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Teachers Strike

Volume 612: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on today’s teachers strike and its impact on children, parents and school communities.

Let me first declare my interest as a retired NUT member. Not only have we had the first junior doctors strike on this Government’s watch, but today we have failure in another public service, with a teachers strike. Sadly, this Government have relished attacking—

Order. I do not wish to disrupt the flow of the hon. Gentleman’s eloquence or the eloquence of his flow, but at this point all he needs to do is ask his urgent question. His more detailed supplementary will come after he has heard what the Minister has to say, in which I am sure he is extremely interested.

There is absolutely no justification for this strike. The National Union of Teachers asked for talks, and we are having talks. Since May, the Department for Education has been engaged in a new programme of talks with the major teaching unions, including the NUT, focused on all the concerns raised during the strike. Even before then we were engaged in round-table discussions with the trade unions, and both the Secretary of State and I meet the trade union leaders regularly to discuss their concerns.

This strike is politically motivated and has nothing to do with raising standards in education. In the words of Deborah Lawson, the general secretary of the non-striking teacher union Voice, today’s strike is a

“futile and politically motivated gesture”.

Kevin Courtney, the acting general secretary of the NUT, made it clear in his letter to the Secretary of State on 28 June that the strike was about school funding and teacher pay and conditions, yet this year’s school budget is greater than in any previous year, at £40 billion—some £4 billion higher than 2011-12. At a time when other areas of public spending have been significantly reduced, the Government have shown our commitment to education by protecting school spending.

We want to work with the profession and with the teacher unions, and we have been doing that successfully in our joint endeavour to reduce unnecessary teacher workload. With 15,000 more teachers in the profession than in 2010, teaching remains one of the most popular and attractive professions in which to work. The industrial action by the NUT is pointless, but it is far from inconsequential. It disrupts children’s education, inconveniences parents, and damages the profession’s reputation in the eyes of the public, but our analysis shows that because of the dedication of the vast majority of teachers and headteachers, seven out of eight schools are refusing to close.

Our school workforce is and must remain a respected profession suitable for the 21st century, but this action is seeking to take the profession back in public perception to the tired and dated disputes of the 20th century. More importantly, this strike does not have a democratic mandate from a majority even of NUT members. It is based on a ballot for which the turnout was just 24.5%, representing less than 10% of the total teacher workforce.

Our ground-breaking education reforms are improving pupil outcomes, challenging low expectations and poor pupil behaviour in schools, and increasing the prestige of the teaching profession. This anachronistic and unnecessary strike is a march back into a past that nobody wants our schools to revisit.

Not only have we had the first junior doctors strike on this Government’s watch, but today we have failure in another public service with the teachers strike. Sadly, this Government have relished attacking education professionals, undermining them and describing them as “the blob”, instead of engaging with them and celebrating their role in driving up individual child and school performance. At a time when people have a right to look to Government for stability and security, a breakdown of trust among teachers and a strike of this nature is most unfortunate.

At the heart of this is concern felt by people on the frontline, be they teachers, head teachers or parents, about future school budgets. Everyone knows that despite the Secretary of State’s protestations, school budgets are going to fall in real terms, year on year, up to 2020. Head teachers know it, parents know it, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed it. The only person who is shoving her head in the sand in total denial is the Secretary of State. That failure of Government has resulted in what we are witnessing today—massive disruption, classes cancelled and pupils sent home.

The Chancellor has made it clear that he is tearing up his fiscal rules. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) asked yesterday, will the Government now commit to securing our children’s future by reversing the planned cut in funding and securing the necessary cash for our nation’s children? As I asked yesterday, will the Minister commit to publishing the Government’s response to the School Teachers Review Body by the end of this academic year so that head teachers can plan effectively?

It is clear that the Government have lost the plot. They have a problem with teachers—they cannot recruit or retain enough, and they have lost teachers’ confidence in large numbers. It is clear today that our children, who are our future, are paying the price of Tory education failure.

It is nice to hear from the shadow shadow Schools Minister on the fourth row of the Opposition Benches. The only people who are undermining the teaching profession are the leadership of the National Union of Teachers. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman is jumping on this dispute to make cheap political points, instead of joining the Government and condemning this unnecessary and pointless strike. Will he now say that he opposes this strike by the NUT, which is disrupting children’s education and inconveniencing parents?

Finally, just to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the School Teachers Review Body report, we will publish the report, together with our response and a draft revised school teachers pay and conditions document, as soon as we have completed our consideration of it.

