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16 Jan 2001 : Column "30"WH

Teacher Shortages (Essex)

11.28 am

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): I am most grateful for the opportunity to debate the crisis facing schools in Essex, which is causing considerable concern to heads, teachers and parents throughout the county. It is a measure of the gravity of the situation that a number of my colleagues in the county are here today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith).

The severe shortage of teachers does not affect Essex alone. It is a national problem about which my hon. Friends have warned the Government for a considerable time. In May last year, we chose to use an Opposition day to highlight the pressures on teachers, which were driving so many of them out of the profession. In October, we again used Opposition time to debate the growing crisis of teacher supply and recruitment. During that debate, the Secretary of State said that there was no crisis and, by sticking his head in the sand, he has allowed the situation to continue to deteriorate.

Two weeks ago, the director of learning services in Essex, Mr. Paul Lincoln, wrote to the Secretary of State. He did so expressly at the request of Essex head teachers, not of any Member of Parliament. In his letter, he expressed the increasing concern of heads about their severe difficulties in recruiting qualified teachers to fill posts at all levels. He pointed out that the problem has seriously worsened in the past year, with vacancy and turnover rates increasing in all sectors, and that consequently

The letter received considerable coverage in the national press, accompanied by the warning that in some schools the teacher shortage had become so severe that they might have to consider the introduction of a four-day week. The reaction of the Labour group at county hall was to say that those warnings were unjustified and hysterical. Their response exactly matches that of the Prime Minister to the concerns that are expressed nationally--which was described by the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers as "incredibly complacent".

Yesterday, I spoke to seven head teachers in my constituency, all of whom endorsed Paul Lincoln's letter and said that, if anything, it understated the seriousness of the position. Most of the schools in my constituency have managed to fill their vacancies. As one primary head said to me, they cannot have vacancies because that means classes with no teachers, so they have found ways to mask the problem.

Every head had similar stories--for example, of teachers having to teach classes in subjects in which they were utterly unqualified. A Colchester teacher told me at the weekend that she was teaching German to pupils although she does not speak German. She is now being

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offered a post as head of science at another school, despite being a history teacher with an O-level in biology. Other schools have relied on supply teachers to fill posts, with the result that even agencies are sometimes unable to meet demand and are giving out telephone numbers for teachers in South Africa and Canada, whom schools are expected to ring up. Poaching of teachers is now taking place among schools in Essex. No head teacher wants to do that, but they are being forced into it by the impossibility of recruiting suitably qualified staff.

The head of the Plume school in Maldon told me that, although she had managed to fill her vacant posts, she could do so only by inviting applications by fax or e-mail and filling the posts as soon as they were received--or, in the case of one maths teacher, by paying for a taxi to bring him straight from a job interview at another school. She told me that the lack of supply teachers meant that she could no longer release staff for training or allow teachers to take pupils on trips, and that the only advantage of the situation was that she no longer has to read 30 applications for a post, because she is lucky if she receives three.

At the County high school for girls in Chelmsford--which is one of the very best schools in the country--four applications were received for a post to teach English, but by the time of the interview three candidates had already found other jobs. At St. Peter's high school in Burnham, a vacant English post garnered no applications at all and had to be filled from a supply agency. The head told me that she could not remember a time when the situation was so bad.

The problems are even worse in the primary sector. At Beehive lane primary school in Chelmsford, the head teacher arranged sets of interviews on three occasions, only to find that every applicant already had a job by the day of the interview. Consequently, she is having to offer jobs as soon as applications are received. Even so, there was one day before Christmas when three classes had no teacher because no supply teachers were available.

At Heybridge county primary, a teacher left at Christmas with the result that the class faced the prospect of four different teachers in the space of one week. Although the school is managing, the head told me that if there were a staff illness--or, worse still, a flu outbreak--they would have real difficulty in coping.

At Great Totham primary, the head told me that five years ago he received 160 applications for every vacancy. Two years ago, the number had fallen to 80, and standards had also declined. There were about 20 applications last year, but on advertising a couple of vacancies last term, he received just six applications. He said that

Perhaps most serious of all is the situation in the special schools. One school in Braintree has been unable to appoint a head teacher for a year. A school in Colchester had to close a primary class because it was unable to recruit a teacher. A school in Loughton has been relying on supply teachers, but that source has dried up, so it is obliged to consider moving to a four-day week.

