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4.50 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I was pleased to hear—and to some extent impressed by—the Secretary of State's support for teachers, but I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) did not offer such support in his opening speech. I was also disappointed by his hardly mentioning higher or further education. He merely offered criticism, and seemed to think that by far the most important aspect of the higher education crisis is that the Government's review will be published rather later than was expected. I, too, am disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to push forward their review, and that so many people remain uncertain about their financial position on going to university, but there is much more to the higher education crisis than the slowness of publication of the Government's review.

I want to pick up on some of the Secretary of State's comments on teachers. Teachers, lecturers and others involved in education should be congratulated. They work very hard in often difficult and trying circumstances, and usually to the highest standards. I am disappointed that the Conservatives have chosen to talk about a crisis in education. The Government might not be delivering on their side of the bargain, but teachers certainly are—despite the fact that there are too few of them, despite their being the most audited, inspected and regulated teachers in Europe, and despite the Government's failure to invest adequate resources.

Too often, our teachers are undervalued and talked down to by politicians. The Conservatives were as guilty of that as new Labour is. The approach has been to name and shame, rather than to value and encourage. Is it any wonder that teachers resort to industrial action when the Government deny them the professional status that they deserve?

Mr. McLoughlin: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the job of teachers will be made easier by the policy of legalising cannabis use, which, I believe, he intends to follow?

Mr. Rendel: As a matter of fact, a lot of things would probably be made easier. Certainly, the legalisation of cannabis—if it takes place—is one way in which some of the problems associated with our young people could be reduced.

During my party's recent serious and mature debate in Manchester, the point was repeatedly made that a lot of the problems associated with drugs stem from the fact that we treat alcohol and tobacco—comparatively dangerous drugs—in an entirely different way from cannabis, which is less dangerous. If the Conservatives are not prepared to address the problem seriously and maturely, so much the worse for them.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman said that there are too few teachers, and that more are needed in the

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classroom. How many additional teachers—over and above the 10,000 promised in the Labour manifesto—would a Liberal Democrat Government provide? How much would that cost, and has the cost been budgeted for?

Mr. Rendel: The answer is 5,000, and the cost was budgeted for.

Mr. Chaytor: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Liberal Democrats would provide 15,000 additional teachers in total, and if so what would be the cost?

Mr. Rendel: We would provide 5,000 over and above the Labour party's proposal. I do not know the precise cost off the top of my head, but it was included in our manifesto. If the hon. Gentleman is determined to have the exact figure, he can look it up or I can write to him.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in Sheffield, the Liberal-Democrat controlled council has taken on 800 extra teachers whom the local newspaper said that it would not touch with a bargepole? Does not that strategy smack of desperation on the part of the council, and show that the Liberal Democrats do not know which way they are going?

Mr. Rendel: I am afraid that I did not understand that question, and we have taken long enough over interventions as it is.

Is it any wonder that we are witnessing a terrific recruitment and retention problem, given that the Government are denying up to 90 per cent. of schools the freedom to innovate? The other 10 per cent. will get the freedom to innovate only on the say-so of the Secretary of State.

Our education system is failing. The Government are letting it down because the concept of employability lies at the heart of their education and skills policy. Even if one accepts that narrow definition of what education is about, it is clear that the Government have failed. Last year, half our 16-year-olds failed to achieve the Government's benchmark of five good GCSEs, and 30,000 pupils left school without a qualification between them. There are 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in work, training or education. What is the Government's answer to that problem? It is the new deal.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which considered the National Audit Office report only the other day. That report found that 30 per cent. of people leaving the new deal programme have no recorded or known destination. The report also found:

There are two specific problems, and the first is the failure to invest enough. In their first term, the Labour Government spent even less on education, as a proportion of national wealth, than the Conservatives managed under John Major—4.6 per cent., compared with 5 per cent. I shall give some examples of the results.

Official figures show that £754 million needs to be spent on priority 1 school repairs, which are defined as urgent work that will prevent the immediate closure of

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premises, and/or address an immediate high risk to the health and safety of occupants, and/or remedy a serious breach of legislation. I accept the Secretary of State's contention that the problem has existed for some years. We have had under-investment for many years, and not only for the past five. However, this Government have failed to pick up on the problem sufficiently quickly.

