Teaching Standards In Education

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing this important debate. He will be happy to hear me say that he stated his views in characteristically robust fashion. It is important that such views are on the record, because there are grave concerns about the teaching profession and where it should be going.

Most of my comments will be specific to my local authority in Westminster, but given that we have time on our hands, I will say a little about my hon. Friend’s speech. Few of the people I graduated with in the mid-1980s would have looked on teaching as an option. There had been something of a sea change over a relatively short period. I am one of those Oxbridge graduates who were dismissed by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in his usual style. However, I was also a state school pupil.

In 1971, only 13 years before I matriculated at Oxford, teaching was seen as the normal choice, with one in seven graduates from that institution going into the profession. That was even before the large influx of postgraduate students taking specifically education courses. By the mid-1980s, however, going into teaching was, for most, considered to be a reflection of their failure and was seen as a secondary route. That mentality is regrettable. One by-product of the fact that, in the years to come, few graduates will go into the financial services compared with the past 20 years may well be that more of them will see teaching as a valid and acceptable choice.

I have some sympathy with the concern that my hon. Friend mentioned that the teaching profession has become more of an organised, unionised work force. That plays its part in putting many people off going into teaching. He described the prospect of people going into teaching later in life, after they have had a first career, when they have much more to give and want a second career. We all have to face the idea that working ages are likely to rise more and more as time goes by. Indeed, any future Government will have to be a lot more aggressive about that, given the demographics and the pension problems that we will have. People will be working, perhaps full time, well into their 70s in our working lifetime. It is no good simply adding a couple of years for those people who, in 25 years’ time, will reach the current retirement age; we need to be much more aggressive.

There will be the mentality that people can have several careers, so the notion that a person who goes into a career in their 40s can enter it only at the bottom rung of the ladder will, in decades to come, be seen as a rather strange idea, particularly in teaching. Some of the most inspirational teachers are not so well qualified—that was the case with the most inspirational teacher whom I recall at the grammar school I attended. I remember vividly that, as we started our A-level year, he tried to gee up the 90 boys who were about to enter the lower sixth, as it then was, by saying, “Before me, I see future captains of industry, leading lights in the armed forces and Members of Parliament.” That was the very moment at which I thought that this was something to which I could aspire—something that I probably kept secret at the back of my mind for some years before I had any political aspirations. That teacher had no formal teaching qualifications; he had spent 20 years in the armed forces before deciding to teach predominantly biology, which was a personal passion of his, but in which he had no formal post-school educational qualification.

It is crucial that we open teaching up a little, and I worry about the power of the education establishment—not just the trade unions, but the Minister’s Department and, to a large extent, local education authorities—which believes that there has to be a standard route and one has to move up a particular ladder. Much of what my hon. Friends the Members for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) and for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) are doing in relation to education is forward looking and radical, and I strongly support those radical policies.

Equally, I worry that having a template about precisely the nature of degree and the GCSE grade to have been attained means that we are moving to a tick-box approach, rather than being more open-minded. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire mentioned that there are unqualified teachers in the independent sector, but too much of that sort of criticism is driven by the idea of equality. I am sure that the teaching unions would be concerned by that, but one needs only to look at the results of independent schools. I accept that, often, their pupils have dedicated parents and that considerable amounts of money are pumped into those schools, so any comparison would not be like for like, but those results speak to some of the more innovative, forward-looking and radical approaches that are taken to teaching, instead of it being an option that effectively means joining a highly unionised work force. We need to inspire a future generation of people to go into teaching at a later stage in their life, when much of the experience that they have gained can be brought to bear for their charges.

David Taylor: Having a highly organised membership is hardly unique to the teaching profession; it is true of the professions that I mentioned earlier. If the object of that grouping is to protect high standards and promote the interests of members of the profession, there is nothing sinister in that, is there?

Mr. Field: There is nothing too sinister. Perhaps I should put on the record my own involvement with the only profession of which I was ever a part. I did not spend long as a lawyer, but I read law at university and became a lawyer afterwards, when I took great pains not to join the Law Society, which I thought an appalling organisation at that time. It was inward-looking and there seemed to be constant bickering among its members. One does not have to be a great philosopher to suggest that many such professional organisations have, to an extent, been a conspiracy against the public at large, although that is a simplistic view. The Law Society has come out of itself in recent years—indeed, both the Law Society and the Bar Council have recognised that, as well as being a trade union for professionals, they have a much more important role to play in relation to the public at large, in reflecting some of the concerns that the public have rightly had about the profession.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board, but the way in which this problem has applied to professionals has pained me. I am not making a cheap point about the National Union of Teachers or the teaching profession; I think the same applies to many of our professions, which have been far too inward-looking in the past. That goes back to an era when there was far less chopping and changing and rapid advancement for people who were able to move out of one social group into another. We now live in a much more mobile society, and amen to that, but too many of our professions have taken too long to catch up with those changes.

I want to touch on what is happening in the city of Westminster, where we have in place an education commission that is carrying out a six-month-long investigation into how we might improve educational outcomes in Westminster schools. It is due to report its findings in mid-September. The commission is chaired by Professor David Eastwood, who used to be the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and is now the vice-chancellor of the university of Birmingham.

