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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Is my hon. Friend aware of the problems of St. Edward's school in Chipping Campden, in my constituency? For the first time in its 40-year history, the school has advertised a vacancy for a science teacher and has received not a single application. I know that that has happened in London, but if it is starting to extend to areas such as Gloucestershire, what on earth will the problems be in schools that cannot find teachers to teach?

Mrs. May: That shows that when the Government claim that the problem has hit only schools in London, they are plain wrong. The problem is being experienced by schools throughout the country. We wish the teachers and pupils at the school cited by my hon. Friend all the best in overcoming the difficulties that they, like those in so many other schools, are facing.

The crisis is affecting standards. In Essex, head teachers have been forced to use unqualified teachers to plug the gaps--67 in 61 schools throughout the county. In north London, a school has reported that only one in

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three maths teachers has maths qualifications--a higher proportion, I suspect, than obtains in the team that produces the Secretary of State's statistics. Throughout the country, head teachers are being forced to use supply teachers to bolster permanent staff.

Back in May 1997, the incoming Labour Government promised that class sizes would be smaller. They should try telling that to the 90 pupils at Bishop Reindorp school in Guildford, who have been put in a single class because of teacher shortage. Now we face the threat of industrial action. Let me make it clear that we do not support such action by the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers; teachers and heads should go on trying to work together, as they are all doing, to ensure that children are protected from the worst effects of the crisis. But, as head teachers in Barnet said last month in a letter to parents,

Schools have had to shorten hours because of the crisis. Schools have had to send children home for half a day per week, or longer. There is little doubt in the minds of parents that there is a real crisis in our schools, and that it is affecting standards.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No, I must make some progress.

The general secretary of the National Union of Teachers told the Minister for School Standards today:

What have the Government done? They have failed to address the key issue for which an answer is needed. The problem is not just about recruitment; it is about retaining teachers. Why are teachers leaving in droves? Because of the work load caused by red tape and bureaucracy, and interference in the classroom.

Mr. Derek Twigg: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No.

A good example has been provided by Dr. Chris Nicholls, head of Moulsham high school, in Chelmsford, who said in The Times Educational Supplement that the Government's "dictatorial" and "heavy-handed" approach has marred Labour's first term, and that the endless initiatives from the Department for Education and Employment have left teachers feeling demoralised and overburdened.

Dr. Nicholls said that the Government's

Even teacher recruitment is tied around with red tape, as demonstrated in the graduate and registered teacher programme. Let us look at an application form for that programme for primary schools. I can understand a requirement to ask for a few pages of details on applicants

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and their needs, but how many pages does the application form have? Are there one or two pages? Are there four, five, six or seven pages? Are there nine pages? No; the application runs to 23 pages.

It is no wonder that the director of education at the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead said that one of the major problems with the programme is that "it is over-bureaucratic" and that the application form is

The director of education suggests--I should like the Secretary of State to take these proposals seriously--that the graduate and registered teacher programme should be changed

and that the

He also suggests improving the application procedure.

Perhaps the Secretary of State could take up those constructive proposals and change the programme to ensure that it is not so bureaucratic. He could also try to ensure that the changes help schools outside London.

If the Government really want to help resolve the current crisis, why do they not consider relaxing the restrictions now? All along, however, what we have had from the Government are not concrete proposals, but spin and no delivery. The Government's only response has been a new telephone line, a special unit in Whitehall, phoney statistics and a dogged determination to avoid admitting what every teacher across the country knows--that the education system is in crisis.

Teachers need to be left to teach. They need to be freed from the suffocating burden of directives, circulars and guidance that flows daily from the Secretary of State's Department. New teachers who started at the beginning of last year would have received 140 guidance circulars from the Department for Education and Employment by the time that they were six months into the job.

A Conservative Government will stop telling teachers what to do and allow them to do what they do best--teach. We have pledged to match, pound for pound, Labour's spending on schools. However, we shall ensure that that money finds its way to where it is most needed, because too much Government money is being squandered on waste and bureaucracy. By devolving powers and budgets to schools, we shall ensure, on average, an extra £540 per pupil for every school in the country.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No.

We need to give head teachers the freedom to use incentives to attract teachers who are right for their schools.

Those measures will go some way to ensuring that teaching is once again made an attractive profession. It is also vital that we ensure that teachers are doing the job that they entered the profession to do--to get on with teaching, and not endlessly fill in the Secretary of State's paperwork.

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The Government were elected claiming that things can only get better, but they have got worse. Across the country, too many schools have reached crisis point.

Mr. Derek Twigg rose--

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No. I am coming to the end of my speech, so I shall not give way.

Schools have reached crisis point, with teacher shortages, classes being sent home early, increasing class sizes, unqualified staff, non-specialist staff and standards falling.

Mr. Twigg: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: No, I will not give way.

It is little wonder that people are saying, "We have paid the taxes, so where are the teachers? We have paid the taxes, so where has the money gone? We have paid the taxes, so when will the Government deliver?" This Government will never deliver. Only a Conservative Government will set schools free, let teachers teach and deliver the standards in education that our children deserve.

1.59 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The only delivery likely to come from the Conservative party is what was in store when highwaymen of the 18th century said, "Stand and deliver." The people to whom that command was directed found themselves ejected from their carriages and robbed of their money. They certainly did not get anything back.

We need to inject an air of reality into the debate. The first thing that I want to do is thank Ralph Tabberer, the chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, and the officials of my Department who have been so badly maligned this afternoon by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). They have worked hard over recent weeks and months to ensure that staff are available

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in schools and that action is being taken in that regard. I also want to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards for her excellent work over recent weeks.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead believes that using the word "crisis" often enough will convince people that a crisis exists. It is certainly possible, by using that word all the time, to change the atmosphere and make it difficult for schools to attract the people that they need and encourage them to apply for jobs. It is also possible by that means to make it difficult to persuade young people that teaching is a good profession to enter, and to make it difficult for returners--people who may be thinking about going back to the profession after taking early retirement, for example--to want to return to teaching.

Repeating the word "crisis" makes all that possible, but it will not resolve the problem. The Government have been clear all along that a problem exists. That is why we took action in 1998 with the golden hellos, about which I shall speak in a moment. That is why we made available £180 million last March to introduce programmes--such as the graduate teacher programme, to which the hon. Lady referred--aimed at resolving the problem. The Conservative party is not committed to matching the Government's total education spend, but only our spending on schools. A Conservative Government would not be able to afford to put those programmes in place. The graduate teacher programme, therefore, would not be available under a Conservative Government, as they would not have the money to pay for it.

However, I thank the hon. Lady for the one positive suggestion that her speech contained. There was only one, and it had to do with the graduate teacher programme. There is a need to scrutinise all the forms, and to listen to and respond to anyone who believes that they can be slimmed down and made less bureaucratic. It is important that we spread the graduate teacher programme, and we have doubled, to 1,680, the number of people taking part in it. Those people must be made available across the country.

I accept the hon. Lady's suggestion in that regard, and think that it is sensible. I heard no other suggestion as to what we should do. I am very sorry about that. I came here this afternoon prepared to listen and respond positively to the debate, as I have just done.

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