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The situation is desperate. Experienced and highly qualified teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Those who are entering with one year's postgraduate training are neither sufficient, nor sufficiently experienced, to replace them. Every head I spoke to agreed, however, that money is not the problem. Time and again, they said that the problem is a collapse in morale resulting from the pressures of the job. One head told me that he has given up counting the number of times that he has lost teachers who say that they want their life back. Some have given up permanent positions to become supply teachers, for whom there are the same rewards, but without the pressures of planning, assessments and additional responsibilities associated with permanent members of staff. He summed up the problem when he said that there is not a teacher shortage, but an acute shortage of qualified teachers who are still willing to teach.

Therefore, it is all the more tragic when teachers who want to teach are prevented from doing so by bureaucracy. I shall mention two cases, about which I have written to the Minister, involving teachers at the Plume school, in Maldon. Richard Marshall, an electronics graduate, has been prevented from enrolling in the graduate training scheme because he is just a few months younger than the minimum age of 24. On writing to the Teacher Training Agency to ask whether he could join the scheme this year, he was told that he could not because he was not sufficiently mature, even though, as he pointed out, it is possible to be a fully qualified teacher at the age of 22.

The second case, involving Marita Ponting, has been publicised not only in local papers but in the national media. She has worked as a librarian and a learning support assistant at Plume school, but is now proving to be a very promising teacher of maths--for which, as the Minister will know, there is an extreme teacher shortage. However, because her degree is in psychology, rather than maths, her application to enrol on the graduate training scheme has been turned down.

Of course, I accept that it would be better if she had a maths degree. If lots of people were applying to be maths teachers, I could perhaps understand the TTA saying that she has not complied with its rules. However, the reality is that schools cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the right degree, particularly in respect of maths. As the head of Plume school pointed out, the suggestion that the head of the maths faculty should assess her mathematical ability would have proved problematic, given that his degree is in music. Surely what matters is that Marita Ponting is already proving to be a highly skilled maths teacher who wants to teach. Once again, because of bureaucracy, both she and Richard Marshall are being denied the opportunity to participate in graduate training schemes.

The crisis affecting Essex schools is real. Clearly, it is not restricted to Essex, but it is particularly acute throughout the county. That is borne out by every head and every teacher in Essex, and the problem is getting worse. Through superhuman effort, heads are just about managing to keep their schools going, but there is no doubt that standards are being affected, opportunities for pupils are being lost, and the strain on teaching staff is forcing more and more out of the profession. The sticking plaster will not stick for much longer. The Government must act and act now.

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11.39 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on securing this debate and I wholeheartedly agree with every word that he uttered. It is a long time since I was a teacher and I would not relish returning to the vocation. Nevertheless, teachers do a magnificent job under difficult circumstances.

My belief that teaching is a vocation is at the heart of today's debate. This afternoon, I shall visit St. Thomas More high school, which, like Eastwood school, has made a successful capital bid. On a pleasant note, I wish to thank the Minister for that. However, I am disappointed that our grammar school, Southend high school for boys, was unsuccessful in its capital bid. I hope that it is successful next time.

My hon. Friend was motivated to apply for the debate because he felt that Conservative-controlled Essex county council's position was being misrepresented. It is a travesty. Essex county council is Conservative only in that we hold the casting vote, so Liberal and Labour councillors have been able to foist their views on the council in setting its budget. The situation on the council has been distorted, especially at Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is worth pointing out that the Government think that Essex county council spends too much on education. It spends in excess of the standard spending assessment, but if it spent in line with that there would be further education cuts in Essex.

Mr. Amess : I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It is a shame that one cannot intervene at Prime Minister's questions when a different light is put on the matter. I pay tribute to county councillor Mrs. Iris Pummell, who has done a magnificent job under difficult circumstances. She says that it is not the political debate that she is interested in, but the education of our children.

The Minister and I had a brief exchange at Education questions last week, when she referred to the situation in Southend. We have 23 vacant primary school posts and 38 vacant secondary school posts, so we have been forced to recruit in South Africa and Australia. There is nothing wrong with recruiting from those countries because they tend to produce good teachers, but we have been put in a situation where we have had to recruit without knowing the calibre of applicants.

When I questioned the Minister about the teacher shortage, I pointed out that Southend did not qualify for extra money because more than 25 per cent. of our children achieved passes at grades A to C. She replied that money had been allocated regardless of that and that it could be used for recruitment. I have checked that with our excellent chairman of education in Southend, Mrs. Sally Carr. As the Minister and her officials know, if we had not put the money that was allocated to Southend into particular projects, many schools would be in dire circumstances. She might say that that money could have been used to recruit teachers, but we were struggling with other problems.

