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Parliamentary Debate on the Teaching Workforce in London

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24 Jun 2008

Ms Diane Abbott: I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about a subject that is at the heart of the Government’s thinking—education—and to raise the question of under-achievement in inner-city schools, and in particular black under-achievement, a subject on which I have campaigned for many years. I want to talk especially about the teaching work force in London.

Given the part of the country that the Minister comes from, he might think that black under-achievement in schools is a narrow subject. However, the majority of children in the inner London boroughs are black or minority ethnics. Given the demographics of London and other big cities, we cannot raise standards unless we address the causes of under-achievement among many of the minorities. Not every minority ethnic group in London under-achieves—some over-achieve. However, in borough after inner London borough, a long tail of Afro-Caribbean boys is bringing down the overall results. That is not only bad for the statistics and for the Government’s stated aim of raising standards, it is a tragedy for those boys, their families and the wider community.

Inner-city schools and under-achievement, and black boys and under-achievement—it is a complex matter. There are many issues. They include peer group pressures, gang culture and the disproportionate rate of black pupils excluded from school, which I have mentioned before. Indeed, I wish to follow up the latter subject today because I did not get a satisfactory reply to some of the points that I raised in the earlier debate. There are other issues, such as low expectations. I believe that we still lack a clear, concrete policy line from the Department on how to deal with black under-achievement.

There is also an issue with teachers. Having spoken to many schools and educationalists, and above all to many teachers, I have no doubt that we need more men in the classroom, particularly in our primary schools. We need a more diverse teaching work force. We need a teaching work force in London that looks like London. I do not say that because I believe that only black people can teach black children, or that only Asian teachers can teach Asian children. I believe that if the work force—the staff room—matches the ethnic composition of the children, the team as a whole will have a better emotional and intellectual understanding of the children that they are trying to teach. The best heads in London, whatever their colour, are very positive in trying to recruit a diverse teaching force. They put a lot of energy into that, because they understand that in order to have a team that is culturally literate it must be diverse.

Before I come to the question of how to achieve a more diverse teaching work force in London, I would be doing the hard-working teachers in London and throughout the country a disservice if I did not first touch on some general issues. I have nothing but admiration for teachers. The Government have put a lot into education. They have increased salaries, and salaries for young teachers are now much more competitive than when Labour came into office in 1997. However, teachers throughout the country are suffering from market forces. There is a decline in pupil numbers in some areas, but large numbers of migrant children arriving in others—often rapidly so.

With the best will in the world, it is difficult for teachers to adapt. I have visited schools that a few years ago were largely Afro-Caribbean and Irish but are now mainly Polish and west African. It is difficult for people not from London to understand the demographic turnover in those schools, which can be rapid. The reality for teachers is that, however committed they are and however good they are, they almost have to deal with a whole new community every five, six or seven years. The schools lose their stability and continuity, and their community and institutional memories, which makes things so much more of a challenge than for the more stable communities that the Minister represents.

There may be issues about turnover and changes in pupil numbers, but there is also the problem of the retirement bulge. Putting it bluntly, a generation of teachers in London who bought their houses in the 1970s, when one could buy a house in Hackney on a teacher’s salary, is now poised to retire. What will happen when that generation of teachers leaves I do not know. Not even on the vastly improved head teachers’ salaries for which the Government are responsible can one buy a property in most areas within zones 1 and 2. The retirement bulge will be a real problem, because of what has happened with the housing market in London and other big cities. There is also the changing profile of people coming into teaching, the changing profile of pupil populations, and the serious challenges of community cohesion that many of our schools face in the aftermath of 7/7 and 9/11.

There are other specific issues, and one of the most important in the context of today’s debate is the under-representation of men in the teaching work force. Female teachers represent 88 per cent. of primary school teaching staff. Even in secondary schools, they represent 58 per cent.

No one would expect me to say that female teachers are less good than male teachers. However, I ask the Minister to imagine a young boy living on an estate in Hackney in a single-parent family. The head of the household is the mother; perhaps, for all his friends, women are the head of the household. That boy may never have seen what I used to see every day of my life—a father getting up, going out to work and coming home on the Friday with a wage packet. That boy then has to go to a school run by women. What sense is there of a positive and constructive male role model over and above the gangs that inhabit the fringes of the estate, the street corners and the alleyways?

Although I wish specifically to address black male under-achievement, many of the issues that I shall raise are relevant to white working-class boys of any ethnicity. What image of the world will they have if they live on an estate and in an environment where they never see working males fulfilling their responsibilities? In school, the only people they see exercising their authority and fulfilling their responsibilities are women. One can meet too many little boys in school who, in a confused way, think that books and education are for girls. What are they to think if nine out of 10 teachers are women?

There is an issue about the under-representation of men in the teaching work force. However, it would be wrong of me not to mention the matter of unequal pay between male and female teachers. In 2006, the Equal Opportunities Commission said that there was a pay gap of 11.5 per cent. in favour of male teachers, and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers found that female teachers were less likely to progress in the leadership scale. We need to look at that. The Teacher Support Network has raised questions about the fact that many lesbian and gay teachers feel unsupported in their schools.

Apart from those specific issues, we cannot underestimate the pressure and the stress that teachers throughout the country now face in the class room. Teaching nowadays is a far cry from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”. In one further education college, a teacher carrying out health care checks found students with drink and drug addictions, injuries from fighting, learning difficulties that had not been identified and supported, students being taken out of care at the age of 16 to live on their own, and students with children to look after. That was the result of an ordinary health survey in an FE college. How can young people like that focus on education?

Questions have been asked—I should be glad if the Minister were to address them—about the extent to which support assistants are being used not to help fully trained teachers but to substitute for them. That is unfair on the assistants and the children. If the assistants are good enough to act as teachers, they should be paid as such. If they are not good enough, they should not be used as if they were properly trained teachers. It was pointed out to us by a teaching assistant in Redbridge that qualified teachers get extra money for working with special needs pupils, but teaching assistants do not.

Then there is the question of over-large class sizes. Large class sizes are one thing. In primary school, I was in a class of 42, and we learned by sitting up and reading from a chalkboard in front of us—

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): You did well at it.

Ms Abbott: Thank you very much. That was perfectly fine. However, when classes are that size and some of the children do not speak English and some have special needs, it is difficult for teachers to manage them.

There is also the big issue, which I touched on earlier, of the discrepancy between salaries and living costs in London. When the cohort of teachers who bought homes in London when London homes were affordable on a teacher’s salary finally retire, teaching recruitment in London will be in crisis. One cannot buy a home in inner London on a teacher’s salary, not to mention affording all the other costs. The danger is that London schools will rely increasingly on young teachers who start out in London but move on when they want to buy a home and have a family, and on teachers from overseas—New Zealand, South Africa and even the Caribbean—who come but do not stay. The danger is that year by year we will lose a stable cohort of teachers because of the discrepancy between salaries and living costs.

The Minister will have heard from many people about teachers’ concern about the increasing amount of paperwork. I know that the Government do their best to keep paperwork to a minimum, but it would not be fair on the teachers and teachers’ unions to which my staff have spoken in the past few days if I did not mention that point.

