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Green: Schools are cutting classes because of Government failures

Following this year's funding crisis in Schools, Conservatives called an Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons looking into teacher shortages.

I beg to move

"That this House notes that thousands of teaching posts have been lost in schools as a result of this year's funding crisis; condemns the Government for failing to respond early enough to reports of these redundancies, instead seeking to lay the blame on local authorities; further condemns the Government for not using any of the Department for Education and Skills' underspent money to alleviate this crisis; further notes that schools are having to ask parents for regular contributions to alleviate cash shortages; is concerned about the effect of these redundancies among teachers and support staff on the implementation of the Workload Agreement; and urges the Government to simplify the funding system for schools so that there will be no repeat of this year's problems in the recruitment and retention of teachers."

I am sure that the House will understand, as I do, that the Secretary of State has a prior commitment at the TUC, which is why he is not with us today. I hope that he takes the opportunity to talk some of the teachers' representatives who will no doubt be there. One reason for our calling this debate is to show that the Government are letting down not just those who rely on our public services but those who work in them. It is not only parents and children who have been hit by the Government's school funding crisis but teachers, who are being made redundant in schools up and down the country. I am not surprised that teachers are angry—they have been betrayed by the Government's false promises, and they will never trust them again.

Ministers sometimes affect surprise that trust in the Government and especially the Prime Minister has disappeared. They seem puzzled that people no longer think that they are competent to run the public services. For an explanation they need look no further than the mess that they have created in our schools and their own performance in responding to this crisis since it became apparent earlier this year. This year, Ministers have provided the general public with a master-class in blunder and confusion. One moment we have protestations of innocence, while in the next breath the Government concoct a short-term and inadequate solution to the very problem that they just told the public did not exist at all.

The history of the crisis is instructive. When questioned by the Select Committee on Education and Skills in July this year, David Normington, the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, told us when he began to feel that there were going to be problems with school funding in the year ahead. His answer to the Select Committee was that it was after the Secretary of State's arrival

"at the end of October and before Christmas, some time around then."

We now know that the Department knew before Christmas that the crisis was going to hit our schools. After Christmas, at the Secondary Heads Association conference, the Secretary of State said that there was no problem. Indeed, he had previously told the Association of Chief Education Officers that simply throwing more money at them would not solve their problems. Such a request, he said, showing less than his usual charm,

"just floods straight over my head. I don't listen to what you say quite frankly".

I am sure that the association responded in kind.

I ought to have been apparent to the Secretary of State and other Ministers that not only was the local government settlement likely to cause difficulties but that many other matters under the direct control of the Government were going to cause problems, not least the Chancellor's insistence on increasing employers' national insurance contributions, which hit schools particularly hard—characteristically, 80 per cent. of a school's budget is taken up with staff costs—and the decision to increase employers' pension contributions, which came straight off the bottom line of school budgets. The bulk of the crisis has therefore been caused by decisions made inside government.

I therefore agree with my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State's apparent ignorance of the fact that the crisis was going to happen, let alone the reason why it was happening, is quite extraordinary. I can only assume that he was convinced by the announcement by the Minister for School Standards that every local education authority

"will be getting at least 3.2 per cent. per pupil increase for next year, with further increases in the following two years. No LEA will lose out in real terms as this new system is introduced".

That was the Government's formal position in the early months of this year.

I am afraid that it is sadly characteristic of the Government that, when they are faced with a problem, their first instinct is to look not for a solution, but a scapegoat. In this case, the scapegoat was to be local education authorities. I suspect that the reason why the Government gave up on their fruitless quest for a scapegoat had nothing to do with the merits of the case, but related to the fact that many Labour-controlled authorities throughout the country were pointing out that their schools were suffering in the same way as those of Conservative-controlled authorities, which became politically unhelpful to them.

In May, in response to many LEAs of all political colours, protests from schools and the rising number of complaints about the crisis, the Department finally announced that it would allow schools to set deficit budgets and that they would be allowed to use their capital budgets for paying teachers' salaries. That was he first signal that the Department was beginning to accept the scale of the problem. However, I remind Ministers of what we said at the time. Allowing schools to dip into money intended for capital projects as well as their reserves risks storing up even greater problems for the future. The scale of the problems that the Government have stored up with that approach to the problem is now beginning to become clear.

Many head teachers have said that when a school is engaged in a major capital project, it is extremely likely that it will be carried out during the summer holidays. Given the need to book builders, it is likely that arrangements will have been made for this year long before the Government gave permission for the money to be spent elsewhere. Their gesture was therefore moderately futile as well as ill timed.

Labour Members will have a lot of explaining to do to head teachers who have been told to use their capital budgets for revenue spending. Let me quote Nick Christou at East Barnet school, just one of the many affected head teachers, who has had to divert £90,000 from capital projects. He said:

"The money that I had was for repairing the roofs because they are leaking all over the place—in the maths office and textile technology room for a start. But we have to use it and run with our leaky roofs for one more year. We will just have to put buckets underneath them."

In Labour-controlled Ealing, schools are using between 70 and 100 per cent. of their reserves just to avoid another crisis this year. The Government's first response merely stored up a worse crisis for years to come.

Even once the Department and its Ministers had accepted that there was a problem, there was still an enormous gulf between the reality of life in our schools and the purported facts coming from the Government. Even in June, some in the Government were unwilling to accept the scale of the problems. On 11 June, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister

"how many teachers are facing redundancy right now?"

