I beg to move,
That this House
notes the mounting crisis in education;
regrets that unauthorised absences from secondary schools are rising, and that examination standards in mathematics fell last year among 11-year-olds;
further notes that morale among teachers has fallen so low that three teaching unions are currently engaged in industrial action, including an unprecedented ballot on industrial action among head teachers;
regrets the early departure from the teaching profession of so many qualified teachers;
notes that teachers themselves blame the excessive workload caused by Government interference for many of these early departures;
condemns the Government for its lack of support for teachers seeking to cope with disciplinary problems in schools;
asks the Government to explain fully the precipitate ending of Education Action Zones;
calls on the Government to restore confidence in the examination board system after the various fiascos faced by Edexcel;
notes that morale among university teachers and students is also low because of funding problems;
further condemns the way decent training providers, including FE colleges, were let down by the failure of Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs);
and calls on the Government to make an immediate announcement about how it intends to help those affected by the ILA collapse, and what scheme it proposes to replace ILAs.
This Government are energetic at peddling myths. It is one of the defining characteristics of the Government that they never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Nowhere is this more true than in the field of education. Relentlessly, the Secretary of State rushes out press releases announcing how our schools are prospering as never before; how teachers gladly welcome each new day and each new initiative; how head teachers open their post each morning, thrilled by the prospect of another 100 pages of guidance about how to do their jobs; how students and university teachers are grateful for the decisive way in which the Government are dealing with higher education funding; and how training providers and their customers were so impressed by ILAs that the whole system had to be closed down because it was so successful.
The myth is polished every day, and the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on the fact that the central core of her Department—the press office—still functions, unlike in some other Departments. So the polish goes on but, sadly for the Government, the truth is beginning to emerge from beneath the polish. Five years in, the real failures cannot be disguised any longer. When parents see teachers on strike for the first time in 20 years; when they see head teachers threatening industrial action for the first time since state education was introduced; when they notice that teachers are leaving the profession earlier and faster than ever before; and when they see that initiatives such as education action zones are introduced one year and ditched the next, they know that the crisis is getting worse, and they know who is responsible.
The hon. Gentleman talks about five years on. In 1997, there were 1,100 infant children in Warwickshire in classes of over 30. Today there are none. Is that a myth?
We are talking about standards—[Interruption.] The Government may not find standards important, but many of us do.
The Department's problems stem from four distinct causes: broken promises, weakness, policy failures and sheer Government incompetence. Let me deal with these in reverse order. It is plain incompetence on the part of the Government to say that they want to relieve teachers of unnecessary red tape and then continue tying teachers up in it.
Mr. Plaskitt talks about facts and figures. Let us look at the facts, as revealed in a series of written answers to me from the Minister for School Standards. I asked for monthly totals of the paperwork sent to schools by the Department. Last April, documents 853 pages long were sent to every primary school in the country. Let us assume that a conscientious head teacher takes two minutes to read each page. That means that those documents would take over 28 hours just to read. That is three and a half normal working days for each head teacher, even before any action is taken on the basis of the documents.
April may have been the cruellest month for head teachers, but others were nearly as bad. Last December, secondary schools received 510 pages of wisdom from the Department: probably not the most helpful early Christmas present any school received. Even in September—which most people involved in education, although not, apparently, the Department, recognise is rather a busy time, at the start of the school year—primary school heads had to cope with 402 pages and secondary heads 388 pages; over one and a half working days per head teacher to read these alone.
The full magnitude of the Government's imposition on schools is revealed by a simple addition exercise. If we add all the documents sent between April last year and February this year—the last date for which the Government will give me answers—we find that there were 4,333 pages for head teachers to plough through. If every head teacher in Britain fulfilled their duty to read all this stuff, that would create 859 years' worth of work; nearly 900 years' worth of bureaucracy in just 11 months.
That is the true monument to the education policy of new Labour: heads prevented from managing; teachers prevented from teaching; and standards prevented from rising, all because the gentlemen and ladies in Whitehall still think that they know best. When will they learn to get off the backs of teachers and let them get on with their proper job?
I would like to use this debate to give the Secretary of State the chance to recant something that she told the House on
"I say to the House and to head teachers that sending teachers less paper will neither raise standards nor satisfy them of our ability to give them the support that they need".—[Hansard, 10 January 2002; Vol. 377, c. 661.]
Can she really believe that? If she does, she should get out more. I hope that she will withdraw that absurd view today.
The hon. Gentleman is giving a chapter of woe in the education service. Would his case not be stronger in some respects if he acknowledged that since the Conservative Government left office in 1997, the number of children achieving the appropriate standard in numeracy has gone up from 50 per cent. to approximately 80 per cent; and likewise, the number of children achieving appropriate standards of literacy at 11 has risen by a similar amount from 50 per cent.? How does he square that with his tale of denigration and crisis?
I will come to standards in a moment. Labour Members are interested in the fact that standards started rising after the 1980s reforms and carried on rising until, coincidentally, last year. I find it instructive that the Whips' handouts all refer backwards. I am interested in looking at what is happening in our schools now and what is likely to happen as the Government's policies move forward. That, I think, will convince Labour Members who have an open mind on the subject that any of the benefits that may come from their Government's policies are already beginning to wear off. That is the most significant fact that the Government need to address.
I was giving various examples of incompetence, which is one of the problems faced by the Government. I know—I just feel it—that the Secretary of State will talk about investment. Indeed, the Government's amendment refers to sustained investment. It may be worth while drawing the House's attention to what that means. The Government continually boast about investment, but unfortunately, in another written answer to me, they have been forced to admit that, in 2000-01, they underspent the money allocated to the Department by £1.7 billion.
The Government appear to be adept at finding initiatives and other ways in which to spend money. The next time we hear the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister boasting about how much sustained investment they are putting into schools, perhaps they will tell us why they cannot even spend the money given to them. That money could have paid for laptop computers for all 429,300 teachers in England. The Government are keen on laptops and they could have provided them—a measure that I support—if they were not so incompetent. They cannot even spend the money that the Treasury gives them.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the first two new primary schools to be built in Ipswich for 25 years have been built since 1997? One is at Ravenswood and one at Raeburn and, at a cost of more than £1.5 million apiece, they have replaced the concrete and chicken-wire prefab schools that had been there since the 1920s and 1930s. Does he further accept that since 1997 my Suffolk local education authority area has had the best capital settlement for many years, and that the backlog of minor works in schools that had accumulated while the Tories were in Government, and which stood at £9 million, has been reduced to less than £2.5 million?
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has the two new primary schools in his constituency—he will soon learn their names without having to read them. However, he should talk to the teachers in those primary schools and see what they say about all the bureaucracy and paperwork that the Government are imposing on them, which I have been talking about. He will recognise over time, when the shine wears off, that teachers' morale is as low as it ever has been in this country, and that that is entirely due to the actions of this Government.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to visit any school in London—many of them were closed last week by the first National Union of Teachers strike for 30 years—where he will find that the Secretary of State has reduced the morale of teachers in London to historically low levels. In case he missed the beginning of my speech, may I point out that since state education was created in this country in 1870, never have our head teachers united to ballot on industrial action? This Government, who the hon. Gentleman says have made teachers happier than ever before, have reduced head teachers—of all groups in society—to considering industrial action. If he thinks that they are happier than ever before, he is deluding himself.
The Government set themselves some ambitious targets. The former Education Secretary, now Home Secretary, said that if he did not achieve certain targets within five years, he would resign. The only Minister who has been in the Department for the whole period of the Labour Government is the Secretary of State. Is she not honour bound to follow what her predecessor said and resign if those targets are not met?
My hon. Friend is right. I have pursued that point with the right hon. Lady in the past and I admire her prudence in refusing to follow her predecessor's policy of promising resignation if the targets are not met. We shall see in a few months whether her conscience has been pricked.
Let me move from incompetence to policy failures. There are many, but by far the biggest is retaining teachers. I suspect that the right hon. Lady will boast about teacher recruitment. I point out gently that there is no point in recruiting ever higher numbers of trainee teachers if most of them leave within a few years. Pouring ever larger amounts of water into a bucket with a hole in the bottom is not a rational policy. [Interruption.]
Government Members do not want to take that from me, so perhaps they will take it from Ofsted, whose most recent report admitted that there was a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. It says—and Government Members waiting with quotes from 1997 should take note of it:
"these problems have got worse over the past two years."
Ofsted states that the recruitment and retention of primary school staff is
"no longer just an inner city issue, but is beginning to affect schools in all regions and all kinds of locations."
The crisis that we once all knew was happening in our inner-city schools has, according to Ofsted, spread over the past two years under the present Government. The right hon. Lady will be concerned that more than 20 per cent. of teachers leave within three years of joining the profession.
I further adduce the evidence of the National Union of Teachers, whose survey found that the annual resignation rate in 2001 was 4 per cent. higher than the previous figure provided by employers in 1999. Under this Government, things are getting worse. I have one more piece of evidence before I give way again. About 85 per cent. of teachers who leave the profession—and this figure should worry the whole House—say that they do so for negative reasons connected with the teaching profession rather than because of the attraction of doing something else. People who are keen to be teachers are leaving because they are put off by the education system that they are forced to work in.
The simplest way for the Government to do so is by doing less. Instead of producing 1,000 years' worth of bureaucracy every 11 months, doing less would reduce the work load on teachers who would then have less unnecessary paperwork from the Government. [Interruption.] I know that Ministers believe that everything that comes out of the Department is a pearl of wisdom, but it does not work with teachers.
As ever, faced with the problems to which I have alerted the House, the Department tries to disguise them. As ever, the Government's first reaction to bad news is not to deal with the problem, but to bury the bad news. When, in February, they published "Statistics in Education: Teachers in England 2001", some statistics mysteriously did not even appear on the departmental website. It is rather a good website, often containing loads of information. Funnily enough, however, some figures did not appear. For example, nearly 300,000 qualified teachers under 60 are no longer in the education system; 83,400 people hold teaching certificates that they have never used, in an era of acute teacher shortages; and the number of teacher vacancies in England and Wales rose to 5,000 in 2001—an increase of nearly 60 per cent. from 2000. All the figures are pointing the wrong way. All the surveys show that the main reason teachers are being driven out of the profession is work load. Teachers think their work load excessive—that is even more important to them than pay.
The Government have made a response, however. I must be fair to them. The Government have noticed that the work load is a problem and their response is—a poster. At first glance, I was relieved that they had produced a poster rather than a 50-page document, but when I actually read the section "Advice and guidance on what schools can do", I found that the first piece of advice was to read circular 2/98. So the Government have produced a circular telling teachers how to reduce their work load.
The poster has three other sections: one is pure party political propaganda—paid for by the taxpayer. A second section consists of a pie chart telling teachers what they already know—that they are wasting their time reading Government information when they could be teaching or planning lessons. The final section states that:
"The following common tasks need not routinely be carried out by teachers".
Sadly they did not include the instruction, "Do not waste your time putting up useless posters on the staffroom wall".
My hon. Friend is probably aware that the Government commissioned a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers which highlighted the embarrassing fact that head teachers were working up to 60 hours a week. The Government's response was to bury the report so deep in the departmental website that the search engine could not even find it.
My hon. Friend has great technological skills and he is right. Departments are consistent throughout Government: if there is bad news they will try to bury it.
That is a serious accusation. I should not normally intervene during the opening speech of an Opposition spokesperson, but if someone was trying to bury that bad news, why is that very report currently before the School Teachers Review Body? The STRB is receiving evidence not only from the Government but from every teacher union and association. It will report in public in due course and we shall respond in public. That is the worst way of burying bad news I have ever heard of.
Even the right hon. Lady could not keep a report commissioned by the STRB from the STRB. What she did not want was that it should be found by journalists, Opposition politicians or people who might be interested in studying it.
The right hon. Lady can argue until she is blue in the face but the plain fact is facing her: she, as Secretary of State, is presiding over the current rash of strikes. Like her, I do not approve of industrial action that damages the education of children. I am happy to admit that she is right about that.
I am unconvinced by the hon. Gentleman's comments: I, too, taught under the previous Tory Government and I remember what teacher morale was like then.
If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on cutting teachers' work load, will he explain whether he supports the policy of his right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard, who wants to cut public spending to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product? How will those cuts do anything other than increase the work load in the education system and destroy the morale of teachers?
The hon. Lady should pay greater attention to the extremely good speeches of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor. He has made it clear that the first priority of the Conservative party is to match public spending on our essential public services. Those services are our main priority. I know that the Government find that difficult because, to refer to a topical subject, their fox has been shot.
To return to the current rash of strikes, which the Government are understandably not keen to talk about, many parents feel a degree of sympathy with teachers who have been driven to the brink by the type of Government interference and micromanagement that I have been outlining. The latest edition of the NUT magazine, The Teacher, states:
"Such is the sense of grievance and frustration felt by these teachers, not just because of the difficulties they face in finding affordable accommodation, but because of the disturbance and disruption of children's education caused by the staff turnover and the acute teacher shortage."
All those Members who say that they know teachers better than the NUT does should pay attention to the NUT.
I particularly recommend this month's edition of The Teacher; it has a good centre-page spread detailing my trip to Germany with a senior NUT official. It sets out the points on which we agreed and disagreed. The House may be relieved to know that at least one of the major parties can still have friendly relations with trade unions even when we disagree on several points. I commend that lesson to the Government, which is run by a party that used to aspire to that as well.
I think that I have given way enough, to be fair.
I am delighted to be assured by both head teachers' unions that, if they end up taking industrial action, it will not affect teaching in schools. I hope that the Secretary of State would agree that, if they do take industrial action, it is much better that it should not affect teaching and learning. However, I hope that the Government are taking on board the historic nature of the possibility of industrial action by the two head teachers' unions. I am afraid that the aggressive rhetoric that Ministers are using about head teachers is making the situation worse, not better.
"The last persons in the education world who need a lesson from the Secretary of State on public service reform are head teachers".