The Minister might say, “Yes, Diane, but why does it matter if all the teachers are women or all the teachers
are white as long as they’re good teachers? Surely that’s the main thing.” Well, there is a large discrepancy in London. In many inner London boroughs, more than half the children are from minority ethnic—

2.42 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.55 pm

On resuming—

Ms Abbott: I want to return to the subject of the disproportionately low number of ethnic minority teachers in London’s schools compared with the pupil population, and the fact that in most inner-London boroughs the majority of children are black or ethnic minority. The latest figure that I saw for the number of black or ethnic minority teachers in London was 12 per cent., I think. For the reasons that I set out earlier—cultural understanding and children seeing people like them teaching and in leadership positions—that is wrong and is not helping any of our children to achieve their best.

I turn to the ethnic imbalance in governing bodies. In 2006, the Institute for Policy Studies in Education researched London governing bodies and found that although those in the study had a gender balance, they were ethnically imbalanced. Ministers, and politicians on both sides, are very keen to talk about empowering parents, which is all well and good when dealing with a stable, homogenous community. In inner London, where people in £500,000 houses live cheek by jowl with some very grim estates, the mix of children in primary schools is fine, but governing bodies are all too quickly captured by a clique of middle-class white parents who are not concerned about the wider issues, as long as their Chloe and Dominic get into the school of their choice—whether fee-paying or not.

Tensions have arisen in my own borough that have nothing to do with diversity in schools. In fact, diversity in inner-London primary schools is one of their strengths—all parents value the fact that they can send their children to the best state primary schools in London where they can mix with children of all colours and races, and learn a lot just from that cultural mix. I am talking about governing bodies and how they can be captured by cliques of parents. Owing to the Government’s dogma about empowering parents, they do not understand that in the inner-city they are empowering not parents as a whole, but the loudest and most confident and educated parents, sometimes to the detriment of the Government’s stated aim of raising achievement across the piece.

A difficult situation arose in a school in my borough when a clique took over a governing body, after which the popular black head teacher left. I do not want to comment on what really happened, but there is a sense in the community that the head teacher’s face did not fit—in the opinion of the clique of lawyers, business people and sometimes even MPs now running the school. Ethnic balance is as important for governing bodies, therefore, as it is for the teaching work force. More needs to be done to train and support governors in the inner city and to make heads aware of the importance of a governing body that reflects their pupil intake, so that we can avoid some of the tensions that I have seen in schools in Hackney.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some schools in my constituency simply cannot get governors of any sort. Often parents are too absorbed in trying to survive frequent house moves, because they live in temporary accommodation and so on. As a result, head teachers must often carry the entire load with no support at all. I strongly endorse her point, therefore, about training and supporting potential governors, particularly if they are genuinely to represent the local communities.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. My point, which perhaps I did not make properly, is that sometimes the reason why such governing bodies become imbalanced is not, to be fair, the Machiavellian intent of some parents, but the fact that other parents—working-class parents, or parents who are asylum seekers or refugees—are working when they should be at governing body meetings, English is not their first language and generally they feel intimidated by governors who appear to know so much and to be so fluent and confident.

So, even when such parents sit on governing bodies, they do not feel able to say anything, and others like them are frightened of going on such bodies—perhaps unreasonably, but they are frightened all the same. They think that they will be put to shame, because they cannot read all the paperwork and do not understand the big words and the jargon. That is how we end up with skewed governing bodies. As I said, there is not necessarily any Machiavellian intent, and if I gave that impression it was unfair, but skewed governing bodies can lead to tensions.

Owing to the demographics of inner London, people who in relative terms are very wealthy send their children to school alongside quite poor and socially disadvantaged children. I want to talk, however, about the plight of black and minority ethnic men and women who go into teaching. The university of Exeter did some research and found that teacher trainees who experienced racism in their placement—sometimes they were placed outside inner London—did not necessarily have anywhere to turn for support. The university set up a diversity resource officer in its school of education, but apparently that is the only such post in the UK. The officer said in a recent interview:

“If trainees encounter racism in the classroom, it’s important that they feel supported... but a lot of schools find complaints of this nature very embarrassing and difficult to discuss. It’s like the ‘Don't mention the war’ sketch in Fawlty Towers: other teachers know you are black but insist they haven’t noticed.”

The officer continued:

“Some of our BME trainees found that some staff in schools seemed to believe that racial issues and problems belonged to a bygone era and that we have somehow gone beyond racism being an issue. This made them feel in some way ‘separate’ from the main thrust of the school.”

I know that phenomenon.

When I first started talking about black under-achievement in schools, many teachers got very upset and felt that they were being accused of racism. Basically, their position was, “I went on an Anti-Nazi League march in 1972; how dare you say I do not understand racism.” Teachers are more defensive than any professional group that I have dealt with, and that includes the police force. When asked to address issues of institutional racism, they insist on taking it as personal criticism, rather than as an inquiry into how their institution works in practice.

Loughborough university and the universities of Newcastle and of Hertfordshire undertook some research in 2001 with black and minority ethnic teachers, and they found that many black trainees made considerable financial sacrifices to become teachers because they tended to go into teaching not straight from university, but as mature students. They tended to be older than their counterparts, they had a bigger financial struggle because they were more likely to have young children at home, particularly if they were women, and many of them had part-time jobs while they were studying.

Those universities recommended easing the situation for mature students through funding, by offering taster courses and specific support as the university of Exeter has, and by removing barriers to international students training in this country. Later, I shall return to the question of international students. Similar results were found by academic research in 2006, looking at the number of minority ethnic trainees who drop out of teacher training courses, and in 2007, looking at the perception of racism in teacher education.

The university of Cambridge faculty of education, which undertook research on behalf of the Department for Education and Skills, said in its report:

“Minority ethnic teachers, particularly African Caribbean teachers, have argued that their communities have, for the past few decades, been consigned to the outskirts of the education system by a profession which has consistently formed pre-conceived and stereotypical notions of their communities based on unfair assessments and the mis-education of their children. For these teachers, the denial of their professional expertise and status within the profession, and associated neglect of minority ethnic communities’ needs is at the root of these groups’ disillusionment with the education system and distance from the pursuit of a teaching career.”

The former Mayor of London and former Member for Brent, East, Ken Livingstone, commissioned a report on black teachers in London and found many concerns about staff development and promotion. Most recently, research by the Institute for Policy Studies in Education at London Metropolitan university found that white teachers with 10 to 15 years’ experience were twice as likely to be heads or deputy heads than their black counterparts, and that teacher trainees from the black community were twice as likely to fail their initial teacher training. Those are some of the issues that black and minority ethnic men and women who attempt to become teachers face.

There is also the question of the preparation and training that we give to all teachers to deal with diversity. A 2005 teaching survey found that only 35 per cent. of newly qualified teachers felt that they were well prepared to teach pupils from diverse backgrounds. The Minister might say, “What does it matter in the west country whether you know how to teach children from diverse backgrounds?”, but in 2008, in an increasingly globalised world, all our teachers, even if they never, ever encounter a child from an ethnic background, which will be increasingly unusual, ought to feel confident that they have been trained to deal with diversity issues.

