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House of Commons

Thursday 22 May 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

EDUCATION AND SKILLS

The Secretary of State was asked—

Teacher Vacancies

1. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): What assessment he has made of the number of teacher vacancies. [114994]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): National statistics published by my Department on 29 April show that, between 2002 and 2003, the number of full-time teacher vacancies in maintained schools in England fell by 1,140, or 25 per cent. The national teacher vacancy rate is now below 1 per cent. At regional level, the number of vacancies has fallen in eight out of the nine Government office regions, including a 35 per cent. drop in Yorkshire and Humberside.

Mr. Clapham: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am rather surprised by the statistic, because I spoke recently with Barnsley local education authority and I was told that we have fewer vacancies in Barnsley than there have been for a good number of years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that indicates that things are beginning to change and that teachers are being attracted to areas that are regenerating their economies and renewing their social structures, and that at the same time we are retaining teachers with experience, which is beginning to show through in areas such as Barnsley?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The figures confirm the experience of his colleagues in Barnsley and what he is describing, in that the national teacher vacancy rate is now 0.9 per cent. That indicates how well our policies are succeeding in delivering better teachers, better classrooms and better results.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Is the Secretary of State aware that the teacher redundancy crisis at Edenham high school in Croydon is only the tip of the iceberg? Schools such as Woodcote high, Coloma girls and, as reported in today's Croydon Guardian, another school, Coulsdon high school, are on a four-and-a-half-day week. The problem is that contrary to what the

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Prime Minister told the House yesterday, the education budget in Croydon is inadequate. To make it worse, the local Labour authority has siphoned off £1.7 million for non-educational purposes.

The Government blame the council and the council blames the Government. Six years ago, the Prime Minister said that his top priorities were "Education, education, education." Today, we see only shambles, chaos and children caught in the crossfire.

Mr. Clarke: I am very well aware of the position both in the schools to which the hon. Gentleman has referred and in Croydon generally. Croydon is one of those authorities that has not passported all its money to education, as it should have done. We have made it clear to the local education authority that it should do that. Croydon is also one of those authorities that is working with schools to try to resolve this situation in an effective way. My Department is also working with LEAs, such as Croydon, specifically discussing with them the best way to proceed. I would say to head teachers that they should work closely with the LEA to resolve the situation, rather than taking the sort of steps that were taken yesterday.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Further to the question of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable to parents and to children for pupils to be sent home early from schools? Does he agree that it is time to re-examine regional distributions? Does he agree also that it is time to examine whether funding should be made directly from his Department to schools? Further, will he agree to meet me to discuss with representatives from Croydon a strategy for this year to next year to ensure that there is sufficient cash for our children's education?

Mr. Clarke: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful question. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has met colleagues from Croydon, and will continue to do so. [Interruption.] I meant that seriously—it was a helpful question. It is important that we have a proper debate about the funding issues in schools. It is important also that Members represent their constituents' interests in the way that both the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and my hon. Friend have sought to do. It was not an ironic remark.

I will not inflate the situation by using strong language about what has gone on in the schools, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that schools should not be closing for even part of the day in the current circumstances while the LEA, the Department and schools are working together to resolve these problems in an effective manner.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): May I, too, ask the Secretary of State a helpful question? What sort of message does he think it is sending to potential teachers that there may be vacancies in many areas but there will be 3,000 redundancies throughout the country, and 92 in his and my education authority? Has he yet seen the letter from Dr. Bryan Slater, the chief education officer for Norfolk county council, to his Department, which line by line refutes the arguments advanced by the Department that in some way Norfolk has not passed

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on all the funds to schools? In those areas where funds have not as yet been passed on, the irony is that that has not happened because of the Department's guidelines. Surely the buck stops with the right hon. Gentleman and his Department, not with schools and not with LEAs.

Mr. Clarke: I have two things to say in response. First, the survey reported this morning in the newspaper to which the hon. Gentleman referred is, as the newspaper itself acknowledged, a self-selecting partial survey in which only one in 17 of those surveyed responded. It bears no relation—I emphasise this—to information that we have had from local education authorities about the situation.

Secondly, on the Norfolk case, the document that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which referred to 92 potential redundancies, is a paper that the authority sent in response to recent ring-rounds and which was copied to trade unions and others, and no doubt it is in the public arena. As the LEA said, and I have had confirmation of it this morning, it represents all possible cases. The cause is a mix of budget problems and falling rolls. However, there are as many vacancies as posts at risk, so the LEA is working to re-deploy as many as possible. In addition, the 92 potential redundancies were from before the devolved formula capital announcement that I made a week or so ago, so the actual number, according to the LEA, will be nothing like as big as the figure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. That story is repeated throughout the country. LEAs are working, like Conservative Norfolk county council—I give it credit—with schools, teachers and my Department to ensure that the problems are minimised. The kind of partial survey published in The Times this morning, based on inaccurate and outdated information, does nothing to assist the situation in any way.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): As my right hon. Friend rolls out his specialist schools policy, will he be extremely careful to examine the impact that that will have on teacher shortages in particular subjects, and will he study carefully the Select Committee's report, "Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision", which was published this morning? It might give him some useful guidance in that area.

Mr. Clarke: I will study my hon. Friend's Committee's report extremely carefully. I have seen the news reports of its publication, but as I am sure he will understand, I have not yet had a chance to study the report itself. I will take account of what it recommends. The overall teacher vacancy position that I described shows the kind of measures that we can take to improve the quality of education in all types of schools throughout the country.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The Secretary of State just sought to rubbish the survey in The Times this morning, which suggested that there will be 3,000 teacher redundancies as a result of the Government's funding crisis in schools. If he thinks that that is the wrong figure, how many teachers' jobs does he think are at risk because of the funding crisis?

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Mr. Clarke: We believe that the overall level of redundancies—there are falling rolls in some parts of the country—will be of the same order as in past years. That is the precise question that we are discussing with LEAs, as I described in response to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). We are not in a position to make an estimate at this stage, but I can say that both the particular figures cited—the 92 in Norfolk and the 3,000 in the self-selecting survey published in The Times today—are massive exaggerations.

Mr. Green: The Secretary of State seems to be admitting that some teachers at least will be made redundant as a result of the funding crisis. He knows that the redundancy notices will have to go out by the end of this month. His Department underspent by £1 billion last year. Why does he not take some useful action and use some of that money to stop teachers being sacked? The crisis is real, and his response so far has been hopelessly inadequate.

Mr. Clarke: We debated the matter at length last week. We expect a reduction of about 50,000 pupils in nursery and primary schools this year and over the next two years. That is spread unevenly across the country. LEAs are trying to manage the falling rolls as best they can, but it leads to difficult situations in particular schools. Let me cite another local authority to praise it. Yesterday, a special meeting of Northumberland county council agreed to give £1.5 million to the county's 213 schools in a bid to boost budgets. The funds are being recycled from a contingency fund. According to the council's press release, that will prevent 19 threatened redundancies in 14 schools, and allow other schools to boost their education budgets. Such action is being taken by LEAs throughout the country. I cite only one example. It indicates that we are working with LEAs to resolve the problem, and that is what we will do.


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