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7.26 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Like many hon. Members, I meet head teachers on a regular basis. Last year I met a number of heads in my constituency to talk about their ongoing needs. Like many other local authorities, my authority has many schools that face

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significant pupil shortages, a situation that will become more acute over the next four years before the trend is reversed. We all know that staffing numbers are primarily based on pupil numbers. Moreover, the shortage of pupils this year will only be acknowledged by the local authority the following year.

Despite a huge effort by some of my schools, they will have no choice but to make teachers redundant because there will be an insufficient number of pupils to support existing posts. No one likes to make anyone redundant under any circumstances. We should all like to keep teachers on indefinitely, hopeful that things turn around. Head teachers have rightly pleaded for funds in the hope that that transient set of affairs will pass quickly.

The situation is not new. It has been occurring on a regular basis for the past 30 years. However, the previous Government did not respond to the problem. There was nothing: no extra money and no promises. Head teachers had no choice but continually to increase the number of pupils in each class in an attempt to balance the books while squeezing every other budget they controlled. The only growing budget in schools before 1997 was under the control of the parent teacher association. Like millions of other parents who sent their children to school in the dark years, I sent a regular sum to the school to pay for fundamental things such as paper, pens and text books. Every year the request for extra money grew as budgets shrank. It was utterly depressing and totally indicative of what we could expect from a Tory Administration.

I was elected to serve the people of Crosby in 1997 when many children were being educated in buildings that should have been condemned. As an engineer, I think that I can make that evaluation accurately. There was a conspiracy of silence on the extent of the problem. There was an absolute acceptance by head teachers and teachers alike that there was no point complaining or asking for money to repair leaking roofs or defective buildings because it would not result in a response. Indeed, the head teachers in my constituency were right. When I asked how much funding was available for emergency repairs, the local authority told me that £40,000 was available for 23 schools, but the money had not been allocated because there had been no emergency to warrant the funds. I found that an appalling statistic.

When I visited one school to watch an assembly and wondered why the children were sitting in an extraordinary geometric configuration, I was told by the head teacher that they had to sit like that because bulbs had dropped from the ceiling the previous year, and the school had been told by the local authority that no funding was available to solve the problem, so teachers had better move the children out of the way just in case one dropped on their heads. I then went to another school where children were educated in portakabins, and even those were delineated because if the children had been sitting in certain parts of the portakabin they would have fallen through the floor. That was considered to be an acceptable place to educate our children.

The situation has changed radically under this Government. The £40,000 has been replaced by over £8 million. I have visited head teachers in my constituency

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who have been begging for a new school for 25 years, and who, when I told them that their request had been granted, burst into tears. Some of those teachers have spent their entire lives striving to improve the lot of their pupils, and it was a particularly futile exercise under the previous Conservative Administration.

The most damning indictment of that Administration was the type of facility that they afforded children with learning difficulties. I have a daughter with a learning difficulty; I know just how bad it has been. The schools allocated to the children in my constituency were disgusting. This year, I broke into tears when I visited two schools, one for children with severe learning difficulties and one for my child. Finally, we have schools that tell us as a society that we have a respect and regard for the most vulnerable among us. That cost money, and that money was made available by this Government. It is an asset, and that facility was totally ignored by the Conservative Administration.

A significant amount of money has been poured into every school in my constituency, not just for building, but for huge programmes such as sure start which have made an enormous difference by bringing children in deprived areas into the school system at age three and four. Extra teaching assistants and extra teachers in classes have made a difference.

I want the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to be able to speak, so I shall conclude my remarks by quoting a fantastic teacher in my constituency, who had to wait the length of her career to get extra money that recognises her ability and her desire to stay on teaching children. She said, "It's been a bit of a bad year, but I'd have this year each and every year in preference to another year under the Tories when it was absolute mean misery."

7.32 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) because she spoke with great passion, even if, at times, she was defending the indefensible.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) accused Opposition Members, of all people, of spreading cynicism. I have to tell him that there are only two possible conclusions to be reached, and both have been canvassed in this excellent debate, about the situation in many parts of the country. Either the Ministers involved are innocent but incompetent clowns, or they are indeed cynical manipulators. All this talk about education, education, education, which is now heard only on the Opposition Benches, may have got the Government into power in the first place, but those chickens are coming home to roost in no uncertain fashion, particularly in my constituency. It is difficult not to see all that. If one gives Ministers the benefit of the doubt and assumes that they are not incompetent, it is easy to view the situation as part of a cynical attempt to divert resources away from the south-east, which we have seen happening in many areas.

I have categorically to assure the Minister, with I hope at least as much passion as the hon. Member for Crosby, that there are real problems in my constituency, as there are elsewhere. When they began to emerge, Ministers followed plan A, which was to try to blame the situation on the LEAs. East Sussex made a robust

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rebuttal, which was eventually accepted by Ministers and officials. It was then suggested, as a temporary get-out, that the capital budgets could be raided. I pointed out earlier in the debate that that was met with laughter and disbelief in some of our schools, because any major works are normally done in the school summer holidays, and the builders had already long been commissioned do the work, so that simply was not feasible.

All our primary and secondary school head teachers in Eastbourne got together and issued a joint press release in the summer which said:

It went on to say:

The head teachers estimated that £2 million has been taken out of school budgets across Eastbourne in one year. Mr. Ian Jungius, head teacher of the excellent Willingdon community school, just two minutes' walk from my home, said that his school was looking at an approximate shortfall in this year's budget of £130,000, which was based, he said,

He referred to issues such as the increase in national insurance, the 5 per cent. increase in employers' contribution to pensions and the impact of changes in the area cost adjustment. He said:

That view is supported by all the other head teachers in my area. Mr. Jungius talked about the particular problems faced by schools such as his, where the formula is based on the pay of an average teacher on point 5 of the main pay scale. However, in his case, 87 per cent. of his teachers are above that nominal average. He has missed his vocation as a politician, because he put the problem very succinctly:

Of the Opposition, perhaps unfairly, he said:

Well, the furore is happening now. Mr. Jungius went on to say that he was losing two members of his teaching staff and two support staff, and expected to lose two more teachers next year.

The head teacher of Eastbourne technology college—the sort of school, I should have thought, that the Government were trying to support—said:

The head teacher of Bishop Bell Church of England school, an excellent secondary school, said that they were £70,000 short compared with last year's budget. Ratton school, a specialist college in the performing arts, talked about

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Cavendish school, another excellent secondary school, has been looking at how it can reduce the number of teaching staff by natural wastage, a reduction of investment in information and communications technology and the abandonment of plans to staff an inclusion unit—another pet project that the Government say they favour. The Downs school says that it has

However, next year, it may have to disband that class altogether. Motcombe school talked about reducing non-contact time for its teaching staff and its special educational needs co-ordinator and so on. Ocklynge school, the largest junior school in Europe, has had to make savings, partly by reducing teaching assistant hours. The head, Mr. Trott, said:

A quote from a letter from West Rise junior school in a challenging part of my constituency says it all about what is happening in the real world rather than on Planet Clarke. The head teacher, Mr. Kent, said:

We have heard from hon. Members about a lot of schools across the country that require contributions from parents, who are often already hard-pressed. The truth is that out there in the schools there are major problems of underfunding and natural wastage, as it is called, of teachers—teachers are simply not being replaced. We have seen the overall figures, and have been given many examples of schools in Members' constituencies. Will Ministers stop staring the truth in the face and pretending that the reality is different? Will they accept the reality and apologise if they feel up to it. However, they should at least move on and try to tackle those problems in my constituency and elsewhere.

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