HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc170-6WH 11.30 am
Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

No one is more important in any society than teachers, and no issue more important to any Government than education. Society and its values are shaped to a large extent by the kind of education that we give to our children.

I was struck by a comment made by Lord Hailsham after the passing of the Education Act 1944. He said that the Act placed the general framework of our education beyond the range of party politics. That was reflected by the philosophy of both the Labour party and the Conservative party in their 1945 election manifestos, which I looked at recently. The Conservative party manifesto stated: Our object is to provide education which will not produce a standardised or utility child, useful only as a cog in a bureaucratic machine, but will enable a child to develop his or her responsible place first in the world of school and then as a citizen. That was reflected in the Labour party manifesto, which stated: Above all, let us remember the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves.

Both those ideas were summed up well by Mary Warnock, writing in the 1970s. She described the three guiding principles that should underlie the school curriculum: The first is that the schoolchild should be prepared for work. The second, and not conflicting, consideration is that his imagination should be educated in such a way that he will learn to feel the infinite complexities of the world that he inhabits. Both these guides are in fact guides to freedom. The third ingredient is that life should be a morally justifiable life: the life of a virtuous person is better than that of a vicious person. Virtue which can be taught, or at least learned, should be learned at school among other places.

Hon. Members of all parties can sign up to those views. There is more to education than utility, children are creative individuals, and moral responsibility is important. However, I have chosen to debate this subject today because the Government have, almost inadvertently, decided to go down a different path. We risk losing the freedom to teach that should underpin our schools and the curriculum, because education and the curriculum are becoming so prescriptive and reduced to target setting and centralised control.

In Britain, unlike in many other countries—especially in Europe—we do not have a Napoleonic system in which central Government run our schools and universities. Thank goodness for that. Intellectual humility is the most important of all the qualities that a politician involved in education should possess. This issue requires trust. It requires politicians to trust teachers. No one doubts that this Government are—or that the previous Government were—committed to providing decent education. However, the level of trust is in doubt. There is a growing feeling among teachers that that lack of trust is reflected in the avalanche of red tape and paperwork that is flowing from central Government into schools and thence into the classroom. As Mathew Pickhaver, a student teacher from Bacton in my constituency put it: Don't hammer the enthusiasm out of this generation of teachers. All we ask is the freedom to exercise our professional judgment. Do not try to turn us into mere technicians.

Most teachers regard teaching as a vocation, not a job. They do it because they know that it is important. The headmaster of Fakenham high school and college in my constituency has hanging on the wall of his study a quotation that sums up that spirit well. It says: A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I have lived in or the kind of car that I drive … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.

Teachers make a difference to the lives of many and I am sure that we all remember the teachers who made a difference to us when we were at school. The Minister will know from the schools that she has visited and the teachers to whom she has spoken that there is genuine and heartfelt concern that the degree of central control is becoming too strong and Government involvement is becoming too prescriptive. The Government should ask themselves whether they honestly believe that the national curriculum has become too prescriptive, whether it is accompanied by too much paperwork and bureaucracy, and whether matters have reached the point at which the Government's actions have become counter-productive, undermining the vocation and morale of teachers and the very reasons why they entered the profession in the first place.

The headmaster of Mundesley junior school in my constituency wrote to me and stated: We now have a culture in which educational success is reduced to statistics … I care too much about our children's future to have it hijacked in this cynical way. It is easy for Ministers to dismiss those concerns as being merely anecdotal, so I carried out a survey in my constituency in which more than 40 schools participated. I shall tell the Minister today the findings of that survey.

First, every school—infant, primary, junior, middle and high schools—believes that there has been marked increase in paperwork since 1997. That is not anecdotal and cannot be dismissed. It comes from the Department for Employment and Education, the local education authority and third parties. A number of heads said that the boundaries between the local education authority and the Department for Education and Employment were becoming blurred and that clarification was needed.

