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Clause 235

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:15 am on 26th March 2009.

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Co-operation with a view to promoting good behaviour, etc.: England

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 84, in clause 235, page 138, leave out lines 5 and 6.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 371, in clause 235, page 138, line 6, at end insert—

‘(c) the management committee of a school falling within section 19(2B) of the Education Act 1996 (c.56) (pupil referral units).’.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

We are now on the fairly controversial clause 235 on school behaviour partnerships. The thing about such partnerships is that most schools are in them—I forget the actual percentage, but I think that over 90 per cent. of schools are part of a behaviour  partnership with other schools in their area. Most academies are in the same boat, because they want to co-operate in such matters with other schools, make common cause, spread best practice and help one another in dealing with the serious and growing problem of poor behaviour in our schools. Schools are happy to enter into such arrangements. But the problem comes when they are forced to enter into the arrangements by legislation; it is like passing a law saying, “You should be my friend.”, which will not be a genuine friendship if that is its basis—although I am sure that everyone in this Committee is very friendly, particularly after yesterday.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

On behalf of everyone on this side of the Committee, I would like to say that we are all happy to be the hon. Gentleman’s friends, even without primary legislation.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am very grateful, and therefore I will withdraw that particular amendment that we will come on to later—it is obviously not necessary.

Schools should be encouraged, not forced, to form the partnerships. Amendment 84 would take out subsection (1)(b), essentially taking out academies—we will discuss the broader issue of voluntarism in partnership later in the debate. Dr. Daniel Moynihan, chairman of the Harris Federation, and a former principal of a very successful academy, said when he gave evidence:

“For me the issue of school behaviour partnerships remains about voluntarism for academies. It is true that most schools are part of behaviour partnerships, but the kind they are in are quite different to the kind Sir Alan Steer mentions in his report. The behaviour partnerships that most schools are in are about sharing out hard to place pupils and managing moves for exclusions.

In this case, however, we are talking about much broader partnerships in which groups have the power to employ specialist staff together, have common behaviour management training, take on services in managing attendance, offer staff training and work with primary schools, so we could be looking at a bigger and potentially more bureaucratic process...We really feel that it is important that we have the choice of which schools we partner with, because partnerships per se will not improve anything: quality improves things.”

He was not saying that he is against partnerships, but he was saying that

“if we do not get that, academies and other schools should at least be able to determine who they partner with. I do not think that central or local government should say, ‘Here is your partnership and this is how you should partner.’ I do not think that they are in the best position to do that.”—[Official Report, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Public Bill Committee, 3 March 2009; c. 56, Q152 and 153.]

It would be helpful, if the Minister is not able to accept the amendment, if she provided some comfort to senior figures such as Dr. Moynihan, who has done so much to provide high-quality education in difficult parts of London. Can he be assured that he can form partnerships with schools that he chooses, and that they will not be chosen for him by local authorities or existing school behaviour partnerships? With those few words, I await the Minister’s assurance on that point with anticipation.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 9:30 am, 26th March 2009

I would like to touch on amendments 371 and 84. Amendment 371 is pretty straightforward. It would add

“the management committee of a school falling within section 19(2B) of the Education Act 1996...(pupil referral units)” to the categories that are considered relevant partners for the purpose of school behaviour partnerships. We would be interested to know whether the Minister envisages including pupil referral units—or short stay schools, as they are to be known—in those partnerships.

On amendment 84, I probably would not say this if my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole were here, because she would throttle me, but whenever I hear the word “partnership” in association with this Government, I tend to think that it is going to be some bureaucratic monstrosity that involves a lot of meddling, intervention, discussions and meetings for no obvious purpose. Therefore, I start with the type of scepticism that I suspect the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has about these organisations.

I heard the evidence given by Mr. Moynihan to the Committee on 3 March. He talked about his concern that school behaviour partnerships were going to become more onerous and bureaucratic. He also said that he believed that there should be an opt-in for schools and that there should not be a forced marriage or forced friendship, which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about.

