|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Dr. Harris: I always enjoy listening to the erudite hon. Gentleman who chairs the Select Committee on which I serve. What example does it set, for young women in particular looking for a career in teaching or academia, when the Government seem willing to tolerate a pay gap in academic salaries, which is surely unacceptable, year after year?
Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman knows that I agree with him and that I agree with the findings of the Bett report. We have to pay university teachers better and ensure that women get the same opportunities and pay as men. I will be campaigning shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on that issue.
I must talk about the hyperbole used during the debate. Some hon. Members have talked about a meltdown. That term applies to a nuclear disaster and is inappropriate language in this context. We have also heard from another Back Bencher about the rising tide of violence. That is also inappropriate. It is not what I find that teachers believe to be the reality in schools up and down the country. When politicians use such cheap hyperbole they do no justice to the education system that we are trying to promote.
I have been in the House for a long time and I listened attentively over 18 years in Opposition as the Conservative Ministers made strong statements about the problems of public education. I listened a great deal more attentively when I knew that those Ministers sent their children to public sector state schools and not to schools in the private sector. For too long, too many Conservative Members talked about the problems in the state sector when they had no intention of ever sending their child anywhere near a public sector state school.
Mr. Bercow: Of course one should not use hyperbole, but neither should one ignore the facts as they are presented. Is the hon. Gentleman denying that violent assaults on teachers by pupils--it is only a minority of pupils--are on the increase? In Southampton, to give just one example, the rate doubled between 1998 and 1999. What a disservice the hon. Gentleman does to his constituents and the country by denying what everybody else knows to be the case.
We should not generalise and say that every school is a blackboard jungle--some of us recall the famous film--because that is not the case. There is a problem, which we should meet with sensible policies. We should ensure that the teaching environment is safe, modern, pleasant and secure so that teachers can get on with teaching.
There has been a great deal of talk about bureaucracy. The Select Committee report talks about bureaucracy and red tape. There is no doubt that the Government have not done as much as they should, as fast as they should. However, we should not hear about a "bureaucratic nightmare", which is what we heard from the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). I visit schools all the time and I know that there are problems, but it is not a nightmare. It is hyperbole that upsets serious debate.
It would not be me if I did not say that one of the problems is the inspection system. It is not that there is not a good inspection system, which I applaud and want to see continue, but the style of inspection upsets teachers. We must have a genuine effort from Her Majesty's inspectorate to be seen to be more co-operative and working in partnership with schools, to help schools to meet and maintain high standards. It does no one any good if the inspectorate is misperceived. I think that the inspector has some work to do on that, and I shall be making that point to him when he appears before our Committee a week from today.
Violence and intimidation in the classroom cannot be tolerated. However, we have to get the exclusion balance right. There is no point in excluding students who consequently go into crime and drugs and cause tremendous problems in our society. There has to be a balance. My own preference--I have been involved in the issue in my own local schools--is to have special units within or very close to the school, rather than to exclude people from the school campus.
Therefore, although I agree that the problems are real, there is a measured response that goes beyond a school saying, "You are excluded", and having no further responsibility for that excluded student. The more successful schools and local education authorities have a very good and measured response to the problem of exclusion. If we could all reach the best standards in dealing with exclusion, we would all be doing very well indeed.
It is very easy to jump on bandwagons. In the past two or three years, I have seen a bandwagon--involving not only the Opposition, but other people--that seeks always to criticise and bash local education authorities. However, when I go round schools, one of the things that teachers and heads say to me is, "We have a very good local education authority here, and we value its support."
There are rather more people with special educational needs in state schools--in ordinary schools, which most British pupils attend--than in the private sector. State schools also have problems with disruptive pupils. Those problems, however--like the overall task of school management--are dealt with far better and more easily at the local education authority level.
There are long-term problems in recruiting teachers, and hon. Members would be foolish to ignore or deny that fact. There is, however, sensible action that we can be taking to solve those problems. Indeed, many of the problems were dealt with in the Select Committee report that we published three years ago and would be willing to update if necessary. Much has been done, but more needs to be done. We would serve Britain's great teaching profession and Britain's pupils far better if we cut the hyperbole and worked together on common-sense solutions.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, may I say that many hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but that we are fast running out of time in this debate? Unless speeches are brief, very many hon. Members will be very disappointed.
