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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I am pleased to contribute to this debate, because the Bill touches on a number of important issues, including inspections, teacher training and the development and supply of reports from schools to other bodies. Like all hon. Members here this evening, I recognise the importance of education for the future of our young people and thus for the country. I also appreciate and value the efforts of those who work in education, and I hope to raise a number of specific issues on their behalf this afternoon.
Like many Members of Parliament, I take a close interest in the schools in my constituency, all of which may be affected by the Bill, but in varying degrees. For example, its effect on secondary and primary schools may be slightly different and I shall speak about that later.
Shortly after I was elected to Parliament in 2001, I set myself the challenge of visiting all the schools in my constituency, and I completed that task earlier this year. Of the 38 schools there, four are secondary schoolsSweyne Park and FitzWimarc in the town of Rayleigh, Greensward college in Hockley and William de Ferrers
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in South Woodham Ferrersall very good schools. There is one special school, Ramsden Hall in Ramsden Heath, and 33 other infant and/or junior schools, most of which are very good. Two schools are in special measures, although at least one, which I had the privilege of visiting only recently, should soon be re-emerging from that status under new and dynamic leadership.
During my visits to schools I try to chat to both staff and pupils and to have a detailed discussion with the head teacher, which includes some of the issues that we are discussing this evening. In that context, it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who has taken a great interest in these issues for a number of years. If I may say so without embarrassing him, that was evident from the quality of his speech.
On a personal note, my late mother, Anna Francois, worked for many years as a school dinner lady, so I often pop into the kitchen and try to talk to the kitchen staff to see how they are getting on. I hope that you will forgive me that small indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The most revealing part of those trips has often been when I have been able to visit the staff room at break time, ask the staff to raise any issues of concern and give them an opportunity to "Jeremy Paxman" their Member of Parliament. A number of them have not been shy of taking advantage of that opportunity. On behalf of the teachers and heads I have spoken to, I would like to ask the Minister a number of specific questions, and I hope that he will provide some direct replies.
The Bill has much to say about the inspection of schools against the national curriculum. I shall criticise the Government on a number of issuesfor example, the lack of well-defined history lessons, which has featured in the media recently. However, in fairness and to be non-partisan, I give them credit for the emphasis that they have placed on citizenship in the national curriculum, which has all-party support, and I am sure that we are all in favour of school councils to teach children the value of democracy in action.
Like many other Members of Parliament, I have spoken at a number of school assemblies on the roles and duties of MPs, and I confess that I have faced some challenging questions. I have encouraged schools to visit the Palace of Westminster to see our process in action. I genuinely believe that that is important, particularly in an age of falling voter turnout and when there are some people at the extremes of the political spectrum with ugly politics and for whom the democratic process is anathema.
We must encourage our young people to be proud of their history, heritage and traditions, including the evolution of the mother of Parliaments. Whoever they vote for in future is their business, but it is crucial to teach them the value of our democratic system, for all its imperfections, so that they do not take it for granted. I really believe that.
Perhaps more contentiously, I want to make a number of points about the inclusion agenda, which part 4 of the Bill touches on. I have discussed the inclusion issue in detail during a number of my school visits, and unfortunately the Government's approach is not working. Most of the staff I spoke to were
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sympathetic to the principle of trying to include children with challenges, whether medical or behavioural, in mainstream education. Again and again, they pointed out that this is a matter of degree and of providing sufficient resources to make such arrangements viable. In practice, that often means providing a full-time teaching assistant to keep an eye on a challenged child, which many schools cannot afford and the local education authority is often unable to fund.
Moreover, it was put to me repeatedly that there are some children who because of their persistent bad behaviour are simply not suitable for mainstream education. I was given several examples, in several different schools, of children who were so disruptive that they effectively undermined the education of the other 29 children in the classroom, as the teacher and perhaps the supporting teaching assistantif there was onespent far too much time trying to control the one child, to the detriment of all the others. Several teachers said to me that when they had such a child in their classroom, they spent the whole lesson wondering when he or she was going to start playing up, and knowing that at that point the lesson would, effectively, be terminated. Even worse, the head teacher then often has to spend an inordinate amount of time liaising with the parents of the child and the LEA over a single case, as well as dealing with complaints from the other parents who that feel their children are missing out.
