HC Deb 09 June 1998 vol 313 cc878-93 3.45 pm
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I beg to move amendment No. 120, in page 3, leave out lines 15 to 26 and insert— '(2) Those matters are:

  1. (a) the standards of professional conduct of teachers;
  2. (b) the standards of medical fitness required to teach;
  3. (c) the powers which it needs to perform its functions under section 2 of this Act;
  4. (d) recruitment to the teaching profession;
  5. (e) the training and career development of teachers;
  6. (f) methods of teaching;
  7. (g) methods of assessing the performance of individual teachers; and
  8. (h) methods of assessing the effectiveness of different methods of teaching.'.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 115, in page 3, leave out lines 35 and 36.

Government amendments Nos. 82, 83 and 11.

Mrs. May

Amendments Nos. 120 and 115, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and myself, go to the heart of chapter I of the Bill, which deals with setting up General Teaching Councils. The amendments concern the powers that such a council should have, its responsibilities and its ultimate functions.

The issue has been the subject of much debate both in another place and at the various stages of the Bill. The Government have moved slightly, and clause 2(2) as it now stands is different from the provision in the original Bill. An amendment was made in another place, and although the Government defeated it in Committee in this House, they chose to take part of the recommendation in the amendment tabled in another place into subsection (2).

The Government have moved a little way, but they need to move further. Amendments Nos. 120 and 115 probe them further about exactly what they believe the General Teaching Council is being set up to do. We are probing for clarification, especially about the advice that it will give the Secretary of State—such as whether it should be general and what its nature should be.

The General Teaching Council should be the body that protects the professional status of the teaching profession. I believe that, if it established, enhanced, maintained and improved teachers' professional standing, teachers would welcome it. However, I fear that the body proposed in the Bill will not be a General Teaching Council that will fulfil those functions.

The Government are missing a golden opportunity to reinstate the professional status of teachers and to bring about the recognition of that status. That is important, because we have a growing crisis in our schools—a crisis of teacher supply and recruitment. Any hon. Member who visits schools in his or her constituency, as I have been doing since I was elected, will hear head teachers talk about the difficulty of finding teachers with particular educational qualifications, especially in certain subjects. Science is a good example. I was in a school in my constituency last Friday, and concern was expressed about the difficulty of obtaining a qualified physics teacher.

There is also concern about the fact that when any post, especially a senior post such as that of head teacher, is advertised, a limited number of people come forward. The Government could help to address that problem through the General Teaching Council that they are to set up. Sadly, however, the GTC that they propose in the Bill will not meet that requirement.

Some might say that to refer to a crisis in our schools is rather too emotive, but that is not my description. The report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment on teacher recruitment, published last autumn, said: Many of the submissions to our inquiry, and to that of the previous Committee, argued that there was a 'recruitment crisis' in initial teacher training. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals … stated that 'the recruitment crisis in initial teacher training continues to escalate', while Mr Nigel Gates, until recently the admissions tutor for a university ITT course, referred to 'a rapidly deepening and very real crisis'. A similar phrase was used by the Secondary Heads Association. The NUT argued that, as 'every single indicator measures in a negative way', there was a 'crisis' in teacher supply.

The Select Committee itself came to the conclusion that its inquiry leads us to believe that the situation has deteriorated and that the Government must act to prevent serious shortages worsening. Some might ask why the establishment of a General Teaching Council can play a role in helping with the developing crisis in our schools. The answer is best given by my experience in talking to some student teachers in the school in my constituency that I visited last Friday. I asked what had brought them into the teaching profession. One student was rare, in that he was a maths graduate coming into teaching. Maths graduates are really needed—there is a paucity of them. I asked why they thought that people were put off coming into teaching. Pay was discussed, but some said it was not just about pay—it was about the image of teaching, how teachers were recognised and whether or not they had professional status.

In introducing the General Teaching Council, the Government could have created a body which would truly have nurtured the professional status of teachers and would have helped to overcome the image problems that the student teachers identified as one of the real reasons why people are not coming into the profession and why we have this growing crisis in our schools.