I think I can satisfy my absent hon. Friend by putting it on the record that I am happy with the provision as it is, without amendment 84, subject to a couple of comments. The first reason I am happy is that most schools are already part of a school behaviour partnership, as the hon. Gentleman said. The provision will not be quite the imposition on schools that has been suggested and the figures are slightly higher than he indicated. According to the Library research note, 98 per cent. of maintained schools and 94 per cent. of academies are members of those partnerships.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I was saying that I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole would be happy with me because I feel comfortable supporting the Government’s line on school behaviour partnerships and reflecting on the fact that most schools throughout the country seem to be in such partnerships. Indeed, the Bill’s economic impact assessment refers to the 55 schools that are not members of a partnership. That sounds like an even smaller number than I would have thought, based on a calculation of 2 per cent. of a stock of 23,500 schools. Is the economic impact assessment right to state that 55 schools are not members of a partnership? How many of those are academies? We are talking about a relatively small number of schools.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made a different argument that echoed comments made by the chief executive of the Harris Foundation: schools should be free to choose their friends, and we do not need to legislate and bully people into forming partnerships. The problem with that argument is that sometimes people do not want to be friends. It can be difficult for some people to make friends—I am feeling a little  friendless right now, given that there is nobody else on my side of the Committee. However, I would like to deal with the Bognor challenge, so to speak, because it can sometimes be difficult to partner up, which is of concern, because many schools that will have problems finding partners—in relation to issues such as exclusions—will be those in the most deprived catchments with the largest exclusion problems.

Many schools will ask, “Why on earth would I want to partner up with this school, which is excluding people left, right and centre, and has all sorts of problems? I do not want to take on all the children from those schools in this partnership.” We could end up with a residue of a small number of schools left out of partnerships. Also, some schools will have to form partnerships with other schools that are not obvious fits. Therefore, I am not as bothered as the hon. Gentleman by the inclusion of academies and maintained schools in this provision.

The only area where I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman is in relation to the comments made by Daniel Moynihan in response to the question from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, to whom we all send our sincere sympathies, following the sad update from the Minister. Daniel Moynihan was concerned that behaviour partnerships will be too detailed and prescriptive, and involve many other issues, such as buying in services, whereas when they were established, they were fairly loose and broad.

I understand how academies might fear that such a bureaucratic process could start to compromise the independence that they so value. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will be careful in developing the partnerships to ensure that they do not become too bureaucratic or place too onerous a set of duties not only on academies, but on all maintained schools, to which those issues are important? With that reassurance, I would feel much more comfortable with the provisions.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Amendment 84 would remove the duty to co-operate to improve behaviour and tackle persistent absence from academies, city technology colleges and the city college for the technology of the arts. The Government do not wish, in general, to make academies subject to detailed education legislation. We are committed to preserving the autonomy of academies to allow them to be innovative trailblazers in education, but some things are just too important for academies to be outside. We have debated one already—children’s trusts—and behaviour and attendance partnerships are another.

Being involved in such a partnership allows academies to draw on the expertise of their partners in dealing with behaviour and attendance issues, commission a greater range of support services by doing so in conjunction with partners and work with other schools to find the most effective solutions for pupils with behaviour and attendance issues. Ninety-four per cent. of academies are already convinced of the benefits of partnership working and are members voluntarily.

However, for behaviour and attendance partnerships to work effectively, every secondary school in a local area must be involved. Refusal to co-operate by even one school can damage local partnership working, as it undermines the principle that all local children are the collective responsibility of all schools and children’s  services in the local area, not just the school that they happen to attend. However, I can confirm to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that schools will not be told exactly which other schools to work with, but can make their own collaborative arrangements.

Although 94 per cent. of academies and 98 per cent. of maintained secondary schools are already working in partnerships voluntarily, the extent to which partnerships work effectively varies. The hon. Member for Yeovil asked about the 55 schools—that came from figures for 2007. I can confirm that eight of them were academies.

The legislation requires schools to have regard to DCSF guidance on behaviour and attendance partnerships. It reinforces and secures the strength of partnerships, and increases the extent to which good practice is embedded.

For the same reasons, it is equally important that all pupil referral units are members of behaviour and attendance partnerships. There are further reasons why it is crucial that pupil referral units are full members. I use the phrase “pupil referral units” because we have not yet passed legislation to change the name to “short-stay schools”. One of the aims of behaviour and attendance partnerships is to build stronger links between pupil referral units and other schools, so that the expertise on behaviour that exists in many pupil referral units can be more easily shared, and joint decision making about where a pupil should be placed can occur.

Therefore, I am sympathetic to the motivation behind amendment 371, which would include pupil referral units in the duty to co-operate in the Bill, but our preference is to place the duty in clause 235 on pupil referral units, using regulations made under schedule 1 to the Education Act 1996.