The figure of 35 per cent. is not good enough, but I am not calling for changes in the law, because the legislative framework already exists. As a result of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, the General Teaching Council for England produced guidelines for schools in 2008, and since May 2002, schools have specifically been required to have a race equality policy, to assess the impact of all their general policies on pupils, staff and parents, to monitor the impact of policies on race and to take reasonable steps to publish the results of that monitoring. However, the GTC found that not all schools were doing that, and in 2005 Ofsted voiced concern that certain education authorities were not implementing the 2000 Act.

In 2006, a GTC report found that only 64 per cent. of teachers knew about their school’s policy on race and ethnicity. In 2007, the Black Training and Enterprise Group found that some schools were implementing the spirit and the letter of the law, but that others were struggling to conform to the minimum requirements. Unusually for a Back-Bench MP, I am calling not for new legislation, but for the meaningful implementation of existing legislation. The GTC has suggested that schools and teachers need more support and guidance on the issue.

So, the picture shows a very low level of black and minority ethnic teachers in London’s teaching work force as compared with the demographic of the pupils whom they teach, that those who go into teaching often struggle to do so because they go in as mature students and need specific support, and that even in the classroom teachers report lack of support, promotion difficulties and so on.

In the remainder of my speech, I shall try to touch on the practical things that the Government should do. They ought to say much more clearly that now, in 2008, it is important to recruit and guide into teaching a much more diverse teaching work force for the reasons that I gave earlier. Minority ethnic teachers tend to be local and to stay, unlike teachers from Australia and New Zealand. However brilliant and inspirational they are, in a few years they will go back to Australia or New Zealand, but the West Indian lady who leaves her job in social work, trains in middle age to be a teacher and goes to a local school to teach will be there until retirement and in some ways represents a better investment of Government money.

The Government should think about, among other things, the Teacher Training Agency collaborating with the relevant examination and certification bodies on a wider range of professional certification for teaching, focusing on raising achievement—the specific skills set—among black and minority ethnic pupils. If the training does not focus on that set specifically, it says that the system does not value it and, ipso facto, that perhaps it is easier to exclude the naughty black boys when they turn 13 or 14, rather than, earlier in the process, focus on how to engage them in education and raise their standards.

The Teacher Training Agency and the Department for Children, Schools and Families should collaborate with the UK National Academic Information Recognition Centre in commissioning research on how overseas degree providers could address the issue of degree equivalence. The largest cohort of black and minority ethnic teachers in London schools is made up of those who have qualified in the Caribbean and Africa, but it is hard for them to achieve qualified-teacher status because their degrees are not recognised.

It is strange that we can bring in teachers from eastern Europe, New Zealand and South Africa who may never have stood in front of a classroom full of black children, but that experienced, quality teachers who have trained in the Caribbean under a system that is very similar to the British system have problems with degree equivalence. We should look at that, because there are people teaching in our schools who cannot get what a fully trained and qualified teacher can get and who face all kinds of uncertainties because of the issue of degree equivalence.

Before Ministers say, “Diane wants us to turn all these second-rate teachers from overseas into fully trained, fully paid teachers,” let me say that one of the best teachers my son ever had was Nigerian. He had served in the Army in the 1950s and worked miracles with my son and his maths—it was extraordinary. However, he could not have taught properly in a British school because of the issue of degree equivalence.

Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes an important point about overseas teachers. Like her, I welcome the work done by some of the very good, dedicated teachers who come to this country. One of my local primary schools has a good system for exchanging teachers with an equivalent primary school in Ghana. The school in Ghana sends a teacher for a year, and the school in my constituency sends a teacher in return. That has been mutually beneficial to both schools. Does my hon. Friend not think that there is some value in spreading that process more widely so that we do not rely just on teachers from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand?

Ms Abbott: That is exactly right. Let me be specific about the research that I want. The problem is that teaching qualifications from the Caribbean and Africa are not recognised as being equivalent to UK teaching qualifications, but teaching qualifications from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, America and eastern Europe are. I would like research to be done to identify which specific aspects of African and Caribbean teacher training are deficient so that Caribbean and African teacher training institutions can address the issue and move towards establishing course equivalence with the UK.

I would also like teacher training institutions in this country to work with institutions in the Caribbean, such as Shortwood college, and to have exchanges with them. Trainee teachers could do one year in Shortwood and another year here before going back to Jamaica. In that way, they would end up with a qualification that was recognised in the Caribbean and in England. Education in both places would benefit from that.

The Teacher Training Agency should have much clearer and more exacting recruitment targets for black and minority ethnic teachers. It should look at implementing a London-wide overseas teacher training programme to maximise the number of London-based black overseas teachers who can obtain qualified teacher status.

The agency should also look at developing a business secondment programme targeted at black graduates, who could be seconded from their place of work to fill two-year or part-time teaching placements. The programme could be like Teach First, but be tailor made and targeted at black graduates who might want to return to their profession as an accountant or business person, but who would be enthusiastic about teaching for a year or two if the structure was there. In addition, the agency should further develop joint black community outreach programmes with local authorities and teacher training providers.

We need to look at more financial support for mature trainee teachers. As I said, disproportionate numbers of black and minority ethnic men and women who go into teaching are mature students and often have families, so they simply cannot manage on the financial support that is currently available.

The Teacher Training Agency should work in partnership with Ofsted to ensure that all teacher training providers in receipt of Teacher Training Agency minority ethnic recruitment funding deliver training on race equality issues to their staff, in line with the requirements of the Race Relations Act 1976. The agency should also provide much more extensive support to teacher training providers to assist them in developing their recruitment of black and minority ethnic teachers.

In London and our other big cities, we need a genuine recruitment and retention strategy that is targeted specifically at black and minority ethnic teachers. It should set targets, offer pre-interviews, facilitate a student network, provide mentors for teachers and ensure that publicity materials and outreach are targeted at London’s ethnically diverse communities.

A new approach to increasing the number of black and minority ethnic teachers and a better recruitment and training model could be introduced in London and extended London-wide. That would make sense because half the country’s ethnic minorities are in London, but the disproportion between the number of teachers and of pupils is very bad.

I do notintend to blame teachers for the underachievement of any child. When we look at the job that teachers do in schools in Hackney in 2008, we have to give them every respect. Despite the fact that the Government have put up teachers’ salaries and put in more resources, and despite the fact that we have had an excellent academies programme—certainly in my borough—the teaching, social work and guidance role that teachers take on is more challenging than ever.

Often, children will come from grim estates and chaotic family backgrounds, and there will be the ever present threat of the gang culture, with gangs telling children, “You either join us or suffer the consequences.” For those children, school is the only haven of peace and order, and the only place where they have possibilities in their lives. Their teachers play an invaluable role in that respect.

