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Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Like many hon. Members, I meet head teachers on a regular basis. Last year I met a number of heads in my constituency to talk about their ongoing needs. Like many other local authorities, my authority has many schools that face
Despite a huge effort by some of my schools, they will have no choice but to make teachers redundant because there will be an insufficient number of pupils to support existing posts. No one likes to make anyone redundant under any circumstances. We should all like to keep teachers on indefinitely, hopeful that things turn around. Head teachers have rightly pleaded for funds in the hope that that transient set of affairs will pass quickly.
The situation is not new. It has been occurring on a regular basis for the past 30 years. However, the previous Government did not respond to the problem. There was nothing: no extra money and no promises. Head teachers had no choice but continually to increase the number of pupils in each class in an attempt to balance the books while squeezing every other budget they controlled. The only growing budget in schools before 1997 was under the control of the parent teacher association. Like millions of other parents who sent their children to school in the dark years, I sent a regular sum to the school to pay for fundamental things such as paper, pens and text books. Every year the request for extra money grew as budgets shrank. It was utterly depressing and totally indicative of what we could expect from a Tory Administration.
I was elected to serve the people of Crosby in 1997 when many children were being educated in buildings that should have been condemned. As an engineer, I think that I can make that evaluation accurately. There was a conspiracy of silence on the extent of the problem. There was an absolute acceptance by head teachers and teachers alike that there was no point complaining or asking for money to repair leaking roofs or defective buildings because it would not result in a response. Indeed, the head teachers in my constituency were right. When I asked how much funding was available for emergency repairs, the local authority told me that £40,000 was available for 23 schools, but the money had not been allocated because there had been no emergency to warrant the funds. I found that an appalling statistic.
When I visited one school to watch an assembly and wondered why the children were sitting in an extraordinary geometric configuration, I was told by the head teacher that they had to sit like that because bulbs had dropped from the ceiling the previous year, and the school had been told by the local authority that no funding was available to solve the problem, so teachers had better move the children out of the way just in case one dropped on their heads. I then went to another school where children were educated in portakabins, and even those were delineated because if the children had been sitting in certain parts of the portakabin they would have fallen through the floor. That was considered to be an acceptable place to educate our children.
The most damning indictment of that Administration was the type of facility that they afforded children with learning difficulties. I have a daughter with a learning difficulty; I know just how bad it has been. The schools allocated to the children in my constituency were disgusting. This year, I broke into tears when I visited two schools, one for children with severe learning difficulties and one for my child. Finally, we have schools that tell us as a society that we have a respect and regard for the most vulnerable among us. That cost money, and that money was made available by this Government. It is an asset, and that facility was totally ignored by the Conservative Administration.
A significant amount of money has been poured into every school in my constituency, not just for building, but for huge programmes such as sure start which have made an enormous difference by bringing children in deprived areas into the school system at age three and four. Extra teaching assistants and extra teachers in classes have made a difference.
I want the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to be able to speak, so I shall conclude my remarks by quoting a fantastic teacher in my constituency, who had to wait the length of her career to get extra money that recognises her ability and her desire to stay on teaching children. She said, "It's been a bit of a bad year, but I'd have this year each and every year in preference to another year under the Tories when it was absolute mean misery."
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) because she spoke with great passion, even if, at times, she was defending the indefensible.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) accused Opposition Members, of all people, of spreading cynicism. I have to tell him that there are only two possible conclusions to be reached, and both have been canvassed in this excellent debate, about the situation in many parts of the country. Either the Ministers involved are innocent but incompetent clowns, or they are indeed cynical manipulators. All this talk about education, education, education, which is now heard only on the Opposition Benches, may have got the Government into power in the first place, but those chickens are coming home to roost in no uncertain fashion, particularly in my constituency. It is difficult not to see all that. If one gives Ministers the benefit of the doubt and assumes that they are not incompetent, it is easy to view the situation as part of a cynical attempt to divert resources away from the south-east, which we have seen happening in many areas.
I have categorically to assure the Minister, with I hope at least as much passion as the hon. Member for Crosby, that there are real problems in my constituency, as there are elsewhere. When they began to emerge, Ministers followed plan A, which was to try to blame the situation on the LEAs. East Sussex made a robust