Those of us who are parents will probably all agree that it can be a tough job. Children can be challenging at the best of times. If anyone has the perfect way to get the very best out of their children, I am sure that we would welcome their advice. That said, we expect teachers to deal with our children. I believe that teaching is still a vocation. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to the professionalism of women and men throughout the United Kingdom who give their lives to looking after our children.
Teaching seems to me to be a pretty tough job. When I was at school there were classes of 50 and I do not know how on the earth the teachers stood in front of us and managed to control us and get the best out of us. Perhaps I am reminiscing about good old times that never were, but the teachers seemed to do their job extremely well.
Nowadays, children are different. Their childhood seems to be taken away from them in many respects, and they are expected to grow up very quickly indeed. I do not blame the Government or political parties, but I share teachers' despair at the situation in which they sometimes find themselves. Children are physically getting bigger, and when a child challenges a teacher with the rest of the class looking on, there are not too many ready alternatives on which the teacher can draw to make the child behave.
I was here when we voted against corporal punishment. Everything has changed, and teachers have limited means of controlling children. I know that none of this is original and that the Under-Secretary has heard it all before, but I believe that Government circular 10/99 is not making the job of the teaching profession terribly easy. I have tried to understand the reasons behind the Government's targets for exclusions, but they are not making teachers' jobs easy. I am delighted to hear that the Minister is to meet Mr. David Hart to discuss that circular on 10 May, and perhaps we might be able to take the matter forward after this debate.
The Library has provided me with some wonderful information: the number of permanent exclusions has decreased by almost 6 per cent. in the five years since 1994–95. The number of permanent exclusions from primary schools has remained virtually unchanged, but more than 500 fewer pupils have been excluded from secondary schools. We all rejoice in that, but what does it mean for the teachers? It means that they have to deal with those children, and they do not necessarily have the adequate tools to do so.
The Minister will perhaps tell us about all the different projects that exist—and I am pretty well briefed on them. Obviously, during Adjournment debates, Members say that things are not happening in their constituencies, and I am afraid that I am going to say that they are not happening in mine.
The law on exclusions is contained in sections 64 to 68 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Perhaps I am as guilty as other hon. Members in that I should have paid more attention to that Act at the time, but I did not expect that we could end up in a mess—without a pun on my name—such as we have in a certain school in my constituency.
I want to share some facts with the Minister. Our education committee has an excellent chairman, Mrs. Sally Carr, who has some very good ideas on how to deal with excluded pupils. She and the officers are developing a programme, and we are looking for a centre at the moment. If the Government could provide any resources when we have put the package together, we should be very grateful indeed. I do not say that this is a magic panacea, but Mrs. Carr would like the Government and their advisers to think of a way to bring back respect for teachers in the classroom.
We all condemn those parents who expect schools to bring up their children for them. That is simply not on. When the schools make tough decisions, we expect the teachers to be supported by parents. So now that punishment is not so readily available, perhaps the Government could think of a way to end the problem of little Johnny saying. "If you say anything or lay a finger on me, I'm gonna get my mum and dad down to school" and, "You can't do this and you can't do that." The weight has slightly gone the other way, and teachers need more support than they are getting at the moment.
Mrs. Sally Carr feels that early intervention is best, so that children can be put in a more appropriate place. When children start misbehaving, it is often because something is happening at home—perhaps their family life has become unbalanced. It would help tremendously if they could be moved to a different environment for a while so that they could be given the love and affection that they do not necessarily get when they live in disruptive households. When we complain about a child who has been expelled from school and the police end up visiting the parents, we often find that a parent who is battling valiantly on his or her own to look after the child shrugs and tells the policeman, "I can't control my own child. I want help." I do not criticise the Government; we have all had a go, but perhaps the Minister will share some pearls of wisdom about any new idea that the Government may have.
Essex county council's education committee has an excellent chairman. Mrs. Iris Pummell. The Ofsted inspection report on its service for dealing with excluded children was absolutely glowing. Schools who take students are given a one-term dowry of £2,000, and there are many new pilot approaches, but Mrs. Pummell feels that, as yet, no guidance has been given on how to deal with "medics and phobics". She feels very strongly that giving rewards such as CDs and trainers only rewards bad behaviour. Presumably, that has happened in Essex, although I am not entirely aware of it.
I have spoken to many teachers locally about the matter, and the deputy head of a school which I will not name has occasionally met one of the Education Ministers. That teacher feels that children with emotional and behavioural difficulties are the most vulnerable groups in mainstream schools. To highlight their levels of need, it is often necessary for schools to go through a series of short-term exclusions, but she feels that such exclusions are damaging to the child's self-esteem and to home-school partnerships and serve no useful educational purpose. Once a child has been identified as having emotional and behavioural difficulties, adequate and appropriate support should be put in place immediately.
