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Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman talks about specialist schools. Will he bring it to the Government's attention that the 30 per cent. ceiling applies regardless of the specialism of the schools in a particular area? It is nonsensical that, regardless of particular existing specialisms, a technology college, for example, can be prevented from acquiring the status that it deserves and demands.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister was listening. We have completed some research which reveals that schools with specialist status are predominantly in middle-class areas. They are not in the--

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to point out, in addition to his response to the question of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), that the Conservative Government were responsible for the worst form of restriction. They restricted specialist schools to grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Willis: The Minister has taken the words out of my mouth. I was about to make that riposte, but I was trying to be generous to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman need not be.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is always courteous in the House, and he deserves a courteous response.

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If we are to have specialist schools and to develop that approach as a central theme, we must remove absurd restrictions and ensure that all schools can bid appropriately.

The Prime Minister said that he wants the best of our state schools to be as good as the best public schools. Hear, hear--I want that, too. What is the great difference, however? Let us take away class sizes and facilities. The great difference is that our public schools allow the heads and their staffs to define the priorities for the youngsters in their school and to move ahead. We want to see a level of professionalism that is missing at present.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead should not get excited and think that I am supporting her free schools initiative. To be fair, she did not go on too much about free schools this afternoon, having had her nose bloodied at the north of England conference.

We are proposing to cut bureaucracy and set schools free. Imagine what bureaucracy would result from 24,000 separate schools competing with each other. What would that do for recruitment and retention? How would that help to resolve the crisis in teacher recruitment?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He says that he wants the state school system to emulate the successes of the public or independent school system. How does he think the independent schools cope so well in a competitive environment?

Mr. Willis: I thought that the hon. Gentleman would answer the question, but he has posed another question. I am delighted. If the school in which I worked in Leeds, John Smeaton community high school, had £7,500 per student instead of £1,700 per student, I could have offered a better product than I did.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. He is contradicting himself. Only a few moments ago, he said that a school's success was nothing to do with its resources--it was about freedom from bureaucracy and the ability of the head and the teachers to run their own school.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman does me an injustice, which is unusual for him. He is quite a courteous person, when he is not speaking about grammar schools. Hansard will demonstrate that I said that I wanted to strip those things out. They are the obvious differences between state and public schools. Freedom, professionalism and trust are extremely important.

Imagine the chaos if every rural primary school and every small secondary school had to close, as they would under the Conservative proposals. Let us be honest about that. If there were equity of funding on a per capita basis from the centre across the whole country, every small primary school that is currently subsidised by the local authority under the formula system would close. We hear no answer to that.

Imagine saying to a group of head teachers in front of one of those big posters, "We are campaigning against bureaucracy, but by the way, you will now have to organise your own admissions, your own appeals, your

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own SEN tribunals, your own statementing processes, your own psychology, speech therapy and sensory impairment services, and so on. That will not increase your bureaucracy, but you will have to organise it. Also, you will have to sort out your own buses and taxis, your governors' support, your legal services, your payroll and every other service. Don't ask LEAs for any support, as we are abolishing those."

That is the nonsense implied by the Tories' proposals. I challenge any hon. Member to stand in front of one of the posters and quote that. That is where the £540 comes in. It is not £540 on top of what the Government are promising, or what we are promising. It is £540 taken away, to be given back to schools for those bureaucratic services. That is nonsense, and it will do nothing to alleviate teacher shortages.

May I offer the Minister some suggestions for dealing with the current crisis? The state of teacher recruitment and retention is well known, so I shall not dwell on it. Rather than go into battle with the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, the National Union of Teachers and the other teacher unions, the Government should set up a taskforce to see what immediate steps could be taken to sort out the crisis.

What about short-term contracts with pension protection for recently retired teachers? A significant number of people are leaving the profession and short-term contracts with pension protection would help. What about DFEE contracts with supply agencies to take supply teachers off their books and give them short-term contracts within schools? What about funding LEAs directly to work with DFEE recruitment managers to provide a pool within their authorities? What about using LEA advisers to teach in some schools? What about offering short-term experience contracts to Ofsted inspectors? What better opportunity could there be than to have a port in the Ofsted inspection system and get all the Ofsted inspectors to do some real work in the schools? What a popular move that would be. Moreover, we should abandon the external threshold assessors and ask them, rather than wandering about, to go into schools and teach. We need long-term solutions.

The Secretary of State was not being entirely honest--honest is not the right word though, because I would not accuse him of being dishonest. But he was certainly manipulating the truth when he talked about the GTTR figures last week. [Interruption.] I have already used the word disingenuous. The hon. Member for Maidenhead also alluded to this point. On 3 January we had the GTTR's figures. A GTTR board decision was taken in October last year to produce figures only in the first week of every month so that there can be no political manipulation or misinterpretation. The hon. Lady and I, and the Minister, went to Bridlington in the first week in January, sunny as it was, and in a debate we openly used those figures showing a 16 per cent. drop in applications.

The Secretary of State did not like that. Suddenly, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service produced an ad hoc set of figures at his own discretion for the Secretary of State to use in today's debate. That is utterly unacceptable. The hon. Member for Maidenhead did not have an advance copy of those figures, and nor did I. The Secretary of State received them in a press release that was embargoed until midnight. That is not open government. UCAS is an

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independent organisation which should be providing information to all on a fair basis, but there has been some manipulation. The Minister should respond to that point.

The press release from the Minister and the chief executive of UCAS did not show that, while there was a drop in virtually all the major traditional national curriculum subjects, since the Conservative Government left office there has been a 35 per cent. fall in applications across all subjects. That is how dire the situation is, and that is why it is rightly said that there is a crisis.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State has promised to revisit the issue of inappropriate degrees and to try to clear a path through that. It is important that we recognise that degree status entitles one not simply to an understanding of particular subject knowledge, but to a range of skills and applications. Teacher training should enable people to consider how to use skills and knowledge and move into other areas.

In The Times Educational Supplement last Friday there were 236 maths vacancies. The problem cannot be resolved simply by saying that we need to recruit more maths graduates. It is madness to say that a teacher can come from New Zealand with no national curriculum training to teach in our schools, but someone with a sociology degree cannot be trained to be a maths teacher.

We must attract more graduates to teaching. In reply to a question last week, the Minister said that the Liberal Democrat proposal for a 100 per cent. training salary could not be afforded. If £6,000 results in 100,000 responses to the telephone advertising campaign, how many more would come forward if there was a proper 100 per cent. salary training for people coming into teaching? Rather than dismiss that, I hope that the Minister will support it.

We want to offer solutions. We want to work with the Government and the Opposition to find solutions to some difficult problems. Teachers are at the heart of an education system. If we have good teachers, well paid and well valued, every child in Britain will matter, not just the few whom the Conservative party would like to support, or those whom the Government are trying to support.

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