I make no apology for visiting schools in Britain. I make no apology for visiting schools such as Brooke Weston technology college outside Corby, which I was due to visit on the same day that I went to Corby community college, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.
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I make no apology for visiting Corby community college and hearing what is happening in schools. The problem today is that it is those on the Government Front Bench who fail to understand what is happening in our schools. It is to those on his Front Bench that the hon. Gentleman should direct his attack, not to those on the Opposition Front Bench.
We also know that more schools are likely to go to a four-day week. A school in Medway will be going on to a four-day week within a few days, and more are thinking of following suit. Whatever the statistics showing the size of the problem, they do not show the real impact on children and teachers. The head of a Roman Catholic school in St. Helen's described recruiting as
trying to empty Lake Michigan with a dinner fork.
The deputy head of East Sussex community college said:
Trying to appoint a maths teacher . . . became the dance of the demons with schools phoning each other in desperation.
In their recent report "Coping with Teacher Shortages", Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson reported one head describing how, on hearing that a candidate had not been appointed in a neighbouring school, he immediately rang the head of that school and asked that she be bundled into a taxi so that she could be interviewed and recruited straight away.
The quality of candidates is falling, as reported last month by the head teacher of Chaucer school in the Secretary of State's constituency, which has lost a quarter of its staff in the past year. The lack of applicants for posts means that standards of appointments sometimes fall, as has been reported in the survey conducted recently by the National Union of Teachers. One head said:
I was in great danger of losing the teachers of the other two classes due to stress and violence, so we took this lady on after a 20 minute interview on the phone to Australia. It was an act of faith.
I had doubts about the references and offered it to her on a one year contract which she accepted. As the year wore on, I became more and more grateful that I'd listened to that small voice. People who are not up to scratch are gaining employment when they wouldn't if there were a reasonable choice.
Sadly, another head said:
When push comes to shove you've got to put a body in front of the class. So long as you know they are not going to kill a child or maim them--what choice do we have.
That is the situation to which the Government have reduced our schools.
Sometimes the situation seems close to farce. Another head reports:
We have got technologists who teach art. The PE staff teach a bit of maths, a bit of geography. The maths teachers, when we appointed the three, we had to say "You'll be teaching a bit of science, is that all right?" just hoping that they did not say "On your bike".
Faced with an increasingly desperate situation, what attitude do the Government take? Last week, in another place, the Minister was asked about the crisis. What response did the noble Baroness Blackstone give? She said:
My Lords, I think it is a little exaggerated to describe the overall national picture as a "crisis".--[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 2000; Vol. 617, c. 881.]
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"Crisis? What crisis?" seems to be the leitmotif of Labour Governments, and that complacency is all too clear to the schools.
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield):
Perhaps the Minister in the other place was referring to the private sector. Is my hon. Friend aware that Lichfield cathedral school tells me that preparatory schools in the private sector have no problem in recruiting, because there is now a drift away from the state sector? Teachers do not want to work in the state sector any more, because of the burden of forms and red tape imposed by the Government and the sheer lack of resources in the state sector.
My hon. Friend is right. Sadly, teachers are leaving the state sector and going into the private sector precisely because of the problems created by the Government. The private sector has the freedom to deliver the packages for those teachers, and offers the freedom in the classroom that the teachers want.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
I will take one more intervention, then I must make progress.
The hon. Lady referred to a school in my constituency that has gone on to short-time teaching. It is a secondary modern school, and one of the reasons for its difficulty in recruiting--not the only one--is the fact that it is a secondary modern school. She said that the same might be about to happen in Medway. Am I right in thinking that the school to which she referred is also a secondary modern school?
I suggest that the hon. Lady look closely at what is happening in our teaching profession. It is not a question of whether a school is a secondary modern, or the type of school. The problem is caused by a leeching from the teaching profession because of her Government's policies. If she wants teachers to come into the profession, and if she wants to retain teachers in the profession, she should be talking to those on her Front Bench. She should remind them of the problems that they are causing in schools across the country, including in her own constituency.
Ministers have not listened to the problems that have been raised. One head teacher reported to the National Union of Teachers:
There must be four or five schools in this authority with serious vacancies for teachers but we got a written reply from a minister saying there is not a recruitment problem.
If there is not a recruitment problem, why have the Government made teaching in London a shortage occupation for immigration purposes? The statistics and the quotes show the same story all around--a story that the Government have refused to accept or understand.
On the one hand, Ministers say that there is no problem; on the other, they claim that they are solving it by throwing money at it. Ministers are fond of telling us how successful have been their incentive schemes--golden hellos, money for trainee teachers--and we even had the spectacle at the Labour party conference of the Prime Minister claiming that the new bursaries for student teachers had led to a 50 per cent. rise in graduate applications.
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That is typical of the Government. They think that, if they spin a story long enough, it will become fact. The reality of graduate applications was set out in an answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) from the Minister for School Standards, in which she showed that postgraduate applications have fallen since 1997.
There has been a small increase of 388 applications over the past year, according to the graduate teacher training registry. The Prime Minister said that applications were up by 50 per cent. Perhaps the Secretary of State could tell us under what part of the numeracy strategy 388 becomes 50 per cent. of 30,000. I should be happy to take a response from the Secretary of State, but it seems that none is forthcoming. In any case, the reports from universities, colleges and schools show that the Government are well missing their target, and that is even ignoring the 7 per cent. fall in undergraduate applications.
One of the factors with which the Government have never got to grips is that expressions of interest, or even applications, do not always turn into enrolment on courses. The advertisement about what makes a good teacher was supposed to lead to an increase in interest. Where did it end? The Government missed their targets for recruitment. In the case of the golden hellos, the target was also missed. Similarly, in the case of trainee salaries, "Teacher training misses its target" yet again, according to a headline in The Times Educational Supplement.
I received a letter earlier today from the Secretary of State about the debate this evening. He referred to my
new-found concern for teacher recruitment--
[Hon. Members: "What a cheek!"] Yes, it was quite cheeky. I suggest that the Secretary of State look back, if not to my first year in the House, when I raised the issue as a member of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, then to 1998, when I joined the Front-Bench team and first started speaking about the problems that the Government were creating in teacher recruitment and supply. It is the Secretary of State who has lost credibility by not being interested in the problem, as teachers and governors will tell him.
In his letter, the Secretary of State goes on to refer to
your party's plans for substantial spending cuts in education.
That is yet another example of the Government clutching at straws and plucking figures from thin air, in a desperate attempt to make people forget the large sums of money that the right hon. Gentleman and his local government friends hold back from our schools year after year. We will increase the money received by schools. He might not like it, but we will do it.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough):
Will the hon. Lady give way?