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25 Jun 2008 : Column 113WH—continued

I am angry about that for lots of reasons. One is that the teachers in those three schools feel attacked, criticised and demoralised as a result. They are doing their best. Secondly, alarm bells start ringing for parents of children who may move to those schools in September. They
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think, “Is this school a disaster area? Is it failing? Come September, can I entrust my son or daughter to it to be educated? What is going to happen to it in the future?”

I have been in touch with all three schools; I have visited two of them and will be seeing the third next week. I had a group of youngsters from Highbury Grove down to the House this morning to do an education Department tour. Those schools are doing well, going places and achieving. I was, therefore, very angry that they should be labelled in such a way. I have written a letter to my hon. Friend the Minister, inviting him to join me on a visit of the three schools. We can start early in the morning, no problem. Any time the Minister can do, we will be there. I want him to see that we have three schools that are trying hard, doing well and achieving. I want him to reassure the staff and the parents on that.

During the Division, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is similarly angry. Three schools in his area have been named: Mellow Lane, Harlington and the recently developed academy. He feels that the staff have been demoralised. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope he will explain why the list has been produced. Would it not be far better to support the schools that are doing well, rather than getting involved in naming and shaming schools, which does not do much good in the long run?

My last point concerns the teachers themselves, because they are, after all, the subject of the debate. Teachers in London have a very difficult job. They have to face many problems, the biggest of which is housing, which is incredibly expensive. To buy any kind of flat in my constituency requires at least £250,000. We have had some flats developed specifically for teachers, and we have shared ownership schemes and all the rest of it for key workers.

I went to a shared ownership fair last Saturday that was held at the Arsenal stadium. It was interesting, but a lot of those flats were out of reach of teachers—they were just too expensive. When we recruit young teachers to our primary and secondary schools, we need to get them somewhere to live in the community. We also need to help them to remain in the area when they have families and children of their own and need a bigger space. If we do not do those things, our schools will lose out and, as a result, our children will lose out. We need to think through the housing issue and the housing needs of our teachers, because teachers are an important part of the community.

Our teachers try very hard. We have children from all over the world, children living in bad housing conditions and children who are growing up in a society in which there is great deal of violence and an awful lot of commercial pressure on schools. We have examples of schools that achieve the most fantastic things and we feel inspired by them. For instance, a group of children were fairly alarmed about a violent poster near their school that was advertising a new DVD. They asked their teacher how they could object to it. The teacher explained that such things had to be done properly and that they had to go to the Advertising Standards Authority. So, a group of 30 children wrote letters, went to the ASA, dragged out someone from its offices, protested about the poster and the whole thing was stopped and withdrawn.

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That was a brilliant lesson for those children in achieving something for themselves and understanding what a democratic society is about. That kind of inspiration does not come easily, so we need to value and support our teachers.

I hope that the Government think again on the pay policy towards teachers. Teachers have had substantial, and well-deserved, increases since 1997. However, if we ask them to accept a three-year deal that is below the rate of inflation, which is, in effect, a reduction in their standard, that will make them angry and will not attract people into teaching.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said when she opened the debate, we need teachers who are dedicated, representative of the community as a whole and inspirational. The other day, I was talking to a young man who is working as a teaching assistant in one of our secondary schools. He said that if we had more black teachers who could show real inspiration to kids who were feeling marginalised and driven away from the norms of society, a great deal more would be achieved by our education system.

We need to remember that and use this debate as a way to encourage more young people to go into teaching, which can be a rewarding and inspirational job. Teaching is something that we all need and rely on.

3.34 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing today’s debate. She indicated, as does the title, that the debate is largely designed to focus on issues that are relevant in London. She questioned whether all the issues would instantly resonate with a Minister who represents the South Dorset constituency. She might also have mentioned a shadow spokesman who represents Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and a Liberal Democrat spokesman who represents Yeovil, which is in Somerset. However, she then pointed out that issues such as low aspirations and other aspects that are behind underperformance are relevant right across the country.

I recognised in the comments made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington many problems that I have seen in my own constituency. I am sure that the Minister and the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) have seen the same across the country. Certainly, we have seen the effects of a chaotic home environment and the deprivation that can have an impact on many schools, particularly those sited in the toughest catchment areas. Admittedly, London and some other cities experience that problem to a greater degree than other areas, but it is present in one way or another across the whole country.

