Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.24 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I should like to apologise to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and his Front Bench colleagues, because I also had to leave the Chamber briefly to fulfil a long-standing commitment.

I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell), who gave a succinct and clear analysis of the current position of higher education. I welcome what he said about the broad band of agreement about the objectives. One of those objectives is equality of access, and there is a range of reasons relating to that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) mentioned. One must be the quality of teaching that young people receive in schools to attain the standard to go on into higher education. I shall return to that aspect of the debate.

The National Union of Teachers' report is an important document—I declare an interest here: I am still a member of that trade union—but it is only one document to be added to the totality of the debate about the recruitment and retention of teachers. It is interesting that there seems to be a shift of emphasis—this is evident not only from the NUT but from the other teachers' unions—in the last paragraph of the summary of that document, which states:

Recruitment numbers are going up, as the Secretary of State made clear today. More young people are being attracted to teaching now, and are going to university and into postgraduate certificate of education courses in order to get into teaching. The issue now is retention. The NUT document goes on:

I am equally sure that the Government will do—and are doing—just that.

I would like to share my experience of schools in Bristol. I have visited schools and talked to head teachers and teachers about the present situation. I want to add my congratulations to teachers on all their hard work and commitment, because standards have gone up. For the Opposition to lead in this debate with such a tirade against teachers without recognising their achievements and the way in which standards have improved is nothing short of a disgrace. Standards are going up and there is a huge commitment from teachers. However, there is also a need to continue to retain teachers.

6 Nov 2001 : Column 154

I want to speak briefly, from my experience, about the nature and quality of those being recruited and about the position of teachers leaving—and, indeed, returning to—the profession. I also want us to look at the profession in the same way that we are now beginning to look at other professions, because people no longer go into a profession and stay in it from their first day of work until they retire, as was the family tradition. People now move in and out of professions, often to the benefit of those professions; I believe that that is explicitly of benefit to the teaching profession.

At one of the schools that I visited recently, I met the head teacher and we soon struck up a conversation that went something like this: "Yes, isn't it awful? I've advertised for a teacher and a deputy, and I've had so few applications. Instead of getting 40, I've got four." However, when I asked him about the quality of the applicants, he replied, "Oh, I've made a really good appointment." The people applying at present are of the highest quality.

In a stable economy with high levels of employment, people who apply to work in teaching have made a firm commitment to teaching. The head teacher of that particular school readily admitted that the people coming through his door were of the highest quality. He now has a new deputy head teacher and two newly qualified teachers of the highest quality, following a tradition going back many years.

We acknowledge that the number of applicants has gone down. There are more jobs—particularly for women—out there in the market, and fewer people are applying for the reason that it is traditionally expected that they would be a teacher. However, the quality of newly qualified teachers is important.

Another school that I visited recently had three newly qualified teachers, all of whom had been mature students. They had gone back into education—in a way to which my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield referred—having experienced other employment elsewhere. They had tried other things. They had worked in retail, in business and in commerce. However, that work had not given those people the level of satisfaction that they had expected, and they had recognised, either through doing voluntary work with young people or through their own families, that teaching was an alternative. They came into teaching with good qualifications and with added experience. They brought to the classroom something more than those of us—I include myself in this description—who went from school to university to school without being able to bring a breadth of experience to young people.

I recently heard an amusing anecdote about a young person who had said "My mum has just got a job in the school: she is going to be the careers teacher. I don't know what she will be able to tell them; she has never done anything but teach". We laughed, but there is a sound point there. I am sure that qualified teachers, with all their generic skills, have much to tell young people—on the basis of wide experience in their own families, and of work known to them through family connections—about what they might want to do. I am sure that they want to instil in young people the highest possible aspirations. How much better it would be, however, for school staff rooms to contain teachers who have worked in the travel industry or in engineering. I am thinking of those who, because of their wider background in, perhaps, farming,

6 Nov 2001 : Column 155

can say to young people "There is a breadth of work out there that we can tell you about". That, I think, is enriching and good, and I think that the school to which I have referred, with its three NQTs—mature students—has acquired something that enriches both the staff room and the pupils.

The head teacher of another school, a beacon school, has moved on to offer elsewhere the expertise that built up the school. The deputy head—acting head, at the time of my visit—was very excited about the job for which she was going to apply. She told me that, even if she did not get the job, it would have been a challenge and a rewarding experience to be the acting head of a beacon school with so much going for it, and that it would be very good for her CV.

That teacher took me around the school and introduced me to two NQTs. Those young people had come straight from university. They had already worked in the school, they had been there as students, they clearly had aspirations and they were doing a really good job. The teacher then introduced me to one of the new nursery teachers, an older woman who had entered the school as an assistant teacher.

That woman had found her way gradually through the system. She had done her studying at night, while in a part-time job, and she was now back as a fully trained nursery teacher. That was excellent: she was an older person who had brought up her own family, she had much to offer the school, and she was going to stay in the locality for a good while. I am sure that the diversity provided by those with wider backgrounds and different experiences will prove valuable.

Subsequently, on a Saturday afternoon, I met a young man who has opposed me in two general elections, representing the Green party. He is a wonderful young man, very colourful—not just in terms of the name of his party, but in terms of all the work that he has done in youth clubs and with photography. He helped Sustrans, the cycling organisation, to get its million cyclists on the road for the millennium event. Although he had wide experience, however, he had never quite settled down—but now, he told me, he was doing a PGCE course.

