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2.55 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Usually, 90 per cent. of what he says is good stuff, but the remaining 10 per cent. I ignore. It is like the Liberal Democrats' rather poor amendment. The hon. Gentleman's speech was much better. However, it cannot be right that, at 2.56 pm, in a short debate, with another two Front-Bench speeches to be delivered, Back-Bench speakers will have only about half an hour. The hon. Gentleman spoke for 33 minutes and the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke for more than half an hour. Mercifully, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was quite short in comparison. It is not good for democracy or for Parliament for Back Benchers to have so little time. [Interruption.] Plenty of Liberal Democrat and Labour Members are present.

Today's debate is exactly the same as one we had a couple of months ago, and no doubt we shall have another in a couple of months' time when the official Opposition again try to prove that there is a crisis by constantly repeating that fact. As Chairman of the Select Committee

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on Education and Employment, I am trying to be reasonably objective, but as far as I can see only a few schools have a real problem. For a few days a few schools introduced a four-day week, but with help from their LEA and the Department, the problems were quickly solved.

Let me put the problem in perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) cogently made the point that the teacher shortages 10 years ago posed a far greater problem. However, this is a debate about recruiting teachers. The Nuffield Foundation document "Attracting Teachers", the result of research by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, makes some good suggestions. We must consider teacher recruitment across the board.

I have previously spoken about the nature of the economy. We are at the top of the economic cycle. We have real competition and we are losing many women who, 15 or 20 years ago, would have gone into teaching. A diverse and interesting range of jobs is now open to them. Many of them still go into teaching, but a woman can do anything now. In the old days, a woman was either a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. Speaking as a man with a son and three daughters, I am glad that girls leaving school can now do anything that they like, and they do. That is magnificent, but it has implications for the teaching profession.

The problem is about pay, status, respect and conditions of employment. I was looking at the Green Paper, which is now a couple of years old, in which there are some good ideas about school design. When I go to schools, I see the need for simple things like space in which to work--a desk and shelf of one's own or somewhere to put one's personal belongings, computer and so on. That is very important. We were promised that there would be all sorts of innovations, and Lord Puttnam, I think, was going to design the staff room of the future. However, I have not heard much about that recently, and I still go to dreary staff rooms, with a few rather worn armchairs clustered round the sides of what obviously used to be a store cupboard or perhaps an old classroom.

The Green Paper and the Nuffield research also deal with the private sector. I am not someone who says that we cannot learn lessons from the private sector. Of course we can. Twice as much money is spent on pupils in private education, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough reminded the Opposition Front Bench, and one can do a lot more with twice as much funding. Not only did I read about private schools, but I asked a recently retired distinguished head what were the problems in the private sector. Even with the ability to pay more, the private sector is finding it difficult to recruit science and maths graduates as teachers. I was told so by someone who was recently running a large public school.

We need to address problems with accommodation, status and so on. However, in a debate such as ours, we should also discuss the way in which people in an educational partnership can help. Parents, it is true, often do not really respect teachers, even in the private sector, as one learns from talking to people in that sector. The retired head teacher told me, "They really think of us as servants, you know. Quite good quality servants, but not up to their standards."

We must address the real problem that exists in this country and bring parents into the educational process much more as partners. We made a clear statement on that

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in the Select Committee report on early years, which we published only last week. Parents should be partners. If they are valued as partners, they will value and respect teachers. We must learn from that and develop respect on both sides. There is therefore much to work on regarding parents.

That partnership approach includes the trade unions. It is perhaps unfashionable for Labour Members to say that we should expect much more thoughtful comment, leadership and wisdom from the trade union leadership in the teaching profession. I mix with teachers' union leaders a great deal and have introduced an innovation whereby they are all are invited to talk to the Select Committee about how they see the future of education. We are trying to treat them as full partners.

The other evening, I was at a prizegiving at the Queen Elizabeth school in Wimborne, Dorset. When one talks to teachers, one sees that they do not have half the prejudices that one reads about, even in the polls in The Times Educational Supplement. Incidentally, some rather good things were said about the Government in the TES survey. The hon. Member for Maidenhead did not mention one aspect of that survey, which covers not just political issues, but how teachers feel about life.