Head teachers have put through a lot of reforms in the past 15 years, under Governments of both parties. Head teachers are naturally most concerned with the performance of their schools, and they are happy to preside over proper change and reform, not to try to implement half-baked, ill thought-out Government policies that reduce morale even further in the staff room.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall speaking to the north of England education conference in January of this year, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills? Does he specifically recall being forced to admit in his opening remarks that he could not say very much because his party did not have a policy on education? Have things changed since January? If there has been a change, given that he has been speaking for more than 20 minutes, will he tell us what it is?
I very much enjoyed the Huddersfield conference—I was applauded and given a friendly reception. Everyone there—except possibly the hon. Gentleman—thought that what I told them in my opening remarks was entirely sensible. I said that, at the beginning of a Parliament, it is entirely sensible for Opposition parties to think through their policies, so that what they produce is not half-baked. If Labour Members are saying that we should have a fully fledged policy in six months, it is not unreasonable to ask why the Government have miserably failed to produce a coherent education policy after five years in power, following 18 years in opposition.
The Government have to take decisions day after day on the basis of no coherent policy. We shall work out a coherent and robust education policy that will improve standards in our schools, rather than relying on the hand-to-mouth, initiative-driven system that the Government have been forced to introduce, precisely because they have no coherent thinking on education.
Ministers frequently say that head teachers are paid to make tough choices, but that just gives rise to hollow laughs in staff rooms around the country. With every month that passes, head teachers' ability to take decisions is restricted by the Government's constant interference. But suddenly, when the decision is tough, there is no Government guidance at all—just a cry of "yours" as the hospital pass is delivered.
The third group of problems stems from the Government's weakness in tackling issues that they find inconvenient. The best example of that is their many and varied policies on excluding disruptive pupils. For a long time, the Government simply set a target for permanent exclusions to be cut by a third. Understandably, the result has been a decline in the number of exclusions. Those targets prevented head teachers from expelling violent or disruptive pupils, damaging the education of thousands of pupils throughout the country.
The Secretary of State should know that the NUT has found that 45 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession cited pupil behaviour as the reason for doing so. She should also know that that is a direct consequence of a policy introduced by her predecessor. Ofsted cited
"the poor behaviour of a minority of pupils" as the major reason why teachers leave the profession; it is more important than pay or even work load. The Government's policies on discipline and their weakness on enforcing good discipline in schools are a principal reason why teachers have been driven out of the profession. So much damage has been done that some of it is permanent.
Let me quote an example sent in response to a survey on our own education website—www.conservatives.com/education, which I commend to all who are interested in education. I believe that there is no provision in "Erskine May" to prevent me from reading out a website address, and I hope that it will be helpful to the House to do so.
Some serious problems are revealed. I shall quote one pupil who responded to the website. There were three questions:
"Have you or a friend ever suffered from bullying?"
The answer was as follows:
"Yes I ended up suicidal and had a nervous breakdown and a lot of my friends have been bullied too."
The second question was:
"What is the worst disciplinary problem at your school?"
"There is no discipline. At the worst they get suspended for a few days, which isn't a punishment in anyone's eyes. It's just a good excuse to have a few days off."
"Do you think bullying and discipline in your school have been getting worse or better?"
"Worse, definitely. That's why I am home educated."
That was the response that we received from a pupil. [Interruption.] Labour Members find this a laughing matter. That shows how distant they are from the real problems. The Government have undermined discipline in schools. They are damaging standards in schools. That is making many school children's lives a misery. [Interruption.] Labour Members find that a laughing matter too.
The fourth area where the Government have contributed to the crisis is their broken promises. The worst of these is on truancy. In 1998, the Government announced that they planned to cut unauthorised absences from school. They promised a reduction of one third in school truancies by 2002. There has been no reduction in the percentage of half days missed a year through unauthorised absence. It remains at 0.7 per cent. Indeed, the percentage has risen since 1996-97 in maintained secondary schools, from 1 per cent. to 1.1 per cent. Perhaps that is not one of the figures handed out by the Government Whips to Labour Members who wanted to quote figures from 1997 onwards.
A helpful written answer from one of the Department's Ministers told us that if we add together the authorised and unauthorised absences in every category, including primary schools and secondary schools, the number of half days missed increased significantly between 1999-00 and 2000-01. It has risen from 5.7 per cent. in primary schools to 6.1 per cent. In secondary schools, it has increased from 8.6 per cent. to 9 per cent.
Given these alarming figures, the social exclusion unit—the Government's central unit dealing with these matters—says that the national truancy rate has remained static. That requires a flexible use of language—the rate seems to be increasing rather than remaining static.
Another broken promise is on higher education. The Government promised us their review of student support early in the new year. It is
No. I have given way enough.
There are four reasons behind the crisis in education, and we know that the Government are in denial of them. Instead of dealing with the problems, the Secretary of State is doing her best to distract attention. On Thursday last week, I was delighted to be informed by Demos that she is launching a new pamphlet on secondary education. We are told that it will contain her vision. We are told that we need to combine this with "ongoing transformative change." Any improvement in the quality of English does not seem to have spread as far as Demos.
The serious point is that the right hon. Lady prefers publishing pamphlets to dealing with the mess in our schools, colleges and universities that her policies are creating. There is another vision of education, which I commend to the Government. We, the Opposition, believe, as we argued consistently throughout consideration of the Education Bill, that central Government need not and should not take every important decision on education. We support the activities of Ofsted—regular testing and the publication of test results and league tables. Most importantly, we believe that with all that outside inspection the Government do not need to tell schools how to run every minute of the school day.
The same thinking applies to the organisation of schools. We are relaxed about different types of schools emerging. We have no hang-ups about grammar schools or specialist schools. If a faith school is doing a good job, it should be supported, not have its ethos destroyed, as the Liberal Democrats and many Labour Members want. We are deeply sceptical about the Government's concept of earned autonomy; autonomy earned from a centralising Secretary of State is unlikely to be much autonomy at all. We want real autonomy for schools and an objective, independent, outside inspection system to ensure that they are doing their job for the community.
The Opposition therefore urge the Government to stop telling teachers how to do every aspect of their job; they are demoralised by constant nagging interference and far too many of them are leaving. The Government must stop introducing new gimmicks and instead sort out the problems in existing policies—a press release is no substitute for competent policy. The Government must stop producing education Bills that centralise power in the hands of the Secretary of State under the cloak of rhetoric about diversity. Schools and local government deserve more trust than the Government are prepared to give them. The Government must stop blaming everyone else for the difficulties caused by their mismanagement.
Teachers are not wreckers; they are hard-working professionals who are doing their best under increasingly difficult circumstances. The Opposition want an education system that transmits values as well as skills, promotes genuine diversity in schools, and allows good teachers to teach without the constant irritation of a Government directive telling them how to do their job. We want a university system that promotes excellence in learning, and vocational education that provides genuine skills for life for all.
After five years of this Government, it is increasingly clear that an education policy run by centralised diktat will not, and does not, work. Our schools, colleges and universities deserve better; if the Government cannot provide that, they will rightly stand condemned for failing to deliver on a vital commitment for the future of everyone in this country.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"recognises an education system which is benefiting from an unprecedented period of sustained investment on an unprecedented scale, in parallel with the Government's strategy to raise standards through an ambitious series of reforms of the curriculum, the teaching profession and the organisation of schools;
welcomes Ofsted's latest annual report showing the highest ever proportion of good and excellent lessons in schools, and the OECD's PISA Report that the UK performance was above the OECD average across all three domains of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy;
notes the other tangible signs of increased investment and reform such as higher academic standards at primary and secondary level, the dramatic reduction in the numbers of infants in large classes, more teachers in schools than at any time in the last decade, extra resources and more people than ever going into Higher Education, with 45,000 new places since 1997; notes further the huge increase in the number of adults who are now acquiring basic skills and learning for their futures;
recognises the clear commitment of the Government to address teacher workload in partnership with the unions and other agencies;
welcomes the positive proposals the Government has given to headteachers on school exclusions, reinforcing their right to manage their schools and enforce discipline as they see fit;
recognises that working closely with parents, police and health professionals is key to tackling unacceptable levels of absence and supports the Government's work in this area;
and supports the measures being taken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that examination results are delivered successfully."
Mr. Green thinks that it is acceptable to wipe the slate clean on policy, and seems to have done the same to his memory. While I accept entirely that after five years in government we are accountable for what we have done during that period, it is appropriate to remind people of our starting point. In 1997, it was true, as my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt said, that nearly one third of our infants were in classes of more than 30; there were 11,000 fewer teachers; there were 44,000 fewer education support staff; and four out of 10 of our 11-year-olds were starting secondary education without the literacy and numeracy skills that they needed to access the secondary curriculum. Schoolteachers witnessed year on year cuts in expenditure and year on year increases in class sizes; it took 25 months to turn round a school that had been put in special measures; and there was a £2,800 cut over a number of years in the amount of money given to higher education students.
I am immensely proud of what we have achieved in five years, but I am not complacent. In one of the most important of all public services, we still have a long way to go. As we defend our record today against the attack, if one can call it that, from the hon. Member for Ashford, I feel more complacent than I should, if that is the worst that the Opposition can pin on us after five years.
I want to refer to three or four key issues in the motion and in the hon. Gentleman's speech. First, the process of teacher recruitment and retention is far more complicated than he would have us believe. As I have said time after time in the House, I accept that schools, particularly in London and the south-east, but also in Swindon, Reading and Oxford, find it extremely tough to recruit and retain sufficient teachers. I know that head teachers are taking on teachers whom, if they had had more of a choice, they may not have appointed. To pretend otherwise would not be facing up to reality.
However, another set of statistics shows another aspect of reality that must be considered if we are to make any progress. It was right to ask the hon. Gentleman the question, "What would the Tories do?" because they have come up with only one solution—cut paperwork. However, the problem is more complicated than that. Those of us who believe that recruiting and retaining the best people in the teaching profession is a key challenge must look at the statistics and confront reality.
The reality is this: there are 11,000 more teachers now than there were in 1997. There are 7,000 more teaching posts this year than there were last year. We are recruiting 8 per cent. more into training to be teachers this year, and that is on top of 5 per cent. more last year.
No. Think about the maths. The hon. Gentleman should have had the numeracy hour. If there are more teachers now than there were in 1997, more must be joining than are leaving. That is what produces the net increase.
Applications this year are up on last year—20 per cent. up in maths, 10 per cent. up in English, 8 per cent. up in science, 4 per cent. up in modern foreign languages, 15 per cent. up in technology, and 3,200 have been recruited on the graduate teacher programme, yet there are still vacancies.
The challenge is to reconcile those two sets of information. There are more teachers, there are more posts, and there are more vacancies in some areas. Not to accept that reality, and to think that sending out fewer bits of paper would solve the problem shows that six or seven months after the general election, the Opposition have still thought of nothing beyond that.
One piece of paper that my right hon. Friend sent to schools last week—I have visited several schools in the intervening period—was especially welcome. I do not support every jot and aspect of Government policy, but the tone and content of my right hon. Friend's call to teachers to focus on contact time and productive areas of activity and to withdraw from marginal areas was most welcome. It was a motivating influence in the staff rooms of the schools that I visited. I congratulate her on it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That was the poster to which the hon. Member for Ashford referred. I had not intended to mention the poster, but as we have had the NUT magazine brandished about because it has a picture of the hon. Gentleman on the centre pages—I must remember not to open my copy—[Interruption.] He has not made page 3 yet; he is on the centre pages. The interesting thing about the poster is that it was not sent just from me. It was sent with the support of every teacher union and both head teacher unions. It was an honest attempt by Government and teacher representatives together to find the real answer to teacher work load, recruitment and retention.
There is a challenge facing us. Teachers are working harder than they have ever worked before. More is being asked of them than ever before. More is being demanded, more is expected, and more is being achieved. When people choose to work in a job as important as teaching, that is what they sign up to. What they do day in, day out makes a difference. We have a choice. We can take away some of the aspects that have caused a burden and led to increased standards, such as the literacy hour, the numeracy hour, the excellence in cities programmes and key stage 3—all of which featured in those pieces of paper that we sent out in the past year—or we can look at the tasks that teachers have historically done and should not be doing.
The PWC report is absolutely in the public domain, and I would be surprised if anyone participating in the debate has not read it. It found—this is the key point in the poster—that 20 per cent. of the tasks that teachers are doing could be done by somebody else. That includes everything from filling in forms that they do not have to fill in, to dinner duty, bus duty, collecting dinner money, washing the paint pots and beyond.
I shall be dead straight about the issue. We must take some decisions about teacher work load, but I will not take away the literacy hour, the numeracy hour, key stage 3, performance management or the excellence in cities programmes, because it is those that have made the difference. I applaud the teacher representatives for coming together with the Government, acknowledging the issues, and working with us to try to take away the tasks that could be better done by other people. That resulted in a poster. Okay, I made myself the subject of a cheap joke by the Opposition spokesman. So be it. But we are engaged in a broader and more serious debate about modernising and reforming the profession so that it can hang on to what it should be doing and free up teacher time to do that better. I am delighted that the poster was well received in my hon. Friend's constituency.
In her spirit of honesty, will the Secretary of State accept that in the region of 289,000 teachers are qualified but not in our classrooms, 70,000 of whom have been in our classrooms during the past five years who are aged under 50 and who would be a ready source of recruitment for our schools, yet she does not know where they are and is making no attempt to attract them back? What will she do to ensure that that huge multi-million pound resource is not simply lost to the teaching profession but recruited directly to our schools?
Some of them are in the Chamber at this moment. However, I want standards to continue to rise, so I shall keep the two of us out of the classroom. The hon. Gentleman has made that point before, and I am happy to consider it. We have spent a lot of money and expended much effort on teacher recruitment and retention and I would not wilfully turn my back on anything that could help us. One of his better jokes in the Chamber was to brandish a letter that he had received from the Department inviting him to go back into teaching because he was down as someone who had recently left. That was a better joke than that of the hon. Member for Ashford. I think that Mr. Willis would generously admit that that showed that we were doing what we could where we had the data to write to former teachers. However, if he knows of ways in which we could do more, I should be happy to consider them.