That young man has worked in secondary schools in Bristol, and he now realises what fun young people can be. He can offer them all his experience, and no one will be able to get the better of him—although I am glad to say that I did in the general election! He will make a superb teacher: he empathises with young people, he has a lot of experience, he has a lot of go and he will bring something rich and valuable to the staff room as well as to young people.

Nowadays, it cannot be assumed that a teacher who enters the profession with qualifications at 20 or 21 will be a teacher for ever. I hope that such teachers will take a break, and then return. The Secretary of State suggested that we should consider not just the drop-out figures, but the figures for those returning to teaching. Surely it is beneficial for people to return with wider experience. I am thinking of those who may have entered the profession when young and then, perhaps, started a family. We should recognise the contribution made by women in bringing up children, and see it as a real plus on their CVs. Such experience—such "early years" work—is something they can bring back to teaching.

6 Nov 2001 : Column 156

I am not as pessimistic as some have been today: I think that the figures should be viewed in more depth. We should understand what is happening in the profession as a whole. It is certainly becoming more demanding. I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who said that young people themselves now presented a greater challenge. They too are more demanding and difficult, in many ways, than those of us whose teaching experience took place 20 or more years ago. If we take into account those who bring more maturity, more qualifications and more experience of life to the profession, however, I think we can view the profession positively. We should bear in mind that more young people are choosing it, more mature students are returning, and more people who have had a taste of teaching and then gained wider experience are also going back.

I do not particularly want to return to the profession myself, but I recently replied to a student questionnaire that asked "If you were not a Member of Parliament, what would be your ideal job?" I thought about it for a long time—I thought of all the exotic things I might do—but, if I was to be honest, I had to write "Teacher". I did, however, add "On a good day".

There is nothing better than teaching—on a good day. There is nothing more exciting in the world than the exhilaration of helping young people, seeing their eyes light up and knowing that something has been understood and aspirations have been extended. I am here because I want to ensure that that right is extended to more young people—that they will have better-qualified and more experienced teachers with wider experience and more maturity.

We are fortunate in Bristol. I know that there are pressures on teachers in other parts of the country, which we do not experience to the same extent. We do not have as many applicants, but they are high-quality applicants—and in Bristol the idea of lifelong learning does not just mean adding a bit of adult education when people are older: that notion has now gone. Although it is a good thing, it is not what Labour Members mean by lifelong learning.

In at least two parts of the city—we are looking for a third—we have established sure start. We are breaking the cycle of deprivation by helping not just the youngest but their parents—whole families—to recognise the importance of education. We are on a solid foundation in developing more nursery education—and it should be remembered that by doing that, and through the provision of smaller primary school classes, we have increased the number of teachers throughout the country by some 11,000 over the past four years. More teachers are working in, particularly, nursery and primary education, which is important and a good priority for the Labour party.

That proud tradition has been built on in Bristol. In the primary school sector, there has been an improvement of 9 or 10 per cent. in literacy—in line with the national average—and a higher percentage improvement in science skills. I congratulate all teachers involved in that excellent work.

My severest criticism and my real concern—I trust that the Government will address it—relate to key stage 3. I have seen skills in Bristol in which the level for those 11 to 14s has been maintained, or has dipped. I do not

6 Nov 2001 : Column 157

think that that has been caused merely by the transition or the curriculum: I think we must look hard at the whole nature of what we are trying to achieve for the age group involved. We must target our interest in and support for teachers to ensure that this is another rewarding, improving step in education; otherwise those five A to C grades will not be achieved.

The number of A to C grades is rising slowly. Hon. Members who know Bristol as well as I do recognise that we have a specific problem at secondary level. With the city-wide review of secondary education, we will, I trust, deal with that.

On further education, the City of Bristol college, with its new site in the centre and its plans for the future, is drawing in more and more young people at 16. I want education maintenance allowances to be brought in widely across the city. I give every encouragement to the Front-Bench team to knock on the door of No. 11 and ensure that the finance is there to roll out education maintenance allowances across the country, including Bristol.

On higher education, the university of Bristol is part of the Russell Group. I have been a member of the university's council. I have argued the case for more local and state students going on to higher education. We have a new vice-chancellor, whose brief is to ensure that more children from state education go to the university. I will do everything—I know that other Labour Members in the city will do the same—to ensure that that objective is achieved.

We are fortunate. We also have the university of Bath and the university of the West of England. The work that they are doing in different ways to ensure internationally recognised excellence of provision and wide equality of access—the Prime Minister's goal is that 50 per cent. of people aged 18 to 30 have experience of higher education—will, I trust, be endorsed, encouraged and achieved with the contribution from the three universities in the Bristol area. Beyond that, we are encouraging people in Bristol to take part generally in wider access to education, ensuring that, through commerce and industry, there is the access; there is the motivation.

I end with something that is near to my heart, which is ensuring that older people get into information technology. The city has a centre for IT training, which the college set up, but which is supplemented largely by the university of the West of England. For those of us who until recently had never wanted to put our hand on a mouse, classes start at 7.30 in the morning and go on until late at night. People can leave work and go in for an hour. That resource, which is enabling people of all ages, is remarkable and good.

Only last weekend, I went to a fresh start course for the 45-plus age group to open an IT suite. I gather that the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has the constituency with the most older people who are IT literate, but I assure him that the people of Bristol and outside are now looking to IT, if only to e-mail their grandchildren throughout the world.

That is all part of the wider education to which many more people are now aspiring thanks to a Labour Government. Let us not knock what has been done. Let

6 Nov 2001 : Column 158

us encourage it. Let us praise, particularly our teachers, and encourage more and more people of different ages to return to teaching.

Next Section

IndexHome Page