HC Deb 25 April 2002 vol 384 cc457-60
6. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

What recent meetings she has had with the teachers' unions to discuss the level of paperwork issued by her Department to teachers. [50351]

10. Derek Twigg (Halton)

What steps she is taking to tackle excess teacher work load. [50355]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)

The school workforce working party, which includes all teacher and head teacher associations and several other key education partners, continues to meet regularly. One key issue for that group is teacher work load. The school teacher's review body is expected to report on work load shortly.

Dr. Lewis

I thank the Secretary of State for that rather bland reply. Does she recall her recent written answers to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, which revealed that, in the past 12 months, documents with no fewer than 1,601 pages have been sent to secondary school teachers, and that documents with no fewer than an astonishing 2,839 pages have been sent to primary school teachers? Does the Secretary of State stand by her statement to the House of 10 January, when she said that sending teachers less paper will neither raise standards nor satisfy them of our ability to give them the support that they need to do the job"?—[Official Report, 10 January 2002; Vol. 377, c. 6611.] Does she realise that, until she changes her attitude on these matters, teachers will not want to remain in a profession that requires them to deal with a blizzard of unnecessary paper instead of teaching students?

Estelle Morris

It is far from being the case that teachers do not want to stay in the profession. Yesterday, I was delighted to announce a further increase in the numbers of teachers in teaching. There has been an increase of more than 20 per cent. in the number of applications, and we have more teachers than we have had for 20 years.

The trouble with the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) is that they ask questions and receive written answers, but they are only interested in how many pages have been sent out. They never ask about what was on the pages, how useful it was or what use teachers made of it. Just for clarity, I shall itemise two documents in the pages to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. There were 370 pages in the numeracy key stage 3 document that was sent out. I have not met a maths teacher working with children in the early years of secondary education who does not think that what we are doing in respect of such teachers' continuous professional development is of good quality, and that it will lead to higher standards.

Another document was 115 pages long. It dealt with schoolteachers' conditions and pay: is the hon. Member for New Forest, East suggesting that we should not send that out? As long as he appears only to count the pages, rather than looking at what they contain, I do not think that he will make progress on this matter.

Derek Twigg

Last year, the key stage 2 results for schools in Halton and the rest of the country showed the biggest improvement on record. Recently, I visited Ditton primary school in my constituency, to open a new building for which local people had been waiting for 20 years. No such new building would ever have happened under the Tories, and people were delighted with it. It has great new facilities, and the environment for teachers and staff is excellent. However, teachers told me that they were worried about the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy with which they had to deal. The school has excellent results. Will my right hon. Friend say whether there is any chance that schools with proven track records in terms of delivering the required results could be granted some sort of exemption or flexibility in that respect?

Estelle Morris

First, I am delighted with the progress that has been made, in terms both of academic attainment and of building work, at the school to which my hon. Friend refers. I hope that he will take my thanks and congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to achieve that.

My hon. Friend is right. I do not know the details of the school in question, but schools that perform well are now subject to far less frequent visits by Ofsted inspectors. We need to make more progress in that respect. Our approach is that we need a strong framework for accountability, which allows us to guarantee to parents that we are on top of underperformance. Increasingly, however, we are able to give more flexibility and autonomy to schools that are performing well. That is at the core of the Education Bill and is the next stage in education reform.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

The Secretary of State will be aware that Bognor Regis community college in my constituency has been on a four-day week for the first half of the current term owing to teacher shortages. I hope that the matter has been resolved for the remainder of the term, but is not that school's experience an indication of the seriousness of the teacher shortage, which is caused by an excess of paperwork, poor discipline in schools, and poor teacher pay?

Estelle Morris

In my answer to the previous question I explained that teacher pay has gone up and that lecturers in further education have noticed the difference, so the hon. Gentleman cannot claim that the problem comes down to teacher pay.

I am delighted to hear that the school in Bognor Regis to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be back to full-time education next week. Of course I share his concern: no hon. Member would want his or her children to be in a school offering only short-time education because of teacher shortages. I do not underestimate or diminish the nature of the problem for some schools. I have always said that we are not complacent. I intend no comment on the school in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but some schools facing especially challenging problems find it far more difficult to recruit and retain teachers. We have been working closely with the head teacher and the local authority to do what we can to help. I hope that our contribution has been appreciated and useful.

I am not complacent, and acknowledge that real problems exist for some schools. Overall, however, in terms of vacancies—even in London, where traditionally they have been the most difficult to fill—yesterday's figures showed that the huge investment that we have put in over the past few years is beginning to bear fruit. We will continue to monitor and to offer whatever help we can to those at Bognor Regis community college. I hope that from Monday onwards, things go really well there and continue to improve.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

My right hon. Friend has partly anticipated my question in her welcome remarks about Ofsted's light touch. Will she confirm that she intends Ofsted to have a much lighter touch when it comes to the majority of schools and for its visits to be much less frequent'? In that way, we can show teachers that we trust them to deliver our education service on our behalf.

Estelle Morris

We must remember that, on average, Ofsted visits a school once every six years. It is not as though its inspectors are in school, every day of the week, every week of the year. I do not think that that is unreasonable. Ofsted offers us the ability to guarantee to parents that we will spot underachievement and take action to remedy it. Ofsted also identifies good practice and success which we can share and celebrate. We must seek to move this forward and reduce the amount of paperwork that Ofsted asks for. I know that David Bell, the successor to Mike Tomlinson—who is in his last week in post and to whom I wish to pay tribute for the work that he has done—will continue to work for that. My guarantee to parents is that external inspection and accountability will stay in place. Equally, when teachers improve and perform well, we should seek to give them more freedom and autonomy.