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Tuesday, 5 June, 2001, 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK
Theresa May quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Theresa May, the Conservative's Education spokeswoman took your questions in a live forum on 5 June.

Issues covered included school funding as well as teachers' pay and their role in the classroom. Theresa May also discussed what children are being taught and how standards in education can be improved.

Theresa May answered your education questions for the Conservative party on 5 June.


News Host

Hello I'm Phillipa Thomas and this is a BBC News Online Forum we'll be talking to the Conservative's education spokeswoman Teresa May and I know a lot of you have sent in questions about the Conservative's education policy so Teresa's here with us, and thank you for coming in. There's quite a lot to get through but I'll start by asking you about red tape, something that the Conservatives have been quite keen to talk about, cutting red tape. First question is from Neil Bolton of Carlisle a teacher at a secondary school, he asks how will the next Conservative government decrease our administration work and give us more time to do our job, which is to teach.

Teresa May

Well this is something that a lot of teachers have been telling me they want. And that's why we are looking to cut the red tape. There are some specific examples of how we can do that. The first thing we'll do is to get rid of the 17 new plans that the Labour government introduced that require local education authorities and schools to produce all sorts of figures and paperwork for the Department for Education and Employment. I don't believe those plans actually contribute to raising standards in the classroom, so we will get rid of them. We'll also put money direct to schools which means that we will getting rid of the bidding culture that surrounds the standards fund which means that pockets of money come to schools with strings attached. Paperwork is involved in getting that bid and then in dealing with the money, so we'll get rid of that as well. And we'll simplify the whole funding arrangements for schools so that schools will get their money direct on the basis of a national funding formula. I saw recently a list that shows that there are up to 58 different funding streams for schools, all of which involve paperwork administration. So by simplifying the funding arrangements we can simplify the administration as well. And for teachers in the classroom particularly we will simplify the national curriculum and that I believe will be important in giving teachers more flexibility in the classroom, more ability to exercise professional judgement and more time to do what teachers think is right in the classroom, rather than constantly being told by the government what they should be doing.

Phillipa Thomas

Now there's a few questions that would follow that up. One from Adam Bell who's in Kettering, Northamptonshire. He says aren't you fearful that the Conservatives plans for education threaten to undermine the vital support role that LEAs can play and he says with particular regard to children with special needs, dealing with the press, those sort of functions. Is that a concern?

Teresa May

No it isn't because the structure that we will set up will retain a role for local authorities in education. But for those with special educational needs statements, that function will remain with the local authority and the Education Welfare Service will also remain with the local authority. But we're not saying that local authorities can't provide the other support services for schools. They will be able to offer those services to the schools but the schools will have the freedom to choose whether or not to use their local authority for services such as advisory services, personnel services, other support functions or whether to buy those services from a private sector provider or indeed from another local authority.

Phillipa Thomas

In that case you may have answered the next question which was from John Obertin from Whitby. He's a governor of a small rural primary school and says how would you propose that they replace the services of an LEA. But from what you're saying, he doesn't have to, he would have the choice.

Teresa May

Yes. The key to our policy of free schools is that schools will have the choice. And by getting the budget direct to the school, and all of the budget direct to the school, that gives them the ability to have that choice. So the small rural primary school as in John's example would actually have the opportunity to buy back from its own local authority or from another local authority or from another provider. But they would make the choice and it would also be open to small schools to cluster with other small schools if they wanted to share resources. And I've certainly already seen some very good examples of that where small rural primary schools, are able to improve the use of their budget, use it more cost-effectively on things like premises management, which of course releases money to be spent on more educational aspects like what's happening in the classroom, books resources and teachers.

Phillipa Thomas

Now if I can put you a final question on red tape. This comes from Stephen Manders in Carlisle and the way he puts it is this: William Hague has kept going on about getting rid of red tape and allowing teachers to teach. Instead of speaking in soundbites like Mr Hague, can Teresa please let us know in real terms how they propose to do this because wasn't it that Tory government that introduced league tables. I know it's hard to answer that briefly but if you could try.

Teresa May

I accept that there were things like the introduction of the National Curriculum which brought with it a degree or bureaucracy, but what I've heard from teachers up and down the country is that has got worse and worse. We will simplify the funding arrangements for schools, we will simplify the National Curriculum so teachers in the classroom have greater flexibility to exercise professional judgement. And we'll also change the culture of the Department for Education and Employment, so it no longer churns out circular after circular. A directive a day over the last year has landed in schools. I don't think that's helping the quality of education in the classroom and it's things like that that we can get rid of that actually will ensure teachers have got more time to teach.

Phillipa Thomas

I want to ask you a few questions about teacher training because a lot of our respondents are very interested in this. David Ansty from Rhonda has sent a question : "I'm a 20-year-old trainee teacher from a traditional Labour background, although the government have introduced golden hellos to certain teaching students we feel that as graduates we're treated as second class citizens. How would you redress the balance between all trainee teachers and not just the select few?"

Teresa May

Well I think we need to look very carefully at the impact of what the government has done in terms of the golden hellos and the funding for teachers in specific subjects and certain types of graduates. There is evidence that all that happens when you do that is you get an increase in those subjects in one or two years but then a fall back. But I also want to change the focus and the emphasis of teacher training. I think too much teacher training today is actually involved in the theory of teacher training rather than the practice. I think the important thing for graduates is to be practiced in the craft of teaching and that means we will refocus teacher training on the schools, and experience in the schools. And we're looking at perhaps 80% of teacher training taking place in schools and not in the teacher training colleges.

