School Discipline

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 21st May 2002.

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons 3:32 pm, 21st May 2002

I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:43 pm, 21st May 2002

I beg to move,

That this House
condemns the Government's failure to meet its 1998 Public Service Agreement to cut truancy levels by one third;
regrets that unauthorised absences from secondary schools have risen under this Government;
further regrets that an estimated 50,000 children are absent from school on a typical day and that another 10,000 children of school age do not attend school at all;
is concerned by the decline in standards of discipline in schools and notes evidence from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers which shows that assaults against teachers have risen fivefold in three years;
deplores the Government's conduct in first removing from head teachers and governors the power to exclude disruptive pupils from their schools, and then failing to collect evidence on the number of assaults by pupils on both other pupils and teachers;
believes that the Government's current approach to these problems is flawed;
is concerned that the problems of rising unauthorised absence and declining discipline particularly damage the education of children from deprived and inner city areas;
and calls on the Government to provide a serious response to the problem of vocational education, while giving more power to head teachers as a first step to reversing the decline in standards of discipline.

As we pass the fifth anniversary of this Government's arrival in power, the threadbare nature of their claim to have made improvements in education is increasingly apparent. Today, the Opposition will pay particular attention to their failures on truancy and discipline because they lie at the heart of so many other failures. Without effective discipline, there can be no effective teaching. Without regular and willing attendance, there can be no effective learning. If the Government cannot solve this crisis, they will be doomed to fail to solve the other crises in our school system, such as demoralised teachers, the widening gap in standards between the best and worst schools and, in particular, the Government's complete failure to give effective support to schools in our inner cities.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend mentioned regular and willing attendance. If we are to combat truancy by the example of what we do in the House, is it not a shame that, in a debate of this importance, there are so many Liberal Democrat truants? Only three of them have bothered to turn up.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. The Liberal Democrats have in their time claimed to be a party that cares about education: they were to spend and re-spend the proceeds of the famous, magic 1p on income tax on education. However, they clearly do not care enough about the subject to turn up in the House of Commons to debate the real problems in education today.

It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are not in a position to take anything away from today's debate, but I hope that the Government will take away one message: the underlying, basic problems of truancy and discipline will not be solved by the usual gimmicks that the Department for Education and Skills loves so much. Grabbing the headlines for a morning may delude Ministers into thinking that they have done something effective, but it does not delude teachers, parents and pupils.

Let us take this morning's headline-grabber by the Government, which is on drugs in schools. I do not suppose that there is anyone in the House who does not want tough measures to eliminate drugs from schools and to warn children about the dangers of drugs, but the Government are sending very mixed messages about their attitude to drugs in our society. This morning, the Department for Education and Skills announced a crackdown and that it would be tougher on drugs, yet for months the Home Office has been espousing a softer line on drugs. That is a mixed message; nobody can know what the Government really want.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

My hon. Friend is right. When the Government announced their proposal to reclassify cannabis, the first people to write to me were the head teachers in my constituency. I wrote to each and every secondary school head, and they all replied saying how concerned they were about the proposal and that it would add to their problems of truancy, particularly after midday. There is no remorse from the Government or any attempt to support head teachers on the issue.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is right, as ever.

Quite apart from the mixed message on drugs, the Government are sending a mixed message about exclusions. Today, the Secretary of State and her colleagues have been talking tough. They are to insist that head teachers exclude pupils who are caught drug dealing. There will be no appeal; such pupils will be straight out on their first offence. That is a very tough message, but I seem to remember that four years ago the Government sent out exactly the opposite message. They were instructing head teachers to exclude fewer pupils.

The confusion does not only date back four years. If the Secretary of State had made an honest U-turn, we would have applauded it, because today's policy is better than yesterday's policy. Unfortunately for the Government, I have taken the trouble to read the amendment that they have tabled to our motion—[Interruption.] Before the Minister for Lifelong Learning becomes too excited, I shall quote it. It is fascinating. I assume that it was written yesterday, presumably at the same time as the Department was writing its press releases on how exclusions need to be increased.

The amendment boasts:

"exclusions have fallen by approximately 28 per cent." since 1996-97. At the press conference this morning, the Government said that a rise in exclusions is a good thing; yesterday, as their amendment shows, they said that a fall in exclusions is a good thing. There is a central confusion. The Government cannot know what they are talking about. It is clear that head teachers across Britain do not know which message the Government are trying to send. The reason is that the Government do not know. All they know is that they must say something tough about drugs.

The Department for Education and Skills is always one of the most willing Departments to say, "You want an announcement, we'll make it. Never mind the policy, coherence or implementation, we'll write the press release for you." Not even the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions would have the gall to say that that central confusion over the attitude to exclusion shows consistency of purpose. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills by saying that she is a considerably more honest and straightforward politician than her right hon. Friend.

Everyone in the House and outside it and everyone connected with education hopes that the Government's new policy on drugs in schools will work, but we are right to be suspicious that a Government who rely on spin and announcements rather than substance will not drive through an effective anti-drugs policy.

Let me turn to truancy. Again, there is no difference between the two sides of the House. We all agree that truancy deprives children of their best chance in life and that the Government have a duty—which they share, most notably with parents but also with schools—to ensure that children attend school. Let us look at the facts of what has happened since the Government came to power. In the 1998 comprehensive spending review, the Government promised to cut school truancy drastically. They said that they would reduce the percentage of half-days missed a year through unauthorised absence from 0.7 per cent. to 0.5 per cent. That was a clear and unambiguous promise, but the result is complete failure. There has been no reduction in the percentage of half-days missed through unauthorised absence, which remains 0.7 per cent. In secondary schools, where the problem is most serious, it has risen since 1997 from 1 per cent. to 1.1 per cent.

I have taken those figures from the Department's own survey of pupil absence and truancy, but Ofsted too revealed growing problems. Unsatisfactory attendance is up from 22 to 30 per cent. in primary schools, and from 29 to 37 per cent. in inspected secondary schools. Those are not abstract figures on the number of children missing school. Truancy Call, a charity that tries to deal with the problem of truancy, estimates that, on a typical school day, 50,000 children are truanting, their life chances disappearing. Most schools, it says, do not have the time or resources to undertake first-day contact with those children. [Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning says that she does not believe it. I do not know who else she is going to try to call a liar. Stephen Clarke, the director of Truancy Call, is extremely respected in the field.

Perhaps the hon. Lady will believe the previous head of Ofsted, who was appointed by the Government. Mike Tomlinson said:

"Statistics suggest that there are 10,000 children who should be in school but are not."

Does the hon. Lady want to disagree with Mike Tomlinson as well? He found that statistic worrying and continued:

"I wonder about what they are up to when they are not in school."

He is right to worry, as we know what too many of those children are doing when they are not in school; they are climbing on the conveyor belt of crime, which will damage their lives and communities, particularly in the inner cities.

I shall cite someone whom even the hon. Lady will believe—the Secretary of State, who said that official figures showed that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a third of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds at times when they should be in school. By any standard, that is a catalogue of failure by the Government, who have not met promises that they made in their early, happier days in office.

The Government have noticed that they have got a problem and have recently introduced a series of measures to reduce truancy. They announced that they want to put policemen in schools; they have half-announced that they are thinking of taking away child benefit from parents of persistent truants; and they announced £66 million to tackle truancy in the recent Budget.

Having policemen in schools is a sensible idea, and I welcome the Government's initiative. If head teachers want that, it is perfectly reasonable. I would be fascinated to know what the Secretary of State has to say about taking child benefit away from the parents of persistent truants, as the initiative appeared to emanate from the Prime Minister and No. 10, and volunteers in the Cabinet were called on to support it. It was notable that every other Cabinet Minister took a smart step backwards, leaving the right hon. Lady out at the front to defend the policy. I therefore hope that she will tell us later whether she still thinks that it is a good idea and, if so, when the Government propose to introduce it. I am afraid that if she cannot give us a date by which the Government are willing to do so, we will conclude once again that the announcement was made just to grab the headlines.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Labour, Harlow

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that opposition is not just about opposing, but about providing constructive alternatives. Can he give the House his view on withdrawing child benefit from parents?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Our solution to truancy covers a number of aspects, which I shall come to shortly. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall make some positive proposals, as I have done already by supporting the Government's initiative on policemen in schools.

I am fascinated to discover whether the Government in power are capable of taking the decision on child benefit, or whether they are simply floating tough-sounding ideas.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I want to carry on with the series of measures announced by the Government recently to reduce truancy, then of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, particularly after his sterling performance in his Select Committee, which produced a report on individual learning accounts that exposed yet another cataclysmic failure of Government policy.

The third issue is the £66 million to tackle truancy in schools across Britain. What the Government have not told us is that the means by which they are funding that—the increase in national insurance contributions—will take £150 million out of school budgets, year after year. The Budget therefore did not put money into schools but took it away.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

The hon. Gentleman might like one of my Committee's reports, but he might not like the fact that the very weekend that that was being discussed, our report on our interview with Mike Tomlinson, the former head of Ofsted, pushed the chief inspector to discuss a range of methods that could be used to bring the truancy figures down. There was an interesting debate over those few days. I wish the hon. Gentleman had joined it in a positive way.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

One of the purposes of this debate is to use the Chamber of the House of Commons, which is a debating chamber, to carry on the debate constructively. I hope and expect that the hon. Gentleman will make his own authoritative contribution later.

The Government are coming up with tough-sounding gimmicks. They know as well as everyone now—notably Mrs. Patricia Amos, who has been sent to jail—that an extremely tough range of measures is already available in the criminal law to stop truanting. This is part of the answer to Mr. Rammell. Some of those measures were put in place by the present Government, and some by the previous Conservative Government, so there is no partisan politics involved.

It is clear that when Governments and courts have powers that can end up with a parent being jailed for allowing children to truant persistently, even tougher new measures are not necessarily needed. The Government already have all the tough measures that they could want to deter parents from allowing their children to truant. The Government are trying to pretend that those tough measures are not available, but their cover has been blown by the jailing of Mrs. Amos. That shows how tough the measures already on the statute book are. I hope that they work, and that every parent with a child who persistently truants looks at Mrs. Amos being sent to jail and thinks, "I don't want to go that way. I'm going to do something about my child now."

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

It is interesting that the day that Mrs. Amos went to jail, her children went to school. That is to be welcomed, but it was preceded by two years of activity by those in the education service, the school and others, in an attempt to get those girls into school. It took two years and ended in court. Surely we should be looking for measures that could nip the problem in the bud much earlier.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

If the measures were shown to be practical, of course that should happen. The jailing of one parent will send a shock wave round the country. Let us hope that, for once, the deterrent effect of a court sentence works.

The underlying problem is that the children who are let down most badly by the Government's failure on truancy are those who are most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves. Many of those children, as we know, live in our inner cities and therefore attend inner-city schools. The figures are terrifying. Between 2000 and 2001, in several inner-city areas, truancy rose by as much as 16 times the national average. At the same time, GCSE standards—a strongly related issue—are far below the national average in such areas. Growth in truancy has persisted throughout England, where it has increased by an average of 1.7 per cent. in recent times, and the average proportion of pupils achieving the good GCSE score of five grades of A* to C is 50 per cent. It is terrifying to compare with those averages the figures for some of our inner-city areas. In Hackney, truancy is up 27 per cent. and the average GCSE score—the proportion achieving five or more A* to C grades—is 33.5 per cent. In Liverpool, truancy is up 26.2 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 35.1 per cent. In Sheffield, which was run until so recently by the Liberal Democrats, truancy is up 24 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 41.9 per cent. In Leicester, truancy is up 21.7 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 36.9 per cent.

Those figures tell a stark story. The Government are failing our inner-city children; their rhetoric is not matched by action. They are tough on truants and on the parents of truants, but they are soft on the causes of truancy. Let us consider what they could be doing. The basic challenge on which they have failed is that of making every day at school relevant to every pupil. If pupils think that nothing that they do at school will be relevant, useful or interesting, they will start bunking off. Clearly, the long-term policy must be to reduce the number of regular truants to the hard core. There will always be a hard core, but we need to reduce truancy so that only that hard core remains. [Interruption.] I am glad that Government Front Benchers agree; perhaps they will adopt the policy that I am about to put to them.

The first and most widespread thing that the Government should do is make a radical improvement in the provision of vocational education in our education system. [Interruption.] If the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, really believes that the Green Paper on 14 to 19-year-olds will lead to a radical change in anything, I suggest that he reads it. The first and most important radical change that should be made is that of rewriting the Green Paper in English, instead of the current jargon. The Green Paper is not remotely adequate to cope with the crisis in vocational education.

The Government do not need Green Papers; they need to do what we do and learn from some other countries. [Interruption.] Clearly, they are so perfect that they have nothing to learn. Let me tell them about the experience in Holland and Germany. In Holland, for example, I visited classes in which 13-year-olds were rewiring rooms and plastering real brick walls. They were non-academic children in a non-academic stream—the sort of children who are failed by the school system far too often in this country and go out truanting. They were doing something at school that they could see was relevant, which they enjoyed and which they were good at. That was what got them into school, made them do the other lessons and allowed them to leave school having worked on a balanced curriculum and learned something useful, instead of taking the path of truancy and then crime to which far too many of our young people are condemned by the inaction and complacency of the Government.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Will the hon. Gentleman therefore take this opportunity to apologise for the introduction in 1988 of a grammarian national curriculum that drove vocational education out of every single school in the country? Does he now accept that that was a total failure and will he apologise to the thousands of youngsters who fell through the system because of those policies?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

No. I congratulate the previous Conservative Government on introducing the vocational initiative in education in 1983. The policy was a serious attempt to get to grips with the issue that was opposed by the Labour party. I cannot remember what the Lib Dems did. They probably opposed it, as they oppose most good ideas. The hon. Gentleman has tried to go back into history—indeed, many of us think that he might live in history—but he did not go back far enough.

The problem is not new and is not even one of the past 20 years; it a problem of the past 140 years. Let me break the habit of a lifetime and quote Lord Callaghan, who rejected 25 years ago the idea that we should fit

"a so-called inferior group of children with just enough learning to earn their living in the factory".