I want to concentrate on the matter for a few minutes because the statistics are important. Every time I open the paper—sometimes I do not have to open it because it is on the front page—there is another figure that almost bemuses one about teachers, whether in or out of the profession. There is an issue about retention, and I am not avoiding that. I want to come on to why teachers leave. Some leave because the profession is tougher than when they joined a number of years ago, and we must acknowledge that. But consider what happens at the moment.
Of those who start teacher training, 17 per cent. do not finish, and the drop-out rate for graduates as a whole is about the same. Teacher training is tougher because it is tied to a professional qualification; the training is more demanding. If someone does not want to teach, it is almost no good finishing the course because a teaching certificate is not a generic qualification. Therefore, 17 per cent. of those who are recruited never finish, and some of those do not want to and are not good enough. That is fine because I do not want them. If they are not good enough and they fail, keep them out. The job would be too tough if they did not want to do it. I do not say this lightly, but I do not overworry if they or the universities make such a decision.
Of those who qualify, 80 per cent. are still there four years later, and 95 per cent. of those who gain qualified teacher status will, at some point in their working life, teach. They might not have done so in the first four years. They might have gone abroad. Strangely enough, they might have taught in the independent sector and so not appear in our statistics.
I say no more than this. For a profession still to have 80 per cent. of those who qualify in the profession four years later, for 95 per cent. to use that teaching qualification at some point during their working life, and for 13,000 of those who leave each year to come back is not a bad record and probably stands well against any other profession, but there is more to be done.
There is a real issue about retention and recruitment, but although it might serve Opposition policies, it serves not one child, parent, head teacher, teacher or governor for the issue to be blown up beyond the challenge that we already face. I am not, for a minute, saying that the hon. Member for Ashford did that, but the only statistic that we heard from the Opposition was the old one—I do not know whether it was 60 per cent. or 80 per cent., as it changes from time to time—relating to not teaching. The only solution that we heard was, "Don't send out as much paperwork." The solutions cost more than that. Better policies and better worked-out ways of moving forward are needed. When we considered the matter, we came up with bursaries, golden hellos, training salaries, wiping off student loans, and keeping people in teaching by offering them professional support. Those policies have resulted in more people coming into teaching than at any time this decade.
Many quotes from head teachers have been bandied around this afternoon. Let me tell the House about a head teacher in a school in my constituency, who said to me that the quality of year 7 pupils coming from primary school to secondary school is higher now than he has ever known it to be. Is that not a direct result of this Government's policies in recent years, and particularly of the introduction of literacy and numeracy hours?
The story that my hon. Friend tells is exactly the one that I hear from head teachers and parents almost everywhere I go. He will know that that was not the story one year into the strategy. When I visited primary schools then, things were fairly tough. The schools did not want us to be so prescriptive, and they wanted to continue to do what they had done year after year, which had led to four out of five children not reaching the required standard. I applaud the profession for having accepted the strategy and for having been courageous enough, when it saw that it worked, to admit that it was wrong and that the strategy has done well. There are hardly any head teachers in this country who are not pleased that this strategy was introduced. We must remember that, had the Tories been in power during those years, there would have been no literacy strategy and no numeracy strategy. That is the central prescription that I defend. Those initiatives were introduced to ensure that those who might not otherwise have considered best practice had to do so, and they learned in due course from evidence that it works.
As a former teacher, vice-principal, and currently chairman of a board of governors, it is my experience that young teachers coming through now are better qualified and even more committed than in the past. Does the Secretary of State feel that policies pursued by governing bodies could further assist in the retention of young women teachers who want to maintain teaching experience in the classroom and have an opportunity to spend more time raising young families?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I feel that, across the whole labour market, women and men ought to have that opportunity. That is more of a challenge in teaching than in other areas because parents tend to want continuity, especially at primary level. If one were to stop 10 parents in the street and ask them whether, in order to give women the choice of part-time work, they would agree to their child having two teachers during the week rather than one, there would be a real debate. That is one of the extra demands that we must face when considering flexible working. Some 80 per cent. of the teaching work force are women, and it is the responsibility of the teaching profession—and my responsibility—to do what we can to offer that flexibility, but, at the same time, to try to make sure that we offer continuity, especially for little ones who are at school.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Like her, I do not like intervening on Front-Bench speeches, but I am trying to prevent her from inadvertently misleading the House. She will be aware that literacy and numeracy hours were being piloted before 1997. Had they proved a success, a Conservative Government would no doubt have carried on with them. Therefore, the sharp line that she seeks to draw is simply not there.
The hon. Gentleman must face up to two facts. I do not believe that any Tory Government would have implemented a national strategy for literacy and numeracy; they would not have found the resources. He must also accept that, even if they had implemented the literacy and numeracy strategy nationally—that was not in the Conservative manifesto in 1997—it would have been centralist and prescriptive. They would also have had to send out reams of paper to schools. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman has just told us that he would not do, so it is not unreasonable for me to assume that his only policy to aid the recruitment and retention of teachers is not to send out all the bits of paper that he referred to earlier. Let me tell him what those bits of paper are. They are the key stage 3 strategy, the literacy and numeracy strategies and the papers on performance management. He cannot have it both ways.
At first, developing the literacy and numeracy strategy meant being centralist and rather prescriptive and sending out paper, much of which was about extra funding. The strategy then became embedded and, having learned best practice, teachers were allowed to get on with it.
No. The House will agree that I am taking far too much time.
I want to touch on two further issues. The first is teachers' pay, which is the source of the present dispute in London. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ashford say that he does not agree with teachers taking industrial action—or industrial action that damages children. However, if teachers do not do their job, that damages children. It seems from what he said last Thursday that he was bordering on supporting the NUT strike in London—so be it.
Let us consider what has happened to teachers' pay in London. In general, pay for good, experienced teachers has risen by 30 per cent. since 1997. However, a teacher in London in the second year of the profession will get a 13.2 per cent. pay increase in September this year, because we have shortened the spine. Every teacher in London in the second year of the profession will get that rise, and it will not be spread over two years. Every teacher in London in the sixth year of the profession will get a 15 per cent. pay increase. By September, teachers who started teaching in London when we were elected in 1997 will earn 63 per cent. more than they did then.
Many teachers are worth their weight in gold, but in terms of delivering on public sector pay, we have rewarded them financially more than the Tories ever did. We have not staged pay increases; we have accepted every single recommendation of the STRB; we have introduced a threshold and we have seen a 30 per cent. pay increase over seven years. However, unlike any other serious pay increase in my memory of working in education, it has been accompanied by steady, sustained investment and a strong economy. Steady, sustained pay and investment in education have brought about current standards. That is what matters.
Are we not now discussing the bottom line to the debate about teaching recruitment and standards? Is it not a fact that, as the title of a Conservative website suggests, under the last Conservative Government, education spending was slashed year on year and as a proportion of GDP? Under this Government, has not spending increased in each of the past three years? However, does my right hon. Friend accept that some OECD countries, such as Finland and Canada, which perform better than we do have much higher education spending? Can she give a commitment that she will continue to push for higher levels in the United Kingdom as well?
My hon. Friend is right. Yes, other countries—strangely enough, some of them do not perform as well as we do—spend a higher percentage of their GDP on education. He will be aware of our manifesto commitment to increase investment in education year on year. He referred to the Tory years. The only time that the Tories increased education spending as a proportion of GDP was when GDP fell. The increase tended to be the result of poor outturns and poor productivity and not because the then Government decided to invest more out of generosity or a commitment to education.
I also wish to refer to pupil behaviour, which represents a real challenge not just to teachers, but to the whole of society. I tend to think that teachers reap the ill wind of the breakdown of discipline in many areas of our community and society. Some people do not give the issue much thought. We bemoan youth crime and the problem of drugs and their availability to young people, but those children end up in someone's classroom on Monday morning. That is the nature of the challenge facing schools, and we have to do all that we can to support teachers.
Although we have done a great deal, by no stretch of the imagination have we conquered the problem. In some schools, where the children suffer multiple forms of deprivation, are often subject to community and family breakdown and face the temptations of drugs being available on the streets in a way that they were not when we were young, and where there is huge family and pupil mobility, the challenge of getting behaviour right is more difficult than ever before. Our approach to the problem is to invest £600 million over three years on improving behaviour. That is why we have 1,000 learning support units and 1,500 learning mentors. That is why we have worked to ensure that excluded children no longer receive only two hours of education every week.
I will not accept from any Tory Member an assertion that before 1997 the Tory Government spent a penny farthing or expended an ounce of energy to support teachers in coping with problems of pupil behaviour. They did not. We have invested, and much of our investment has brought about good results, but we are not there yet—nowhere near. Ofsted has reminded us that although behaviour did not deteriorate this year, neither did it improve, and two years ago it declined. There is a real problem with no easy solutions. The Government have a responsibility, but so do mothers, fathers, families and community leaders.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to improve pupil behaviour is to use more classroom assistants to support and assist teachers? Some of the work I saw last week in Dallam community primary school, which is in a deprived area of my constituency, shows what can be achieved when classroom assistants are involved in helping pupils to modify their behaviour and they take some of the burden off teachers.
My hon. Friend is, as ever, right. Adults with a range of skills are needed in schools, and that is precisely what the poster was about. Schools in our communities need good teachers and good leaders most of all, but if we can supplement them with learning mentors and other adults with a range of skills, we have a chance of conquering what is often a vast cycle of deprivation in some of our most disadvantaged communities.
The Government seek to be judged. We will be judged on whether our investment and policies lead to children in our schools achieving better exam results and emerging as more rounded citizens, ready to take their place in the world. I am immensely proud of our teachers and all those who work in our schools. Between 1998 and 2001, key stage 2 English results rose by 10 percentage points, maths by 12 percentage points, GCSE results by more than 2 percentage points, and A-levels by 16 percentage points, and the number of students leaving school with no GCSEs fell by half a percentage point. That achievement is in large part due to the hard, solid work of everyone who works in our schools, but the Government have played a key role in leadership, innovation, investment and support.
The Opposition may not want to believe me. Let them look at the reports by PISA—the programme for international student assessment—and Ofsted. We have better teachers, more satisfactory lessons taught and higher standards than ever before. Not only do we have the finest ever generation of teachers, but we now have an education system that is raising its sights and increasing its expectations. My vision is to have an education system that starts in the early years and runs throughout schooling so that children leave school committed to lifelong learning; a system that gives young people opportunities for further and higher education; a system in which everyone understands that it is both their right and their obligation to be committed to learning.
We have played a part. There is much of which are proud and much for which we are immensely thankful to those who work in our schools and education institutions. We know that we have not got there yet, but we have made progress from a very low starting point in 1997.
I was pleased to hear—and to some extent impressed by—the Secretary of State's support for teachers, but I was disappointed that Mr. Green did not offer such support in his opening speech. I was also disappointed by his hardly mentioning higher or further education. He merely offered criticism, and seemed to think that by far the most important aspect of the higher education crisis is that the Government's review will be published rather later than was expected. I, too, am disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to push forward their review, and that so many people remain uncertain about their financial position on going to university, but there is much more to the higher education crisis than the slowness of publication of the Government's review.
I want to pick up on some of the Secretary of State's comments on teachers. Teachers, lecturers and others involved in education should be congratulated. They work very hard in often difficult and trying circumstances, and usually to the highest standards. I am disappointed that the Conservatives have chosen to talk about a crisis in education. The Government might not be delivering on their side of the bargain, but teachers certainly are—despite the fact that there are too few of them, despite their being the most audited, inspected and regulated teachers in Europe, and despite the Government's failure to invest adequate resources.
Too often, our teachers are undervalued and talked down to by politicians. The Conservatives were as guilty of that as new Labour is. The approach has been to name and shame, rather than to value and encourage. Is it any wonder that teachers resort to industrial action when the Government deny them the professional status that they deserve?
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the job of teachers will be made easier by the policy of legalising cannabis use, which, I believe, he intends to follow?
As a matter of fact, a lot of things would probably be made easier. Certainly, the legalisation of cannabis—if it takes place—is one way in which some of the problems associated with our young people could be reduced.
During my party's recent serious and mature debate in Manchester, the point was repeatedly made that a lot of the problems associated with drugs stem from the fact that we treat alcohol and tobacco—comparatively dangerous drugs—in an entirely different way from cannabis, which is less dangerous. If the Conservatives are not prepared to address the problem seriously and maturely, so much the worse for them.
The hon. Gentleman said that there are too few teachers, and that more are needed in the classroom. How many additional teachers—over and above the 10,000 promised in the Labour manifesto—would a Liberal Democrat Government provide? How much would that cost, and has the cost been budgeted for?
We would provide 5,000 over and above the Labour party's proposal. I do not know the precise cost off the top of my head, but it was included in our manifesto. If the hon. Gentleman is determined to have the exact figure, he can look it up or I can write to him.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in Sheffield, the Liberal-Democrat controlled council has taken on 800 extra teachers whom the local newspaper said that it would not touch with a bargepole? Does not that strategy smack of desperation on the part of the council, and show that the Liberal Democrats do not know which way they are going?
I am afraid that I did not understand that question, and we have taken long enough over interventions as it is.
Is it any wonder that we are witnessing a terrific recruitment and retention problem, given that the Government are denying up to 90 per cent. of schools the freedom to innovate? The other 10 per cent. will get the freedom to innovate only on the say-so of the Secretary of State.
Our education system is failing. The Government are letting it down because the concept of employability lies at the heart of their education and skills policy. Even if one accepts that narrow definition of what education is about, it is clear that the Government have failed. Last year, half our 16-year-olds failed to achieve the Government's benchmark of five good GCSEs, and 30,000 pupils left school without a qualification between them. There are 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in work, training or education. What is the Government's answer to that problem? It is the new deal.
I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which considered the National Audit Office report only the other day. That report found that 30 per cent. of people leaving the new deal programme have no recorded or known destination. The report also found:
"many of those who participated in the programme and found employment would have found a job anyway because of natural labour market turnover, the help available through other employment programmes, and the general expansion of employment in the economy."