The second finding was that the vast majority of teachers believe that the national curriculum is too prescriptive and that it adversely affects the performance of classroom teachers. To be fair, almost all the teachers to whom I spoke believe that a national curriculum is necessary and those in primary schools believe that the numeracy and literacy hours are, on balance, worth while. However, as the head of Tunstead primary school said, The literacy hour provides a sensible structure for teaching English. However it puts good teachers in a straitjacket and inhibits children's ability to do creative writing. It is too prescriptive and can level down. That sends a clear message. It is necessary to have a framework, but it must not become so mechanistic and prescriptive that it holds back bright children and good teachers.

The third finding concerns Ofsted. The feedback, as one would expect, was mixed. The only general criticism was that Ofsted inspections could be variable and depend very much on individual inspectors. From my observations, schools give inspections so much prominence that they put a disproportionate amount of work into getting ready for them and I sometimes wonder whether the inspections give a true picture. One reason is the massive publicity given to Ofsted reports, which can make or break schools, because pupil numbers determine funding levels. I am not convinced that naming and shaming, except in extremis, is the right approach and it can be counterproductive in practice.

Finally, most schools have found that the increasing paperwork makes it more difficult to find governors. One chair of governors wrote to me stating that Governors are volunteers who give up their time willingly but most are at work or have other commitments during the day. They also feel, as essentially amateurs they are being asked to carry out tasks that would be better performed by professional people. That plea in particular stemmed from their dismay at the onus being placed upon them with regard to the latest performance management arrangements. Most schools are lucky to have supportive governors, but there is a risk that, in time, they will fall away.

The survey shows that the complaints that politicians receive from teachers cannot be dismissed as anecdotal. They are real. The head teacher of Suffield Park infants school in Cromer has been working with Norfolk local education authority on a project to identify areas of stress in the education system. He wrote to me and said: I have never known the work so demanding. It sometimes feels that you are on a pinball machine, hurtling from one thing to another. I have come across so many people within the education system who are on the verge of not being able to cope much longer. I feel that we are really on the verge of a crisis. Many staff, including myself, still love the job. However, the job dominates to such a degree that personal and family life has to take a very low priority. Stress and ill health are increasing. It is little wonder that many job vacancies remain unfilled. Teachers' morale is at low ebb, and they are drowning in a sea of paperwork, Whitehall plans and meaningless targets. That was picked up by the Government's better regulation task force, which reported on the teaching profession in April. The task force stated: There is a widespread and deeply held view that increased red tape is acting as a distraction from the drive to raise standards…over-elaborate processes are being used to achieve straightforward objectives, leading to unnecessary duplication and confusing lines of accountability.

The tentacles of central Government are stretching out to control, regulate and interfere with our education system. There is a danger that that will destroy schools' freedom to show initiative and flexibility. There is a risk that head teachers will become mere functionaries of the state and teachers mere technicians, as Mathew Pickhaver put it. Teachers raise standards by teaching in the classroom, not by filling in forms. Head teachers raise standards by leading their schools, not by following the latest Whitehall plan.

I have no doubt that much of the administrative burden on teachers and heads would fall away if we showed a little more trust and gave them a little more room for manoeuvre. We must accept that, in our society, schools should enjoy independence from the state and that head teachers should not be regarded as state functionaries. The Government should learn some intellectual humility and accept that they do not always know best. The Government should back off and allow teachers to do what they do best: teach.

11.42 am
The Minister for Lifelong Learning (Jacqui Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing the debate. I would associate myself strongly with the remarks that he made at the beginning of his speech about the importance of teachers. Before entering the House, I spent 11 years working as a teacher and I agree with him—not only for reasons of self-interest—about the importance of the teacher's role in providing opportunity and freedom, as the hon. Gentleman put it, for young people, through high standards of teaching in the classroom.

