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10.15 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) for raising an issue of great topical interest in staffrooms and at school governors' meetings throughout the country. I know that, as a former teacher himself, he is well informed about such matters, and I congratulate him on bringing them before the House so early in this Session.

I shall address my hon. Friend's specific concerns about the problems of advertising for teacher vacancies, but I also want to underline the high degree of energy and investment now being directed at teacher supply, which will ensure that, over time, the problems of which the current advertising pressures are a symptom are resolved.

I do not, of course, speak for Scotland, but I hope that my remarks can convince my hon. Friend of the seriousness with which the Government view the issues that he has raised, and that our policies will help to avoid those difficulties, at least in the medium and longer term.

I acknowledge that the problem of filling teacher vacancies, and the associated costs, are real difficulties that concern the Government, but those difficulties are symptoms of a wider need that we are acting to address. Let me make it clear that the picture for teacher recruitment is by no means all doom and gloom. There are more teachers in post today than at any time since 1984, and 11,000 more than there were in 1997. In January this year there were 5,650 more than in January 2000—the biggest increase in a single year since 1976. There are also more than 44,000 extra education support staff compared with the number in 1997.

However, what I have said is not to be taken as an expression of complacency, or a suggestion that we intend to rest on our laurels. In the manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I fought the election, we committed ourselves to securing at least an extra 10,000 teachers over the next five years. Those increases will themselves, over time, reduce the demand for advertising, because many vacancies will be filled more quickly than at present. My hon. Friend was right to say that at the moment a large proportion of vacancies are advertised more than once.

Despite that massive improvement in teacher numbers, there are still more vacancies in the school system today. Schools are rightly using some of their increased funding—some £540 a pupil since 1997—to employ more teachers. There are 7,700 more posts in the system than last year. The number of teachers moving from post to post between academic years is what generates

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advertising; there is a lot of "churn" in the system, with teachers moving from one post to another. However, our latest survey shows some 2,070 more real vacancies—using the definition that we have used for a number of years—in January 2001 than in January 2000.

It is also clear that there are particular points of pressure. Vacancy rates for most main subjects remain below 2 per cent., but the rate for maths, for example, is 2.1 per cent., and in information technology it is 2.8 per cent. It is in such shortage subjects that much of the expenditure on repeated vacancy advertising is being incurred.

We have taken further measures to address the problem. I have mentioned the pledge that there will be 10,000 more teachers by 2006. In the meantime, pay for all teachers has been raised by more than inflation for the third year running. New teachers now start on salaries of £17,000 a year outside London, and £20,000 in inner London. There are more teacher training places this year than at any time in the 1990s, and more than 6,000 more than there were 10 years ago. We have introduced £6,000 training bursaries and £4,000 golden hellos for shortage subjects to encourage more graduates into teaching. The number of school-based training places for mature career-changers on the graduate teacher programme has also been trebled—a massive increase—to 2,250. Each place attracts funding of up to £17,000 a year.

We are now funding more than 1,300 refresher courses a year for returners to teaching, and we are consulting this month on the proposed welcome back bonus of between £2,000 and £4,000 for teachers who return to the profession and take up posts in the maintained sector between Easter and Christmas this year.

The maximum time that an overseas-trained teacher can work in this country without gaining qualified teacher status has been increased from two to four years. A fast-track route to QTS is also available for experienced overseas-trained teachers who want to develop longer-term careers here. The recruitment and retention fund is providing £35 million this year to allow heads in high-cost or challenging areas to put together priority packages to help recruit and retain staff.

Those are just some of the ambitious measures that we are taking to invest in a larger, high-quality teaching force, and to bring about the long-term solution to the problems to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention. I am sure he will agree that the difficulties he mentioned, and the costs involved, reflect difficulties in teacher recruitment. In another move, we also proposed in the Green Paper in February that we should offer to pay off over 10 years the student loans of newly qualified teachers in the five shortage subjects, and we proposed options for extra help for BEd students in their fourth years. A wide range of initiatives is in hand to seek to address the underlying problem, of which the matter we are debating this evening is a symptom.

