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16 Oct 2002 : Column 375continued
The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) also contributed to the debate. He is a man for whom I have enormous affection and a very high regard. In the past five years or so, he has perhaps made more contributions that have been a slight irritant to those on his Front Bench than entirely helpful and supportive ones. The fact that he came to the Chamber to make a speech that was entirely an apology for the Government's record demonstrates the depth of the hole into which he thinks that they have already dug themselves. He suggested that the whole thing was about money and that there was no need for anything else in the whole of education policy. He went on to praise the fact that the Government had intervened massively in schools and education, taking away from the rights of parents, heads and teachers to run the affairs of schools. However, he also said that that had gone far enough, that moves should now be made in the opposite direction and that far less intervention was now needed. I was delighted to hear his contribution, but I do not believe that he did justice to the depth of the crisis that is affecting our schools and young people.
In an excellent and balanced contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) noted that, after trumpeting the importance of breadth with regard to the introduction of AS-levels and curriculum 2000, Ministers went on to reduce that breadth and undo precisely that which had been the intended purpose of introducing AS-levels. The decision was taken by Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills at a time when the Secretary of State was a Minister, so she was again party to that decision.
The Secretary of State cannot hide from the fact that she has been an Education Minister continuously for the past five years and a part of all the decisions and problems that are now coming home to roost. She has been party to the demoralisation of the teaching profession to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) referred. The collapse of discipline is largely due to the new guidance to appeals panels that she and her colleagues introducedguidance that sought to make it impossible to exclude in any circumstances. As my hon. Friend said, it is now one of the principal reasons why teachers are leaving the profession in droves. The Secretary of State was keen to take credit for the fact that new teachers are coming into the profession. Of course, that is welcome
Mr. Brady: That is simply not true. We welcome new teachers coming into the profession, but the Secretary of State must understand that that achieves nothing if she and her colleagues are driving out teachers more rapidly than they can be recruited. The Government's record on exclusions is one of the principal reasons why that has been happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made an important contribution in which he spoke about the Government's role in the A-levels fiasco. He tellingly said that life was not a dress rehearsal and mentioned that Ministers had been warned that the fiasco was not over yet.
All that we have heard from those on the Labour Benches is complacency and self-justification. We have heard no apology for the fact that so many young people have been hurt by their actions and no hint that they understand the harm that has been done to our examinations system and the young people who have been affected. It is time for the Minister to stand up and put that right. He should come to the Dispatch Box with some real contrition and an understanding of the damage that the Government have done. Only if he does so will people have any faith that the Government will be able to restore confidence in the system.
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband): Today's debate has been much more illuminating than any of us could have expected. I shall come to the comments of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in a moment, as I should like first to congratulate some Back Benchers on their excellent contributions. The hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) all said that they wanted to congratulate teachers and students throughout the country on the hard work that they are doing and the improvements in their schools, which should be recognised.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) made a typically insightful call for more informed professionalism and devolution of power to head teachers. My hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) drew on their experience to talk about how schools were changing in their areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) did everyone a service by correcting some grotesque misinformation that has been circulated about the local government finance review.
I should like to pause for a moment to address what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, as he made a serious speech in which he focused on the genuine hurt and anger that many young people rightly feel about the way in which they have been treated this year. In particular, he asked some very detailed questions about the psychology papers of Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. I cannot answer for the examinations boards and it would be wrong for me to do so, as they are independent bodies. However, I assure him that we will follow independent advice[Interruption.] This is an independent system that has been supported throughout the years. I assume that he is not calling for the nationalisation of exam boards. We will follow the reform proposals that emerge from the second stage of the Tomlinson inquiry, which will include the role and regulation of exam boards.
The Back-Bench speeches put to shame the performance of the Opposition Front Bench. Within an hour of the Xquiet man" rubbishing the efforts of hundreds and thousands of students throughout the country, the hon. Member for Ashford came to the Dispatch Box to do a somersault on a policy that he announced only last week.
Mr. Miliband: One would not realise from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that there are 20,400 more teachers now than in 1997. Have the Opposition not read the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study, which showed schools' improving performance? Have not they noticed the rising standards in our primary schools, which now lead international practice? Have not they read the chief inspector's report, which states that seven in 10 classes are good and that a quarter are very good, and that nine out 10 schools had improved since the previous inspection? Have not Conservative spokesmen noticed in their constituencies that, for example, #45 million extra has been spent in capital spending in Kent, and that #9 million extra has been spent on buildings in Trafford? The simple truth is that Conservative Members have noticed all those matters, but they cannot admit it. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said that he freely admitted that
We have increased spending on every child by more than #500 a year in our first five years, whereas the Conservatives cut it by #120 a year. Standards in primary schools have improved dramatically in the past five years; they were stagnant for 18 years under the Conservative party. They are ashamed that although we now have the fastest improving education system in the industrialised world, they took us to 42nd in the world education league.
The Department, under the Secretary of State, supports good schools. We support good teachers and good performance. We are the first to say that there is further to go. We are not satisfied with simply being better than the Conservative party. We are ambitious for our education system, and we are raising, not lowering, expectations. We know what will make a difference.
Reform of school leadership is vital so that the 1,400 toughest schools get the extra help that they need to gain the leadership that they deserve. I encourage the hon. Member for Ashford to listen to our plans for the leadership incentive grant, because we shall first offer them to the Conservative party in case it wants to benefit from them.