Teachers in London could do even better, however, if the teaching work force looked more like London. Although Ministers have expressed an interest in the issue, more concrete steps could be taken London-wide to create a more diverse work force, which would result in better outcomes for all our children and probably in a more stable teaching work force—as I said, there are all sorts of problems ahead as one cohort of teachers moves into retirement.

I raise this issue, as I have raised other education issues over the years, because I am a child of immigrants and I believe that education is the single most important issue for our migrant and minority communities; it is the one thing that will help them to play their fullest part in our society and our single most important weapon in promoting community cohesion. Teachers in our schools in London are doing a great deal, but a more diverse teaching population could do a lot more for schools, children and our society.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I apologise for missing the fist few minutes of the debate. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), my parliamentary neighbour, on the way that she introduced the debate and on the work that she has done on boys’ underachievement in our primary and secondary schools. She is particularly supportive of the black community in her borough and across London, and she should be strongly commended for her work on the issue.

Like my hon. Friend, I represent an inner-city London constituency and its problems are very similar to those that she faces in her constituency. I endorse the last point that she made: primary school is the only place of safety and friendship for many children in our constituencies and the only place where they have some space. If a child grows up in an overcrowded privately rented flat or in temporary accommodation, their opportunities for doing homework or any kind of craft at home will be zero because there is simply no space. As a result, their school is their only playground, their only space and the only place where they can stretch their imagination.

I have the greatest respect and regard for the work that is done by primary and secondary teachers in schools in my constituency. I can think of many occasions when I have been in a school to do my Friday advice bureau, which often lasts for six or seven hours in the evening, and I have found a teacher who has been waiting with a migrant family for that whole time to come in and explain their problem, translate where necessary if they are proficient in the relevant language, and show them support.

It is easy for the popular press to condemn teachers for having long holidays and all the rest, but my experience of teachers is that they are dedicated and hard working, and understand the importance of their job and the inspiration that they can give kids in schools. We should use this opportunity to say something positive about them and to recognise the social problems that teachers in London face because of the nature of London society.

I shall come later to the issue of salary and conditions, but I want first to say a big thank you to the Government for the amount of money that has been put into our education system since 1997. I have represented Islington, North for 25 years, and during that time I have had head teachers on the phone in tears because the roof was leaking in the main hall, they have had to close classroom after classroom and crowd the kids into another part of the school because they could not get repairs done, the heating would not work or a boiler needed replacing or they were using summer fairs to raise money to buy computers.

There was disgraceful underfunding when the Conservative Government were in charge of our education system. Not only did they abolish the Inner London Education Authority, which was an iconic authority in many ways and very imaginative in what it did for education in London, but they underfunded our schools.

That does not happen now. The money that has gone into improving our buildings and buying computers and other equipment is important, and so, above all, is the money that has now been provided for the employment of teaching support staff, learning mentors and all such ancillary and related staff—who, again, are often the butt of jokes on television and in the tabloid press, yet they are essential.

A deeply disturbed child, particularly one of secondary school age, may be involved in an awful lot of very bad and nasty activities outside school—perhaps gangs, knives or even guns. It is all there; it is true. What happens when that child, who unfortunately is usually a boy, comes to school? The misbehaviour continues and the option for the school is to exclude the kid who is disrupting the class. It ends up expelling him and he moves from school to school, being excluded and expelled.

Such children are completely lost to education by the time they are 13 or 14. By the time they are 16 or 17, they are in a young offenders institution, and after 18 they end up in prison. We must do something for the kids who are grossly underachieving in our society. That is what the education system must provide for.

Ms Abbott: Is my hon. Friend aware that a former director general of the Prison Service, Martin Narey, said that on the day a child is permanently excluded from school they might as well be given a date and time to turn up in prison? That is the correlation between permanent exclusion and a criminal career.

Jeremy Corbyn: Martin Narey was absolutely right; it was a prescient remark, which I understand, support and endorse. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister said something about rights of appeal against suspension and expulsion from school. I understand that there are elements of behaviour that may be so bad that they lead to suspension. I do not say it should never happen or that no one should ever be excluded. We can never say never, but it should be absolutely the last resort and everything should be done in the meantime to give support. However, the system of justice that applies to a number of secondary school bodies does not bear much examination in terms of natural justice.

The evidence used against individuals who are suspended from school is often very vague, governing bodies are often reluctant to overrule the head teacher on a suspension or expulsion and it is difficult for parents who may not be very well versed in dealing with bureaucratic procedures to represent their case. We need a pretty robust code of conduct to ensure that there is a proper, defendable system of appeal.

Ms Abbott: Does my hon. Friend agree that when children are about to be excluded they are often behaving in ways that are appalling and people would not want them in a classroom with their child? Is it not the point that it is better to intervene on behaviour issues much earlier, at primary school age, which is why I want a more diverse teaching work force, with more men? On the whole, they are better placed to intervene on some of the behaviour problems of little boys. Also, what happens after the children are excluded? They end up in pupil referral units, which are just waiting sheds for prison.

Jeremy Corbyn: I endorse what my hon. Friend says and fully understand that point. We are not in disagreement, and I do not think that the Minister disagrees particularly either. There must be a system of recognising when boys in particular are underachieving, misbehaving or seeking attention—whatever it happens to be, for there are lots of reasons—and giving them the necessary support very early on.

Investment in teaching support staff and learning mentors is good investment, and so is taking such children out of class if necessary and giving them special support in school. That is all good practice and good investment. After all, we all have the responsibility to ensure that all the children going through the education system can achieve the best they are capable of. We should give more support to the learning mentor and support systems in schools and be very tough on the question of suspensions and expulsions.

Taking a youngster—usually a secondary school boy of 13, 14 or 15 who is suspended, excluded or possibly expelled—to a pupil referral unit is not a cheap option. Those pupil referral units are often more expensive than the most expensive private schools in the country, and I am not sure how much they achieve in some cases. As they are very expensive, a question of investment arises.

I do not want to take up too much time, as other hon. Members are waiting to speak, but I want to make a couple of points about my constituency before saying something about teachers’ conditions. There are six secondary schools in my constituency of Islington, North. Because of the system of choice, as it is termed, on moving to secondary schools in our part of north London, the tradition is that children from Hackney schools try to go to Islington, children from Islington schools try to go to Camden, children from Camden schools try to go further out and so on.

There is a process of crossing London and moving outwards, which often means that the most able children with the most articulate parents get into selective schools on the outskirts of London, whereas others, who cannot afford to move house to live nearer an appropriate secondary school, or whatever they might need to do, end up going to the local schools. The intake is therefore not a universal local intake, and in the past the local schools have become almost the schools of last resort. I do not want them to be that.

I commend what the Government have done in investing large sums of money in buildings and other improvements to secondary schools. That has borne a lot of fruit and all six of those schools in my constituency are doing well. They are all getting new buildings, more staff and more support, although they may not yet have all achieved the magic rate of 30 per cent. of pupils achieving A to C GCSE grades. I can well understand the difficulties they have in achieving that, but I was furious when, two weeks ago, the Department announced that three schools in my constituency—Highbury Grove, Holloway and Islington Arts and Media—were on the list of the 643 schools around the country that are of concern.

