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3.12 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I shall endeavour to be brief, although I should like to raise many issues.

My family has a certain tradition of teaching that stretches back to my grandmother, who taught classes of more than 100 pupils in Kennington at the turn of the last century. My grandfather was a peripatetic woodwork teacher in the West Drayton area, where I now live, and my aunt was a senior lecturer in education at Goldsmith's college.

I even married an English teacher and a special needs teacher--I refer to one person only. Indeed, I have spent much of my time in the company of people from the educational world. One of the messages that I receive most clearly from such people is that the less politicians and politics are involved in education, the better. Obviously, hon. Members of all parties are well-meaning, but teachers are sick and tired of political interference.

I pay tribute to teaching staff and to members of the local education authority in Hillingdon. I do not have time to mention all the achievements of my local schools, but I should like briefly to refer to Mr. Robert Preston, the headmaster of Abbotsfield school. He has managed to get his school out of special measures, but my reason for mentioning him is to give the Department for Education and Employment a gentle reminder that he is still waiting for replies to two letters. The first was sent in September and the follow-up in October. Doing the courtesy of providing an early reply would be a good way of giving a pat on the back to somebody who has done a good job.

The debate is timely for me, as the director of education in Hillingdon, Mr. Philip O'Hear, convened a meeting last Friday of the three Members who represent the Hillingdon area, along with heads of primary and secondary schools and local education authority representatives. As a former head teacher, he has brought a great deal of expertise to the LEA. Although he and I might not agree on everything, I recognise that he has been doing his very best.

I should like to outline some of Hillingdon's current problems, a great many of which relate to staff shortages. In one primary school, 60 per cent. of teaching posts are filled by temporary appointments. There is a significant turnover of younger teachers. Almost 30 per cent. of teaching staff in Hillingdon are under 30. That is yet another problem, in addition to the pressures on the London area and all the other problems that teachers face.

One of the most disturbing concerns in Hillingdon is that many of the vacancies are arising because teachers are moving to another LEA area. In particular, we are

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suffering because neighbouring LEAs such as Brent benefit from the excellence in cities scheme--indeed, I think that that applies also to Harrow and Slough. That has put our LEA in competition with those of neighbouring areas, and it is at a great disadvantage in terms of incentives and support.

Furthermore, I do not think that some of the areas of deprivation in the borough are adequately recognised. I refer especially to Yiewsley, West Drayton, and Hayes and Harlington, but other pockets also exist. We have written to the Department about those concerns and I urge it to consider the problem seriously, as we are losing out.

As time is short, I shall read out some of the comments of heads who attended the meeting. I shall not name them, as it would be invidious to do so, but I am sure that they would stand by their words if a Minister were to visit the area. I know that the Minister for School Standards has already made such a visit, but bearing in mind the current situation, perhaps it would be appropriate for her to do so again. The area is not terribly far away, and Ministers are always welcome--we are a friendly lot down in Uxbridge.

One head told the meeting that he laughed out loud when he heard the Secretary of State saying that there was no crisis. I appreciate that we must be careful not to give a dog a bad name, but I think that the teaching staff recognise that a crisis exists and they want it to be acknowledged as such. Other teachers at the meeting said that


and that

One head was worried that

It was said that one school would take anybody who could walk and talk at the same time, and that if an applicant could chew gum as well, it would be a bonus.

Another request was made for experienced teachers for asylum seekers and it was pointed out that Hillingdon had a big problem in that respect. Retention problems were mentioned and it was said that teachers felt overloaded. Concerns were expressed about political interference and impossible deadlines. House prices and salaries were, of course, identified as an additional problem. I have many other issues to raise; perhaps I shall have to take another opportunity to do so. One primary school head referred to the problem of the demise of the B Ed degree and its impact on recruitment.

I have also been told that classroom assistants are bearing the brunt of the teacher supply problem. They feel that their position is largely unrecognised and relatively unrewarded. We have another problem that we are taking up with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, concerning funding, and the cash settlement in particular. Perhaps it could be noted that we are awaiting its reply to a letter about that problem.

While I am on the subject of replies, St. Mary's primary school in my constituency is waiting for an urgent reply because of a period of tender that expires on 26 January, but in fact that reply has not been awaited all that long,

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and I shall send on the proper details later. I have just received the information, and I thought that I would get that one in.