He was right that children who need a vocational education need more than that. That is pure common sense, and I am surprised that Government Front Benchers are so exercised by it. If those children are looking to the world of work, that is what we should prepare them for, by providing both the basic academic tools and proper vocational training when they are still willing to learn. Too often, the tragedy is that we wait too long, and by the time we seek to engage children who would benefit from a vocational education in proper vocational training, it is too late—they have got out of the habit of learning and into the habit of truanting. In five years, the Government have done nothing to help that dangerous lost generation.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

The hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that most of the children who truant are those who would not benefit from the normal curriculum—in his words, they are not suited to an academic curriculum. What evidence does he have for that? Under his Government, schools that did badly at GCSEs were overwhelmingly concentrated in the inner cities. This Government have tried to tackle that through the excellence in cities programme, which provides benefits for all children, whatever their talents. What is his solution for those who are truanting and who are bright?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am afraid that the hon. Lady may not have been concentrating as hard as usual. I just cited facts from the Government's own statistics showing that despite all their initiatives truancy has gone up, and by more in the inner cities than anywhere else. Whatever the situation that they inherited, what they have done has been relatively worse in its effects on inner cities. They have let down all children, but they have particularly let down those in the inner cities. I hope that she will reflect on that in her calmer moments. If she wants to talk about initiatives, I remember that education action zones were one of the great initiatives launched by the Secretary of State's predecessor and junked by the right hon. Lady as soon as she had the chance.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the biggest victims of loss of education are not truants, but those who are permanently excluded and get perhaps one day's education a year? Those people make up 70 per cent. of the prison population. Does he accept that in 1997 the number of people excluded was 30 per cent. higher, and does he endorse the Government's strategy of providing a permanent place for all children in education from this September?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I think that that intervention may have been written by the Whips yesterday. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not noticed that the centrepiece of the Government's anti-drugs in schools strategy, which was announced today, is to increase the number of permanent exclusions. Of course, he is right that a significant percentage of the prison population is made up of those who are permanently excluded from school. That is not surprising. He and his Government Front Bench need to get together on the issue that I mentioned at the beginning—the coherence of their message. He may be right about the problems of permanent exclusion, and the Government may have been right in the policy that they announced in 1998, but that is not their policy today. I suggest that he takes that up with the Secretary of State.

Let me move on to the wider problem of discipline. Geraint Davies wants permanent exclusions to keep coming down. The Government used to set targets on that. One reason why disciplinary problems in schools have increased under this Government is precisely that the authority has been taken away from head teachers to exclude those whom they want to exclude. Teachers, not only heads, are unhappy with the situation. The Government always get cross when I quote the National Union of Teachers at them, so let me quote the Association of Teachers and Lecturers instead. It says that in the past year it received 120 complaints from teachers about physical abuse at school and that assaults on teachers rose fivefold between 1998 and 2001. That is terrible.

If the ATL is another trade union to which the Government do not want to listen, perhaps they will listen to Ofsted. It points out that the poor behaviour of a minority of pupils is cited as the major reason for teachers leaving the profession. If that is true, it is a great shame that the Government have spent much of their first five years in office encouraging the undermining of head teachers' authority and therefore encouraging the increase in violence in schools.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

Let me reinforce that point by bringing to hon. Members' attention the deep frustration of at least four secondary head teachers in my constituency. They told me that they feel that their hands are tied by a Government who are constantly trying to tell them how to do their job, especially its discipline aspects.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is right, but I resist the temptation to consider the Government's wider interference in the day-to-day work of schools. They have done enough damage through their interference in disciplinary systems.

It is extraordinary that, although the Government have so much information at their disposal, they do not bother to collect facts about the scale of violence in schools. My colleagues and I have asked the Government for some weeks for the number of teachers who are assaulted each year, the number who are assaulted by pupils and the number of assaults on pupils by pupils. The Government do not know the answer.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The Secretary of State says, "Oh no". I refer her to written answers from her colleagues that state that they do not collect that information. Why do not the Government collect it? They know that matters are getting worse and are trying to disguise the fact rather than dealing with it.

We propose giving power over exclusions back where it belongs—with heads and governors. If they have the power to discipline children, discipline in schools will improve. That would send clear signals to unruly pupils and irresponsible and potentially violent parents that they cannot get away with their behaviour any longer. The Government have spent too long undermining heads and teachers; it is about time that they got behind them.

The Government's never-ending stream of initiatives has failed to tackle the two fundamental crises in our schools. Until they use something more substantial than summits, press conferences and initiatives, our most vulnerable children will never receive the education that they deserve. That stands as an indictment against the Government for five wasted years. They are betraying the hopes of a generation of children. They will not be forgiven and they do not deserve to be forgiven.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills 4:12 pm, 21st May 2002

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

'applauds the fact that policies to reduce truancy and tackle poor behaviour are central to the Government's strategy to transform secondary schools;
notes that, since 1997, the Government has spent over £600 million to support measures to tackle truancy and poor behaviour and that this has been supplemented by a further £66 million from this year's Budget, that behaviour is satisfactory or better in 11 out of 12 secondary schools and 49 out of 50 primary schools, that there are now over 1,050 Learning Support Units and 3,420 Learning Mentors in schools and that there are 331 Pupil Referral Units whose quality Ofsted reports to be steadily improving;
welcomes the fact that the Government is promoting multi-agency initiatives such as Behaviour and Education Support Teams and Connexions that are crucial to addressing this issue, that exclusions have fallen by approximately 28 per cent. to 9,200 from their peak of 12,700 in 1996–97; supports the right of Head Teachers to govern their schools as they see fit;
further notes that all permanently excluded pupils will receive a full-time education from September this year and that whilst overall truancy levels remain a cause for concern, action is being taken;
further notes that children have a right to education and that parents have a duty to ensure that their children are educated;
and believes that the Government's policies will deliver lasting improvements in pupil attendance and behaviour which will support the achievement of higher standards and prevent social exclusion.'.

I spotted two ideas from Tory Members. The first was our idea of taking away the child benefit from families who do not send their children to school. The second dealt with vocational studies and I shall deal with that later.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is a Liberal Democrat idea.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

It may be. In that case, it may be unanimously supported.

The speech of Mr. Green was rather sad. The subject of the debate is genuinely important and we all need to tackle it. That applies not only to politicians but to every member of the education service and of society. As I shall show, we have done a great deal to deal with the problem in the past five years. However, the hon. Gentleman was bereft of ideas. Indeed, his analysis was so poor that it is not surprising that he has not reached the stage of devising ideas.

I listened to the radio this morning and it became clear that Mr. Duncan Smith is so bereft of ideas that the hon. Member for Ashford hardly referred to them. Apparently the hon. Gentleman will talk about the way in which the Tories want to concentrate on education provision for the disadvantaged. What a cheek. After 18 years in power, it is a cheek for the Tories to come to the House and even murmur a word about the most disadvantaged, those in the inner cities, the poor and the deprived. I shall outline the exact position of that group of young people in 1997, when we took over.

Nearly half the 11-year-olds did not achieve the expected standard in English and maths. That half did not consist of the sons and daughters of Members of Parliament; 20 per cent. of pupils who did not obtain GCSEs came from only 203 schools.

When we looked at literacy and numeracy, children in the most deprived areas—on deprived estates, for example—were going into secondary school not being able to read or write. At age seven, 90 per cent. of pupils from better-off families were reaching the expected standard; it was 63 per cent. from the families of the worse off. That is the record of the Conservative party, which now lectures us on the needs of children and their families in the most deprived areas and the most challenging circumstances.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I will give way eventually. I want to make progress on this first point.

In 1997, the link between social class and educational attainment was more stark in this country than in any of our competitor nations. That is what we have taken on, and we have a tough task. If the Conservatives are interested, as the hon. Member for Ashford claims, in concentrating on education provided for the disadvantaged, he should have stood up today and applauded the fact that, after six years of a Labour Government working with the education service, the percentage of pupils from working-class families reaching the expected standard in English has risen from 34 to 58 per cent. Which is the most improved borough in England, in terms of literacy and numeracy? It is Tower Hamlets. The next most improved boroughs are Darlington—[Interruption.] They were starting from a low base, but they had remained at that level year after year, and decade after decade.

The factor that has blighted our nation's education system is that Government after Government—of both political complexions—have failed to break the historic link between social class and educational attainment. We are beginning to change that.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I will give way in half a second.

I will not take from any Tory Member, in the House or outside, any lecturing on their care for the education of disadvantaged children, when we can see their record and we can see the record of our progress.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

As a former chairman of an inner-London education establishment, I had to fight tooth and nail against a Labour local education authority that was trying to shut a school down. The Secretary of State's colleague, the Minister for School Standards, will know precisely the school to which I am referring, because he was leader of the council at the time. It is unacceptable for the Secretary of State to lecture hon. Members, saying that support for vulnerable children can come from only one side of the Chamber. All hon. Members on both sides of the House care about children, and to be lectured by the Secretary of State in this patronising manner is unacceptable.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

Care does not get people a job; care does not get them into university; and care does not give them the skills that they need to earn a living. We get care from the Tories and action from Labour; that is the difference between the two sides in this Chamber. I do not deny that the Conservatives care. Care is not the preserve of any one political party.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would remember that I have just said that Governments of both parties have failed to break the historic link between social class and educational attainment. That describes past Labour Governments as much as past Tory Governments, but every time that Labour has been in power, we have taken the action and made the investment to close that gap. The reality is, however, that in 1997, the link between social class and educational attainment was strong. A poor kid of 11 had less chance of being able to read and write. A poor kid of 16 had less chance of getting five grade A to C GCSEs. A poor kid of 18 had a one in 15 chance of going to university, while a middle-class kid had a 70 per cent. chance of doing so at that age.

Okay, the Conservatives care, but this is about anger. This is about being furious that, historically, we have had a system that has not delivered for the poor. There is a difference between me and the hon. Member for Ashford. He says that he now cares for those in deprived areas, and that none of the action that we have taken in the past five years has had any impact. I shall stop talking about this issue, because it is not the main point of the debate. We inherited a system in which the children of the less well off were performing at a lower rate than those from the middle classes, and that gap was wider than in any of our competitor nations. We are beginning to close that gap. If the Conservatives do not believe us, they should look at the standard assessment test results, and at what Ofsted says. They should look at the results that the children are achieving.

I shall talk about truancy.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I shall take one last point on this, then, with permission, I should like to move on to the main subject of the debate.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her attack on Labour local authorities. When the policy of child benefit removal comes into being, who will make the decision to remove child benefit from a family?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Ashford has decided that the head teacher will have that power. That needs a lot of thinking about. With respect, perhaps it would be better if I answered that question towards the end of my speech.

This is a serious issue. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can ask questions in the way that they see fit; I will answer in the way that I see fit. Mr. McLoughlin raises an important issue. My view is clear: there are many other steps that we can take before we get to that point. However, because the consequences of truancy are so dire for children who miss school, we have to contemplate not only the withdrawal of benefit but imprisonment, as a magistrates court did last week. Talking about withdrawing child benefit has started a debate, and it is right that it has.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point about who would withdraw the benefit, it could be a number of people or agencies, including head teachers and courts. When we have consulted on the issue, we will come back, as the Prime Minister said, with suggestions.

As far as I am concerned, such a measure is the end of the line. We hope that things work before such action is taken. I hoped that things would work before that mother was imprisoned, but they did not. There had been two years of intervention, investment and support that had been ignored. It is a difficult issue, but given that it could be one more weapon in our armoury for getting to grips with the problem, I think that it deserves the widest consideration in a mature way from people of all political parties and the nation as a whole.

I should like to make some progress on truancy and exclusions. It is right to say that the truancy figure has not budged—it has stayed stubbornly the same. Most of my Department's other public service agreement targets have moved in the right direction. I am immensely proud of what has been delivered by the education service, but the one PSA target on which we have not made any progress has been picked out for debate. I have no objection to that, but before we discuss the causes and what can be done, we should look further at the figures.

Before 1997, the truancy figures tell a different story. In fact, they have not budged since 1994. The hon. Member for Ashford may use the word "crisis" about figures of 0.7 per cent. in schools as a whole and 1.1 per cent. in secondary schools, but the figures have not increased between 1997 and 2001, and were the same in 1994. They are steady and sustained—they have not budged from when they were first collected in 1994 to 2002. Indeed, the figure for unauthorised absence in 1996 was 6.9 per cent., and we have managed to get that down to 6.5 per cent. In a debate about which party has the best set of figures, we win and the Tories lose. However, it is more serious than that. The truth is that ever since truancy and exclusion figures were first collected, no Government have managed to reduce the figures of 0.7 per cent. and 1.1 per cent.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

The difference between this and the previous Government is that this Government had a target to reduce the figures by a third. It is no good the Secretary of State saying that the figures have not budged—the Government have not kept their promise.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I am speechless. So this debate is not about boys and girls whose life chances are being ruined because they truant from school. Apparently it is about a Government target that has not been met. Let me tell Mr. Osborne that the Government have targets so that we can be publicly accountable and transparent, we can monitor our progress and, at the end of the day, we can make life better for boys, girls, pupils, students and their families.

It does not matter, apparently, that the Tories did nothing to improve attendance—the fact that they did not have a target makes everything all right. That is the most pathetic excuse that I have ever heard for four years of Tory inaction.

Perhaps I might add to the tale of woe by agreeing that the consequences of not attending school are more dire than we might care to imagine. We can all make a long list of such consequences. Some 30 per cent. of current prisoners were truants. Truants are 10 per cent. more likely to be arrested, and 15 per cent. more likely to receive a formal police caution. Excluded pupils are more likely to offend than others. The list goes on and on, and there is the additional obvious point that those who are not at school cannot learn, and if they cannot learn they cannot pass exams. We live in a world where examination success is increasingly the currency that opens doors to life chances and earning a living.

I agree that this issue is important, and that we have found it very difficult to budge the figure, but we have made progress in many areas. I want to talk about some of the things that we have tried to do, the successes, and where we might go from here. However, I want to make the important point that most schools are orderly and disciplined places in which children and teachers are safe and a good standard of education is provided, and in which each and every one of us would be pleased and proud to have our children educated. It is right that we concentrate on the small but growing number of schools in which behaviour is a real problem, but in doing so we must acknowledge the good work that is done and positive ethos that exists in many of our schools.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am rather worried about the message that might be sent to our young people by the Government telling businesses that employees should be given time off to watch the World cup. Should we also be telling kids that they should have time off to do what they want to do?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

What employers tell their employees is a matter for them, and I am not going to intervene in that issue. I accept that such situations can arise, and—with the greatest respect—the Queen Mother's funeral was an example. Head teachers debated whether to allow their pupils to miss lessons on the day of the funeral, and such decisions are best left to individual head teachers. I do not mean to sound evasive, but these are difficult issues for employers and head teachers. Of course, the World cup takes place every four years. Thankfully, more serious events do not occur that often, so I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is particularly pertinent to today's discussion

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

My right hon. Friend mentions the link between exclusions and crime, and as I have pointed out, 17 per cent. of current prison inmates were excluded from school. Does she accept that such people reoffend within two years of leaving prison? It costs this country £34,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and we have the largest prison population in Europe, excluding Portugal. Would not that money be better spent on education, and is not her Department therefore right to focus on permanent education for all our children from September?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is right: the best investment that we can make is in education—not only to help individuals, but to reduce social incohesion and ensure that such people get back into work and stay out of prison. That is a short, medium and long-term investment, with short, medium and long-term results.