The Prime Minister replied:

"According to the Department for Education and Skills, there are about 500 net redundancies."

We now know that that answer grossly underestimated the problems that schools have been facing. As my right hon. Friend said at the time

"The reality is that the figures for redundancies are that, this year, three times as many will face the sack as last year." —[Official Report, 11 June 2003; Vol. 406, c. 673-74.]

Absolutely. All that I can say to my hon. Friend is that I hope that Ministers will apologise to the head, teachers, parents and governors at her school and at many others that face similar problems.

By midsummer, even Ministers had stopped trying to bluster their way out of the crisis. Extraordinarily, one of their partial solutions was to scrap one of their own flagship policies—the school achievement award. That was truly bizarre. Only in May, the Minister for School Standards had said:

"It is right to reward the staff whose work helps pupils to learn and today's awards celebrate their achievements".

Two months later, the Secretary of State announced that too many teachers had been allowed to go to the top pay levels too quickly. In the next month, he announced that the Government would be scrapping the policy that was, according to them, intended to

"celebrate the work of the entire school community".

Clearly, 2003 is not the year to be a teacher under this Labour Government. Last week, the Secretary of State finally came close to apologising to the thousands of children facing the new school year with fewer teachers. In a webcast to welcome the new academic year, he said:

"The government make mistakes, certainly I do, my colleagues do, and the handling of the schools' funding last year was a good example of that which I am determined to put right this year."

In these circumstances, with so many teachers experiencing redundancy or facing the threat of redundancy, I am amazed that the Government have the nerve to run expensive TV advertising campaigns for teacher recruitment. There is something surreal about watching a news programme that contains an item about teachers losing their jobs just before an advert urging people to become teachers. I congratulate Ministers on their latest advert, which features large numbers of headless people. As a piece of post-modern irony commenting on the Department's performance this year, it cannot be beaten.

If the Secretary of State had admitted culpability when these problems first arose, and had created a real solution instead of merely putting off the inevitable, perhaps we would not be in a situation in which one school in five are asking parents to make contributions to keep the school system going and in which a survey by the Secondary Heads Association and The Times Educational Supplement found that 2,700 teaching posts had not been filled and that 700 teachers have been made redundant. Only months ago, the Prime Minister was talking of losses in the order of 500 teachers.

The articles head line was staff cuts running into thousands", and it gives what it calls the "critical numbers", stating that 2,729 teachers and 1,152 support staff have not been replaced because of lack of funding. The TES goes on to say that there have been 730 teacher and 301 support staff redundancies; that there are 1,881 unfilled teacher posts; and that, of teachers appointed, 4,246—16.6 per cent.—were judged unsatisfactory by heads.

The Minister also knows that the increase in the school population means that approximately 1,000 teachers are needed to keep pupil-teacher ratios steady and that the Government have failed to do that. Perhaps he will turn to the inside pages of The Times Educational Supplement, which paint an even bleaker picture.

The head of the Royal Grammar school in High Wycombe has pledged £15,000 of his salary to ease his school's budget problems. The school caretaker is offering £5 a month. In East Anglia, one comprehensive school is considering charging for textbooks. One school in London—the London Oratory, which, I dare say, is familiar to senior members of the Government—is asking parents for an increase of £5 in the monthly £30 contribution that they already make. The school made it clear that the call for extra money is a direct result of the funding cuts for many schools in southern England that the Government announced early this year. The Oratory started term last week with fewer teachers.

Ministers appear peculiarly reluctant to accept the facts that everyone else acknowledges to constitute an accurate description of life in our schools today. Their immediate reaction to the Secondary Heads Association survey was simply to rubbish it. It was followed by a survey of local education authorities in The Guardian that showed similar results. Ministers must stop pretending that the rest of the world is out of step.

In 55 local authorities, more than 1,000 full-time teaching posts have been lost through redundancies and schools opting not to replace teachers who leave for other reasons. If that pattern were repeated in all local education authorities, approximately 2,500 teaching posts would be lost. We have a consistent set of numbers, which everyone, except the Government, recognises.

In the Minister's authority, 17 teaching posts have been lost. The LEA told The Guardian:

"Schools have set budgets by using their high levels of carry-forward balances."

In the Secretary of State's authority, 11 teaching posts have been lost and French and German classes are being cut in schools, which can simply no longer afford them. The Government tell us that they want to revive language teaching in schools, yet schools are having to cut such classes because of the Government's funding policies.

Not only teachers but support staff are suffering. According to The Times Educational Supplement, on top of the 301 support staff who have been made redundant, 1,152 support staff have not been replaced because of lack of funding. There are also problems with cuts in the capital budget that the Government have forced on schools. One can only spend one's capital once.

What do Ministers say to Roland Waller, the head of Morley High in Leeds, who said:

"We have protected staffing by cutting repairs and maintenance to the bone this year. Upgrades to classroom furniture will be virtually zero and our rolling programme of redecoration and refurnishing has been curtailed."

Only yesterday, Anne Welsh, the new president of the Secondary Heads Association, said that this year's cash crisis would have repercussions for many years. She said that problems were exacerbated because

"It is increasingly difficult to persuade young teachers to take on the responsibility of middle management roles, which is very worrying given that most in leadership positions are within 10 years of retiring."

We are not therefore considering a one-year crisis; it will linger in schools for years.

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