HL Deb 01 March 2001 vol 622 cc1279-83

3.20 p.m.

Baroness Blatch asked Her Majesty's Government:

From which date the recently announced repayment of student loans by the Government on behalf of teachers of shortage subjects will come into operation.

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

My Lords, we said in the Green Paper, Schools: Building on Success, that we would explore a scheme to pay off the student loans of new teachers who begin teaching shortage subjects in the state education sector. We are still considering details but we currently plan that a scheme should be in place for those who enter teaching in September 2002. This is one of a package of measures which we believe will significantly enhance schools' ability to recruit and retain teachers.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the scheme does nothing to solve the immediate crisis which we thought was the aim of its introduction? Would the scheme require legislation? Is it right that a teacher of one of the listed subjects for the scheme would have a student loan repaid but a student teacher of a subject for which there is an equal shortage, for example, religious education and/or music, would not? Is that position consistent with the Human Rights Act?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the immediate crisis, but this is a case of the Government thinking ahead and considering various different ways to try to ensure that we retain teachers once they start to teach. There are a lot of schemes, of which I think the noble Baroness is aware, to try to solve the immediate crisis, including paying a salary to student teachers on PGCE courses and the "golden hello" scheme for teachers of shortage subjects. So far, they are having an impact on the immediate situation. In paying off the student loans of teachers of shortage subjects the scheme would not in any way contravene the Human Rights Act. It constitutes the kind of retention measure that any employer might institute when desperately short of people with particular skills.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this measure has the potential to be divisive within the profession and to demoralise young teachers already in post who may be heavily burdened with student debt and who will not have the help we are discussing? Does the Minister further accept that it would be much more effective in terms of bringing into the profession the high-quality graduates that we seek to pay a substantial training salary equivalent to point zero on the teachers' pay scale rather than the small training grant which the Government currently pay?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats have previously raised the issue of paying teachers a large training salary before they are qualified. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, suggested a training salary of £ 15,000. As I have said before, I believe that that is unrealistic and that it would not be right to pay a salary at that level before someone is qualified. In any case, the current practice of paying a salary of £6,000 is having a substantial impact.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, can my noble friend give an indication of applications for teacher training? Has she any idea of the numbers for this autumn compared with previous years?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, there is a substantial increase in the number applying for teacher training. I said that only last week when we debated the whole issue of the supply of teachers. Of course, it is a little early to say what the final figure will be. More figures are due to be released next week. However, the latest figures show that PGCE applications are up by 12 per cent on the same time last year. It is particularly pleasing to note that applications for science are up by 20 per cent and for technology by 53 per cent. Those are two key shortage areas.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, speaking as a former secondary school teacher who enjoyed the odd free period, does the proposal to award privileges to teachers of shortage subjects not reflect badly on hard working junior schoolteachers who have to teach from nine in the morning until four and who will not obtain any of the privileges to be offered to teachers of shortage subjects? Junior school teachers are as important as people who teach physics and mathematics. Has a sense of proportion been applied in this matter?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it has. As the noble Lord knows, we do not have the same shortages in primary schools as in secondary schools. However, we are considering whether primary school teachers who specialise in providing mathematics across the curriculum should be included in the scheme to repay the student loans of those teachers who remain in the profession once they have joined it.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, why is it inappropriate to pay a training salary to those entering the teaching profession as graduates when that technique is widely used in the accountancy and the legal professions, which are extremely successful in recruiting new graduates?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do not want to comment on what other professions do. As regards teaching, it is important that we pay those who are qualified a decent salary. The Government have substantially increased the pay for teachers. Each year they have had an above inflation pay rise. Moreover, the introduction of performance related pay will mean substantial increases for those teachers who have passed the threshold and who have demonstrated the quality of their work in the classroom.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, would the Minister agree that passing all the way through this problem is the basic fact that teacher salaries are grossly uncompetitive as compared with those in commerce or industry? Given that gap, there seems little point in continuing to agonise as to why one cannot get highly qualified teachers.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, this Government have raised teacher salaries by a great deal more than our predecessor. Of course there is a gap between the salaries of people in the private sector and those of many people in the public sector, not just teachers. However, fortunately, large numbers of people see teaching as an honourable profession. They want to be teachers and are coming forward. Although we must not be complacent, I do not think that we should exaggerate the degree of the problem. The vacancy rate is still below 1 per cent.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is not one way of tackling teacher shortages to encourage recently retired teachers to come back to the classroom? Does not my noble friend agree that that would be helpful and constructive?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords, I certainly do. There are people who have retired early and there are some who may have retired at the normal retirement age who would like to teach part-time or on a supply basis. We have made a number of changes to the teachers' pension scheme to make it more financially attractive for retired teachers to come back into the classroom. Currently there are some 7,000 recently retired teachers who are back in teaching, mainly on a supply basis or in a part-time capacity.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, before the Government suggested the scheme to repay the student loans of some teachers they must have thought carefully about its possibilities. I presume that it is not just "spin". First, can the noble Baroness answer the question of my noble friend on the Front Bench; namely, does the scheme require legislation? Secondly, is a student loan a formal contract which would have to be broken?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the scheme would require legislation. However, I do not believe that a student loan constitutes a formal contract that would have to be broken if it were decided that the employer would write off the loan by repaying it on behalf of the employee.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, have the Government considered extending the scheme for the repayment of student loans to people entering university teaching in view of the considerable shortages in some key subjects in universities?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Lord always speaks up on behalf of university teachers. The answer to his question is no, because there are not the same shortages of people coming forward to teach in universities as there are for certain key subjects in secondary education.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, the figures for science and technology are good news. That is a beam of light on the horizon. This year, starting in September, is science year. Does the Minister see a prospect of being able to encourage more young people to study science this year and to ensure that they view a career teaching science as an extremely attractive one?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I very much hope that science year will encourage more young people who take degrees in science to consider teaching as a profession. The numbers coming forward to do science degrees is still buoyant in the UK. Indeed, we have a higher proportion of undergraduate students in science and technology than in many other OECD countries. We should build on that and make it clear and apparent to young people when they are making these decisions that it is a popular area to study.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister say that she was not complacent. Will she confirm that the percentage of GDP spent on education is now 4.6 per cent? On the day that John Major went off to watch the cricket at The Oval the figure was 5 per cent. Will the noble Baroness confirm that that gives her good reason not to be complacent?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, when John Major went off to watch cricket at The Oval, the economic position of this country was considerably less favourable than it is today. As a result, the GDP was far lower, so the proportion spent on education appeared to be somewhat higher. But as the noble Lord knows well, this Government have invested very substantially in education. Huge additional sums of money have gone into it and we will succeed in reaching the pledge we made about overall educational expenditure at the time we said we would reach it.