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House of Commons

Thursday 25 May 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Education and Skills

The Secretary of State was asked—

Teacher Retirement

1. Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): How many secondary school teachers with a qualification in chemistry or physics will be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years. [73368]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): In 2005, 26 per cent. of teachers with a physics degree and 22 per cent. with a chemistry degree were aged 50 or over and would therefore be expected to retire in the next 10 to15 years. There is no fixed retirement age for teachers but the normal pension age for existing teachers is 60, rising to 65 for ordinary recruits from January 2007. Actuarially reduced pension benefits are also available to members of the scheme from age 55.

Mr. Willis: May I first welcome the Secretary of State and his new ministerial team and wish them well? I genuinely mean that.

Yesterday, the Education and Inspections Bill went through the House promising that more children at key stages 3 and 4 could have access to single subject physics and chemistry. Also, the Chancellor said that 3,000 extra science teachers—mostly of physics and chemistry—would be recruited by 2014. Yet only one in four science teachers has a qualification in physics, only one in five has a qualification in chemistry and the Government have missed every science teacher recruitment target since 1997. What plans has the Minister to ensure that, by 2014, we have a supply of teachers to satisfy the demands of our schools and British business?

Jim Knight: We are taking significant steps to recruit and retain more science teachers. The targets are challenging but numbers have already increased by30 per cent. between 1997 and 2004-05—the last year for which figures are available. As a result of the Chancellor’s Budget statement, we are increasing the value of the teacher training bursary for science graduates, training new science specialist high level teaching assistants, continuing the drive to recruit
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graduates into teaching via employment-based routes, exploring current pay incentives and flexibilities—there is a long list, but I shall not detain the House by continuing to read it out. We take the matter very seriously.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is not simply a matter of good science teachers in the classroom, but of good technical back-up. Will my hon. Friend examine the training of technicians and technical assistants who help teachers in the laboratory and elsewhere in school? There are some problems with supply.

Jim Knight: As ever, my hon. Friend follows these matters carefully. He is right to highlight the important role that technicians play. The support staff in our schools perform a valuable role but, all too often, we focus only on teaching assistants. We should applaud the work and contribution of technicians. We take my hon. Friend’s point seriously and the national network of science learning centres provides professional development for science teachers and technicians.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): The shortage of chemistry and physics teachers stems ultimately from the crisis in science teaching in our secondary schools that has developed in the past 20 years, and ill-judged reforms to the curriculum such as the double-award science GCSE. Does the Minister share our concern about the latest reform—the new 21st century science curriculum—which puts more emphasis on societal issues in science than fundamental scientific knowledge and is being boycotted by the top independent schools in favour of the International GCSE? The state sector is not allowed to use that exam because it does not include continuous assessment of coursework. Should not that rule be changed and the IGCSE be made available to all state schools as well as the private sector? If he makes that change, he will have our support on that, too.

Jim Knight: It is relatively early days for me but I am looking into all that. However, we do not agree with the hon. Gentleman—the new programme of study for science does not lower standards. We worked with the science and science education communities to develop a revised programme of study, which has a core that focuses on scientific literacy and provides options for further study and links with other subject areas. It will still be possible for schools to offer GCSEs in the three separate sciences and we are confident that the changes will ensure that our children’s scientific knowledge is fit for purpose for this century.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We all know that great strides have been made in getting more students to study science, including chemistry, and maths. Will my hon. Friend also consider engineering? Will he further examine joined-upness and the gaps between study at 16, being oven ready for A-level and being prepared for university? There is something wrong with the joined-upness
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between the ages of 16 and 18 that puts kids off staying with science. Will my hon. Friend urgently examine that process?

Jim Knight: Of course I must listen carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying, and I will look carefully at engineering. I will also look at the impact of the new diploma, and at how the foundation degree is working. I will ensure that we have the sort of joined-upness that he is looking for.

Subject Skills Shortages

2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What steps are being taken to address subject skills shortages among teachers. [73369]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): Having enough teachers with the right subject skills remains one of the Government’s highest priorities. Ofsted commends our newly qualified teachers as the best trained ever. We have measures in place to ensure that we continue to attract the teachers that we need, particularly in priority subjects. These include bursaries of £9,000 for trainee secondary teachers and golden hellos of up to £5,000. We support a range of professional development measures to enhance the subject skills of serving teachers.