At first sight, it seemed that the Government were going to fulfil that demand. In a debate in another place, the noble Baroness Blackstone said: Teachers are our greatest educational resource. Teachers, in particular, head teachers, are at the heart of our drive to raise standards. She went on to say that the Government are determined to restore pride and professionalism to the teaching profession. There has long been agreement that a key element in this is the establishment of a general teaching council … An effective GTC will be an engine for change and a driving force in our new deal for teachers."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 December 1997; Vol. 584, c. 253–55.] Sadly, the Bill—and clause 2 in particular, on the functions of the General Teaching Council—shows that the Government have failed to follow even their own words of expectation about what the General Teaching Council should do to provide for the professional status of teachers. They have not delivered on the early promise. That is why we are probing the Government with amendments Nos. 120 and 115.

The concerns have not been raised only by the Opposition. Information has been sent to me by a number of outside organisations—for example, the Local Government Association, which, in a paper that it sent to a number of hon. Members, said that it has a concern that the GTC operates, and is seen to operate, independently. As we know from the clause—and from the Bill in general—the GTC will be a body which primarily advises the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State will very much oversee the work of the GTC. It will be far from independent, as the LGA requires.

The LGA went on to say that, if the GTC was to be successful in giving teachers "a clear professional voice"—what the Minister for School Standards himself has said the GTC should provide— the Secretary of State, and other stakeholders … will have to demonstrate their trust in the profession by giving, and being seen to give, real powers to the GTC. I suggest that a power merely to give the Secretary of State general advice is not the sort of power that the LGA was thinking of in terms of developing the General Teaching Council to maintain and protect the professionalism of the teaching profession.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: From … concern for the quality of education for all learners comes our commitment that a General Teaching Council should establish agreed professional standards. It said that it wanted the public to be assured that these standards and that advice are genuinely independent of any constraints to quality that may for pragmatic, economic or political reasons be proposed by Government and gain the professional respect to act as a single voice for the teaching profession. Similarly, the Association of University Teachers said that it would like to see the GTC provided with executive powers rather than advisory powers". Sadly, the clause will not achieve those results.

The Government have shown yet again that the reality of their proposals does not live up to the rhetoric. The Minister for School Standards can say all that he wants about the need to establish a clear professional voice for teachers and to restore morale for teachers, who for too long have had too little say in determining the shape and future of their profession—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Dr. Kim Howells)

Hear, hear.

Mrs. May

The hon. Gentleman says, "Hear, hear." I suggest that he thinks about the Government's proposals very carefully, as they will not restore morale by providing teachers with a clear professional voice. The body that the Government are proposing will largely be a talking shop to maintain the register of teachers; it will be subservient to the Secretary of State.

Like so many of the Government's education policies, the proposals for the General Teaching Council will not give powers to people who are involved in education—they will not give teachers powers over their profession—but will ensure that powers are vested at the centre in the Secretary of State. The Government are missing an opportunity to create what is gravely needed—an independent council with real powers to maintain and enhance standards in the teaching profession.

Amendment No. 115 would delete clause 2(6), which states: Any advice given by the Council … shall be advice of a general nature. I hope that our concerns about the council will be echoed by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who said in Committee: Matters such as standards of teaching, the conduct of teachers and medical fitness to teach are crucial. We do not want the GTC to give general advice on those, but specific and detailed advice … If the GTC is to play its role in raising standards, its advice needs to be clear and specific. In response, the Minister for School Standards said that, if the clause did not refer to general advice, there would be a danger that the general teaching council's comments would refer to individual teachers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) pointed out: The Minister is arguing for such comments to be anonymous; I am not sure why he is arguing that they must be general."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 2 April 1998; c. 44–47.] There is a very real difference. I hope that the Government will confirm today not that, as the Minister suggested in Committee, it will be open to the council to provide specific—rather than merely general—advice, but that they expect the council to give such advice.

I suggest that the Minister thinks about that carefully. If he wants the General Teaching Council to be able to help the teaching profession to regain its status and to improve its image, and if he is to find a way in which to encourage young people—and others, perhaps later in their careers—to enter the teaching profession, he must ensure that teaching is regarded as a proper profession. In establishing the council, the Government have the opportunity to ensure that that happens.

Sadly, the Government are missing that opportunity—they are simply setting up a body with the name of General Teaching Council so that they can say, "We did it. We promised that we would set up a general teaching council and we have. So there is no problem, is there? The teaching profession is okay, professional status is assured and the GTC is in place."