That teacher feels that, after a child has been permanently excluded from one school, he or she should not be slipped into another without adequate information and support. She also thinks that children are constantly being set up to fail so as to save resources. That teacher is a staunch supporter of the Labour party, but that is her commentary on the current state of education. I would be the grateful if the Minister would reflect on those comments.
In case the Government do not have any immediate solutions to the problem of exclusions, I want to share with the Minister information about the Ezeview project in my constituency. The organisation believes that home learning is now possible, using the latest in internet technology. It is practical for children to supplement their educational experience by having access to virtual schools and such facilities as knowledge libraries, test papers, revision and homework tasks and protects.
Such a service is about to be launched next month in my constituency at one of our local grammar schools, the Southend high school for boys. The school is partnered with the company Ezeview, which has developed a unique approach to the delivery of home learning. That is achieved by providing virtual schools online. I will be writing to the Minister about the project, but I want to point out to her that, on the issue of excluded pupils, the organisation thinks that, try as you might, some children cannot be taught. They do not like the formal setting of the school and the organisation thinks that the internet approach could be a way of dealing with those disenfranchised children who—whether through their own actions or those of the education authorities—are unable to attend school in the traditional manner. I hope that the Minister will have time to examine the papers that I shall send her on that.
I know that the Government have a strategy to deal with exclusion but, in spite of that, too many children are escaping from being educated. They drift on until they are 16, and that is the end of it. That is a tragedy that we need to tackle. Although I do not want to have a dig at the Government, home tuition is very expensive and we do not have adequate resources
Finally, I wish to make some remarks about Government circular 10/99, which has triggered this debate. A superb school in my constituency, the St. Thomas More school for boys, has faced an awful problem. In a letter to me, the chairman of its governing body wrote that a pupil
'was found in possession of Cannabis Resin. Another pupil had also been involved when he was asked to 'hold' the drugs until sometime later in the day. At the point of passing back the drugs, a piece of resin came into possession of the second pupil. After due consideration, both boys were permanently excluded in line with our policy on drugs in the school.
The schools drugs policy had been revised recently in the light of a previous drugs incident and all boys had been made aware of the fact that they would be expelled if they brought drugs into the school, and its written policies were in the process of being updated.
The letter continued:
Circular 10/99 is very broad in terms of what should and should not constitute reasons for exclusion.
The Minister will say that the circular has been revised twice and she is going to discuss it further with the unions. I think that paragraph 6.9 deals with that.
The letter of the chairman of the governing body refers to correspondence that was sent on 21 January, which stated:
'A decision to exclude a child should be taken only: In response to serious breaches of the school's discipline policy; and if allowing the pupil to remain in school would seriously harm the education or welfare of the pupil or others in the school.'
She thinks that the circular fails to give guidance on what is a serious breach of school policy or what constitutes serious harm to the education or welfare of other pupils. In the absence of that clarification, the school decided to expel the two pupils.
The Minister heard what happened yesterday. One parent accepted the ruling. The parties involved discussed whether the children should be expelled and decided that that would be in the best interests of the school and the two pupils. They thought that because the children would be known as possible suppliers of drugs, they might be exposed to adverse pressure to do just that. We all know of the pressure that children put on each other. It was decided that a fresh start and clean slate would provide the pupils with a better chance of breaking out from the culture of their networks. Obviously, the school also had the health and safety of other pupils to consider.
On appeal, the child who was mainly responsible for the incident was reinstated. The Minister knows only too well what effect that would have. Only one person thinks that we are being hard by excluding the children; everyone else is overwhelmingly disappointed by the outcome of the appeal. She knows that the debate centres on the fact that appeal panels comprise lay people, not governors. The chairman of the governing body believes that the head teacher and the pupil discipline committee acted properly, with the best interests of the excluded pupils and the school's reputation in mind.
We cannot prevent such matters from receiving publicity, and the incident received widespread adverse publicity locally. Children now say, "What tools can a school use because all we have to do is appeal and that is the end of it?". No doubt the Minister will accept that that has unfortunately done great damage to the school. I do not understand the targets. Either we follow the criteria for excluding a child, or we do not. How is it right that we exclude 99 pupils, but not 100? What makes that one pupil different? The hon. Lady knows that heads are upset about the money involved, which can be £3,000 to £6,000 when an appeal is upheld, and no doubt will say that the schools are given a grant from which they can pay the fine. However, the grant to many schools is less than the fine in respect of one pupil, never mind two or three.
I have shared with the Minister what Ezeview could do to help. No political party has a ready-made panacea for dealing with difficult children and I hope that we can be united in agreeing that there is a real problem. I plead with the Government to reconsider the practical effects of the circular in my constituency. Perhaps they will also reconsider the criteria for the exclusion targets.