HL Deb 19 January 1999 vol 596 cc465-7

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action is being taken to deal with the shortage of teachers of mathematics, modern languages and science in secondary schools.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government recognise the problems that currently exist in some parts of the country in recruiting teachers of those subjects. Our Green Paper on teachers, published in December, will, I hope, over time, transform recruitment by tackling many of the fundamental issues which my noble friend, with his considerable personal experience, has highlighted over the years. In the shorter term, in October we announced a package of measures to address particular recruitment difficulties through financial incentives for maths and science teachers. We are also funding recruitment advisers, based in local authorities, who will work with schools in difficult recruitment areas to generate creative strategies targeting local recruitment needs.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, I welcome the constructive nature of my noble friend's reply. Is she aware that the most important incentive in this matter is financial? Is she further aware that the payment of differential salaries in schools can cause considerable difficulties? If the Government decide to do something like that—I think that that is the only way in which the problem will be solved, at least in the short term—will the Minister ensure that the teachers' unions are fully consulted?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I acknowledge what my noble friend has said about the importance of incentives in recruiting teachers in these shortage subjects. It is for that reason that a £5,000 incentive is being introduced for teachers of maths and science—£2,500 while they are in training doing a PGCE, and £2,500 in their first years of teaching. It is important to consult the teachers' unions on such matters. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Minister for School Standards are doing just that.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether the scheme of Oscars for teachers has yet got off the ground and, if so, is it having any effect?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Puttnam is heavily involved in the development of that scheme. It is not yet in place, but plans are well advanced. It will be a very important encouragement for teachers who have performed supremely well in the classroom.

Lord Peston

My Lords, bearing in mind that among the things that this country is exceptionally good at are mathematics and the sciences—the man who solved de Fermat's last theorem was born in this country and is now at Princeton, and we have a disproportionate number of Nobel prize winners in, say, chemistry—does my noble friend agree that if we are to achieve that sort of thing in the future we have to look very much long term? Is she aware that it bothers some of us that policy—not particularly of this Government, but generally—has lived totally in the short term as regards education? Does she agree that we need to look ahead to see from where the teachers needed to produce the great scientists and mathematicians of the next century will come?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, it is extremely important that we invest in science and mathematics, not only in our schools but in our colleges and universities. The Government have put an additional £1.4 billion into scientific research, which has been widely welcomed by the science community. However, the Green Paper on teachers seeks to provide a long-term solution to recruitment and retention problems in our schools by rewarding teachers—and in particular successful teachers—more than we have done in the past. It is also important that the morale of teachers should be raised. We should recognise just how important their role is in our society.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what possibilities there are in the short term for recruiting teachers from abroad? I am thinking particularly of countries such as Germany where all teachers are well-equipped in English. There is an over-supply of teachers from the universities and training colleges in those countries at the moment who are desperately looking for jobs, and who would make excellent teachers, not only of modern languages, but of mathematics and science.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government welcome teachers from the European Union who are properly qualified and who speak English more than adequately so that they can cope with classroom situations in the UK. It would be wrong for us to become over-dependent on teachers from abroad. The Government's top priority is to ensure that we recruit enough teachers in the UK. We should not exaggerate the shortages that exist at the moment. There are more than 400,000 teachers in this country and the current level of shortage is less than 2,500 unfilled posts or approximately 0.7 per cent. of the total teaching force.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, has the Minister listened carefully to the very practical advice of her noble friends? I am sure that many on this side of the House felt that rhetoric rather than practicality governed her answers. Do careers advisers and Oscars solve the problem? The Minister's recent answer does not address the scene that her noble friend described, which is that although there is a relatively small shortage, it is in crucial subjects such as languages and mathematics. Does the Minister share my opinion that the answers she has given do not reflect the full enormity of the problem that her noble friends have pointed out?

Baroness Blackstone

No, my Lords, of course I do not. While I am always willing to accept advice from my noble friends, particularly my noble friend Lord Peston, there was certainly no rhetoric in the answer that I gave. The Government have already announced a whole variety of different approaches to rewarding teachers more effectively. We have brought out a Green Paper on which we are consulting. That is a great deal more than the Conservative government of which the noble Lord was a supporter did in 18 years.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, is the Minister really aware of the crisis in the teaching of physics and mathematics? Is she aware that well over 60 per cent. of those recruited to teach physics and mathematics get a third-class degree or worse? This is a question of motivating and inspiring our young people in schools. If we do not do that, the problem will become self-perpetuating.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, as I have already said, the Government take the problem of recruitment and retention in the teaching profession extremely seriously, especially in shortage subjects such as physics and mathematics. It is not just a matter of filling the seat behind the teacher's desk. It is also a matter of quality and of encouraging young people to enter teaching, which is a great profession. I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government will be working extremely hard to try to recruit the most able young people from our colleges and universities to become teachers.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us who have been in touch with teachers all our lives believe that payment by results is the worst possible way to recruit more teachers and to retain those we already have? That was abandoned 80 years ago after it had thoroughly demoralised the whole teaching profession.

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