Exclusions were rising in 1997. They fell to 8,000 last year, but they are rising again, as the formal figures will show when they are published later this week. However, the difference is that some of the 12,000 children who were excluded in 1997 were limited to as little as two, three or four hours' education a week. That was a national disgrace. Anyone who is genuinely interested in providing education for our most disadvantaged children—who have so much to lose by not remaining in education—should remember that the previous Tory Government's willingness to tolerate excluded children receiving so little education was a cause not for national concern, but of international disgrace.

The difference is that we have done two things. First, we have said to heads that they have the right to decide whether to exclude a child. Secondly, from September, we have set a target, which will be met, that if heads decide to exclude a child, that child will receive full-time education. That does not sound like too much to ask, but it has taken a Labour Government, five years of investment and a target that has been met to deliver that opportunity for excluded children, and we have done that by giving head teachers the choice about whether they exclude.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I welcome the fact that the Government expect to achieve that target, but how many of those 12,000 excluded pupils in 1997 who failed to be provided with full-time education were the customers of Labour education authorities?

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

I despair. When there is full-time education for excluded pupils in every local education authority in September, it does not matter whether it is provided by the Tories, Labour or Liberal Democrats. A Government have a responsibility—[Interruption.] I can tell Mr. Turner that we are achieving the target by investing and spending money. We ask every LEA what they should be providing and what shortage they are experiencing. We then put in the capital so that they can build pupil referral units and provide the revenue so that they have the staff. That is why there are 1,000 more places in pupil referral units and 600 more staff than there were in 1997. It does not matter whether the authority is Tory or Labour; the investment is spread throughout the country. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that every Conservative-controlled local authority provided full-time education in 1997 for excluded pupils, I will take a risk and bet that he is wrong.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

Surely the right hon. Lady must realise that the drive to reduce exclusions and to leave troublesome pupils in school, often by overruling head teachers and governing bodies, has made matters worse because it gives the message to troublemakers that they can get away with it. Many of today's problems have been caused by the drive to leave troublemakers unsanctioned in schools.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

The issue is difficult. Front-Bench spokesmen, including myself, have made speeches about the problems of truancy and children not being in mainstream school. When exclusion meant as little as two, three or four hours' education a week, I believe that it was responsible of us to ask head teachers to think carefully about whether they should exclude because of the consequences of that decision, but the right to exclude was never removed. I think what happened was that as we were the first government to ask head teachers to think carefully before excluding, they felt a pressure not to exclude. Nothing was written down. There was no law. They were not directed not to exclude. However, I know from talking to heads that they were never happy excluding because they knew the nature of the provision that the child would then receive.

The key difference that we have made is that heads now have real choices. They can be assured that if they come to the end of the line and do not want a child in school for whatever reason—perhaps because of drug dealing, which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr. Lewis, has been dealing with today, or because of an assault on a member of staff—that child can be out of school but will still receive full-time education. Unless we do that, head teachers have no choice and there is no deal for young people.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, Secretary of State for Education and Skills

No, I have been generous in giving way and this is a short debate.

Head teachers need other forms of support between telling a child off and excluding them. The hon. Member for Ashford said that no action had been taken in five years. We are now spending 10 times as much—£600 million—on truancy, exclusion and pupils' behaviour than the Tory Government did. That is why there are more than 1,000 on-site learning units that were not available in 1997; 3,500 learning mentors who were not available in 1997; 1,000 more places in pupil referral units that were not available in 1997; and 600 more staff than there were in 1997. In addition, the Connexions service serves all children from 13 upwards and we have provided more money for truancy sweeps so that education welfare officers can work with the police. Those improvements were not available in 1997. That is the nature of the investment, and that is the nature of our approach.

There is a real issue about whether that investment—which is massive, and there are always tough choices for Departments and Ministers about where the money goes—has been effective. I think that it has. Although the global figures show that truancy does not budge much, and we have found it really difficult to move, the figures for the excellence in cities areas, which are the most disadvantaged—some people feel sorry about the children there, while some are determined to do something—show a decrease of 0.25 per cent., whereas the England average has increased by 0.2 per cent. I am not putting those figures to the House, saying, "There, we've found all the solutions, we've found the panacea." I am seriously saying, however, that an investment of £600 million, the introduction of initiatives that did not exist previously, and full-time education for children who are excluded have brought about real and better life chances in this most difficult of areas.

We have accepted the problem, and we have been very upfront about our difficulty in making the truancy target figures budge. This Government, more than any other, have, working with the profession, tried new and innovative ways of ensuring that we make progress. We have made progress, but not enough. In the years to come, however, we shall continue to evaluate carefully what works, and make sure that we spread that good practice to all our schools throughout the country.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 4:36 pm, 21st May 2002

May I commence my speech, which I promise Mr. Sheerman will be fairly brief, by thanking Mr. Green for introducing this debate? As the Secretary of State said, it is about a very important issue, and it saddens me enormously that part of the debate descended into farce—we stopped talking about the real issues that affect long-term and even short-term truancy and exclusions, and were reduced to petty point-scoring across the Chamber.

I am unique on the Front Bench at the moment, as I spent the whole of my career as a teacher, particularly as a head, in schools that served the most demanding communities—in Middlesbrough, in east Leeds, in Chapeltown in Leeds, in Seacroft and in Gipton—where crime is especially high. I find it galling when I hear Front-Bench Conservative spokesmen talk about what the Government are failing to do. I can say with my hand on my heart that throughout my whole teaching career, very little changed for a significant proportion of those youngsters. There are no simplistic solutions—and with all due respect to the Secretary of State, I must add that if she believes that by introducing draconian solutions we can suddenly put an end to this problem, she does herself and her Government a disservice. The Conservatives need to look at some other countries to find a solution.

There is no doubt that the hon. Member for Ashford is right to say that the incidence of violence—pupil-on-pupil, pupil-on-teacher, and particularly parent- on-teacher—has increased alarmingly over the last four or five years. That issue was not part of my experience as a head or as a teacher. I remember a lady hitting me over the head with an umbrella on one occasion, because she was annoyed that her daughter had not been allowed to go to a school disco. I presume that that was a spur of the moment action, however, and I am sure that she intended the umbrella for somebody else.

It is important to echo what the Secretary of State said—and, sadly, what the hon. Member for Ashford did not say—that the vast majority of children, in the vast majority of our schools throughout the United Kingdom, not only in England and Wales, do not face a daily diet of violence, and teachers do not face a daily diet of assault. Most children achieve exceptionally well in our school system.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

Although I recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we are fortunate in this country in that the incidence of violence in schools is not great, does he not accept that recent research, particularly that published last year by the National Union of Teachers, highlights the fact that antisocial behaviour, threatening behaviour and abusive language in the classroom go far beyond the so-called problem schools and can be found right across society?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

As ever, the National Union of Teachers has carried out splendid research. Those on the Conservative Front Bench frequently rely on it in their speeches, which is an interesting phenomenon. The hon. Gentleman attends these debates and always makes interesting interventions. I accept that there is an increased incidence of such behaviour in schools, but that is a reflection of society as a whole. We would find exactly the same behaviour in the village pub, in the supermarket and on the streets, whereas we might not have found it before. We must not single out schools; they are a microcosm of society.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his customary courtesy and good humour in allowing me to intervene. I am sure that he will acknowledge that people are not forced to go to pubs or supermarkets—although I accept that one may be forced to walk along the streets—but children are forced to go to school. Low level indiscipline is as of as much concern to many parents as the more elevated ill discipline about which we read in the press.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is an interesting comment, but I do not think that I need to respond to it.

It is worrying that we are now seeing something that I did not see for most of my career. There has been a huge increase in street crime perpetrated by school children. We must address that issue, which relates to the point made by Mr. Turner. However, to suggest, as the hon. Member for Ashford did, that the problem appeared during the life of the present Government simply beggars belief. In 1991 there were 3,000 exclusions, but by 1996–97 the figure had risen to 12,700. If things were so fine in schools at that time, why was there more than a fourfold increase in the number of exclusions? It is wrong to suggest that we are dealing with a new phenomenon.

The hon. Member for Ashford too readily confuses different issues—truancy, poor behaviour, exclusions and crime—and ties the whole lot together, giving the impression that they are all one and the same. All four issues are connected at some point in time, but if we want to find long-term solutions, we must not draw convenient conclusions.

The Secretary of State was right when she said that over the past 10 years the incidence of truancy has hardly risen. It was also honest of her to say that the Government had missed a target. It was a foolish target that was badly set, and although she did not admit that, it was good that she admitted that it had been missed.

The House must also recognise that a significant proportion of truancy—probably 80 per cent.—is condoned by parents. The vast bulk of it is the result of holidays taken not by the ne'er-do-wells in the inner-city areas that the hon. Member for Ashford described, but in well-heeled constituencies such as mine, when parents take their children out of school for their two-week annual holiday, or even longer. We have to accept that that is part and parcel of condoned truancy.

Truants are not necessarily criminals, however, and the House must recognise that there is a plethora of reasons why children do not attend school. School-phobics present a real problem for teachers, but they appear in the statistics as children who play truant. Four per cent. of all children who play truant are being severely bullied, and I know from personal experience how difficult that can be within the family. Children may truant because of peer group pressure or dislike of lessons, particularly PE. Those factors are as prevalent now as they were when hon. Members were at school.

What is not in dispute is the fact that a vast increase in juvenile crime occurs when children are truanting or are excluded, and there is a massive problem that has to be addressed. The Metropolitan police point to alarming statistics: 40 per cent. of robberies, 25 per cent. of burglaries and 20 per cent. of thefts in London are performed by 10 to 16-year-olds during school hours. Even more disturbing is the picture painted by the recently published 2002 youth crime survey, conducted by MORI, with one in four schoolchildren saying that they have committed a crime in the past 12 months. We must address the fact that crime, especially low-level crime, is acceptable to young people.

We must, however, draw a distinction between children who occasionally truant and those who are long-term truants or have been excluded or expelled from school. Another interesting statistic from the youth crime survey is that of those children who commit crime, the number who did so before they truanted from school is almost the same as the number who began committing crime after they started truanting. That supports the point, which I was making to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, that this is a societal issue, and there are real problems that must be addressed.

What is particularly damning about the new survey is that two thirds of children excluded from school have been responsible for a recorded crime and that permanently excluded children are responsible, on average, for 44 crimes a year each. Those are two staggering statistics, and they must be addressed. Permanently excluded children are more likely to drink, to take drugs, to damage property, to handle stolen goods, to commit assault and to carry a weapon. However, the biggest problem arising from long-term truancy and exclusion is the damage that those young people do to themselves. The future for them, far from being bright, is distinctly dismal.

Equally dismal is the fact that the same categories of children who were excluded 10 years ago are at the centre of today's exclusion bonanza. They include children in care and children from minority communities, particularly Afro-Caribbean boys and Bangladeshis. They include children who have special needs, who are seven times more likely to be excluded than other children, and children with low levels of attainment, many of whom, as the Secretary of State rightly said, end up in our prisons. Eight per cent. of persistent truants achieve five good GCSEs, compared with 54 per cent. of children who do not truant at all. Three quarters of homeless teenagers on the streets today were either permanently excluded or were long-term truants before they ran away from home.

None of those issues was addressed by the hon. Member for Ashford, who spoke for the Conservatives. Yet his party leader made a speech this morning about connecting the Tory party with real communities and offering solutions. That is the sad thing about where the Tory party is, as opposed to where it would like to be. MPs talk glibly about getting tough—with respect, I must point out that Members on both Front Benches have done so—but I hope that they will stop and think that for many of the young people about whom they are talking, life is already very tough indeed.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

As always when I intervene on the hon. Gentleman's speeches in such debates, I pay tribute to his knowledge and his commitment to the subject. I am disappointed, however, that he should pour scorn on what the leader of the Conservative party said this morning, because my right hon. Friend was making some of the same points that the hon. Gentleman makes about our responsibility and duty to address such issues in a non-partisan way for the benefit of those who are least able to speak for themselves. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the courage and integrity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for making that speech this morning.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I, too, have great respect for the hon. Gentleman—we have been friendly adversaries for some time—but with all due respect to him, may I say that words come easily, but it is actions, and providing resources to support those actions, that really matter? Not a single word from the Leader of the Opposition this morning, nor a single word in the book recently written by the hon. Member for Ashford, refers to any solution, with real answers and real resources, to attack real problems; what comes from them is just words.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's interesting speech. Does he agree that the real challenge for the Government is to provide the right sort of specialist educational facilities, properly resourced, to match the real needs of excluded children in a way that will deliver educational success and lower crime? In particular, he says that the Afro-Caribbean community is disproportionately affected by exclusion. That difficulty is in turn reflected in the prison population, and then spirals back on itself through reoffending. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that difficulty can also be addressed by providing the right sort of educational opportunities, not just pupil referral units, which sound a bit like borstals, but proper intensive education to get people back on the straight and narrow?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I am grateful to him for making that point, with which I shall deal—although briefly, because although we would like to spend more time on such issues, I am mindful of my promise to the hon. Member for Huddersfield.

I was about to say that the Government have introduced several interesting initiatives in the past five years to tackle some of the inherent problems. What saddens me is that of late, the Government have gone for the Daily Mail approach of removing benefits from families, which affects the whole family rather than an individual. I find the imprisoning of a single mother for 30 days totally unacceptable. The Secretary of State and her colleagues—and, indeed, the hon. Member for Ashford—supported that move. We differ fundamentally there; I do not believe that that mother was a danger to society. We must strip away some of those issues and find coherent wholesome ways to treat some of the problems.