There are two specific problems, and the first is the failure to invest enough. In their first term, the Labour Government spent even less on education, as a proportion of national wealth, than the Conservatives managed under John Major—4.6 per cent., compared with 5 per cent. I shall give some examples of the results.
Official figures show that £754 million needs to be spent on priority 1 school repairs, which are defined as urgent work that will prevent the immediate closure of premises, and/or address an immediate high risk to the health and safety of occupants, and/or remedy a serious breach of legislation. I accept the Secretary of State's contention that the problem has existed for some years. We have had under-investment for many years, and not only for the past five. However, this Government have failed to pick up on the problem sufficiently quickly.
Moreover, figures from the House of Commons Library show that public funding per student in higher education fell year on year during this Government's first term. By 2003-04, real-terms public-sector funding per student will be 7 per cent. lower than when the Conservatives were in power.
The second problem is the dead hand of central control. The Government want to run education from Whitehall—or, rather, from Downing street. The Education Bill now before the House of Lords is based on the novel proposition that more regulation equals more freedom to innovate. Clause 1 defines the Bill's purpose, stating that it is to
"facilitate the implementation by qualifying bodies of innovative projects that may in the opinion of the Secretary of State contribute to the raising of educational standards achieved by children in England."
That is, freedom will be benevolently bestowed on the say-so of the Secretary of State—but only for a few, as only 10 per cent. of schools will win earned autonomy. The Government insist that it is all for our own good, as happens in all cases of benevolent authority, and that we need not worry about the Government misusing the powers, because they would not do that. Of course, it is not in our hands to determine who might use such powers in future. Liberal Democrats believe that all schools other than those under special measures should be given the freedom to innovate.
The two fundamental flaws in Government policy—the failure to invest and the dead hand of central control—have led to several other problems.
It is interesting that, in outlining their education policy, Liberal Democrat Members criticise the Conservatives' policy, or lack of policy. In Cumbria, the county council is run by a Conservative-Liberal alliance. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me which of the policies he agrees with?
I am not sure which policies the hon. Gentleman means. If he is asking whether I agree with Liberal Democrat policies or Conservative policies, I usually tend to agree with Liberal Democrat policies.
I return to the problems created by the two fundamental flaws in Government policy. First, there is the crisis in the teaching profession. The 2000–01 Ofsted report reveals that problems in recruiting and retaining teachers have worsened during the past two years. Provisional figures show that the vacancy rate in English secondary schools has doubled in the past year, and in recent years the maintained system has lost around 10 per cent. of its teachers each year. More than one in five newly qualified teachers leave the profession during their first three years in teaching. Those problems are particularly acute in London and the south-east, owing to high housing costs, and in areas of high socio-economic disadvantage.
Rising pupil numbers and increased resource availability will create a demand for an extra 70,000 teachers by 2004, dwarfing the 10,000 promised by new Labour in its manifesto. Meanwhile, teachers are leaving in droves. Why? In response to a National Union of Teachers survey, 82 per cent. of teachers who had left the profession said that an important factor in their decision was the pressure of the work load. Fifty-six per cent. felt undervalued and undermined by negative publicity and constant criticism, which is stoked by the Government and the press. Sadly, teaching is now seen as a low-status profession. It never was in the past.
The Government's response is fast track, which last year cost the Department for Education and Skills £4,630,058 but recruited only 111 teachers into training. Ten of those have already left, several will not enter teaching and some have already accepted posts in the private sector. The cost per entrant is a staggering £46,000. The cost of placing a student on a postgraduate certificate of education course through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is £15.57. This year, the Government have allocated a further £8.53 million to the scheme.
Another problem, which Conservative Members did not mention, relates to the teaching of mathematics, science and technology. Three years ago, about one in 10 secondary school maths teachers had no subject qualification beyond A-level. Now as many as 45 per cent. of staff teaching the subject to 11 to 14-year-olds have limited knowledge of maths and little or no training in the subject. Ofsted found that only 77 per cent. of teachers who teach some mathematics in secondary school have a post-A-level qualification in the subject. UCAS figures show a steady decline since 1997 in the number of applicants for courses in biological sciences, physical sciences and engineering and technology. We are getting into a vicious cycle, which is a real worry for the future. The figures amount to a 17 per cent. drop between 1997 and 2001, or 12,000 fewer applicants.
That is ironic, given that creationism has been allowed to make a comeback in our school system. Will the situation at Emmanuel college in Gateshead be repeated as more schools come to rely on private funding? Is that the science teaching of the future? It is worrying that Sir Peter Vardy, the evangelical Christian entrepreneur who funds Emmanuel college, is investing £12 million in six other city academies. Science teaching is suffering enough without his intervention.
Personally, I do not regard creationism as scientific in any sense, and I certainly would not want it taught as a scientific explanation of how the world was created.
Perhaps the worst problems are in higher education, although it was the matter least mentioned by the Conservatives. Since the 1998 reforms, average student debt has doubled from about £3,000 to £6,000, according to the Barclays student debt survey. Students now expect to graduate with a five-figure debt of as much as £20,000 according to the National Union of Students. The situation is particularly bad for students on longer courses. The British Medical Association's annual survey of medical students' finances found that their average final-year debt had increased by 23.6 per cent. on the previous year, up to £13,350, and that more than 40 per cent. of final-year students had debts of more than £15,000. There is a further problem for students living in high-cost areas such as London.
The National Audit Office report on student participation confirms that young people from poorer backgrounds are significantly less likely to participate in higher education. That is precisely the problem that the Government think that they need to address, but are failing to address. The NAO report states:
"Since 1998-99 . . . final removal of the means tested grant is likely to have widened the gap between social classes."
What did the Labour party come to power for in 1997? Was it to widen the gap between social classes? That seems absurd, but, sadly, it has happened.
Forty-seven per cent. of full-time students now have to work in term time. According to the NUS, the average number of hours worked per week is 11. Research carried out by Newcastle university suggests that 35 per cent. of its students who have jobs could have achieved a higher grade for the year if they had not been in employment.
Two consequences follow. First, debt and the fear of debt are a big disincentive to young people who want to enter higher education. They also have an impact on the quality of students' university education once they get there. There are solutions, however. In Scotland, tuition fees have been abolished and means-tested grants restored. In Wales, means-tested grants have been reintroduced for further and higher education students. That makes a difference, and we can see the results. According to the most recent UCAS figures, the number of Scottish students applying to Scottish universities is up by 8.8 per cent., while the number applying to English universities is down by 4.5 per cent. Scottish students are voting with their feet. The contribution of Scottish students to the overall increase in applications is disproportionately high, with an increase of 8.8 per cent. overall, compared with just 2.7 per cent. in England.
No, I have given way enough. I need to make progress.
The Government have announced a review of higher education. Indeed, the Prime Minister said recently in this Chamber:
"I am very happy to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on its decision . . . We are looking at how we can achieve a fairer balance between the contribution the state makes and the contribution students make . . . We are looking particularly at how we can help poorer students"—[Hansard, 13 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 200-201.]
That is good news. Let us hope that the review does just that.
What about the famous 50 per cent. target? How is participation to be measured? Interestingly, we recently discovered exactly what the Government are going to do when they announced to the Public Accounts Committee something called the initial entry rate. Instead of looking at the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who are actually in higher education in 2010, when they come to measure the figure against their target, the Government are simply going to guess how many of that group will go into higher education at any time over the next 12 years. All that they will have to do is work out what increase they need to guess to meet their target, and, lo and behold, they will meet it. It could not be easier. That is not a calculation but simply guesswork.
Where are we starting from? What is the figure now? The Public Accounts Committee revealed that the Government seriously overestimated the existing participation rate. In her evidence to the then Education and Employment Committee a year ago, the Minister then responsible for higher education put the figure at 44 per cent., which was 6 per cent. off the Government's target. In evidence to the PAC, however, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills has admitted that the real figure is 41 per cent., 9 per cent. off their target.
Not surprisingly, the Government are gradually including more and more groups to meet their target. Government statements have variously defined the target as "50 per cent. going to university", "50 per cent. entering higher education", "50 per cent. having the opportunity to enter higher education" and "50 per cent. having higher-education experiences", whatever that may mean. Perhaps it refers to an open day to help people decide whether they want to enter higher education.
There are real problems in our education system, but there are things that we can do about them. We must remove the dead hand of central interference, and end the destructive notion that Downing street always knows best what is right for our children. We must value the professionalism of teachers and academic staff, and trust them to make their own judgments. We must provide genuine freedom, removing the constraints that hold back innovation and creativity throughout the system. Above all, if the original policy was "education, education, education", surely what the Government must now do is invest, invest, invest.
I am delighted to be able to contribute to this debate. I hope to describe some of the changes being made in education in South Shields, but also to illuminate some of the problems that I think should be the subject of national debate. This is an opportunity for some honest talking. I welcomed the tone of the speech delivered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I am sorry that Mr. Willis has had to leave. When I last appeared on a television programme with him, his first answer was so long that I had no chance to make my own contribution at the end. Having also spent some 50-odd hours in a Standing Committee with him, I must say that my sorrow at the fact that he could not open the debate for his party today was tempered by the thought that, as a result of his modesty in not speaking, I might have a chance to speak myself.
I deplore the unremitting negativism of the Opposition motion and also the tone of the speech made by the shadow Secretary of State, Mr. Green. According to my calculations, he spent about 30 minutes denouncing everything about the education system, 12 seconds saying that his policies were under review and could not be revealed, and about a minute producing warm waffle about his long-term aspirations. I wonder what message that sends to the 430,000 teachers in the education system. I wonder what prospect they see of politicians having much to add to their daily work—sometimes a daily grind—given the negativism of the hon. Gentleman's approach.
The hon. Gentleman gloried in the fact that he is now best friends with the National Union of Teachers. In fact, his observations reminded me more of the NUT as it was when I was at school in 1981 or 1982 than of the more balanced statements that have emerged from some NUT leaders recently. I also think it unworthy of him to denounce achievements in maths in the motion and then to praise the national numeracy strategy, even claiming at one point that he had invented it. I suppose that we should be grateful for small mercies: unlike some of his colleagues, he did not call for the Secretary of State's resignation. None the less, the word "crisis" was bandied about several times, not just in the motion but in the hon. Gentleman's speech. Such hyperbole does no one any good.
Those of us who are interested in education have a common interest in ensuring that the fact that it is not currently appearing on the front pages of the newspapers does not mean that its importance is lost. I find it regrettable that the Leader of the Opposition has only once, to my recollection, chosen to raise education at Prime Minister's Question Time; those of us who care about it should make sure that it remains a top legislative and budgetary priority as we approach the Budget statement and the spending review.
My perspective is framed by experience in South Shields and the borough of South Tyneside. The area has a strong sense of community pride. It would not deny the existence of its problems, not least the second highest unemployment in Britain, but it has enormous potential. That is brought home to me every time I visit one of the 30-odd schools in South Shields; I have visited more than half of them so far.
The daily experience of education in South Tyneside simply does not tally with the picture presented by the hon. Member for Ashford. It tells a very different story—a different story about some of the things that are wrong, as well as about what is going well. The changes taking place in my constituency are significant and, in some cases, staggering. The delegated schools budget, which in 1996-97 was some £42 million, will next year rise to £64 million—a cash increase of more than 50 per cent. In concrete terms, that means more than £1,000 extra per pupil for books, computers and extra teachers, which are important for any thriving education system.
Next year, primary schools will receive around £2,700 per pupil. Secondary schools will receive £3,200 per pupil—as I say, that is up by about £1,000. For the under-fives, the increase has gone from £1,800 per pupil in 1996–97 to some £2,500 per pupil next year. For secondary education for those over the age of 16, the increase is from £2,400 to over £3,500 next year. The hon. Member for Ashford, the shadow Secretary of State, called the funding figures a myth. They are certainly not a myth to the teachers and pupils in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman said that he agreed with Mr. Howard that public service budgets should be protected. He should listen more carefully to his own leader who, in an interview in the Financial Times in December, slapped down the shadow Chancellor and made it clear that tax cuts came before public service investment. Someone else said, rightly, that the Conservatives' website—Conservatives slash education—is a better indicator of Conservative education policy than the warm words of the shadow Secretary of State.
Another important aspect of educational improvement concerns the under-fives, where South Tyneside has traditionally had a strong record. One hundred per cent. of parents are offered a nursery place for their child. Some 88 per cent. take it up in a mix of public, private and voluntary provision. That has been supplemented for 2,000 families through the introduction of the sure start programme.
On primary schools, which were an important part of the contribution by the shadow Secretary of State, 30-plus primary schools in South Shields have embraced the national literacy and numeracy strategy. Significantly for a constituency of socio-economic disadvantage, the primary schools perform better than the national average in the key stage 2 tests. In the past six months, there have been positive Ofsted reports on Marine Park and Harton junior schools. That is an indication of the trend.
On teacher numbers, the situation outside London and the south-east is very different from that within it. There is a stable and committed teaching force in the north-east. Its work is complemented by 50 learning mentors and more than 190 classroom assistants, who take care of precisely the sort of bureaucracy and tasks that teachers do not want to do and in fact should not be doing, but who none the less make a vital contribution to dealing with some of the discipline problems that were mentioned in passing by the shadow Secretary of State. The learning mentors in Mortimore comprehensive school, which I visited last week, make a significant contribution to tackling some of the problems of poor discipline that are a serious issue for many children.
There is no point in denying the significant strains connected with recruitment in some subjects, but that should not be used as a basis for denouncing the whole approach to teacher education. I thought that the facts presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State were compelling in that regard.
In relation to adult skills, which the shadow Secretary of State did not mention at all, South Tyneside further education college has just been made one of the pathfinder centres of vocational excellence in Britain. About 16,000 students pass through its doors in any one year. Its specialism is marine studies; my constituency occupies the corner of the Tyne and the North sea.
The college is doing important outreach work into the community. Some 1,500 adults now have access to community places for learning through learndirect, which has not been mentioned today and which was helped by the individual learning accounts, whose demise I regret.
