Teacher Supply

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 2:55 pm on 18th January 2001.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education Sub-committee 2:55 pm, 18th January 2001

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Usually, 90 per cent. of what he says is good stuff, but the remaining 10 per cent. I ignore. It is like the Liberal Democrats' rather poor amendment. The hon. Gentleman's speech was much better. However, it cannot be right that, at 2.56 pm, in a short debate, with another two Front-Bench speeches to be delivered, Back-Bench speakers will have only about half an hour. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 33 minutes and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke for more than half an hour. Mercifully, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was quite short in comparison. It is not good for democracy or for Parliament for Back Benchers to have so little time. [Interruption.] Plenty of Liberal Democrat and Labour Members are present.

Today's debate is exactly the same as one we had a couple of months ago, and no doubt we shall have another in a couple of months' time when the official Opposition again try to prove that there is a crisis by constantly repeating that fact. As Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, I am trying to be reasonably objective, but as far as I can see only a few schools have a real problem. For a few days a few schools introduced a four-day week, but with help from their LEA and the Department, the problems were quickly solved.

Let me put the problem in perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) cogently made the point that the teacher shortages 10 years ago posed a far greater problem. However, this is a debate about recruiting teachers. The Nuffield Foundation document "Attracting Teachers", the result of research by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, makes some good suggestions. We must consider teacher recruitment across the board.

I have previously spoken about the nature of the economy. We are at the top of the economic cycle. We have real competition and we are losing many women who, 15 or 20 years ago, would have gone into teaching. A diverse and interesting range of jobs is now open to them. Many of them still go into teaching, but a woman can do anything now. In the old days, a woman was either a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. Speaking as a man with a son and three daughters, I am glad that girls leaving school can now do anything that they like, and they do. That is magnificent, but it has implications for the teaching profession.

The problem is about pay, status, respect and conditions of employment. I was looking at the Green Paper, which is now a couple of years old, in which there are some good ideas about school design. When I go to schools, I see the need for simple things like space in which to work—a desk and shelf of one's own or somewhere to put one's personal belongings, computer and so on. That is very important. We were promised that there would be all sorts of innovations, and Lord Puttnam, I think, was going to design the staff room of the future. However, I have not heard much about that recently, and I still go to dreary staff rooms, with a few rather worn armchairs clustered round the sides of what obviously used to be a store cupboard or perhaps an old classroom.

The Green Paper and the Nuffield research also deal with the private sector. I am not someone who says that we cannot learn lessons from the private sector. Of course we can. Twice as much money is spent on pupils in private education, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough reminded the Opposition Front Bench, and one can do a lot more with twice as much funding. Not only did I read about private schools, but I asked a recently retired distinguished head what were the problems in the private sector. Even with the ability to pay more, the private sector is finding it difficult to recruit science and maths graduates as teachers. I was told so by someone who was recently running a large public school.

We need to address problems with accommodation, status and so on. However, in a debate such as ours, we should also discuss the way in which people in an educational partnership can help. Parents, it is true, often do not really respect teachers, even in the private sector, as one learns from talking to people in that sector. The retired head teacher told me, "They really think of us as servants, you know. Quite good quality servants, but not up to their standards."

We must address the real problem that exists in this country and bring parents into the educational process much more as partners. We made a clear statement on that in the Select Committee report on early years, which we published only last week. Parents should be partners. If they are valued as partners, they will value and respect teachers. We must learn from that and develop respect on both sides. There is therefore much to work on regarding parents.

That partnership approach includes the trade unions. It is perhaps unfashionable for Labour Members to say that we should expect much more thoughtful comment, leadership and wisdom from the trade union leadership in the teaching profession. I mix with teachers' union leaders a great deal and have introduced an innovation whereby they are all are invited to talk to the Select Committee about how they see the future of education. We are trying to treat them as full partners.

The other evening, I was at a prizegiving at the Queen Elizabeth school in Wimborne, Dorset. When one talks to teachers, one sees that they do not have half the prejudices that one reads about, even in the polls in The Times Educational Supplement. Incidentally, some rather good things were said about the Government in the TES survey. The hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention one aspect of that survey, which covers not just political issues, but how teachers feel about life.

However, the teachers in Wimborne told me, in confidence, that they were worried when they heard the trade union leadership being strident. The strident tone of the teaching unions does not do the partnership much good. Their comments on the day when the chief inspector of Ofsted retired are an example of that. Everyone has his or her own ideas about the former incumbent, but I must tell the House that the comments of the trade unions annoyed a lot of people. They were crass and inappropriate, not as a judgment but as a way of speaking. It does teachers no good when trade union leaders speak in those terms, or when people hear at Easter conferences only the most extreme and discordant voices. Union leaders must therefore take their responsibilities more seriously.

I also want to mention the press. Many people switch on the "Today" programme and a lot of them like John Humphrys. I think that John Humphrys personally is quite a nice man. However, he represents the strident school that thinks that everything is a crisis. To him, a few teachers on a four-day week at one school is a national crisis. "Today" is important because it sets the tone for the rest of the day and, often, for the rest of the week. However, if one goes back to the original story, one can see that it does no one any good always to treat everything that happens in education as a major crisis.