The legal identity of pupil referral units is different from that of all other schools maintained by a local authority. They are also managed differently, through management committees with local authority involvement, rather than governing bodies. Those practical differences mean that, usually, new legislative obligations on schools have been applied to pupil referral units through secondary legislation. We wish to maintain that legislative consistency.

Applying the duty to pupil referral units through regulations will allow us to tailor the exact details of the requirements to reflect the specific features of pupil referral units, which are different from other schools. For example, we may wish to tailor the duty on pupil referral units so that they have to make arrangements with a maintained school or academy, rather than with another pupil referral unit only. We also want to ensure that primary pupil referral units are not covered by the statutory duty, in the same way that primary maintained schools are not.

In practice, pupil referral units will be full members of behaviour and attendance partnerships in the same way as any maintained secondary school, academy, city technology college or the city college for the technology of the arts, but we will bring that about through regulations, rather than primary legislation. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the amendments to the vote.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister for that response and very reassured by what she said about amendment 371. I thought for a moment that she would concede something to me during proceedings on the Bill, and that I would have some amendment or part of  legislation to look back on in old age. As ever, that was snatched from me and the amendment transferred across to regulations, but I feel that I may have to accept that modest piece of good news and not press my amendment any further.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am half pleased and half disappointed. The Minister said that, in general, the Government do not want to subject academies to general education legislation, which is encouraging to hear but does not tally with what has been happening since the Secretary of State took over as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. There have been significant changes to the autonomy of academies in respect of the national curriculum and the involvement of local authorities in the running of academies, and this legislation includes two more changes that reduce their autonomy—this issue and children’s trusts.

The Minister is being disingenuous when she says that those issues are of such paramount importance that some of the autonomy of academies must be taken away. That is part of a trend in recent years. The Government are not committed to the success of autonomy and successful academies, so they are quite happy to chip away at those freedoms whenever it suits them. That is why I am disappointed.

I was pleased, however, when the Minister said that schools will not be told with whom to work or form partnerships—she is not going infringe the Bognor principle that friendships should not be forced. I am sure that that will also please the academy movement. In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 85, in clause 235, page 138, line 7, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 258, in clause 235, page 138, line 12, after ‘State’, insert

‘, with any such guidance ensuring that relevant partners shall not be forced into partnerships against the wishes of the governing bodies of those relevant partners.’.

Amendment 262, in clause 235, page 138, line 12, at end insert—

‘(3A) For the purposes of subsections (2) and (3), a relevant partner may only enter an arrangement with another relevant partner if the governing bodies of both relevant partners approve the arrangement.’.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

This debate will be almost the same as the one that we have just had, except it applies to not only academies but all schools. The amendments seek to bring about a little bit more voluntarism in the behaviour partnership arrangements.

Amendment 85 would mean that a relevant partner “may” rather than “must”

“make arrangements with at least one other partner in their area to co-operate with each other with a view to...promoting good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils”.

That fits with what the Association of School and College Leaders has said. The association welcomes the Bill, but the end of its briefing says that it should be clear that schools will form such partnerships by themselves, and that particular patterns of partnership should not be imposed from outside by either the local authority or  by the Government or any of their agencies. The ASCL will be encouraged by what the Minister said in the debate on the last group of amendments, and because there is no intention to have local authorities select the collaborative arrangements into which a school can enter.

Similarly, amendment 258 means that “any such guidance” from the Minister should ensure that

“relevant partners shall not be forced into partnerships against the wishes of the governing bodies of those relevant partners”.

Again, that would mean that unless the governing body of a school wishes to enter a partnership with another school, it should not happen, and the Minister has confirmed that.

It would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister were to confirm what would happen if Mr. Nomates cannot find a partner, which the hon. Member for Yeovil alluded to. Will the local authority force the school to partner another school in the area?

Finally, amendment 262 states that

“For the purposes of subsection...(2)...a relevant partner may only enter an arrangement with another relevant partner if the governing bodies of both relevant partners approve the arrangement”.

That is another way of expressing the view that two schools should enjoy mutual attraction rather than be forced into a shotgun marriage, if that is the Government’s intention. More reassurance on those points from the Minister would be very welcome.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Chope, on this bright morning.