I accept that that range of activity has not, as yet, taken away the burdens on head teachers who are trying to fill vacancies now. The Times Educational Supplement did indeed come in at record weight recently. Some 6,000 vacancies were advertised on 1 June, but it was down to half that number a week later. The TES is clearly fulfilling a need but it is not, it goes without saying, doing so with any Government recommendation to schools that they pursue that particular avenue alone. As my hon. Friend said, there are other avenues for advertising.

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My hon. Friend rightly paid much attention to online advertising in his remarks, and it should certainly be cheaper and more flexible than paper-based systems. The number of websites dedicated to online recruitment is growing rapidly. The Government are leading the way in a number of areas, not least through the Employment Service, with its telephone and web-based services.

There are also a number of dedicated education suppliers in the market. My hon. Friend mentioned some and I shall not attempt to mention them all; I am not in the business of endorsing any particular product over and above any other. My hon. Friend mentioned Schoolsnet, and the TES has its own website. The Stationery Office has recently launched an online recruitment facility through its site at, which provides for a range of school procurement and recruitment needs. Earlier today, some 100 teacher vacancies were being advertised on the site across a range of authorities and in all types of school.

A range of other firms offers dedicated web-based facilities. Eteach was indicating some 4,700 vacancies on its site earlier today and was offering more than 1,700. Reed is an example of a high street recruitment agency branching into education on its website. Indeed, Reed wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently to draw her attention to the attractions of the service that it provides in that area.

Local education authorities often co-ordinate vacancy trawls in their areas, providing schools with a free vacancy circulation. Some are backing that up with internet options as well. When we checked earlier this afternoon,, for example, had more than 150 teacher vacancies from across Kent. Another local initiative is Timeplan's Teachers4London website, which places vacancies from across London online. About half the London boroughs are making use of that service.

An increasing number of private agencies are offering a full recruitment service to schools. That includes several who have more typically been providing supply teachers to schools requiring cover, an area of the market in which the online opportunities have grown significantly recently, making the task a good deal easier and more flexible for schools.

Closer to my Department, the Teacher Training Agency has recruitment strategy managers working in 97 local education authorities to help to provide a co-ordinated local approach to vacancy filling. Three are dedicated to helping schools in challenging circumstances.

My Department does not have any figures to draw on to estimate the current cost to schools of advertising teacher vacancies, nor to make comparisons with previous years. The figure that my hon. Friend gave is probably as good as any, and his assessment is a helpful contribution to the discussion.

Many of the options that have been referred to will make charges and not necessarily reduce costs for schools, but some are available free. My hon. Friend mentioned Schoolsnet, which has more than 250 vacancies advertised today, and makes a very modest charge. That demonstrates again the flexibility offered by the new medium, in linking visitors to information about the school posting the vacancy and generally providing the chance to access much more information than would be available from a typical newspaper advertisement. It is not surprising that the online alternative is proving increasingly attractive to many schools.

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There is a significant number of players already in the field, some with services that are either free or cheaper than the most popular current avenues. Although The Times Educational Supplement remains popular for very good reasons—because of its stature, its widespread readership and coverage and its quality—many schools have found that it is not the only potential partner that is valuable in filling vacancies.

My hon. Friend suggested that there could be a role for the Government. We need to be clear that the Government do not recruit teachers. Decisions on what positions need filling and who to appoint are, for very good reasons, the preserve of head teachers and governors. There is a market operating in this area and, in our view, our role is to increase supply to that market. We are taking the steps that I outlined to achieve that.

Before intervening directly in the mechanics of the market, I should want to be sure that any Government- backed intervention would not simply provide another

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website in an increasingly crowded market and that we assisted, rather than undermined, the prospects of existing providers, some of whose work I have mentioned.

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to a significant problem. We are taking a range of actions to address the supply side. As teacher supply increases, particularly in shortage subjects, I expect the difficulties in recruitment, and thus the costs, to decline over time.

In terms of the symptom of increased teacher vacancies that is the increased cost of advertising, I am prepared to consider any constructive suggestions for helping schools to fill vacancies and reduce this additional call on their budget. That includes considering whether guidance to schools from the Department, along the lines of my observations tonight, would be helpful, and looking seriously at any arguments for a still more direct role.

It is in that spirit that I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important issues. He has helpfully highlighted the scale of the problem and some of the costs involved.

Question put and agreed to.

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