Ministers have to accept that there are some children whose behaviour is so severe that they simply cannot be accommodated in mainstream schooling, and no amount of political correctness or soft-soaping can overcome that. That comes directly from several heads and teachers in my constituency, and I hope that the Minister will take my word for it. I believe that it is better to confront the issue honestly, and thus I favour our policy of "turnaround schools", which will focus on educating those resource-intensive children who have real behavioural problems in schools that are optimised to deal with those problems. That would have the additional benefit of allowing teachers in mainstream schools to get on and teach the well-behaved pupils in their classrooms. We do a disservice to the teachers, the well-behaved pupils and the children with the real problems if we try to pretend that the situation does not exist and to muddle through. We have to accept the world as it is, not as the politically correctI do not include myself in their numberwould like it to be.
The Bill touches on the issue of bureaucracy, but it fails to confront it head on. I have sat in staff rooms and asked teachers and teaching assistants, "If there was one thing about the education system that you could change, what would it be?" Almost without exception, the answer is the paperwork. There is now so much paperwork that many teachers find it genuinely dispiriting. I hope to convey that to the Minister this evening. More than one in three newly qualified teachers now leave the profession within the first two years, many of them citing bureaucracy as their reason for quittingalthough many now also cite indiscipline.
Many of those who remain in the profession are becoming increasingly fed up with writing internal reports that they believe no one will ever read anyway. One deputy head I spoke to at one of my rural schools
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said she was planning to include the names Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in several of her forthcoming returns to the LEA to see whether anyone would notice. However, the whole system of depressing bureaucracy was best put to me on a doorstep in Ashingdon a few years ago during an evening canvass, when I spoke to one teacher who made the point to me so bluntly that I have never forgotten it. She said, "Look, if I had wanted to be an accountant, I would have trained for that, but I didn'tI wanted to teach kids. I am a professional, so just let me get on with my job." That has stayed with me ever since.
Ministers keep making ritualistic gestures towards reducing form-filling, but the blizzard of DFES circulars keeps coming. We are losing good people from the teaching professionand it is a professionbecause teachers are getting fed up. Ministers crow about the much vaunted 10 per cent. of non-contact time, but who will take the lessons in the teachers' place? I acknowledge that teaching assistants do a good job, but they are not qualified teachers. If I were a parent, I would not be happy with the suggestion that 10 per cent. of my child's maths lessons would not be taken by a teacher, because the teacher had to go away and fill in forms instead. Perhaps the Minister could say how the new arrangements will work, because that is a concern in several schools that I have visited in the past year.
Head teacher work load is also an issue, and it will not be materially reduced by the 128 clauses of the Bill. The head teacher has to cope with more bumf than any other member of staff, especially in primary schools. With perhaps only a small senior management team to share the work load, the pressure on the head teacher is often very substantial. One primary school head explained that to me by writing out, off the top of her head, a list of all the plans and strategies that she had to produce, in addition to the everyday task of running her school. I kept her list and I have it here. It includes an overall primary strategy, which seems fair enough; a physical education/sport initiative, as part of a local sports partnership with other schools; a plan for e-confident schools; a healthy schools plan; an inclusion strategy; a modern foreign languages strategy; a work force remodelling plan; a work load initiative plan, including arranging and staffing non-contact time; a wraparound care plan; an initial extended schools plan; a school leadership and management restructuring plan; and a travel plan.
That is a dozen different plans and strategies, each one in response to another bright idea from the Government, and each one requiring additional work by, primarily, the head teacher. I am not convinced that we really require all that information, but if we do, why could there not be just one overall school plan, for which each plan I have listed could be a separate annexe? That would mean less work and is a point that head teachers have put to me repeatedly. When I was in the Army, we were told that there could only ever be one plan at one time, because anything else led to confusion. That is also a reasonable maxim in this context. Many head teachers feel that they are drowning in paperwork and I am not convinced that the Bill will address that problem on the scale required, although I shall listen carefully to what the Minister has to offer.
In my tour of local schools over the past four years, I have been to a number of wonderful schools. As just one example, the rendition of the "Well Done Song" at
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Riverside junior school in Hullbridge will live in my memory for ever. I shall not attempt to reproduce it for the House this evening, but it was a sight to behold. However, I have also found a number of heads, teachers and even teaching assistants who are fighting what they see as a losing battle against bureaucracy, and many of them are becoming dispirited as a result. Most of them joined the profession in the first place because they had a burning desire to educate children.
The best thing that Ministers can do to re-enthuse those people is to stop second-guessing them and get out of their way. They should be able to concentrate on what they came into teaching for in the first placeto teach children. I hope that the Minister will accept that I have tried not to be partisan tonight, but to focus on some problems that have been raised directly with me. I believe that our plans for education would address many of those points more effectively than the Government's offerings, but I wish to hear the Minister's response, so that I can pass it back to some of those who have raised issues with me.
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