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16 Oct 2002 : Column 331—continued

Estelle Morris: The hon. Gentleman will also know, if he is into reading research, that even more people are now joining the profession, and they do so knowing what it is about. They see the investment that the Government are making, the literacy and numeracy strategies raising standards and the excellence in cities scheme, which is beginning to close the gap in achievement levels between children in inner cities and elsewhere. That is why we have more teachers in the profession than at any time since the early 1980s. I am proud of that, but, equally, I take the challenge of keeping people in the profession.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong about this, but if my memory serves me right—I do not have the figure in front of me—it is true to say that five years after teaching 80 per cent. of those who have completed their training have taught for some time in the maintained sector. Many teachers who leave school will return after having had time out to raise a family or because they have moved to another part of the country.

I do not underestimate the nature of the challenge in retaining teachers in our classrooms, but I hope that, in return, the hon. Gentleman will give credit for the fact that we have the best recruitment levels for two decades and that, today, more teachers are serving in our classrooms, teaching our children, than since the start of the 1980s.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Estelle Morris: Not at the moment; I want to move on, because I am sure that the House will want to know of other targets that have been met as well. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to know that our target for the number of 16-year-olds who get five good GCSEs at grades A to C was met a year early. I am sure that, like me, they look forward to the publication of the next set of results tomorrow. I am sure that they will be as pleased as I am that, for the first time, the Government's initiatives—yes, initiatives, but they were funded and training for them was provided, about which I am proud—are the first ones to close the attainment gap in standards in this country.

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More than in any of our competitors in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, this country's under-achievement is linked to poverty and social class. The best thing about the literacy and numeracy and the excellence in cities initiatives is not only that standards increased across the board, but that the attainment gap closed, and they are the first education initiatives of any Government of any political party to achieve that.

If the hon. Member for Ashford wants to abolish those initiatives, he should say so now, as I believe he has done in the past. Let us make no mistake: taking away initiatives such as literacy and numeracy, key stage 3 and excellence in cities would be at the children's cost because, without those initiatives, teachers would not have the support that they need to do what we want them to do—raise standards across the board.

Sir Patrick Cormack rose—

Estelle Morris: I will give way, and then I shall make progress on another issue.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I commend much of what the right hon. Lady seeks to do. I particularly commend the Government's new realism in education, but does the right hon. Lady accept that the reason for the crisis that she is seeking to correct is that for many years, not just under Labour Governments, there was a blind pursuit of the comprehensive ideal, which did a great deal to destroy standards and quality in education in this country?

Estelle Morris: All I would say is that the performance of girls has increased in the past couple of decades, as has the number of youngsters who have qualifications enabling them to go on to higher education. That has happened on the back of the comprehensive system, not some rigid selective system that existed previously. I am proud of the comprehensive ideal, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I think that we need to renew it. It has not achieved all that I aspire to. It has not closed the social class gap, and some ethnic groups are achieving below the level at which they should. That is exactly why we talk about reforming the comprehensive principle, while the Prime Minister and I talk about the post-comprehensive ideal.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Would the Secretary of State therefore agree with the Minister for School Standards, who said in Brighton last week that he regretted the passing of the direct grant grammar schools? Do the Government plan to return those to the state fold?

Estelle Morris: I shall say three things: first, my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards did not say that; secondly, I always agree with him; and, thirdly, we have no plans to introduce the direct grant system.

I want to move on to the very serious issue of exclusions. It is fascinating that a new Tory policy has been announced only minutes after the Leader of the Opposition sat down and forgot to tell us that the Conservatives believe in appeals hearings after all. I want to correct something that the Leader of the Opposition said during Prime Minister's questions.

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My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that appeals panels were introduced in 1986, and the following justification was given in Committee proceedings on the Bill that I presume became the 1987 Act:

That was the justification given by Chris Patten when he spoke about the introduction of appeals panels in a Standing Committee in 1986. He was right. People must have an avenue to seek redress if they feel that injustice has been done. I cannot understand, however, why the Leader of the Opposition went on to say that we took away from the head teacher the right to overrule the appeals panel, as the following was also stated in Standing Committee on 1 July 1986:

Chris Patten went on to say:

Would the hon. Member for Ashford like to answer to the House and withdraw the accusation made by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition during Prime Minister's questions?

Mr. Damian Green: What my right hon. Friend said was that the Government changed the guidance, which was true.

Estelle Morris: I stand to be corrected when Hansard is published, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the Leader of the Opposition said that the appeals panel could not overrule the decision of the head. Chris Patten, who was the Minister at the time, said that the appeals panel decision would be binding.

Let us move on—instead of going over the quiet words of a quiet man—to consider the more vocal, louder comments of the hon. Member for Ashford, who, to tell the truth, is an equally quiet man. Today, he announced that, although the appeals panel will be abolished, the local education authority will resume the function of hearing appeals from parents. When he announced that, I had an eerie feeling that not one of his Back Benchers knew about it. Now we know what is the definition of a quiet man and a quiet party—it means not telling Back Benchers about the policy before announcing it to the House of Commons.

Let me be helpful by spelling out what that policy means. It will mean that any parent who disagrees with the judgment of the head that their child should be excluded for any reason will be able to appeal to a local education authority. That is what was said. Let us make no mistake—if we give the local education authority the right to hear the appeal, we have to give them the right to overturn the judgment. If we do not do that, we will take away its power to take a decision.

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I am happy to give way on this issue, so would the hon. Gentleman like to tell us who will sit on the LEA appeal panels? Will they be made up of the teachers who we insist should sit on panels from January next year? If the panel is run by an LEA, will it be made up of local councillors and local education officials? If it is not made up of councillors and education officials, will it be made up of independent members of the public? If it is made up of independent members of the public, I am not sure how it will differ from the independent exclusion panels that we have at the moment.

Mr. Green: The right hon. Lady appears incapable of listening. She said that I had just said that any parent would be able to appeal on any matter to the LEA. She knows perfectly well that I did not say that. She was not listening and she wants to hear what she wants to hear. I made a clear difference between process and fact, and that is an obvious point that applies to all appeals to people such as the ombudsmen. She should know that, because she is experienced enough to know the difference. She may be attempting to be malicious, but I am afraid that she will not find that I said what she said I had said.

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