The reality is that, by establishing a body that will be seen not to have any teeth and not to be having the effect that they proclaimed it would have, the Government could be setting back the necessary work to re-establish the professional status of teachers in everyone's eyes. One concern is that the Government may well say, "It's all very well talking about the GTC in its early stages; we see it as an evolutionary body that might in due course take on other powers," but it will require primary legislation to change the body set up in the Bill, as has become clear in a number of the Minister's answers. So, far from being merely an evolutionary way forward, the Government are establishing what they believe to be appropriate for the GTC.

4 pm

Amendment No. 120 would introduce within the list of matters on which the GTC can advise the Secretary of State, in addition to the standards of professional conduct of teachers, the standards of medical fitness required and recruitment to the profession, methods of teaching and methods of assessing the performance of individual teachers. Assessment of performance is becoming increasingly important and it is a matter about which there is concern within the profession—genuine concern about how appraisal systems are operating and, in particular, how appraisals undertaken through the medium of the inspection of any school are being undertaken. A number of teachers have raised that issue with me.

If the General Teaching Council is truly to be a body for and of the profession, it should have the opportunity to look into methods of assessing the performance of individual teachers and making recommendations. It is more important for it to be an independent body that establishes those methods and the professional standing of the teaching profession, but sadly the Government are not going down that route. I hope that the Minister will look favourably at the possibility of at least including within the GTC's remit the recommendation that it should study methods of assessing the performance of individual teachers.

The amendment would also introduce the power for the GTC to advise on methods of assessing the effectiveness of different methods of teaching. That is an area about which there is always much dispute between those who favour particular teaching methods. To suggest that the GTC has nothing to say on that issue, as appears to be the case judging by the original proposals in the Bill, is to miss the opportunity that setting up such a body offers to support the teaching profession. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will deal with those issues and say why the Government have so far not been willing to take them on board within the powers of the GTC.

As I said, that body, as it is being set up, will not fulfil the requirement out there in the education system and the education sector—the real feeling among teachers that they need to be treated as a profession and that the GTC could be the answer to that problem. I know that from talking with teachers about the GTC. Yet again, the Government have, sadly, failed to deliver. In this, as in so many other areas, the reality of their proposals does not match their rhetoric.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Not one Scot was involved in the Standing Committee, which was no one's fault—it was the fault neither of the Whips nor of the Selection Select Committee, but merely the way things happened. It does entitle me to ask succinctly a question that I believe to be relevant to the Bill, because we are still one country, are we not? I have given notice of the question to the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, who was in his place a moment ago.

What is the latest estimate of the shortage of teachers of physics, to a lesser extent of chemistry, and certainly of maths, in Scotland? Manpower advance prognostication is difficult at the best of times, and a few years ago it was generally thought that there was a surplus of teachers. I understand that the surplus may, over a year or two, have turned suddenly into a deficit. I am asking only for the facts, which are not very different from those in England.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

It is perhaps a truism to say that teachers feel undervalued, but that truism bears some relation to the fact that the status of teachers has declined socially and culturally over a generation or so. That may be due to many things, some of which the amendments address. It may be that what was once perceived as a vocation is now seen as a job. It may be because of a general challenge to authority figures, or it may be partly the result of the changing nature of teaching and learning, and the changing role of the teacher.

It is certainly true that teachers need to have their value recognised once again. Their professional standards must be high, and must be recognised as such by society. To achieve that, the General Teaching Council should be independent and professional and able to deliver judgments on the competence of individual teachers and on the quality of teaching per se. Unfortunately, the Government's proposals do not satisfy those criteria.

The GTC will be a creature of the Government rather than a genuinely independent professional body able to make objective assessments both of teachers and on more general teaching issues. In that sense, the proposals are a missed opportunity, and they will be seen to be so by teachers and by history. We had a real opportunity to have a renaissance in the social and professional status of teachers. I would have welcomed that, as teachers are vital.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, it is time that people in positions of authority recognised, and stated, that teachers make a vital contribution to our children, our nation and our future. I am unashamed to make such a comment; too often, we forget our teachers, who are genuine heroes. Duty and self-sacrifice, the hallmarks of good teachers, are unfashionable values; perhaps we place more emphasis on starry glamour, although I will say no more about that, and do not intend to point a finger in any particular direction.