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We do not qualify for other funds because less than 35 per cent. of our children are on free school meals. The Minister has the best interests of our children at heart, but it is quite wrong--I know that she said that we must help the parts of the country in most difficulty--that children in Southend do not receive help. It is good that our children are doing a little better than other parts of the country. Why are the Government unable to address our particular problems?

In Essex, last year, turnover of teachers in primary schools increased from 14.5 per cent. to 18.7 per cent., which is very large indeed. In our special schools, the increase is 30 per cent., and 43 per cent. of teachers who left permanent teaching posts left within the first 18 months. That is worrying for us all. The turnover for secondary schools in Essex increased by 38 per cent. in the academic year and the highest number of vacancies are in English, maths and craft, design and technology. That is not scaremongering--those are the facts.

Some of us will have read the article in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend about Mrs. Marian Williams, who is, I understand, a Labour activist and apparently an adviser to a Labour European Member of Parliament. She tells us in the article that she has always been opposed to private schools on principle, but that because of her circumstances she has had to put that to one side for her children. I am a fellow Catholic. Unfortunately the Catholic school to which she sends her children has difficulties and she has had to turn to private education. The head of a Catholic school in Essex has said that he blames the Government's failure to reward or to value teachers for the haemorrhage of staff from the profession.

Education, education, education--slogans, slogans, slogans. The Labour party manifesto in May 1997 did not say, "We want you to vote for us but, when you have a Labour Government, because of what has happened over the past 18 years, it will take us at least a decade to deliver the things we want." It gave the impression that, if the general public voted Labour, on health, education, transport and a range of other problems, everything would be put right, but that is not the case.

In every part of Essex, which is supposed to be a leafy, affluent county, there are vacancies. Why is that? Why did the Government not forecast that there would be problems? Why is it only now, just before an election, that there is such huge activity? People are right to be cynical. The Government made a great mistake in criticising so many of our hard-working teachers, in undervaluing them and in sending out endless directives and initiatives from central Government. I hope that the Minister will now do everything that she possibly can to support county councillor Mrs. Iris Pummell and to take action about the teacher shortage in Essex.

11.47 am

Angela Smith (Basildon): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on securing it. I hope that I shall be able to spread some light rather than heat on the subject.

Following a meeting with my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) and for Harwich (Mr. Henderson), we went to a meeting at county hall with Mr. Paul Lincoln, director of learning services.

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Given the debate on the issue, we felt that our role as Members of Parliament was to contribute and to help to find a solution to the difficulties and problems. It was a productive and useful meeting and I shall report back to the Minister on how it went and what we can do to help.

It was interesting to hear from Mr. Paul Lincoln that he had not said that Essex schools were to go on to a four-day week. Indeed, he stressed that that was not the case. Those comments were made in the Evening Echo in Basildon by Mrs. Iris Pummell, about whom we have just heard. She also said in the Evening Echo that she felt so strongly about the issue--all credit to her for that; she should feel strongly about education--that she had contacted the Members of Parliament about it.

Representing a constituency with one of the highest turnovers of teaching staff in the county, I was disappointed that Mrs. Pummell had not contacted me. I thought that her letter to me might be lost in the post and checked with my Labour colleagues in the House, but they had not heard from Mrs. Pummell either. I then contacted the leader of the Labour group on the county council, who had not received a communication from her either. I regret that the debate entered the public arena and the press before the matter could be debated in the council first.

I am aware of the difficulties that are faced by head teachers. I pay tribute to the head teachers in my constituency, who have worked extremely hard to ensure good staff for their schools. Mr. Alan Roach of Chalvedon school in Pitsea, which is outside my constituency but is the school that I attended as a child, and Linda Kingston of Fairhouse school travelled to New Zealand and Australia during their summer holidays to recruit good staff and have been impressed with the standard of the staff who have come back with them. I shall touch on the difficulties that remain with regard to accommodation for those staff and ask the Minister to deal with them. It is worth noting that, last year, Chalvedon school recruited a teacher who won the new teacher of the year award. That shows the school's commitment to good-quality staff and high-quality teaching.

I pay tribute to the work by teachers in my constituency, but I am aware that, when there are shortages and teachers have to cover for other teachers, or when heads are trying to recruit in difficult circumstances, it places the teachers under additional pressure. We should pay tribute to those staff, not denigrate them.