I have some concerns about the proposed amendments. They could weaken the provisions and create a Johnny Nomates school, as the hon. Gentleman put it. I should like to press the Minister on those issues. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State said that he would think about the need for accountability and reporting requirements for the partnerships. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and I may disagree on what weight should be given to knowledge versus knowledge skills, understanding, ability and knowledge in practice. The amendments and the clause consider the how—how we teach in schools and the framework in which learning happens.

It is absolutely clear that truancy and poor behaviour by a tiny minority of individuals—and, in some cases, their parents—can totally destroy learning for all other classroom learners. Consistent lateness, poor attendance and poor behaviour can destroy the fabric of a school. I am concerned about the amendments, as I think that they would give certain schools the chance to decide that they are a bit too grand, too special, too clever or too good to partner other schools. That is a concern, because I do not want to end up with a self-selecting market for school behaviour partnerships.

Wakefield City high school, a high-performing state secondary school in my constituency—it is not an academy or anything like that, just an ordinary comprehensive school—is one of the top five highest value-added schools in the country, and it is a specialist school for maths. The head, Mr. Alan Yellup, provides fantastic leadership. I had a letter from him about two weeks ago that discussed the hundreds of schools that he has  worked with. As the head of a leading school, he is happy to share his expertise across the sector, the county and the country. It is important that good practice in beacon schools such as that, whether they have a subject or a behavioural specialism, is rolled out across the sector, and I am against any amendment that would weaken that.

How does the Minister think we can take across some of the interesting innovations that have arisen from such partnerships? How can we model the outstanding, so that it becomes standard practice across the sector? How can we roll out strong schools supporting weaker schools to attain zero tolerance of poor behaviour and truancy?

I was pleased to see the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil on pupil referral units, which have a specialist role to play in partnerships. They often have an important role to play in the continuity of education, if a child is going back and forth—hopefully not more than once or twice—between their main school and the pupil referral unit, or whatever the new name is for them.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield

Thank you. My brain is not functioning quite as quickly as it was this time yesterday morning. I am reassured by what the Minister has said about introducing regulations to make sure that they are included. I just wanted to press her on accountability and the reporting of crimes.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

Amendment 85 would negate the new duty on all maintained secondary schools, academies, city technology colleges and city technology colleges of the arts to be members of school behaviour and attendance partnerships. As I have said, school behaviour and attendance partnerships are designed to support and improve outcomes for pupils with behaviour and attendance issues, who are some of the most vulnerable pupils in our schools, so it is important that partnership working is as effective as it can be. Partnership working on behaviour and attendance is also designed to improve low-level disruption across the whole school and thus has a positive impact on all pupils.

It is important that partnership working is made a statutory requirement in order to reinforce the strength of partnerships and ensure that good practice is further embedded by making a statutory requirement for schools to have regard to the DCSF guidance on partnership working. Such legislation is necessary, because in order for partnership working to be truly effective, all secondary schools must be involved. Refusal by even one school can have a detrimental impact on partnership working locally, as the partnership then cannot represent the needs of children across local secondary schools and the principle of collective responsibility at the centre of partnership work is undermined. Schools need to be confident of their partners’ commitment and confident that partnership working is a long-term approach. The legislation shows that the Government are committed to that approach in the long term and ensures that schools are also committed.

Amendments 258 and 262 appear to be motivated by the same concern: a desire to ensure that schools can choose the other schools with which to enter into partnership. Once again, I reassure hon. Members that  that is already the case. The clause merely places a duty to make arrangements with at least one other relevant body. The Government do not wish to prescribe the exact composition of individual partnerships, which should reflect and respond to local circumstances. Schools will not be told exactly which other schools to work with, and they will decide that in collaboration with the other schools in their area and the local authority.

Our current guidance suggests that the local authority should play a role in facilitating links between schools and promoting partnership working, and we would expect the local authority to support schools having any problems arranging who is to be in which partnership. We will continue to recommend that the local authority plays that support role when the guidance is redrafted, as it becomes statutory. Ofsted also assesses schools on how well they work in partnership with other organisations, and the new school report card will include information on partnership working.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Will the Minister confirm that the local authority’s role in facilitating and supporting the arrangements will not, in practice, become enforcing them?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

We have no intention of coercing schools into partnerships; local authorities will have other levers. They will be able to direct funding to school partnerships and, if they feel that such partnerships are not operating as they should, to withhold it. Furthermore, Ofsted will have the power through inspection to see how well schools are doing on partnership working. Local authorities have no powers to force schools into partnerships.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The Minister hinted at funding. Will a school lose significant sums of money for dealing with behavioural problems, if it does not enter into partnership with a school of the local authority’s choosing?

