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Teaching (London)

2.30 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about a subject that is at the heart of the Government’s thinking—education—and to raise the question of under-achievement in inner-city schools, and in particular black under-achievement, a subject on which I have campaigned for many years. I want to talk especially about the teaching work force in London.

Given the part of the country that the Minister comes from, he might think that black under-achievement in schools is a narrow subject. However, the majority of children in the inner London boroughs are black or minority ethnic. Given the demographics of London and other big cities, we cannot raise standards unless we address the causes of under-achievement among many of the minorities. Not every minority ethnic group in London under-achieves—some over-achieve. However, in borough after inner London borough, a long tail of Afro-Caribbean boys is bringing down the overall results. That is not only bad for the statistics and for the Government’s stated aim of raising standards, it is a tragedy for those boys, their families and the wider community.

Inner-city schools and under-achievement, and black boys and under-achievement—it is a complex matter. There are many issues. They include peer group pressures, gang culture and the disproportionate rate of black pupils excluded from school, which I have mentioned before. Indeed, I wish to follow up the latter subject today because I did not get a satisfactory reply to some of the points that I raised in the earlier debate. There are other issues, such as low expectations. I believe that we still lack a clear, concrete policy line from the Department on how to deal with black under-achievement.

There is also an issue with teachers. Having spoken to many schools and educationalists, and above all to many teachers, I have no doubt that we need more men in the classroom, particularly in our primary schools. We need a more diverse teaching work force. We need a teaching work force in London that looks like London. I do not say that because I believe that only black people can teach black children, or that only Asian teachers can teach Asian children. I believe that if the work force—the staff room—matches the ethnic composition of the children, the team as a whole will have a better emotional and intellectual understanding of the children that they are trying to teach. The best heads in London, whatever their colour, are very positive in trying to recruit a diverse teaching force. They put a lot of energy into that, because they understand that in order to have a team that is culturally literate it must be diverse.

Before I come to the question of how to achieve a more diverse teaching work force in London, I would be doing the hard-working teachers in London and throughout the country a disservice if I did not first touch on some general issues. I have nothing but admiration for teachers. The Government have put a lot into education. They have increased salaries, and salaries for young teachers are now much more competitive than when Labour came into office in 1997. However, teachers throughout the country are suffering from market forces. There is a decline in pupil numbers in some areas, but large numbers of migrant children arriving in others—often rapidly so.

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With the best will in the world, it is difficult for teachers to adapt. I have visited schools that a few years ago were largely Afro-Caribbean and Irish but are now mainly Polish and west African. It is difficult for people not from London to understand the demographic turnover in those schools, which can be rapid. The reality for teachers is that, however committed they are and however good they are, they almost have to deal with a whole new community every five, six or seven years. The schools lose their stability and continuity, and their community and institutional memories, which makes things so much more of a challenge than for the more stable communities that the Minister represents.

There may be issues about turnover and changes in pupil numbers, but there is also the problem of the retirement bulge. Putting it bluntly, a generation of teachers in London who bought their houses in the 1970s, when one could buy a house in Hackney on a teacher’s salary, is now poised to retire. What will happen when that generation of teachers leaves I do not know. Not even on the vastly improved head teachers’ salaries for which the Government are responsible can one buy a property in most areas within zones 1 and 2. The retirement bulge will be a real problem, because of what has happened with the housing market in London and other big cities. There is also the changing profile of people coming into teaching, the changing profile of pupil populations, and the serious challenges of community cohesion that many of our schools face in the aftermath of 7/7 and 9/11.

There are other specific issues, and one of the most important in the context of today’s debate is the under-representation of men in the teaching work force. Female teachers represent 88 per cent. of primary school teaching staff. Even in secondary schools, they represent 58 per cent.

No one would expect me to say that female teachers are less good than male teachers. However, I ask the Minister to imagine a young boy living on an estate in Hackney in a single-parent family. The head of the household is the mother; perhaps, for all his friends, women are the head of the household. That boy may never have seen what I used to see every day of my life—a father getting up, going out to work and coming home on the Friday with a wage packet. That boy then has to go to a school run by women. What sense is there of a positive and constructive male role model over and above the gangs that inhabit the fringes of the estate, the street corners and the alleyways?

Although I wish specifically to address black male under-achievement, many of the issues that I shall raise are relevant to white working-class boys of any ethnicity. What image of the world will they have if they live on an estate and in an environment where they never see working males fulfilling their responsibilities? In school, the only people they see exercising their authority and fulfilling their responsibilities are women. One can meet too many little boys in school who, in a confused way, think that books and education are for girls. What are they to think if nine out of 10 teachers are women?

