HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1415-22 2.53 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

In my maiden speech nearly six years ago, I said that I was a member of the greatest profession — teaching. I hold to the view that the teaching profession is the greatest profession. The time has come for the House to face the consequences and the effects of the current teachers' strike. I invite my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to respond to my points on the important issue of the teachers' pay dispute.

I was a teacher for 23 years and for seven years was in charge of a large mixed school of more than 2,000 students. Millions of pupil learning days have already been lost because of the current wave of teachers' strikes. The schools affected include special schools. I know of two schools for maladjusted children and another school for educationally subnormal children that were recently closed for three days. It is public knowledge that hundreds of schools have been closed for three days, and sometimes more, with a consequential loss of education for our children. It is a very serious matter.

Before we break up for our Easter recess, it is important to consider the schoolchildren who have just broken up for their Easter holidays. However, whereas we can be sure, when we come back from our welcome break, that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be seated where you are in your Chair to keep us in good order and to teach us good order, the children can be far less certain that their teachers will be in front of the class to teach them. Between now and then there will have been the Easter conferences of the major teacher unions. I still hope that new thinking will prevail at those conferences. A few hot-heads, claiming to represent all the teachers — which they do not — may seek to step up their disruptive campaign.

There is strong pressure among some teachers on their coleagues not to supervise the examinations that the children will be taking in the spring and summer, and not to continue to prepare them for those examinations. It is a very serious matter and I cannot believe that teachers will do it. If they do, the effect will be to damage those children for life in a massive way, and I do not think that such action could possibly be justified. I appeal to members of the teaching profession not in any circumstances to do such a thing, and to put the children first, as they have always done traditionally.

It needs to be said loud and clear that the purpose of a few teachers seems to be to damage the education of our children. From my experience, most people are genuinely and deeply upset at what is happening. It is the purpose of the hot-heads to disrupt the smooth running of the schools. It is their purpose to cause lessons to be cancelled and to see schools close altogether for several days a week. If they succeed in furthering their efforts, they will deeply damage the education of the children in those schools. Indeed, I suppose that unless they can damage and disrupt our children's education, there is no point in their taking the action. If the withdrawal of good will and of cover for absent colleagues and walking out from classes had no effect, no one would take any notice, so one has to see the rationale of the situation from that point of view.

Therefore, it is totally disingenuous of some teachers' leaders to claim that it is not the intention of the teachers to harm the children by the strike. By definition, children are deeply damaged by those actions. Some will never recover in their lives. We must face that possibility, and so must my former colleagues in the profession.

All teachers must be professionals first and last, as most are. They must put the children's education first and last. That is what is involved in a professional approach to education. The teacher must be a professional first and last. As I said earlier, in my view it is the greatest profession of all, and that must be the teachers' approach.

My first point, which I cannot emphasise too strongly, is that, no matter how justified the teachers' pay claim may be, and no matter how annoyed, provoked, angry or lacking in morale they may be as professional people—or would-be professional people — there can be no justification for strike action or any other form of disruptive action. It is totally wrong in principle.

My memories of teaching go back a long way. I remember in 1965 the teachers' strike at the William Penn comprehensive school in south London. It was then a school of about 1,100 boys. Twenty-five very fine schoolmasters walked out for a one-day strike. They were members of the National Association of Schoolmasters, which was not represented on the Burnham committee and did not seem to be able to achieve representation on that committee. The strike was intended to force that representation, and it achieved it. At the time, that action seemed to have much justification. It was taken by dignified men. Looking back, I believe that it was the thin end of a wedge, which has led to the present wave of strikes, with all the damage to our children.

I cannot emphasise my first point too strongly. However justified the teacher's pay claim might be, no matter how annoyed, provoked, angry or lacking in morale they might be as professional or would-be professional people, there can be no justification for strike action or for any other form of disruptive action which damages the children. It is wrong in principle.

We have heard many protests from the Labour party and the alliance whose members have been clamouring to support the teachers in their claim for higher salaries. Many have said inside and outside the House that we have to go back to the Houghton award of 1974 and achieve such a standard again. I was a teacher at that time, and was paid that award. I remember it well. I also remember very well that it was eroded under the Labour Government. The Lib-Lab pact also occurred between 1974 and 1979. I do not wish to be tendentious, but it seems to me to be the deepest hypocrisy for the Labour party and the alliance to say that they have supported the Houghton level of salaries when under their leadership that level was eroded. Since the Conservative Government came to power in 1979, the level of teachers' pay has improved by 9 per cent. in real terms—

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Greenway

I am sorry, but I shall not give way.