The Government have put a significant amount of additional resources into tackling some of the issues. Electronic registration, pupil referral units, in-school behaviour units, mentors, the Connexions service and even bringing in the police and other agencies are all issues on which the Government have our broad support. However, I find it difficult to understand why the Government have not attacked some of the central reasons why children do not attend school. The evidence is before us: the most significant reason that children give for not attending school long term is that they do not like it; they do not like the lessons.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Speaking as one person who has spent all their former life in education to another, and accepting that the problem is very complex, I must ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that one of the fundamental necessities in motivating children is the quality of the teaching offered in schools. Often children muck about or refuse to go to school because there is nothing on offer. I am not denigrating the majority of teachers, who provide a good service, but I spent a long time in school and I knew, by looking along the corridor, where children would be well served and where they would not. I could see bad behaviour forming as children walked down the corridor. Are not good teaching and the standards that we have driven up an absolutely core element?

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

If the hon. Lady believes that, she must be ashamed of her own Ministers, who have done even more than the Conservative Government to demoralise teachers during their five years in office. I agree with her overall sentiments. I certainly agree that quality teaching is at the heart of the agenda. But if she believes that putting up all those hurdles for pupils to fall over—introducing initiative after initiative in classrooms, and subjecting children to 87 different tests between the age of five, when they start school, and 19, when they leave—is improving the lot of youngsters, I disagree with her.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Ofsted has found that the quality of teaching has risen significantly over the past few years. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has made a pretty cheap point. The evidence is there: teaching is improving, and the results that pupils are achieving are improving as a consequence.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I did not mean to be disrespectful to the hon. Lady; it is just that, like her, I feel passionately about this subject.

It is true that for a significant number of young people in a significant number of schools, both the product offered and the results achieved are improving—but the gap between high-performing and low-performing schools is widening, and it is the kids whom we are discussing today who continue to get a poor deal at the bottom of the pile. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ashford agrees with the Liberal Democrats about the curriculum currently on offer. The diet presented to a significant number of our youngsters is entirely inappropriate; in 2002 it is not possible to provide a 1988 grammarian's national curriculum handed down from on high, with a "one size fits all" examination structure, and sustain the belief that children can be reconnected.

We must listen to young people. We must listen to the reasons why so many of them have been turned off school. What is being offered to numerous young people is unacceptable. That is not a criticism of our schools; it is a criticism of successive Governments who have been increasingly telling schools what to do, and when and how to do it. We must break out of that spiral.

It is sad that we should allow ourselves to reach a point at which permanent exclusions are seen as the only answer. The Secretary of State half fell into that trap today, and the hon. Member for Ashford constantly makes the same claim. All that the Tories had to say in their 2001 manifesto was that they wanted to give head teachers an instant ability to kick kids out of school. That is not the final solution. [Interruption.] With respect, the hon. Member for Ashford said very little else in that manifesto. Free schools and kick kids out of schools—that was about the sum total.

The subject of exclusions is crucial. It goes right back to an issue raised earlier by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight; it is a society issue. A head teacher may exclude a child from a school, but the child cannot be excluded from the community in which he or she lives. Members who represent deprived communities know that only too well. The kids I excluded from my school ended up at the school gates every day, because they had nowhere else to go. Providing full-time education for the kids who are excluded today is important, but it must be the right type of full-time education.

Members visiting Slough today would be able to observe an experiment involving an exclusion-free zone. Children's next port of call is organised before they actually need to be excluded. That goes back to the point made by Geraint Davies: we have to make the right provision. It is not merely a matter of giving children five, six or 10 hours a week—we have to offer them the right provision.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am sorry, but I cannot give way; I must conclude my speech—otherwise I shall be shot.

I meet many young people, especially in Lambeth, where I spend time at present, and in Islington. When they talk about school they say that no one ever listens to them. They talk about school as though it were an alien institution. I leave the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, with this thought: if we genuinely want to make inroads into the problems of truancy and exclusion, we must listen to young people. If we listen to why they opt out, ultimately we shall find a solution.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee 5:01 pm, 21st May 2002

I feel rather guilty after making the jocular suggestion that Mr. Willis make a briefer contribution than normal, because I was really enjoying his speech. It was thoughtful, as ever. The hon. Gentleman's experience in education is almost unparalleled in the Chamber. When he is not making hardline political points, he addresses the question and it is very good to listen to him.

I experience a sense of disappointment on these occasions, however, because we are constricted by these Opposition day debates. The Opposition have to choose a subject; they have to be controversial and they have to be nasty about the Government. Sometimes that knockabout style works well, but it is really not right for the subjects of truancy and discipline which are important educational issues. An enormous amount of thought, research and activity are needed to address the problems.

Every Member who has contributed to the debate—apart from Mr. Green—agreed that most of our students attend school regularly, enjoy quality teaching and perform pretty well. We know that standards have been rising during the past six years—as we hear in the Select Committee on Education and Skills when we interview Ofsted officials. That is not a partisan political point.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the number of unauthorised school non-attendances has not budged; it is 0.7 per cent. There is a slight change in the numbers when we compare primary and secondary schools, but by and large the level is constant. When the Select Committee visited France to study the parallels between our system and the French one, the chief inspector of schools in France said that the problem was similar—the truancy rate is persistent. From my American connections, I know that that is true in the United States; it is also true in Germany. The problem is not unique to the United Kingdom.

The percentage is small but the problem can be made to sound like the end of the civilised world by tabling an early-day motion or an Opposition motion on it. To say that there are 5 million or 6 million unauthorised non-attendances in an average year sounds horrific, but that ignores the fact that although the problem is persistent, the rate is constant.

The Government were unwise to set a target on that most difficult matter. They are satisfied that they have met some of their targets, or have at least made some progress, but they have not met their target on truancy. It is a very difficult problem, all of whose aspects are interconnected. If one talks frankly to teachers about non-attendance, some of them—quietly, yet wisely—say that if the 0.7 per cent. who should be in school were there, it would make life in the classroom much more difficult. That is the truth of the matter. So we must consider such people and decide how to tackle them.

We are not going to get everybody to go to school. Indeed, I confess that there were one or two days on which I did not go to school in Hampton—at that time in my career it was probably because of the lure of taking a boat out on the Thames. That was not with my parents' approval. I feel guilty now about the days that I missed, but let us consider the serious parts of the problem.

Some of the research is very interesting. In his book, "Tackling Truancy in Schools", which is published by Routledge, Ken Reid has broken down the causes of truancy into social, psychological and institutional factors and conducted in-depth research into those who are truants.

Under social factors, the domestic lives of those asked—family circumstances, and so on—account for 16 per cent. of truancy. Peer-group influence accounts for 10 per cent., and going out for a bit of entertainment, as I did for a couple of days, accounts for 2 per cent. Employment is cited as a cause in 1 per cent. of cases. On the psychological side, the figure for illness is 9 per cent., and for psychosomatic disorders it is 1 per cent. Pure laziness accounts for only 2 per cent., which I thought was refreshing. So, the picture is complicated.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough disagreed with one of my hon. Friends on the subject of quality of teaching. I do not think that truancy is a question of the quality of teaching. We have heard much criticism of inner cities, and I note that the Opposition have today criticised the Government on that matter and that the Leader of the Opposition has launched an initiative highlighting problems in those areas. The truth is that teaching in the inner city is difficult in particular because of the transient nature of the population. If one talks to teachers just down the road from these Houses of Parliament, they say "For goodness sake, we do not know on any day who will be there to be taught." That is not because of truancy but because of the nature of the moving populations in our inner cities. According to the research, school transfers, which are listed under the institutional factors relating to truancy, account for 16 per cent. of cases.

Another very worrying figure in the research is that 15 per cent. of truancy is attributable to bullying, and I know that the Government have taken initiatives on bullying. In reflecting on the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough on the matter, I think that violence in schools, whether against teachers or pupils, is a no-go area, and that exclusion should be used in response to it.

Only 10 per cent. of truancy is caused by unhappiness with the curriculum and examinations, which is significant, and I entirely agree with other speakers in this debate on that subject. I know that I sometimes become tedious when, in reflecting on my own school experience, I comment on the number of children who were sat at the back or in the middle of a class, not excited by the curriculum or the diet of education that they received at school. Many such pupils always felt that only the pure academics in the class received all the stars, the brownie points and the encouragement. The other pupils felt disheartened and lacked self-esteem as a result. The Government are starting to address the problem—but not fast enough—of exciting the imagination of all the young people in a classroom. I know that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough agrees with me on that.

Only 6 per cent. of truancy is caused by school rules and punishment. Only 5 per cent. of those asked said that the teachers put them off school and made them play truant. The desire to leave accounts for 4 per cent. of truancy. I have gone through that research because it shows the complexity of the subject. We asked Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, which were the best ways of tackling that complex area. He came up with a range of proposals that Ofsted is considering; I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ashford did not mention any of them. Ofsted has been looking at absences condoned by parents who do not value school attendance highly; poor resistance to, and recovery from, illness, especially among low-income families, where there is a higher rate of illness; disaffection with the curriculum offered at school, particularly key stage 4; and difficulty coping with school work because of underdeveloped literacy skills, which is very important indeed. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made a political point about central direction from the Government and the Department. Of course there is a balance, but if four out of 10 pupils are not reaching literacy and numeracy targets, the Government know that that is important. Any Secretary of State would realise that they must do something.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Does he agree that children without reasonable literacy or numeracy skills cannot access the curriculum, whatever its content?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

Absolutely. I was about to make an even stronger point: if children feel embarrassed because they have not learned to read and write, that quickly becomes apparent to their peers in the classroom. Lack of esteem and self-worth can lead to fear of going to school. There is a lot of evidence that children who do not attain basic literacy skills become school-phobic.

Ofsted also looked at poor relationships with school staff; poor relationships with fellow pupils at key stages 2 and 3; and difficult home circumstances, including lack of parental discipline and control.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

The hon. Gentleman has made a number of important points; I was particularly struck by the one that he just made about self-esteem in the classroom. He referred to the transient nature of some school populations. Does he accept that society probably needs to look again at the parental behaviour towards children that it is prepared to tolerate, and the transient lifestyle that moves children from one school to another, week after week? That kind of behaviour does not allow children to develop properly, so should we take steps to prevent it?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

Absolutely. Figures published this morning on drug addiction show that there are 40,000 drug addicts in the country, but some people reckon that that is an underestimate and the true figure is four or five times higher and is about 200,000. A lot of those people are parents; children in Huddersfield, and elsewhere I am sure, have been brought up by drug-addicted parents. The relationship between drug addiction, drug dependency and quality of home life is horrible to contemplate. We should also think about alcohol abuse by parents and many other deficiencies in children's home background.

The methods that we use to get children to come to school, stay there and get the education that will fulfil their potential are a sensitive issue. It is a crime to say that there is a one size fits all solution because there is not. We know that different parts of our constituencies and different communities have different problems. I, too, am horrified by the fact that a woman has gone to prison for not sending her child to school. However, I disagree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, as I believe that the sentence was correct. We have a system in which people worked with a parent—I do not want to mention her name—for two years. Given the cost to society of working with that family, in which there are five children, and the fact that that still resulted in failing to get the parent to co-operate and send her children to school, a sentence is needed that makes the public realise that the responsibility rests with the parent.

It hurts me that there should be such a sentence; I hate it. In a former life I was the shadow Minister for Home Affairs, and I remember campaigning about the large number of women who went to prison in the mid-1990s for not paying their television licences. There were hundreds of them, every year—800 in the mid-1990s. The courts did not know how to deal with their refusal to pay, so they went to prison. Some went to prison willingly, having refused to pay the fine. Now there are just a few—the last statistic was 30 or 40, mostly women—who go to prison for not paying their television licences.

Some of the laws of our society conclude with a prison sentence. I feel bad about that. Of course we do not want any more people to go to prison for failing to send their children to school, but that must remain a last resort.

We pushed the chief inspector to suggest other ways of making sure that children come to school and that parents co-operate and understand the importance of a child attending school. There has been a great fuss about even contemplating the withdrawal of child benefit, but we should not exclude that as an option. Most of the resources—90 per cent.—must be devoted to encouraging children to go to school, making it a good experience for them. But perhaps someone in society must say to parents, "You are receiving benefit, so perhaps you have a responsibility to act like a responsible citizen."

I shall give the House one example. I do not want to pick on one part of the community, but we know that there is a problem of non-attendance among Afro- Caribbean boys. There are also problems of discipline and non-attendance among white working-class boys in many inner-city constituencies. There is also the example of Asian girls; I have a particular problem in west Yorkshire, where parents take young girls out of school for long periods. The girls might end up as domestic drudges at home or be taken back to Pakistan or Bangladesh for a long time, and come back only when their education is utterly destroyed, sometimes two or three years later. It is not acceptable to destroy someone's life chances like that.

For different communities, there should be a range of measures to show that society expects parents to bring their children to school and to encourage them to attend school. In any community, some behaviour which results in the children being kept out of school is not acceptable. I am not saying that withdrawal of child benefit is the right answer, but we should consider all the options and the difficulties in the various communities, and make sure that we get it right.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I have been listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. May I inform him that under a Labour Government there are 4,000 women in prison on short-term sentences, which is the largest number since the Victorian era? Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that Asian parents whose children go back to Pakistan or Bangladesh for six months would come before the courts for sentencing because their children had been deliberately excluded from school? Is that under consideration? The hon. Gentleman is very honest, as he usually is, in supporting the proposal to remove benefit. In a family of four, if the benefit for one child is removed, how does that improve the life chances of that family?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

The hon. Gentleman knows that, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I am trying to be as thoughtful as possible about the issue. I am trying to underline its complexity. I do not want to throw out of consideration anything that will help in tackling the diverse problems and in handling the different reactions in communities. The discussions and research that have so far occurred have raised some new issues. We may consider the option of child benefit withdrawal and then discard it. As I said, I would hate imprisonment routinely to be considered, as it should be the end of a long journey and is to be avoided at every cost.

Of course, I come back to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough quickly and say that there must be incentives—and perhaps penalties—for people who take their children out of education for long enough to damage their long-term life chances. The House does not know what the right balance is, but it has every right to consider that question in terms of the real people whom we represent in our constituencies and not some unreal set of people and circumstances.

Let us consider all the circumstances. For example, we have all been rather quiescent about the size of schools. Some very interesting American research suggests that truancy and reluctance to go to school are very much related to the size of the institution. We have all been part of the conspiracy that believes that big schools are cheaper and more efficient and effective. I remember visiting a school that I thought to be pretty large as it had 700 pupils; unfortunately, in those days, they were all boys. However, when I now visit comprehensive schools of double that size, I wonder what sort of community can be built in a school that has more than 1,000 pupils.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

Does the hon. Gentleman therefore share my concerns about the future of small sixth forms, which can also provide the sense of community to which he refers and deliver excellent results?