However, the teachers in Wimborne told me, in confidence, that they were worried when they heard the trade union leadership being strident. The strident tone of the teaching unions does not do the partnership much good. Their comments on the day when the chief inspector of Ofsted retired are an example of that. Everyone has his or her own ideas about the former incumbent, but I must tell the House that the comments of the trade unions annoyed a lot of people. They were crass and inappropriate, not as a judgment but as a way of speaking. It does teachers no good when trade union leaders speak in those terms, or when people hear at Easter conferences only the most extreme and discordant voices. Union leaders must therefore take their responsibilities more seriously.

I also want to mention the press. Many people switch on the "Today" programme and a lot of them like John Humphrys. I think that John Humphrys personally is quite a nice man. However, he represents the strident school that thinks that everything is a crisis. To him, a few teachers on a four-day week at one school is a national crisis. "Today" is important because it sets the tone for the rest of the day and, often, for the rest of the week. However, if one goes back to the original story, one can see that it does no one any good always to treat everything that happens in education as a major crisis.

Mr. Hayes: It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman, especially in the light of his role, to dismiss the crisis as one school that was once on a four-day week. There is a genuine problem, which the Secretary of State has acknowledged. The Liberal Democrat spokesman has acknowledged a severe problem. Schools throughout the country are affected and, if I may, I shall give one example.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It has already been pointed out how little time is left. Interventions should be very brief. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman has had his chance. Nearly all our debate has been Opposition

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Members making speeches and interventions. I am trying to correct--and, given my role, I believe that I have every right to do so--the balance of the comments of the Opposition spokesperson on education. I wish to balance what she described as a national crisis, in which schools would fall to pieces tomorrow, with the fact that that is a relatively minor problem. I accept that it is serious problem, but I am trying to put it in perspective.

In conclusion, I was trying to talk about the partnership that makes education work. It is a partnership in which the media have responsibilities. I picked out the "Today" programme but, generally, we have a very good and highly responsible educational press in this country. It joins the argument and, more often than not, raises the level of debate and discussion. However, even when the broadsheets get into the education field, too often we see a different aspect.

I have to say at least one uncomfortable thing to my own Front Bench, just to balance the fact that I have been rather kind on the question of whether or not this is a crisis. Some of us who represent English constituencies will increasingly question the ability and resources of three parts of the United Kingdom but especially one in the news at the moment--Scotland. We shall ask how Scotland can spend a great deal more money on education than England apparently can. I have the figures from the Library. Per capita, £814 a year is spent on education in Scotland. In England, that figure is £636; in Northern Ireland, it is £896; and in Wales, it is £645. Thus England is at the bottom.

Many of us who remember the original balance of resources that flowed from the Exchequer to different parts of the United Kingdom question very much the generosity of the Barnett formula, which gives Scotland the ability and resources to afford that sort of expenditure per head. English Members of Parliament--including some on the Front Bench, I am told--will increasingly question the Barnett formula and the flow of resources to Scotland, compared with the flow of resources to other parts of England.

If one speaks to people in the private sector and reads the Nuffield report, one sees that teachers like working in the private sector because more emphasis is placed there on the ability to teach than on keeping discipline. No Opposition Member commented on the disgraceful intervention made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who said that the role of teachers in most state schools was to provide crowd control. That is a gross travesty. We should consider the damage that one such Back-Bench remark can do when it is reported in the press and teachers read it. [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not know the hon. Member for Buckingham as well as Labour Members; we understand exactly where he is coming from. It is damaging that an hon. Member can make such comments with no reprimand.

I want to provide some balance. Of course there is a problem with discipline in some schools and we must get to the roots of it. In my first education speech in the House, I suggested that it was about time that we gave kids with less academic ability something constructive to do. The number of experiments on getting kids into more work-related activities--such experiments have so far been conducted in 21 schools, where they apply to children at the age of 14--should be increased. Furthermore, we still underrate the value of information technology training for that sector of pupils. The standard

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of information training in Britain is still well below that in many of our European competitor countries. I want this country to become the information and learning society of Europe and to be determined to use every resource to be the most successful country in achieving that.

My experience in schools suggests that giving less academically able children the opportunity to gain IT skills early on allows them to contribute, makes them feel valued and gives them self esteem. Research also shows that that is the case. I hope that the Government listen to that message, as such opportunities make life in the classroom so much easier and better. Where they are available, the whole school will benefit from all the children feeling valued and having value.

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