With my colleagues, I visited many schools in our constituencies during the summer recess. September gives us the ideal opportunity to do that. No Member of Parliament can be unaware of the difficulties that schools face, but I take issue with the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, who said that they were faced by every school and every head. I found a mixed picture: some schools were not experiencing such difficulties, but others were. Much of it had to do with the contacts that heads had built with training schools, past staff or staff who stay a long time, but in some schools there was a serious problem. Those schools need the help and support of every hon. Member and the county council. I am disappointed at the way in which

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the matter has been handled by the county council and indeed expressed that disappointment to Mr. Lincoln at my meeting on Friday.

I got the impression from Mrs. Pummell's original comments in the paper that there was an imminent crisis and that dozens of schools were about to go on to a four-day week.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The hon. Lady is doing Mrs. Pummell a disservice because she said that only two schools in Essex faced the possibility of a four-day week. To suggest, as she does, that Mrs. Pummell referred to dozens is wrong.

Angela Smith : I am grateful for that intervention. Had the hon. Gentleman been patient, he would have heard me come to that point. Had Mrs. Pummell said that in the article in the Evening Echo, I would agree. I understand that the comment about two schools came in a press release that was issued today, which has been faxed to me by the county council. It says that the three and four-day week was almost a reality in two schools, one of which was a church school, which has found it difficult to recruit, given its policy of recruiting staff of the same faith. I pay tribute to the county council for avoiding four-day weeks in those two schools.

The other thing that concerns me is the impression that has been given by the publicity that Essex has a more serious problem than anywhere else in the country--that Essex is a terrible place in which to work and a difficult place in which to teach. It is not. That must be put strongly on the record. I fear that the publicity and the way in which the matter has been handled by certain members of the county council have created future recruitment and retention difficulties, which I regret. I am sure that that was not the aim. We do not want the problem to be compounded by the actions of those in the county council who sought to make political capital out of it.

I was concerned--I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on the matter--that one of the comments in the Basildon Evening Echo article was that the budget for staff recruitment had already been spent. Essex county council had given £700,000 from the education budget to other departments to balance the books. It seems a bit rich to complain that the recruitment budget had been used up when money was transferred from the budget.

We must not dwell on what has happened, but must look to the future and at what can be done to ease the situation. We have established that it is not as serious as the fears of a four-day week in every school in Essex at first suggested, but certainly some teachers who make great efforts and do a sterling job in trying to recruit staff face serious problems.

Mr. Jenkin : What would the hon. Lady say to the head teacher of West Bergholt primary school, which also has infant classes, which recently advertised a post nationally? The one applicant was recruited to another job before the school had a chance to interview him. Does she consider that acceptable for Essex schools? Essex is a wonderful place to teach. Think how much worse the problems must be in other parts of the country such as central London.

Angela Smith : The hon. Gentleman has jumped the gun. Of course I am not suggesting that it is an

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acceptable situation--no one would say that. I said that there was a problem, but it is not as bad as stated in some of the reports that have been issued by members of the county council.

I am saddened that no hon. Members have looked to the future to consider what can be done. If there is a problem, the way forward is to try to find a solution to it. Mr. Lincoln, whom I met on Friday, sent a survey to head teachers to ask them what would be useful in easing their recruitment problems. He has started to receive responses, which we offered to present to the Minister on his behalf. I should like to put one issue to her: housing.

Housing in the south-east is extremely expensive. We often hear teachers who are interested in taking up posts say that they cannot afford to buy and find it difficult to find somewhere to rent. In the 1970s, many teachers were attracted to teach in Basildon by the offer of accommodation from the council and housing associations. A housing allowance for those taking up jobs in the south-east could improve the situation considerably. Teachers and head teachers in the west Basildon area have told me that it would make a great difference to them. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to meet the Members of Parliament who took part in Friday's meeting to take forward such proposals.

I welcome the news in today's newspapers about the rise in teaching recruitment. The primary problem is that of insufficient investment in the past--if that investment had been made, we would probably not be facing these problems. We must find a way forward to ensure that teachers have a choice of good-quality staff, which is what we want for all our schools.

11.57 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), especially as I disagree with so much of what she said. On her last point about teacher recruitment, it is a problem not of recruitment, but of retention--too many teachers are leaving the profession. There is no great problem in filling vacancies with newly qualified teachers, but no school can operate properly unless it has experienced teachers with many years of service under their belt to help and to guide newly qualified teachers.

