Children

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 2:36 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I was tempted to scratch from this debate because a series of events meant that I have not been able to delve into the research that I would normally do before such an occasion. But the issues are so important and fundamental that they have to be addressed, and I wanted to spend a moment or two of your Lordships' time in considering them myself. It is poignant to note that the table on page 41 of the report we are discussing, thanks to the good initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, reflects priorities through the eyes of the children, not the administrators. The first and most important component of a child's happiness is its family, the second its friends and the third its school. It is disturbing to look at how those institutions actually serve them. Noble Lords can read the figures for themselves, but 80 per cent of our children do not enjoy their schooling very much, while 32 per cent do not eat the main meal of the day with their parents even several times a week, and so on.

In the short time I have for this disorganised speech, I want to look ahead to the National Offender Management Service legislation coming to us and ask the Government not to be obsessed simply with the prevention of reoffending. This report directs our attention to the prevention of offending in the first place. That is immensely more important and cost-effective.

There are certain basic issues we have to address, but we tend to fall into the use of mantras without thinking about what they mean. Most people of my generation regret the lack of discipline in schools and families. For most people, the word "discipline" calls to mind the parade ground and the punishment block. That is not how it should be. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley said a few minutes ago, it is care and control which lie at the root of this. Care and love are expressed by control. For a child to know who he or she is, they have to discover where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie. Much bad behaviour is experimental to discover what can be got away with, and eventually what are the boundaries within which one must live. That applies right through education and needs to be taken account of by schools. In the family, discipline should be understood by the child as something rational and beneficial, while in the school it should be something that belongs to the children. Discipline should not be seen as a thing imposed by a vengeful hierarchy, but something worked out in a community for the benefit of its members. School councils and so on are the machinery for this. How many schools actually conduct themselves along those lines? They are enormously important to children who leave school thinking either that good manners and acceptable behaviour are something applied by "them" and they are always to be evaded, escaped or offended against, or they can belong to "us", the community.

I remember vividly when I was researching for the report into discipline into schools that my colleagues and I did many years ago. Norway had been lecturing us not long before about how badly we taught our immigrants, and how easy it would be to absorb them. I was amused to find that we arrived in the middle of that country's first wave of immigrants, and it was having a lot of difficulty—except for one school, which stood out at once, because it had 17 flags on the front, all of different nations. Every time a refugee came to the school from a different country, he got his flag on the front of the building. The school discipline was worked out in consultation with the pupils, and if a child was so foolish as to start painting a graffito on the wall, he was set on by all the others and taken off to be dealt with by the staff because they were offending against their school. That is what discipline, and society, should be like. What has gone wrong with us is a disintegration of society so that we are all "us and them"; we are not all "we".

The report is a collection of averages set against averages. We have national averages of various criteria set against the averages of other countries. It is a very broad brush. Beware of averages, however, because they conceal as much as they reveal. Between these averages are chasms of far worse conditions, with a few shining pinnacles of better ones.

We need to be concerned not only with the tone of society, which is important, and an acceptance of good manners as being a necessary ingredient, as well as a vehicle, of acceptable social standards—I have lost the beginning of that sentence, but I will cast back. I was speaking of the chasms. I have mentioned in another debate, and I make no apology for mentioning again, a seminal work published by the CYPS, written by Shaun Bailey, called No Man's Land, which gives the most intimate, detailed, convincing and constructive analysis of what goes on in a sink estate and what can be done about it. I ask the Minister to spend 40 minutes on it. He will speed-read his way through it with great ease; it is a good read. It describes the ills of such a community, such as the very high percentage of single parents. Before we denigrate single-parent families altogether, the author was a product of one, and he is in my view a lay saint—he is a terrific battler for the underdog.

If you are a child and you are not in school, what are you going to do? You are frightened, for a start, because you are on your own—hence the beginnings of gang culture. Four years ago Diane Abbott had a conference in the Queen Elizabeth II Hall across the road, in which we were convinced that a great number of children in London actually feel safer on the streets in their gang than they do in school—in some cases, safer than in the fortress flat they live in on their abandoned estate.

We have to give security and update those estates. We also need to look at children who are not in school through the summer holidays; they will get up to something, and if we do not give them something constructive to do, they will do a great deal that is destructive, get into trouble and, eventually, join the criminal treadmill. That applies in spades to children excluded from school during term time, who do not even have their colleagues to turn to.

I said this would be a disorganised speech, but I have voiced an important principle: discipline, to be effective, should be friendly and accepted by the people who generate it. If we can export that from schools into society, we will change this country enormously for the better.