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Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I see that several Members wish to speak. If speeches are brief, more Members may catch my eye.

8.19 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Before dealing with the specifics, I want to talk briefly about the background.

As the Minister will remember, in Westminster Hall this morning I identified a number of areas in which the teaching profession faces what can only be described as a mounting crisis in many parts of the country. Those words come not from me as a politician, but from any number of heads and other teachers to whom I have spoken in recent weeks. I pay tribute to them for continuing to deliver excellent results in extremely difficult circumstances.

At the heart of the problem lies the Government's determination to micro-manage, to interfere with and to centralise our education system. That is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Bill. Heads tell me repeatedly that in schools, no one feels free to make their own decisions. That applies especially to classroom teachers. They tell me that they are inundated with unnecessary bureaucracy. I have seen some of that as a school governor, and I know that it is getting worse.

In a written answer two days ago, the Department told me that 20 initiatives requiring action had been sent to primary schools since 1 April, and 22 to secondary

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schools. A chair of governors told me last week that he will have another five or six to deal with by January. The consequence of that bureaucratic workload is that teachers are beginning to say, "Enough is enough". A head in my area told me recently that he had lost two good young teachers who were quitting "To get a life". One of my local union officials said that the

I have spoken to a number of heads in recent days. One told me that the Government were over-interventionist, that children were over-measured and that there was initiative overload. According to her,

According to the Foundation and Voluntary Aided Schools' Association,

That cannot be right, and it cannot be good for our teachers.

In Westminster Hall, we talked about information coming from around the country about the morale crisis in too many schools. The Secretary of State, in the House, has given figures to deny its existence, but those who talk to head teachers will find that they tell a different story. Today, we heard stories from heads in Nottinghamshire, Hampshire and Somerset, as well as my own county of Surrey, all telling that same story.

Half the schools in Surrey contain people teaching subjects that they are not qualified to teach. Half the heads say that teachers in their schools have left the profession in the past 12 months. According to recent research by Liverpool university, the rate of resignation is rising fast. The age profile, meanwhile, is rising: far more teachers nowadays are in their forties rather than their twenties. The profession is not renewing itself. The main reason is the Government's repeated exacerbation of the workload placed on teachers' shoulders.

It is to the Secretary of State's discredit that the words "teachers' workload" did not pass her lips this evening, although the Minister told us this morning that the Department had commissioned a report on teachers' workload from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which he said would recommend changes. He said that it would tell the Department that the workload was too great. Why is there no reflection of that in the Bill?

Teachers refer to discipline issues. They say that they are suffering the disastrous consequences of the Government's exclusion policy, and that there is increasing antisocial behaviour in classrooms. In far too many cases, teachers are open to investigation on the whim of pupils; too often the word of a pupil is taken against that of a teacher. In such circumstances, teachers can be subjected to police investigation over the most minor incidents. Is it any wonder that so many teachers feel let down by the system? What does the Bill do to tackle those problems?

Of course the Bill has good points. I welcome the decision to reverse the Government's ill-thought-out policies on exclusion, and the proposals relating to student grants and teachers. But does it tackle bureaucracy, or teachers' workload? It provides for application for specialist school status, allowing for substantial

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consultation and complex processes for securing it. Will that reduce teachers' workload? It also provides for constitutional changes involving governing bodies. Will that make head teachers' jobs easier?

The Bill talks of new frameworks for determining teachers' pay and conditions, provisions for teacher appraisal and the extension of regulation governing nursery education. What does any of that do to address the real problem of excessive workload? Apart from taking welcome steps on exclusion, what does the Bill do to address the problem of antisocial behaviour? What extra safeguards does it give heads to enable them to maintain order?

As we have heard tonight, others are not impressed by the Bill. The National Governors Council has referred to a common theme in discussions and responses to the consultation paper: why bother to do all this? It considers that some of the proposals have merit, but they are not aimed at solving major problems. That is exactly my point.

