Theresa May’s Maiden Speech in the House of Commons
2 June 1997
Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate this afternoon.
As I was preparing for this speech, I looked at some of the maiden speeches that had been made by Hon. Members in the weeks before the recess. And I noted that in her maid speech, the Hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (I hope I pronounced that correctly) made a reference to an incident where she had been mistaken by a taxi driver for the wife of a Labour Member of Parliament rather than being a Member of Parliament herself. I have to say that sadly, mistaken identity is not confined to the Labour Benches.
My own confusion was somewhat great when I was in the Members’ Lobby and the Hon. Member for Dundee, West rushed up to me, in a state of some confusion, and encouraged me to put my name on the list for the ballot for private Members’ Bills. He was a little astounded when I just looked at him and said, “Why?” Because he, obviously, had mistaken me for one of the…the ladies on the other side. I have to say…I…I…I was told, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that…that one was never intervened on or heckled in a maiden speech.
Obviously, that takes account of the opposite side in the House…Thank you, thank you, gentleman.
Further confusion has ensued in my early days in the House. I…I did have to take great pains when I first came in to point out to my hon. colleagues that I was the Member for Maidenhead and not Maidstone, which was particularly…particularly pertinent in the early days of this…this Parliament. Being a Conservative Member called Theresa also adds a certain interest to life in the House. And I am thinking of getting a badge that says, “No, I am the other one.” But, to…to cap it all, when I moved into my new office on the very first morning I was there, the first telephone call I received, I eagerly picked up the receiver to see who this could be, only to discover that the person on the other end of the line only wanted to speak to Edwina Currie.
One of the pleasures, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of a maiden speech – and I suspect that it may be the only pleasure of a maiden speech – is the opportunity it gives to pay tribute to one’s predecessors. Now, for most Members, that means referring to former Members of this House. In my case, Maidenhead is a new constituency, created out of two former constituencies, and both my predecessors – my Hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and my Right Hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham are well and truly back in this House, I am pleased to say.
I would like to thank them for the kindness that they have shown me, and for the help and advice which they have given and continue to give me. I would particularly like to thank them for having given up some rather good bits of their previous constituencies to form mine, which, in the circumstances, I am very grateful for. And I would also like to pay tribute to their diligence as constituency Members of Parliament. In both cases, despite having had at various times other onerous and time-consuming responsibilities, they were assiduous in working on behalf of their constituencies and their constituents, and in that…in that respect, they have left me with a…a very great deal to live up to.
It is a very great privilege to be standing here as the Member for Maidenhead, particularly so because this is the first time that Maidenhead has had its own Member of Parliament. And perhaps in view of the fact of the potential origin of the town’s name in the symbol of the maiden’s head, it is entirely appropriate that it should now be represented by a maiden – albeit I must confess to using the term somewhat loosely.
Maidenhead – although the name of the constituency is just Maidenhead, it does in fact cover more than just the town of Maidenhead. It also includes some very lovely tracts of Berkshire countryside, including, I would say, some of them prettiest and most delightful villages in this country. A Maidenhead is a thriving…a dynamic town with a thriving local economy and many local businesses, ranging from small family firms who have been in the area for many years – and generations indeed – through to the European headquarters of multinational companies.
The advantages for business of being in the area are many. Not only is it a very pleasant and attractive place to live and work, there’s also a very good-quality labor force to draw from. And it also has the advantages of proximity to the motorway network, to London and, of course, to Heathrow. Those are advantages for business although it has to be said that they also create some problems for the local people – the issues of night flights into Heathrow, noise from the A404(M), the need for another bridge across the River Thames, the potential threat of motorway service stations, the threat of development – these are all issues that I’ve been and will continue to be involved with, and I trust that [they] can be resolved in the interests of the people living in the constituency.
Maidenhead – although much has not been written about it, it’s actually also a town steeped in history. As I was reminded yesterday morning as I watched the mayor unveil a plaque in the town centre to commemorate the site in the 13th century of the chapel which was the predecessor of the current borough church of St. Andrew and St. Mary Magdalene.
Maidenhead owes its origins to the River Thames, and the river continues to play a significant role in the life of the whole constituency. People…many people enjoy walking alongside the river in Maidenhead and watching the operation of Boulters lock. Further up the river, there is the delightful village of Cookham, where not only the river is attractive, but people can also spend time looking at the works of the local artist Stanley Spencer in the Stanley Spencer gallery there.