The issue of the large number of students from ethnic minorities who may not speak English as a first language is obviously acute in many parts of London, but it is increasingly relevant right across the country. Many hon. Members might be surprised to know that even in my constituency of Yeovil there is an infant school with a majority of youngsters who speak English as a second language. That will not be exceptional for the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and some of her colleagues from inner-London constituencies,
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but it is exceptional for Somerset. Such radical change has been taking place in many parts of the country over the past few years.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the issue of underachievement by black pupils and said that it is relevant to other categories of student, including, most notably, white working class boys. We see that in Somerset and across many other parts of the country.

The hon. Lady also talked about role models in the teaching profession and the gap that there is in London in that area, particularly in relation to black and ethnic minority teachers and pupils. That is not quite so relevant in Somerset, but her points about the gap in the teaching force in relation to the male-female split are certainly applicable. Many primary and infant schools in my constituency have no male teachers.

Quite often, head teachers will mention to me, as no doubt they do to other hon. Members, the fact that there are few male role models outside school for many youngsters in those environments. Sadly, the problem of family instability and chaos outside the school environment is not one that relates only to the areas of greatest deprivation. We see it across the country. Much of what the hon. Lady said relates directly to London, but it also has wider relevance.

I also enjoyed the speech from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). I recognise and agree with a lot that he had to say, but on two points—I hope he does not think this too Liberal Democrat a statement—I felt that I could only half agree with him.

Jeremy Corbyn: You are a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Laws: I make the jokes about Liberal Democrats. On exclusion, I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about schools excessively using temporary and permanent exclusion. My experience is that most head teachers are extremely reluctant to use that particular vehicle. However, I recognise his points about the problem of students getting excluded, particularly permanently, and the consequences for them of exclusion because of the lack of proper support outside the school environment.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am not suggesting that head teachers routinely or recklessly exclude or expel large numbers of children—I do not believe that to be the case—but I recognise that there is a problem. I also recognise that it is quite possible for a youngster to be excluded or expelled from school on the basis of an unfortunate concoction of evidence by fellow pupils or things such as that, which could result in the youngster being accused of something that they are not guilty of. Also, there may not be a sufficiently fair or robust system of appeal to the governing body, which should dispassionately examine the evidence.

I am not saying that exclusion is a huge issue, but for any child who is excluded or expelled from school, that exclusion or expulsion is a huge factor in the rest of their life and we should be conscious of that.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is certainly right when he says that many of the pupil referral units that excluded youngsters go into are often difficult environments that youngsters struggle in. Many of those units have been picked up by Ofsted and identified as not performing effectively, which is a major challenge for Government policy.

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I also fear that I only half agree with the hon. Gentleman on the issue of the so-called failing schools. I am pleased that the Government are focusing on schools that have performed poorly, particularly at GCSE level. I am not convinced, given the right resources, leadership and support, that there is an excuse for any school in the country to have more than 70 per cent. of its youngsters failing to achieve the benchmark that the Government have identified. However, I agree strongly with him that the spin behind the announcement that the Government made a week ago, which seemed to have more to do with media management and creating headlines than with improving schools, was extremely unfortunate.

I have received a lot of feedback from schools across the country and they believe that the publicity relating to that announcement was damaging to their efforts to improve. After all, many of the schools that the Government identified last week are academies, which is exactly what one would expect, given that academies are set up in areas that already have underperformance. Therefore, it is unhelpful to label such schools, which the Government have championed, “failing” schools.

When the Minister responds, he will tell me that I have got all that wrong and that the media spin put the “failing” tag on those schools.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Hear, hear.

Mr. Laws: Before the Minister cheers too loudly, I refer him to the statement made by the Prime Minister in response to a question from one of his Labour colleagues at Prime Minister’s questions last week. Even the Prime Minister went off-message and referred to these schools as “failing” schools, when they are supposed to be categorised in some other way, which the Minister will no doubt tell us about.

Ms Abbott: On exclusions, I wanted only to make the point that I have counselled many a mother whose son has been excluded. They sit before me in floods of tears, because mothers, including black mothers, take exclusion badly. They always insist that their child is as innocent as the day is long, that their son has been the victim of tremendous injustice and that this is the first incident of bad behaviour that has ever happened. However, when I inquire further, I often find a gruesome catalogue of wrongdoing. That is why my emphasis is on diverting those young men and on what we do with them after they have been excluded.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Lady is exactly right to make those points.

We have only a brief time for the debate, so I want to touch on only three or four issues that the hon. Lady raised, and I will do so in short order. However, before I continue, having congratulated her and the hon. Member for Islington, North, I pay tribute—no doubt the Minister will do so at the beginning of his speech—to the progress that has been made in London over the last 10 years, because large parts of London, particularly inner London, produced an appalling performance in terms of school standards 10 years ago. Indeed, some of those areas still have low school standards today.