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

That question may be relevant, but I want to concentrate on smaller schools. The building of communities is very important in any institution. Some sixth forms are far too small and some are too large. A sixth form must be of a viable size if a community is to be built; equally, schools should not be so big as to make it very difficult for that to happen.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was absolutely right to finish on the note of listening to pupils—something that is often left out in education debates. We must also remember, however, that the essence of a school is a community. The people in a school work and live together for a large part of the week and have all the hallmarks of a community. If we cannot build a community in a school, we are in trouble. Some of the schools that I have visited are struggling on the problem of building a community.

Yes, there are some answers. We should look to smaller schools, homework clubs, family literacy classes and, yes, truancy officers. We need good practice on identifying the problems of truancy and working at them. The difference between good and average practice is dramatic. I have visited schools where staff have been working as a team to identify problems early. The most important thing about truancy is to nip it in the bud early, and there is a need to watch carefully which pupils are likely to play truant and check very quickly when they start failing to appear. That means staff visits; of course, we can all almost hear the National Union of Teachers saying, "So you're expecting members of staff to trail round to people's homes." In the best schools, good practice on truancy also happens in terms of team work, early identification and nipping problems in the bud. The educational welfare officer will be considering the individual circumstances of the child and family and tackling them by finding out whether the problem is bullying or whether the school is not as approachable as it should be.

I suspect that not much progress will be made on getting the awful 0.7 per cent. truancy level down—let us realise that it is only 0.7 per cent.—through central direction, which will not deliver easy and quick results. Indeed, we have already seen that it has not done so. What will work most effectively is to find out what is good practice and who uses it, then to network and spread it as fast as we can. That is not dramatic, nor is it probably what the Government are looking for, because all Governments want to be able to say, "Look what we did, and we did it through this miracle piece of legislation." The work will be much harder than that. It will mean working in partnership with schools—a whole range of people, including governors—to ensure that this difficult problem, which will not go away, is resolved.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons) 5:25 pm, 21st May 2002

I am always delighted to follow Mr. Sheerman, who brings a particular and extraordinary insight to these matters. If he had been able to continue for even longer with his sensitive remarks about incarceration, he would have begun to engage the interest of the whole House.

Mark Twain said that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. Behind that piece of wit lies an important truth. Education is not solely about the work of schools, and it is certainly not solely about book learning—it is also about attitudes and values. I guess that most hon. Members would agree with that sentiment, but some might not want to continue on the journey with me when I say that schools' concentration on that which is measurable has obscured much of the central purpose of education—to produce young people who are well balanced, well rounded, positive and have a clear sense of responsibility towards their fellow men and of duty towards their communities and their nation. If education is reduced to a factory process designed to manufacture a product to a common standard, the currency of education is debased and the role of the educator is minimised. That is the temptation for Governments of all political persuasions. They like targets on which they can be measured and on which they are able to champion their achievements, and shy away from dealing with more complex aspects of education such as the measurement of attitudes or values—if indeed those can be measured in any definitive way.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Turner said, if one forces people by law to go to school for 11 years and endure education for at least that long, one has certain responsibilities and duties towards them as regards the ethos of the school that they attend, the attitudes of the people who educate them, the behaviour of their fellow students and, ultimately, the quality of life that they can expect to enjoy. This debate is principally about the quality of life, not the measurables that politicians dwell on too much.

The critical issue concerns our expectations about the quality of life that all students should be able to enjoy at school, regardless of whether they happen to be born and educated in an inner city, a leafy suburb or a rural backwater. I would never describe any part of my constituency as a backwater—although water is pretty prevalent in the fens—but historically in some rural areas, including the Lincolnshire fens, educational expectations have not been as high as they should be. It is not easy for teachers in such places, with very small schools and communities, to raise the horizons of individual students. However, that is the task in which they are engaged, and they do sterling work.

Regardless of background, children should be able to expect a decent quality of life in the statutory period of schooling. When that does not happen, it is too easy for parents and communities to blame teachers, and for teachers to blame the people at home. I do not believe that good teachers or sensible parents do that, but it is an easy route to take. We have all heard, "If only they had sorted him out at school and got a grip on the situation, Johnny wouldn't be in the mess he's in today." Similarly, teachers sometimes say, "Why don't we have more support from home? If we could do something about the parents, the problem would disappear." Everyone who takes a keen interest in the subject, including educators and responsible parents, understands that there is a partnership between home and school: the one is inseparable from the other.

Society has wider expectations of standards of decency and responsibility, and Members of Parliament have a duty to pay attention to them. Just as Governments are fond of limiting education to its measurable aspects, so politicians shy away from discussion of attitudes and values because they are hard to measure or change through legislation. However, if we do not deal with them, we ignore important aspects of the human condition that extend beyond standard of living, beyond material self-interest and beyond individual attainment to the quality of life that we should expect not only in schools but in society more generally.

Against that background, I want to make three points. None is especially partisan; I am sure that Mr. Willis will be pleased to hear that as he criticised my honourable, noble and distinguished colleagues on the Front Bench for being too partisan.

Standards of behaviour in our schools are undoubtedly declining. I do not pretend that that started in 1997, and it may be a product of lower expectations and the brutalisation of society. Conservative Members who are conservative to our very core instinctively believe that things were once better than they are. Perhaps that sentiment is in every true Conservative's heart. Perhaps the progressives and radicals who occupy the Labour Benches—I hesitate so that someone may correct me—similarly mislead and deceive themselves that things are inevitably getting better. That is part of the tension between ideas in this House. Yet it is palpably true that standards of behaviour in our schools have declined. We have evidence for that from several sources, including Ofsted. Its annual reports repeatedly draw attention to its anxieties about standards of behaviour. Teaching unions and representatives draw attention to the quality of life that their members and those whom their members teach have sadly to endure. Earlier in the debate, we heard about the increasing incidence of violence in schools, by pupils against teachers and pupils against pupils. They are all causes for sadness and regret, but they must be acknowledged. We should not pretend that everything in the garden is rosy.

I am not a sycophant, but I make no apology for quoting my right hon. Friend Mr. Duncan Smith. I admire the comments that he made earlier today:

"In some of our inner cities, as many as one in 10 pupils leave schools without a single GCSE and truancy is rocketing. Compare this with places like Redbridge or Buckinghamshire where more than 90 per cent. of children gain five or more GCSEs . . . For generations too many experts have told us all it is unfair to expect children from inner cities to strive for the same standards as everybody else. I say it is unfair to expect anything less."

This issue is also centred on particular parts of the country. We know that there are profound problems in some of our inner cities, and among certain social groups. We also know that the standards that can be expected by parents and students on some estates in some parts of the country are all too low. So this is not simply a problem; it is a problem that disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable citizens, and we have a particular and special duty to those people to address it.

Similarly, truancy is increasing, and it is all very well for the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, to suggest that this is a matter about which we can be relatively complacent. I was surprised to hear him suggest that we could, because he is a responsible chap who takes his role on that Committee very seriously. The truth of the matter is that truancy is increasing. The Government's own figures tell us that it has increased in each and every year since 1997. The hon. Gentleman will know that the incidence of truancy is disproportionate in certain parts of the country and that it affects certain schools very seriously. I obviously have figures different from those that the hon. Gentleman is using.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

The House of Commons Library, which I normally rely on, has given me the figures for unauthorised absence in all schools for 1993–94, right through to 2001. Those figures do not change: they are 0.7 per cent. for each year. There is a little difference between maintained secondary and maintained primary schools, but that same figure of 0.7 per cent. applied for nine years.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman masks the truth using statistics, as people who are trying to mask the truth often do. Let me tell him the numbers. They have risen consistently, year on year. The number of days lost at all schools in 1997–98 had increased by something like 10 per cent. by 2001. We can bandy figures about, but it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that truancy is a significant problem, when Members on his Front Bench do. They recognise that fact, which is why they have set targets, made speeches about the problem, and believe that measures need to be introduced to address it. I do not want to open up a gulf between Labour Front Benchers and the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, so I suggest that he look at some of their speeches, study some of the measures, and hold further discussions with his ministerial colleagues.

Ofsted certainly recognises the problem of truancy. On 6 February 2002, it suggested that 10,000 children are missing from state schools, and that no one knows exactly what they get up to when they should be in class. Mr. Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, suggested that some might be working "in the black economy". Unfortunately, many of them stray into criminal activity. Of course, there is no direct correlation between truancy and crime, but we know, from what the local constabularies and the social services departments of councils tell us, that there is a relationship between truancy and crime, and that should be a matter of grave concern for Members throughout House. Truancy is a significant and growing problem.

Most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that teacher demoralisation is a real problem. This is, of course, related to the quality of life that teachers can expect to endure in our schools. Given a choice between teaching in a comfortable school somewhere in the leafy suburbs of London or teaching in the inner city, it would take a brave, devoted and committed person to teach in the inner city. [Interruption.] I think that Vernon Coaker wants to intervene to tell me about his teaching experiences in the leafy suburbs.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

No, I am just listening.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman does not want to intervene; that was just a sedentary intervention. I know that he had an extremely distinguished career as an educator in the leafy suburbs—

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

It was not in a leafy suburb.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Just a distinguished career, then.

Given the choice, most teachers would, not unnaturally, opt for the quieter life. We have a responsibility to ensure that they are motivated, encouraged and rewarded for taking on the difficult challenges involved in educating the children who may not necessarily have the same support from home, and who will not necessarily come to school as well prepared, as their contemporaries out in the leafy suburbs, in which the hon. Gentleman certainly did not teach but which he equally certainly now represents.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

In my constituency there is an economically challenged area which contains an education action zone. The Good Shepherd Catholic school in the education action zone had the highest level of unauthorised absences in the country last year, at 7.7 per cent. I am pleased to say that this year, the figure for unauthorised absences is down to 0.2 per cent., when the national average is 0.5 per cent. The secret is that the head teacher has been telephoning the parents on the first day of absence, asking why the pupil is not at school and working through the problems—which are varied, as has been mentioned—with the parents. The local authority is now employing people to do that. I mention this to make the point that even in the most challenging area that has the worst history of absenteeism—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is very lengthy.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to be the first and possibly the only person to pay tribute to Geraint Davies for his contribution to that improvement in the school, for no other reason than the fact that he has raised it in the House. It is important that we celebrate good work, because that is part of re-instilling a sense of pride and purpose in our teachers and our head teachers when they face challenges and difficulties.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I know that other hon. Members want to intervene to seek the very same kind of praise so that they can issue local press releases.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am not planning to issue a local press release but merely to ask him whether he believes that the amount of initiatives and paperwork that head teachers routinely deal with makes it more or less likely that they will have the time to do what the head teacher in the constituency of Geraint Davies has done.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

I said that I would not be unnecessarily partisan, but part of the agenda in terms of maintaining the morale of head teachers and classroom teachers is to ensure that they focus on their role as educators and are not taken down the tributary of becoming managers. Of course, there has always been a management function associated with running any school, but it is also true that there has been excessive red tape in schools. I am less concerned about the pen pushing than about the confusion created by a succession of initiatives—some are contradictory and many overlap—that sap the energy, initiative and drive of head teachers, teachers and governors. That is the real problem that lies at the heart of my hon. Friend's question. However, to avoid accusations of not being balanced, I pay tribute to him as well for the work that he has done in highlighting that important matter on behalf of his constituents.

The problem of discipline in schools is acknowledged by the Government and by the hon. Members for Gedling and for Croydon, Central. Only the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee does not acknowledge it, but I think that on this occasion we can regard him as a noble exception to the rule.

I suggest that there are five things that we can do about the problem. I thought initially of four ideas, but four does not sound as good as five, so I thought of another one. First, we should be bold and brave enough to give schools more power to deal with these problems in ways they feel appropriate. In different situations, different parts of the country and different communities, different solutions will apply. In schools with a significant proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities, where Afro-Caribbean or Asian pupils may form the majority, solutions to problems will be entirely different from those relevant to disaffected, white working-class pupils. Of course there will be similarities and parallels, but such schools may well have to adopt different solutions that involve working with local communities and being sensitive to local needs and differences. It is appropriate to be much more bold in devolving power to local communities and institutions, so that they can sort out such matters.

The second solution is to re-elevate the role of the educator. Every great civilisation throughout history—ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Persians, the Chinese—has valued and revered educators, yet early 21st-century western society demeans and diminishes them. What does that say about our faith in the future of our nation and our children? We should not only give our teachers more authority and the power to adapt to local needs to sort out such problems, but support them when they get into difficulties. One of the great cries of teachers is that they do not feel properly supported when parents and pupils subject them to legal challenges and other such difficulties. If we believe in teachers and we want others to do so, it is essential that we support them when they have problems with discipline.

We need also to develop a curriculum that is more relevant to people's needs. As the hon. Member for Gedling will know—he probably experienced what I am about to describe, although not in the leafy suburbs—it is no fun taking out a battered textbook on a wet Friday afternoon and trying to teach the French revolution to a group of dissolute 16-year-olds who want to go home and do something much more exciting. Many teachers are faced with that prospect, and we must be more sensitive to the differing needs of pupils and groups of pupils. We need a curriculum that is relevant. If education is not relevant, we cannot expect to engage a significant number of those who do not see their future as academic and involving further and higher education. We need to provide an education that they regard as relevant to their real potential.

We certainly need more inter-agency work. We must work much more creatively with the different agencies involved with truanting students and their families. In that regard, there is significant overlap between police, social services, other local authority departments, the voluntary sector and schools. Information is not always exchanged as effectively as it could be, and the experts involved do not always communicate well with each other. Parents and communities do not feel that such problems are being approached holistically. Labour and Conservative Governments have failed to grasp that nettle, but given that we are discussing the current Government, it is the Under-Secretary who had better grasp it—and with both hands.

We need to be absolutely clear about what happens to pupils when they are excluded. As truancy has increased—I am surprised that the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee is no longer here to challenge my figures, but he can do so later—exclusions have diminished. They have diminished because the Government took the wrong decision. They set unrealistic and deeply unpopular exclusion targets that took power away from governors and head teachers, and did not enable teachers to follow their instincts on excluding pupils, even when such instincts were entirely justified and right.

Part of the problem is that excluded pupils are often sent into a black hole. I have already mentioned the 10,000 pupils whom we know nothing about. Reports to the local education committee of which I was a member on what was happening to excluded pupils were usually summarised by the phrase: "Work is being set." We never heard what that work was, how it was going to be marked, whether it got there, whether it came back, or at what level it was set. All we knew was that work was being set and we were meant to satisfied with that. Mr. Heppell and I did not have a chance to consider that further in our local education committee because of the lack of time. However, I am sure he was as concerned as I was that those pupils who were excluded sometimes—perhaps often—disappeared from the system.

