government, the teacher unions and the profession to do so. Sir Claus Moser recently commented that uniquely, education alone is both the cause and the consequence of national prosperity … Few would disagree, and, if that is so, surely we must also recognise that the teaching profession is fundamental to realising that vision. As Lord Puttnam, the new chairman of the General Teaching Council, so aptly said: Teachers are the agents for change in society—they have the ability not just to alter this country for the better, but to actually secure its future. No other sector of the population can do that … At last year's National Association of Head Teachers conference, those comments were echoed by the Prime Minister. He said: I know that the success of what we are trying to do will succeed or fail on the efforts of individual teachers in every classroom in the country … That is strong stuff.

Whatever criticisms the Secretary of State may make of me or of my party's policies, I hope that he will not criticise my commitment to the teaching profession or my admiration for much of the work that goes on in so many schools throughout the country. However, where is the evidence that the Prime Minister's proud words and aspirations are being put into action? Whether the Secretary of State likes it or not, the profession feels betrayed by a Government who promised to rescue it from the draconian clutches of the previous Administration, but who have succeeded only in further emasculation. They ooze good intention, but simply will not listen to the profession. Teachers are regarded as part of the problem rather than most of the solution, and the same applies to others in respect of many of their public service policies.

A three-year delay in tackling the challenges that the Government faced on taking office, and there were many, will cost the nation dear. Since 1997, my party has warned the Department for Education and Employment that there would be a crisis in our classrooms unless recruitment and retention became a top priority. That crisis has become a reality. There is a record number of vacancies for our schools this September, and last week, for the first time in its history, The Times Educational Supplement ran to 500 pages, 440 of which were filled with job vacancies.