As for the situation in pre-schools and nurseries, I deeply regret the Government's creeping regulation of that sector. In the past few weeks, I have visited a number of pre-school playgroups in my constituency, and have been horrified by the bureaucracy there. There are teaching manuals several inches thick, and certification courses that last more than a year—for mothers working a couple of mornings a week.

Caroline Flint: If people want to run a two-hour playgroup, that is fine. If they want to engage in nursery education, however, they must be able to apply the standards that we would expect for all our children in nursery schools. Surely those who do not want to do that need not make such provision.

Chris Grayling: It is right that we set standards for our playgroups but when we go seriously over the top and prescribe, in detailed minutiae, what we expect from playgroups we place a ridiculously onerous burden on those who run them, and drive them out of existence. That is what is happening and it will continue to happen.

The Bill has both good points and bad ones. However, it is still the wrong Bill to deal with the problems facing our education system. I therefore conclude by offering some suggestions to the Government. Let us have a 12-month moratorium on new initiatives for the teaching profession and give teachers a chance to deal with the initiative overload that is already on their desks. Let us permanently reduce the number of reports and consultations; we cannot continue to expect our school heads and governors to deal with such a weight of paperwork. Let us stop trying to micro-manage school funding and give heads some freedom to take decisions according to the needs of their schools. Let us also give teachers protection against false allegations. I also ask the Government to stop over-regulating our pre-school groups. Above all, I ask them to listen to head teachers, not statistics.

On various occasions this year, one of my local union officials wrote to the Minister to highlight the problems in Surrey. He concluded by saying:

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The Bill palpably fails to deal with that problem at all.

8.29 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I praise the Government and congratulate the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on again demonstrating—this time, in the Education Bill—education's place at the heart of our social policy. I shall first speak to clauses 1 to 4, then comment on clauses 10 and 11, and finish by speaking in some detail about the concept of faith schools, especially as it is dealt with in clause 66.

I am delighted by the Bill's general thrust in introducing innovation in schools, which is particularly evident in clauses 1 to 4. The talent, ability and initiative of individual schools, head teachers, department heads and indeed pupils should be given free rein to foster innovation that improves educational standards and performance. Innovation can occur in many ways: the adoption of new teaching methods; seeking to develop subjects in collaboration with other educational providers and other bodies that may be able materially to assist and enhance the learning process; collaboration with neighbouring schools and colleges; and seeking to make schools a part of the wider community and thereby creating in the classroom a vibrant mix between education and the wider issues of citizenship, and ensuring that a dynamic learning environment is nurtured.

Clauses 10 and 11 will enable governing bodies to form or invest in companies to provide or purchase specific services. I welcome that provision. Many local authorities and other non-governmental organisations have found that the ability to form companies limited by guarantee is a great boon to their work. In the spheres of community development and capacity building, for example, improvement companies have been an invaluable vehicle in regenerating our towns and cities. Additionally, local councils' economic development work has been enhanced by the formation of companies to invest in local innovation in technology transfer and research and development.

The ability to use a similar vehicle to invest in, for example, a new state-of-the-art science facility is a welcome addition to the powers available to governing bodies. Of course there will have to be safeguards and a provision that such companies cannot be formed without the local education authority's express permission. I would therefore welcome a strengthening of the general safeguards by the designation of an "accountable body" and a "prescribed person" to administer them. I also believe that the prescribed person will have to be someone local, such as the LEA chief officer or section 151 officer, and not someone from the Department for Education and Skills.

I largely agreed with the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made on clause 66, which would allow any LEA in England, with the approval of the Secretary of State, to invite "other people" to make provision for the establishment of a new maintained school. Although the clause is deliberately vague on who those "other people" may be, briefing material that I have seen makes it clear that the sponsors may include faith groups.

I should like to sound a warning on the issue. I believe that we need to think deep and hard about deliberately increasing the number of faith schools. As many hon.

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Members have said, faith schools have been with us since the Elementary Education Act 1870, which was amended in 1902. However, the landscape in which faiths are promoted and the nature of faiths themselves have altered dramatically since the days of Gladstone, Disraeli, Churchill and Chamberlain. We live now in a multicultural society that embraces many different races and nationalities.