It is the river that gives Maidenhead…makes Maidenhead host one of this country’s major national summer sporting events, namely, the Henley regatta. Although, of course, Henley is in Oxfordshire, the regatta meadows are firmly in Berkshire. And further round, the river adds charm to many other villages, including Sonning and Wargrave. Wargrave, which may be of particular interest to the female Members of this House, because in 1914, Wargrave parish church was burnt down by suffragettes. I am happy to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that getting votes for women in Wargrave these days does not require such drastic measures. I won’t name all the villages in the constituency, but it is a delightful part of the country, and I am very proud to represent it.
Maidenhead is also blessed with good schools in both the state and private sectors. I hope that we can all agree that the aim of education is to provide the right education for every child. Now, for some children, that will be an education that is firmly based in practical and vocational skills. For others, it will be an education that is based on academic excellence. The assisted places scheme gives opportunities for bright children from less well-off families to take advantage of an education that would otherwise not be available to them. And I must say that I totally refute the concept that underpins this Bill that is before this House today – that, if everybody can’t have it, then nobody should have it.
The advantage of the assisted places scheme is that it does enable children from less privileged families to take…to have the benefit of that quality of education which otherwise they would not have. But I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the assisted places scheme, which I trust the Government is actually going to pay some sympathetic attention to. And it is this: we often talk about assisted places as helping bright children – indeed, it does – but it is also an important way of helping children from difficult family backgrounds and with particular social needs.
There are a number of charitable foundations in this country who work to provide boarding school places for children whose family circumstances are such that they require boarding school for various reasons – because of troubled background or social need. Very often, that is done by a mixture of funding: the boarding school element being provided by the charitable foundation and the educational costs being covered by the assisted places scheme. Those children are genuinely in need, and if the assisted places scheme goes, then the opportunity to provide those boarding places for those children from difficult backgrounds will also go with it. And I know that the Minister has received representations on this particular issue, and I trust that there will be a way for the Government…that the Government can find to ensure that these genuinely needy children can continue to be catered for in the way that they have been in the…in the past.
I’d also like to comment on the opposite side of this Bill, if…if I can call it such, which is the issue about the reduction of class sizes. Now, I’m a former chairman of a local education authority. When I was chairman of education, we had many interesting debates about the impact of class size on the quality of education. The concern I have with this Bill and the way it is going to operate is not just that we’re going to take away the assisted places scheme, but that there is an assumption behind it that the prime determinant of the quality of education for our children is the size of class in which they are taught. It is not: the prime determinant of education quality is the quality of teaching, and that is a fact function not only of the quality of the teacher themselves but also of the way in which they teach.
And there is evidence…that clear evidence that shows that there is a direct correlation between the method of teaching children and the quality of education that they receive, and not a clear correlation between class size or the amount of money spent on a particular…on children in any particular class. So I would urge the Government to look again at this issue of quality and standards of education because it is important to look at the methods and the ways in which our teachers are teaching, particularly in the primary sector, where I have long questioned the concept of child-centered education, which sounds wonderful, but frankly, I think as Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) have said, we should be looking at much more whole-class teaching in our primary schools. The method of teaching is important, and we should not forget that in this attempt to grab the headlines with…with issues on class sizes.
And the only other point I would like to make about this is…this issue is this one, and it relates to the question of parental choice, because what the Government is proposing to do by putting an artificial cap on the size of primary-school classes is actually to reduce parental choice. Now, when I was chairman of Education, I used to receive a number of telephone calls from anguished parents who are concerned because their children could not get into the school of their choice. Any counselor will…involved in education will have received the same, I’m sure.
Now, those parents are to find that their choice is further restricted, because what has happened in the past is they’ve been able to take cases to appeals panels, and this is an issue which my Hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury raised, they’ve been able to take their cases to appeals panels. And we all know that head teachers have very often been able to find one or two extra places for children whose need is great to be in a particular school. That is to be abandoned by this Government. What this Government is saying is, “No, it doesn’t matter if a school is popular; it doesn’t matter if it’s over-subscribed and parents are keen to get their children there. The parents don’t know best about where their children should be educated. The Government knows best, and the Government is going to put an artificial limit on class size.” That is going to further reduce parental choice.
This Bill is not going to improve academic excellence or the quality of education in our classrooms. What it is going to do is to take away opportunities from a large number of children, who would benefit from a quality of education that they would not get if the assisted places scheme was not here. And furthermore, what it is going to do in our classrooms is to further reduce parental choice. The Government is saying to parents, “You don’t know best – we do.”