Mr. Hollobone: I recently met the secondary heads at Montsaye community college in Rothwell, Montagu school in Kettering and Latimer community arts college in Barton Seagrave, and they all said that skills shortages among teachers in maths, English, design and technology, information and communications technology and music were among their biggest headaches. Despite the policies that the right hon. Gentleman has just announced, the results do not seem to be filtering down to real head teachers in real schools on the ground.

Alan Johnson: There is a problem in those and other subjects, including modern languages. That is why we have looked at this matter again, and why the Training and Development Agency has made recommendations, all of which will be put into effect from September next year. Recruitment into maths teacher training has gone up over the past four years from 1,410 to 2,580, and the figures for science teachers have gone up by a similar amount, from 2,580 to 3,560. But there are still shortages, which is why the bursaries, the golden hellos and all the other efforts that are going into inspiring youngsters to get involved in these subjects are crucial. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, but it is an issue that we are aware of and that we are seeking to tackle.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The fact that many of our top universities are closing their chemistry departments could have serious consequences for chemistry teachers in the future. Has my right hon. Friend made any direct assessment of the effect that this will have on the recruitment of chemistry teachers?

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Alan Johnson: I know that my hon. Friend takes a huge interest in these issues, and I should like to tell him that the number of chemistry graduates has gone up last year and this year. We had a bit of a concern about Sussex university, but it announced recently that it was keeping its chemistry department open. That is no cause for complacency, however. We have to work through the Higher Education Funding Council—universities are independent organisations, as my hon. Friend knows—to ensure that those courses are available. The central point, however, is that we need students who wish to study those subjects. That is why the process starts not at the higher education level in the universities, but much further down in primary and secondary schools.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): One in four modern language teachers are teaching a subject in which they have no qualification beyond A-level. Given the difficulty that the Government are having in recruiting graduates to teacher training, would it not be sensible also to invest in retraining existing teachers in those specialist areas?

Alan Johnson: We are doing some of that as well. Through the national centre for excellence in teaching mathematics and other learning centres, we are seeking to ensure that we give qualifications to those who come into teaching late. As for modern languages, we are using a number of strategies to increase the number of teachers with a specialism in their subject, but that does not detract from the ability to bring in people who have a degree in another subject and switch them over to modern languages. That is a way of tackling the skills shortage, and a combination of both methods is necessary.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Would the Secretary of State care to say a little about the success of the pilot scheme for the repayment of teachers’ loans in relation to shortage areas? The prime scheme ended on 30 June 2005, although the final tranche of applicants was allowed up to 30 June 2006. This is particularly important in areas such as science and my own subject, mathematics, in which there has been a chronic shortage for a very long time, predating this Government by decades.

Alan Johnson: If my hon. Friend will accept this, I will write to him on this issue. My understanding so far—from my two weeks’ experience in this job—is that that scheme has worked very well, and that we are now looking at a new phase. We are drawing on the lessons that we have learned from the previous period. I will write to my hon. Friend with the full details immediately after questions.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I have seven secondary schools in my constituency, but I shall spare the Minister the pleasure of having them read out. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I would be delighted to read them out if that is what my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) wants. More seriously, one thing common to the entirety of my constituency and Hertfordshire is a lack ofmaths teachers at secondary school level. Indeed,
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advertisements for a new teacher often go completely unanswered. Can the Secretary of State provide something encouraging for me to take back to the head teachers in my constituency about what the Government are going to do to encourage more people into the teaching profession, specifically into mathematics teaching, in the east and south-east region?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman will recall the Chancellor’s Budget statement in which, as part of the 10-year science and innovation framework, he announced a number of measures for a variety of subjects, but particularly for maths. The intention is that the number of specialist mathematics teachers will have been increased dramatically by 2014. Currently,88 per cent. of maths teachers have a specialism in maths, which we aim to increase to 95 per cent. by 2014. That, together with the other procedures that I mentioned—the golden hellos, bursaries and so forth— will have a dramatic effect. Overall, the number of maths teachers has increased, but we need more of them, particularly with the maths specialism, to teach the subject properly.

Secondary School Places (Wellingborough)

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of secondary school aged children in Wellingborough who have not been allocated a secondary school place. [73370]

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): Northamptonshire county council is responsible for ensuring that all parents in Wellingborough who want a place for their child are given one. The Tory county council has told the Department that all parents who applied for a secondary school place for September 2006 were offered one on 1 March, the national offer date.