I recently had the opportunity to meet all the head teachers and chairmen of governors of my local secondary schools. I had a similar meeting with primary schools just before Christmas. We met against the backdrop of the letter by the county councillor, Mrs. Iris Pummell, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) referred. I join him in congratulating Mrs. Pummell on the work that she has done to avert a crisis. It is wrong to criticise someone who has worked so hard. If she were treating the matter as a political football, as has been suggested, she would simply have let the problem get worse, but she has put a lot of effort into making the situation better and she deserves our credit.

When I spoke to the head teachers, they, like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), repeated the Prime Minister's mantra about education, education and education, but pointed out that in their experience it actually meant teachers, teachers, teachers. They said that in that respect they were faced with an Elastoplast, Sellotape and make-do policy.

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Essex is an attractive place, although some pockets are less so than others. One of the more attractive, in terms of types of schools and children who are taught, is Brentwood. Brentwood is a prosperous area. If it faces recruitment problems, there must be a crisis in the county. It does indeed face such problems. Numbers are significantly down and quality is significantly down. People are being appointed to posts for which they are not qualified, whether academically or in terms of teaching experience. They may have a degree or teaching experience in a subject that is entirely different from that which they are appointed to teach.

We heard about telephone numbers being handed out. On Friday, I spoke to a head teacher in Brentwood who had just concluded a telephone interview with a teacher in Australia. That teacher may well be experienced and potentially a great asset, but I doubt whether we would be entirely happy if the same procedure were adopted for a teacher resident in the United Kingdom. We would rightly want to meet that teacher to examine references and to ask various questions. A telephone interview with a teacher in Australia is less than satisfactory.

I asked about the quality of teachers who have participated in the process. It is true that some are very good, but others are absolutely appalling. One head said that appointing a teacher in that way had probably been a mistake; the person concerned could not maintain discipline in class. The problem was made worse by the need permanently to keep a senior member of school management in the class to maintain discipline. That simply is not good enough.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford on one small point. He said that money was not the issue, but to a degree it is. Staffing costs are being spread across school budgets, so that more money can be spent on staffing. The percentage varies considerably, but in the worst case staffing costs have jumped from 82 per cent. to 93 per cent. As a result, less money is available for the teaching of children.

Some people might reasonably say, "Hold on a minute. Surely it's a good thing that more money is being spent on teachers." However, the money is being spent not on teachers but agency fees, because the only way that heads can reasonably deal with the teaching crisis is to approach teaching agencies. Frankly, I find the figures surprising. A newly qualified teacher gets a salary of about £16,000, in addition to which--depending on how long the teacher stays--there is an agency fee of about £8,000. That £8,000 simply disappears from the education system. It could be spent on equipment, books or additional learning facilities, but instead it goes straight out of the window. According to head teachers, the current system is particularly vulnerable to those whom they describe as cowboys. People are getting involved in the process who should not even be there.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, teachers are leaving the profession because an enormous burden is being placed on them. Not so long ago, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that, whenever he met teachers, he heard cries to cut bureaucracy so that they could do their jobs. Whenever I meet teachers, they say, "I've just had another piece of paper from the Department and I

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simply cannot cope." According to head teachers, the Department has made a genuine attempt to cut the number of papers that it issues to heads. One way to do that is to post them on the web alone, so that teachers must surf the web to obtain hard copy. However, the problem is not the paper; it is the burden.

All our secondary schools in Brentwood and Ongar were grant maintained and had greater flexibility, but the Government have stripped them of that. Essex county council is benign and devolves as much power as possible to schools, but they have less power than previously under the grant-maintained system. The Government must explain why, when there was a system in which devolved power provided greater flexibility in matters such as staffing and greater ability to use resources for pupils and parents, they replaced it with a system that provided less power. The present system is materially worse than the previous system. That places a heavy burden on the Government to explain. It is not acceptable for the Government and Labour Members in Essex to say, "Crisis? What crisis?"

12.6 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I join my colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on securing this debate on an important issue at an important time. Most of my hon. Friends have made the important points that needed to be made, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), with whom I usually agree.

The hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) said forcefully that the debate should not consist of political point scoring and I agree. Who said what in local newspapers is irrelevant. What matters to the people of Essex and the pupils who are being educated in our schools in Essex are the facts, not the political spin and soundbites on those facts. No hon. Members have disagreed and I am sure that the Minister will not disagree with the facts that have been put before us today.

