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8.42 pm

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on her thoughtful maiden speech. I did not agree with every word of it, but I know how nerve-racking a maiden speech can be, having made mine just a few years ago. I also express my sympathy to the family and friends of Michael Colvin on their tragic loss.

I shall consider the issue from a different perspective from the Opposition. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the vast majority of teachers in my constituency and around the country. They do a great job under great pressure. The job has not got any easier. Given some of the pressures in society, it has become much more demanding. Teachers often have to be social workers as well. The Government have recognised that it can be very difficult.

It would be remiss not to accept that there is a recruitment problem and we have not yet been able to do away with the morale problems, but that situation has not come about overnight. The problems have been entrenched for a while and dealing with them properly will take some time, but the Government have made a good start.

Our education reforms have placed the emphasis on good teaching, improvement, getting better performance out of teachers and paying good teachers for good performance. In areas such as mine, before 1997, up to 50 per cent. of 11-year-olds were not reaching the required standards in maths and English. That was unacceptable. I understand the argument that we should just let teachers teach and get on with it, but we sometimes lose sight of the fact that in some areas, the standard of education that a child received was often determined by the lottery of which school they went to. Similarly, the choice of teacher within a school could sometimes be a lottery. No child deserves that. It is unacceptable for which school or teacher a child gets to be a matter of luck, which clearly was the case in some areas, not least in parts of my constituency. That is something that the Government have tried to do something about.

I have young children and I have stood at school gates and heard parents say, "I hope my child gets Mrs. So-and-so next year, not Mr. So-and-so." That should not happen. We will always have exceptional teachers, and we have many of them, but it is not acceptable that parents have to hope that their child does not get a certain teacher.

Teaching is a demanding, frustrating and stressful job at times, but many jobs are like that. Of course, teachers have an especial responsibility for our young people.

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Teachers have an influence on children's futures, both at school and in their careers and contributions to society. Probably no other profession has such a profound effect and the Government recognise that. That is why we cannot just let poor teachers carry on as they always have before.

We have seen continually rising standards since Labour came to power. Like most Members of Parliament, I have visited the schools in my constituency and seen the effect that the money from the Government has had. We want to see better pay for teachers, and the new system will achieve that. Substantial amounts of money are available, and the recruitment package that the Government have put together, better teacher training and the General Teaching Council are all attempts to try to improve the situation.

I do not claim that everything in the garden is rosy. Problems still exist, and it will take time for some of the initiatives to take effect. Certain schools still have recruitment problems, and it is often--but not always--the case that those schools have some of the most difficult problems and worst results. That is no coincidence and it also sends a clear message.

I know that some teachers worry about initiative overloads. I talked to a head teacher in my constituency and she said that she had a lot of work to do and was unable to do some of the things that she would like to do. I asked her about the literacy and numeracy hours, because they have been cited as part of the overload, but she said that the hours were having an effect and focusing classroom teaching on raising standards. A teacher told me last year that instead of trying to improve literacy individually and being interrupted by other children, she was able to help the whole class during the special hours.

The Government have said that they wish to reduce bureaucracy. However, the suggestion that bureaucracy is a new problem under Labour is garbage. The Tories were famous for their initiatives. One of the teachers' union conferences illustrated that with stacks and stacks of paper. Teachers are always willing to talk about the burdens of the national curriculum, and we have tried to make some changes to it. The fact remains that the biggest burden was placed on teachers by the Tories, and I am still waiting for them to apologise.

The literacy and numeracy hours are working. They are improving standards and giving more of our children a better chance. We have nothing to apologise for in that. Standards are rising, and that is what is important. Under the Tories, some 50 per cent. of children in my constituency were having great difficulty in reaching the standard. I have not forgotten that, and no one should.

The Tories have said that people do not talk about what the Tories did, but people do because there is a clear contrast between what the Tories did and what we are doing. Education has been made a priority under Labour and we are making a difference for all our people, not just a few. After all, the Tories' proposal to improve standards is to have a grammar school in every town and I remember a Tory Front Bencher asking at Question Time recently why private schools could not have the extra money for information technology.

Some schools have very outdated IT equipment and Labour is making a difference in that area. Schools are getting new equipment and having lines installed, and that will make a difference to children's IT skills. Our vision, together with improved teacher training in IT, is making a difference.

