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Tony Cunningham: I have been talking about my experience in my constituency, and teachers are not balloting for strike action there. However, I remember that, when I was a teacher in Maryport in the 1980s, the NUT balloted its members on strike action. When I discuss education with my former colleagues, I recognise the problems and challenges. However, I also ask them to think back to the 1980s and when we taught together. I can think of temporary classrooms that should have been bulldozed 20 years earlier, but which were still in place. I remember holding fund-raising events not to raise money for a new sports centre, but to raise money to paint classrooms and for exercise books and text books. When I ask them to think back to the 1980s, they cringe because they remember that time so distinctly.
I also want to refer to resources. A head teacher recently told me that he had never known a time in which so much investment was going into schools and in which schools had so many resources at their disposal. Although Opposition Members would deny this, they have criticised the teaching profession. Some of the best primary and secondary schools in the country are in my constituency
Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the teaching profession. It might be argued that, as a former teacher, I am bound to do that, but teachers do an incredibly difficult job incredibly well. The same applies to the support staff, the governors and everyone associated with education.
On recruitment and retention, I agree with the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). One way of ensuring that we do not retain or recruit is to act like the Opposition and run down education, criticise teachers and say nasty things about them. If the Opposition want to recruit teachers and provide them with respect and status, I hope that they will join me in saying that teachers do an incredible job.
Challenges lie ahead and, of course, everything is not right in the education system. However, the Government have put the building blocks in place and genuine improvements have occurred in primary and secondary schools. Let us give credit to the Government and pay tribute to the enormously hard-working teaching profession.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): This has been a wide-ranging debate characterised by passion for the subject, which is not unusual. It is no surprise that we have ranged widely, because wherever one considers education and those who are working hardboth students and staffwe find that the Government have put obstacles in their way.
I wish to make two points at the outset. First, no Conservative Member has criticised teachers. However, under a democracy, it is still possible to criticise the Government, and that is what we have done. Our support for teachers, particularly bearing in mind the burdens on them, is fulsome and genuine. Secondly, there are examples of good and bad practice at any time in the education system, under previous Governments or this one. That should not surprise anyone. However, the Secretary of State's repeated claim that 1997 was some sort of year zero is becoming increasingly wearing. The public find it incredible that nothing good happened before 1997, and the educational establishment is not fooled. The narrow-minded amnesia that she displays is wearing thin.
The issue before the House is whether the charge made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) has been proved. He alleged that our motion was justified because of Government failure, incompetence, broken promises and weakness. To what extent have those charges been proved in the debate?
First came a memorable speech from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). We found out that, should he become Secretary of State for Education and Skills, he will be considerably more relaxed than the present Secretary of State. He was smoked out by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), because the hon. Gentleman said that the smoking of
Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he misquoted me completely. I never said that the smoking of cannabis by teachers would make them more relaxed or that the smoking of cannabis was a good idea in itself. I said that a change in the law so that cannabis was no longer illegal in the way that it is now would be a good idea and make the whole of society work a lot better.
Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman may prefer to consult Hansard, and then have another crack at it. I suggested that it was put to him that the smoking of cannabis would make teaching easier, with which he agreed.
We will draw a happy veil over the rest of the hon. Gentleman's speech, other than to pick out his admission that the Liberal Democrats in Scotland have not abolished tuition fees in higher education, but merely put them at the other end of the process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford focused on schools issues. He was supported by strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson). The latter's speech was especially strong on bullying in schools, an issue of which, disappointingly, Labour Members made light.
Passionate speeches were made by Labour Members, including the hon. Members for South Shields (Mr. Miliband), who did his promotion prospects no harm, for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who made his usual sound and fair contribution, for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), who made interesting comments on mergers between higher education and further education colleges, and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), whose praise for the Government was so fulsome that even Ministers might have been embarrassed by it. The House will forgive me if I concentrate on three other issues.
Higher education is apprehensive. Ministers say little about the problems of recruiting and retaining academic staff and funding research, or about a funding gap that Universities UK suggests is now £9 billion, but they do respond to other stimuli. They are turning the unwarranted attack into an art formindeed, it is almost a policy in
Students with debt problems, inspiring headlines such as "Debt grows ever bigger and even more painful", are met by the Minister for Lifelong Learning with a discussion of their drinking habits. That does not accord students, many from non-traditional backgrounds who work long hours outside their studies to fund their time at university, the support and respect that they deserve.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Does my hon. Friend regret the emergence of a practice that affects one of my constituents: the selling on of student debt, in my constituent's case from Nationwide to Deutsche Bank? The student in question cannot ascertain from anyone what he owes and to whom he owes it. By the admission of his university office, the whole system is in "complete chaos".
Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. If the Government concentrated on students real difficulties and concerns instead of making hectoring remarks about them, people would be much better informed.
Further education is a fantastic sector. Close to the need of students and local employers, FE colleges now teach a wider range of ability than ever before, and to an increasing extent, the pathway to higher education is through further education. Yet the Minister for Lifelong Learning decided not to encourage further education in recent remarks and speeches. Instead, she launched another unwarranted and silly attack that prompted an extraordinary response. Let me quote an open letter to her, dated 7 March, in which the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, David Gibson, writes:
I write to express the deep concerns and, in very many quarters, the absolute anger of those professionals committed to the teaching and learning of four million students in our Further Education sector at the ill-conceived and dangerously misleading information you provided to the media in pre-briefings, in your Department's press release and to the conference on Raising Standards in Post 16 Learning this morning."
The bulk of my remarks will deal with the individual learning accounts scandal, to which my hon. Friends the Members for Henley and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) addressed the substance of their remarks. It has been the most remarkable problem, caused substantially by Government incompetence. No one doubts that the idea was goodthe hon. Member for High Peak mentioned people's enthusiasm for itbut that leads precisely to the point: those who needed ILAs most have been let down by the Government. That is becoming the Government's hallmark. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne
To replace a voluntary training relief scheme that had been part of the Conservatives' overall education package for some years, the Government deliberately introduced a system of ILAs. The concept was perfectly right, but the mechanisms were fundamentally flawed, as the Government were told from the start. Let me read a few extracts from accounts of events in the Select Committee on Education and Skills. Under the heading, "Learning accounts 'not robust enough'", one article states:
They say there is a need to protect training funding from scam merchants who exploit loopholes in the system to make a lot of money very quickly."
A scheme full of flaws, set up by the Government even though they had been warned about them, produced a wholly distorted market. Those already involved in training had to participate in ILAs, otherwise they would have had no business. Despite the warnings about the scheme, which gradually began to collapse, the Government had no systems in place to isolate and deal with small problems without destroying the whole scheme. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight said, the Government changed the parameters at a late stage and Capita could not deliver, so the whole scheme was lost. People who had students waiting to go on courses could not fulfil their obligations to them and had to meet the debts themselves.
Businesses have been lost, students have lost the chance of education, and jobs have been lost. Above all, the confidence of those needed to make the ILA system work has been lost. I cannot think of a more woeful disaster brought on by a combination of incompetence and a desperate desire to achieve a manifesto target at all costs, which was all that mattered to Ministers. The Government's hallmark is becoming the production of a target out of thin airdevil may care if it is not achieved and anyone is damaged in the attempt to achieve it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford set out to prove that the Government's education policy is in crisis because of weakness, incompetence, failed policies and inability to deliver to those who need it most. From what we have heard, that case is proved. Labour Members now have the opportunity to make a name for themselves. It is not true that the Whips respect the good boys: they respect those who are prepared to stand out and cause trouble. To Labour Members who know that the Government have let down their constituents, I sayparaphrasing Martine McCutcheon"This is your moment. This is your perfect