HC Deb 13 December 1995 vol 268 cc976-8
6. Mr. Lidington

To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what steps she is taking to improve further the quality of teaching in schools. [3873]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

We are improving teacher quality across the entire profession, from a new qualification for aspiring head teachers to securing, through the Teacher Training Agency and the Office of Standards in Education, high-quality initial teacher training.

Mr. Lidington

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a good and dedicated classroom teacher can probably have a more important, more beneficial, influence on a child's life chances than virtually any other single factor, whatever the child's social background or the region in which his or her school is located? Will she join me in praising the dedication of thousands of good teachers in maintained schools, but encourage the teaching profession to take seriously the call from Her Majesty's chief inspector for them to reflect carefully and critically on teaching methods and other professional skills, so that those skills develop in the interests of the children whom they seek to serve?

Mrs. Shephard

The importance of good teachers and good teaching is undeniable. That is why Conservative Members have made such a priority of training, of in-service training, and of grants for education support and training money to help raise teaching standards. There are thousands and thousands of dedicated teachers. Working with the Teacher Training Agency and with Ofsted, they are examining the importance of teaching the basic skills. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to my announcement after the Budget about the 12 literacy and numeracy centres that we are setting up across the country. Their attention will be directed towards helping primary teachers teach reading and numbers according to the best methods identified by Ofsted.

Mr. Chris Davies

Will the Secretary of State accept that widespread public concern exists about her plans to revise the school premises regulations, and that schools with rising pupil numbers may be forced to cram even more children into overcrowded classrooms? How will that improve the quality of children's education?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman entirely misunderstands the purpose of this deregulatory measure, which we were urged, I think in an earlier question, to adopt. There is no link between the work that is going on about minimum teaching areas and class size. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is no simple link between numbers of teachers or the amount of funding and higher achievement in the classroom. I am afraid that those who do not believe that should look at the striking illustration of Hackney Downs school, which had one teacher for every eight pupils.

Mr. David Nicholson

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to concentrate on the overdue task of improving teaching standards and methods. I particularly emphasise the teaching of reading in primary schools, where modern methods have done an enormous amount of damage. Does she agree that good pupil-teacher ratios do not necessarily mean high standards, as was found recently in Hackney Downs school? When she is listening to criticisms by Opposition parties, will she take account of the increase in classroom assistants, which I do not think are reflected in pupil-teacher ratios throughout the country?

Mrs. Shephard

Of course I will, and so will the teaching profession, head teachers and governors of schools. The important role of classroom assistants cannot be over-emphasised, and nor can the importance of proper training for all our teachers.

Mr. O'Hara

While it is welcome to have the Secretary of State and members of her party acknowledging that only good teachers can deliver quality education to pupils, may I ask what she intends to do about the crisis that is emerging in education of an exodus of teachers, largely due to their health being broken by the excessive pace of reforms being introduced by the Government, the lack of recruitment of teachers in general and of specialist teachers in such important subjects as English, maths and design technology? What are her policies for improving the supply of teachers?

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. A great deal has been said about redundancy among teachers, but very little has been said about the overall number of teachers which increased by 2,500 between January last year and January this year. There is no shortage of teachers at present and vacancies are at an all-time low. Indicative targets were issued for five years to assist the Teacher Training Agency and training institutions to plan ahead, especially for shortage subjects. They recently announced their priority subject recruitment scheme and they have begun promotional activities to attract students to the profession.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my right hon. Friend accept that, notwithstanding all the tributes that have rightly been paid to my constituent and friend Philip Lawrence, formerly headmaster of St. George's school, I could not let Education and Employment questions pass without paying tribute to his enormous professional courage and personal bravery in going to the defence of a member of his school? May I also say, as he would have said, that he did no more than any other member of the teaching profession would have done? It is a great profession. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Mrs. Shephard

I agree, and I am absolutely sure that the whole House would want to pay tribute to Mr. Philip Lawrence's selflessness and courage. The greatest possible monument that he could have is the school and the pupils that he has left behind. I am sure that my hon. Friend was right when he said that Mr. Lawrence would have been the first to say that the vast majority of teachers would have done just what he did without a second thought.