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Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (MidDorset and North Poole): I should like to make a brief speech drawing on my personal experiences. I was chairman of a local authority education committee for a number of years before becoming a Member of Parliament.
I followed closely the argument of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who talked about looking at the issue in the format of a school report in which there were pluses and minuses. I certainly acknowledge the pluses in my area; on the plus side, I give high marks to improvements in recent years in the provision for under-fives, which is critical. I accept that improvements in the early identification of special needs will take a long time to work through the system. I preface my remarks with that because it is vital; it has taken a long time to recognise that that is the real starting point and the basis of people's future achievements.
We must recognise that there are problems in our education system. Some of them are fairly deeply rooted in the policies of previous Governments. Much has been said today about achieving policy objectives. One difficulty in doing so is caused by time lags, some of which I should like to identify. I shall touch on the first two briefly.
First, it was an enormous shame that the Labour Government followed the expenditure plans of the previous Government for their first two years. That immediately introduced time lags into securing improvements. The second major time lag is in reforming the Office for Standards in EducationOfsted. We are moving in a good direction and, having heard its new chief, I hope that Ofsted will become to teachers something positive and encouraging rather than negative and stressful, as in the past. That was one of the worst problems of all. It must be possible to improve our schools without causing quite so many nervous breakdowns.
We must acknowledge that our teachers and head teachers are suffering undue stress. To pick up again on the time lag, the Government are about to recogniseit should have been recognised years agothe lack of non-contact time for teachers. Every teacher to whom I speak mentions that problem. It has become even more of a problem as a result of shortages, as teachers lose what little non-contact time they have in covering for their colleagues.
Head teachers are saying to me, "I've had to teach 80 pupils in the hall today because I didn't have enough cover." How can head teachers take on board all the initiatives, manage their budgets, in some cases make decisions about ground maintenance and goodness knows what, and manage their schools well? Of course, an awful lot do so, but the burden is intolerable and must be examined.
Several Members spoke about recruitment and retention. I do not feel as optimistic as some Labour Members. We have problems filling posts now. New teachers are coming on tap, but we face problems today and there is no evidence that we are recruiting at a sufficient rate. We should consider some of the incentives that are being introduced. At the beginning of the teaching scale, incentives are offered to people to gain postgraduate qualifications. A threshold has been introduced, too. What about those who have been in teaching for three to seven
Surely we must consider the matter as a whole. Let us look at the threshold and how it was introduced. How much extra stress and strain did it put on people? How much did it cost for very few teachers not to be given exactly what their head teachers recommended? Would not it have been simpler to have introduced a decent salary scale for teaching a little sooner? I think so.
Members have mentioned the additional cost allowance. They will be aware that part of my constituency, Poole, has some of the highest house prices in the world. We do not qualify for the additional cost allowance. Trying to buy a house in millionaire's row is a real problem. In addition, building costs on the south coast are incredibly high.
I spoke about teacher shortages. We need even more teachers because our classes are still far too large. We have made a good start in the early primary years, but we must deal with the later primary years and the shameful record of secondary class sizes. Large classes are another important cause of stress in our secondary sector.
Even more changes are being introduced, which adds to the stress. In the secondary sector, there are proposed and actual key stage 3 changes. Was it really necessary to introduce more changes or publish another national test in such a way? Many independent schools, to which some Members like to refer, choose not to conduct key stage 3 tests, so why is it so important in our state schools? Will it not lead to conformity, rather than diversity? Are we not creating a straitjacket? I am concerned that we might lose the opportunity for children to study a wider range of subjects before they get down to the important task of studying for GCSE.
There has been repeated mention of funding. There are two education authorities in my constituency, both among the worst-funded 40 authorities. One is the fourth worst-funded education authority in the country. My time-lag argument applies with a vengeance. We have known for years about the inequitable distribution of funding for education, yet it will be another two years before the problem is addressed. How many children have suffered and will never catch up what has been lost because of teacher and book shortages in areas such as mine, where there is serious underfundingan average of £274 per pupil less than the national figure?
We need transparency and openness, and we could move towards that even more quickly than the present rate of progress. The standards fund, the bidsthe system is so complex. There are announcements, it is suggested that a local authority has been given funding for this, that and the other, but the funding is not always clearly identifiablefor example, the money for curriculum 2000. In my authority, we made every effort to pay our schools the money for the extra exam fees, but it could not be found in our standard spending assessment formula. There is such a lack of clarity, which I believe upsets the partnership between head teachers and the local education authority. That important partnership would be helped by clarity and openness from Government.
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Four and half years ago, almost to the hour, I gave my maiden speech in the Chamber. I am sorry that the hon. Member for MidWorcestershire (Mr. Luff), who made a stirring contribution earlier in the debate, is not in his place. He had the task of following me on that occasion four and a half years ago, when he welcomed me to the House and said how wonderful my speech was. That was nice to hear from an Opposition Member.
I shall give an update on one of the topics that I mentioned in that speech. I spoke about how the Government would be judged and what the criteria would be. I said that many people out there who were in two minds about the success of a Government would look not at the big picture, but at how things had changed in their locality. I spoke about an infant school at Chapel-en-le-Frith in the High Peak. At that time, it was a split-site infant school, with a main road through the middle of it. The building on one side of the road was rotten, Victorian, overcrowded and inadequate. On the other side of the road, there were 40-year-old terrapin buildings which were leaking, falling down and propped up. That was the symbol of 18 years of Tory education policy in the schools in my constituency.
In that maiden speech, I made a plea that we should be judged on what we did for schools such as Chapel-en-le-Frith. Six weeks later, metaphorically speaking, a cheque was in the post from the then Department for Education and Employment. In March 2000 the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), came to Chapel-en-le-Frith to open the brand new infant school. The school was designed with infants in mind: it has low window sills so that the children can see out, and play areas in the middle of the complex so that they are safe from the outside world. That makes a difference and it is a wonderful school, which has gone from success to success. It has become an enhanced resource school, which means that it has extra money for taking on additional children with special educational needs, for whom it has become a centre of excellence. It is a success story.
Chapel-en-le-Frith school is one of four that have been replaced in my constituency since 1997. Tintwistle primary school followed soon afterwards, and Chapel high school, the comprehensive school that serves Chapel-en-le-Frith, is being rebuilt along with public leisure facilities. It is being combined with a replacement for a special needs school. That means four new schools in High Peak in four years. If we continue at the rate of one a year, I shall be delighted.