I also agree that we must build on what the Government has already done to free up more time for teachers and head teachers to spend on raising standards in the classroom. We are committed to that. In June, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a powerful speech to the conference of the National Association of Head Teachers, in which he set out our commitment and our view of the way forward. I would like to outline today the actions that have already been taken and those that we propose to take, in order to achieve some of what the hon. Gentleman argued for, in terms of freeing teachers and head teachers from unnecessary administrative burdens.

All of us must distinguish honestly between those tasks that have always been part of teaching—keeping records, writing reports and maintaining schemes of work for departments—and those that have not and distract from the basic task of teaching, when they could be done by someone else. We must take care to do that. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman's constituents recognise the importance of the literacy and numeracy strategies. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that they have created more work for teachers, but the Government's priority was to raise standards, and there was much to be done. Inevitably, that had an impact on teachers' workloads. I am encouraged to see the results showing through, with improvements in both literacy and numeracy. I take this opportunity to congratulate the teachers in the hon. Gentleman's authority on this year's improvements both in key stage 2 and GCSE results. It is evidence of the partnership between Government and teachers to raise standards for our children. To that extent, I make no apologies for the pace of change, because children have the right to the best possible education and we needed to make improvements as soon as possible.

I have no doubt, from my experience and from talking to teachers, that there is pressure when changes are expected without the necessary resources, but I would argue that the Government have resourced the changes that we expected in the education system. Total funding per pupil has already increased by more than £300 per pupil in real terms since 1997. The 2000 comprehensive spending review announced last week means a real-terms increase of £370 over the three years, bringing the total to almost £700 per pupil between 1997–98 and 2003–04. That gives teachers the resources, both within the classroom and within schools, in general to teach and raise standards.

The hon. Gentleman also commented on the national curriculum and reflected in his thoughtful contribution on some of the tensions in the principle of a national curriculum. It is difficult to strike a balance between prescription in the national curriculum, so that children are taught those things that society believes are important, and the flexibility to allow teachers to deliver that curriculum in a way that suits the circumstances and the children. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the substantial review of the national curriculum undertaken last year, which involved wide consultation. The new national curriculum will be introduced in schools from this September. One of the Government's objectives, which is delivered in the new curriculum, was to allow more flexibility in all subjects precisely to enable the type of creativity that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech.

The Government are already taking action to streamline administration. The hon. Gentleman, as is often the case, characterised administration in terms of paperwork. Teachers and heads have told us of that pressure, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pledged at the National Association of Head Teachers conference that, from September, we would cut the number of documents by a third, and the number of pages that we send automatically to schools by a half. We have already set up a group of heads and deputies to advise us on our communications with schools over the next year.

When I visit schools, teachers and heads often say that, although they recognise the significant increases in money that the Government are putting through the standards fund, it has led to a more complicated system. That is why we have announced plans for a drastically simplified standards fund with less bidding, less form filling and streamlined monitoring. That will provide significant timesavings for every school. For example, we shall reduce the number of ring-fenced grants and allow schools—trust them, to use the hon. Gentleman's phraseology—to transfer money between six broad headings, giving them the freedom to decide the detailed pattern of expenditure.

We shall make virtually all allocations by formula, removing the need for the bidding process that currently affects nine of the categories. We shall also ensure that schools know their standards fund allocation at the same time as they receive information about their delegated budget to help them to plan ahead. We shall allow schools to carry over their unused standards fund to the end of the school year from the end of the financial year, rather than having to spend it by 31 March or lose it. Those important flexibilities will ensure that the money continues to arrive in schools, but we are allowing heads and teachers more flexibility as to how to use it, and cutting administration.

We shall also further upgrade our national curriculum website to make it easier for classroom teachers to find and customise information and resources needed to support teaching. I take slight issue with the hon. Gentleman about the comment that all paperwork, guidance and documents issued by the Government are unhelpful. Many teachers welcome much of the good work done in recent years, especially in providing additional support and guidance around work schemes for the national curriculum—for example, work that enables teachers to consider best practice and to use it as a basis for adapting classroom work. That has been widely recognised and welcomed by teachers.

