Sharon spoke in a Westminster Hall debate called by Bill Esterson MP on teacher training and the supply of new teachers.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this very important debate and on his measured and comprehensive speech setting out the problem. The Deputy Prime Minister is not in the room at the moment, and nor would we expect him to be, but I would like to thank him for his intervention at the weekend, which should make for an entertaining speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I shall leave the jokes to him; that is one of his many talents.
I would also like to thank the university of Sunderland for bringing this issue to my attention. Given the importance of the university to the city of Sunderland, I have a keen interest in its continued success, and I am in regular contact with the vice-chancellor, Professor Peter Fidler, to discuss any areas of concern that he may have. This is a particularly big area of concern for the university, and not just because of the financial implications. There are financial implications from losing places, of course, but the knock-on effect on the capacity of the university of Sunderland to deliver future places at the high level of quality that it currently provides is the most concerning impact. Sunderland is not alone in being challenged by this. In fact, because it has an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted for its secondary teacher training, it may be less affected than other universities, certainly in the short term. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central has described, this problem threatens to break the system in the medium to long term.
Colleagues will no doubt have seen the recent article on this issue by the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Yardley, who is also a former chancellor of the university of Sunderland and is still very much involved, so it cannot be said that she is speaking from an uninformed position. In that article, she sets out clearly that the loss of guaranteed allocations and the lack of information about future numbers mean that initial teacher training providers are struggling to plan for the future. That makes it difficult for them to retain experienced staff and therefore to deliver high-quality training. In the worst cases, it could even mean that they will struggle to continue to run the courses on a viable footing altogether. We are already seeing universities having to face up to that.
In the same article, Baroness Morris makes other valid critiques of the School Direct roll-out as well. She points out that there is no strategy to ensure even coverage of schools, either geographically or by subject area, meaning that opportunities may not be available to all candidates. She also points out that schools are under no obligation to fill the places that they have been allocated, meaning that we have no idea from one year to the next what the actual intake will be. However, it is the impact on the higher education sector, which, we should remember, also plays an important role in providing high-quality continuing professional development, that is the most concerning.
What are the Government doing to counter the concerns? What the Minister and his colleagues have done, as in so many other policy areas, is in effect to absolve themselves of any responsibility for getting things done. There is no central planning, no assessment of the impact of the changes in the market and no accountability. In some ways, it is a remarkable contradiction of their academisation programme, which is a drive to make the Department directly responsible for an ever-increasing proportion of schools, although of course, as we saw last week, when failings emerge, Ministers are quick to absolve themselves of that responsibility too, so I suppose it does fit a pattern.
However, although we agree with Nick—to recycle that well used phrase—that teachers should be qualified, this particular issue of how they get that qualification is not a question of ideological or political differences. It is more a question of process and practicality. I like the idea of prospective teachers having a different postgraduate route into the profession. Provided that the schools providing these opportunities are up to scratch, particularly in terms of their special educational needs practice, School Direct should produce good teachers. Whether those teachers will be better or worse than those who gained qualified teacher status by the more traditional route is something that we do not know and may never know, so the extent to which Ministers and Government agencies appear to be championing this as a better option, rather than just an alternative option, is questionable.
A good idea is a good idea, but even the best ideas can run into problems because of a failure to think through and plan for their knock-on effects. Introducing and expanding new schemes must always be done with an eye on the consequences elsewhere; in consultation with those affected; and in such a way as to support the core objectives. In this case, the Government appear to have ignored the concerns raised by universities and the Education Committee and are pursuing an implementation programme that will seriously affect other providers of initial teacher training. Worse is the potential knock-on effect of these reforms being a lack of teachers being recruited in shortage areas such as the sciences, including computer science, as we have heard. Even worse than that would be a shortage of teachers overall to meet the growing demand on the school system that is set to begin in a couple of years’ time because of the spike in the birth rate.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It seems to me that some factors that are relevant in anticipating the future demand for teachers may not immediately be apparent to schools considering their own immediate needs. Does the hon. Lady consider that perhaps we need some way in which those requirements could be factored into the demand for initial teacher training?
Mrs Hodgson: I agree, and that is why the unintended as well as the intended consequences of the whole programme need to be thought through. One unintended consequence is that if there is no initial demand, because the demand goes in another direction, universities will have to let qualified staff go, so the staff will not be there to pick up the slack in a couple of years’ time. How it will work in the short term, as well as the medium to long term, must be thought through.
Unless we get recruitment policy right now, there will be a shortage of not only primary school places, but secondary school teachers, especially given the number, which we are all aware of, of teachers leaving the profession due to their being completely demoralised by the actions and rhetoric of a certain Education Secretary. I do not think that universities are asking for too much when they ask for some certainty now. They accept that new schemes will come along from time to time, as we discussed, but like me, they rightly believe that the established route into the teaching profession—a route that has created the best generation of teachers we have ever had, let us not forget—will continue to be the preferred choice for many candidates.
No matter what the law says now, it is the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that those high-quality places are still available beyond the next election. I hope therefore that the Minister will listen to the concerns raised here today, and over the past few months by groups such as Million+, and ensure that his Government do not, as they are in the habit of doing, throw the baby out with the bathwater.