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Mrs. May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When the new universities were polytechnics, they included centres of excellence in vocational training. Many such centres of excellence continue in our new universities, but in recent years some of them have attempted to move away from that excellence in vocational training. I fear that students have lost out as a result. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that every one of our new universities is a centre of excellence in vocational training?
However, the Government were right to recognise that the long-term solution to the nation's skill shortage lies within our schools. While the Secretary of State can rightly point to the improved performance of our children in standard assessment tests and GCSE examinations, those gains will be short term unless some of the underlying challenges in our education system are addressed.
Schools are swamped with bureaucracy. Targets abound, like Smarties cascading from a sweetie jar in a reception class. The Liberal Democrats had hoped for a reduction in bureaucracy Bill in the Queen's Speech. "Sunset" arrangements for existing documentation, automatic synopsis and collation of information and free administrative support to small schools would make the reduction of bureaucracy a reality at relatively low cost. Above all, we would scrap the plethora of national targets, which are designed more for the Secretary of State's benefit than for our children's. We should make our battle cry, "Every child matters", not simply those at the margins of the national agenda.
Every child should have his or her own development plan, which is agreed with parents and monitored against national standards. That is what happens in the best public schools, which the Prime Minister said we should try to emulate in the state education system. The plans should be the responsibility of schools and parents. It is time to concentrate and to demonstrate that we trust our profession. We should not simply talk about doing that; we should act.
But there lies the rub. The greatest threats to the standards agenda in our schools are the shortage of teachers and increased class sizes. Why was there nothing in the Queen's Speech to tackle those fundamental issues? Does the Secretary of State really believe that presiding over the largest secondary class sizes since 1975 is acceptable, or does he take the view that only children who are educated privately benefit from smaller classes?
Of course, the worsening of class sizes in secondary schools did not start under this Government--they inherited the problem from the cost-cutters in the previous Government. Pupil:teacher ratios rocketed from 15.6 in 1992 and reached 16.4 by 1997. The effect was disproportionately felt at key stage 3, where average class sizes rose from 23.8 pupils per teacher in 1990 to 24.7
However, the situation has become appreciably worse under new Labour. In January this year, key stage 3 ratios had risen to 25.2 pupils per teacher, and they are now above the average level for reception classes in primary schools--the ratio for reception classes in January this year was only 24.7 pupils per teacher.
The Government learned those bad habits from the Tory cost-cutters, but they also learned the art of missing targets. This week, much has been made of our children's performance in the third international maths and science study. How much better would the performance of our pupils have been if they had all been taught by qualified maths teachers? In the 18-year period between 1983 and October 2000, targets set by the Government for recruitment into maths teacher training courses were missed on no fewer than 15 occasions. To be fair, I must tell the House that the previous Government missed only 11 out of 14 targets; the present Government have missed four out of four targets.
During those 18 years, nearly one in five places for maths teachers have been left unfilled, which resulted in a shortfall in the numbers entering training of some 6,000 possible maths teachers. No wonder we lag behind in international league tables--schools cannot recruit maths teachers. No wonder many schools cannot even recruit heads for their maths departments.
What are the results of the Government's initiatives? Despite all the hype from the Teacher Training Agency about golden hellos and training salaries--we heard more about those this morning--this month's application figures for PGCE courses makes depressing reading. As of 6 December, applications to maths courses are down by 30 per cent. compared with last year's figures, and they are down nearly 50 per cent. compared with the period when the Government came into office. That is not a record to be proud of. Secondary course numbers are down 11 per cent. and 41 per cent., and primary course numbers are down 7.4 per cent. and 34 per cent., compared with 1997 levels.
The Secretary of State will doubtless accuse me, as he always does, of scaremongering. However, even he now recognises that there is a problem. Talk of meltdown is certainly premature, but in a bid to avert a widespread four-day week caused by teacher shortages, the Department for Education and Employment has written to chief education officers promising 19 more recruitment strategy managers and a special unit in the DFEE to resolve the crisis. That was mentioned by the hon. Member for Maidenhead.
The letter from David Normington ends optimistically but conveniently fails to refer to a recent survey by the Teacher Training Agency of its own recruitment strategy managers, which shows that the problem is even greater than the DFEE has admitted. It also ignores the fact that although we have more teachers, nearly 1,000 of them were recruited at primary level to meet the key stage 1 class size pledge.
This is not a temporary crisis; it will be with us for at least another decade. We will reveal our own proposals to tackle the crisis in the coming months. I hope that the Government will have a sensible debate about how to move forward.
The Liberal Democrats were pleased by the fact that a special educational needs and disability Bill was included in the Queen's Speech. It was a long time coming, but we give the Secretary of State the pledge that we shall do everything in our power to speed that Bill on to the statute book.
However, like other hon. Members, we have some concerns. We have come a long way since the Warnock report was published in 1979. At that time, I was the head of one of the first schools in the United Kingdom to adopt a comprehensive policy of encouraging pupils with physical impairments to access mainstream education. That occurred, incidentally, under a Conservative authority. Together with the Fairfax school in Bradford, Ormesby school in Cleveland--where I was the head--participated in a major research project by the National Foundation for Education Research, which was led by Seamus Heggarty and Keith Pocklington. At that date, integration was a novel idea. Parents were sceptical, often preferring the safety of the special school. Teachers, too, were sceptical--few had any training or experience. However very few of those in our state schools today have not met a child with a physical, sensory or other impairment and helped to make them part of the school community.
Few schools do not have a sizeable proportion of children on their special educational needs register. Despite the Education Act 1981 and subsequent legislation, there remains a huge tension in the field of special educational needs and disability. Rightly, parents have had their expectations for their children raised. All too often, however, there is a gap between expectation and reality. That is all too evident with regard to statements.
I met a parent in Folkestone earlier this week whose child, who is in the first year at primary school, has a full statement, yet the child's needs are being met by an untrained, unqualified classroom assistant who can give the child no more professional support than the parent can. Although that is typical, we must not accept the situation. What matters about the Bill is not what words appear on the page but how its provisions are treated in reality and transferred into action in our schools.