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 do not recall mentioning New Zealand and Australian teachers, and I think Hansard will record that I did not. I did, however, mention a definition of unqualified teachers. I have given the Secretary of State a clear definition of what I would term an unqualified teacher. It is rather sad that he now says that if we are to staff London schools—40 per cent. of teacher vacancies throughout the country are in London primary schools, and 30 per cent. are in London secondary schools—we should bring teachers in from the Commonwealth. If that is the Government's policy, my goodness, we have reached a sorry state of affairs.

A recent ICM poll declared that a third of teachers under 35 wanted to leave the profession within 10 years, and 50 per cent. within 15 years. We need not look far for the reasons. Teaching is fast becoming a "technician" activity under the present Government: teachers are told what to teach, when to teach, how to teach, how to assess and how to record, and somehow that is regarded as being part of the profession. Teachers are bombarded by bureaucracy and form-filling to an extent that beggars belief.

The Secretary of State referred to the number of documents that had been released since January. During three months of probing, his Department refused time and again to respond to my requests. By March 2000, it had sent each school 366 pieces of paperwork since May 1997: 73 consultation papers, 220 guidance documents, 58 data collection documents, and 15 separate letters from Ministers. Under the present Government, schools have received 18 documents a month, rather than the 2.5 per week that have been referred to over the past few months. If we add the 1,291 separate pieces of paperwork sent to local education authorities, many of which compound the bureaucracy that already exists in schools, we can see why teachers want to get out.

There is no end in sight, however. It seems that nowadays Ministers cannot make a comment without issuing a new target. At present, teachers are coping with the 4,585 targets set by the Government, the 129,330 targets set by LEAs and the 306,430,710 targets set for individual children—I thought the Secretary of State would like that! Teachers must report on all those targets. In the words of Lord Puttnam, teachers need to be in charge of their lives and their jobs. But they are not.

When the distressing figures about staff illness came out last week, showing that last year 60 per cent. of full-time teachers took some sick leave and that more than 2.5 million days were lost, what was the Government's response? It was not to look for reasons, or to offer sympathy; it was to set a target for schools to reduce the incidence of sickness, because it was affecting children's education. Well, of course it is. Stress does not just affect our children's education; it permanently disables some good teachers, drives others out of the classroom, and—although the Secretary of State rather sadly laughs at this—sends others to early graves.

There is real evidence that teachers are under huge stress. According to their review body, they are working an average of 60 hours a week. The review body's recommendation to the Government was clear: Action should be taken to ensure that the hours worked by all teachers are kept within reasonable bounds and that they have reasonable rest periods and breaks. The Government's better regulation taskforce, chaired by Lord Haskins—it was mentioned earlier—has criticised the bureaucratic burden placed on the teaching profession. In the 5 April edition of The Guardian, Lord Haskins said that the Department for Education and Employment was the most Stalinist department I have ever come across. The Secretary of State applauds that. My goodness!

In-depth surveys by the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers and the National Union of Teachers have indicated that, in terms of stress, work load and added value, the biggest problem facing schools is bureaucracy. Is this the climate in which we hope to recruit our brightest and best young graduates to the teaching profession? "Everyone remembers a good teacher", says the advertisement, but soon we will be asked, "Will anyone good want to become a teacher?"

The challenge for the Government is not how to reward 30 per cent. of teachers by demanding that they jump through yet more bureaucratic hoops, but how teachers are to be liberated in schools. No one will be attracted to, and few will stay in, a profession that does not value the professional ethics. Ministers must understand that creative teachers cannot be bred in captivity. We echo the call for our teachers to be allowed to teach and our children to be allowed to learn: then, and only then, will our teachers realise their potential, and the potential of their profession.