Like many inner-London areas, Westminster is highly polarised. It is fair to say that a significant proportion of parents send their children to schools in the independent sector, rather than state schools; none the less, the Conservative-run Westminster city council is passionately concerned to ensure that we raise standards and make more valid choices. There have been some ongoing problems with state education in inner London, one of the biggest being that articulate, educated, middle-class parents have voted with their feet and sent their children to school outside the state sector. That is a key reason why the state sector in London generally struggles, although there are some fantastic success stories such as, in my constituency, the primary schools Hampden Gurney and St. Peter’s in Eaton square. The successful secondary schools in Westminster tend to be girls schools such as the Greycoat school on Horseferry road, which is a stone’s throw from here, and St. Marylebone school. In both of those schools, it has been a long-standing head teacher who has helped to raise standards.

In the private sector, my constituency has some of the finest schools, such as Westminster school and the City of London boys and girls schools. Those schools recognise the ongoing commitment and responsibility they have to utilise some of their facilities for the purposes of other maintained schools. That is very much part and parcel of the ethos of living in our highly polarised area of central London.

The education commission’s work has revealed a problem with the ability of local authorities to get involved in improving standards when schools become academies. We have two academies in Westminster, one of which, Pimlico, is in my constituency. Authorities have an ongoing responsibility for pupil welfare, but they have no way of tackling poor teaching standards if academies are not doing well. Raising achievement of Westminster children, particularly those in the state sector, is a major priority for the city council’s children’s services department and its partners. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness has rightly said, education is a main way of improving the lives of individuals. In turn, the community benefits through the social and economic contribution that those educated children—the parents of the future—are then able to make. A significant number of children in Westminster do not achieve their full potential for a number of reasons.

We have living in the city of Westminster as a whole about 40,000 people under the age of 19, 20,000 of whom are school pupils; 79 per cent. are from ethnic backgrounds other than white British and 68 per cent. speak English as an additional language. In total, more than 150 languages are spoken by children attending Westminster schools. Our educational settings in Westminster include 12 children’s centres; four maintained nursery schools; 40 primary schools, 26 of which are voluntary aided; six secondary schools, five of which are voluntary aided; four city academies, and two special needs schools. However, as an inner-London borough, Westminster also experiences high levels of migration from and to other London boroughs and the rest of the UK—population churn. What I say in this regard applies to any inner-London area and indeed to many inner-city areas, and it is what I wanted to put on the record today. The mobility of the population, including significant cross-borough flows in terms of the use of health and education services, presents significant challenges and underlines the complexity of service delivery and the importance of information sharing.

Beyond teaching standards, there is a growing issue that needs to be addressed; I wanted to put it on the record, although I appreciate that it is slightly outside the scope of this debate. That issue is the future of genuine parental choice at primary school level. In my constituency in Westminster, we have a large number of voluntary aided schools that prioritise children from a Christian background, whether Roman Catholic or Church of England. That could be a barrier to parents of children who come from non-Christian backgrounds. For example, 78 per cent. of schools achieving above average progress in English and 70 per cent. of schools achieving above average progress in maths are voluntary aided faith schools, either Church of England or Roman Catholic.

That is a problem to which there is no easy solution. In many respects, such schools are great and successful institutions and, in the process of trying to provide a level playing field for all of our children, we do not want to see standards reduced in any way; we want to see standards raised for all children in the future. I appreciate that the problem may not yet have come across the Minister’s desk in her relatively short tenure in her position, but it is a very important matter, particularly in many of our inner cities. In such areas, there has been significant depopulation in the past decades, but those sorts of schools—the voluntary aided schools, which obviously have a long-standing tradition—remain in place.

I hope that the Minister will give considerable thought to how we can try to raise the standards of all pupils, so that all of them, even those who do not come from a Roman Catholic or Church of England background, can still aspire. I know from my dealings with particular head teachers of voluntary aided schools in my constituency that they try to ensure, as far as possible, that more and more children from outside those faiths have an opportunity to go to those schools. However, the opportunities for those children are clearly not as great as they would be if there were more community schools that had a local reputation as strong as the voluntary aided schools that I have referred to.

Sir Nicholas, thank you for allowing me to speak in this very important debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness made some very valid points and I look forward to engaging on the subject not just with the Minister who is here today, but hopefully with future Conservative Ministers, because education is the key issue. Without an education system that works for the future, there will be difficulties.

I have some worries, even in the longer term, about the maintenance of the knowledge economy given our demographics, which will become an even bigger problem in the decades ahead. The competitive advantage that we have as a country has been based on having great knowledge. Obviously, we have the benefit of the English language, which is the global language and which will assist us to a large extent, but we need to ensure that we have an educated work force. I am not talking just about the elite, although I personally believe that we also need to educate our elites to the highest standards to become global players. More important in many ways are the 40 to 50 per cent. of people who will never go to university but who will still need to be educated, re-educated and trained right the way through their life. If we do not get school education right and ensure that we have teachers of the calibre needed to ensure that education is of the highest standard, we will find that those people are effectively tossed on to something of a scrap heap for much of the rest of their lives. That is not only unaffordable but ethically and morally unjustifiable.

We have discussed some very crucial issues today. I am encouraged that my own party feels strongly about them and there will be some radical changes, even in the light of the importance that must be rightly placed on the economic problems that will be the big, black cloud over much of public policy and politics in the next decade. I am obviously also interested to hear the current Government’s thinking on how we can ensure the provision of the highest teaching standards for all our children, who will obviously have an important part to play in making sure that our economy and our country can recover their previous position in the decades to come.