Action that we have taken already is now having an effect in schools. We have given considerable support and training for literacy and numeracy strategies, especially through training and through expert teachers employed by LEAs, to ensure that schools have LEA support in delivering those strategies which, as the hon. Gentleman said, schools in his constituency have welcomed. Without wishing to spoil the consensual approach developed during the debate, I remind hon. Members that that support would be removed by the Conservatives, judging by the ill-thought-out policy statements from the Leader of the Opposition about removing the role of LEAs. That point is worth remembering.

We have also provided easily accessible information for teachers about best practice through the standard site, which now receives more than 1 million hits a week. That is therefore recognised as support for teachers. We have committed funding to employing and training 20, 000 additional teaching assistants by 2002. We have also recognised the administrative challenges for small schools, which is why we have set up the small schools support fund and the administrative support fund for such schools. The funds, which have a combined value of £80 million this year, will enable small schools to take on more administrative support and to fund developments such as shared bursar services.

I am fully aware that administrative pressures fall more heavily on head teachers in small schools than on those in larger schools. We have provided new heads and small primary school heads with portable computers. We have produced guidance offering advice and examples for schools to streamline administration: this is available on the web or in CD-ROM format. We have co-ordinated Department for Education and Employment communications in monthly batches, presenting each document in a clear format to show at a glance what they relate to and what action is to be taken. On the internet, we have set up an A to Z of school management and leadership to provide key information for heads and senior staff on school management issues, as well as access to more detailed information. By September, that will contain authoritative guidance on 400 topics and will, I hope, provide head teachers and governors with a quicker easier way of accessing necessary information. We are also developing the uses of IT through our EASEA database, a personalised information management service for schools and LEAs, so that those who register can receive an e-mail alert when new material that matches their interests is on line. There are more than 4, 000 users for the pilot service, which will go national in September. We have set up a high-level group with head teacher representation to review all existing and new DfEE data collection. So far, this has cut out more than 10, 000 hours of non-essential form filling in schools and education authorities.

Frustration often occurs in schools when it becomes necessary to provide the same information for several different uses. We have begun implementing a framework that will establish an information management strategy for schools and education authorities, to improve the manner in which information about schools, teachers and their pupils is defined, collected, analysed, shared and used. That should bring about real benefits to schools that face increasing demands for information.

The administration surrounding Ofsted inspections was mentioned. External inspection is important, but we recognise that many schools and teachers were unduly pressurised by the long run-in time of Ofsted inspections. We have shortened the period of notice before inspections and introduced light touch inspections for schools that perform well.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the better regulation task force report, which welcomed the Government's push on standards. We take the report seriously: we have already accepted most of its recommendations in full and we are in the process of implementation. We have gone even further with our targets for reducing the volume of paperwork sent to schools and have embarked on simplification of the standards fund.

I agree that governors—the largest volunteer force in this country—play an important part in the governance of our schools. That is why the Department seeks to ensure better support and training for governors. We recently consulted on the matter and we shall soon issue terms of reference, regulations and guidance to support governors in the task of identifying their strategic role and establishing what should properly be delegated from governing bodies. The relationship between governors and head teachers also needs to be clarified. I recognise that that is a cause for concern in a small minority of schools. We want to help governors to understand more clearly their role and their contribution to raising standards in schools.

I recognise the concern to ensure that our teaching profession is skilled and enthusiastic, and provides the best opportunities for young people. The teaching profession has had much to do in a short time while managing significant change. I congratulate the profession on the results that are already being achieved. Morale will be further strengthened as teachers see the results of improved standards and increased attainments, and reap the benefit of our considerable efforts to cut and streamline administrative tasks. Over time, the teachers Green Paper reforms will transform prospects for recruitment by ensuring that teaching offers higher rewards, better career progression, support and training, and higher professional status.

Hon. Members are here today because of the hard work done by teachers in our personal histories. The Government are committed to recognising their key role in raising standards for our children and are supporting them in so doing on a day-to-day basis.