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What is the Government's general education policy and how is it affecting teacher morale? I accept that there are pay issues and that teachers want to feel that they are valued. Indeed, I think that they are valued. Issues arise also about the environment in which they work and the resources that are made available to them. My constituency includes the towns of Widnes and Runcorn, and it provides an example of what the Government have been doing and how that will help the future of the teaching profession. There has been a 6 per cent. improvement in reading and writing standards over the past year, and a 10 per cent. increase in maths. Those are phenomenal and regular increases of which parents in Halton are aware.

The overall increase in expenditure is much better than it was under the Tory Government. Ditton primary school in Widnes in my constituency waited 11 years for a completely new school building. In terms of teacher morale and support for teachers, the buildings are appalling. They are not fit for children. There is a split site and insufficient space, resulting in cramped conditions. What happened? The Labour Government provided the full sum that was needed to replace the school, not merely support for rebuilding costs. If a one-off example of improving the teaching environment is required, it is provided by Ditton primary school. There are also five new classrooms that have been provided in Halton.

I talk to teachers who work in cramped classrooms with poor facilities. In many instances, office facilities are poor. However, there have been many improvements to schools that have struggled in some of the most deprived areas. The improvements have been badly needed and they have been made under a Labour Government.

The new deal for schools was introduced recently. Eight or nine schemes have been approved in my constituency at a cost of about £1.8 million. Perhaps the teaching environment has been forgotten during the debate, but there are new science buildings for some schools along with better office facilities. One school has not had a playing field for 100 years. At long last it is getting one--and who from? It is being provided under the Labour Government. That will make a real difference.

We have recently qualified for excellence in cities. Thousands of pounds have been made available this year and last year for new books in schools. Many secondary schools will receive an additional £50,000, while primary schools will receive an extra £9,000. I spoke to a head teacher, who said that she wants the money now. She cannot wait for it because there are so many things that she can do with it. The quicker that she receives the money, the better. These extra resources would never have been provided under the Tory Government.

It seems that the class-size initiative for five, six and seven-year-olds has been forgotten. We want to improve class sizes overall, and we have made a start. We have seen the difference in infant classes. Teachers are saying that it is good news for them. In Halton this year, there will be no classes of more than 30 children for five, six and seven-year-olds. That is a tremendous achievement under the Labour Government. Again, it will help to boost teacher morale.

There are various issues that surround exclusion, especially for certain schools. I am sure that the Government have listened to comments. There is talk

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about providing facilities for pupils who have been excluded. There can be difficulties that lead to a decline in morale. I understand and accept that some schools were excluding pupils too easily while others took a much better approach. In those schools, exclusion was a rarity. They did all that they could to support pupils who might have been subject to exclusion. The issue has been raised by a head teacher in my constituency.

We must give the reforms a proper chance. Teachers are delivering in a way that we have not seen for some time. They are doing so in a broad sense throughout schools and classrooms. A pupil's teacher or the school which he or she attends is becoming much less of a lottery, and that is a clear message. The Government have no apology to make to parents for raising standards. Indeed, the raising of them is something of which we can be proud, and something which parents want to see. We shall be judged on the issue when we come to the next general election, and that will be in our favour.

There is a need for support and partnership, but Governments have a responsibility to raise standards and improve education. We should never forget that teachers are a pivotal part of that process. It is incumbent upon us to form a partnership with teachers.

Finally, education is crucial in areas such as mine. For many years, some schools, teachers and pupils have under-performed. I said earlier that some 50 per cent. of pupils did not reach the appropriate standard at age 11, but that figure is improving. I make no apology for the fact that I come from a working-class, council-estate background, but I do not think that coming from a difficult or deprived background is an excuse for lower results.

The hon. Member for Romsey mentioned a school in her constituency that is in a deprived area. However, there is no excuse for such schools producing poor results. A lot of good-quality teaching goes on in such schools, and good results are being obtained. Social factors must be taken into account, but they should never be an excuse for poor performance.

All schools should attain average or above-average results. Schools in parts of my constituency are achieving better results: where they were attaining percentage scores in the late teens and low 20s, they are now achieving scores of between 42 and 44 per cent. One particular school has doubled its achievement levels in three or four years. Part of the community served by that school is among the most socially and economically deprived in the area, but that merely shows that the argument that such schools cannot improve is wrong.

Teachers have a pivotal role in such improvement. Most of them do a great and valuable job, but we cannot accept that any teacher should be able to get away with not delivering for our children. We must press ahead with the reforms, although I agree that we need to do more for teacher morale. We can do so, and I am sure that our policies will prove to be right.

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