The GTC offers an opportunity to re-evaluate the role of teachers, to restate the importance of teaching and to raise professional standards. Our amendments would make that happen by increasing the GTC's independence from Government, because it must not be seen as a creature of the Government. I hope that the House will support the amendments if they care as much as my colleagues and I do about teaching, learning and the teaching profession.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I had the opportunity to speak on the General Teaching Council on Second Reading, and it does not seem nearly three months since then. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for taking us through what occurred in Standing Committee; I have read the proceedings, but I did not immediately understand them, and I was not a member of that Committee, so I am catching up. From what she said on Second Reading and in Committee, I understand the motivation for the amendment that she moved so well.

On Second Reading, I and others, not least Labour Members, made the point, powerfully reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), that the creation of the General Teaching Council was an opportunity to give recognition and status to the teaching profession, with the council perceived not simply as a creature of the Government but, to some extent, as a creature of the teaching profession. I qualify that by noting that it is important that, although most of the council's membership should be drawn from the teaching profession, it should include people with an interest in the quality of teaching, such as parents and employers.

In Committee, it was sensibly noted that those who teach in further or higher education should be able to see that the General Teaching Council, through the school system, is delivering young adults capable of benefiting to the greatest possible extent as they move into further or higher education. That is not the subject of these amendments, so I will not dwell on it, but the Government could have done more to achieve that through the council's composition.

The Government could have done more to seek to use the General Teaching Council as a body responsible for, and capable of, promoting teaching as a profession. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) made those points in Standing Committee, and may do so again. As the Government have not done those things, our amendments would help to reinforce and expand the council's role by giving it some responsibility for giving advice, which would help the teaching profession to regard it as a body that enjoys the status it demands of the council. The Local Government Association, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, has sought such a role for the council.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead said, matters such as methods of teaching, assessment of the performance of teachers and the vexed question of assessing the effectiveness of different methods of teaching are important issues that go to the heart of the quality of teaching and of our school system. As the General Teaching Council has no specific responsibility to act on those issues, many in the teaching profession and outside will regard it as an essentially bureaucratic body exercising a bureaucratic function, perhaps usefully in respect of medical fitness and related matters concerning the conduct and dismissal of teachers. It will not be regarded as acting positively and proactively in the system to help to deliver higher-quality teaching and to raise the status and competence of the profession.

I say that advisedly, because I do not regard that exclusively as the role of the council, even if the amendments are passed. Whatever happens, there are separate roles. First, the General Teaching Council is a statutory body for giving advice to the Secretary of State and others as necessary in bringing together teachers and those with interests in the teaching profession and the school system. Secondly, it is important to recognise that there should be a self-regulatory body in the teaching profession responsible for self-promotion to try to improve the quality of teaching.

On Second Reading, I asked the Government to endorse—I again ask for positive comment—the initiation of a college of teachers whose aims would be to promote the teaching profession, to give its members a network of support, to forge relations with other learned professions and to advise the Government from an independent stance on professional issues.

I know that, in Standing Committee, reference was made to the desirability of not, at this stage, drawing exact parallels between the GTC and the General Medical Council, or between the college of teachers and the royal colleges in the medical profession, with which I am a little more familiar than with the teaching profession. Even so, the structure of institutions created within the medical profession over a far longer period has merit, and, even if this is not a case of moving at one leap to a structure for the teaching profession that has exactly the same characteristics, there is every reason to give oneself the flexibility to move in that direction.

I was sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead had to chastise the Government for their fixed sense, at this stage, of what the responsibilities of the GTC should be and for not building in flexibility. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to try, through the amendment, to expand the GTC's role and increase the flexibility available to it. In time, both that body, with an expanded role, and a college of teachers, with an independent, teacher-led role, might give the teaching profession the greater status that it richly deserves.

Madam Speaker


Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)


Madam Speaker

Mr. Brady.

4.15 pm
Mr. Brady

I am clearly not speaking often enough in the Chamber. I shall endeavour to put that right, with your help, support and encouragement, Madam Speaker.

My hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) wisely referred to the importance of building in a degree of flexibility to enable the GTC to evolve over time and allow it to assume the role and functions that Opposition Members and, I suspect, Ministers want.