There is an issue about the under-representation of men in the teaching work force. However, it would be wrong of me not to mention the matter of unequal pay between male and female teachers. In 2006, the Equal Opportunities Commission said that there was a pay gap of 11.5 per cent. in favour of male teachers, and the
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National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers found that female teachers were less likely to progress in the leadership scale. We need to look at that. The Teacher Support Network has raised questions about the fact that many lesbian and gay teachers feel unsupported in their schools.

Apart from those specific issues, we cannot underestimate the pressure and the stress that teachers throughout the country now face in the classroom. Teaching nowadays is a far cry from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”. In one further education college, a teacher carrying out health care checks found students with drink and drug addictions, injuries from fighting, learning difficulties that had not been identified and supported, students being taken out of care at the age of 16 to live on their own, and students with children to look after. That was the result of an ordinary health survey in an FE college. How can young people like that focus on education?

Questions have been asked—I should be glad if the Minister were to address them—about the extent to which support assistants are being used not to help fully trained teachers but to substitute for them. That is unfair on the assistants and the children. If the assistants are good enough to act as teachers, they should be paid as such. If they are not good enough, they should not be used as if they were properly trained teachers. It was pointed out to us by a teaching assistant in Redbridge that qualified teachers get extra money for working with special needs pupils, but teaching assistants do not.

Then there is the question of over-large class sizes. Large class sizes are one thing. In primary school, I was in a class of 42, and we learned by sitting up and reading from a chalkboard in front of us—

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): You did well at it.

Ms Abbott: Thank you very much. That was perfectly fine. However, when classes are that size and some of the children do not speak English and some have special needs, it is difficult for teachers to manage them.

There is also the big issue, which I touched on earlier, of the discrepancy between salaries and living costs in London. When the cohort of teachers who bought homes in London when London homes were affordable on a teacher’s salary finally retires, teaching recruitment in London will be in crisis. One cannot buy a home in inner London on a teacher’s salary, not to mention affording all the other costs. The danger is that London schools will rely increasingly on young teachers who start out in London but move on when they want to buy a home and have a family, and on teachers from overseas—New Zealand, South Africa and even the Caribbean—who come but do not stay. The danger is that year by year we will lose a stable cohort of teachers because of the discrepancy between salaries and living costs.

The Minister will have heard from many people about teachers’ concern about the increasing amount of paperwork. I know that the Government do their best to keep paperwork to a minimum, but it would not be fair on the teachers and teachers’ unions to which my staff have spoken in the past few days if I did not mention that point.

The Minister might say, “Yes, Diane, but why does it matter if all the teachers are women or all the teachers
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are white as long as they’re good teachers? Surely that’s the main thing.” Well, there is a large discrepancy in London. In many inner London boroughs, more than half the children are from minority ethnic—

2.42 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.55 pm

On resuming—

Ms Abbott: I want to return to the subject of the disproportionately low number of ethnic minority teachers in London’s schools compared with the pupil population, and the fact that in most inner-London boroughs the majority of children are black or ethnic minority. The latest figure that I saw for the number of black or ethnic minority teachers in London was 12 per cent., I think. For the reasons that I set out earlier—cultural understanding and children seeing people like them teaching and in leadership positions—that is wrong and is not helping any of our children to achieve their best.

I turn to the ethnic imbalance in governing bodies. In 2006, the Institute for Policy Studies in Education researched London governing bodies and found that although those in the study had a gender balance, they were ethnically imbalanced. Ministers, and politicians on both sides, are very keen to talk about empowering parents, which is all well and good when dealing with a stable, homogenous community. In inner London, where people in £500,000 houses live cheek by jowl with some very grim estates, the mix of children in primary schools is fine, but governing bodies are all too quickly captured by a clique of middle-class white parents who are not concerned about the wider issues, as long as their Chloe and Dominic get into the school of their choice—whether fee-paying or not.

Tensions have arisen in my own borough that have nothing to do with diversity in schools. In fact, diversity in inner-London primary schools is one of their strengths—all parents value the fact that they can send their children to the best state primary schools in London where they can mix with children of all colours and races, and learn a lot just from that cultural mix. I am talking about governing bodies and how they can be captured by cliques of parents. Owing to the Government’s dogma about empowering parents, they do not understand that in the inner-city they are empowering not parents as a whole, but the loudest and most confident and educated parents, sometimes to the detriment of the Government’s stated aim of raising achievement across the piece.