The timing of the problem is unfortunate because it has occurred at a specific point in an election cycle. Given the politicians that we are, the subject will become a focus. That is unfortunate, because it means that the focus will not be on resolving the problem. We should seriously consider removing the subject from the strictly party political arena, even at this stage in the election cycle, because retaining it there does a disservice to children, parents and teachers.

I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) about raising teachers' status in society and improving everyone's attitude to them. I do not know which Minister can give a steer on the matter, but I am sick and tired of seeing teachers portrayed on television as rather bizarre people. The heroes, especially on children's television, are the kids who rebel, and anybody who does well is regarded as a swot.

3.21 pm

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), not least because we have one thing in common: I, too, have a spouse who is a special needs teacher. We have many a conversation on a Friday night about how the day has gone, and about the experience, stresses and strains of teaching in an inner-city school.

There is consensus about the existence of a problem: hon. Members agree about that. The question is what we do about it. The most disappointing aspect of the Opposition opening speech was the lack of ideas about how to tackle the current difficulties. The House does itself a disservice if we spend time wailing, gnashing our teeth and pulling our hair out about a problem instead of trying to identify practical solutions. However, I am glad to say that we have begun to do that in the later stages of the debate.

I welcomed the speech by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State because he outlined practical steps. I was also grateful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) for reminding us of the facts about improved educational performance. It is important to recognise the success of teachers in our country, and not to be dragged down by the argument that standards are falling, which they are not.

I want to mention briefly the reasons for the structure that we now have for getting more information about what happens in schools. I think that future historians will identify the famous moment in 1976 when Jim Callaghan made his Ruskin speech as the beginning of the process whereby Governments of all political persuasions have sought greater means to influence what happens in schools. He talked about the secret garden of the curriculum. More than a generation later, that secret garden is well and truly open.

When some hon. Members talk about the burdens that are placed on teachers, we must acknowledge that the national curriculum and the inspection framework flowed from Jim Callaghan's speech, principally because these structures give us more information about what happens

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in schools. Society now acknowledges that the success of our schools is partly due to, for example, the quality of the leadership and the approach to teaching. It is not simply a matter of leaving all schools to get on with it by themselves. We have a lot to learn from each other. That applies to teachers as much as to any other profession.

We need to recognise that greater accountability has accompanied these changes. If we are honest, none of us finds greater accountability easy to accept. The teaching profession has experienced that in the past two decades, and the medical profession is beginning to do so. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who chairs the Education Sub- Committee, that respect for teachers is currently an important issue partly because parents are better informed and educated than they were in the past. The position of teachers as the fount of all knowledge, the people to whom we all look up because they know things that we do not, does not apply as much nowadays. Although it is difficult, teachers have to get used to that.

Greater information about what happens in schools has also enabled the Government to say, "We can do better." I welcome that. Although we have always known that social background and previous educational attainment have a major impact on children's achievements, we realise increasingly how individual schools and leadership can make a difference.

I want to highlight the case of one school in my constituency, Little London primary school, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State kindly opened a couple of months ago after the fire that destroyed the old school. It is located in the 11th most deprived local authority ward in England and Wales. A high proportion of children receive free school meals. However, in the past three years, a dramatic improvement has occurred in the percentage of children achieving level 4 in English and maths, which has increased from the mid-20s to the mid-50s.

The secret of that success has been good leadership, hard work, committed and dedicated teachers and the support of the literacy and numeracy strategies. They have been highlighted as an example of damaging Government intervention in schools, but the response of many head teachers and staff in the schools in my constituency tells me that that is not the case. They have focused effort on improvement, and ultimately the children benefit.

I welcome today's debate because it keeps education at the forefront of our concerns. The Government and all hon. Members need to continue to hold an open dialogue with the teaching profession. Clearly, we must learn from teachers how we can give them more help to do the job that they want to do.

I conclude with perhaps a slightly controversial point. We must all value teachers, and that includes teachers valuing themselves. Our job is to give support, praise and encouragement, but I believe that teachers should be more confident about what they are doing. When teachers say, "I am a teacher, I am proud of that and proud of the difference I make to children in my class. I believe that I am doing a good job," they will receive a "Hear, hear" from all hon. Members, and they will also encourage others who are considering teaching as a profession to become teachers.

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3.27 pm

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