I am angry about that for lots of reasons. One is that the teachers in those three schools feel attacked, criticised and demoralised as a result. They are doing their best. Secondly, alarm bells start ringing for parents of children who may move to those schools in September. They think, “Is this school a disaster area? Is it failing? Come September, can I entrust my son or daughter to it to be educated? What is going to happen to it in the future?”

I have been in touch with all three schools; I have visited two of them and will be seeing the third next week. I had a group of youngsters from Highbury Grove down to the House this morning to do an education Department tour. Those schools are doing well, going places and achieving. I was, therefore, very angry that they should be labelled in such a way. I have written a letter to my hon. Friend the Minister, inviting him to join me on a visit of the three schools. We can start early in the morning, no problem. Any time the Minister can do, we will be there. I want him to see that we have three schools that are trying hard, doing well and achieving. I want him to reassure the staff and the parents on that.

During the Division, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who is similarly angry. Three schools in his area have been named: Mellow Lane, Harlington and the recently developed academy. He feels that the staff have been demoralised. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope he will explain why the list has been produced. Would it not be far better to support the schools that are doing well, rather than getting involved in naming and shaming schools, which does not do much good in the long run?

My last point concerns the teachers themselves, because they are, after all, the subject of the debate. Teachers in London have a very difficult job. They have to face many problems, the biggest of which is housing, which is incredibly expensive. To buy any kind of flat in my constituency requires at least £250,000. We have had some flats developed specifically for teachers, and we have shared ownership schemes and all the rest of it for key workers.

I went to a shared ownership fair last Saturday that was held at the Arsenal stadium. It was interesting, but a lot of those flats were out of reach of teachers—they were just too expensive. When we recruit young teachers to our primary and secondary schools, we need to get them somewhere to live in the community. We also need to help them to remain in the area when they have families and children of their own and need a bigger space. If we do not do those things, our schools will lose out and, as a result, our children will lose out. We need to think through the housing issue and the housing needs of our teachers, because teachers are an important part of the community.

Our teachers try very hard. We have children from all over the world, children living in bad housing conditions and children who are growing up in a society in which there is great deal of violence and an awful lot of commercial pressure on schools. We have examples of schools that achieve the most fantastic things and we feel inspired by them. For instance, a group of children were fairly alarmed about a violent poster near their school that was advertising a new DVD. They asked their teacher how they could object to it. The teacher explained that such things had to be done properly and that they had to go to the Advertising Standards Authority. So, a group of 30 children wrote letters, went to the ASA, dragged out someone from its offices, protested about the poster and the whole thing was stopped and withdrawn.

That was a brilliant lesson for those children in achieving something for themselves and understanding what a democratic society is about. That kind of inspiration does not come easily, so we need to value and support our teachers.

I hope that the Government think again on the pay policy towards teachers. Teachers have had substantial, and well-deserved, increases since 1997. However, if we ask them to accept a three-year deal that is below the rate of inflation, which is, in effect, a reduction in their standard, that will make them angry and will not attract people into teaching.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said when she opened the debate, we need teachers who are dedicated, representative of the community as a whole and inspirational. The other day, I was talking to a young man who is working as a teaching assistant in one of our secondary schools. He said that if we had more black teachers who could show real inspiration to kids who were feeling marginalised and driven away from the norms of society, a great deal more would be achieved by our education system.

We need to remember that and use this debate as a way to encourage more young people to go into teaching, which can be a rewarding and inspirational job. Teaching is something that we all need and rely on.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing today’s debate. She indicated, as does the title, that the debate is largely designed to focus on issues that are relevant in London. She questioned whether all the issues would instantly resonate with a Minister who represents the South Dorset constituency. She might also have mentioned a shadow spokesman who represents Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and a Liberal Democrat spokesman who represents Yeovil, which is in Somerset. However, she then pointed out that issues such as low aspirations and other aspects that are behind underperformance are relevant right across the country.

I recognised in the comments made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington many problems that I have seen in my own constituency. I am sure that the Minister and the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) have seen the same across the country. Certainly, we have seen the effects of a chaotic home environment and the deprivation that can have an impact on many schools, particularly those sited in the toughest catchment areas. Admittedly, London and some other cities experience that problem to a greater degree than other areas, but it is present in one way or another across the whole country.

The issue of the large number of students from ethnic minorities who may not speak English as a first language is obviously acute in many parts of London, but it is increasingly relevant right across the country. Many hon. Members might be surprised to know that even in my constituency of Yeovil there is an infant school with a majority of youngsters who speak English as a second language. That will not be exceptional for the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and some of her colleagues from inner-London constituencies, but it is exceptional for Somerset. Such radical change has been taking place in many parts of the country over the past few years.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the issue of underachievement by black pupils and said that it is relevant to other categories of student, including, most notably, white working class boys. We see that in Somerset and across many other parts of the country.

The hon. Lady also talked about role models in the teaching profession and the gap that there is in London in that area, particularly in relation to black and ethnic minority teachers and pupils. That is not quite so relevant in Somerset, but her points about the gap in the teaching force in relation to the male-female split are certainly applicable. Many primary and infant schools in my constituency have no male teachers.

Quite often, head teachers will mention to me, as no doubt they do to other hon. Members, the fact that there are few male role models outside school for many youngsters in those environments. Sadly, the problem of family instability and chaos outside the school environment is not one that relates only to the areas of greatest deprivation. We see it across the country. Much of what the hon. Lady said relates directly to London, but it also has wider relevance.

I also enjoyed the speech from the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). I recognise and agree with a lot that he had to say, but on two points—I hope he does not think this too Liberal Democrat a statement—I felt that I could only half agree with him.

Jeremy Corbyn: You are a Liberal Democrat.

Mr. Laws: I make the jokes about Liberal Democrats. On exclusion, I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about schools excessively using temporary and permanent exclusion. My experience is that most head teachers are extremely reluctant to use that particular vehicle. However, I recognise his points about the problem of students getting excluded, particularly permanently, and the consequences for them of exclusion because of the lack of proper support outside the school environment.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am not suggesting that head teachers routinely or recklessly exclude or expel large numbers of children—I do not believe that to be the case—but I recognise that there is a problem. I also recognise that it is quite possible for a youngster to be excluded or expelled from school on the basis of an unfortunate concoction of evidence by fellow pupils or things such as that, which could result in the youngster being accused of something that they are not guilty of. Also, there may not be a sufficiently fair or robust system of appeal to the governing body, which should dispassionately examine the evidence.

I am not saying that exclusion is a huge issue, but for any child who is excluded or expelled from school, that exclusion or expulsion is a huge factor in the rest of their life and we should be conscious of that.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He is certainly right when he says that many of the pupil referral units that excluded youngsters go into are often difficult environments that youngsters struggle in. Many of those units have been picked up by Ofsted and identified as not performing effectively, which is a major challenge for Government policy.

