I am not sure how to respond to the announcement that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who spent the morning ringing the Teacher Training Agency hotline, is seeking an alternative career. Perhaps congratulations are in order from us, and commiserations from his colleagues. Helpful as ever, I shall make sure that his call is returned so that he can fill in an application form and add to the 10 per cent. increase in applications for initial teacher training that have already been received this year.
Seriously, I begin by thanking hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I readily accept that all Members, no matter which side they represent, consider teaching an important issue. All constituency MPs care about their schools; all parents care about their children. On that, at least, I can start with a measure of agreement. I also acknowledge the generous and correct way in which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) described the achievement of teachers and the way in which standards have been raised.
Support came from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), who represents a constituency of considerable challenge where generation after generation of children has lost out in the education service. I suspect not only that the school in Little London to which he referred has no history of sending children to university and higher education, but that its children come from families whose members have never attended university.
Although one may refer to the increase in literacy and numeracy standards, the figures for the standards agenda that please me most are those showing that, for the first time, standards of literacy and numeracy and for GCSE are increasing across the country, in all neighbourhoods. The fastest rate of improvement is in schools and local authorities that under-achieved in the past. Closing the gap between performance in poor and rich neighbourhoods, between those from different ethnic minorities and between boys and girls is the real mark of an education service that is being transformed so that it will never go back to being a lottery in which receiving a good standard of education depends on which school a person attends.
That improvement has been achieved only because of the increasing quality of teaching. No matter what anybody says about the difficulties and the challenges facing schools—I shall come to those—the truth is that the quality of teaching in our primary and secondary schools has shot up. It is better than last year, better than three years ago and certainly better than when I and many Members of the House were teaching nine or 10 years ago. That is a tribute to the teaching profession.
I am the first to acknowledge that more is asked of teachers than was ever asked of any previous generation of teachers. More is expected because the Government are asking teachers to end the cycle of under-achievement in some of our neighbourhoods and to become the first generation of teachers to work with the Government so that both can say, "We raised standards, not for a few, but for every child in every school, no matter which part of the country those children live in."
Yes, recruitment is difficult, and I want to acknowledge the challenges that many schools face. I thank teachers who take cover lessons. There is not a Member of the House who has been a teacher who does not know that that is the least favourite task of any teacher. It gives me no pride or satisfaction to say so, but I know that some of the teacher recruitment troubles that schools face are not new. I am afraid that the same problems existed when I was teaching. We lost cover lessons. I taught combined classes. Classes had a list of supply teachers over the terms. I know that that is not good, not right and not the way that we want it to be.
The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, Central and for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) gave a proper evaluation and analysis of what is happening, and that is what we should all do. The truth is that this nation's inability to recruit the brightest and the best to teaching at any time other than one of economic recession or depression is one of its saddest aspects. That has held back progress in our schools for too long, and it is what we inherited.
I shall not quote statistics back to the House or give masses of figures for 1992–94 or 1994–97. We can play games and score points, but, as was borne out by the report by Professor Alan Smithers, we were below target on secondary recruitment every single year in the 1990s, unless the economy was in recession. That was the Tories' one-club approach to solving the teacher crisis: hang on, wait for a recession and more people will want to go into teaching.
The challenge for the Government has been breaking that cycle, and we have broken it. It has always been difficult to recruit teachers in the British economy, so from the moment we, took office, we introduced a series of initiatives and measures that are having a real impact on the number and quality of people coming into schools. On retention, the Government have not introduced a staged pay increase. Indeed, we have given a fully-funded above-inflation pay Increase every single year. We have introduced performance-related pay as an incentive for teachers who teach well to stay in schools, get promotion and earn more money without taking on administrative responsibilities.
We are the Government who introduced the golden hellos and reversed the decline in recruitment to shortage subjects for the first time since the recession of the early and mid-1990s. We are the Government who introduced the training salaries. Under our Government, those who want to return to teaching in London can not only go on a course for no charge, but get paid £150 a week to do so. We are the Government who are bringing 12,000 returners back to our classrooms. In terms of retention and attracting the best, under our Government, a training salary of £15,000 can assist those who want to train to teach in a shortage subject to do so through the fast-track approach.
The real test of whether we are right and whether we have fulfilled our obligations to the teaching community and the children of this country is whether those initiatives are working. They have been costed and carefully implemented. They are based on evidence and targeted on the areas of greatest need and, yes, they are working. That is why last year, for the first time, the decline in the number of people training as teachers was reversed. That was not imagined, nor was it due to us counting the numbers. It was nothing to do with spin. Real bodies—men and women—went to train as teachers last year, and there has been a 9 per cent. increase. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) was right: the increase is greater in primary than in secondary schools, but there has been an increase in secondary schools as well.