One of the most important facts that we must face is that it is not only the shortage of teachers in Essex, as throughout the country, that is causing a problem, but that we are now facing the beginning of a crisis due to the turnover in teachers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, the problem is not so much recruitment as retention. The enormous rise in turnover is the most worrying problem facing head teachers in my constituency.

One problem that arises from the huge increase in turnover is the vast increase in supply teachers. Head teachers in whom I have great faith and confidence and who work hard in my constituency and produce very good results have told me that, when a long-term supply teacher is in charge of a class of pupils, they do not make progress--they are taught, but they stand still and do not progress. The Minister knows a lot about education and I shall be interested to know what she has to say about that, because it is particularly worrying.

The other problem that concerns head teachers in my constituency is why young teachers are leaving the profession so soon after being recruited. Money is not

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the only reason, although it is important because the pay differential between Epping Forest and the London boroughs is bad, but house prices are the same. Since the travel-to-work difference between the London boroughs and my constituency is in some cases only two miles, it is not surprising that we suffer. The important question, to which the hon. Member for Basildon referred, is how to solve the problem and what is the way forward.

The answer is that teachers are leaving the profession not because of pay or conditions, but because of low morale, largely because they are asked to undertake so much form filling and bureaucracy. These young people decided to follow their vocation because they wanted to teach. Teaching is what they want to do; teaching is what they are willing to do, but they are not willing to spend hours and hours a week filling in forms and keeping up to date with the Government's extra red tape, which is continually being heaped on.

We all know that that is the problem, but the hon. Member for Basildon did not address it and I am not surprised since the Labour Government are the cause. Teachers in Epping Forest want to be allowed to teach. If, in their professional capacity, we allow them to do so and take away the red tape and bureaucracy, we will begin to solve the problem.

12.10 p.m.

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and his colleagues on securing this debate. I want to put on record to begin with that there is no one inside or outside the House who does not see this as a vital subject. It is dear to the hearts of parents and politicians because the future of the nation and our aspirations for it lie in the hands of its children. How they grow up and take over the mantle depends very much on schools. Nothing that I say diminishes the importance of the subject, nor takes away from the real and genuine concern of many hon. Members.

Against that context, I shall explore some of the issues, argue with a few points and indicate some promising signs that the measures we have taken so far may be having a good effect. As a former teacher, it gives me no pride or pleasure to say that there is an historic problem with teacher recruitment and retention. That does not excuse previous Labour Governments nor, certainly, Conservative ones. If we were to plot a map of the economic fortunes of the country, sadly, it would show that we only recruit well to teaching in times of decline. The truth is that for decades, when the country has done well and when graduates, young or not so young, have had a choice, they have not chosen teaching as a career. That is where the difficulty lies for many schools and local authorities.

We need a fundamental short, medium and long-term change in the way that we view, recruit and retain teachers and applaud the work that they do. This is not about quick fixes, nor about playing clever games with figures in any two-year or even 10-year period. We have to acknowledge that, as a nation, we have undervalued teachers for far too long and we have to invest in their development and everything that they need to be successful.

Against that background I shall put on record a point about the matters raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and her colleagues and my hon.

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Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith). In Essex, despite the problems that teachers there may think that they have, there have been major achievements in the past three years. With the literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools in Essex, we have seen results for English improve by 11 per cent., for maths by 15 per cent. and for science also by 15 per cent. Given that there is considerable affluence in some parts of Essex, as well as some poverty and difficulties, the fact that they have improved by at least or faster than the national average from a relatively high starting point is a real tribute.

I point that out, first, to pay tribute to the teachers, but secondly, to reassure people that whatever the problems are in Essex and elsewhere at the moment, the truth is that teachers in schools--whether they be supply teachers, teachers from overseas, or Essex born and bred--are delivering the goods for children. That must be acknowledged. Therefore, I give them my thanks. I know that it has meant more paperwork, more training and more upheaval in how and what they teach, but it has increased the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and science that we all want for our children and our constituents' children.

I acknowledge that there is a problem. The hon. Members who spoke represent constituencies with particular problems because they are in areas of high housing cost. That presents a challenge for a profession that has a national pay scale and that has never had a pay structure that reflects different housing costs in different parts of the country. Therefore, although other parts of the country face difficulties, the south-east, London and schools that face especially challenging circumstances have the additional problem of housing costs.