Phillipa Thomas

Now Teresa you know from seeing party leaders going round the country that the issues of how students pay for their further education, is a really hot topic.Let me put to you a couple of questions. One from Craig in Bristol who says: "Will your party abolish student fees in the next parliament if you win?" and one from Ian in Stafford who says: "Will a Conservative government rule out top-up tuition fees to prevent an elitist education system?" So what sort of fees are we talking about under a Conservative government?

Teresa May

We're not going to abolish tuition fees. Even the Liberal Democrats who talk about abolishing tuition fees will require students to pay but they'll defer payment until they graduate. What we're looking at is the issue of access funds. So we're looking at the issue of the amount of money that can be available for access funds and hardship funds to help students from less well-off families. And we also want to restructure students loans and help people when they graduate and come to repay their loans and we're going to double the salary threshold at which graduates start repaying their loans. And we will be providing a tax allowance against the repayment of student loans for graduates as well and provide a 10 year period for repayment with no penalties for prepayment. On top-up fees, yes we have said clearly that we oppose top-up fees and part of our policy on universities is to change the way universities are funded. From the annual grant for teaching salaries and so forth from government today to an endowment fund for universities. As part of our endowment policy for universities we would require as a criteria for becoming an endowed university that the university would agree to having no top-up fees.

Phillipa Thomas

Right a final question on tuition fees and on the ability of students to stay the course. We've got a question from Tony Porter in Wrexham who says students are increasingly have to quit their courses before they finish because of debt problems. How can you ensure that students can complete their courses and he asks what will you do about the dramatic under-funding for performing arts students?

Teresa May

Sometimes what does happen, and I know having talked to students in various universities , is that people will go to university; they'll start off and it will be fine but then they find midway through their course they're perhaps having to take on more work, paid work, in order to keep themselves going they feel that they can't continue. And providing the right access and hardship funds for students at that time is extremely important.

Phillipa Thomas

Now Teresa on AS levels we've got a few questions; Michael Flower from Birmingham says he's studying for AS levels. The system is clearly not working. He says key skills are not being taught and universities overlook them so what's the point. Now Jerome Thompson from Milton Keynes is also an AS level student. He says "my own teachers feel that these exams aren't thought through and aren't necessary. So if you were to get into power would you rediscuss the idea of AS exams with teachers rather than anonymous quangos.

Teresa May

Every sixth form I have gone into in schools in this academic year, I've heard exactly the same problem from students. And indeed from teachers. That the workload of AS levels is really causing problems for students. And sadly what it is doing is meaning that a lot of the extra curricula activities that young people were traditionally undertaking in their year 12, have had to go by the board because there is so much time and effort having to be spent on the workload on AS levels. It is important that we discuss with teachers and with students themselves and indeed with the universities who are looking at these AS level results at how we can go forward and have a system of exams that does provide properly for students needs today. So we do need to review it, we need to look at it very carefully.

Phillipa Thomas

So you're talking about a smoother transition really rather than all change on day one.

Teresa May

Yes, I think all change on day one would be the wrong way forward. We need to look at what we actually need to be providing for in these qualifications. But these AS levels were introduced very quickly, the exam boards found it difficult to get the exams ready in time. Universities have found it difficult to adjust to them, teachers have found it very difficult, schools are finding it difficult because they need extra resources.

Phillipa Thomas

A couple of questions on the general issue of funding, which is always controversial. And I want to put to you a question from Jules Payne in Wales, and he says: "As the representative of a party which grossly under-funded state education and shamefully under-valued and undermined the teaching profession for 18 years, can you honestly reassure this country's parents that state education could ever be safe in your hands?"

Teresa May

I think if we look at what has happened in state education over the last four years the bureaucracy that teachers are having to cope with has just increased and increased. And what people have seen is that although the Labour government has claimed to put more money into schools very often money comes with strings attached.Schools can't spend it on their priorities. As people look around they see that the impact is that secondary class sizes are rising and we have the worst crisis of teacher shortages we have seen for many years. The Conservative Party is committed to the same overall level of funding for schools as the Labour Party. We know that we can devolve on average an extra 540 per pupil to schools.

Phillipa Thomas

Just a couple more questions. One really still on funding is about geography in a way. It's from Peter Willman in Buxton in Derbyshire. He says: "Will the Conservative Party ensure that schoolchildren in Derbyshire receive the same funding per capita as their Hertfordshire counterparts?"

Teresa May

This is a real problem for many schools and parents and teachers. So we want to change the way we fund schools. Moving away from sending funding through the local government to a national funding formula and getting money direct to the schools. Now it will take time and the national funding formula will of course have to take account of some real differences in need between different parts of the country.

Phillipa Thomas

Now my final question to you then, Mark Atherton in Bradford wants to tell you that he's been a teacher for five years but decided to leave his job due to three basic problems. A chronic lack of discipline he says, especially in the secondary sector, paperwork and teachers' pay falling behind those of the other professions.

Teresa May

As regards pay what we would do is make it easier for schools to actually set their own pay packages by giving the whole of the budget to the schools and then giving them their freedom as to how to spend it. It would be possible for schools to set recruitment and retention packages for staff, pay bonuses to all staff if that was what they wanted to do. But what Mark has raised as the issues that have caused him to leave the profession, discipline and paperwork, are two of the issues that are constantly being raised by teachers. First of all we want to change the culture so we get a rid of bureaucracy, give teachers more freedom in the classroom, simplify the National Curriculum, stop the DfE just sending out circular after circular and change the way schools are funded to simply that, reducing administration and bureaucracy. And on discipline we will give heads the power to expel disruptive pupils in the class. We will also ensure that those disruptive pupils once they've excluded from the classroom are given a proper full-time education in separate units.

Phillipa Thomas

We thank you very much for coming in and taking part. Thank you.

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