Parents do not know why many teachers have gone on strike, and I am sure many of the teachers themselves do not understand why this strike is taking place. What parents do know is how difficult it is to make arrangements for childcare at short notice. Will the Minister pay tribute to the many teachers who are in work today, doing the right thing by their pupils?

My hon. Friend is right. These strikes not only damage children’s education, with every extra day of school missed damaging the outcomes for those children, but hugely inconvenience working parents, who have to make childcare arrangements or take a day off work in order to look after their children. So I share my hon. Friend’s comments, and I pay tribute to the vast majority of teachers and head teachers who are working today, resulting in seven out of eight schools refusing to close.

As in the case of the junior doctors dispute, I am sure that the general public watching this debate will see through this Government’s mirage and their fascination with what they seem to think is the picture out there. Taking strike action is one of the most difficult decisions any teacher makes. No one takes that decision lightly, but teachers have said enough is enough. They are fed up with the cuts, which 70% of heads say are directly affecting educational standards. Will the Minister now accept that class sizes are increasing, pupils are getting less choice about the subjects they learn, jobs are going and children are getting less individual time with staff?

I find the Minister’s faith in the free market’s ability to decide teachers’ salaries touchingly naive, on a day when the pound has fallen to a 31-year low. Can he tell us whether there is any limit to how far he is prepared to see teachers’ salaries fall? Meanwhile, the Secretary of State has refused to say anything about what will happen to teachers’ pay and conditions in September, and we have still not heard anything about that from the Minister. We are less than a month from the end of term, so will he finally end the uncertainty and update the House on what teachers can expect?

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State seems to be spending more time on the Justice Secretary’s campaign for the Tory leadership than on her day job. Will the Minister now agree to get around the table and thrash out a better deal for the next generation, which is what every parent across the country wants? The working conditions of our teachers are the learning conditions of our children, and our children deserve the very best.

What the public are seeing is a Labour party that is equivocal about whether it agrees with strike action that is disrupting children’s education. The hon. Lady is not prepared to condemn strike action that is not only damaging children’s education but hugely inconveniencing working parents, who have to make alternative arrangements for looking after their children.

The hon. Lady talks about class sizes, but the average infant class size has remained at 27.4—unchanged from 2015. Indeed, of the 3,066 infant classes with 31 or more pupils, 80% have just 31 pupils, and that is because of the flexibility we have built in to allow one or two extra children—for example, twins—to have access to those schools. Will the hon. Lady condemn that policy?

I have said that we will publish the STRB report when consideration of it is complete. We will consult teachers and stakeholders about the future of the STRB and about the arrangements when all schools are academies. However, let me give the hon. Lady one final chance to say, on behalf of the Labour party, that it condemns this unnecessary and futile strike by the National Union of Teachers.

Working mums and dads in my constituency will today be hugely inconvenienced by this completely unnecessary strike action. Many of them work in the local NHS and in local public services and social services, and their patients and customers will be inconvenienced by their absence as part of a politically motivated strike that is, frankly, an embarrassment to many members of the NUT itself. Will my hon. Friend the Minister praise those teachers who have walked across picket lines today to teach children in our local schools? They are the shining example, not the NUT.

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nothing is more important than ensuring that young people get a good education—that they master the basics of reading and writing, get good GCSEs and are prepared for life in modern Britain. I do pay tribute to all those teachers who have gone into work today, despite the NUT’s action, which is based on a ballot of less than 25% of its members. We want to make sure that no child’s education is disrupted, and I pay tribute to the fact that seven out of eight schools have refused to close.

This strike by teachers is significant. This group of people have gone into a vocational and caring profession. They are not driven by money, but they do seek to be recognised and valued for the job they do. The ongoing erosion of teachers’ pay and conditions and their increasing workload make their vocation hard to live out, particularly when they could earn more and have better terms and conditions working in the local supermarket. It is easy to say at the Dispatch Box that teachers are valued, but actions have to match the rhetoric. Yesterday in Education questions, I asked the Minister a question, and I repeat it today: what is he doing to ensure that teachers have a nationally guaranteed level of pay? How is he working with teachers to reduce their workload? How is he protecting their terms and conditions, such as maternity and sick pay?