Mr. Bone: I will take that answer, if I may, with a pinch of salt. Wellingborough is a fast-expanding town with thousands of new homes being built, but under the Labour Government, one of its four secondary schools has been demolished, leaving the remaining three schools grossly overcrowded with some children being bussed to school, some parents moving from Wellingborough to get an education for their children and the scandal of many children being left at home with no school to go to. Is the Department for Education and Skills fit for purpose?

Jim Knight: I think that the hon. Gentleman is stretching things a little, so he needs to look at the facts. Generally, for each year group in his area, there are 704 places across the three schools and about 630 pupils for those schools: there is a surplus. Those figures were supplied by the Tory county council. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a problem with school places in Wellingborough, he needs to go to his friends in his party who run his local authority to get them to sort it out.

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Education Links (UK/China)

4. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): If he will take steps to build higher education links between the UK and China. [73371]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): There are 160 links between our universities and those in China, and 53,000 students from China studying in the UK. This month, I visited China with three vice-chancellors to explore the scope for greater collaboration. We have expanded the scholarships for excellence programme, and the second phase of the Prime Minister’s initiative for international education will enable us to extend and deepen our higher education partnerships with China.

Mark Tami: I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the remarkable pace of growth and change in China, does he agree that we need to do more to establish greater links between UK and Chinese universities? I am aware of the links with Loughborough, Nottingham and Liverpool, but how do we encourage our other universities to follow suit?

Bill Rammell: I very much agree with my hon. Friend that we need greater higher education collaboration, but we are building from a high base, with 160 collaboration initiatives in place. My hon. Friend refers to the specific initiatives of Nottingham and Liverpool universities. Given that more of China’s students are home grown, those initiatives are a key element of our future higher education engagement with China, so we are strongly supporting them.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Notwithstanding the Government’s own problems with mandarins this week, does the Minister agree that Mandarin should be rolled out to all schools, particularly at secondary level, so that Britain remains competitive against global competition, not least from China?

Bill Rammell: I certainly want young people in this country to study modern languages in greater numbers across the board. Our commitment that in every primary school by 2010 there will be an opportunity for the teaching and study of a modern foreign language is an important initiative, and I am encouraged by the fact that undergraduate application numbers to universities this year to study Mandarin have increased by some 53 per cent.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of Northumbria university, which has one of the largest overseas student bodies in the UK? It has 1,000 students from China, which is a quarter of the overseas student body of 4,000, and it also teaches 2,000 students on—

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Distance learning.

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Mrs. Hodgson: Yes, distance learning. I thank my hon. Friend. The university has 2,000 students who live in China doing distance learning. I would recommend that any hon. Member visit Northumbria university to find out from its best practice how it does that and learn from it.

Bill Rammell: I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this area. I recently met with the pro vice-chancellor of Northumbria university, who is leading on those issues. While we have about 53,000 Chinese students coming to study in this country, which is welcome, I firmly believe that we have a strategic national interest in getting more British students to study in China. We will be looking to see how we can support them.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on the steps he is taking to build up links with China. As we know how important it is that UK universities should have a good international reputation, and that there can be no greater deterrent to international students than the prospect that they might not have their degrees marked, may I urge him now to break his sphinx-like silence and say, loud and clear, that Chinese and other international students must have their papers marked this year?

Bill Rammell: I have certainly not shown a sphinx-like silence on this issue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are not involved in the dispute between universities and the trade unions, but quite rightly, given my concern for students, both home and overseas, I have kept in contact with both sides. I am pleased that the employers and the unions involved in the dispute have been and, as we speak, are continuing to talk to each other at ACAS.

I strongly urge everyone involved in the dispute not to continue to take any action that would jeopardise the assessment timetable for students and disrupt their studies. I hope that, following those talks, the unions will ballot their members as soon as possible.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Obviously, my hon. Friend will be aware of the close links between the university of Central Lancashire and China, as well as the number of students exchanged, but can we use those good avenues to ensure that we also get the voice of democracy across to China and that students do not have to suffer religious intolerance, which we see coming out of China? Maybe there is a good role for UK universities to play to ensure that that continues.

Bill Rammell: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I have recently visited the university of Central Lancashire to discuss that, among many other issues. In terms of the change and development of China, the very fact that we have close links and that our students are travelling in both directions enables us to have a better dialogue with the Chinese Government over those issues.

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