Mr. Jenkin : The right hon. Lady has said two things that imply that teachers are underpaid. She said, first, that teachers have been undervalued for decades and can be recruited only at times of economic decline and, secondly, that in many parts of the country they cannot afford the housing that is available to them. What is her reaction to the Scottish Executive's decision to pay substantial salary increases to teachers, funded by taxpayers' money from England because the money that Scotland spends is very much funded by English taxpayers? Does she think that that will exacerbate the problem?

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair ): Order. Interventions should be brief.

Ms Morris : I notice a difference of opinion among Conservative Members as to whether the real issue is pay.

Mr. Jenkin : Answer the question.

Ms Morris : I am about to answer it. In view of the length of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, he should at least give me half a sentence to get to the reply.

Hon. Members were right to say that the problem is not just about pay, but about other things. It is about the quality of the working environment and, above all, whether we see our children learn. That is the real

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reward for a teacher: everything is worth while if, at the end of the day, the kids progress. In the survey published in the Times Educational Supplement on Friday, teachers say that there has been extra work and the job is more stressful, but it is still worth while.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to go into pay, I should remind him that the Conservative Government staged pay increases year after year, whereas the present Government have not staged a pay increase since we came to power. We have given above-inflation pay increases every year. The Government introduced threshold payments, so for the first time, teachers will be able to receive pay increases and access a new pay scale for staying in the classroom to teach, which they could not do before. Until we introduced the present performance-related pay, teachers had to leave the classroom and take on administrative responsibilities if they wanted further pay increases. That is the difference.

To return to some of the things that we have done, when I opened the debate, I was honest and did not say that there was not a problem. The question is, what have we been doing about it. That is what we must account for today. We are not taking a Johnny-come-lately approach: we are not reading a letter from Paul Lincoln or anyone else and then deciding to respond to it. In the past three years, the Government have systematically and carefully, with conviction, commitment and resources, invested in recruitment and retention and enhancement of the teaching profession, and the evidence shows that what we have done is beginning to work. Even that does not detract from the problems that I know exist.

Let me trace what we have done. Three years ago, in 1998, we introduced the golden hellos--real money to recruit people who would teach in shortage subjects--and the scheme worked. In the first year of golden hellos, we saw the first increase in teachers going into maths training for many a year. We can play with figures, but from 1992 onwards there had been a decline, year on year, in the number of people going into teacher training. Crucially, after the introduction of the golden hellos we stemmed that decline. It was not at a time of economic decline or by relying on the historic Tory way of waiting for the economy to go bad and then recruiting to teaching again--we stemmed the decline in recruitment to teacher training in a period of economic success.

Last year, we went further. Building on the golden hellos, we introduced the training salaries, which can be up to £15,000 for training to be a teacher--£6,000 for every postgraduate student, £4,000 extra for the shortage subjects and £5,000 extra for those on the fast track. The evidence shows that it works. Last year, when graduates could choose where to go, because every employer wants graduates, we saw the first increase in people going into teaching. There were 2,500, which was 9 per cent. more than there had been since 1992. Whatever problems there may be, the results of our investment in teaching are beginning to show.

Mr. Whittingdale rose--

Ms Morris : I want to put these figures on the record before I give way. They put our debate into context. Almost every Conservative Member who has spoken

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has said, "Ah yes, but the problem is not recruitment but retention." I doubt whether their spokesperson made that claim when the figures were mentioned last week. Never mind, it is a new week, so a new policy and a new focus. If one looks at retention too, there are almost 7,000 more teachers in service than there were two years ago. These are not our figures. We have not counted them. No one questions or challenges these figures. There are more teachers than there were last year. There are more teachers in service than there were when we came into government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon was right. The debate is about how we move forward within that context and this highly competitive market. Make no mistake, more teachers are in service now because it is a better profession with better esteem, recognition, pay and chances for promotion. More people are coming into teacher training than at any time in the past decade because there is more incentive to do so.

I am proud of teaching. It is one of the best professions in the world. I admire teachers. Do not knock the young men and women who are deciding to change careers. Do not pretend that there are fewer teachers now than there were. Do not pretend that more are leaving than coming in, and do not pretend that there has not been a shift in those going into training. Let us discuss the problem, but those figures are real. That is the good news during what has been a difficult period for those who care passionately about the future of schools and children, which is everyone in the Chamber.

