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2.8 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment and welcome her to her new, more senior position in the Department. I was also going to congratulate the Minister for Universities on her promotion, but I see that she has just left the Chamber. However, I should like to welcome the other members of the Department's team. The Minister for Schools is a former Treasury Minister, so I am sure that he will be able to give us new insights into how to get around the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I also welcome to the departmental team the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), and am pleased to welcome back to the education arena the hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), with whom I served on the Select Committee on Education and Employment.

I am pleased to start by noting two points of agreement with the Secretary of State: I agree that the quality of public services affects the quality of people's lives, and I am also happy to join her in paying tribute to those who work tirelessly to deliver good public services to users. However, she does not need me to tell her that she comes to her job with a full in-tray. There is much to be done to improve the education system in this country if, as she proposes, it is to be the best in the world. There is also much to be done to put right the problems caused by the Labour Government's first term in office.

The clear message from the general election for all politicians is that we must address the everyday problems that people--both workers and users--identify in the public services. Sadly missing from the Gracious Speech and from the opening speech made by the Secretary of State today is any sign that the Government really understand the problems faced by people working in the public services, and especially by those working in education and the health service. It is those problems that affect the quality of service provided. If the Government believe that they can reform public services without solving the problems faced by those working in the public services, they are gravely mistaken. We desperately need to raise the morale of the teaching profession and of health service professionals and give them greater scope to use their skills and professionalism in the interests of pupils and patients. We have a real crisis of teacher shortages and problems of shortages of nurses and doctors.

In education there are real problems involving rising secondary class sizes. I listened with interest to the Secretary of State's comments on class sizes. She omitted to mention that secondary class sizes are now at their

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highest level for more than 20 years, that we have more than 100,000 more children in secondary schools in classes of more than 30 than we had four years ago, and that we have more than 5,000 more children in nursery classes of more than 30 than four years ago. There is also chaos in our post-16 exam system, yet none of those problems is addressed in the Government's programme.

We have been promised more structural reform in health and education. In education we have been promised more sponsorship of schools, which has been interpreted as more private sector involvement, and more freedom for successful schools. If that means a damascene conversion of the Labour party to the cause of setting schools free, letting teachers teach and allowing the private sector to run schools that are funded by the taxpayer, I welcome it.

I certainly welcome the Government's conversion to the policy that all schools should be able to establish their own ethos and distinctive educational offer for local children. Over the past four years, I have heard the Government talk about restricting specialist schools and the ability of schools to have the freedom to set their own ethos, so I welcome their sudden conversion to offering that to all schools.

Anyone who talks to teachers can be in no doubt about the burden of their work load, the problems of red tape and their disillusionment. Anyone who speaks to heads can be in no doubt that they want more money without strings attached. If the Government intend to give schools genuine freedom, I welcome it. We on these Benches may be forgiven a certain sense of deja vu. Four years ago the Labour Government told us that the private sector would be able to run schools, but they failed to deliver. Four years ago they told us that they would cut bureaucracy in schools and let teachers get on with their job, but they failed to deliver. The same Government who tell us today that they will give more freedom to successful schools, three years ago abolished that freedom when they abolished grant-maintained status. Their conversion today will come as little comfort to schools that have seen budgets cut, courses closed and staff made redundant as a result of that abolition. Nevertheless, I repeat that I hope that schools will get genuine freedom.

I also hope that the Secretary of State's appointment will mean a move away from eye-catching headlines, initiatives, spin and gimmickry, although the first signs are not promising. Yesterday morning we heard in the Gracious Speech that reform of education would

That was spun to the press as greater private sector involvement in schools--the private sector being brought in to run schools. Yet barely had we returned from another place when we saw in the Department's press release, explaining that the education Bill was being published, that promoting diversity meant city academies, more faith schools and introducing advanced specialist schools--the very same advanced specialist schools to which the Government referred in their Green Paper last February. We are told that these schools could volunteer to take on a number of innovative ideas from a menu developed centrally--so much for freedom and diversity.

Far from the private sector coming in to run schools, it will be able, we are told, to introduce fixed-term standards contracts to enable private organisations and others to

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support the management of schools. In other words, the private sector can help out so long as it helps out as the Government prescribe. Who, I wonder, will determine the nature of the standards contracts?

If the Government are serious about genuine freedom for schools, they need to take a leap of faith. They must trust teachers again in the provision of the curriculum, get more money direct to schools and start trusting heads and teachers to make the right funding decisions for their schools. They must accept that heads and teachers must be allowed to enforce discipline, free from constraints from central Government. Will the Government show their faith in heads by removing the fines imposed on schools for excluding pupils? Will they ensure that the authority of head teachers is not undermined by local education authorities overturning decisions on exclusions on appeal? Will the Government show faith with heads and teachers by accepting that schools need to be set free from the burden of central Government bureaucracy?

The Secretary of State can make no better start in her office than by tearing up vast numbers of directives and circulars that will otherwise be issued by her Department to schools and teachers. So far we have seen little sign of that. I hope that over the next few weeks she will be willing to take that leap of faith, and trust heads and teachers. Certainly, all schools must be given the opportunity to manage their own affairs and develop their distinctive ethos. Will she show faith in heads and teachers by offering the new freedoms of which she speaks to all schools, not just to a chosen few flagship examples?

Will the new legislation include measures to amend the law to give private companies the ability to incentivise staff, as in other sectors and as called for by David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers and by the chairman and chief executive of Nord Anglia Education? Will the Government enable private companies to make a profit out of their involvement in schools? The answers to those questions will show the extent to which the Government are serious about providing genuine private sector involvement in and genuine freedom for schools.

Mr. Willis: Clearly, Tory party policy is to move towards private sector involvement in the delivery of front-line services in schools. Will the hon. Lady explain how a company such as Nord Anglia, which is a for-profit company, actually makes a profit from that? Where does the profit come from, if not from employing fewer or different teachers, as 80 per cent. of a school's budget is spent on the personnel who deliver the programmes of study?

Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman has omitted to notice that the policy of bringing the private sector into schools is now Government policy. I am saying that I support that policy, but I want to know whether the Secretary of State is genuinely willing to do that and to give freedom to schools.

What matters to parents and pupils is the quality of education that children receive. What matters to them is getting an education that can fulfil the needs and develop the full potential of every individual child. That is why I

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want freedom for schools. That is why I want schools to be able to use whatever services are necessary to ensure that they can provide that quality of education.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mrs. May: I will make a little more freedom--[Laughter.] I mean, progress. That shows I genuinely believe in freedom.

We will support freedom for schools, but we will not hesitate to point out where the Government circumscribe that freedom by red tape and bureaucracy.

Two weeks ago the electorate gave Labour the benefit of the doubt--[Interruption.] The Secretary of State may laugh but she knows that she will be judged not on her rhetoric, but on whether she delivers. She needs not only to deliver on her proposals in the Gracious Speech, but to resolve the serious problems facing education that were not referred to in the Government's programme.

The single biggest challenge facing the Government is the crisis in the teaching profession as seen in teacher recruitment and retention. The Government claim to have increased the number of teachers by 11,000 over the past four years, yet that figure includes unqualified teachers and some supply staff. The Government now have a target of recruiting 10,000 extra teachers by 2006. What does that figure mean? I hope that Ministers will today explain whether that means 10,000 more than the total number today, 10,000 more than current targets, a net gain of 10,000 more teachers or just increasing the numbers coming in without doing anything to stem the flow of teachers from the profession in droves.

The Government are a Government of targets, yet they refuse to set a target for reducing the number of teacher vacancies. That would show their commitment to solving the problems facing our schools, but perhaps their refusal is not surprising.

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