Those achievements are a tribute not only to the Government but to the thousands of people who work day in, day out—not just the teachers but the support staff—in schools in my constituency. They present a far more accurate picture of education in Britain than the overblown rhetoric of the Opposition, but it would be remiss of me to pretend that everything in the garden was rosy and that all the problems had been solved. That would be absurd. I would like to pick out four issues where local experience in South Tyneside can illuminate some national questions that need to be dealt with.
The first relates to the need to raise expectations in secondary schools. As I mentioned earlier, primary school performance in South Tyneside now outstrips the national average, but in secondary schools there is a significant dip in performance. Sometimes there is a dip straight after the holidays for 11-year-olds. By the time they enter the first year of secondary school, we can see that they are being turned off education. Despite a recent positive Ofsted report on Harton comprehensive school in my constituency, there remains a huge issue about how we tackle a low expectation/low performance equilibrium in too many of our secondary schools.
Could I bring to my hon. Friend's attention a recent example from a visit to a low-expectation primary school in my constituency, which is providing a refuge for many children who live in problem homes where the parents are on drugs or are unemployed and on benefit? The children are sneaking out of the house to go to the school, which has become a refuge. However, when they go to Ribbleton Hall high secondary school, they find attendance difficult because they are locked into a culture of low expectation. Could my hon. Friend comment on his experiences of that nature in his constituency?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that interesting point. One of the significant things about English education that may be different from Scottish education is that the two transitions—first at 11 and then at 15 or 16—are points at which we lose far too many students from the education system. We lose their commitment and their interest. The example that my hon. Friend gives of pupils being given extra help up to the age of 11 who then slip back once they enter secondary school is a genuine problem in many constituencies. That lies behind some of the debate about the restructuring of the school year that has been started by hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning. Perhaps that will be one way of tackling the secondary dip, which is a significant problem.
The Government took some important steps in the last Parliament to tackle the serious problem of low expectation: first, in relation to target setting, where the determination to set ambitious targets for schools and pupils has been important in raising expectations; and secondly, in their determination to tackle the problems at key stage 3. It is too simplistic to talk about extending the literacy and numeracy strategies from key stage 2 into key stage 3. However, some of the principles that underlie the key stage 2 strategy—above all, the determination to learn from best practice as it is implemented by teachers around the country and then to spread that best practice—give an important example of how central Government can play a useful role in our education system.
At Mortimore comprehensive school, the maths teachers were clear that far from being over-regulation, the new key stage 3 strategy exposed them to best practice and helped them to improve their own provision.
Having said that, I do not believe that we can be in the least complacent about expectations, especially in areas of socio-economic need. The culture of high expectations needs to be reinforced, not simply in schools but in homes and in the community. I am delighted that South Tyneside local education authority, which last year failed its Ofsted report and is now under new leadership, has put at the centre of its new vision statement a determination to have high expectations of itself, as well as of pupils and teachers. If we are to have a culture of high expectations, it must apply to every institution in the education system.
It is also important to think long term. I wish to put on record some ideas that I think will be important in raising expectations, especially in areas where children do not have the exposure to university life that is perhaps the common experience elsewhere. First, in South Tyneside, two comprehensive schools are being closed to make way for a new school that is going to be opened in co-operation with the local further education college, creating a genuine 14-to-19 institution in the borough for the first time. That will break the divide at 16 which I believe does so much damage in the education system. That will contribute to a culture of staying on rather than dropping out.
The second idea concerns the role of universities. Many of our inner-city areas that have the poorest achievement levels are side by side with pioneering universities that are at the cutting edge of science and social studies. The role of universities in areas of poor achievement needs to be looked at more closely. I understand that the university of Teesside now requires that every undergraduate mentor a young person in the Middlesbrough area. That sort of interaction between university and school students is to be applauded.
I am pleased that the South Tyneside transformation commission, which was set up to consider the social and economic future of South Tyneside, is thinking about how to attract a university campus to the town. That would do a lot to raise expectations.
The second issue concerns the balance of targeted and general spending. There have been undoubted gains from the Government's determination to focus on literacy and numeracy in curricular as well as budgetary terms. Ring-fenced budgets have helped to deliver the improvements in primary schools. However, the undoubted benefits of ring-fenced budgets should not blind us to the problems that that can cause for head teachers. Their enthusiasm for the Chancellor's largesse every year in sending money direct to schools, creating free money for them to use as they will, seems significant as we think about the spending decisions ahead. The flexibility exists for head teachers to deploy resources as they want rather than according to Government diktat. The reduction of the standards fund from 42 separate categories to only six is an important step in that regard.
In the context of the teachers' pay discussions, it is important not to pretend that delegated budgets end the need for tough choices about where money should be spent. However, this is the right context in which to think about the arguments on performance-related pay and funding above the threshold. It is important to recognise and remember that the threshold payments are fully funded by central Government—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. The issue at stake is what happens above the threshold.
Legitimate points are being made on both sides of the argument by good, committed head teachers and the Government that there must be a balance between ring-fenced funds and general expenditure. It is vital to have a dialogue between head teachers, who are committed and are proud of the way in which they implemented the Government's performance-related pay programme, and the Government, whose point is that, however much money there is, it will ultimately have to be deployed in different ways. There is enough common interest, given the extra money going into the system, to sort out the problem.
The third issue concerns how we compensate for social disadvantage in the funding system. I welcome the expansion of the excellence in cities programme; the quibbling about whether education action zones fall within the programme or are separate is not to the point. The important point is that we are expanding targeted provision on areas of socio-economic disadvantage. It is significant that relative social mobility in this country has not changed in 100 years. That is the central challenge for education as we think forward to the spending review, because children from lower socio-economic classes are disadvantaged.
In the context of higher education, I say to Mr. Rendel that the main reason why children from lower socio-economic classes do not go into education is not student finance but performance in secondary schools. The best predictor of entry into university is GCSE performance rather than anything else. Our first priority is to improve performance in secondary schools.
The shadow Secretary of State did not mention training. I am disappointed that individual learning accounts were not sufficiently successful and did not overcome the problems that ultimately forced them to be closed down. The principle of ILAs, to empower adult learners, is absolutely right. Skills, however, need to be linked to work. The work of the north-east maritime and offshore cluster is determined to build a centre of excellence in offshore and estuarial industry in the north-east. There is a unique opportunity to create a regional and sectoral approach to the revival of individual learning accounts, and I hope that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend John Healey, will look favourably on this in future.
On recent visits to France and Germany, I was struck by the huge national debate about the failings of the education system. The shadow Secretary of State told us about his visit to Germany; when he flashed open the issue of The Teacher, I saw the headline "Deutschland uber Alles" as a description of Germany's education system.
I thank the hon. Gentlemen for their correction. In this context, it is not "Deutschland uber Alles". The evidence is that the UK is doing better for 15-year-olds, which is a significant compliment to our teaching force.
It really takes gall for the party that cut education spending to below 5 per cent. of gross domestic product to complain about the money available for teacher retention. It is the ultimate hypocrisy for a party that completely ignored the needs of inner-city education now to quibble about how education action zones are organised. It is record-breaking amnesia for the party that took us to 42nd in the world education league now to lecture us about standards. It is also bad politics for the party that was 40 per cent. behind the Government in its education performance in the last MORI opinion poll to be all bluster and no humility. It is time for that party to listen a little more, and lecture a little less.
In the end, there is no value in an Opposition who cannot see improved performance in front of their own eyes. The Government can set a better example—listening, learning and adapting their policies on the basis of what is happening on the ground. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to some of my ideas.
Having listened to Mr. Miliband, I wonder whether there is an urban-rural divide on education and skills. When individual learning accounts crashed and disappeared, many people were disfranchised. My constituency covers much of rural Somerset. My constituents could not get to Taunton, where the providers were located. ILAs had provided money for transport, but when it was no longer provided many of my constituents lost their places and, through no fault of their own, could not continue their further education. That problem has not been rectified. People have to travel 40 miles to a place of further education, without proper rural infrastructure.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman praise a Labour initiative and that he wants ILAs to return in improved form. What provision did the Conservative Government make for his constituents before ILAs were in place?
ILAs were a complete disaster—and they were got rid of because they were a disaster. If the hon. Gentleman had listened more carefully, he would have realised that his party disfranchised a major part of my constituency. I can assure you that people working in further education, especially FE colleges, are extremely cross about that. It is your fault.
People from rural areas being excluded from further education is not the only problem. In one part of my patch, there is only one college. A child who is excluded from that college has nowhere else to go. Children cannot get to another school, because there is no other school in the area. Somerset county council has tried to provide for excluded children, but because resources are tight—the position in rural areas has worsened over the past few years—no provision has been made for children who cannot be taught in mainstream schools.
One might say that few children from rural areas are affected, but 124 of the 1,200 pupils at West Somerset college have special needs, which gives us some idea of the scale of the problem. There is no easy way of excluding children. We are told that they can go to their nearest further education college, but in my constituency Bridgwater college is nearly 40 miles away, and the lack of funding means that it cannot attract teachers. For years, every school in my area has applied for teachers, but simply cannot get them. Rural people may have quality of life but they lack the ability to further a career if they are ambitious. Such people understandably go to urban areas, but that does not help the rural areas that I represent.
All the colleges in my area are applying for special status. Resources are so depleted that they feel that they must raise the £50,000 required to apply for that status. One has acquired it, two more are in the process of doing so, and the other three are starting to raise the money. Local businesses in west Somerset raised £65,000 in three weeks. People's concern about the quality of their children's education was such that they felt that they had no choice but to put their hand in their own pocket as the Government will not provide the money.
What will happen to the colleges in my area? There are three: Somerset college of arts and technology, Bridgwater college and Richard Huish college. They are now in competition owing to the lack of resources. SCAT in Taunton has decided that it cannot compete with Bridgwater college and has cut courses and numbers. Bridgwater college is doing well as it has a tie-up scheme with the University of Plymouth—complicated or what?
Surely we must keep education simple so that children know where they will be from start to finish. If they do not go on to university, they should be able to follow their chosen course of further education in their local area. However, they cannot do that in our area because of uncertainty about courses.
The lack of rural transport affects the competition between colleges. It is difficult for students to attend one of the best colleges because the bus service is so limited. Unless the service is subsidised by the college or the county council—neither can do so—pupils cannot attend all their courses, which is a major concern.
I have a few other concerns to raise, although I realise that many Members want to speak. I have received many representations from teachers in my constituency about the gathering of postcodes and children's names for the school census. Until 1999, the census was based on unique pupil numbers. I do not disagree with the collection of information—it is right to find out where pupils are and to assess whether high mobility has an effect on their achievement—but why do the Government need to collect the names, addresses and postcodes of individual children? When I questioned that, I was told that the data would be widely used by DFES policy divisions, other Departments, local education authorities, external agencies and education researchers.
Teachers have rightly pointed out that if a child's name is retained on a database, his or her chance of getting a job or of securing further education may be prejudiced by problems that are not relevant to their situation. Teachers question whether they should provide such information. One of them pointed out that to do so might breach the European convention on human rights; that is a great concern to teachers in my area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that an even more insidious aspect of the annual school census is the collection of ethnicity data on every pupil at a maintained school? The Government have made no commitment to wipe such information at the end of pupils' school careers.
I agree with my hon. Friend, although ethnicity information is not as important in my constituency as it is in some areas.
What safeguards are there for our children? How can we ensure that children's careers are not blighted, through no fault of their own, by leaked databases? If the secret service cannot prevent that in Northern Ireland, what hope is there for the DFES?
There has been much discussion of who is providing what. I discovered the learning and skills framework for action in the minutes of the meeting of the south west regional assembly held in Exeter on
"to ensure the highest quality" in sectors such as nuclear power generation, automotive, marine, aerospace and petrochemicals, but we do not train children in those sectors in our area, so why are we spending money on such matters? I also wonder why Government money that should go to teachers is being spent on the learning skills intelligence module of the regional observatory—I did not know that we had one in the south-west.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right to mention that centre, but why do the regional assembly and the RDA have to do such things? Why cannot such things be done through further education and organisations dedicated to teaching, as opposed to unelected quangos?
I wonder about adult skills in the workplace. The RDA has now had vital discussions with 137 participants, and with 70 participants across the region. That is education by committee. We are all concerned about education, and if the Government want education to be taken seriously, they should not educate by committee but involve the people who understand—the teachers—not the leaders of various district and county councils.
Finally, I was amazed to notice that £3.7 million is being spent on considering where money should be spent on education in our region. Why is the Department for Education and Skills or the Government office for the south-west not doing so?
There is an education gap between urban and rural areas and resources are not reaching the children in the way that they should. In my experience, teachers are incredibly worried that there are not enough of them to provide the service in the areas that need it most, because people in those areas have the least choice in this country and are least able to get where they need to go.
In opening the debate, Mr. Green criticised the Government for referring in their amendment to investment, but the debate is about investment—investment in the next generation. If we fail to make that investment, we will fail the next generation. In parlance that you and I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I do not expect you to arbitrate on it from your position—the hon. Gentleman's problem was that he opened the batting, but fell on his wicket at an early stage. He missed a series of things that are happening, but my hon. Friend Mr. Miliband and other hon. Members helpfully informed told the House of the positive things that are happening in their constituencies.
I have been desperately concerned about the problems of a series of schools in my constituency—some of which date back to the beginning of the 20th century, and some even before that—whose facilities were no longer adequate to provide a modern education service. The imaginative public-private partnership that has been put together represents an exceptionally good investment, and I look forward to seeing the project develop.
There is an area of real deprivation in the town centre. Hon. Members who understand the chemical industry will understand that, close to chemical plants, there is now always a belt of housing where people live in relative deprivation. Years ago, those people commuted to the plants, but now, because of technology, the industry pays much higher wages to fewer people, and the people in that little belt of housing often find themselves socially excluded in various ways, not least in education. The education action zone in that community is having a profound effect on the quality of education.
