Future of the Teaching Profession

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:35 pm on 16th May 2000.

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Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey 8:35 pm, 16th May 2000

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate, because education was one of our key campaigning themes in the by-election.

First, however, as is customary on these occasions, I pay tribute to my predecessor, the late Michael Colvin. It is impossible for me to pay tribute to Michael without also paying tribute to his wife, Nichola. They were very much two for the price of one, and a frequent and prominent sight in the constituency. I knew Michael for a number of years, and he was always very charming. My overwhelming memories, however, are of Nichola's warmth and generosity of spirit, and of Michael's charm and unerring knack of calming any troubled situation so that everyone came out of it feeling happy. I first heard the tragic news on my return from holiday in early March, and I still find it difficult to believe that they are no longer with us. On a personal level, they are missed by many people in the constituency.

Many hon. Members attended the moving memorial service in Romsey abbey, and then had a small taste of what Romsey has to offer. Romsey is regarded by many people as a rural constituency. Although I grant that the constituency includes a large, attractive rural area which includes the River Test and an expanse of rolling Hampshire countryside, to me, constituencies are more about the people who live in them. In Romsey, 80 per cent. of constituents live in urban and suburban areas.

The nature of the constituency is probably best reflected by looking at its senior schools. Test Valley school, which is in Stockbridge and serves the north of the constituency, has an excellent educational record that belies the fact that the headmistress often has to deal with real problems of rural deprivation.

Moving closer to Romsey, there is Embley Park school, which is in the private sector. It is particularly interesting because it was once the home of Florence Nightingale.

We also have Stanbridge Earls school, which is also in the private sector. It is, however, a different type of private school, with a strong record of helping children with dyslexia. Its examination results may not look good on paper, but they hide the fact that much good work is being done for pupils who have certain types of learning difficulty. We must not always look superficially at statistics.

In Romsey itself, we have the Mountbatten school—which has educated my two children very well—and the excellent Romsey school. Both schools have strong academic records. Of particular note, however, is the unique co-operation between the two schools. By working together, they have achieved joint specialist language status—a joint project partnership, involving the community, which will widen language learning opportunities in both the school and the community.

Moving to the Chandlers Ford area, Thornden school has an outstanding academic record, with 74 per cent. of children obtaining five or more A to C passes at GCSE. The school has also received specialist status for its music provision. Toynbee school also has a good record and a good recognition of its sports provision.

Moving towards the Southampton part of the constituency, the picture changes a little. The Atherley is a private school with an excellent reputation, but St. George's Catholic boys school presents a rather more interesting picture. The verdict of its last Ofsted inspection was that there were "serious weaknesses". Despite that, the school achieved a very creditable five or more GCSE pass rate of 59 per cent. The school has been through a difficult period, with four heads in three years. Unfortunately for the school, it is being Ofsteded this week. I hope for the sake of everybody there that it is going well.

Last, but by no means least, is Cantell school. Its GCSE pass rate of 39 per cent. does not sound quite so good, but its catchment area includes some of the most deprived parts of Southampton. We are all too quick to judge a school by a superficial glance at the figures, but that does not reveal that the school has a strong community base and copes well with the broad ethnic mix of its pupils.

Those are my local schools. Most are doing well at the moment, but we need to ensure that they continue to do well and that our education service continues to attract and retain teachers of the highest quality. I have come across many teachers in the past few weeks. I came across one lady who conforms to many of the averages. She had just left the teaching profession to start her own business, after teaching for just four years—the average life of a teacher entering the profession today. Her reasons for leaving were stress and bureaucratic overload.

I was told today that 40 per cent. of our teachers are over 50. A teaching crisis looms, even though officially there is not one at the moment. Is there any good reason any more for anyone to want to become a teacher? We have more graduates than ever, but fewer of them want to become teachers. Salaries are part of the problem, particularly in trying to attract teachers with science, maths or modern language skills, especially in the prosperous south. However, that is only part of the problem. No one is trying to address the other problems of the demanding pupil population and the stress of having to deal with badly behaved, disaffected children. We have high expectations of our teachers. The public and politicians are slow to praise and quick to criticise. That is why I wanted to celebrate our local successes today.

Then there is bureaucratic overload and central control, leading to a relentless pattern of long days, working over weekends and perpetual tiredness. One teacher told me that she works a 60-hour week and cannot physically or mentally work any harder, but she is now supposed to try to find the time to gather evidence towards performance-related pay. She simply cannot do it. She is one of many. All the evidence shows that performance-related pay is unsettling and highly divisive. It undermines staff morale and discourages team working.

The concern is that more pay will be given to teachers in high-performing schools, leaving schools in deprived areas at the end of the queue for good teachers.

A profession is attractive only if its members feel that they have some professional freedom and are rewarded with respect and suitable pay. Professionalism for teachers has been diminished. As they are ever more straitjacketed, they are rapidly losing motivation, because they are increasingly being forced to teach to a formula.

I have already noticed that there is a lot of inspiration and individuality in the way in which many Members of Parliament conduct themselves. Why do we not allow our teachers to show a little of the same?