Kevin Courtney, the acting general secretary of the NUT, has made it clear that the dispute is about pay and conditions. On workload, what is disappointing about the strike is that we have been working extremely closely and constructively with all the teacher unions to tackle unnecessary workload. As a consequence of our discussions, we have established three workload groups, staffed by highly experienced teachers and headteachers. We have looked at data management, planning and dialogic marking. Those groups have all reported, and we have accepted all their recommendations. That will have a genuine effect on the top three workload issues highlighted by the Secretary of State’s workload challenge, to which 44,000 teachers responded. On teachers’ pay and conditions, as we move into a situation where more and more schools become academies, we will consult with the profession about the future of the STRB process.

If the shadow Secretary of State is right that strike action is always a big and difficult decision, is it not about time that strike action is not allowed when such a derisory proportion of members—in this case, 24%—vote for it, particularly given the huge disruption it causes to pupils’ education, to parents’ lives and to other teachers, who have to cover for those who are out on strike?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Trade Union Act 2016 will ensure that industrial action in essential services gets the go-ahead only after a ballot of at least 50% of members. Bearing in mind that the turnout for this ballot was just 24.5%, this strike would not be legal if the new regulations had taken effect. We are consulting with stakeholders on the regulations, and the thresholds are likely to come into force later this year.

I received a message today from Nicola, a teacher—I am sure her class is not full of twins—who said that she is trying to work out how to fit next year’s class of 34 into a room with furniture for just 28 children, while also making leaving cards for four members of staff. What does the Minister have to say to Nicola?

What I would say is that the percentage of pupils in infant classes of more than 30 is 5.8%, which is down from 6.2% in January 2015. In the last five or six years, we have created 600,000 more school places. We have doubled the amount of capital going into creating new school places, compared with that spent by the previous Labour Government. Incidentally, they removed 200,000 primary school places, which is the problem we have had to tackle, and they did not plan for the increased birth rate.

Our teachers do a fantastic job, but does the Minister agree that there are ways to protest that do not involve damaging children’s education and inconveniencing parents? Does he agree that there has to be the strongest possible justification for such drastic action and that that threshold has not been met in this case?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ministers in the Department are always open to having discussions with trade union leaders. We have one-to-one discussions, we attend the new programme of talks and we attend the roundtable talks. Officials also have regular talks with the trade unions. This is not a necessary strike, because those discussions are always taking place. This has more to do with the internal workings of the NUT than with the real pay and conditions of teachers in this country.

Has the Minister not got a cheek to be talking about 20,000-odd teachers deciding to strike for a moment or two, when he is part of a Government who are going to let only 120,000 people decide the Prime Minister, instead of having a general election? Does he agree with that?

The hon. Gentleman talks about 20,000 teachers, but there are 456,000 teachers in this country—the highest number in our history. He has been a Member of this House for a long time, and he knows that we live in a parliamentary democracy.

This is an England-only strike. There are no strikes in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, because their devolved Governments listen to and respect teachers. Standards have increased in Wales year on year, and the gap with England is closing. Where teachers are valued and listened to, that does not lead to strike action. The Minister should follow the lead of the devolved nations in supporting all teachers.

The problem with education in Wales is that standards are behind those in this country. In fact, yesterday we were asked what advice we could give to the Welsh Government about our academies programme, our reforms to the curriculum, and our reforms of GCSEs and A-levels, which are resulting in higher and improving standards in this country. The gap, I suspect, is widening.

As we now have a Chancellor talking about post-Brexit largesse, what do Ministers intend to do to ensure that the projected schools funding cuts are prevented?

We have protected school funding on a per-pupil basis. School funding is now at £40 billion—the highest it has ever been, and £4 billion more than in 2011-12. Because of the decisions that the Chancellor took in his Budgets, particularly the June 2010 Budget, we are not facing, and have not faced, the crisis facing countries such as Greece that had the same deficit as a percentage of the budget. We have not faced their crisis of closing schools, slashing salaries, and cutting numbers of teachers; we have maintained stability in our system. The average class size has remained stable in that period despite the fact that we have also created 600,000 more school places.

There is a section of the Government that does not believe in experts, but, for the record, is the Minister really contradicting the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which predicts an 8% fall by 2020 in school budgets, in real terms?

We are aware that there are costs that schools have to face in the coming years, but we have protected school funding. If we look across Whitehall, we see the reduction in spending that we have had to secure to tackle the record public sector deficit that we inherited in 2010—£156 billion, or 11% of GDP. It is now down to less than 4% of GDP, thanks to those savings. We have issued significant guidance to schools about how they can manage their budgets and procure savings and efficiencies in the way they run their schools to meet these challenges.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on ensuring that the Government are held to account on the failure in education policy, which is very important. The Minister should know, as he articulated, how real the demoralisation is of teachers in our schools. Have the Government made any assessment of the impact on our children’s education of how demoralised teachers are? Why do the Government not take serious steps to try to lift the morale of teachers rather than constantly denigrating them in this Chamber?