I myself was brought up in the Hindu and Sikh faiths, and I regularly go to the mandir and the gurdwara. I respect all faiths, but I consider myself a humanist. I went through the state education system and I enjoyed it, not least because it helped me to value debate, argument and inquiry without religious indoctrination, and because it did not place education into the straitjacket of a narrow sectarian way of thinking.

We should recall how that form of education evolved from a historical perspective. The 1870 Act's purpose was to prepare the way for a whole new network of state elementary schools designed to ensure that the nation was best able to train its young people to meet the technical and vocational challenges of late Victorian Britain. It was seen by many as an attack on the Churches and met with fierce opposition from many clergymen, the Church of England, the Free Churches and the Roman Catholic faith. Equally, many others, including the great radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham—who argued for the freeing of education from the narrow confines of the church and the chapel—saw that the great advances in scientific and cultural discovery occurring at that time had to be discussed and studied in our classrooms. They were concerned that the narrow dogmatism that characterised many religious institutions would be apt to inhibit those intellectual discoveries.

In true British fashion, the result was a compromise. Faith schools, styled as voluntary schools, were allowed to remain in being, but they were overshadowed by a network of state schools run, at that time, by local school boards. The settlement was that those state schools would be obliged to offer Christian instruction of a vaguely non-partisan kind and that has broadly lasted to the present day. Some 22 per cent. of all pupils in England are in mainstream faith schools, with 12 per cent. at Church of England schools and 10 per cent. at Roman Catholic schools.

Both Churches have, over the years, become absorbed into the mainstream educational network. Indeed, apart from the notice boards outside many of our voluntary aided schools there is little to distinguish many of those schools from their LEA neighbours. Most treat religious education as part of a wider multicultural curriculum, and most do not force feed faith to their pupils. However, that may not be the case with future faith schools. That change was foreshadowed by the Education Act 1988, introduced by the previous Conservative Government, which made worship "of a Christian character" compulsory, and provided that religious education has

It also has to reflect

The 1988 Act was followed by the Green Paper introduced by the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment this February. That promised to introduce new state-funded schools managed by religious interests from, among others, the Christian, Muslim,

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Sikh and Greek Orthodox Churches. That declaration has been paralleled by the increasing interest in educational policy from institutions and individuals representing religious interests that are outside the mainstream faiths. As well as general policy, there is now a specific interest in sponsoring new schools.

I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) that there is a great danger that well-endowed Christian evangelical groups could seek an opening into our classrooms through the promise of lavish funds. We have seen that occur in the United States and in Africa. There is a similar danger that groups and sects in other religions could seek to set up schools with an added agenda that promotes ideas and beliefs that implicitly challenge the concepts of multiculturalism and diversity of belief. Such schools would seek to stifle the pursuit of knowledge about other faiths and races.

Those possibilities are obvious here-and-now dangers, but there are other, more theoretical, but real concerns about faith schools. Can the teaching of a specific religious belief in an institutional setting be seen as an attempt to indoctrinate a child? Does not such teaching take away the autonomy of a child who attends such a school? Indoctrination is a strong word, but I use it because I believe that the teaching of a child about a specific religion without reference or parallel to other faiths is simply that—indoctrination. The purpose of such tuition is to ensure that a pupil comes to accept a religious belief as true, not as a concept that can be tested against other concepts. It is no accident perhaps that many religious leaders and educationists speak not of religious education, but religious instruction. The loss of autonomy is a strong accusation, but I believe that it is seriously wrong to force a child to accept tuition based on one set of religious tenets and possibly to use the powers of reprimand if those tenets are not accepted. That is coercion at the worst, and a loss of autonomy at the least. It certainly takes away a child's right to self-determination of the relevance and righteousness of a religious creed.

I believe that the House should seek a wider debate about faith schools, and their role and purpose in the modern multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society. I seriously hope that this matter will be debated far more widely in Standing Committee and in another place.

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