The Minister for School Standards will recall that, in another Standing Committee of which we were both members, one of his colleagues said that I had appeared to be painting a picture of Altrincham and Sale, West as a sort of educational nirvana. I plead guilty to that charge, because we are in many ways as close to that stage as can be achieved. My constituency contains some extremely good schools, and, partly because of their local standing and the results that they achieve, there is higher morale among the members of the teaching profession in my constituency than in many other areas.

On Monday, I had an interesting discussion on the subject of the GTC with teachers at a school in my constituency. I have to report to the Minister that their view—an unfortunate one, which highlights the Bill's failure—is that the proposed GTC is a completely wasteful bureaucracy and an empty shell, which offers them nothing and which might load on extra bureaucracy and burdens. That is not to mention the fact that it might load extra costs on teachers by levying a compulsory registration fee on those becoming members of the GTC, which would have to be paid alongside their teaching union membership fees.

I suspect that the reason why so little has been made of the GTC during the Bill's passage lies in some of the tensions in respect of the teaching unions and the question of how the teaching profession should redefine itself—whether it should move in the direction of the medical profession and become a proper self-regulating profession which would not take strike action and in which the role of trade unions would diminish as the role of the GTC and other self-regulatory bodies increased. The direction that the Bill appears to set may be laudable, but I fear that the Minister for School Standards has suffered a loss of courage in drafting the specific provisions in the Bill.

Dr. Howells


Mr. Brady

The Bill does not make proper provision for the GTC to assume the role of a genuine self-regulatory body. I have the highest regard for the Minister of State, but he occasionally marches in a slightly different direction from that taken by other Labour Members, so it is understandable that he is sometimes less than entirely open about his ultimate objectives.

The movement away from some of the LEA powers that have caused so much damage to many schools throughout the country has been whole-heartedly welcomed in many schools and by many teachers. The Minister should take heart from that. [Interruption.]

The Under-Secretary mutters about the impossibility of a failure of courage on the part of his hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards, but the Minister should take heart from the proposal, which represents an opportunity for the Government to do something of value for the teaching profession and to enhance the standing of the profession. The opportunity is sadly missed in the detail of the General Teaching Council in the Bill.

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Byers)

Taking my courage into my hands, I shall deal first with the three Government amendments, which are technical, and then with the meat of the debate—the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May).

Amendment No. 11 is a simple amendment which will allow the costs incurred as a result of a teacher being a member of a General Teaching Council to be borne in exceptional circumstances by the General Teaching Council. We are confident that, in most cases, the costs of an individual teacher and the time necessary for the teacher to attend the GTC can be met from the school's budget. Indeed, many schools would see it as a benefit if a member of their teaching staff served on the GTC. The teacher would gain a depth of experience as a result of exchanging views with other professionals, and benefits would accrue not only to the teacher, but to the school.

However, amendment No. 11 recognises that the burden of those costs may be too great for some schools—for example, a small rural primary school with perhaps only two or three members of staff would have to provide supply cover if one of the teachers was away attending meetings of the GTC. We would not want to place that burden on the relatively small budget of such a school. The amendment would allow those costs to be met by the GTC, which we consider an appropriate way forward.

Amendment No. 82 closes one of the loopholes which we have identified. If a teacher is ineligible to register as a teacher—for example, in Scotland or Northern Ireland, having been disqualified because of activities or conduct in one of those countries—he or she should be disqualified from registering as a teacher under the General Teaching Council for England or for Wales. Amendment No. 82 achieves that objective.

Amendment No. 83 is a purely technical amendment which brings clause 3 into line with clause 19. As those three Government amendments are uncontroversial, I hope that they will meet with the approval of the House.

Like the hon. Member for Maidenhead, I visit many schools. Indeed, I had the pleasure of visiting a school in her constituency as a guest at its prize-giving evening—a very good school it was, and I was pleased to discharge that responsibility.

Many teachers are doing a good job, often in difficult circumstances. That was not said often enough by the previous Government, but I am glad to acknowledge it on behalf of the Government. One of our reasons for establishing a General Teaching Council is to give the profession a unified voice. The GTC will be a body independent of the Government, but will work with them to raise standards in our schools.