Mr. Whittingdale : I would be the first person to welcome good news about teacher recruitment, but can the right hon. Lady confirm that the figures released this month by the Graduate Teacher Training Registry show that the number of applicants for teacher training has fallen from 14,224 last year to 11,935 this year?

Ms Morris : I am delighted to respond to that question as it offers me a wonderful chance to read out a press notice released today that updates the figures from that organisation. It states:

I am particularly thrilled with the 33 per cent. increase in applications for chemistry teachers because that has been a problem. Having said that, and thanking the hon.

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Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford for giving me the opportunity, I must point out that even that is not enough. We need to do better. Even today's figures show that we need more maths and physics teachers.

The message that I want to get across is that I do not underestimate the difficulties. Having worked as a teacher for 18 years, I know how tough it is for teachers to lose their non-contact time because they have to take other teachers' lessons. The job is tough and that problem adds to its difficulty, but accountability is important. Do we know that there is a problem? We do. Are the measures that we are taking having results? They are. Are we ignoring problems today, while those measures take effect? We are not.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Morris : I will in a moment.

At 10 am yesterday, we were told about the school that was threatened with a four-day week. By the end of the day, we were able to offer it the names of four teachers, including a maths specialist. I hope that the head will be able to conduct interviews today and prevent the school working a four-day week next week. That illustrates the action that we are taking now for today, next week, the medium and the long term. We are not complacent and do not underestimate the difficulties, but we will not spend our time arguing about the figures for this year or that. Our re-election will bring about real results. I shall now give way to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who arrived late in the debate.

Mr. Hayes : I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I share her enthusiasm and support for the profession. She has updated the figures from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry in overall terms, but will she be absolutely frank and tell us what the figures are for maths? She will know that the figures from 3 January showed a 29 per cent. decline in the number of maths applicants. Is the current number a decline, an increase or about the same as last year?

Ms Morris : I am now working from memory and if I am wrong, I apologise for an honest error. I think that the figure is 3 per cent. down on last year. The hon. Gentleman tells me that the figure was 29 per cent, so that is good progress. If I am wrong, I will write to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that my memory serves me well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon was right. I welcome the conversation that she has had with Paul Lincoln and the desire to move on. The politics of this issue involve teachers and parents' ability to decide which party has the best policies for turning education around. I have said what this Government have done. I am proud of our record on training salaries and investment in education.

I do not think for one minute that a policy that relies merely on sending fewer pieces of paper to schools will tackle the difficulties that face us in teacher recruitment. People should make no mistake. The Tories would abolish training salaries and golden hellos. They would cut the graduate recruitment programme that we have

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expanded to 1,000 places. There is no commitment--[Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] I would be delighted to sit down if any hon. Gentleman wanted to make a commitment to training salaries, but they are not part of the schools budget that the Tories have promised to protect; they are part of another budget, which the Tories have promised to cut. Whenever they have been challenged on the issue, they have not made that commitment. They rely on being able to say, "If paper doesn't work, let's do what we've always done--hang around and wait for the next recession."

That is not good enough for this Government, for schools in Essex, parents, teachers or kids. We have taken action. The problem is challenging, but our action will bear results in the medium and long term. We are ready today, tomorrow and next week to work in the schools in my hon. Friends' constituencies and elsewhere to ensure that we help teachers to meet the challenges that they face.

Mr. Jenkin : The right hon. Lady has rather marred the past few minutes of an otherwise admirable speech by going in for political point scoring, which had previously been avoided. We have had a taste of the scaremongering that we will see in the forthcoming general election campaign. Would the right hon. Lady like to point to a single example of a reduction in spending that has been announced by the Conservative party in the education budget and that is relevant to teacher education?

Ms Morris : With permission, Mr. Jones, I will finish my speech. The Tories have promised to protect the schools budget, not the education budget. Training salaries are not paid for from the schools budget.

Mr. Jenkin : We have not announced a single reduction. We will be able to deliver our reduction in spending--

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair ): Order. I am advised that the Minister has concluded her remarks. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to intervene on a speech that has concluded.

Mr. Jenkin : With permission, Mr. Jones, I was hoping to take the opportunity to speak. The right hon. Lady cannot point to a single announcement that we have made that implies that we are going to cut the education budget, and we will be able to deliver our reductions in the Government spending plans without touching important items such as teacher recruitment. The right hon. Lady knows it and should apologise.

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair ): Order. It is time to move on to the next debate.

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