A head teacher, who had complained to me about previous problems, told me how grateful he was that, as a result of the EAZ, he had six classroom assistants. He needs six classroom assistants. Many schools in better-off areas do not need such support, but he is dealing with a number of children who come from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, so additional investment is desperately needed. The sure start programme is having similar effects in that community, as a result of real investment in the next generation.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have been in correspondence about provision for a further education college that is in recovery. The business process that was being applied to the management of resources was not adequate. The Government, through the Further Eduction Funding Council, had to intervene and take remedial action. That action is leading to positive responses, including plans being drawn up for new college buildings.
Some Labour Members feel nostalgic about the Grange centre in my constituency. Before becoming an FE college, it was a secondary modern school that was attended by none other than my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I say to my right hon. Friend in the kindest way that I look forward to his classroom being demolished and replaced by a modern institute appropriate to the needs of students. The college has recently been inspected. It is now achieving standards that were not reached under the previous regime.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards will visit my constituency in the near future. He will see two examples of the effects of investment. First, he will see an almost brand new primary school, Brookside, which has been open for only a few months. It has brought together—[Interruption.] Not that Brookside. Mr. Brady clearly spends his early evenings watching soaps. Brookside primary school brought together two schools that were in a poor physical state. As a result of a rebuild programme, some imaginative architecture and some brilliantly imaginative teachers, education is being delivered in a brand new school that is a credit to everyone involved.
I am extremely proud that it is a Labour Government who have at last put resources into the Hammond school for dance, which is on the outskirts of Chester. For the first time, moneys will go to support state pupils at the Hammond school. With the greatest respect to my colleagues who represent constituencies in the south-east, it is about time that we saw such investment in the north of the country. It is the first time such investment has been made outside the south-east.
Last Friday, I gave a public lecture at Chester college in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ms Russell. The college is participating in the training of 1,500 nurses. That is an exceptionally good use of the expansion of resources that has resulted from investment in higher and further education in my area.
I agreed with a couple of points made by Mr. Rendel. We must raise the profile of the teaching of science, mathematics and technology. We must enthuse school children about the exciting possibilities that those technologies will bring to them. I daily see a lack of understanding of science in the community, which impacts on people's judgments about things that surround them.
On the positive side, work is being done by the Hadley centre on oceanographic research, about which children enthuse. The same is true of the work of the European Space Agency, NASA and Bob Ballard's research project in submarine activities in the United States. Such work is at the cutting edge of science and has a tangible dimension; we need to give our children access to such things to ensure that they understand where the cutting-edge technologies are taking us and why their involvement in practical science will be of benefit in future. Otherwise, a generation will grow up getting their science from pressure groups and so on; that generation's science will be based on a bigoted view, such as the creationism to which the hon. Member for Newbury referred, rather than proper research undertaken in the laboratory and the world around us.
I would not stop the observations of people who regard themselves as creationists being explained to children, but I would use properly taught science to put those observations in context. For example, the next step above the one bearing the plaque about Charles I's trial in Westminster Hall contains a wonderful coral fossil; science can be used to explain cogently that that fossil is more than 200 million years old, not 4,000 years and a few days. Such science, taught properly in schools, can help to excite the next generation.
The Government have done a huge amount to apply technology in schools. At Brookside school, which I mentioned earlier, the internet, including internet whiteboards, is an immensely powerful tool. We must make sure not only that our pupils are ready to grasp that tool but that our teachers are properly equipped to deal with those technologies and can pass on their benefits to their students.
In conclusion, I am sure that the Under-Secretaries of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friends the Members for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) and for Wentworth (John Healey), are pressing their case firmly in the comprehensive spending review. I am sure that most Members would back them solidly to maintain the pressure for continued investment. The Government have made such investment in the past four and a half years, but if that does not continue, standards will decline. That point impacts on some of those made by the hon. Member for Newbury, who was right that people's perceptions of education are based on a system in which there has been poor investment for a couple of generations. The advances that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields sought to promote cannot take place unless we have a Government who continue to make a positive investment in the next generation.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. No Opposition Member wants to denigrate the teaching profession. I was briefly a teacher in Australia, and know how hard teaching is; I had a tough time of it. I shall shortly concentrate on an issue pertaining to my own constituency, but I cannot resist holding the Government to account for the manifest failings of their teaching policies.
The Government promise, to which the Liberal Democrat spokesman alluded, has a hollow ring for those of us who have children in state education in inner London. The Government promised "Education, education, education," but last week, my children were not in education at all; they were knocking around at home. I have no hesitation in using my children as a political football, because they always use me as a football. The Government should apologise to those of us with children in state education in inner London; despite their promise of "Education, education, education", they have devolved it to us. What greater failure of government could there be than to precipitate the first strike of the National Union of Teachers in 30 years, resulting in my family having educate our children at home last Thursday?
Anybody who listens to teachers, as I do in my constituency, and hears their horrendous tales of top-down control and having to fill in forms, knows that, contrary to the Government's assertions, the Opposition have good ideas for alleviating those problems.
Here is an idea for the man who wants to ban fox hunting, which I offer in all humility. It may not be as good as some of the brainy ideas of Mr. Miliband, who went on about benchmarking, best practice and socio-economic indicators—there was some good and interesting stuff about low expectation thresholds and so on—but I am genuinely interested in the Government's response to it. When I visit schools in my constituency, I am struck by the lack of something that teachers had when I was at school: respect, in the words of Ali G—[Interruption.] The groans of Government Members are interesting; I suspect that, sadly, they are congenitally opposed to the solution that I am about to give.
Head teachers in my constituency tell me that they cannot oblige children to spend half an hour picking up crisp packets as punishment for a misdemeanour, because their parents will come to the school and get stroppy. They have no authority any more. It may be pompous of me to talk about respect in the classroom, but I think that, having taken the trouble of being elected to Parliament, I am allowed to be pompous. It is important to restore respect. I am earnest in wishing to know whether or not the Under-Secretary of State, John Healey, agrees that that is a fundamental problem in our schools.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many of the kids at school today are the children of people of my generation? Twenty years ago, when my generation was looking for work, there were 4 million unemployed people; our generation did not get much respect from the previous Government. Kids today are the children of those parents.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reiterating the old cry that it is all society's and, presumably, Mrs. Thatcher's, fault. Personally, however, I do not think that she is to blame. There has been a calamitous falling-off in the respect in which teachers are held. Teachers used to be people who did not just impart instruction, but were treated with dignity, honour and respect by their charges. It would be a good thing if that respect were restored. We should give back autonomy to teachers, as my hon. Friend Mr. Green said, as well as the ability to discipline children; we should restore the old assumption that teachers, not children or parents, tend to be in the right.
I thank the hon. Member for Pomposity on Thames for giving way. How did the previous Government, whom he supported, show respect for teachers, when they allowed class sizes to become unacceptably large and teachers to teach in schools, laboratories and classrooms that were 30, 40 or 50 years out of date? Only recently has that problem begun to be addressed.
It ill becomes the hon. Gentleman to return again, as his hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick did, to the so-called derelictions of the Conservative Government, when it is the present Government who have produced the first NUT strike in 30 years and who are depriving my children of the education that they promised. [Interruption.] I will not take sedentary interventions from a chap of whose identity I have no knowledge.
I promised to speak about a problem pertaining specifically to my constituency, Henley, and to south Oxfordshire, so I shall pass over my other objections to the Government's generally lax policy on education, particularly their divisiveness and chippiness in respect of Oxbridge admissions. The Government allegedly intend to introduce a 67 per cent. quota for admissions from the maintained sector. I should be interested to hear the comments of the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Wentworth, on that.
I am delighted to see the Minister in his seat. We have become old friends in the course of the unfolding catastrophe of the individual learning accounts. Some hon. Members may not be familiar with the disaster of the ILA affair. This is how it went: from September 2000, anyone could avail him or herself of £200 to cover the cost of computer training, a very good thing which we all, in principle, support. People dialled up a website, entered their name and supplied the name of their learning provider. They then received an ILA account number and could claim their £200 from the state.
It will not amaze the House if I say that the scheme was an invitation to fraud. In order to find a learning provider, people merely had to look in the mirror. It later turned out that a CD-ROM was available with ILA numbers to help people rip off the Government. The scheme was expected to have 1.1 million subscribers; it eventually had 2.5 million. It went 30 per cent. over budget and those who have reason to know say that the total cost was in excess of £550 million, half of which was defrauded from the Government by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Del Boy Trotter and assorted other alleged purveyors—
The hon. Gentleman should withdraw that assertion. I came nowhere near to defrauding the individual learning account system. My entire purpose in the debate is to speak in favour of those who honestly entered into deals with the Government and found themselves ripped off by the Government's breach of promise.
The Minister has been generous with his time and has been helpful in my inquiries so far. Can he tell us what steps are being taken to penalise Capita, a firm with close links to the Government, and which paid £50 million to run the ILA scheme? It was a spectacular failure of administration. Why was Capita hired, when it had a history of epic bungling? For example, it was put in charge of administering Lambeth's housing benefit. Lambeth later cancelled the contract and pursued Capita for its fee after it emerged that there was a backlog of 30,000 claims and no fewer than 113,000 unopened letters. Many other councils had similar experiences with the company.
What steps are the Government taking to penalise the bunglers that they hired, and what steps to compensate the many hundreds of honest learning providers who have been faced with financial ruin because of the Government's panic-stricken pulling of the plug? We still do not know why it was necessary to close down the ILA scheme in November, rather than to modify it, make it fraud-proof, and allow the bona fide firms to continue.
People took out loans or remortgaged their houses and invested huge amounts of their own time and money, in the belief, backed up by constant Government assurances, that they were supplying a service that the Government not only desired but would help to pay for. They have been treated most shabbily. I speak not just for the Henley community online centre, which has been forced to close, but for about 1,000 other such companies across the country, which, as the Minister well knows, employed about 4,500 people. About £50 million of investment has been taken out of higher education. We still do not know how or when it will be put back. Though I have taxed the Minister before on the question, I should be grateful if he offered some clarification at the end of the debate.
Where is the compensation for those whose legitimate expectations inspired by the Government were frustrated, and where is the replacement scheme? If the Government are really committed to higher education, we will have a son of ILA; if not, many hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of firms will learn the same lesson about the Government as the disappointed parents of London did: that Labour promised far more than it could deliver, and when it found that it was falling down on its promises, it ratted on them without so much as turning a hair. If that is how the Government honour their undertakings this time, they cannot expect to be believed in the future.
I am grateful to the Opposition for calling the debate today. It is not long since we had a debate on education in Opposition time, and on that occasion I took 24 minutes, as I recall, to describe some of the major improvements that have taken place in High Peak and Derbyshire since the Government came to power. I got so excited in my enthusiasm that the only reason I sat down was sheer exhaustion. The opportunity to carry on where I left off is a temptation, indeed.
I remember describing to the House the four new schools that we have had in my constituency in four years; the fact that more than half the schools have had extra classrooms, extensions or major capital investment; the fact that in Derbyshire we had the worst key stage 1 class sizes in the country, and we now have no child in an infant class of more than 30; the fact that we now have the highest standards of achievement ever in our schools in Derbyshire; the fact that we have had single regeneration budget cash to tackle the shortfall in adult literacy; and the fact that we have had better than inflation standard spending assessment increases in Derbyshire education spending every year. The House knows these things. They are established facts.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that his A-level in telepathy was worth while. Yes, I am about to point out that Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and other shire counties receive substantially smaller amounts expressed in terms of SSA per primary school pupil and per secondary school pupil. We are 6 or 7 per cent. adrift of the average county and 13 or 14 per cent. adrift of Hertfordshire. Does my hon. Friend, like me, look forward with some anticipation to the ability of the new formula to redress that injustice?
Indeed. Unfortunately, the matter is not within the remit of the Department for Education and Skills. There is no point in reforming the defunct Tory system of SSAs, unless it is done in a way that will benefit people in the consistently underfunded counties such as Derbyshire and Leicestershire, as my hon. Friend explained.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. In Hertfordshire, our costs are very much higher than in other counties. That has been recognised, and that is why we get the extra SSA. Does he accept that?
I accept that teachers are paid on a national pay scale, that Hertfordshire teachers and Derbyshire teachers are paid on the same rates, and that the vast majority of the education budget goes on teachers. My hon. Friend and I could continue the discussion in private, perhaps.
I shall continue with the list of achievements. As a former teacher, I congratulate the Government on the fact that they have taken seriously teachers' arguments about work load. I accept the argument that there are teacher vacancies not because we have a historic shortage of teachers, but because we have created new teaching opportunities faster than we have been able to fill them. I am delighted to say that in the primary schools of High Peak, we are seeing the benefit of classroom assistants. Teachers in those primary schools tell me that they did not think that classroom assistants could produce such a benefit, how grateful they are that they have them, and what a wonderful job they can do to add to the community life of the school.
Earlier, hon. Members referred to the number of people who qualified as teachers but who are no longer teaching, and to the drop-out rates. I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's reply. But there will be teachers who, like me, started to teach in the mid-1970s, who will recall that at that time there was a three-year watershed, and the number of teachers who qualified then and who were still in the job five years later was not that high. I suspect that it was not even as good as it is today.
In the 1970s, teachers who did not feel satisfied had somewhere else to go. Throughout the recessions of the 80s and 90s, teachers who, after a few years, felt that teaching was not the job for them, did not have the same opportunity to get out. Given that we are now retaining teachers at an historically high level at a time of a thriving economy, when we all know that we are unlikely to end our career in the profession where we started it, our achievement is significant.
No teachers have complained to me that they have received the £2,000 bonus unjustifiably, and the pay increases for the average classroom teacher during the past few years will ensure that, when we address the work load issue and other things that will benefit teachers, the retention level will be still higher; and we will have well motivated teachers with high morale contributing to the excellence of the service that is provided.
