Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7.24 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid–Worcestershire): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), who is indeed an honourable Member. I am not sure whether I should say this, but I had some sympathy with his views on the problems involved with the word "choice". Many of my constituents cannot have a choice about school; they live in small villages with one school or are served by just one high school, so there is no choice. Perhaps a happier word might be "diversity", and hon. Members on both sides of the House find themselves in considerable agreement about that issue.

It is important to emphasise that we agree that not everything is bad in education. Far from it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said in opening the debate. We must remember that there are many fine teachers in many fine schools, and they are producing outstanding results for their pupils. There is no doubt that standards have been rising for a considerable period. The continuity in policies such as the national curriculum—introduced by the Conservative Government and maintained by this Government, although increasingly prescriptively—has contributed to that increase in standards.

There is lots to agree about, but the Secretary of State does not quite understand that the job of Her Majesty's official Opposition is to oppose. It is not our job to list all the ways in which we agree with the Government; it is our job to explain what we disagree with them about and to point out failures in their policy.

Mr. Chaytor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Luff: I happily give way on that philosophical point.

Mr. Chaytor: On the philosophical issue of the Opposition's role, does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with the Government about the record investment in the past five years, which has played such an important part in raising those standards?

Mr. Luff: No, I absolutely do not. I am afraid that that is totally wrong factually, and I shall return to it later in my remarks. That is one of the great Labour lies that those at Millbank peddle so enthusiastically, and it has no foundation in reality whatever. Is that answer clear enough for the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Chaytor: On the philosophical point, is the hon. Gentleman saying that that investment has not taken

6 Nov 2001 : Column 168

place? Is he saying that, if the Conservative party was in power now, it would immediately stop that investment? Would it continue that investment? He should tell us what his philosophy is.

Mr. Luff: I am forced to anticipate a later part of my speech. The answer is that the Labour Government managed to spend 4.6 per cent. of gross domestic product during the previous Parliament, but the Conservative party usually managed to spend 5 per cent. of GDP. The Labour party spent less, as a proportion of national income, than we did, which is nothing to boast about.

James Purnell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Luff: No, I must get on. There will be a section on funding later in my speech, and if there is time I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman then; he will have a chance to intervene.

I understand the concern expressed by Labour Members about the word "crisis", which features in the motion. I asked myself whether it is the right word to apply, and I think that it is. Teachers receive a new directive every day. Head teachers and governors are drowning in bureaucracy. Teachers are leaving in droves, no matter what the Government say. There are severe teacher shortages, and they are occurring in Worcestershire for the first time.

This is no criticism of those teaching in Worcestershire's schools at present, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that there is a real problem with the calibre of applicants for vacancies in Worcestershire, and head teachers in my constituency are worried about it. People are being appointed not because they are the best applicant, but because they are the only applicant for a job, and there is a need to fill the classroom with a teacher.

Mr. Levitt: Surely one reason that there are teacher shortages is that the number of teaching posts has been increased by policies such as reducing class sizes to 30 pupils at key stage 1. That policy has been achieved successfully and has generated many new teaching jobs.

Mr. Luff: I am talking about secondary schools, where class sizes are rising, not falling—one of the other signs of crisis in the education system. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said, Ofsted has warned that discipline is decreasing in classrooms. Head teachers are no longer free to expel disruptive pupils, and the Government should intervene to give back head teachers their freedom on the issue and to remove burdens from them. The ridiculous exclusion targets represent a recipe for disaster in many schools in my constituency. Moreover, there are gross discrepancies in funding between local education authorities, to which I shall refer later in my remarks.

Ms Ward: If the hon. Gentleman believes that head teachers should have more power to exclude pupils, perhaps he will tell the House what he thinks should happen to that increased number of excluded pupils? Does he think that we should return to the policy that operated under the Conservative Government, whereby excluded pupils received very little teaching time, which increased the problem for those pupils and society generally?

Mr. Luff: I vow to speak more briefly than those hon. Members who have spoken before me, and I am being

6 Nov 2001 : Column 169

lured into subjects that I did not really want to discuss in detail. I have sympathy with what the hon. Lady says, as I do so often. I am not suggesting that exclusion and expulsion should be the first resort for head teachers; they should be the last resort. But head teachers should be free to decide whether exclusion is right for the rest of the pupils in their schools. They should not have an eye on what the Department for Education and Skills says should be their exclusion target. They should take a pragmatic decision, with the utmost reluctance, to expel or exclude when they judge it necessary, and those who are expelled or excluded should be sent to pupil referral units, or similar organisations, which are now quite widespread in Worcestershire. That is where the trouble-making children who can destroy the opportunities of the other children in a school should be sent. Of course, systematic troublemakers should be taught and looked after, but I do not accept that they should be included in mainstream schools. Head teachers, not politicians or civil servants, should make the decision.

I shall try to speed up now. My point about the Government is that, when it comes to public services—whether the schools, the police, hospitals or anything—they combine the two worst strands of communism: Stalinism and Trotskyism. They are Stalinist because they are fixated with central control and Trotskyist because they believe in permanent revolution, changing the goalposts all the time with innovation for innovation's sake. That is true of all the public services in my constituency. Targets are set from the centre and the structures around those targets change time after time after time.

The previous Secretary of State was particularly guilty of those charges. He was a directive junkie. Every day, a new instruction told teachers their job; on almost every subject, he knew better than the teachers in my constituency. He also liked telling us what he was doing. Virtually every week a new glossy publication came through the letterboxes of Members of Parliament. I suspect that those publications were not designed to encourage our understanding of education, but to further his ambition to be the next leader of the Labour party.

Each instruction for teachers means more change to absorb. Some of the changes are small and some are large, but there is always change. No wonder head teachers despair and teachers leave the profession. Recruitment may be up and we can rejoice at that. It is obviously a good news story, but there is no point in turning on the tap if the plug is out at the bottom of the basin. That is what is happening in teaching.

What about local accountability? The Government derided the previous Conservative Government with just cause for excessive centralisation and for taking powers away from local authorities. However, what are this Government doing? Local education authorities are, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, a serious inconvenience for them. That is why they are plotting the abolition of LEAs as part of the move towards regional government. LEAs, such as Worcestershire, now just administer the inadequate resources that they receive from the Government. LEAs are blamed for failure and ignored when they succeed; they are irrelevant to the Government.

6 Nov 2001 : Column 170

Ministers prefer to constrain what schools can do through increased national funding, the prescriptions of the national curriculum and a multitude of funding streams that are all targeted to achieve the Government's objectives and not those of head teachers in individual schools.

Mr. Chaytor rose

James Purnell rose

Mr. Luff: I promised that I would give way to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell).

Next Section

IndexHome Page