I also fear that I only half agree with the hon. Gentleman on the issue of the so-called failing schools. I am pleased that the Government are focusing on schools that have performed poorly, particularly at GCSE level. I am not convinced, given the right resources, leadership and support, that there is an excuse for any school in the country to have more than 70 per cent. of its youngsters failing to achieve the benchmark that the Government have identified. However, I agree strongly with him that the spin behind the announcement that the Government made a week ago, which seemed to have more to do with media management and creating headlines than with improving schools, was extremely unfortunate.

I have received a lot of feedback from schools across the country and they believe that the publicity relating to that announcement was damaging to their efforts to improve. After all, many of the schools that the Government identified last week are academies, which is exactly what one would expect, given that academies are set up in areas that already have underperformance. Therefore, it is unhelpful to label such schools, which the Government have championed, “failing” schools.

When the Minister responds, he will tell me that I have got all that wrong and that the media spin put the “failing” tag on those schools.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Hear, hear.

Mr. Laws: Before the Minister cheers too loudly, I refer him to the statement made by the Prime Minister in response to a question from one of his Labour colleagues at Prime Minister’s questions last week. Even the Prime Minister went off-message and referred to these schools as “failing” schools, when they are supposed to be categorised in some other way, which the Minister will no doubt tell us about.

Ms Abbott: On exclusions, I wanted only to make the point that I have counselled many a mother whose son has been excluded. They sit before me in floods of tears, because mothers, including black mothers, take exclusion badly. They always insist that their child is as innocent as the day is long, that their son has been the victim of tremendous injustice and that this is the first incident of bad behaviour that has ever happened. However, when I inquire further, I often find a gruesome catalogue of wrongdoing. That is why my emphasis is on diverting those young men and on what we do with them after they have been excluded.

Mr. Laws: The hon. Lady is exactly right to make those points.

We have only a brief time for the debate, so I want to touch on only three or four issues that the hon. Lady raised, and I will do so in short order. However, before I continue, having congratulated her and the hon. Member for Islington, North, I pay tribute—no doubt the Minister will do so at the beginning of his speech—to the progress that has been made in London over the last 10 years, because large parts of London, particularly inner London, produced an appalling performance in terms of school standards 10 years ago. Indeed, some of those areas still have low school standards today.

With the extra financial resources that have gone in, the emphasis on better governance and some work that has been piloted in London on reading recovery and on other areas of education, it is notable that there has been a sharp improvement in London, particularly in some of the poorest performing parts of London, over the last decade. It is good to see that improvement recognised not only through the published statistics, but through the national recognition been given to people such as Sir William Atkinson at Phoenix high school in London, who received a well-deserved knighthood a few weeks ago to acknowledge the progress that has been made there.

Once some of those problems have been sorted out, any Government will want to look beyond London at other parts of the country, where the improvement in performance over the last 10 years has not been nearly as impressive. Those are areas where the headline statistics look satisfactory but there are issues about whether their schools are doing anything like as well as they should be, given their catchment areas.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington raised at the outset the issue of black underachievement. She mentioned that underachievement is also a problem with white working class boys. She also mentioned, quite rightly, the fact that many other ethnic minority communities seem radically to outperform some poorly performing ethnic minority communities and that that is not always related purely to issues of deprivation. As she suggested, sometimes ethnic minority communities with similar apparent disadvantages achieve different results.

I am sure that all Members here who frequently speak to head teachers and others, and who are also aware of the relevant statistics, will be conscious of the fact that not all those differences in performance can be explained away simply by social factors and that there are issues about aspirations in the home environment in different communities. Those aspirations can make a real difference.

The Liberal Democrats want greater emphasis on developing a coherent system for funding across the country, which would target disadvantage more effectively than the existing system. It would also help some of the individuals whom the hon. Lady talked about in her speech, who live in parts of London where the deprivation funding does not get through effectively. That may be more of a problem outside London, where pockets of deprivation are more widely dispersed than in some inner-London boroughs.

Nevertheless, there is a need for the Government to reform the funding formula that relates to deprivation—I know that they are looking at that now—and to ensure that the amounts of money that go to disadvantaged youngsters are much greater to help to compensate for some of the great challenges in those communities.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington also mentioned the issues that clearly do not relate purely to deprivation and economic disadvantage—work force issues and the bias, particularly in primary schools, against men. I agree very much with her comments on the latter issue, and I would like some of the measures that she mentioned to be introduced to encourage more men into the primary school teaching work force.

The hon. Lady also referred to the gap in London between black and other ethnic minority pupil populations and the teaching work force. She was right to make the observations that she made in that regard. I know that she was criticised by some people nationally during her previous campaign on the issue, because their emphasis was on getting good teachers into schools, regardless of their ethnic background. I am sure that she is not suggesting that we should compromise teaching standards to get more black and other ethnic minority teachers into schools.

There is a cultural problem with some of our communities and much of that relates to aspirations. That issue is one of the difficulties in many schools, but it is most effectively challenged by good leadership. Therefore, it is important that youngsters in those communities see that going on to teach or to aspire to success in an academic environment are things that individuals such as them ought to be doing.

I do not want to hark back too much to Sir William Atkinson’s school, but I recollect that, when I visited it, he had lots of large photographs around the school of youngsters from previous years, with their GCSE performance listed underneath. The message that he is trying to send out by having those photographs around the school is that people like the pupils—with the same ethnic background and from the same community or estate—can achieve to that high standard.

I will not go back over all the points that the hon. Lady made—she will be pleased to know that—but she raised a number of issues about how the Government might tackle this particular ethnic minority gap, if I may put it that way, and I hope that the Minister responds to her suggestions.

There are a host of other issues relating to the teaching work force in London that we ought to refer to, but time does not allow it. I hope that the Minister touches on one particular issue—that of teacher shortages. Those shortages are especially acute in London, compared with other parts of the country, and they may become even more acute in this environment of pay restraint.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this very important debate. Nothing is more important than education. It is the only route out of poverty and the only route to a fulfilled life. It is key to enabling people to enjoy and contribute to the culture of this nation.

From listening to the hon. Lady on “Desert Island Discs”, which was very enjoyable, including the music—there was no Abba, which was good—it is clear that education has been important in her life. She went to a grammar school in Harrow and then on to Cambridge, and went on to break down barriers in the civil service and politics.

The hon. Lady referred in her opening remarks to the long tail of underachievement, and she cited black boys in particular, but the phrase frequently appears in commentaries on and outside audits of the British education system. For example, the Programme for International Student Assessment report talks about the long tail of underachievement in this country, particularly in reading.

regret that I am introducing the phrase “synthetic phonics” so early in my speech, but it is important that reading is taught properly in our primary schools, in reception class and in year one. Synthetic phonics closes the gap between boys and girls, between socio-economic groups, and between ethnic minorities and the rest of the population. It works, and it works particularly well for all those groups.

The hon. Lady is also right about the gender imbalance in the teaching profession at secondary level and particularly in primary schools. A recent survey by the Training and Development Agency for Schools found that most boys thought that they behaved better with a male teacher—42 per cent. said that they worked harder, and 44 per cent. said that it made school more enjoyable. If we want to encourage men to go into teaching, it is important that we provide anonymity for all teachers when accusations are made against them by pupils, because most of the accusations are false and most are made against men. I am sure that that deters many men from going into education.