I return to the point that I made earlier to Mr. Green in an intervention about teacher morale. When I was on Derbyshire county council from 1993 to 1997, there was only ever one item on the agenda, and that was cuts. Year after year, we were forced to cut our education budget as a result of the Government's use of the iniquitous SSA system, to allow class sizes to rise, and to decimate our youth service—a non-statutory provision within the education budget; in short, we let our education service go to seed. I am delighted that that situation has been reversed and I look forward to that progress continuing.
I want to touch briefly on two areas that I was unable to cover in my previous contribution on this subject during an Opposition day debate; they are higher education and—Mr. Johnson will be pleased to know—independent learning accounts and adult learning generally.
On higher education, I want to tell the House of another success story. Shortly after I was elected to this place, I helped to negotiate the merger between the High Peak further education college and the university of Derby, one of the first mergers of its kind. It is already a success, not just because of the prestige of the degree courses provided but because the university has been enabled to develop in a new and comprehensive way to serve a rural community. The university has now pioneered distance learning. It has outposts in factories, community halls, libraries and even pubs throughout Derbyshire, where people can access courses online, particularly those that are vocationally oriented.
At the same time, the university has acquired our most famous and prestigious historical building, the Devonshire Royal hospital in Buxton, with a dome bigger than almost any other dome of its kind in the world. It is a beautiful building that the university is developing into a brand new campus, saving our heritage site, and delivering in the centre of Buxton, not just for High Peak but for the whole country, high level courses in subjects at the heart of the local economy, such as sustainable tourism and hospitality-related issues. The most important aspect of the university is that it is bringing real education opportunities to ordinary people, whether from a traditional university background or otherwise.
It has been fascinating to hear Opposition Members' views on individual learning accounts. They are right; what has happened is an embarrassment, and there is no getting away from that. It should not have happened. But they were over-subscribed. They were brought in to provide a service that had not hitherto been provided. Independent learning accounts gave many ordinary people their first opportunity. It was the first time since they had left school that they had got the message that education was for them. With a £200 computer literacy and information technology course, people had the opportunity to further their professional development and vocational ambitions, in many cases finding that an extra dimension, an extra value, had been given to their lives. People on doorsteps have said, "Thank heavens for the ILA. Thank heavens I went back into education." Having done one course, they have gone on to do another.
In my constituency, there has also been the excellent sure start initiative; this nursery scheme, which I commend to hon. Members, will shortly bring adult learning within its framework. Those parents who are benefiting from sure start will find opportunities for learning themselves in parallel with their children, and I commend that excellent initiative to others.
Today, education is open to all. ILAs, the university of Derby and the learning and skills council are co-ordinating post-16 education generally. The Minister will know that Derbyshire has one or two problems with the funding of the learning and skills council and the post-16 budget, and I am sure that he or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are about to sort those out—I look forward to that. I certainly look forward to the replacement of ILAs with something more sustainable that takes the values of ILAs and applies them more widely.
I look forward, as my hon. Friend David Taylor said, to the end of the SSA system, and to a fair, transparent and constructive system that will get rid of that nasty, divisive, politically corrupt system that we used to have under SSAs, when counties such as Derbyshire were singled out for bad treatment by the Tory Government year after year. Next April will see the end of the SSA system and I am confident that we will have a much fairer and more transparent system which will be another break with the past, another break with the Tory tradition of cuts, and another opportunity to invest, invest, invest in education for all. 6.17 pm
I am interested to hear of the enthusiasm of Mr. Levitt for changes to the SSA system. As a representative of a constituency that does not always see itself as part of the south-east, I echo the concerns of Mr. Pollard. Where will the money come from? Will it be drained from the education authorities in the south-east, and particularly in London? With the London elections coming up, it behoves the Government to answer that question. If more is going to Derbyshire and other areas, more will come from somewhere else, and I should like the Minister to answer that point.
I want to devote most of my time to ILAs. I have a letter from Mrs. Barnes of Cowes who says:
"Thirty-five years ago I left school"— she then gives her age—
"I hadn't taken full advantage of or appreciated my education but now I feel I had been given a second chance . . . Teachers at my Secondary school thought I would not amount to much. I can proudly say under the ILA scheme and dedicated team of tutors I am fully versed in Sage Accountancy for Beginners and Intermediate level, database and publishing, the prospects are good for me; I now manage a small roofing company".
Another of my constituents says that she can now get a part-time job using what she learned in the ILA system. She says:
"If I had not done this training I would still be looking for a job."
Yet another of my constituents says:
"I had been working in a shop for 10 years and had got very bored with it and I have always wanted to do office work. I attended the courses so I could get some experience behind me. I am thrilled to have passed six exams with distinction."
In quoting those constituents, I am illustrating not only some of the successes of the ILA scheme—it is only fair to recognise them—but the aspirations of many people who have not had the benefit of the education that many hon. Members on both sides of the House share. Unfortunately, the Government have damaged those aspirations and have let down many other people who have taken advantage of the ILA system, and they have let down the providers as well.
I shall quote some more of my constituents. A gentleman who had benefited from the ILA scheme but who is worried about what will happen in the future said:
"There aren't many, if any, other courses that the average working person can get help with."
A lady who was asked whether she was disappointed to see the scheme finish said:
"Very disappointed. When I first saw the scheme advertised I thought it was too good to be true, a scheme that was actually helping employed people for a change at a price that was affordable."
Another lady who was asked whether she was disappointed said:
"Yes, very much so. There are very few, if any courses that can be taken if you are a working person. Cost is not a problem if you are highly paid or on benefit, but it is if you have an average job and only earning £5.72 per hour."
A gentleman whom I shall not name described the situation most graphically. When asked whether he was disappointed to see the scheme finish, he said:
"Yes! Low income people get kicked in the nuts again by central government."
That is because central Government have failed to introduce and maintain successfully what was a very good idea.
I congratulate Government on having the idea, and on the idea of a voucher for further education and training. The voucher idea is brilliant, and I wish that it could be widened to other disciplines, too. However, it had two fatal flaws. First, as my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson described, the Government saw the scheme being abused, and they took precipitate action to close it, thereby losing the confidence of the users and the providers. Many of those people will not try again—having got halfway through a course, or having decided to embark on a course, they will have lost their confidence, and they did not have much confidence to start with. They will feel that the Government have let them down because of the panic with which they closed the scheme.
Of course I understand that there was fraud and abuse, although the Government seem to have had difficulty in describing exactly what is abuse and what is an enterprising new approach to marketing a scheme and getting new people to take advantage of learning who would otherwise not have done so. However, I am concerned that the Government went from their announcement on
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned Capita. Perhaps 180,000 unopened letters in Lambeth under Capita's regime was an improvement on the previous regime in that borough, or perhaps not. However, Capita has let down the Government and the users. However, the providers have also been let down, for the reasons on which my hon. Friend expatiated. The providers invested their money, time and energy—in some cases, they mortgaged their homes—and some of them have gone bust because the Government do not accept responsibility for that participation.
The Government were selling a "Government scheme" to a range of private sector providers, many of which are small businesses that can ill afford to offer the Government their trust and have it so badly abused. It is no good for the Government to say, "Don't worry, we had no contract with the small providers." If the Government let them down this time, as they have done, and if they see nothing wrong in letting them down—they do not—the small providers will not be available when the Government relaunch the ILA scheme, as I hope that they will do soon. The small providers will say, "Once bitten, twice shy." They will not get involved in a Government scheme of this kind unless there is a clear and unambiguous contract. I cannot hear what Ms Atherton is muttering from a sedentary position. I shall give way to her if she has something useful to say.
If they have gone bust—as many of them have done—they will find it difficult. If the hon. Lady is saying that they should have the same trust in the Government as they had under the previous scheme, I am sure that they will look into the history books and find that the Government pulled the plug on the providers and the users precipitately, and they will not get involved in a future scheme. Of course the big boys will get involved. It is good for big business, but it is no good at all for small businesses. It is good for the public sector, but no good for those in the private sector who risk their money, their livelihoods and their bank loans. That is one of the problems faced by the Minister in launching a new ILA scheme.
The second problem—that of the single target—is one on which I sympathise with the Minister, as he inherited it from his predecessor. The Government set one target only for the ILA scheme—1 million participants by 2002. Close questioning of Ministers, civil servants and Capita by the Select Committee on Education and Skills has revealed only one target for the scheme—membership. There was nothing about quality, need or targeting those most in need. That is not satisfactory. It is not satisfactory to use so much public money without any guarantee of quality. I genuinely sympathise with the Minister on that.
I also sympathise with the Minister—again, this was revealed in the evidence that Capita provided to the Education and Skills Committee—because the Government changed the basis of the scheme after Capita had been named as the preferred provider and had started to develop the computer scheme. The Government withdrew the connection with the learndirect list of registered providers, which was one of the quality mechanisms in place before the scheme was advertised. So, one month before the scheme was launched, the then Department for Education and Employment admitted that that connection could not be provided. Capita was let down, and the users and other providers of the scheme, as it turned out, were let down, too.
I find the Minister not guilty on the last two counts, but the Government are certainly guilty. However, I fear that I find both the Government and the Minister guilty on the first count of closing the scheme precipitately and in a panic, and of damaging the interests of users and providers.
Quite a lot of former teachers have contributed to this debate. As someone who taught in comprehensive schools for about 15 years, who has been a governor of several schools for about 20 years, and whose nine-year-old daughter is studying in a primary school at the moment, I honestly do not recognise the education system described by the hon. Members for Ashford (Mr. Green) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I shall not quote from briefings but talk about what is happening in my constituency.
I wish to refer to a secondary modern school that was built roughly about the time that I was growing up. It did not have a particularly good reputation, but it is now a specialist technology college. Just a few weeks ago, I was approached by a teacher at the Southfield technology college, who had tremendous pride in the college. As I said, the school did not have a particularly good reputation, but the teacher told me that the specialist technology college had just had its Ofsted report and the Ofsted inspector had said that it was the best school that she had visited in 18 years. The teacher, with a smile on his face and pride in his voice, told me that the college was now going forward as a result of Labour policy.
We had two further education colleges—one in Workington and one in Whitehaven—and the fabric of the buildings at both was deteriorating. However, the new Lakes college—it used to be called the West Cumbria college—was funded with £12 million of investment. It is superb. It is the first brand-new college for further education in the area and provides first-class education for the people of west Cumbria. Furthermore, £500,000 of investment went into a new all-weather facility at Cockermouth school, and I have seen new language labs, teaching facilities, science labs and drama facilities. I could go on and on. There has been tremendous investment in the schools in my constituency.
I taught for 11 years at Netherhall school, and returned there recently. I finished teaching there in 1994, but many of the teachers with whom I taught are still at the school. I accept that there are recruitment and retention problems, but they do not exist across the country. They are found in specific areas.
No one would dispute that there are challenges ahead. Teachers in my constituency say that they face distinct challenges, but they also point to the huge improvements in education. The Government and their policies are going in the right direction. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier, the secondary head teacher of the school where I am a governor told me that he had never known a time when the quality of his pupils was so good. He said that the school could do so much more in years 7 and 8 because of the primary education that his pupils had received. Part of that involved the numeracy and the literacy hours.
I have been talking about my experience in my constituency, and teachers are not balloting for strike action there. However, I remember that, when I was a teacher in Maryport in the 1980s, the NUT balloted its members on strike action. When I discuss education with my former colleagues, I recognise the problems and challenges. However, I also ask them to think back to the 1980s and when we taught together. I can think of temporary classrooms that should have been bulldozed 20 years earlier, but which were still in place. I remember holding fund-raising events not to raise money for a new sports centre, but to raise money to paint classrooms and for exercise books and text books. When I ask them to think back to the 1980s, they cringe because they remember that time so distinctly.
I also want to refer to resources. A head teacher recently told me that he had never known a time in which so much investment was going into schools and in which schools had so many resources at their disposal. Although Opposition Members would deny this, they have criticised the teaching profession. Some of the best primary and secondary schools in the country are in my constituency and the league tables demonstrate that. When we try to attract inward investment to my constituency, one of our selling points is the quality of education provided. We say to people who want to invest, "Come to this constituency because of the quality of life and because of the quality of the primary and secondary education that your children will receive."
Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the teaching profession. It might be argued that, as a former teacher, I am bound to do that, but teachers do an incredibly difficult job incredibly well. The same applies to the support staff, the governors and everyone associated with education.
On recruitment and retention, I agree with Mr. Rendel. One way of ensuring that we do not retain or recruit is to act like the Opposition and run down education, criticise teachers and say nasty things about them. If the Opposition want to recruit teachers and provide them with respect and status, I hope that they will join me in saying that teachers do an incredible job.
Challenges lie ahead and, of course, everything is not right in the education system. However, the Government have put the building blocks in place and genuine improvements have occurred in primary and secondary schools. Let us give credit to the Government and pay tribute to the enormously hard-working teaching profession.
This has been a wide-ranging debate characterised by passion for the subject, which is not unusual. It is no surprise that we have ranged widely, because wherever one considers education and those who are working hard—both students and staff—we find that the Government have put obstacles in their way.
I wish to make two points at the outset. First, no Conservative Member has criticised teachers. However, under a democracy, it is still possible to criticise the Government, and that is what we have done. Our support for teachers, particularly bearing in mind the burdens on them, is fulsome and genuine. Secondly, there are examples of good and bad practice at any time in the education system, under previous Governments or this one. That should not surprise anyone. However, the Secretary of State's repeated claim that 1997 was some sort of year zero is becoming increasingly wearing. The public find it incredible that nothing good happened before 1997, and the educational establishment is not fooled. The narrow-minded amnesia that she displays is wearing thin.
The issue before the House is whether the charge made by my hon. Friend Mr. Green has been proved. He alleged that our motion was justified because of Government failure, incompetence, broken promises and weakness. To what extent have those charges been proved in the debate?
First came a memorable speech from Mr. Rendel. We found out that, should he become Secretary of State for Education and Skills, he will be considerably more relaxed than the present Secretary of State. He was smoked out by my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin, because the hon. Gentleman said that the smoking of cannabis would make teaching easier. I have no doubt that he will reflect on the wisdom of his remarks, which caused surprise here and will, I suspect, cause considerable concern elsewhere.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he misquoted me completely. I never said that the smoking of cannabis by teachers would make them more relaxed or that the smoking of cannabis was a good idea in itself. I said that a change in the law so that cannabis was no longer illegal in the way that it is now would be a good idea and make the whole of society work a lot better.