Pupil exclusion units often do a fine job, but we must be more certain about what education is being offered to excluded children. We need to have faith that exclusion does not mean permanent banishment to outer space. There should be more opportunity for children to move in and out of the system. There is a feeling that once children are excluded permanently from a single school, they are banished for ever. The approach needs to be more flexible so that people have another chance. We need to give them another bite of the cherry so that they can be brought back into the system to fulfil their potential.

I have cited five ideas, none of which is partisan or, I hope, too negative. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is not in the Chamber to hear my non-partisan speech. If he were, he might have to revise his stereotyped ideas about the Conservatives. It is right that we should raise our sights beyond the partisan debate to a more glorious future, not least because, as Aristotle said:

"Educated men are as much superior to the uneducated men as the living are to the dead."

We do not hear Aristotle quoted often in the House, so I hope that hon. Members pricked up their ears at that. Although I would not go as far as Aristotle, I would go as far as Plutarch, who said:

"The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in the felicity of lighting on good education."

It is because of that that we have to raise our sights beyond the party political squabble.

I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House are committed to providing decent quality education for all our children. I make no apology for saying that that applies disproportionately to the most vulnerable; nor do I apologise for saying that it is my responsibility and, I believe, the responsibility of the House to devote disproportionate time and energy to that group. We must bring all our skills to the problem so that our children get a fair and decent chance, especially those who are most disadvantaged.

That is certainly our duty; let us make it our mission.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. If contributions are kept brief, perhaps a greater number of hon. Members will be successful in catching my eye.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet 5:53 pm, 21st May 2002

I hope that my brief contribution will also be effective and continue the non-partisan approach set by Mr. Hayes.

It is necessary to retain a perspective about truancy and discipline in school. The overwhelming majority of kids in our schools are well behaved and do not truant, and the overwhelming majority of teachers do a highly effective job. As an ex-teacher of 16 years' standing, I was interested in the comments of Mr. Willis, who told us that an irate parent had hit him over the head with an umbrella. I taught just down the road, and umbrellas were a luxury.

It is obvious to anyone with any awareness that truancy is a problem for society. The figures have been mentioned, but they are worth repeating. It is deeply worrying that some 50,000 young people in England alone deliberately truant from school every day. Official figures show that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and 30 per cent. of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds during school hours. Those figures are disturbing. We must all acknowledge that something needs to be done to change that and the attitudes that go with it.

In my distant, although I hope not too dim, past as a schoolboy on the Gipton estate in east Leeds, to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred, kids who legged it from school kept a low profile to avoid both their parents and the board man. What disturbs me so much is that today young people who truant—I know that they are a tiny minority—feel no need to keep a low profile. Indeed, they flaunt their behaviour. Worst of all, in many cases the truanting is done with the support of adults who masquerade as parents.

When we talk about truancy, we must acknowledge that we must vigorously address the depressing cycle of underachievement, apathy and the almost inevitable slide into antisocial behaviour and crime—a cycle that will be stubbornly perpetuated if we do not attempt to get to grips with the problem. That is why I welcome the Government's recently announced plans to base uniformed police officers in up to 400 schools in England's worst crime hotspots as part of their £90 million crackdown on truancy.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Croydon Central

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that recent research discloses that the majority of the crimes committed by such youths on other youths take place outside the school gates after school. Children who have been excluded or who are truanting intimidate children when they leave school. They meet up with their mates, press drugs on them and take mobile phones. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a case to be made for having police at the school gate when schools break up to ensure that the perpetrators are caught and to prevent such crimes from being committed?

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I was going to cover that later in my contribution.

I also welcome the response of John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, to the Government's support for schools in their attempts to combat truancy. He said:

"Headteachers use a wide range of measures to improve attendance, but too much truancy is condoned by parents".

Parents are key to the problem. Unfortunately, the role of parents is not mentioned in the Opposition motion, and that is one of its great weaknesses.

Similar support was given to the Government's measures by Steve Pilkington, from the Association of Chief Police Officers. He said:

"This approach is not part of the police taking a soft option . . . youth crime is a complex issue and there is a need to adopt a range of responses—from working with children and young people in and around schools . . . to effectively targeting and dealing with serious and persistent offenders".

I am pleased that the Select Committee on Education and Skills discussed that problem. It called for a review of the penalties faced by parents of truanting children who assist in letting 6 million days of education go to waste every year. No one, whether it be the Government, schools, teachers, parents or taxpayers, can condone that appalling statistic and its negative knock-on effects.

Bringing parents into the equation is vital. The teachers I regularly talk to go along with that, although some are uneasy about the case of Patricia Amos, the parent who was jailed in Oxfordshire. However, I notice that that liberal organ The Guardian today reports that Ms Amos was visited 71 times in 12 months by social workers who tried to ensure that her daughters went to school. No one can say that an effort was not made to help that woman in those circumstances.

The other issue that I have discussed with teachers—some of them are iffy about this, too—is the consideration of the plans to restrict child benefit to families whose children consistently truant and misbehave. All the teachers I speak to accept that we have to act decisively to address that problem, and I very much share that view.

The Select Committee estimates that 80 per cent. of truants caught in sweeps of shopping centres were accompanied by an adult, often a parent. I congratulate the city centre truancy sweep that took place last October in Leeds, my home city, organised jointly by Education Leeds and the West Yorkshire police force, operating under section 16 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which deals with truants. It was a well-planned and organised sweep that took place over five days. The city centre was swept—figuratively speaking—daily, and a patrol allocated to cover other well-known high-risk truancy areas. During the operation, over five days, 328 children of varying ages from schools throughout the city were stopped. Significantly, the police reported a marked reduction in city centre crime over that week.

Some of the excuses given by children who were wandering round the city centre were interesting. One claimed that she had a virus, so she should not have been walking around Dortmund square. Another claimed that she had sickness and diarrhoea, so I would not have advised her to walk round the Merrion centre. A third said that he had a hernia, but it did not stop him walking up the hill at Briggate, so he was doing very well. It is not surprising that the top three sites for apprehending truants were in Leeds city centre. In a way, that is a backhanded compliment to the council's work to make the heart of our city a more attractive place to visit.

A study of those statistics yields much useful information. As I said, one glaring fact is that a high proportion of those 328 truants were accompanied by parents or adults. Clearly, we must therefore factor into our equation parents and their attitudes on this subject.

I commend to the Minister yet another initiative being taken in Leeds—the authorised pupils pass scheme. Under the scheme, pupils who use local shops and amenities, or who visit public areas during normal school lesson time, can be asked to show a pass. The pass carries the name of the school and the pupil, and is entitled "Time Out—Authorised Absence Pass". The pass gives details of the pupil's absence from school, including reasons for the absence, the time out and the expected return time to school. The initiative is funded via private sponsorship and has enabled Education Leeds and West Yorkshire police to get the scheme up and running in the south Leeds area. The aim—thanks to new money from the Government—is to expand the scheme to the whole of Leeds. I ask Ministers to monitor and evaluate the scheme and, if it is successful, provide further funding to refine and enhance the project in the years ahead.

No doubt we have all been watching "Coronation Street" over the past few weeks, as Ken Barlow has struggled with a difficult pupil, but the reality in schools is very different. I find myself in total agreement—not that I am after a job—with the Education Secretary's recent comment:

"we will do what we can to support heads and teachers but without parents taking their responsibilities seriously we will not make the progress we want. Parents have a duty to make sure they are doing all they can to instil discipline in their children".

Anybody who has read the university of Warwick study carried out on behalf of the National Union of Teachers entitled "Unacceptable Pupil Behaviour" will realise the debilitating situation that faces too many of our teachers across the country. There is considerable dissatisfaction among classroom teachers about the lack of support that they feel they get from senior management teams when faced with low-level but frequent disruption. Serious incidents, such as violence from pupils and threats from parents were less frequent but highly disturbing to teachers, who felt that they were being blamed in a climate in which parents were unprepared to take responsibility for their children.

As a teacher who was pursued by a large and irate parent who had an even larger dog, I know that discretion is sometimes the better part of valour, and that one should keep out of the way and let somebody else take the responsibility. In many cases, however, the problems were reported as being due to a minority of children who take up a massive amount of teachers' time and effort. It is a minority of pupils who are responsible. It seems to many teachers that there are no effective sanctions in place, and that is why I welcome current Government thinking, which I hope will soon be turned into action, on such policies as the withdrawal of child benefit from the parents of severely disruptive pupils. If that debate has done nothing else, it has made people focus on the role of parental responsibility.

Teachers do not go into the job to become experts in crowd control or unarmed combat, but because they want to teach, they want to open up pupils' minds to the opportunities before them, and, in many cases, because they have a love of their subject. To make sure that teachers can teach and pupils can learn in a calm and civilised atmosphere will cost money. We must face up to the fact that the solution will not come cheap. My view is that no classroom teacher should have to put up with violent and threatening pupils. When that situation arises, it places great stress on the teacher and also deprives other pupils of their right to learn. To exclude those who make teaching and learning impossible because of their behaviour must be our aim. As I said, however, that is a costly exercise.

The system in Leeds of learning support units on site at nearly every high school, with properly trained staff, is expensive to maintain, but it is a cost that we recognise we must meet. Those pupils who cannot even be taught in a learning support unit are referred to a pupil referral unit, of which I think there are four in Leeds. I have nothing but admiration for the work that the staff do with some extremely difficult children, and they are worthy of our support. I am glad that the Government support both of those units with excellence in cities money and standards fund money.

As a result of talking to teachers in my constituency, I have a few suggestions for the Minister—at least to match the five proposed by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings—that could help create a more disciplined environment in schools. I hope that they are practical. First, there should be increased funding for and an expansion of pupil referral units so that violent and disruptive pupils can be removed from mainstream schools straight away. Secondly, there should be an enhanced pay and career structure for those who work in pupil referral units with our most difficult pupils—those who do the most difficult job should have the best career and pay structures available.

Thirdly, a framework should be introduced that requires parents to exercise their responsibilities in relation to their children's behaviour in school. That should come at the end of a wide public debate, so that the conclusion reached carries widespread public support. Fourthly, we should make sure that, where possible, all schools have a secure site, that is, for example, effectively fenced. I remember refereeing a football match during which three kids who had hijacked a car drove across the pitch four or five times. Unluckily for me, my school was just about to score a goal. Nevertheless, such incidents—many of which are caused by outsiders wandering on to school premises and creating serious problems—can be addressed fairly simply and effectively.

I have also spoken to teachers—my hon. Friend Geraint Davies who made this point is no longer in his place—who welcome the presence of the police at school gates at the end of the day. That has also had the beneficial effect of lessening shoplifting and other crime-related incidents in the surrounding area at going home time.

Fifthly, increased liaison with the police in schools will help to reinforce the message that we need coherent and joined-up thinking to address all our problems. Sixthly, we should make sure that all senior management teams in schools place the greatest emphasis on supporting teachers in the classroom when it comes to discipline.

Finally, will Ministers consider the effectiveness of a system of staff training in management of unruly pupils? Staff in pupil referral units are trained in a programme called Team Teach, which many teachers consider to be highly effective. If that is judged to be a useful tool for teachers, could we make sure that each secondary school had at least a couple of staff trained in Team Teach so that they could control effectively some fairly aggressive pupils?

The suggestions that I have made are not partisan but I hope that they are practical and effective.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 6:08 pm, 21st May 2002

It is a great pleasure to follow Colin Burgon. I shall respond in a moment to some of his remarks.

All Members, on both sides of the debate, have recognised the confluence of issues that lead to difficulties in and out of schools: truancy, discipline and bullying. Bullying leads to school refusal, truancy leads to crime, disorder and, in some cases, pregnancy, and discipline leads to exclusion and the possibilities of solving those problems. That is a complex web of conditions, into which I suspect that outsiders, among whom I number Members and Ministers, should tread with trepidation.

That is why I want to comment on the contribution of the hon. Member for Elmet. He seemed to suggest a range of solutions that were exactly the sort that one would like implemented in schools. I would hope, however, that the profession would already be recognising and implementing—or at least influencing—such solutions, and that we would not be approaching the problem of indiscipline in schools and truancy on a top-down basis.

I am sorry if that point is slightly outside the non-party aspirations of Mr. Willis, who is not in his place, but I recognise that Ministers feel compelled to do something. I am sure that we welcome many of the things that they have tried to do, but the final responsibility for ensuring the effective management of a school must surely rest with the manager of that school. A balance must be struck between the desires of Ministers—and, for that matter, Opposition Members—to find the right solution and the tendency to micro-manage. I hope therefore that we will show humility in our approach to the issue. We should not dole out just prescriptions, or even money. We should dole out responsibility and real power to those who have the difficult jobs of running our schools and looking after the condition of our communities.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of targets and statistics. It was evident from the friendly dispute between my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes and Mr. Sheerman that statistics are as open to manipulation and misunderstanding as any other form of debate. When reducing unauthorised absence becomes a target, schools are tempted to authorise absence.

I have been told of a case involving a friend of mine whose daughter persistently truanted from a very reputable school. The solution that the school adopted was to ring her parents and ask them to authorise the absences retrospectively. Otherwise, they would damage the school's statistics. I recognise that schools do not commonly adopt that approach, but anyone presented with the difficulty of solving such problems will search for a range of solutions. One of them is to fiddle the statistics.

We have wonderful figures for registration, but pupils have resorted to post-registration truancy. There has also been a shift from one kind of exclusion to another. If a school cannot exclude permanently, it opts for a series of temporary short-term exclusions until the Government clamp down on the number of days allowed for short-term exclusions. All absences relate to a figure that Ministers have in mind.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on alighting on a target for attendance. I welcome that approach because, without such a target, we cannot achieve the successful education at least in the narrow sense of the two senses that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned. We will not be successful if pupils are not in class.

We must place more faith and confidence in, and offer more support to, the good sense and professionalism of head teachers and governors. We must also consider the local reputation of a school. Good discipline depends on clear signals from all levels in society backing those who are placed in authority. I recognise that those in authority can make mistakes, but it is incumbent on us—and particularly on those who sit on appeal panels dealing with exclusions—to recognise the relative importance of backing those who may have made mistakes from time to time. The good head teacher backs those of his staff who occasionally make mistakes and the good leader backs those of his supporters who occasionally make mistakes. It is important that we adopt such an approach because we must not undermine people responsible for those lower down the chain.