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With the extra financial resources that have gone in, the emphasis on better governance and some work that has been piloted in London on reading recovery and on other areas of education, it is notable that there has been a sharp improvement in London, particularly in some of the poorest performing parts of London, over the last decade. It is good to see that improvement recognised not only through the published statistics, but through the national recognition given to people such as Sir William Atkinson at Phoenix high school in London, who received a well-deserved knighthood a few weeks ago to acknowledge the progress that has been made there.

Once some of those problems have been sorted out, any Government will want to look beyond London at other parts of the country, where the improvement in performance over the last 10 years has not been nearly as impressive. Those are areas where the headline statistics look satisfactory but there are issues about whether their schools are doing anything like as well as they should be, given their catchment areas.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised at the outset the issue of black underachievement. She mentioned that underachievement is also a problem with white working class boys. She also mentioned, quite rightly, the fact that many other ethnic minority communities seem radically to outperform some poorly performing ethnic minority communities and that that is not always related purely to issues of deprivation. As she suggested, sometimes ethnic minority communities with similar apparent disadvantages achieve different results.

I am sure that all Members here who frequently speak to head teachers and others, and who are also aware of the relevant statistics, will be conscious of the fact that not all those differences in performance can be explained away simply by social factors and that there are issues about aspirations in the home environment in different communities. Those aspirations can make a real difference.

The Liberal Democrats want greater emphasis on developing a coherent system for funding across the country, which would target disadvantage more effectively than the existing system. It would also help some of the individuals whom the hon. Lady talked about in her speech, who live in parts of London where the deprivation funding does not get through effectively. That may be more of a problem outside London, where pockets of deprivation are more widely dispersed than in some inner-London boroughs.

Nevertheless, there is a need for the Government to reform the funding formula that relates to deprivation—I know that they are looking at that now—and to ensure that the amounts of money that go to disadvantaged youngsters are much greater to help to compensate for some of the great challenges in those communities.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington also mentioned the issues that clearly do not relate purely to deprivation and economic disadvantage—work force issues and the bias, particularly in primary schools, against men. I agree very much with her comments on the latter issue, and I would like some of the measures that she mentioned to be introduced to encourage more men into the primary school teaching work force.

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The hon. Lady also referred to the gap in London between black and other ethnic minority pupil populations and the teaching work force. She was right to make the observations that she made in that regard. I know that she was criticised by some people nationally during her previous campaign on the issue, because their emphasis was on getting good teachers into schools, regardless of their ethnic background. I am sure that she is not suggesting that we should compromise teaching standards to get more black and other ethnic minority teachers into schools.

There is a cultural problem with some of our communities and much of that relates to aspirations. That issue is one of the difficulties in many schools, but it is most effectively challenged by good leadership. Therefore, it is important that youngsters in those communities see that going on to teach or to aspire to success in an academic environment are things that individuals such as them ought to be doing.

I do not want to hark back too much to Sir William Atkinson’s school, but I recollect that, when I visited it, he had lots of large photographs around the school of youngsters from previous years, with their GCSE performance listed underneath. The message that he is trying to send out by having those photographs around the school is that people like the pupils—with the same ethnic background and from the same community or estate—can achieve to that high standard.

I will not go back over all the points that the hon. Lady made—she will be pleased to know that—but she raised a number of issues about how the Government might tackle this particular ethnic minority gap, if I may put it that way, and I hope that the Minister responds to her suggestions.

There are a host of other issues relating to the teaching work force in London that we ought to refer to, but time does not allow it. I hope that the Minister touches on one particular issue—that of teacher shortages. Those shortages are especially acute in London, compared with other parts of the country, and they may become even more acute in this environment of pay restraint.

3.49 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this very important debate. Nothing is more important than education. It is the only route out of poverty and the only route to a fulfilled life. It is key to enabling people to enjoy and contribute to the culture of this nation.

From listening to the hon. Lady on “Desert Island Discs”, which was very enjoyable, including the music—there was no Abba, which was good—it is clear that education has been important in her life. She went to a grammar school in Harrow and then on to Cambridge, and went on to break down barriers in the civil service and politics.

The hon. Lady referred in her opening remarks to the long tail of underachievement, and she cited black boys in particular, but the phrase frequently appears in commentaries on and outside audits of the British education system. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment report talks about the long tail of underachievement in this country, particularly in reading.

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