If teachers' salaries have improved by 9 per cent. under the Government, no one can be complacent about that because basically it is not good enough. However, at least it is reasonable for the Government to say, "That erosion did not take place under our Administration. It happened under the Labour Government." We challenge the hypocrisy of the Labour party when it tries to wriggle away from that fact. That must be said, but I do not say it in a tendentious spirit because I wish teachers' salaries to be improved — they need to be. However, I question whether the local authorities and the Government will find an extra 12 per cent. this year. I wonder whether the teachers have set out on a realistic quest in seeking such an improvement.

The teachers are only too well aware of that fact. The ordinary classroom teacher, who is the backbone of the profession, knows only too well that the present disruptive action will not lead to a vastly greater amount of money, and many have told me so themselves. Perhaps that is why their morale is at a low ebb. Their own leaders are asking them to take action that they know is unprofessional. It is counter-productive in achieving the end that they seek, which is more pay. Unfortunately, the public are alienated. It is sad to see a great profession less loved by the public, by parents and by children — and that is suggested by the response of some members of the public — than it traditionally has been. There is no greater example of the profession than yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You were a veritable Mr. Chips in your day and gave a great deal to the profession.

Even if the teachers' action is not stepped up, it is wrong in principle and in practice. I say that sincerely. I realise that teachers have a right to protest and must find some way of expressing their feelings, but striking is not the way.

What is the answer? I appreciate that it is unlikely that my hon. Friend will be able to give me many answers today. He will not be likely to say anything that might rock the boat in the present attempt to start the negotiations again. I hope that the negotiations will be successful. They need to be. A settlement of this terrible situation is keenly sought by us all. My hon. Friend may be able to do little more than rehearse the arguments and outline the current situation once more. However, I hope that he will be able to say something.

I should like to voice some of the things that many teachers are thinking and saying. I was a teacher in London, which is not always the easiest of assignments. I know how very hard a teacher has to work and how inadequate is the financial reward that most teachers receive. One must bear that clearly in mind. It is essential that teachers should be paid at a level that enables them to have the self-respect to which they are entitled as professional people, especially if they renounce the right to strike because of the damage that it does, although their rate of pay should not be ruinous to the ratepayers and the taxpayers.

We should start by conceding that there is some merit in the teachers' case; there is no question about that. In particular, there should be more pay for the good teacher at the chalk face who, in my experience, has always been under-rewarded. It is difficult adequately to reward the good teacher while not overpaying the terrible ones — and there are a few terrible teachers, too.

The problem has faced successive Governments and successive local government employers. Even if one considered that starting pay at present was not too unreasonable, pay stays at that level for far too long. It takes far too long to reach the higher levels, and those levels are not high enough when they are reached. No recognition is afforded either to the quality of teaching or to the scarcity value of the teacher. In short, the salary structure seems to be all wrong. A good middle-aged head of department or senior teacher should enjoy a better salary and a better standard of living than he does at present. Other teachers, too, should enjoy a better standard of living, but the job of head of department or senior teacher is the goal of many teachers. Once the teachers reach that goal, it should represent a proper and better reward. His or her contemporaries at university who now work in other occupations may work no harder or longer — indeed, most will not — but they enjoy a considerably better standard of living. It is extremely unfair.

I believe that the case is mainly for salary restructuring, and perhaps for relating pay to performance. That is the only way of rewarding the extra good teacher. There is probably also a case for employing fewer teachers as rolls fall, but paying those whom we retain a much better salary.

The constant improvement in pupil-teacher ratios, which is now the best ever — the Government can take credit for that — has not been matched by a commensurate improvement in the quality of education. We must have a wide and searching debate about what the ideal pupil-teacher ratio should be. It will vary among teachers, because some teachers could teach 100 children brilliantly while others could not teach one.

The improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio has been expensive in cash terms. Has not the time come to reconsider the matter and perhaps to spend money not on even better pupil-teacher ratios but on better teachers? All this is for negotiation, but how can we have that if one side refuses to negotiate? Unfortunately, the NUT refused the 4 per cent. pay offer. It then refused the offer of arbitration, having fought so hard for arbitration last year. Its representatives walked out of the restructuring talks, but I understand that the union is still interested. It has even refused conciliation, but eventually it must negotiate — if not now, then later. The later that happens, not only will more damage be caused to children, but the teachers will have done more damage to their standing in the public eye.

If the NUT refuses to negotiate, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Government may have to impose a solution. If that happens, what are the Government's intentions? Will there be a proper appraisal of teachers' performance? if that is envisaged, we must ensure that such appraisal is conducted not only by headmasters — we do not want a creeps' charter — but by teachers' peers and even their juniors, as well as others. Will the Government consider the relation of pay to performance, and the reward of teachers not just for time served but for their ability to teach? Will they reduce the number of teachers, increase the salaries of more senior staff and toughen the procedures for getting rid of incompetent teachers? Cannot the teacher be better valued in society now on the basis of greater public esteem? Above all, we should reward the good teacher.