That is the teachers' objective and the Government's goal. Opposition Members speak about the roads down which the Government are travelling. The Government are united in their desire to raise standards in our schools—not just in a few schools, but in all our schools, for all our children. That will require a sea change in thinking about our school system. At present, far too many schools are not offering the quality of education that our children deserve. It is the Government's responsibility to do what we can to raise standards, and we shall do precisely that.

One of the key ways in which we can raise standards in our schools is to ensure that the quality of teaching is improved. We can achieve that by establishing a General Teaching Council, which will raise teachers' morale and give them a voice. That is why we are keen that most of the council's members should have teaching experience and should only recently have left classroom teaching.

The two Opposition amendments would not add much to the Bill, and one—No. 115—is potentially damaging. Amendment No. 120 would change the functions that the General Teaching Council will carry out by adding to the list in clause 2(2) two new functions: the assessment of performance of individual teachers and the assessment of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching.

It may help the hon. Member for Maidenhead to know that our legal advice is that the assessment of the performance of individual teachers is covered by the references to standards of teaching in clause 2(2)(a) and to the training, career development and performance management of teachers in clause 2(2)(d). Our legal advisers' view is that the assessment of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching is also covered by the reference to standards of teaching in clause 2(2)(a). We have therefore dealt with the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady in moving the amendment on behalf of the Opposition.

On amendment No. 115, it is simply untrue to say that the Bill does not give powers to the General Teaching Council. As we said yesterday, we shall give the council a power of regulation over individuals who go on the register as qualified teachers. The council will have the power to strike off that register people who are professionally incompetent or who have been involved in serious professional misconduct. However, it is important to draw a line between that responsibility and the council's need to advise the Secretary of State on how certain functions should be discharged.

We are drawing a clear distinction between the General Teaching Council's power of regulation over the register and its advisory role in addressing broader teaching issues of how standards are to be raised in our schools. We do not want the council to be drawn into disputes involving individual teachers, which is why it is important to retain clause 2(6), which provides that the advice given by the council should be of a general nature. That will allow the council to use case studies and individual examples to demonstrate practical ways in which the Secretary of State may want to pursue policy objectives. We believe that the present wording will do that, and will not create the confusion that amendment No. 115 would.

I listened with interest—as I did on Second Reading—to the argument by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) in favour of founding a college of teachers. There is a danger of duplication. We are about to establish a General Teaching Council. If a college of teachers came on the scene, how would that complement the work undertaken by the Teacher Training Agency, which is responsible for recruitment, the promotion of teaching as a profession and the provision of teacher training courses? How would a college of teachers link with the General Teaching Council? There is a danger that, at this time, a college of teachers would not be helpful in developing a clear and coherent vision of the progress that we want.

4.30 pm

The hon. Member for Maidenhead spoke about the crisis in the supply of teachers. There is indeed a crisis, but it was not created in the past 13 months. The Government are tackling the genuine problems in teacher recruitment, which were created by year after year of indifference and complacency by soft Governments, representing the party to which the hon. Lady belongs.

The previous Government's incompetent handling of the teachers' pension fund helped to cause the crisis in teacher numbers. Last year, there was a massive exodus of teachers, often with considerable experience—good teachers, who did not want to leave the profession, but who were forced out of because the guillotine came down in terms of pension arrangements. Thousands of good teachers were lost to the profession, and to our children.

Today, we hear Conservative plaudits about a General Teaching Council, but when the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, Sir Malcolm Thornton, introduced a private Member's Bill to establish a general teaching council, supported by hon. Members now in government and by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the Conservative Government Whips—one of whom was the present shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts)—killed it off. They did so not 10 years ago, not 18 years ago, but in the past three years. When Conservative Members say that the General Teaching Council will play an important role in establishing and re-creating the teaching profession as something that should be valued, people should bear in mind their record, which has condemned teachers to lacking a voice to speak on their behalf.

The Government are taking action. Within months of taking office, we made the establishment of a General Teaching Council a commitment in our White Paper. It appeared in the Bill, and we are now introducing legislation to put it into effect.

The present Government do value teaching as a profession.

Mr. Dalyell

May I ask the Minister about the teachers who left prematurely, often against their will, because of the pension arrangements? Is there any chance of re-entry, even for three to five years, in the present situation, for those who realise that it may have been a mistake to leave—they may have been forced to leave, incidentally—because of the pension arrangements? Is there any possibility of arrangements being made for them to return, even for a short time, as some of them would wish to do, having been away from teaching for a year, and having found that there is no other work for those of their age?