A difficult situation arose in a school in my borough when a clique took over a governing body, after which the popular black head teacher left. I do not want to comment on what really happened, but there is a sense in the community that the head teacher’s face did not fit—in the opinion of the clique of lawyers, business people and sometimes even MPs now running the school. Ethnic balance is as important for governing bodies, therefore, as it is for the teaching work force. More needs to be done to train and support governors in the inner city and to make heads aware of the importance
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of a governing body that reflects their pupil intake, so that we can avoid some of the tensions that I have seen in schools in Hackney.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some schools in my constituency simply cannot get governors of any sort. Often parents are too absorbed in trying to survive frequent house moves, because they live in temporary accommodation and so on. As a result, head teachers must often carry the entire load with no support at all. I strongly endorse her point, therefore, about training and supporting potential governors, particularly if they are genuinely to represent the local communities.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. My point, which perhaps I did not make properly, is that sometimes the reason why such governing bodies become imbalanced is not, to be fair, the Machiavellian intent of some parents, but the fact that other parents—working-class parents, or parents who are asylum seekers or refugees—are working when they should be at governing body meetings, English is not their first language and generally they feel intimidated by governors who appear to know so much and to be so fluent and confident.

So, even when such parents sit on governing bodies, they do not feel able to say anything, and others like them are frightened of going on such bodies—perhaps unreasonably, but they are frightened all the same. They think that they will be put to shame, because they cannot read all the paperwork and do not understand the big words and the jargon. That is how we end up with skewed governing bodies. As I said, there is not necessarily any Machiavellian intent, and if I gave that impression it was unfair, but skewed governing bodies can lead to tensions.

Owing to the demographics of inner London, people who in relative terms are very wealthy send their children to school alongside quite poor and socially disadvantaged children. I want to talk, however, about the plight of black and minority ethnic men and women who go into teaching. The university of Exeter did some research and found that teacher trainees who experienced racism in their placement—sometimes they were placed outside inner London—did not necessarily have anywhere to turn for support. The university set up a diversity resource officer in its school of education, but apparently that is the only such post in the UK. The officer said in a recent interview:

The officer continued:

I know that phenomenon.

When I first started talking about black under-achievement in schools, many teachers got very upset and felt that they were being accused of racism. Basically, their position was, “I went on an Anti-Nazi League
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march in 1972; how dare you say I do not understand racism.” Teachers are more defensive than any professional group that I have dealt with, and that includes the police force. When asked to address issues of institutional racism, they insist on taking it as personal criticism, rather than as an inquiry into how their institution works in practice.

Loughborough university and the universities of Newcastle and of Hertfordshire undertook some research in 2001 with black and minority ethnic teachers, and they found that many black trainees made considerable financial sacrifices to become teachers because they tended to go into teaching not straight from university, but as mature students. They tended to be older than their counterparts, they had a bigger financial struggle because they were more likely to have young children at home, particularly if they were women, and many of them had part-time jobs while they were studying.

Those universities recommended easing the situation for mature students through funding, by offering taster courses and specific support as the university of Exeter has, and by removing barriers to international students training in this country. Later, I shall return to the question of international students. Similar results were found by academic research in 2006, looking at the number of minority ethnic trainees who drop out of teacher training courses, and in 2007, looking at the perception of racism in teacher education.

The university of Cambridge faculty of education, which undertook research on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, said in its report:

The former Mayor of London and former Member for Brent, East, Ken Livingstone, commissioned a report on black teachers in London and found many concerns about staff development and promotion. Most recently, research by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan university found that white teachers with 10 to 15 years’ experience were twice as likely to be heads or deputy heads than their black counterparts, and that teacher trainees from the black community were twice as likely to fail their initial teacher training. Those are some of the issues that black and minority ethnic men and women who attempt to become teachers face.

There is also the question of the preparation and training that we give to all teachers to deal with diversity. A 2005 teaching survey found that only 35 per cent. of newly qualified teachers felt that they were well prepared to teach pupils from diverse backgrounds. The Minister might say, “What does it matter in the west country whether you know how to teach children from diverse backgrounds?”, but in 2008, in an increasingly globalised world, all our teachers, even if they never, ever encounter a child from an ethnic background, which will be increasingly unusual, ought to feel confident that they have been trained to deal with diversity issues.

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