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Classroom Assistants

3. Tony Cunningham (Workington): If she will make a statement on the role of classroom assistants in schools. [56345]

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): Teaching assistants play a very important role in individual support for pupils with special educational needs, in group support on literacy and numeracy needs and in specialist subject support—for example, in science and technology. We expect to consult later this year on proposals for enhancing the role that is played by teaching assistants in improving standards and reducing teacher work load.

Tony Cunningham: I thank the Minister for that answer. I recently visited one of my local primary schools, Victoria infant school, and met the headmistress, Pauline Robertson. The school has eight teachers and nine classroom assistants. Four years ago the standard assessment tests—SATs—results were Cs and Ds; they are now A and A* grades. Much of that is due to the work of classroom assistants. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of classroom assistants, and will he reconsider their pay and conditions and job descriptions?

Mr. Timms: I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I am glad to join him in his tribute. Since 1998, the number of teaching assistants in schools has risen by about 60 per cent., reflecting the scale of the investment that we are making in our schools and our commitment to raise standards. It is absolutely right that teaching assistants can play a very important part in raising pupil achievement and in reducing teacher work load, which is an important concern for us at the moment. We have been

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investing heavily in training assistants and we are seeing the benefits of that. My hon. Friend is right that those improvements will have implications for the status and pay of teaching assistants, but that is of course a matter for local education authorities, which are the employers of assistants, not one that is directly for me.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): While we are on the subject of people in classrooms who are not fully qualified, will the Minister look into the case of my constituent, Mr. Christopher Read, who is sufficiently trusted by the nation to design electronic control systems for Trident nuclear submarines, but who cannot lawfully be given a secure employment contract to teach physics to 14-year-olds? Does the Minister agree that it should be possible for a school to provide secure employment that, while not obviating the requirement for the teacher to obtain fully qualified teacher status, would ensure that constituents such as Mr. Read are not put in the invidious position of having to apply for their own jobs?

Mr. Timms: I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, who makes an important point. Many people in schools do not have qualified teacher status but play an important part in raising standards. They do an excellent job. We do not want to reduce the standards and quality thresholds that are necessary in our schools. Qualified teacher status is vital for teaching, but others play an important part in schools.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will my hon. Friend accept an invitation to address Dudley teaching assistants? The meeting is organised by my constituent, Maggie Stowe. Teaching assistants have done a fantastic job in my constituency to improve standards, but there are uncertainties about their role. Will my hon. Friend address them directly about their pay and conditions?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful for that invitation, but I was in Dudley last week so it may be a little while before I can pay a return visit, although I would like to do that.

Last November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out a new vision for the school work force. We are developing proposals based on that in consultation with all the teaching unions and the support staff and teaching assistants' unions. The proposals envisage a bigger role for assistants in class supervision, lunchtime administration, administering tests, providing individual support for pupils and covering for teacher absence. I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will be encouraged by that and I look forward to putting the proposals directly to them if the opportunity arises.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I join the hon. Members for Workington (Tony Cunningham) and for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) in praising the valuable contribution of classroom assistants. Like me, the Minister represents a central London seat and he therefore knows that there is a great teacher recruitment crisis in London. Are classroom assistants intended to replace teachers in central London or does he hope that they will contribute to ensuring that vulnerable children in central London get a first-rate education?

Mr. Timms: No, we do not intend classroom assistants to replace teachers. It is vital to continue our successful

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efforts to recruit more teachers in London. We shall make some announcements about that shortly. Between 1979 and 1997, the number of teachers in England declined by 48,000. Since 1997, that figure has risen by more than 20,000. Indeed, it has increased by more than 9,000 in the past year. We are therefore making genuine progress.

Racial Tension

4. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What proposals she has to reduce racial tension in schools. [56346]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): From September, as part of the national curriculum, pupils in secondary schools will, for the first time, be taught about the importance of mutual respect, tolerance and understanding between people of all ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds.

Paul Flynn: Racial tension is remarkable for its scarcity. Most schools, such as those in my constituency, are wonderful crucibles of racial harmony, where the children play, learn and pray together. It is a joy to see an assembly where children have their hands joined together in prayer—some in the Christian tradition, and others with their hands cupped in the Muslim tradition, but all saying the same prayer. Is not it desirable to create as far as possible balanced communities in schools of mixed religions and ethnicities to ensure that we avoid creating ghettos in 10 or 20 years?

Mr. Lewis: I agree with my hon. Friend that we should celebrate and highlight the excellent race relations that characterise so many of our schools where pupils from different backgrounds, religions and cultures are actively encouraged to work together, respect each other and learn about each other's cultures and religions. However, we should not dump on faith schools responsibility for tensions in communities. I believe that faith schools play an important part in promoting better understanding and tolerance between people of different religions and backgrounds. We should celebrate achievement and the excellent relations in most of our schools. We shall continue to build on that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): That was a very balanced response from the Minister. Does he agree that, where there are cases in schools of persistent racial tension, perhaps involving bullying by certain pupils, persistent offenders might have to be removed from the school? If so, does he also agree that it would be unfortunate, to say the least, if the authority of a head teacher who was determined to stamp out racial tension or racial bullying in his school were to be overruled by an appeals panel reinstating someone whom the head teacher had thought fit to be removed? Will the Minister look again at this question?

Mr. Lewis: I am not sure that being described by the hon. Gentleman as "balanced" will do me much good. On the serious point that he has made, we cannot tolerate racism—particularly racist bullying—in our schools. It is important that we support head teachers in making the decisions that are right for their school, taking account of

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the circumstances. If a head teacher felt that racist bullying had taken place, it would be inappropriate for an appeals panel to overturn that decision.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Does the Minister agree that, where racial conflict exists in schools, it often arises from competition between neighbouring schools rather than from within an individual school? Will he help to ensure that all schools have better relations with, and a better understanding of, people in other schools in their community, so that such tensions between schools does not become the kind of racial tension that inflicts problems on our communities?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the context of the disturbances in some of our towns during the summer months last year, we have made it clear that a fundamental part of tackling the very real issues in those communities involves schools coming together in a far more organised and systematic way, to bring together young people from different schools and communities to participate in sporting activities, for example, and involving the youth service. It is right that we should move away from an era of competition between schools, and that we should support co-operation and partnership.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Both sides of the House are united in wanting good race relations in our schools, and, as the Minister has accepted, the vast majority of schools already enjoy harmonious race relations. Is it really necessary, therefore, to require all schools, as of next week, to draft and publish a new race relations policy, and to require them to collect data and analyse pupil performance, admissions, discipline and exclusions by racial group? Is not the Minister concerned that, for good, harmonious, well-led schools, this will be yet another unnecessary bureaucratic burden, and yet another diversion from the central priority of raising education standards for all our children?

Mr. Lewis: No, I do not accept that view. It is important to understand that we have let down far too many children for far too long, for a whole variety of reasons including background and ethnic origin, in terms of under-achievement and low aspirations. One of the fundamental reasons for maintaining those data is to measure our progress and ensure that no child in this country is left behind.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Does my hon. Friend realise that many of us, on both sides of the House, welcome the initiatives that he has introduced, and which the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has just criticised? Does my hon. Friend also understand, however, that many of us are concerned about some of the changes that have taken place in our communities since last summer, and since 11 September? Would he agree to meet a group of us from particular constituencies to talk about the serious concerns that we are picking up at constituency level about race relations between pupils?

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I would be delighted to meet him and other colleagues who have similar concerns. It is important to stress that Members of Parliament have an important leadership role, as do local councillors, in tackling these issues and getting

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to grips with them at an early stage—rather than avoiding or denying them—and being a force for good in their communities.

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