It is also important that we do everything we can to assist overseas trained teachers to acquire qualified teacher status, and that they do not lose their job and, potentially, their immigration status as a consequence of the rules that are coming into force shortly. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about what is being done to assist those people in acquiring QTS. I agree with the reasoning behind the approach—to ensure that we have properly qualified teachers with all the requisite skills—but we do not want to leave our London schools with some 11,000 fewer teachers as a consequence of the new rules.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) is right when he says that schools in difficult circumstances can achieve. I am sure that they can, and I will come to some examples of that shortly. There is no doubt that London has experienced some serious problems with its school system, and that in some parts it continues to do so today. There is also no doubt that the London Challenge has been successful in raising achievement levels in London schools, with 47.9 per cent. of pupils now achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and Maths. But even though the rise in standards in London during the period of the London Challenge has been greater than the rise nationally, it is not acceptable that more than half of London’s 15 and 16-year-olds are still not achieving five or more good GCSEs including English and Maths. The children’s plan aims for 90 per cent. of children to achieve five high GCSE grades, which should include English and Maths. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said, in too many schools there is a culture of low expectations that really is not acceptable.

On Monday, I visited the London Oratory school, which is a fantastic school where every child, regardless of their ability or background, is expected to work hard and achieve. I found that behaviour was immaculate, pupils stood up when an adult entered the classroom, they studied the three separate sciences, a modern language is compulsory to GCSE level, extra-curricular activities are extensive, competitive sport is important, the uniform of blazer and tie is strictly enforced, and 96 per cent. achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and Maths. One can understand why the former Prime Minister sent his children there.

London Oratory is a comprehensive school. Its pupils have a genuine array of abilities and social backgrounds, albeit that it is a Catholic faith school. Instead of obsessing about its intake, we should seek to replicate its approach to education generally.

As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington correctly pointed out, there is a real teacher recruitment problem in London schools, and the teacher vacancy rate is twice the national average. There is also a higher teaching staff turnover rate in London—at 22.3 per cent., it is significantly higher than the national rate. In London, 35 per cent. of teachers have fewer than six years’ experience, compared with 29 per cent. nationally.

Those problems are not encountered at the London Oratory, where staff turnover is just 5 per cent. That provides the stability that the hon. Lady mentioned during her contribution. The school has no problems recruiting academic specialists in their subject, whether it be physics, French, Latin, history or English, and that is because the school is a happy, well-ordered and calm place where children are free to learn and where the ethos is that pupils are expected to study hard and to do extensive homework every evening.

I accept the hon. Member for Islington, North’s point about facilities for doing homework. If children have difficult backgrounds, if there is no place for them to do their homework, and if there is no peace and quiet in the home, the school really should be making provision for them to do their homework at school in homework clubs after school. That is the right approach. There certainly should be no excuse in such circumstances for not doing homework, or for not setting it.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am certainly not in favour of schools disregarding homework because of home facilities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that they have to provide the necessary support and facilities during lunch breaks and after school, and through breakfast clubs and so on. The school must do the best that it can. But I caution him against measuring every school in London against the London Oratory, which is not exactly a community comprehensive school of the sort that I have in my constituency. It takes pupils from a wide range across London. After all, as a faith school, it is entitled to select a proportion of its intake.

Mr. Gibb: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the London Oratory. It is a faith school and it does take in pupils from a wide area of London, but it has a socially diverse mix of pupils. The mix may not be as diverse as some schools but, nevertheless, it is diverse.

The curriculum at the school is very academic. It is based around the foundation subjects, and teachers have the challenge and enjoyment of teaching their subject at a level as well as to pupils as young as 11 or, in some cases, as young as seven. They also teach less able children in their own subject and children with special needs—there is a special needs unit at the London Oratory. In all cases, the atmosphere is one of good behaviour, respect for others and hard work, and that is why the school has no problem recruiting high-calibre teachers and why its staff turnover is low.

To take on directly the hon. Gentleman’s point, the same ethos applies at Mossbourne Community academy in Hackney—I believe that it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington—where 50 per cent. of the school’s intake qualifies for free school meals and 40 per cent. speak English as a second language. It has the same focus on academic standards and achievement, the same approach to behaviour and uniforms and the same high expectations for the children. I believe that when GCSEs are taken for the first time next year, the results will approach those of the London Oratory. The only difference between the London Oratory and Mossbourne academy is the age of the school, with the former being more than 100 years old and the latter just four or five years old.

If we are serious about raising educational standards in London, we need to look at both those schools and ensure that we replicate their approach across all schools in the capital.

The hon. Lady raised some important issues about ethnic diversity among the teaching profession. In London, about 11 per cent. of teachers are from an ethnic minority. The proportion is far lower than the population that they serve: across London, about one fifth of pupils in primary schools are from an ethnic minority. We need to understand the reasons for the discrepancy.

Many teachers from ethnic minorities have reported having to deal with incidents of racial harassment or discrimination. An internet survey carried out by the Teacher Support Network in 2006 found that 61 per cent. of the 238 respondents reported being harassed or discriminated against by managers within the school. That is totally unacceptable, and of course will deter someone from entering the teaching profession. There is also evidence that teachers are encountering racism in the classroom. Raising standards of behaviour in our schools is key. We have to give head teachers the powers they need to exclude persistently disruptive and abusive children. Poor behaviour is one of the prime reasons that teachers give for leaving the profession.

We should also consider whether educational opportunities for many children from ethnic minorities are as available to them as they are to the rest of the population. Schools in the inner cities, which have tended to be weaker and to have lower expectations than schools elsewhere, tend to be the ones that serve poorer populations and those from ethnic minorities.

In my view, the school must be regarded as being at fault, not the children. At Mossbourne community academy, 80 per cent. of the children are from an ethnic minority and 50 per cent. qualify for free school meals. However, having visited that school, it is difficult to distinguish it from one of the better performing independent schools: its only distinguishing feature is its modernity.

Despite all that has been achieved in London schools, more needs to be done to raise standards. Some 20 per cent. of pupils are still not achieving level 4 in English at key stage 2; 24 per cent. are not achieving level 4 in Maths; 52 per cent. are not achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A to C, including English and Maths; and the average A-level score per candidate in London was 259 in 2006, compared with 289 nationally. High expectations and structured, consistent behaviour policies are key to raising standards and being able to recruit high calibre teachers. We also need to make it easier for new schools to be established by parents and by education foundations, including the United Learning Trust, the Mercer’s Company, ARK—Absolute Return for Kids—the public schools, the Woodward Trust and so on.

There is no doubt that the London Challenge has made some progress, but there is still a long way to go before we can be content that standards of education and behaviour in London schools are at an acceptable level.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on securing this debate. I thank her for raising the important issue of the teaching workforce in London and particularly for mentioning the levels of achievement of black boys. She has championed that cause and has real expertise in that area and it is right that she should continue to challenge us on the issue. If she wants to meet me and the Training and Development Agency for Schools to discuss teacher recruitment further, I should be happy to do so to tap into her expertise.