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

We do not expect local authorities to undertake this measure coercively. There is no point having a partnership if both partners do not want to be partners. Local authorities will want to collaborate with schools to encourage them.

Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Labour, Wakefield

Is not the point, however, that schools that do not want to become partnered are often those with the biggest problems—where the head teacher may be isolated, defensive and in need of greatest help? The Bill strikes the appropriate balance between encouragement and saying, “It’s not good enough just to put your head in your hands, hide under your desk and say, ‘It’ll all get better with time,’ or, ‘These are difficult children.’”

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I agree, which is why I do not support amendments 258 and 262, because they would allow a school to refuse to enter into arrangements with another school, which would undermine the clause. I must reiterate to the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that local authorities will not give funding to the partnership, but they will continue to fund schools individually.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield mentioned accountability, which is really important. There are many ways in which we could strengthen the accountability regime, and one option is an annual report to the children’s trust. That is an interesting way of extending  accountability, and it may meet my hon. Friend’s requirements. I shall reflect on it, and we may return to it after further consideration.

Although the exact composition of local partnerships will be locally determined, as I have outlined, the crucial point is that every secondary school should be in a behaviour and attendance partnership with at least one other school. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am grateful to the Minister for again providing some reassurance that schools will not have their partners chosen for them by local authorities. It is good to have that on the record. I was slightly alarmed when talk of funding crept into our discussion about voluntary arrangements, and the idea that support from local authorities would carry the stick that behaviour partnership funding might disappear if schools did not accept the support with the alacrity that the local authority expected. I was reassured by the Minister’s response to my concern, however, when she said that she does not want local authorities to engage in coercion and that any partnership that is not entered into voluntarily will not work. In the light of those helpful words, to which I hope all local authorities will adhere, I shall not press the amendment. I hope that any guidance the Minister issues will be in that spirit. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 10:15 am, 26th March 2009

I beg to move amendment 288, in clause 235, page 138, line 10, at end insert—

‘( ) reduce exclusion rates for pupils with special educational needs.’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 80, in clause 235, page 138, line 10, at end insert—

‘(2A) In performing their duties under this section, relevant partners must seek to ensure that all pupils are able to work, study and learn in a safe, secure and ordered environment.’.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The amendment would add to clause 235(2), which specifies the details concerning relevant partners making arrangements to co-operate with other relevant partners regarding specified subjects. It adds to existing concerns about the promotion of good behaviour and discipline by pupils and about reducing the persistent absence of pupils. The amendment would add a new requirement to consider the reduction of exclusion rates of pupils with special educational needs, and would complement the other paragraphs in that subsection.

It is a concern in many schools in many parts of the country that we have such high exclusion rates of youngsters with special educational needs. We must look not only at what we can do to reduce those rates, but at how schools can co-operate, particularly where there is good practice to draw on or where staff have expert knowledge of particular areas of special educational needs within partnerships to reduce exclusion rates. With this probing amendment, we invite the Minister to consider whether  to add this consideration to the Bill, and to explain how the existing duties will relate to youngsters with special educational needs.

I cannot help thinking that there is some trick to amendment 80, because it seems to fail the test of putting a “not” in front of everything. It states:

“In performing their duties under this section, relevant partners must seek to ensure that all pupils are able to work, study and learn in a safe, secure and ordered environment.”

That seems difficult to oppose, but I suspect that the ingenious hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has something lurking in there that he will raise in a moment, so I look forward to hearing from him.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The lurking element is that we want to make schools into safe and happy places for pupils and children. We need to ensure that when behaviour partnerships are entered into, the desire to find new places for children who have been excluded does not jeopardise the safety, security and orderliness of any school to which they are sent. That must be the overriding aim when partnerships are entered into. It is almost tautologous, as the hon. Gentleman has hinted, to have that as an overriding aim, but I am worried that the overriding aim in some partnerships might be to find places in mainstream schools for children whose behavioural problems are such that they ought to be not in mainstream schools, but in high-quality, alternative education that will help with their behavioural problems. I shall return to those issues when we debate the next clause.

