HL Deb 01 May 2003 vol 647 cc847-50

3.15 p.m.

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consideration is being given to a national online teacher recruitment service run on a nonprofit making, self-funding basis; and what potential savings would arise for the taxpayer.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Government do not recruit or employ teachers directly, but are interested in any measures which increase efficiency in the system. We are aware of some existing online recruitment activities. We will continue to maintain an interest in the market with a view to promoting measures which provide schools with good value for money. Meanwhile there is considerable government investment supporting the recent significant improvements in overall teacher supply, which should lead to efficiencies in advertising generally.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is it not true that the Times Educational Supplement and other recruitment agencies are now picking up something in the order of £60 million per year to provide a service which could be offered online at a fraction of that cost, at perhaps £2 million or £3 million per year? Could we not save a good deal of money by promoting that approach?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, various estimates have been made of how much money is spent by schools on recruitment advertising, but of course we do not collect those figures centrally. That would place an inappropriate burden on schools. So I cannot comment on the figures cited by my noble friend with regard to the Times Educational Supplement. What I can say on behalf of the Government is that we want to stimulate and support what is a market in enabling schools to choose what works best for them.

Noble Lords will be aware that the basis of teacher recruitment is often regional rather than national, that it is still very much paper-based within classrooms and staffrooms and so forth, and that often it is led by local education authorities providing interesting work to support their schools. We want to support and promote all those different methods.

Baroness Perry of Southwark

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of an academic website that is extremely successful and on which almost all universities rely for advertising jobs? It certainly attracts a much wider range of applicants both from this country and from Europe than do most newspaper advertisements. Is she further aware that it would be very much easier for schools to recruit good quality applicants if they were free to advertise jobs at salaries which suited the cost of living in their geographical area rather than being tied to national scales?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, turning to the second point, the noble Baroness will know that we have done a good deal of work to ensure that schools do have flexibility within the offers that they wish to make to applicants. Those offers recognise experience and other features and factors within schools. I do not think that we are tied in the way that perhaps the question suggests.

I am aware of the academic website to which the noble Baroness referred. It is an extremely good and powerful medium. Hence the Government are looking across the market to ensure that we are able to support what is an emerging and flourishing market offering different alternatives for schools based, as I have said, on a regional understanding of what schools are looking for.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be dangerous to become too dependent on online recruitment? Many people, such as, for example, returning teachers who have been away for some time, may not have access to the Internet on a regular basis. The one computer in the family may be dominated by the children. We should not be drawn too deeply into the notion that the Internet is the answer to everything, or at least not in the short term.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Addington. As I said in my earlier response, we recognise that many teachers search the newspapers, whether it be the Times Educational Supplement, local and regional newspapers or other national papers, to meet their recruitment needs. Noble Lords who have served as school governors will know that it is important to consider a variety of mechanisms when seeking to recruit. That was certainly my experience.

As I have pointed out before, local education authorities often provide support by producing newsletters that are sent out across the education authority, because much recruitment is local.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, in the spirit of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, does the noble Baroness agree that one of the biggest wastes of money in the public sector at present is the endless production of colourful publications, many of them circulated to noble Lords, Members of Parliament and public bodies? Very few of them are read. Would it not be a good idea—I understand from the Printed Paper Office that one or two organisations are doing this now—if the publications were available online, and could be printed off if people actually wanted to read them? It has been a huge area of increasing government expenditure, and a very considerable waste.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I was not expecting to deal with quite that aspect of policy, otherwise I would have had with me the figures on the number of publications that we produce and how many are online. Everything that the Department for Education and Skills produces is available online. We encourage schools to use that service and to print off publications, or whatever parts of them they want to print off; as noble Lords will know, teachers often look for certain parts of documents. I am proud of the quality of the publications that we produce, because they are accessible. That they are colourful is a good thing.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, although the Minister may say that the subject is a little wide of the mark, the Question refers to potential savings for the taxpayer. Might I therefore raise the whole question of retention of school teachers, which is nearly more important than recruiting new teachers? The biggest waste that we have is that, unfortunately, teachers become disillusioned and leave, so we are always catching up. It seems such a crying shame that we do not spend as much effort on retaining teachers as we do on seeking their replacements.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point about retention. As noble Lords will know, the Government place great store on that. It is why I am very pleased that the figures just released show the number of vacancies for teacher posts to have gone down from 1.4 per cent last year to 1.2 per cent in 2003. That means that the figure is 1,940. I am pleased that we are seeing that decrease across the range of different subjects, many of which noble Lords have raised before in this House. That therefore means that not only are we recruiting well, but we are retaining teachers.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, in order to increase retention of staff, how is the Minister improving the level of consultation with schools? For instance, there is a school in Lambeth that uses a child psychotherapist to come in and support the staff on a regular basis. That is very helpful, given that we know that some schools have more and more troubled children in their ranks. There is some rearrangement in the administration of the special schools, which have special skills. How are they being used to provide extra support for mainstream schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, that question is probably wide of the mark. However, I shall make a couple of comments, because I know that the noble Earl takes the subject extremely seriously and I am pleased to be in dialogue with him on such questions. At the moment, I am looking very closely at the relationship between our special schools, which have great expertise to share, and what we shall call for the moment mainstream schools. We need to ensure that assistance is available to teachers to enable them to support the children in their schools, some of whom have complex needs.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, in so far as a strong lobby is developing in favour of setting up a national single online system, which would cost so little and be run on a non-profit-making basis, would Ministers be prepared to consult people in the education profession about the potential of that for the future and the savings that might arise?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am not aware of a national lobby. I am aware that we have had some interest from individuals who have talked with officials, and officials have assured me that they will shortly give advice to Ministers on how we might better involve ourselves in the whole question of advertising. However, we are some way from saying that there is a strong lobby. At the moment I am convinced that, as a government, we need to be clear about our role and responsibility, which is to make sure that schools are able to access different opportunities to recruit and retain staff.