Despite what my hon. Friend said about the area of the country that I represent, I was brought up in this city, but in outer London rather than inner London. Our capital city is, as she described it, a paradox of wealth and disadvantage in close proximity. It is an international powerhouse of business, innovation and economic success, yet it houses some of the most deprived areas in the country. The Government are committed to treating those pockets and concentrations of deprivation to lift people out of poverty through education, among other things, give them the opportunities to succeed and ensure that those opportunities are for all, not just luck of the draw. That is what this Government stands for: removing the juxtaposition of privilege and disadvantage that exists not only in our London communities, but can exist as a division between our schools, too. I am grateful to all hon. Members for paying tribute to the London Challenge programme, which has gone a long way to making that happen.

In this Chamber last week, I described my noble Friend Lord Adonis as a hero of the labour movement for what he has done in London. I reiterate that in respect of what he has done for the London Challenge, supported so ably by Tim Brighouse and, now, by Mike Tomlinson, who did such particularly good work in Hackney prior to taking on the London Challenge role.

Some 10 years ago, our capital limped behind the national average in GCSE results, both in the number of students gaining five higher level GCSEs, including English and Maths, and the number simply gaining five or more GCSEs in all subjects. Now, London is ahead on both counts, improvement across the capital's schools is faster than anywhere else and we are closing the gap. On the GCSE measure, there has been an extraordinary 24.5 per cent. improvement in inner London schools since 1997.

My hon. Friend is committed to the philosophy of equality, fair access and high standards, as she has shown in her valuable work, for example, through her London Schools and the Black Child initiative. She shares my conviction that every school should be a good school. That ambition begins with the work force.

We can invest in buildings, equipment and facilities, and we do so. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South—

Jeremy Corbyn: North. Where Arsenal is.

Jim Knight: Sorry, I mean of course my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). I am grateful for his kind comments in this regard. It is important that we continue such investment. However, what makes the biggest difference between a good education and an average one is the quality of our teachers. Investing in that human resource—in our professionals—is vital if this country is to become a world leader in education: it is vital for the transformation of local communities, with children in school learning and fully aware of those who live around them, and vital for our young people, who will be given a real chance in life to fulfil their potential, realise their talents and be all that they can be.

We inherited a decline in people taking up teacher training. By 1999, numbers of new trainees had been in free fall for eight consecutive years. We have managed to break that fall by introducing incentives and training bursaries. Now, we have more teachers than ever before. In England, we have almost 2,000 more full-time equivalent regular teachers than last year and more than 40,000 more than a decade ago, which is almost two more teachers for every school in England on average, and in London, local authority schools have 7,500 more than a decade ago, boosted by 6,500 occasional and full-time equivalent unqualified teachers, instructors, overseas-trained teachers—I will talk about those later—and so on. Last year, the teaching sector was the second most popular choice for graduates leaving university, which is a massive step forward from where we were. Recruits are up, vacancy rates are down and even in London the vacancy rate is only 1.2 per cent., against the national average of 0.6 per cent. So I would hardly call it a crisis. However, there is, of course, more to do.

In addressing some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, I start by saying that, of course, my Dorset constituency does not reflect the ethnic make-up of and rich diversity in London. I represent an almost homogenous white community, except for the young offenders’ institution on Portland. The vast majority of the inmates there are from London and are black and many of them have special educational needs and were excluded from school. I have visited that institution and talked to the governor and the prison staff, who tell me that some of the problems in London are reflected in the prison, in terms of gang trouble and so on. Talking to the young people there and hearing about the experience of growing up in London reinforces my determination to do more along the lines that my hon. Friend has described.

We need to continue to address underachievement with black boys. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) was right to say that, after Gypsy and Traveller children, the biggest area of underachievement is actually white working class boys, but there is still a significant issue with black boys that we need to address.

Ms Abbott: This is a much-contested piece of statistical information. What we might call the league table varies in different parts of the country, but in London black boys are actually still the lowest-achieving group.

Jim Knight: I do not have the detailed breakdown for London. My hon. Friend may well be right and there is no reason for me to disagree with her on that. Like the hon. Member for Yeovil, I think that it is important that we pay tribute to some of our positive role models, such as Sir William Atkinson at the Phoenix school, whom I congratulate on his knighthood. I was delighted that Tim Campbell, the former winner of “The Apprentice”, who grew up in Newham in east London, is now working with us on promoting the diplomas and is a positive role model. I was delighted today to visit the Guru Nanak secondary school in London, the only Sikh secondary school in the country, which achieves 73 per cent. five A* to C grades, including in English and Maths, and almost 100 per cent. of the pupils are achieving at that level despite having English as an additional language. That is a fantastic school.

A lot of the things that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) said about his favourite schools, I could say about Guru Nanak and I recommend it to him. It is an example of a school with a high proportion of ethnic minorities doing well, but in that case they are largely from the Asian sub-continent by ethnic origin rather than being black Afro-Caribbean pupils. It can be done.

My hon. Friend made some points about governors. We are addressing the matter with a review of governance, and part of our agenda is to examine community cohesion and representation on governing bodies. I am also interested in the role of parent councils. I had a meeting yesterday with some people from Hackney with expertise in parent councils, which have a role in reflecting the parent voice more accurately and the range of parent voice properly to reflect the community

The issue of more male teachers is equally important, and my hon. Friend was right when she said that there has been a decline since 1997 when there were 17 per cent. male teachers in primary schools and there are now 16 per cent., and in secondary schools there were 48 per cent. and there are now 43 per cent. We are concerned about that, and when recruiting we are trying to use more images of men teaching. We are trying in various ways in our recruitment advertising to promote the profession to men without breaking discrimination law.

Similarly, in trying to recruit more minority ethnic background teachers, there is an agenda for widening access, but the figures are more encouraging. In 1999, there were 6 per cent., in 2003-04 there were 9 per cent., and in 2006-07 there were 12 per cent. The latest recruitment figures for initial teacher training have exceeded the 10 per cent. target and we are recruiting close to 13 per cent. into the profession. We take that very seriously with TDA, but I shall be happy to discuss it further with TDA and my hon. Friend.

We can and should do more through public relations and otherwise, as well as with refugee teachers, and my hon. Friend has raised that in the past. The Employability Forum has recommended that refugee professionals wishing to access jobs in education are helped to do so, and we have provided more than £1 million for that.

There are issues about overseas-trained teachers, to which I would respond if I had time, because there is a good answer to be had. Issues about housing have been raised and I could respond, but housing costs in Dorset are prohibitive for newly qualified teachers, so the problem is not just in London.

The Government have done more than just address the previous decade’s fall in teacher numbers; we have done more than just redress the balance of reward and recognition; we have included individuals from a more diverse cultural pool; and we have started to shape the educational landscape to help high standards to flourish and to weed out underperformance. We must do more, and I am happy to work with my hon. Friend on that, and to get rid of the juxtaposition of wealth and disadvantage, and of uneven opportunity that London epitomises so that our education society is fairer.

 



 


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