Mr. Byers

As always, my hon. Friend raises a consideration that is important and relevant to the debate. We must consider how to encourage people to return to the teaching profession. The Government are mindful of the fact that, currently, the number of qualified teachers who are not teaching—more than 400,000—exceeds the number of those teaching. That number has increased in the past 12 months because of the exodus of teachers as a result of pension fund changes. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and I shall consider whether there are ways of attracting people back into the teaching profession. There may be difficulties concerning individual pension arrangements, but the matter certainly deserves detailed consideration.

The Government value teachers and recognise that they play a vital role in offering our children the best quality education. The General Teaching Council will fulfil the important role of speaking on behalf of the teaching profession. That view is fragmented at present, and the General Teaching Council will put the interests of the profession first and raise standards.

The most disappointing aspect of the speech by the hon. Member for Maidenhead is that it reflected only producer interests. The hon. Lady quoted time and again teacher unions and associations, and prayed in aid the Local Government Association, but she did not mention children and parents. It is a fine state of affairs when the Conservative spokesperson refers not to children and parents and to raising education standards, but to producer interests. That comes as no surprise. The Government recognise that we must put standards first, but the Opposition have not learnt the lessons of defeat. They are concerned about structures and producer interests, and they have lost the plot in education.

This Bill, coupled with the School Standards and Framework Bill, will raise standards and ensure that we provide children with the quality education that they deserve. We are turning our backs on past discussions about structures and the interests of the few. We are putting our children first and improving standards throughout the education system so that they may have the best possible start in life—good-quality education. We intend to deliver on that commitment, which is why I shall invite the House to reject amendments Nos. 120 and 115, and will push the three Government amendments.

Mrs. May

It is the Government who have lost the plot when it comes to education. They cannot raise standards in our schools if we do not have teachers in the classroom. The Government have failed to address that problem: they barely recognise the crisis in teacher recruitment and supply.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

I have some figures regarding teacher recruitment. According to the figures for secondary initial teacher training targets and intake, there was a teacher deficit of 477 in 1993–94. In 1994–95, there was a deficit of 1,090; in 1995–96, the deficit was 1,774; and in 1996–97—the last year of the previous Government—there was a deficit of 2,920. Why did the previous Government fail to address that problem?

Mrs. May

This Government will make the problem worse, because they have done absolutely nothing to improve the situation. The Government are facing a problem with their class size pledge. That was identified by the Coopers and Lybrand report, which was commissioned by the Local Government Association—an organisation that is Labour-controlled, not Conservative-dominated. The report, which was published last week, clearly shows the problems facing the Government in terms of implementing their class size pledge—which they are failing completely to do at present.

One of their problems is that, if they are to reduce class sizes, they will have to increase the number of teachers standing up in front of children. Furthermore, if they are not to force children into schools that their parents do not want them to go to, which would deny parents their choice, they will have to increase the number of classes.

Mr. Byers

The hon. Lady knows that the class size pledge relates to primary school pupils and to infant classes in particular. Can she confirm—perhaps I shall be informing her—that primary initial teacher training targets for this year are over-subscribed, as they are for next year?

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

They have been for years.

Mrs. May

The Minister will have heard the sedentary intervention of hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), to whom I shall give way.

Mr. Foster

Is the hon. Lady aware that, over approximately the past 10 years, there have always been four times the number of applicants than places at that level? Is she also aware of leaks suggesting that the number of applicants for primary teacher training over the past 12 months is likely to be down by about 15 per cent?

Mrs. May

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out those figures, and he is absolutely right about the normal over-subscription of such places. I have not seen the leaks, as he describes them, about a reduction in the latest primary school figure, but I look forward to the Minister giving the figure from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Byers

I shall give the figure now, although it has not yet been published. The 1998–99 courses have been over-subscribed, which means that we are in excess of the targets. In respect of the recruitment of the additional 1,500 teachers for this September to deliver our class size pledge, it might help the hon. Lady if she knew that the 65 authorities have met no problem whatever in recruiting those additional teachers to begin the process of cutting infant class sizes to meet our pledge.