The pay dispute must stop sooner or later, and the sooner the better. We need a two or three-year strike-free agreement. The recent habit of striking and withdrawing from voluntary and some professional activities once a year damages children, schools and teachers, and I know well that it is extremely upsetting for them. I hope that sooner rather than later the teachers will get terms that they can accept. If they leave it until later, the negotiations will not go as well. They will attract more odium from an angry public who may have less sympathy in future with any grievances that the teachers may have.

I hope that the matter can be settled and that teachers can return to their central place in society. They are respected and loved by children, parents and all members of society for the honest job that they try to do. Let no one forget that it is a great and noble profession.

3.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Bob Dunn)

I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) for raising the important issue of the teachers' pay dispute and the effects of their industrial action. The House always listens with a great deal of interest to my hon. Friend's words because of his long experience in the education service. During his six years in the House he has held high office in a number of educational organisations, both within our party and outside. I thank him again for his comments.

I shall deal a little later with the effects of this action on schools, pupils, parents, teachers themselves and society in general, but I should like to begin by setting out some of the background to the negotiations on teachers' pay.

The Remuneration of Teachers Act 1965 provides that the Secretary of State shall constitute one or more committees to consider and make recommendations on teachers' pay. The Burnham primary and secondary committee has therefore been established for the purpose of considering school teachers' pay. The management panel of the committee comprises representatives of the employers — that is, the local education authorities — and of my right hon. Friend. The teachers' panel comprises representatives of the teacher associations. It is for the Secretary of State to make orders to give statutory effect to the committee's agreed recommendations.

Although the Secretary of State's repesentatives have a place within the management panel of the Burnham committee, they do not constitute a majority, and it is not therefore possible for my right hon. Friend, through them, to impose his will upon the management panel. Still less of course is it possible for him to impose his will on the Burnham committee as a whole, since any resolution would need to secure the approval of the teachers' panel. There are those who argue that, my right hon. Friend should somehow step in to resolve the dispute. It will I hope be clear from what I have said that that is not open to him. The Burnham committee is a negotiating body and can proceed only by way of agreement between management and teachers.

The present position, as the House will know, is that in response to the teachers' claim for £1,200 for all putting about 12.5 per cent. on the pay bill — the management made teachers an offer of a 4 per cent. increase. This was rejected. It then offered arbitration. This, too, was rejected. It offered to resume talks on structure reform broken off by the teachers. This was rejected, too. Exploratory meetings between both panels and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service have taken place, and ACAS is pursuing the prospects for conciliation. We must wait and see how this initiative fares.

In rejecting these various offers, the teachers have said that they want to go back to 1974 and the salary levels established by the Houghton committee. This backward-looking yearning for a "golden age" is misconceived. Let me give the facts. The "level" established in 1974 hardly warrants the word "level". It had already been eroded by 1979. In no small measure this erosion was caused by public sector pay settlements like Houghton which came in a flock at that time. The rest is history — the International Monetary Fund and Labour's pay policy. But history is remembered only selectively and some union leaders would have their members forget everything but the "golden age" and the Houghton "level". I must dispel this illusion and remind the House that inflation in the mid-1970s was running at about 20 per cent. a year. This Government have no intention of returning to that self-perpetuating and self-defeating inflationary spiral. It is not a philosophical question of what a teacher is worth. This Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have the highest regard for the majority of teachers committed and dedicated to their difficult job. It is a question of economics. We cannot go back to paying ourselves more than the nation can afford. I say again, therefore, that the teachers' "back to Houghton" claims are quite unrealistic.

As to the possibility of arbitration, in offering the teachers arbitration, the spokesman for the management panel made it plain that he was doing so because of what the teachers' panel spokesman called the "unbridgeable gap" between the teachers' claim and the management panel's offer. Arbitration is not an ideal solution. The Government have made it plain that they cannot suspend economic laws; no additional resources will be made available to local authorities to finance an arbitral settlement. The fact is that no arbitrator can conjure up resources out of thin air to finance a pay settlement that is beyond the employers' capacity to pay. The teachers do not differ from other employees in this respect. Resources are finite, and what is spent on pay is not available for spending on goods and other services.