Moreover, figures from the House of Commons Library show that public funding per student in higher education fell year on year during this Government's first term. By 2003-04, real-terms public-sector funding per student will be 7 per cent. lower than when the Conservatives were in power.

The second problem is the dead hand of central control. The Government want to run education from Whitehall—or, rather, from Downing street. The Education Bill now before the House of Lords is based on the novel proposition that more regulation equals more freedom to innovate. Clause 1 defines the Bill's purpose, stating that it is to

That is, freedom will be benevolently bestowed on the say-so of the Secretary of State—but only for a few, as only 10 per cent. of schools will win earned autonomy. The Government insist that it is all for our own good, as happens in all cases of benevolent authority, and that we need not worry about the Government misusing the powers, because they would not do that. Of course, it is not in our hands to determine who might use such powers in future. Liberal Democrats believe that all schools other than those under special measures should be given the freedom to innovate.

The two fundamental flaws in Government policy—the failure to invest and the dead hand of central control—have led to several other problems.

Tony Cunningham: It is interesting that, in outlining their education policy, Liberal Democrat Members criticise the Conservatives' policy, or lack of policy. In Cumbria, the county council is run by a Conservative-Liberal alliance. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me which of the policies he agrees with?

Mr. Rendel: I am not sure which policies the hon. Gentleman means. If he is asking whether I agree with Liberal Democrat policies or Conservative policies, I usually tend to agree with Liberal Democrat policies.

I return to the problems created by the two fundamental flaws in Government policy. First, there is the crisis in the teaching profession. The 2000–01 Ofsted report reveals that problems in recruiting and retaining teachers have worsened during the past two years. Provisional figures show that the vacancy rate in English secondary schools has doubled in the past year, and in recent years the maintained system has lost around 10 per cent. of its teachers each year. More than one in five newly qualified teachers leave the profession during their first three years in teaching. Those problems are particularly acute in London and the south-east, owing to high housing costs, and in areas of high socio-economic disadvantage.

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Rising pupil numbers and increased resource availability will create a demand for an extra 70,000 teachers by 2004, dwarfing the 10,000 promised by new Labour in its manifesto. Meanwhile, teachers are leaving in droves. Why? In response to a National Union of Teachers survey, 82 per cent. of teachers who had left the profession said that an important factor in their decision was the pressure of the work load. Fifty-six per cent. felt undervalued and undermined by negative publicity and constant criticism, which is stoked by the Government and the press. Sadly, teaching is now seen as a low-status profession. It never was in the past.

The Government's response is fast track, which last year cost the Department for Education and Skills £4,630,058 but recruited only 111 teachers into training. Ten of those have already left, several will not enter teaching and some have already accepted posts in the private sector. The cost per entrant is a staggering £46,000. The cost of placing a student on a postgraduate certificate of education course through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is £15.57. This year, the Government have allocated a further £8.53 million to the scheme.

Another problem, which Conservative Members did not mention, relates to the teaching of mathematics, science and technology. Three years ago, about one in 10 secondary school maths teachers had no subject qualification beyond A-level. Now as many as 45 per cent. of staff teaching the subject to 11 to 14-year-olds have limited knowledge of maths and little or no training in the subject. Ofsted found that only 77 per cent. of teachers who teach some mathematics in secondary school have a post-A-level qualification in the subject. UCAS figures show a steady decline since 1997 in the number of applicants for courses in biological sciences, physical sciences and engineering and technology. We are getting into a vicious cycle, which is a real worry for the future. The figures amount to a 17 per cent. drop between 1997 and 2001, or 12,000 fewer applicants.

That is ironic, given that creationism has been allowed to make a comeback in our school system. Will the situation at Emmanuel college in Gateshead be repeated as more schools come to rely on private funding? Is that the science teaching of the future? It is worrying that Sir Peter Vardy, the evangelical Christian entrepreneur who funds Emmanuel college, is investing £12 million in six other city academies. Science teaching is suffering enough without his intervention.

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