Mrs. May

I suggest that, in future, the Minister listens to the comments made by those on the Conservative Front Bench and on the Liberal Democrat Benches. He referred to the over-subscription of courses but, as the hon. Member for Bath pointed out, that is not the point. The Minister will have to do better when he next comes to the Dispatch Box—but, as we know, he has problems with figures.

We have heard thoughtful speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who apologises for having had to leave the Chamber before the close of debate on the amendments, and from my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), but it is noticeable that the only contribution from the Government Back Benches was that of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who raised a particular issue relating to the position of certain teachers with certain qualifications in Scotland. It was also noticeable that the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, had been in the Chamber before the hon. Member for Linlithgow made his speech, but was absent during it. He has subsequently returned.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

The Minister scuttled off.

Mrs. May

As my hon. Friend says, the Minister scuttled off.

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson)

I assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who is my old friend, has access to me at all times. If I had had any idea that he would make a speech, I should have been impelled to stay in the Chamber to hang on his every word.

Mrs. May

I look forward to the hon. Member for Linlithgow receiving an answer to his question.

Despite the number of former teachers on the Labour Benches, we have heard no contribution other than that of the hon. Member for Linlithgow on the nature of the General Teaching Council and its importance in establishing the professional status of the teaching profession. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings said, we must recognise the contribution that teachers make. I am happy to echo the Minister's comment that many teachers in our schools do an excellent job, sometimes in difficult circumstances, but they often think that their contributions are not fully valued. I have mentioned the problem of restoring the image of the teaching profession so that teachers' contributions can be fully recognised and valued. That is what the debate is about, but the Government have missed the opportunity to deal with the issue, which is sad.

4.45 pm

We should be encouraging more people—be they young graduates, young people or older people who have had a career in industry, commerce or business and want to give something back and impart knowledge to young people—to go into schools and into the teaching profession. The Government are doing nothing to encourage that. So far, a working party, chaired by Lord Puttnam, has been set up—it is no surprise that one of its main contributions has been a cinema advertisement. As a student teacher said to me recently, that is not good enough, and it will not bring people into the teaching profession.

We need something more. The General Teaching Council was and still is an opportunity for the Government to ensure that we show teachers that they are truly valued. The Minister referred to the setting up of a single voice for the teaching profession. It is interesting that he emphasised that aspect: what positions does he think that the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers will take after the setting up of the GTC, and are all Labour Back Benchers as clear about his intentions for it as they might be? My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said that the Minister's thinking is not always entirely in line with that of other Labour Members, although, as we see time and again during statements and debates on education, he is generally out of line with his boss, the Secretary of State.

It is important that we value teachers, and for precisely that reason we want a GTC that will be of the profession and for the profession—a truly independent body that will establish standards for teaching and take them forward. The Minister said that we made no reference to standards in the classroom, but standards of teaching relate to standards in the classroom. We want to ensure that every child receives the appropriate education and that the standard of education is high. To achieve that, we must ensure that we have teachers of high calibre standing up in front of our children and delivering quality education.

Our proposals about the different powers of the GTC, especially in amendment No. 120, would have gone a long way to achieving that, although I note the Minister's comments about the Government's legal advice on it. In respect of amendment No. 115, I was sorry to hear him make the same argument on whether the GTC should give general advice. Yet again, he referred purely to individual teachers. We are not suggesting that advice given by the GTC to the Secretary of State would be about individual teachers, but there is a difference between the GTC being able to provide specific advice and expecting it to provide specific advice.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire compared a college of teachers to the royal colleges in the medical profession, but I prefer to consider the GTC in relation to the royal colleges. The Government's proposals will not allow the body of the profession—the teachers themselves—to decide the professional standing and standards that teachers should use in the classroom in imparting knowledge to children. That is the end of the chain.

Mr. Wilson

Is that the end of the hon. Lady's speech?

Mrs. May

No, it is not quite the end of my speech, but almost. The hon. Gentleman will just have to wait a couple of minutes.

The quality of teachers is paramount in ensuring the quality of education that children in our schools receive. The Government have missed a real opportunity with the General Teaching Council. They could have established a body that played an important part in ensuring the continued professionalism of teachers and in enhancing professional standards. It is with some sadness that we view the Government's proposals but, having heard the Minister's response, I shall not press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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