No one on the Government Benches is denigrating teachers. Teachers in this country are a much respected profession who are providing a very high, and improving, quality of education to young people. We have reformed the primary curriculum and the secondary curriculum, and we have reformed GCSEs, putting them on a par with the best qualifications in the world. The teaching profession has responded magnificently to those new challenges. Today we have published the key stage 2 results on a pupil basis, and we see that two thirds of pupils are now meeting the new expected standards in reading and 70% of pupils are meeting the new expected standards in mathematics. That is a tremendous achievement given the very significant rise in the expectations and rigour of the new primary curriculum.

Just to be clear, does the Minister accept the IFS’s prediction that school budgets will fall by over 8% up to 2020—yes or no?

School budgets have been protected. We are spending £40 billion, and we have said that per-pupil funding for schools is protected throughout this Parliament. Schools will face increased costs of salaries, pension contributions and national insurance, but we have provided advice to them about how they can meet those challenges to procure more efficiently and to make sure that their staffing arrangements provide the best education within their budgets. We have protected school funding throughout this Parliament.

Perhaps I need to declare an interest, as my sister is a teacher. With regard to why she would go on strike, it is not just about her terms and conditions—it is about the pupils to whom she believes she has a responsibility. The Minister has mentioned record budgets. Will he confirm or deny whether, in real terms, the budget has gone up per pupil?

It has gone up in real terms overall, as I have said, and £40 billion is the highest ever level of spending. We have had to take some very difficult public spending decisions over the past six years because of the mismanagement of the public finances by the Labour Government—a party and a Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. As a consequence of taking those difficult decisions, we are not facing the challenges that other countries in Europe that have had similar levels of public sector deficit have had to face.

I think that our constituents would expect us to try to cool the temperature here. Those of us who have been around in education for some time know that previous Labour Governments have had their disagreements with the NUT. The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of unhappy teachers out there at the moment, and they do have some real concerns. This is an important statement. Indeed, what other statement could have got the whole ragtag and bobtail that remains of the Government Front Bench here at one time? This is a serious matter. Let us cool the temperature, talk to teachers, meet their concerns, and get them back to work.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman and former Chair of the Education Committee; he is right. We do talk to the teaching profession. We have regular discussions. The Secretary of State and I, and other Ministers, regularly visit schools up and down the country and talk to teachers. There is no question but that the reforms that have been put in place over the past five or six years have been very significant; we do not resile from stating that. It was important that we raised standards of reading and arithmetic in primary schools, that we reintroduced grammar into the primary curriculum, and that we revised and improved the curriculum in secondary education. We have to make sure that our young people are prepared for life in modern Britain and prepared to compete in an increasingly competitive global jobs market, and we are delivering on that. I am delighted by the way in which the profession has responded to those challenges.

Does the Minister agree that teachers are the experts in education, and that when these professionals have genuine concerns that funding cuts are damaging the education of our children, it would be irresponsible of them not to make those concerns known to Government? If the teaching profession had the respect and the ear of this Government, they would not be in the position of having to take last-resort strike action to protect the education of our children.

No, I think that is an anachronistic approach to discussing important political issues. We have regular discussions with the teacher unions. We have all kinds of reference groups of representative teachers whom we meet regularly in the Department for Education. We are very aware of teachers’ concerns about the changing curriculum and worries about workload. We had a workload challenge to which 44,000 teachers responded. We take all these issues very seriously, and we respond to concerns. We do not want to go back to the 1980s and have strikes as a way of engaging in issues of concern. They are not necessary, and most teachers agree with that.

The Minister can say all he likes about school budgets going up, but the facts on the ground paint a very different picture. One of the schools in my constituency has had to close down its summer school, which was deliberately targeted at helping deprived students to catch up before the beginning of the school year. Will he look at that example, and other examples that other hon. Members are sure to raise, to make sure that the funding cuts do not impact on deprived students, in particular?

Yes, of course I will look at any individual examples that the hon. Lady or any other hon. Member wants to bring my attention, and I will make sure that the school is receiving the best possible advice on how to manage its budget.