The behaviour partnership should not lose sight of the fact that its aim is to produce the kind of ordered environment in schools that, I am afraid, is increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Children are suffering from bullying at too high a level in our schools today, and there is too much low-level disruption across the state sector school estate. That is increasingly becoming the single biggest problem facing education today.

I know that Ministers are sincere in believing that school behavioural partnerships are an answer to the problem, which they may well be, especially if the partnerships are voluntary. However, they might just be a revolving-door attempt to shuffle around the system children who have severe behavioural problems that need to be addressed by professionals with experience and expertise in helping children tackle and deal with behavioural problems that are almost certainly not their fault. If a child has behavioural problems, many people are to blame—their parents, society, the police for not patrolling the streets and keeping order and, possibly, the school environment.

One person who is not responsible for behaviour is the child. Children are the creatures of us all. They are the creatures of the parents, of the school and of society. There are children with behavioural problems who need help. Simply shunting them off to another mainstream school that also has behavioural problems will not help the child, and the child being at the school will not contribute to the school’s effectiveness. The purpose of the amendment is to make sure that it remains the prime aim of all schools to create a safe, happy and secure environment when dealing with  behavioural problems and not to allow other aims to supersede that. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I appreciate the sentiment behind amendment 80. It is important that all pupils can learn in a safe, secure and well-ordered environment. However, the clause already requires schools to co-operate to promote good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils, and the intended outcome of such co-operation is just that—making schools safe and orderly places in which pupils can learn.

Schools are already legally responsible for the safety and well-being of their pupils. Head teachers also have a clear statutory power to exclude pupils, when they think that it is necessary. We have repeatedly stated that we fully support heads who make the difficult decision to exclude. Behaviour and attendance partnerships aim to support head teachers in developing strategies that reduce the need for exclusion. When there is still a need, we fully support the right of the head to exclude.

School behaviour and attendance partnerships help schools to support those pupils who have behaviour or attendance issues, including through early intervention, to address problems before they escalate. The intended outcome of behaviour and attendance partnership working is that, both as a consequence of targeted work, and as a result of other wider strategies of partnership working, low-level disruption and behaviour issues throughout schools are reduced.

Amendment 288 would make a reduction in exclusions among pupils with special educational needs one of the key areas with which schools must co-operate. I am sympathetic to its aim, but it is not necessary. In our current guidance on school behaviour and attendance partnerships, we make it clear that we expect a reduction in the need for permanent exclusions to be a key outcome of partnership working. That is an expected outcome of co-operating with a view to promoting good behaviour and discipline on the part of pupils.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Does the Minister understand that we cannot have in guidance the ruling that there shall be fewer permanent exclusions? If we make that a policy, it will be achieved, but it will not necessarily improve behaviour in a school. It will simply be the case that head teachers are deterred by such guidance from excluding permanently children, who should be excluded permanently and receiving help for their problems. It is no good expecting such guidance to be effective. It will simply compound the problem both for the child by their not receiving help and the school by having a disruptive child in the school and not receiving the help that they need.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

The whole point of the partnership is to enable the strategy to get the early intervention work in place and to learn from good practice in other schools, so that permanent exclusion is not the first resort, but the last resort. We also state in guidance that we expect schools to place emphasis on reducing the differential rate for exclusions among black or minority ethnic pupils and pupils with special educational needs.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Does the Minister agree that there are reasons to be concerned by what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has said about targets  to drive down exclusions, regardless of whether that is a good thing or a bad thing? However, many schools are using new practices, such as keeping children who are misbehaving in the school but teaching them on Saturdays and in the evenings until they are ready to come back. Sometimes that is a better alternative than excluding permanently. The Government should be encouraging that, without getting into the sort of rigid approach that the hon. Gentleman is worried about.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

There are many examples of good practice, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Working in a partnership, those examples of good practice can be shared, particularly on outcomes. On another point, for the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, I did not say that we expect a reduction in permanent exclusions to be the outcome; I said that we expect a reduction in the need for permanent exclusions to be a key outcome of partnership working.

