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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Because of the ten-minute rule, I must make a short speech. I shall base it not only on my role as Chairman of the Select Committee, but on the fact that that role has given me the privilege over the past few months of visiting many
I was stunned by the two Opposition speeches that I heard. They bore no relation to what was said by the teachers whom I met, and whom the rest of the Select Committee met. I met a group of people who, on the whole, were optimistic and proud of their profession. They were professionals, they took great joy in their jobs, and they were getting on with their jobs. I had to draw out any negative views and criticisms. By and large, the people whom I met said, "We are very pleased with the extra resources that we are receiving."
Early-years teachers are profoundly grateful. They have never had anything as wonderful as the early-years partnerships and the money that allows young children to go to school, if that is appropriate, at the age of three, four or five. This is a marvellous time to be a pre-school teacher.
Unlike the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), I shall not quote anecdotal evidence. Most of it is not attributable to any particular person, so we must trust the hon. Lady: if she is indeed honourable, she will not have made it up on the train. The fact is, however, that we all have experience of visiting schools in our constituencies.
Mrs. May: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to read the NUT survey report, which includes a number of quotations, a number of which I quoted, which do not give names. I did identify them as classroom teachers of various years experience. I suggest that he listens to the speech from the Opposition Front Bench, rather than giving a speech in response to the speech that he thought would be given.
Mr. Sheerman: I reiterate that, in her speech, the hon. Lady did not attribute most of the comments to a particular person. That is easy. We can all do that, but the fact is that, as I go around the country, I do not find the picture that she or the Liberal Democrat spokesman have described.
In what profession would people not be saying, "We have a range of criticisms. We want some things to be changed. Not everything is perfect"? Let us go through them. I do not want these debates. I believe that they should not be allowed because they become the usual slanging match between Opposition and Government. The remarks that are made in these debates put more people off teaching than anything else I can think of.
Anyone who listened to the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) would have had a large question mark about entering what is a very interesting profession at this very exciting time. I want to try to get a balanced view. We have a teaching profession that is excellent. I agree with every word that Lord Puttnam said--I shall not quote those well-known remarks again. The profession is at a very exciting stage.
After all, we rely on teachers to turn out our children. We give them our children and we end up with a wonderful body of kids coming out of school who are educated, trained and employable. They have good moral standards and values. I am talking about the kids of our country and the success of the teachers who teach them.
That is the truth. Not enough people in this place say that. We are always reading about the problems, about certain incidents and about the tiny minority of children who perhaps misbehave. On the whole, as we know, our teachers produce excellently educated and trained children and good citizens. That is the truth, so let us start with the basic truth.
Of course, all Governments do not get it absolutely right. The present Government have not. Some of their communication is not good enough. I personally believe that performance-related pay is good for the profession. I also believe that it has been poorly communicated. There is one thing that we do find when we go into a staff room and start a conversation over a cup of tea--teachers say that they are worried that performance-related pay will disturb the collegiate atmosphere in their school and be divisive.
There are good arguments that that need not necessarily be so; that, in fact, it will not be the case; and that it is a fine way of rewarding teachers in the way in which they should be rewarded, but I say to the Minister and to Ministers who are not present: we could do better in communicating what we are about from the beginning. I hope that Ministers will take that on board.
I do not want to go through the stress side too much, but that is an important area. Teaching is a lonely job. People teach in their classrooms on their own. There is a disturbing trend--many teachers have mentioned it. I think that it is to do not with the Government, but with the society in which we live. At the Easter conferences, we saw dramatic examples of teachers speaking at the rostrum who had been accused of abusing a child. There is one sector of the British justice system where people are guilty until they are proven innocent: where the allegation is of child abuse. I sometimes wonder whether one of the great deterrents to people going into teaching is the way in which our criminal justice system has changed for that one area.
I spent a lot of time dealing with the criminal justice system, speaking in the House on criminal justice matters. In terms of a number of professions, including social workers, probation workers, care home assistants and teachers, we are getting into a hysteria about children and child abuse and probably have the balance wrong. It cannot be right if prospective teachers who are thinking about coming into the teaching profession are deterred by the real fear that their lives and their families' lives could be destroyed. All of us have constituents to whom it has happened--constituents who have faced an allegation of abuse from one child. That can mean months, if not years, of suspension, torture and misery.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is widespread support among Members on both sides of the House for the points that he has just made? It underlines the importance of the Government really getting right, for example, the sex and relationships education guidance, which advises teachers on what they should and should not say to children, and some of the culture, as well as the criminal justice rules about schools, to avoid those false accusations.
What I am trying to draw out is that we can get into a situation where we say it is the Government's fault, it is always the Government's fault, or it was the Opposition's fault that we had 18 years of neglect. We all know that. Sometimes we should strip those arguments away and say, "Come on. There is a problem."
I intervened on the hon. Member for Maidenhead and said, "Look, it is an international problem." I was at a well-known college in Oxford last Thursday evening. I talked to the teaching staff there. They said that one of the sad things is that people do not want to go into teaching any more. They all want to go into the City and to be highly paid lawyers. Those teachers regretted that, but something in our society, which we are perhaps all responsible for, has demoted working in the public sector and in the public interest. Whether that is to do with Thatcherism or greed, or whether it is something that has happened in all countries, I would rather look at the matter with some balance and with some basis of research, rather than just blame others in the usual way, as in a Punch and Judy act, in the House.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I worked in teacher training for many years. We always had to accept that entrance into the teaching profession was inversely related to economic prosperity. It is a simple fact that it has always been more difficult to recruit people to teaching when we have done relatively well in terms of economic development. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?
Mr. Sheerman: I take my hon. Friend's point. He is right. In times of economic boom, recruitment to teaching is less good because there are many other alternatives, it is a demanding, tough job and it is not the best paid job in the world, although it is reasonably paid. However, a significant number of people are moving away from valuing teaching as a profession. It is the American pattern. I regret that.
I still remember the last speech that the late John Smith made the night before he died. It was about trying to get back into our society the value of public service, the value of doing a job that is about not just making as much money as possible, but getting a reasonable income for doing a job that is rewarding. There is nothing more rewarding than teaching young people.
There is the matter of the burden on teachers. We can look at it rationally. One person's bureaucratic burden is someone's helpful channel of communication; there was a bit of that in the exchanges across the Floor earlier. If teachers are left to teach with no helpful advice, no guidance and no communication, we would be in a sorry state. They would be alienated, thinking that no one cared about them. They would say, "They never communicate. We do not know what they want us to do." Interestingly, from talking to teachers, I perceive the problem to be that there are too many lines of communication. They are all blurred.
Teachers are responsible to head teachers--who are responsible to governors, the local education authority, the Government and various other bodies. There is a fuzzing and blurring of the lines and channels of communication. We should earnestly and seriously consider that issue, because there is a problem.
Lord Haskins--undoubtedly with his characteristic good humour--offered an interesting insight when he said that the Department was the most Stalinist that he had ever come across. I do not take the comment that seriously, but this morning, when the Select Committee was interviewing Sir Michael Bichard, the Department's permanent secretary, we quoted it. Although I suspect that we must take it with a pinch of salt, there is a grain of truth in it. Communication could be better and more sensitive.