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Mrs. May: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, but I will give hon. Members another statistic first. If the advertising campaign continues to be as initially successful as we hope that it will be, there will be a substantial uplift on that figure, because I can confirm to the House that, as of last

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Tuesday, 100,000 inquiries have been made for teacher training, which is 61,000 more than this time last year. That is something to rejoice in.

Mrs. May: A few moments ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government had reversed the decline in applications from maths graduates to enter the teaching profession. Will he accept that the Graduate Teacher Training Registry figures that he quoted, which were published last week, show that there is a continuing fall in the number of applications from maths graduates?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I confirm that there was a 2 per cent. fall by comparison with last year, but it was the most enormous reverse of the position that we inherited, and which continued in the first two years of our Government, in which applications from maths graduates were almost in free fall. That is why, far from sitting on our hands, we introduced golden hellos. We moved rapidly because the fall in applications from maths graduates had become so grave. So we have taken steps--

Mr. Clappison: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: No. I must make progress, because the debate finishes at 4 o'clock and I want us to make as much progress as we can.

So where do we go from here? We have got inquiries up enormously. We have got applications up. We have got an improvement of 9 per cent.--over 2,000--in those in training now, compared with this time last year. The position is improving but is still a worry.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards recently introduced further measures to bring back former teachers to the profession, by providing free courses and making it possible for those who undertake them to be paid for doing so. We have put in place resources for the most disadvantaged schools, to enable them to pay recruitment and retention bonuses. We have submitted evidence to the school teachers' pay review body, which will present its findings in two or three weeks' time.

I believe that the combination of measures already taken and the work that the Department, the Teacher Training Agency and local authorities have done is yielding fruit. The local authorities have recruitment managers paid for by the Department. That money would not be there if there were not a standards fund and a central budget specifically for these matters. Those local authorities would not exist if Conservative Members had their way, so God knows what they suppose that schools would do if they were in real difficulties and needed to call on immediate help and support locally.

We are also working with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and local authorities on housing, as has been spelled out many times. The efforts of councils such as Reading to pay sums of money to those who are prepared to provide rented accommodation to teachers from other parts of the country who are looking for jobs in the area should be applauded--not maligned, as they have been in some parts of the press. That is precisely the sort of thing that would make sense in a sensible world.

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Taken together, there are more resources to employ more teachers; more inquiries from teachers; more people recruited to courses; and more people being placed in jobs, but, yes, there is enormous pressure in an economy with a buoyant labour market, so it is vital that we make teaching attractive. That is why we have taken steps, through performance-related pay, to increase enormously the future salary and promotion levels of teachers and to reduce bureaucracy and administration.

About two fifths fewer documents were sent to primary schools last term, compared with a year earlier, and 66 per cent. fewer to secondary schools. Slightly more were sent to primary schools than secondary schools, because 216 of the 490 pages sent to primary schools last term dealt with the grammar guide. I mention the grammar guide only because spelling, grammar and phonics are close to our hearts--at least, to some of us.

When I read in the papers, as I did this morning, that the so-called Campaign for Real Education says that literacy programmes are not working, but the Opposition tell us that we are imposing too many specific requirements on teachers, I wonder when the right in this country will get its act together. The contradictions are so stark now. With one breath, those on the right say that teachers should teach phonics more rigorously and that they should teach spelling as dictated from the centre; with the next breath, they say that teachers should be left alone to teach as they will.

The zealots want to dictate precisely how phonics should be taught in every classroom, but the free-for-all view--not to let teachers teach because of course they should be left to do so--suggests that the Government should not instil any teaching methodology and, presumably, that the grammar guide should not have been issued because it represents bureaucracy. Between those two extremes lies common sense.

Common sense suggests that we spread the best practice to every school and that we support teachers and enable them to do the job well. When their confidence and self-esteem are lifted, as results improve and children flourish, so will recruitment to the teaching profession, as will the quality of opportunity because standards in every classroom will be of the best.

2.22 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): May I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to the Secretary of State and his Front-Bench team, and to the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who leads the Conservative party's education team, for having to leave the debate early to travel to another engagement? I have given those on both Front Benches notice of that fact.

I do not want to begin with empty words of thanks and congratulation to the teaching profession. Few hon. Members who have spent their lifetime in education, especially working in the more difficult areas of Leeds and Middlesbrough, fail to appreciate the value not only of education but of what our teachers provide young people with. It is immensely sad that, every time we debate education, we talk about all that is wrong with education and the education service, rather than celebrating the achievements.

It was interesting that, despite all the difficulties-- I shall return to them because they should not be glossed over--an analysis and poll in The Times Educational

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Supplement showed that two out of three teachers still enjoy their jobs. We should celebrate and build on that, rather than merely talking about the problems. Although the hon. Member for Maidenhead makes some telling points, she fails to recognise that teacher recruitment has been a problem since 1983. With the exception of the period between 1991 and 1994, when there was a recession, the targets set by previous Governments since 1983 were missed. Indeed, the maths targets between 1994 and 1997 were missed on average by nearly 25 per cent. We have to take that into account and say, "A plague on both your houses", because no one has been able to master how to recruit teachers in a buoyant economy. We cannot simply ignore that problem.

I want to raise many issues with the hon. Member for Maidenhead, but I am principally concerned about her remarks that quality is being damaged. I reject that statement. I accept that there is enormous pressure and children in some schools do not have teachers, but in the 1980s, I worked a four-day week virtually every week because of union action. So it is not new for heads and schools to be working in such a way. Of course it is not good for kids not to have a teacher in front of them, but I reject what the hon. Lady said about quality.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Drawing on the hon. Gentleman's expertise, which I recognise, will he comment on the implications of a large number of supply teachers working in a school in succession? I am not being negative about such teachers, many of whom are very good, but does he not agree that a rapid turnover of staff, or the use of non-specialist teachers to teach subjects with which they are not completely familiar, is bound, even with the greatest effort in the world, to have an impact on standards and quality?

Mr. Willis: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is not my point. I am saying that what has happened over the past three or four years is not new; it has been happening for the past two decades. When a school does not have a regular supply of teachers whom the youngsters know and respect and who are able to lift their morale and self-esteem, that will, of course, affect the product. However, the idea that that has happened in schools only since this Government came to office is nonsense.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: In a moment.

Let us consider the results of the standard assessment tests at key stage 2, which were introduced by the previous Government to measure student performance. Between 1996 and last year, passes in English increased from 57 per cent. to 75 per cent, in maths from 54 per cent. to 72 per cent and in science from 62 per cent. to 85 per cent. Is that a fall in standards? Those figures reflect the reality of what has happened in our primary schools, and we should celebrate it. GCSE results over the same period have increased from 44.5 per cent. to 49 per cent. That is not because exams have got easier, but because our youngsters and teaching are getting better; and that is not lower, but higher quality.

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The real problem lies at level 3, which causes most concern in this country. The previous Government constantly and desperately ignored that problem after their revolution in education in 1992-93 and the incorporation of further education colleges, but 40 per cent. of our students are now achieving level 3, which is a remarkable state of affairs.

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