We give head teachers an extremely difficult job to do and the least that we can do is back them. Therefore, I would like an end to the system by which appeal panels undermine head teachers. Governors must set the policy, head teachers must manage its implementation and an appeal panel should overturn the implementation of the policy in relation to an exclusion only if there has been a clear failure of process. The panel should then refer the matter back for further consideration. Nothing could be worse than leaving a head teacher red faced and impotent, sometimes in the face of a pupil who has persistently flouted the discipline of the school and perhaps acted to endanger the well-being of other pupils. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger for his support.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that schools are only a reflection of society. Of course they are, but they are extremely important not only in reflecting society but in developing it. I hope that society will support schools and offer more support to parents and carers by being less damning of those who do not measure up to our, the Government's and the media's prescriptions of how they should bring up their children. We should be less condemnatory, particularly of those who make a serious effort in the face of difficulty to bring up their children in a decent and honourable way.

I wonder why the Frenchman was hauled off Princes street in Edinburgh and put before the Scottish courts simply because he slapped his child. I wonder why a Scot was similarly treated for slapping his daughter in the dentist's surgery. That is not the approach to discipline that I would have chosen but, fortunately, I do not have to make such decisions because I do not have children. I would not have made a foul-mouthed son or daughter wash his or her mouth out with soap and water, but I am not convinced that doing that just once is a matter that should be taken before the courts. We must support parents in the incredibly difficult job that they are trying to do.

We should also support the police more effectively in the difficult job that they do. Therefore, I congratulate Labour Members on moving from the position that some of them and some of their predecessors took when they were in opposition. They recognise more than they did 10 years ago the difficulties that the police, parents and schools face.

The case of Mrs. Amos in Oxfordshire shows clearly the extent to which liberalism has failed. A huge number of interventions by social services for more than a year failed to persuade Mrs. Amos to send her daughters to school. I found it almost heartbreaking that she should be imprisoned for her failure to do so, but we must accept that it was the right response in this case. However, we must also recognise the difficulties that cause children to stay away from school. Sometimes the problem is as obvious as the failure of school transport or the failure of the school. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough pointed out, the curriculum sometimes fails. However, well before the introduction of the national curriculum, my friend, Dennis O'Keeffe, identified the problem of post-registration truancy.

Bullying in schools is a real problem that schools have acknowledged only recently. They have yet to deal with it successfully. I do not refer necessarily to high-level racist bullying, but to low-level intolerance of those who look different or speak differently. Appallingly, there is sometimes intolerance of the very able or of those who are very pretty. Such pupils are bullied, and that type of low-level disorder makes parents lose their faith in schools. It is no wonder that parents sometimes condone truancy because they need the child at home and feel that it is not worth their going to school.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Of course I will give way, although I was about to say that I do not intend to speak for much longer because I can see that other hon. Members want to take part in the debate.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

Does the hon. Gentleman share the disappointment of many hon. Members on both sides of the House that the motion tabled by his party makes no mention of parents when it refers to tackling problems of truancy and bad behaviour? Should not parents, as well as schools, be a central part of the motion?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I do not share any such feeling because I have referred to parents in many of my remarks. However, we must recognise that parents have an incredibly difficult job to do in society.

We have to offer escape routes for pupils for whom school is not a satisfactory experience. We have to enable them more easily to go to smaller schools, to go to different kinds of schools and to go into further education, perhaps before the age of 16. Perhaps they could take time out of school and return later. We have to be imaginative in the opportunities that we offer. If we do that, we will at least begin to be successful in tackling this most difficult of problems.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley 6:21 pm, 21st May 2002

I am pleased to say that in his last few contributions Mr. Turner has been agreeing with most of what the Government are trying to do. We can see from this debate that all parties care about truancy and want to do something about it, but it is fair to point out that the Conservatives had 18 years in government. The children who were truanting during the Thatcher years are now the grandparents of today's truants, so others must take some responsibility for the rot that has set in.

This debate is not all about inner-city areas; it is about areas such as Doncaster and Barnsley in South Yorkshire, where a whole industry was wiped out and nothing was put in its place. The children who thought that they could follow their fathers into a job down the pit found that there was no industry to employ them. I make no excuses for mentioning that because today, with objective 1 funding and other support from the Government, we have a chance to turn that situation round. However, those neighbourhoods were left without a lifeline, and the rot set in because there was no support for them.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

I will not give way because I have only just started my speech. Hon. Members can ask any professional in Doncaster who works with kids who have offended or with vulnerable families, and they will say that they now have countless opportunities to try to tackle those issues.

I sit on the board of sure start in Denaby and Conisbrough, and we have funded five staff members to work with schools and families before kids even start nursery school. They try to make sure that there is a connection between the school and the parents. In some cases there is only one parent and in others it is the grandparents who look after the children. We hope that if we can create a good relationship with carers when children are three, we shall be able to sustain it throughout their time at school. That is part of the process of connecting parents to schools, which we are striving to do. Some parents do not respond to such support, and I will return to that subject in a moment.

I want to bring some fresh evidence to the debate. I congratulate Doncaster council and South Yorkshire police on beginning a two-week operation of truancy sweeps, deploying 16 police officers and 16 education welfare officers in a targeted campaign. The interim figures from those sweeps show that during the first week alone, 291 pupils who were not in school were stopped; 96 were immediately returned to school, and 101 were in the company of a parent, but 63 of them had no valid reason for not being at school. During the first week the officers visited an additional 163 homes to confront parents whose children's attendance record was less than 85 per cent.

One benefit of the campaign has been the high-profile and visible police presence, which I believe will depress the level of street crime in shopping areas in and around my constituency. I am delighted that constituents have mentioned seeing police vehicles marked "Truancy Patrol", which means that a wider message is being communicated to the public. Doncaster council is very willing to prosecute parents using the new aggravated offence introduced by the Government.

Inevitably, as the sweeps took place in May, some of the 291 pupils stopped were on exam leave. However, schools must try to reinforce the message that such leave is a time for quiet preparation for exams, not for shopping, and it is not an extension to school holidays. We must ensure that there are opportunities for pupils on exam leave to study, if not in schools then perhaps with the library service, and parents must support them in that.

There remains a problem with young people who are not sitting exams and therefore have no studying to do. Many have historically poor attendance at school, and during exam leave they have a lot of time on their hands. The situation of those who are excluded from the exam process reinforces the case for the Government to widen the curriculum to include work-based and vocational study from age 14. Mr. Willis claims responsibility for that policy, but I know from my time on what was then the Education and Employment Committee that many Labour Members have been involved in campaigning for 14-plus options for a very long time. I welcome the Government's moves in that direction.

A further problem exposed by the sweeps is that if children are in the company of a parent, the truancy team has no power to return them to school, even if they have no valid reason for being absent. The team can only give the parent a letter explaining the consequences of non-attendance and send a form to the school for the school and the education welfare officer to follow up. We should consider how we can strengthen the law in that respect.

We have heard many contributions about the role of parents in relation to children's attendance at school, and I acknowledge that there are many reasons why children fail to attend school. The problem is multi-faceted, by any stretch of the imagination. Many parents need support, and although it may take some time, they become open to the idea of accepting it. Undoubtedly, however, there are hard-core parents who are given a huge amount of support but do not really give a damn. The level of parental connivance in truanting is extraordinary.

I commend Doncaster council for its tough stance on poor attendance. It welcomes the additional powers made available by the Government, and in Doncaster the first parent is about to be prosecuted for the new aggravated offence. The council wants to guarantee that parents who do nothing about truanting—by which I mean that they do nothing to co-operate with any of the services that are available—will make their first court appearance within 18 weeks of a pattern of non-attendance being established. The council is obliged to provide the court with evidence of poor attendance over 13 weeks to prove a pattern. I hope that in Doncaster we will not see a case like that of the mother in Banbury, in which it took two years of work before a conclusion was reached. Stronger action, taken earlier, should achieve a result sooner.

I know from talking to colleagues that there is concern about the removal of benefits. I welcome new powers such as parenting orders, and we need to think about how we can use them. I shall share an anecdote with the House. Discussion with a child who was truanting revealed that he felt that his mother did not give him much time. He was asked, "In return for your going to school, what is the one thing you would like your mother to do?" He replied that he would like her to sit and watch a football match on television with him. That seems ridiculously trivial, but when the mother was told that her son simply wanted to spend more time with her, she complied and the boy went to school. That is an example of imaginative use of a parenting order.

There are, however, some families who are not doing their children justice, and deduction of child benefit may be a way forward. It is erroneous to suggest that that policy is an attack on the poor. If children do not attend school they will not achieve, and they will be relegated to a life of poverty. Along the way, they will set an example for their younger brothers and sisters. We should consider withholding child benefit until parents improve their attitude and their approach to working with the services, and then give it to them if they co-operate. That is all about having policies that provide support and take account of the complexities, but at the end of the day, it is about putting the child's interests first.

People should not kid themselves that we do not consider deducting benefits for other reasons. If people refuse to work they can lose their employment benefit. If people park their cars on double yellow lines they will get parking tickets, regardless of their income. We have to consider poverty in the long term. We cannot give up on such children; it is important that we develop a sense of responsibility among parents. Schools exist to provide a quality service and a good education, but parents are responsible for their children. They have to take up that challenge, and we must ensure that they attend to it.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley 6:30 pm, 21st May 2002

I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this important debate, and to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Hayes, who plays a significant role in my life in so far as he prevents me from truanting from the House—if I were ever to think of doing so, which, of course, I do not—because he is the pairing Whip. It is largely thanks to him that I am here.

I came into politics in the hope, of course, that my ideas might change things. I dreamt that a policy that I conceived might one day influence the Government—so imagine my surprise when on 22 March this year I heard that the Prime Minister was proposing to dock benefits from the parents of truanting children. I thought that I had seen that policy somewhere before, and looked up The Daily Telegraph of 17 January, where I found an article that had evidently inspired new Labour. The resounding penultimate paragraph said:

"If parents will not inculcate discipline in their children, there seems no reason why there should not be a graded and means-tested system of fines, on the parents, for the results of their neglect and irresponsibility."

I looked to see who had written those words, and I was astonished to see that it was me.

I tackled a friend of mine, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North–East (Mr. Ainsworth), and asked him whether I had inspired the Government's policy, and he all but confirmed it. The Secretary of State is not now in her place, but perhaps other Ministers will be so good as to authenticate my paternity of that policy. It is a better solution than locking up Patricia Amos for 60 days. When the Minister winds up the debate, I should like him to tell me how he thinks the policy might work.

Before we reach that solution, however, we need to consider seriously why we have been driven to those desperate expedients. The reason, of course, is that the position is bleak. I do not know what figures Labour Members are relying on, but our evidence suggests that truancy has risen by 11 per cent. since Labour came to power, and that violence against teachers has risen fivefold. I do not want to be partisan; I agree with the line taken by Mr. Willis. This has been a useful debate, but the Secretary of State was perhaps excessively complacent. Her line seemed to be that this was a chronic problem that had been going on for many years, so she could be forgiven for not attempting to solve it.

There is no room for complacency; 50,000 children a day are truanting. They are blighting their own lives. We all know the figures: 30 per cent. of prisoners are ex-truants. They are blighting the lives of the rest of us. Society is now living in exaggerated terror of feral children. We are now so frightened of children on trains that when we see them mucking around, swearing and threatening people, we cower in our seats and we do not even intervene. Too often in this day and age, we pass by on the other side. That is ignominious and a poor reflection on all of us. The problem must be addressed, and it begins at school. That is why this debate is vital.

What are the causes? I agree with the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough about the causes. Many hon. Members have said a lot about children being fed up with school and not being interested in their lessons. That may be part of the problem, but it is not all the problem. It is not enough to demand that teachers be so electrifying in their performance as to keep the attention of the likes of the hon. Member for Huddersfield and prevent them from goofing off, as he rather alarmingly said he did, thus setting a poor example to his constituents.

It is not enough to ask teachers to pep up their lessons; the central problem is a loss of parents' and teachers' authority. The key reasons for that have been well adumbrated by my hon. Friends. Head teachers' power to exclude was taken away. Exclusion is a terrible thing, but it was a severe diminution of head teachers' authority to circumscribe them in that way.

I talked to the head teacher of a primary school who has lost a great deal of authority over his own staff. He cannot decide whether to promote a teacher up the pay spine, as it is called, without a 27-page document from the teacher herself and an independent Whitehall assessor to decide whether that promotion is justified. That is a ridiculous piece of Whitehall bureaucracy, and it should be got rid of.

Head teachers no longer have sufficient authority to discipline either teachers or pupils. That is ridiculous, and I agree with the tenor of much of what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Turner. It is a shame that a head teacher in my constituency cannot even ask children who have broken several school rules to pick up crisps during break by way of punishment.

It is true that there are no simplistic solutions. We cannot ignore the final point that teachers make to all hon. Members, which is that their problems and difficulties with discipline are very largely passed on—or subcontracted out—to them by the parents who refuse to discipline their children. Of course there are many reasons why parents may not be providing their children with adequate discipline. I am sure that Labour Members will be swift to leap to their feet to blame Thatcherism and 20 years of Tory misrule. Aye, they will blame society.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley

I do not want to take interventions. [Interruption.] Go on then, blame society.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but when his own children are old enough he may find that in fact, it is quite difficult to give teenagers sufficient constraints and incentives to go along with their parents' wishes, whether in terms of school attendance or any other aspect of their behaviour. Things are not always the fault of the parents, although they may be.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warning me of my fate when my children reach their teenage years. I listen to him with all humility and sincerity, but it is grossly patronising to many people who live on very low incomes and none the less produce polite, well-mannered and law-abiding children to say that everything is the fault of society.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley

Hang on; hear me out, old boy. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I mean I ask the hon. Gentleman to hear me out.

It strikes me that the fault must lie fundamentally with the parents. In the past 20 to 25 years, we have seen a revolution in the relationship between children and adults in our society as fundamental as the revolution in the relationship between the sexes. Children no longer respect adult authority as they used to. There are many reasons for that, and in some ways it is a good thing, but in some ways it is a bad thing. We need to restore the chain of responsibility between child and adult, and if that means fining the parents of truanting and undisciplined children, I say that that is fine.

I am reminded of a friend of my family—a single mother from Bridlington in Yorkshire—[Interruption.] Is Bridlington in Yorkshire? [Interruption.] Yes, it is. When we were discussing the fall of the Berlin wall, she said that she did not know about that because when she was at school her mother used to say, "Don't worry about history. Let's go off shopping." If some measure, such as the one envisaged by the Government, could stop that casual truanting, it would be a very good thing.