Given that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), in a speech that was interesting overall, touched on both the importance of the teaching profession's historical reliance on women and the subject of teachers' pay, I should perhaps declare an interest. My wife is a teacher in a state secondary school, and has spent her entire teaching career in state schools.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we must avoid hyperbole. Equally, however, we must not disguise the genuine problems that are being faced by people in the teaching profession. Various hon. Members have said that it is very easy to describe problems and not to talk about solutions. I should like to discuss just one very important solution, and say that politicians of all parties should recognise that they have a role in achieving that solution.
I fully accept that my party in government was guilty of this to some extent and on some occasions, but politicians of all parties have found it rather too easy, rather too often to treat the teaching profession as a political punch-bag, to attack teachers in general and to give the impression that it is entirely legitimate and appropriate in seeking to root out the minority of teachers who are failures somehow to characterise all teachers as failures. We ought instead to take a leaf out of their book. Almost any teacher would say that children--this applies to adults, too--will flower far more if they are given a bit of praise than if they are admonished, punished and disciplined for failure.
Perhaps hon. Members on both sides of the House should give a little more praise to those who have the difficult and incredibly important task of teaching our children and recognise that we should take pride in teaching and the fact that so many people want to be involved in it. We should encourage teachers and make
I also want to say a word about supply teachers. The Secretary of State did say something about this topic. Of course supply teachers play an important role and we should not denigrate some schools reliance on them, but I was disturbed to read a report in The Guardian on 5 September that pupils in one inner-city secondary school have been taught by 13 different maths teachers in one year. Teachers would agree that that is deeply disturbing for the obvious reason that it takes four or five weeks at the start of a term for a teacher to build up any sort of meaningful relationship with all the pupils in his or her class. A supply teacher cannot do that in one or two days. Teachers often find that pupils will not respond, however effective the teaching may be, unless they feel that the teacher has some sense of who they are and their individual interests and problems. Supply teachers often try extremely hard, but it is far better, wherever possible, for teachers to be full-term and full-time. I see that the Minister agrees.
Another problem--again I accept that it did not start in 1997, although I genuinely believe that it has got worse since then--is the pressure on teachers in respect of paperwork, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned, and targets. I fully accept that targets did not start in May 1997, but they have expanded and become more onerous.
I do not know whether the Minister has seen an interesting and sobering report that appeared in The Guardian in July relating to what was described as the various games that teachers play in order to manipulate the statistics that are reported to LEAs or to the Department for Education and Employment. Let me say immediately that I am not seeking to fall into the trap of saying that teachers are devious, unreliable and try to fix things and that the inspectorate should come down on them like a ton of bricks. I am trying to make a rather different point. Let me quote one or two examples.
The Guardian reported on a class of 18 children who had three things in common: they were all studying "Macbeth" for GCSE English, they had all turned in essays for course work and not one of them had written a single word of that course work. It had all been done by the teacher, or in one case by the teacher and her husband. The teacher was quoted as saying:
It is possible to interpret that as meaning that there is widespread fiddling, although I do not believe that that is happening. It is also possible to interpret it as meaning that we should crack down on teachers. I do not believe that that is the right answer either. Although I do not want the Minister to think I am claiming that we have an authoritarian Government, we are in danger of creating something analogous to what used to happen in the Soviet Union, where the standard joke was, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us"; or what happens in quantum physics, when one is told firmly that the act of measuring something changes what you are measuring; or the fundamental mistake that the Americans made in Vietnam, which was to try to fight a war according to statistics--they believed for years that they were winning because they kept getting statistics in the Pentagon about the number of Vietcong they had killed, when the reality was very different.
Is it not at least possible that in trying to constrain the teaching profession to a range of statistics and tests for a noble reason--to try to lever up standards for every child in the country, which is an objective I share--we are lowering standards by depriving teachers of the freedom they need to teach?