I reiterate that our guidance expects schools to place emphasis on reducing the differential rate for exclusions among black and minority ethnic pupils and pupils with special educational needs. The current guidance will be redrafted, as it becomes statutory, but it will continue to include those expectations. Reducing exclusions among pupils with special educational needs will therefore be a key focus of partnership working. It is not necessary to state that in the Bill, as it would give a message that SEN exclusions are more of a priority than other issues, and would suggest that the issue has to be a priority even for partnerships that have a low rate of SEN exclusions. Therefore, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, and I was disappointed by it. The semantics about the “need” for permanent exclusions to be reduced is difficult to distinguish from almost-guidance saying that schools should reduce their permanent exclusions. That is certainly true on a quick reading, and given the volume of reading that heads are required to undertake by the Government, that could well happen.

I was interested in the observation by the hon. Member for Yeovil that innovative solutions such as Saturday morning schools or exclusion within the school campus are very effective. I agree that all such methods should be adopted. There are all sorts of other things that happen in comprehensive schools that I have visited around the country, such as senior members of staff patrolling the corridors with mobile phones—every class teacher has one, so that if there is any disruption in the class, such as a swear word or speaking out of turn, the senior teacher comes along and takes the kid away. In such schools, the procedure is remorseless and is always implemented when a child steps out of line.

In schools that I have visited where that happens, the behaviour is immaculate. No remedial measures are needed for such schools. However, what helps those schools have the authority to deliver such innovative solutions is the ultimate deterrent, that the head teacher will exclude pupils who are persistent disruptors and persistently misbehave, notwithstanding all those effective and innovative procedures being in place. If we make it difficult to exclude, we remove the deterrent and make any innovative approach to behaviour policies ineffective,  because the children know that there is no ultimate deterrent that can force them to stay in detention or to attend school on a Saturday morning.

I was disappointed, but we have had a discussion, and I do not intend to press amendment 80 to a Division.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I was more satisfied by the answers, both to my amendment and to that of the hon. Gentleman. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about policy, particularly policy going back a few years perhaps, when there was an obsession with reducing the number of exclusions. There was perhaps perceived to be an obsession with massaging down the figures to demonstrate that the Government were delivering better conduct in schools. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that schools must have the power, when behaviour is completely unacceptable or when it is clear that a youngster is not going to change their behaviour, to exclude permanently. Without that sanction, which will hopefully not be used frequently, it is impossible to control a school properly and to have the respect of youngsters for the discipline in that school.

The hon. Gentleman is no doubt familiar with many independent and private schools, as he is with the many maintained schools that he visits. In those independent schools, he will have seen the ability to exclude and that a more robust position is sometimes adopted in relation to permanent exclusion, although perhaps that is just a perception.

The difference and problem in the maintained sector is that more youngsters are at risk of being excluded. Also, the responsibility to seek to educate those youngsters still falls on the local family of schools. Although I am the first to say that the power to permanently exclude must be used without some sort of political threat hanging over it, I am also aware from my constituency—and from many other parts of the country—of head teachers who are sometimes overly keen to exclude in order to make sure that the composition of their intake is more favourable. I know that there are head teachers who regard some of their colleagues as having a somewhat irresponsible approach to exclusions, although that is a small minority of head teachers.

As the hon. Gentleman has recognised, lots of head teachers are beginning to use original, unusual and innovative methods—in fact, some of them are not that innovative, for example, keeping youngsters on after school or bringing them in on Saturdays. Those methods essentially mean that the youngsters are out of their class and are not creating disruption—for example, they might be excluded, but within the school during the day, or they might be forced to come back in the evenings or on Saturdays. I have spoken to a number of heads, including those in London, who use such mechanisms, and to my great surprise, they are getting those excluded pupils back in at those times and are often having success in dealing with them.

At the same time, I have also talked to a lot of head teachers—or whatever they are called—in pupil referral units, which we will discuss in a moment. They talked to me about the problems when students get permanently excluded and end up in PRUs, which often do not do a very good job. Such pupils find it difficult to get back into maintained schools and they do not always qualify for special schools—some of them maybe should, but  some probably should not and would not. There has been a problem in the past with some of those youngsters, and we should have an expectation that we can do better for the reasons that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton gave, which were rather extreme for a Conservative. I think that he actually said that young people were not really responsible for their own behavioural problems and that it was the responsibility of the society in which they have grown up and of their parents and so on. I agree that there is a strong link there, but even I would not have gone quite as far as he did in suggesting that youngsters have no responsibility at all.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Of course they have responsibility, but they are not to blame for their position. If a child can be taken away from all the things that have damaged them and put somewhere else—for example, with the hon. Gentleman’s family when he was being brought up—they would not have such problems.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Gentleman is clearly on the ultra-progressive wing of the Conservative party. I am only relieved that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is not here, because he would be choking on whatever dinner he had been eating in the small hours if he had heard that. I am encouraged by the fact that the hon. Gentleman recognises so clearly the connection between family, economic circumstances, aspirations, school results and behaviour.