My right hon. Friend does not undervalue teachers. He recognises both the importance of the job that they do, and the dedication with which the great majority perform their difficult task. He is well aware of diminished career and promotion opportunities in the wake of falling pupil numbers. Career prospects for capable and effective teachers are much diminished. The present pay and career structure was relevant and appropriate 10 or 20 years ago, but there is a widespread recognition that reform is now needed. That is why my right hon. Friend has consistently encouraged the employers and the teachers to consider together the possibility of structural reform, and he has consistently made clear his willingness to consider any proposals put to him. If he is satisfied of their educational merit, and considers them affordable in present economic circumstances, he has made it plain that he would be prepared to put them to his Cabinet colleagues and seek their support for any necessary additional resourcets. At the same time, he has emphasised that he cannot guarantee the results.

My right hon. Friend has given the teachers and employers a clear lead on the direction in which he believes reform is necessary. At a time of reduced promotion opportunities, he looks to reforms that would link pay more directly with performance. That does not mean a crude system of payment by results. It means a sensitive and objective assessment of all aspects of teachers' performance with a view to improving teaching quality by means of well-informed and, therefore, more soundly based decisions on induction, in-service training, support and counselling, professional and career development, deployment and promotion. It means greater incentives to achieve good performance and more help and encouragement for those encountering difficulty.

The Secretary of State believes that a reform based on such principles would offer improved rewards, better morale and increased job satisfaction, and, of course, enhanced status and esteem. Together with other policies and initiatives for better schools, which I need not rehearse here, such reform could make a real contribution to higher educational standards in our schools. I know that both sides of the House share that view.

This is not easy and my right hon. Friend has never pretended otherwise. But instead of grappling with the problem, the leaders of the biggest of the unions have taken the teachers out of the structure reform discussions, and led them to disrupt and damage children's education, buoyed up by the false expectations aroused by an unrealistic pay claim. This is an appropriate time, on the eve of the teacher unions' Easter conferences, to urge each and every teacher to recognise the country's economic circumstances, and to look for realistic and affordable solutions — the only ones offering any prospect of success. They will achieve nothing and persuade no one, least of all my right hon. Friend, by their present course of disruption.

My right hon. Friend's concern is above all for the quality of education provided for pupils and improvement in teaching quality can be wholly consistent with the interests of the teachers in better career prospects. Central to the Secretary of State's policies for improved teaching quality is the development of more formal and systematic arrangements for the appraisal of teachers' performance. He hopes that the teachers and employers can negotiate such arrangements into place. He has set aside resources to support research and development in the field. The Department is consulting the unions and the local authorities on how progress on appraisal might be made in the context of the better career development and management of teachers. But my right hon. Friend is acutely aware that, two years after the publication of the White Paper entitled "Teaching Quality", in which the Government set out their commitment to performance appraisal, we are scarcely any nearer agreement. In those circumstances, it is plainly incumbent on him to consider all possible means of securing his objectives. It is against that background that we have announced in the White Paper entitled "Better Schools" our intention to seek power to make regulations on appraisal. Indeed, in that White Paper we have said much that has been warmly welcomed on both sides of the House and in the education service about where we should be in the next decade and after, leading on to the 21st century.

I know that Labour Members have shared our interest and supported the claims and the points made in the White Paper "Better Schools" and have not disagreed about the main thrust of the arguments contained therein. We have been used to receiving the constantly reiterated views that ever more resources are necessary and essential. I am, of course, grateful for any comments that Members of the Opposition may care to make about the policies contained in our White Paper. It must be hard for the Opposition to make a speech condemning what we have done in the past six years and what we intend to do over the next 10 years and more. All I know is that the arguments which they put forward in their speeches both in the House and outside have led us to the view that we are content to receive their support in what we are doing. And of course I am grateful that the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), who leads the Opposition on these matters, is always fair and even-handed in what he says and what he has to do.

Mr. Radice

The hon. Gentleman is not.

Mr. Dunn

I do take exception to that. The hon. Gentleman knows that I try to understand the points that he makes.

Mr. Radice


Mr. Dunn

No. I have got a lot to say and it is my speech.

I have always listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman has had to say. I think that he represents a more moderate voice on the Opposition Benches and I hope that he will continue for a lot longer in his present role on those Benches—certainly not on these.

My hon. Friend, in moving the motion, has drawn attention to the widespread disruption that is being caused by the teachers' industrial action. Throughout England and Wales hundreds of thousands of children have had their schooling dislocated. Many schools have had to close altogether for up to three days at a time and many more have been unable to provide all their pupils with uninterrupted education. Parents have had their working and domestic arrangements disrupted, as their children have been sent home not only at lunchtimes but for part of the time tabled school day. As so often with industrial action, the hardest hit tend to be those who are worst placed to cope with additional problems—single-parent families, families least able to meet the costs of extra travel for their children and so on.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. I express the hope that Members and staff will have a quiet and peaceful recess.

It being half past Three o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put till 15 April, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 26 March.