It would be nice to find that the Government are prepared not just to filch an idea from a Tory paper, but to produce some serious ideas about how to carry it out. I genuinely believe that there is no problem more central to many of the ills of our society than that of truanting children and ill discipline in schools. I very much hope that the Government have taken those ideas on board and that they will produce practical solutions. If not, they can, of course, make way for those who will.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education) 6:39 pm, 21st May 2002

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson—which I think I did!

This has been an important if short debate. My hon. Friend Mr. Green launched a typically trenchant attack on the Government's failures, which was succeeded by—I am afraid—a typically complacent response from the Secretary of State. The tenor of her remarks was "The problems of truancy and indiscipline are being addressed"; but, as even she was prepared to accept, those problems have become worse rather than better. She says that educational opportunities are being improved in inner cities. If that is so, why are the Government determined to lower standards of admissions to universities?

On cue, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Margaret Hodge, enters the Chamber. Why are the Government focusing on lowering admission standards for pupils from inner-city schools, rather than concentrating on raising standards in those schools to give such children as good a chance of entering higher education as everyone else?

There is a crisis in discipline in our schools, a crisis that is driving teachers out of the profession. It is making it impossible for other children to learn. According to the National Union of Teachers, 45 per cent. of those leaving the profession cite behaviour. Labour's response has been not to tackle discipline, but to prevent heads from excluding violent and disruptive pupils. A teacher from a private prep school whom I met recently made it very clear that he had left his job in a state school entirely because of problems involving discipline and behaviour. He told me that he would rather have swept the streets than remain in his former job. That represents a dismal failure—something with which we cannot be satisfied, and something of which the Government should be ashamed.

Labour's response has been to set a target to reduce the number of exclusions, possibly the only target that the party has met. What has been the cost of meeting that target? The number of exclusions was reduced from 12,668 in 1996–97 to 8,600 in 1999–2000, but only as a result of the then Secretary of State's publication of Department for Education and Employment circular 10/99, which stated:

"A decision to exclude should be taken only: in response to serious breaches of the school's disciplinary policy; once a range of alternative strategies have been tried and have failed".

It was shockingly disingenuous of the Secretary of State to claim earlier that heads had always had freedom to exclude. They have not—and the present Government took away that freedom, through circular 10/99, when she was a Minister in the Department. The fact that they have performed a U-turn and recognised the failure of the policy and the damage that it did is no excuse, and does not absolve the Secretary of State of responsibility. Moreover, for her not to admit—today, in the House of Commons—to what she did was unacceptable.

What prior strategies had Ministers in mind for dealing with a pupil who had threatened his teacher with a knife, or sexually assaulted another child in the classroom? What right did Ministers think they had to interfere with a head teacher's ability to maintain proper discipline in a school—to protect the safety and dignity of his staff, and of the children in his care? Their policy was clearly wrong; only someone who was detached from reality could ever have considered it appropriate or reasonable.

Yet even when the policy had been changed—even when Ministers were saying that it was wrong to focus solely on reducing the number of exclusions, rather than concentrating on tackling the underlying problems—Ministers boasted in the House about reductions, hoping that they would continue along the same lines. In April last year, Jacqui Smith, then an Education Minister, said:

"Permanent exclusions have fallen by 18 per cent . . . and we expect further reductions. There is no evidence that that has been at the expense of other children's learning."—[Hansard, 27 April 2001; Vol. 367, c. 621.]

There is such evidence, and Ministers have belatedly accepted it—although one or two Labour Members still do not appear to appreciate it. Geraint Davies boasted earlier about the reduction in the number of exclusions, although it had been achieved at the cost of massively increased indiscipline and disruption in schools and a huge blow to morale in the teaching profession.

A one third cut in the amount of truancy has not been achieved. In fact there has been no cut whatever, and in secondary schools truancy has increased. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford pointed out, it has increased most in inner-city areas—the areas at which most of the Government's gimmicks and initiatives have been directed, and to which most of the money has gone. The number of days lost in schools because of truancy has increased in all big inner-city areas. All that has happened while the Secretary of State has been a Minister in the Department. She cannot blame it all on her predecessor; she must share the blame.

What does Labour propose to do now? What will it do to tackle the results of truancy, about which we have heard today? What will it do about the 50,000 children who play truant on a typical school day? What will it do about the fact that 40 per cent. of street robberies and 25 per cent. of burglaries are committed by truant children who should be at school? I will not recite all the figures that have already been given by Members on both sides of the House.

What are the implications for child drug abuse and teenage pregnancies? At least the Chairman of the Select Committee was only punting on the Thames when he was not at school, as he was supposed to be. We are grateful for that.

The latest foray—the latest proposed gimmick—is the docking of child benefit. The Secretary of State was the only Cabinet Minister who was prepared to come out as a supporter of the scheme after the Prime Minister floated it—perhaps because, as the Manchester press reveals, Dame Jean Else, head teacher at the Secretary of State's old school, claims that it was her policy. Perhaps she offered it to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State brought it to the Government. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Henley: the parentage of the policy is obviously extremely doubtful.

The key question is "Will this really happen, or is it just another attempt to grab a headline, like the absurd chaos of the Government's policy on drugs in schools?" The Government are swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. Just a few months ago, in January, the Daily Mail produced a report from DfES sources—[Interruption.] Mr. Pearson, who is a Government Whip for the time being, at least, should not disparage the Daily Mail, which the Prime Minister regards as the main yardstick of the success or failure of the present Government.

According to the Daily Mail,

"Schools could be told to rewrite their rules on cannabis to fall in line with the relaxation of drug laws and growing tolerance of 'recreational' drugs.

Education Secretary Estelle Morris signalled her endorsement yesterday for changes which would end tough punishments such as suspension as expulsion for pupils who take cannabis.

Officials in her department said schools should 'take account' of the move by Home Secretary David Blunkett to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug when deciding their drugs policy."

Also in January, there was an exchange on the subject of policy to control drug abuse in schools. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Mr. Lewis, will recall that he said:

"It is unacceptable to take any illegal substance to school, but it is right that head teachers are allowed the discretion to make judgments about the powers at their disposal, whether that is no action, fixed-period exclusion or a permanent exclusion."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 10 January 2002; c. 370.]

There is a huge shift between that and what is now being spun by the Government in the media. We read and hear that they are getting tough on dealers in schools, and that there is zero tolerance for those caught supplying drugs within the school gates. In Committee, the Under-Secretary made clear the Government's belief that this was a matter entirely for head teachers. He refused to issue guidance to schools saying whether those dealing in or taking drugs would be permanently excluded.

Labour's policies on discipline and truancy have been an abject failure. Ministers lurch from gimmick to gimmick, abandoning each failed policy in turn. They swing wildly from one prescription to the opposite. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford highlighted the contradiction between the Government's amendment and this morning's announcement from the Department for Education and Skills. At a time when there is an intense focus on the difference between what the Government spend on public services and what they actually deliver, it is remarkable that their amendment notes that £600 million has been spent on

"measures to tackle truancy and poor behaviour".

The Secretary of State admitted that truancy rates have not improved while violence in schools has mushroomed. There can be no better example of the Government's failure to deliver than the words of their amendment: £600 million has been spent, yet the truancy rate has stood still—as the Secretary of State pointed out—and behaviour has got worse.

The torrent of gimmicks and directives has failed. It is time that we had a Government who backed up heads and allowed them to maintain discipline. It is time that we had a Government who had real aspirations to raise standards in all communities throughout our country. Labour has failed for too long. In two or three years, they will be permanently excluded from office.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education) 6:50 pm, 21st May 2002

On the whole, the House has been at its best during this debate. We have heard many important contributions and there has been a great deal of consensus on both sides of the House. There was only one exception: Opposition Front-Bench Members did not propose one new idea, one policy or one original thought to tackle something that is fundamentally important to the quality of education in this country.

My hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and Mr. Willis recognised that complex issues are involved: home, school, peer relationships and relationships in communities. There are no quick-fix, easy solutions. There are social problems, educational under-achievement, low aspirations and family relationship issues.

We heard much about the role of parental responsibility where, interestingly, many Members shared a consensus. I am sorry to disappoint Mr. Johnson: new Labour may be a broad church but it will never be so broad as to suggest that one of our ideas originated from him. However, I am willing to suggest to the Prime Minister that he adopts the novel idea of getting children to pick up crisps as a solution to discipline problems in our schools.

There was consensus among Members on the importance of parental responsibility, with one exception—an hon. Member for whom I have a great deal of respect: the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. He rightly talked constantly about prevention, support, early intervention and so on. He talked of people's right to dignity and equality of opportunity—all those aspirations are shared by Labour Members—yet he never talked about responsibilities; he talked only of rights.

Today we have heard descriptions of situations where parents are given intensive support, unimaginable levels of resource, incredible tolerance and compassion, but despite all that they do not fulfil a basic responsibility—to get their children to school. In those circumstances, it is right that we tell parents that, as citizens, they have a responsibility.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made valid points about the curriculum and about listening to young people. He knows that our proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds make clear the need to reconfigure the curriculum, building it around the needs of individual pupils, and to raise the status of vocational education, which we have been unable to do in this country, under successive Governments.

The hon. Gentleman said we must listen to young people. There has never been a Government who were more committed to engaging in a two-way dialogue with young people. We recognise that they are consumers and users of education and youth services and we have introduced a variety of initiatives. We held an open day this week. We have published a Green Paper on 14 to 19-year-olds. Young people were involved in the development of the design and evaluation of the Connexions service from the beginning. The hon. Gentleman was right to make his points, but he must accept that the Government are making more progress on curriculum reform and listening to young people than has occurred for many a year.

Mr. Turner rightly talked of the need to back head teachers, yet Mr. Brady criticised us for making absolutely clear where we stand as regards those who deal and supply drugs in our schools. We pointed out that when head teachers decide permanently to exclude such pupils, those decisions should be respected and should not be overturned on appeal. I should have thought—

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I will not give way.

I should have thought that we were backing head teachers with exactly the support that they suggested we should give them.

We heard an excellent contribution from my hon. Friend Colin Burgon

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

I will not give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet referred to the importance of staff training. We must give our teachers and the adults in our schools the confidence and the skills to manage behaviour effectively in a modern classroom. We are investing in that staff training.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley gave us examples of good practice in their constituencies. It is important to shine a light on good practice and to spread it, because in many parts of the country individual schools are tackling ill-discipline and truancy effectively.

I want to make particular reference to the speech of Mr. Hayes. It was a quality contribution which ended with five specific policy proposals—more than were made by either of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. The hon. Gentleman's contribution was measured and objective. I realise that the Leader of the Opposition has just entered the Chamber so I am sorry if I am irretrievably damaging the career of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, but I have some serious points to make about his speech.

The hon. Gentleman talked about our responsibility to support the development of all-round citizens. I could not agree more. That is one of the reasons why, from September, we shall be introducing citizenship as part of the statutory curriculum in our schools. That is one of the reasons why the Green Paper proposes a matriculation diploma at 19, which would recognise voluntary work, citizenship activity and participation in wider activities.

The hon. Gentleman also said that in debates such as this one politicians shy away from discussion of attitudes and values. The hon. Gentleman is right—this is all about attitudes, values and principles. However, he will stop enjoying my contribution at that point. At the end of the day, we cannot shy away from the fact that for 18 years we heard the philosophy that there was no such thing as society and that we were simply a collection of individuals.

That philosophy consigned whole families, whole communities and a whole generation of young people to the margins of society. One in three children grew up in poverty. Our aspiration for the same period of office is to eliminate child poverty. Those are the differences in values and attitudes that influence the Labour Government.

The hon. Gentleman constantly pointed out that truancy is increasing. With all due respect, I must correct him: because the Government were so ambitious in their objectives, they set themselves the challenge of significantly reducing truancy. What is true is that truancy rates have remained static for seven or eight years. We are not content with that and we are determined to tackle it.

I shall close my remarks by responding directly to the Front-Bench spokesmen for Her Majesty's official Opposition, who did not offer us a single original idea. I have several rhetorical questions for them. It is a good job that my questions are rhetorical because no answers would come from the Opposition.

During 18 years of unbroken rule, where were the sure start initiatives? Where were reduced class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds? Where was the literacy and numeracy strategy? Where was the reform of secondary education? Where was the strategy to tackle problems in the early years of secondary education? Where were the proposals to reform the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds? Where were the learning mentors, the classroom assistants and the Connexions personal advisers? Where were the learning support and pupil referral units? Where was the commitment to ensuring that all permanently excluded pupils have access to a full-time education? Where was the message to parents that they have a duty to ensure—

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Health)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for a Minister to ask questions of Conservative Front Benchers and then refuse to give way to them?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The Chair is not responsible for hon. Members' speeches.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Skills and Vocational Education)

Do Conservative Members not want to hear the message?

The difference between Her Majesty's official Opposition and this Government is that, as behaviour in schools deteriorated and truancy remained too high, the Conservatives did nothing. In contrast, we are waging war on bad behaviour in schools, because it undermines standards and leads to crime on our streets. Their legacy was one in three children growing up in poverty; we will eliminate child poverty. They consigned thousands to the margins of society; we will rebuild society.

I urge hon. Members to reject the motion. It does nothing for pupils, it does nothing for parents, and it does nothing for teachers.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 180, Noes 334.

Division number 248 School Discipline

Aye: 180 MPs

No: 334 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House applauds the fact that policies to reduce truancy and tackle poor behaviour are central to the Government's strategy to transform secondary schools; notes that, since 1997, the Government has spent over £600 million to support measures to tackle truancy and poor behaviour and that this has been supplemented by a further £66 million from this year's Budget, that behaviour is satisfactory or better in 11 out of 12 secondary schools and 49 out of 50 primary schools, that there are now over 1,050 Learning Support Units and 3,420 Learning Mentors in schools and that there are 331 Pupil Referral Units whose quality Ofsted reports to be steadily improving; welcomes the fact that the Government is promoting multi-agency initiatives such as Behaviour and Education Support Teams and Connexions that are crucial to addressing this issue, that exclusions have fallen by approximately 28 per cent. to 9,200 from their peak of 12,700 in 1996–97; supports the right of Head Teachers to govern their schools as they see fit; further notes that all permanently excluded pupils will receive a full-time education from September this year and that whilst overall truancy levels remain a cause for concern, action is being taken; further notes that children have a right to education and that parents have a duty to ensure that their children are educated; and believes that the Government's policies will deliver lasting improvements in pupil attendance and behaviour which will support the achievement of higher standards and prevent social exclusion.