The hon. Gentleman should be a little more positive about the possibility of schools doing better than they have done in the past. Permanent exclusions should be available, and they should not be seen as a last resort or to be tied up in bureaucracy. However, there are many other ways in which schools should be working to keep youngsters engaged and included. The policies of many schools of simply excluding pupils and then incorporating them back into a class have been something of a disaster.

On amendment 288, which I moved, I am satisfied with the Minister’s response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment 338, in clause 235, page 138, line 10, at end insert—

‘(2A) In performing their duties under this section, relevant partners must require as a condition of admission to the school, the agreement of “home-school contracts” between the school and each pupil, establishing the required levels of compliance with the rules of the school.’.

The amendment would introduce home-school contracts into clause 235. It is an important part of Conservative party policy to have home-school contracts in place as a condition of admission, but it is something that the Government seem intent on resisting. If we have the home-school contract signed after admission, they really are pointless and people regard them as not being worth the paper that they are written on. However, if such contracts are a condition of admission, people know that their child’s stay at that school is conditional on fulfilling the promises made in the contract, and so the contract becomes something very real.

The argument that Ministers make is that some parents are so hopeless that they refuse to sign and that the people who suffer in those circumstances are the children rather than the parents. Therefore, Ministers argue, it is unfair to discriminate against those children in those circumstances. However, I made the point earlier in our deliberations that if that is the case—if a parent is not saying to the school that they will ensure that their children obey the school rules—that is indicative of something very serious in the way in which that parent is raising that child. It is perhaps something that the social services should be aware of, but it certainly should not be a reason for letting that child into the school. It may be that no school will have that child while their parent refuses to sign the agreement, in which case there is a very serious problem that needs to be tackled. Such issues should be tackled early, because they are a clear sign that poor parenting is going on, which needs to be tackled straight away.

I strongly believe that home-school contracts should be a condition of entry into a school, and they would be effective if they were pursued in that way. They are one of a range of measures that we will introduce, if we win the general election next year, to focus on raising standards of behaviour in our schools. Poor behaviour is a serious problem that requires serious and radical measures. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about these proposals.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families

God help the poor children whose parents feel unable to sign a home-school contract in the unlikely event that the hon. Gentleman’s party wins a general election next year. It is totally wrong to penalise children whose parents refuse to sign an agreement. We think that such agreements are a powerful tool to help parents, schools and children to work together to improve outcomes for a particular child. However, I cannot accept the argument that some children should be refused entry to a school because consensus cannot be reached between home and school about the content of a home-school agreement.

The home-school agreement is not a contract in the legal sense, and we do not believe that it should be. It is a statement of shared objectives between home and school, setting out the expectations and responsibilities of each party. It is an opportunity for the parents to discuss the school’s policies and their role in supporting their child as a member of the school. The agreement should be the outcome of productive and supportive discussions between home and school, and not something that is forced on parents involuntarily.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment, because I cannot support it.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

This issue clearly divides the parties, and I think that it is an issue that it is not for this Committee to vote on, not even later in our deliberations—perhaps we will cover the matter then, but it is really an issue for a general election. I think that the public will side with us on this issue, regarding our party as one that is serious about tackling poor behaviour.

I repeat again the point that I made when I introduced the amendment, that if there are parents out there who refuse to sign these home-school contracts, knowing full well that, as a consequence, their child will not get  into a particular school or indeed any local school, that is a sign that there is something seriously wrong with their parenting. The Minister said, “God help the child”; I think that such an action is an indication that that child needs help and support with their home life.

We will return to that issue later in the proceedings and as we approach a general election. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: 304, in clause 235, page 138, line 12, leave out ‘from time to time’.—(Sarah McCarthy-Fry.)

Clause 235, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

It is apparent to me, as Chairman, that there is abundant evidence that time for rest and refreshment leads to a higher quality of debate, greater efficiency and effectiveness, and also a better humour in the Committee. Therefore I intend to suspend the sitting for half an hour and we will reconvene at 11.10 am.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—