Schools in my constituency are affected by industrial action today, and governors have been clear with me and with parents that it is funding pressures, particularly in relation to children with special educational needs, that are forcing them to make redundancies to balance their budgets. Will the Minister guarantee that the needs of children with special needs are adequately funded?

We want to make sure that the education of those children in particular, and that of all vulnerable children, is protected. One of the reasons we introduced the pupil premium, which provides £2.5 billion a year, was to make sure that funding goes to the most vulnerable children in our school system. We are consulting on the national funding formula and on the high needs funding formula. That consultation has closed and we will respond to it shortly.

My impression is that the Minister is prepared to hand out blame but not to accept it. He says that this action is damaging children’s education and disrupting parents, but his Government’s decision to impose on primary teachers of key stage 2 a new four-year curriculum that they had only two years to deliver led to a chaotic series of results, which were published today. The results have upset parents and they are much worse than the Secretary of State predicted. Does that not harm children’s education more than the antics of the NUT today?

No, it does not. The new curriculum is essential if we are to prepare young people for life in modern Britain and equip them to do well at secondary school. The previous levels did not ensure that children, including those reaching level 4 at the end of key stage 2, went on to get at least five good GCSEs. This curriculum is much more rigorous and it has been designed to be on a par with the best education jurisdictions in the world. Some 66% of pupils are already meeting the new expected standard in reading, while 70% are meeting it in maths and 72% in grammar, punctuation and spelling. I think that teachers have done a great job in preparing pupils for this new, more demanding curriculum.

Brilliant former colleagues of mine have been brought to their knees by the unmanageable and exhaustive workloads introduced by this Government. Given that more teachers left the profession than joined it last year, does the Minister accept the link between teachers’ morale and the huge numbers leaving the profession?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman some facts: in 2015, 43,000 teachers left the profession—some due to retirement, while others went into other walks of life—but 45,000 entered it. Some 14,000 people returned to the profession, which is a higher number than the 11,000 in 2011. I do not recognise the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman. Whenever I visit universities and schools and make public statements, I talk up the profession, to encourage young graduates and sixth formers to think about a career in a very important and highly respected profession.

I do worry about the Minister’s arithmetic capabilities when he sets himself against the IFS, which has clearly said that school budgets will be cut by 8% in real terms by 2020. That is one side of the equation. The other side, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) has said, is teacher morale, which has been compounded by some of the changes to the curriculum and the additional workload. Why have Ministers set their face against the teaching profession in this way? Have they not today reaped what they have sown?

I accept that the changes implemented in the past five years have been radical. They have taken many years to prepare. The primary curriculum was published in 2013 and became law in September 2014, and the first assessment of it took place in May 2016. The first teaching of the English and maths GCSE reforms began in September 2015, after four or five years of preparation, and the first teaching of a number of other subjects will take place this September. I understand the work involved in preparing for a new specification and a new curriculum, but the changes are hugely important and they will have a dramatic impact on the standard of education in our state schools in the year ahead. That is a prize well worth delivering, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support higher academic standards in our state schools.

In encouraging people to go into teaching, what reassurance can the Minister give to those who want to teach art, drama and music that there will be departments that require their services in the years ahead?

There was a Westminster Hall debate on this issue yesterday, during which I set out the figures for art and design and for music. They show that the take-up and entry figures for those subjects have remained stable, notwithstanding the introduction of the EBacc combination of core academic subjects. It is important that more young people take those core academic subjects of maths, English, science, a humanity subject and a modern foreign language at GCSE. That is what happens in a number of high-performing jurisdictions around the world. We want our young people to be competent in a foreign language. That is why we set a target that 90% of pupils will be taking the EBacc combination by 2020, but that does not mean that there is no space or time in the school curriculum for those important creative arts subjects.

Bill Presented

Digital Economy Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary John Whittingdale, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Sajid Javid, Secretary Stephen Crabb, Secretary Greg Clark, Secretary Nicky Morgan, Secretary Amber Rudd, secretary Elizabeth Truss, Matthew Hancock, Mr David Gauke and Mr Edward Vaizey, presented a Bill to make provision about electronic communications infrastructure and services; to provide for restricting access to online pornography; to make provision about protection of intellectual property in connection with electronic communications; to make provision about data-sharing; to make provision about functions of OFCOM in relation to the BBC; to provide for determination by the BBC of age-related TV licence fee concessions; to make provision about the regulation of direct marketing; to make other provision about OFCOM and its functions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 45) with explanatory notes (Bill 45-EN).