The hon. Gentleman may prefer to consult Hansard, and then have another crack at it. I suggested that it was put to him that the smoking of cannabis would make teaching easier, with which he agreed.
We will draw a happy veil over the rest of the hon. Gentleman's speech, other than to pick out his admission that the Liberal Democrats in Scotland have not abolished tuition fees in higher education, but merely put them at the other end of the process.
I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not misquote the hon. Member for Newbury, who may refer to Hansard again in due course.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford focused on schools issues. He was supported by strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). The latter's speech was especially strong on bullying in schools, an issue of which, disappointingly, Labour Members made light.
Passionate speeches were made by Labour Members, including the hon. Members for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who did his promotion prospects no harm, for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who made his usual sound and fair contribution, for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), who made interesting comments on mergers between higher education and further education colleges, and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), whose praise for the Government was so fulsome that even Ministers might have been embarrassed by it. The House will forgive me if I concentrate on three other issues.
Higher education is apprehensive. Ministers say little about the problems of recruiting and retaining academic staff and funding research, or about a funding gap that Universities UK suggests is now £9 billion, but they do respond to other stimuli. They are turning the unwarranted attack into an art form—indeed, it is almost a policy in itself. Universities are not encouraged in their efforts to increase access to and participation in higher education but regularly hectored and condemned for not doing enough. Ministers conveniently forget that the pool of well-qualified post-16 pupils from non-traditional university backgrounds is simply not large enough. Their cries of "elitism" uttered at every turn to deflect criticism are becoming wearing.
Students with debt problems, inspiring headlines such as "Debt grows ever bigger and even more painful", are met by the Minister for Lifelong Learning with a discussion of their drinking habits. That does not accord students, many from non-traditional backgrounds who work long hours outside their studies to fund their time at university, the support and respect that they deserve.
Does my hon. Friend regret the emergence of a practice that affects one of my constituents: the selling on of student debt, in my constituent's case from Nationwide to Deutsche Bank? The student in question cannot ascertain from anyone what he owes and to whom he owes it. By the admission of his university office, the whole system is in "complete chaos".
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. If the Government concentrated on students real difficulties and concerns instead of making hectoring remarks about them, people would be much better informed.
Further education is a fantastic sector. Close to the need of students and local employers, FE colleges now teach a wider range of ability than ever before, and to an increasing extent, the pathway to higher education is through further education. Yet the Minister for Lifelong Learning decided not to encourage further education in recent remarks and speeches. Instead, she launched another unwarranted and silly attack that prompted an extraordinary response. Let me quote an open letter to her, dated
I write to express the deep concerns and, in very many quarters, the absolute anger of those professionals committed to the teaching and learning of four million students in our Further Education sector at the ill-conceived and dangerously misleading information you provided to the media in pre-briefings, in your Department's press release and to the conference on Raising Standards in Post 16 Learning this morning."
He goes on to quote examples of good practice in further education that the hon. Lady had either wilfully or neglectfully failed to mention. A Minister in that sector cannot expect to be taken seriously if she is at war with everyone in it, from universities to students and those in further education. She should reflect carefully on the image and reputation she is gaining.
The bulk of my remarks will deal with the individual learning accounts scandal, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Henley and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) addressed the substance of their remarks. It has been the most remarkable problem, caused substantially by Government incompetence. No one doubts that the idea was good—the hon. Member for High Peak mentioned people's enthusiasm for it—but that leads precisely to the point: those who needed ILAs most have been let down by the Government. That is becoming the Government's hallmark. Ms Atherton spoke about trust and whether anyone would trust the Government again. Those who have been let down will not trust them again.
To replace a voluntary training relief scheme that had been part of the Conservatives' overall education package for some years, the Government deliberately introduced a system of ILAs. The concept was perfectly right, but the mechanisms were fundamentally flawed, as the Government were told from the start. Let me read a few extracts from accounts of events in the Select Committee on Education and Skills. Under the heading, "Learning accounts 'not robust enough'", one article states:
"The government training grant scheme was not robust enough to stop fraudsters taking advantage, Department for Education officials have admitted."
The second account states:
"Training providers say security on the government's training accounts scheme was so poor that crooks could have accessed people's account numbers by guesswork."
The third states:
"Further education officials say they warned in advance that ILA training grants would be exploited by quick-footed 'Ferrari Nick' characters.
They say there is a need to protect training funding from scam merchants who exploit loopholes in the system to make a lot of money very quickly."
Setting Ferrari Nick against the Trabant that is the Department for Education and Skills was no contest.
A scheme full of flaws, set up by the Government even though they had been warned about them, produced a wholly distorted market. Those already involved in training had to participate in ILAs, otherwise they would have had no business. Despite the warnings about the scheme, which gradually began to collapse, the Government had no systems in place to isolate and deal with small problems without destroying the whole scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, the Government changed the parameters at a late stage and Capita could not deliver, so the whole scheme was lost. People who had students waiting to go on courses could not fulfil their obligations to them and had to meet the debts themselves.
Businesses have been lost, students have lost the chance of education, and jobs have been lost. Above all, the confidence of those needed to make the ILA system work has been lost. I cannot think of a more woeful disaster brought on by a combination of incompetence and a desperate desire to achieve a manifesto target at all costs, which was all that mattered to Ministers. The Government's hallmark is becoming the production of a target out of thin air—devil may care if it is not achieved and anyone is damaged in the attempt to achieve it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford set out to prove that the Government's education policy is in crisis because of weakness, incompetence, failed policies and inability to deliver to those who need it most. From what we have heard, that case is proved. Labour Members now have the opportunity to make a name for themselves. It is not true that the Whips respect the good boys: they respect those who are prepared to stand out and cause trouble. To Labour Members who know that the Government have let down their constituents, I say—paraphrasing Martine McCutcheon—"This is your moment. This is your perfect moment to say your piece." Too many people have been let down for too long and the Government's answers have been too poor. I invite the whole House to vote with the Opposition.
It is clear from today's debate and others that all hon. Members take an active interest in the schools in their constituencies. Fewer take such a close interest in their further education colleges, and not enough are aware of the skills needs of employers in their areas—a sad oversight, especially in view of the motion. Many hon. Members have spoken from personal experience and local knowledge. Some of the strongest contributions came from that perspective. My hon. Friend Mr. Miliband made a typically reflective and wide-ranging speech, displaying a strong concern for his constituency. He pointed out that the delegated schools budget has risen by 50 per cent. since the 1997 general election—the equivalent of £1,000 a pupil. Importantly, he stressed the need for a culture of high expectations, particularly in constituencies such as ours, and the importance of focusing our resources and efforts on those who are most disadvantaged.
Mr. Johnson—I am glad that he has returned to his place—detailed his constituency dealings, as well as some general points about individual learning accounts, to which I shall return later. His comments were echoed by Mr. Turner, who has made a significant contribution to the Select Committee's inquiries. He gave a balanced account of his concerns, and his contribution was more measured than the florid phrases of Mr. Green.
My hon. Friend Mr. Miller spoke with authority about the chemicals industry in his constituency. I should tell him that I launched a new sector skills council in Aberdeen this morning, which will enable us to reinforce the influence of employers in the chemicals, petroleum and extraction industry over future skills and learning provision.
Mr. Rendel took us to task over what he described as our failure to deal with school repairs sufficiently quickly. I should remind him that, since 1997, significant repairs have been made to 17,000 schools, and we have trebled capital investment in schools. In 1996–97, £683 million was invested; last year, more than £2 billion was invested; and by 2003–04, the figure will rise to £3.5 billion.
My hon. Friend Mr. Levitt spoke with the authority of a former teacher. He said that half the schools in his constituency have new classrooms or have undergone major repairs. He also talked about the four new schools there, and pointed out that the highest standards ever have been achieved. My hon. Friend Tony Cunningham—another former teacher—said that he did not recognise the Opposition's description of the education system. His view is shared by my hon. Friends and by many outside the House.
Alistair Burt, who wound up for the Opposition, touched on higher education, further education and individual learning accounts. I welcome his assertion that the concept of ILAs was perfectly right, and I shall return to the problems associated with them in a moment.
Those contributions were in contrast to that of the hon. Member for Ashford, who got the debate off to a dismal start. He accused my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of myth making and public relations polish, but there can hardly have been a Secretary of State for Education who was more blunt-speaking, knowledgable, experienced and ready to recognise the reality of the challenges that we in the education system face. It is simply not credible to talk of crisis. As every hon. Member knows, on visiting schools in our constituencies we see more books, more computers, more classrooms and more staff than we did in 1997.
I was also disappointed with other aspects of Opposition Front-Bench contributions. The Department that I am proud to serve is called the Department for Education and Skills, and although the title of the Opposition's motion indeed refers to education and skills, the hon. Member for Ashford made no mention of skills. It was left to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire to mention further education.
The UK work force are becoming better educated, but the demand for skills is growing and will continue to grow. Between now and 2010, eight out of 10 new jobs will demand level 3 skills or above. The employment rate for people with no qualifications is 60 per cent., and for those with level 2 qualifications or above, it is 80 per cent. However, 30 per cent. of our current work force do not have level 2 skills. A yet greater scandal is that 7 million adults—half those in work today—do not have the reading, writing and mathematics skills that we now expect of our 11-year-olds. That scandal has been left untackled for too long, and I am proud to say that—at last—we have a Government who are meeting that challenge. We are putting in place the necessary resources and a national programme, and tackling those basic literacy and numeracy problems by setting arguably the toughest targets anywhere in the education field.
As the Minister responsible for individual learning accounts, I shall now deal with them. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight made clear through the testimonies of his constituents, ILAs were innovative and important and brought learning to many who had not been taught since they left school. Some 91 per cent. of ILA learning met or exceeded the expectations of those who took it up, and 85 per cent. said that it increased the training and learning options available to them. However, it was misused and abused by a minority of learning providers, who spoiled the process for their colleagues and for the learners whom they were supposed to serve.
Problems began to emerge in earnest over the summer, and we took steps to try to tackle them. We introduced a new learning provider agreement, removed 700 learning providers from the register, introduced new information for learners, ended the use of blanket application forms, and suspended learning providers who were misusing or abusing the system. Moreover, Capita and the Department introduced a joint compliance unit to try to deal with the problems. However, the design of the system did not allow us to stamp out abuse, so in the end we had no option other than to close the scheme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regret that. We are very conscious of the impact on learners and learning providers.
We are trying to do three things. First, we are trying to ensure that legitimate payments are made to legitimate providers for legitimate learning. We have paid £7 million of the £21 million that was claimed in respect of learning that took place, or was booked, before
Secondly, we are investigating complaints against 672 learning providers. Our own special investigations unit is investigating 105 complaints, and the police are investigating a further 66. Some 45 arrests have already been made; 13 people have been charged, one of whom has been convicted.
I turn now to compensation for learning providers. From the outset, the decisions that learning providers made to take advantage of the scheme were business decisions, which they took for themselves. The Government were not, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight asserted, selling the scheme to learning providers. There was no contract between the Department and learning providers, and therefore we are not considering claims for compensation for those providers.
I have been struck by the disappointment that has greeted the closure of individual learning accounts, but I have also been struck, very strongly, by the strength of the support and encouragement given to the Government to reintroduce a successor scheme, as we will do.
I return to the question of schools. I could recite the headline figures but, like every hon. Member, I know from what is happening in my constituency what a difference the Government's policies are making in schools.
I leave this thought with Opposition Front-Bench Members. As long as they overstate the case with talk of crisis, no one will take their criticisms seriously. They have no answer to problems such as the pressures of teacher work load. They have no answer to the problem of teacher retention and recruitment, other than to cut the number of circulars. They have no policies to reinforce standards in our schools. They have no contribution to make to the debate about employers' need for skills or reform in the further education sector. As long as all that remains, the Government will not take their criticisms seriously, and no one else will either.
Above all, the Leader of the Opposition is on record as approving cutting public service spending to 35 per cent. of gross domestic product. As a result, the hon. Member for Ashford cannot say that he would match our investment. As long as that remains the case, the Opposition will remain out of touch and irrelevant, with no one taking their points seriously.
I urge my hon. Friends to reject this incoherent, irrelevant and incredible motion, and the arguments that we have heard this afternoon from the Opposition.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises an education system which is benefiting from an unprecedented period of sustained investment on an unprecedented scale, in parallel with the Government's strategy to raise standards through an ambitious series of reforms of the curriculum, the teaching profession and the organisation of schools; welcomes Ofsted's latest annual report showing the highest ever proportion of good and excellent lessons in schools, and the OECD's PISA Report that the UK performance was above the OECD average across all three domains of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy; notes the other tangible signs of increased investment and reform such as higher academic standards at primary and secondary level, the dramatic reduction in the numbers of infants in large classes, more teachers in schools than at any time in the last decade, extra resources and more people than ever going into Higher Education, with 45,000 new places since 1997; notes further the huge increase in the number of adults who are now acquiring basic skills and learning for their futures; recognises the clear commitment of the Government to address teacher workload in partnership with the unions and other agencies; welcomes the positive proposals the Government has given to headteachers on school exclusions, reinforcing their right to manage their schools and enforce discipline as they see fit; recognises that working closely with parents, police and health professionals is key to tackling unacceptable levels of absence and supports the Government's work in this area; and supports the measures being taken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that examination results are delivered successfully.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the most welcome and significant news this evening of Zimbabwe's suspension from the Commonwealth, which we have long advocated in view of the violence and intimidation surrounding the presidential election there, have you had word from the Foreign Secretary that he will come to the House at 10 o'clock to make an urgent statement about the situation, the future of the Commonwealth and our relationship with Zimbabwe?
I know that there is great concern in the House about these matters. I have not had any indication that such a statement is to be made, but the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has just said.