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Clause 236

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:10 am on 26th March 2009.

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Short stay schools: miscellaneous

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

I beg to move amendment 97, in clause 236, page 138, line 28, leave out ‘short stay school’ and insert ‘school for alternative education’.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 98, in clause 236, page 138, line 28, leave out ‘short stay school’ and insert ‘prospect school’.

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

These simple amendments challenge the Government’s choice on the new name for pupil referral units. Amendment 97 would delete the phrase “short stay school” and insert the more prosaic “school for alternative education”. Amendment 98 would replace “short stay school” with “prospect school”, which is the previous name dreamt up by the Government. It will be interesting to hear the reasoning behind the choice of that name, which must have taken place in the Department over several months. The name was changed relatively late in the day from “prospect school”, which appears in the Government documents.

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

I thought we had already received an explanation of that; perhaps it was only in our briefing from the Minister and others. Was the hon. Gentleman not told that “prospect school” was the brand name of some other school organisation or school? Was that not the Minister’s concern?

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

I do not recall that, but it will be interesting to see whether the Minister makes that point. There is a genuine policy concern about the phrase “short stay school” and it comes from the Association of School and College Leaders:

“Our only comment on the proposed renaming of pupil referral units to short stay schools is to recall Government reassurance that no school should be required to take a pupil who is not ready to return from permanent exclusion”.

The phrase “short stay” implies that stays at such schools will last for just a matter of months, and certainly less than a year. It implies that the pupil will return to a mainstream school regardless of whether their behaviour has improved.

We must ensure that pupil referral units or short stay schools become high-quality institutions staffed by teachers with a great deal of experience in helping children with behavioural problems. They must be trained and experienced in this field because PRUs have been one of the weakest parts of the state education system. A significant number have been or remain in special measures.

In my constituency, two pupil referral units or special schools for children with behavioural problems have had notices to improve or have been in special measures. On visiting one in the period running up to special measures, I was dismayed by the quality of education. It must be a focus of Government policy to improve the quality of schools for alternative education. They must provide help and education for children who have behavioural problems.

As I said in an earlier debate, my view is that children are not responsible for the way they are. When they become adults, they are responsible for the way they become. When they are children, they are children. If they have behavioural problems, they must be helped to tackle them. For many children, the best setting is a smaller one with teachers who are particularly well trained in helping children with such problems.

It would be helpful if the Minister addressed the concern of the ASCL and said that there will not be an expectation of children being sent back to mainstream school regardless of whether their behaviour has improved. It does not matter whether it is the school that they came from or another one within the behavioural partnership; children should not be sent back before their behaviour has been sorted out. Will she also explain the history behind the decision to rename PRUs as short stay schools?

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 11:15 am, 26th March 2009

There appears to be a less serious point and a serious point lurking among the amendments. I will start with what I consider the less serious point, which is the name of these institutions.

I am getting increasingly worried about the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. Previously, there was an intriguing balance on the Conservative Benches between the progressive Conservative—the hon. Gentleman—and the less progressive hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who perhaps represents the less liberal wing of the Conservative party. I am sure he will not mind us saying that in his absence.

Since the hon. Gentleman left us, we appear to be seeing the ultra-modernising tendencies of the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, who has come forward with some extraordinary suggestions for renaming pupil referral units and short stay schools. I am surprised at the suggestion to call them “schools for alternative education”, as that sounds like the sort of left-wing, peacenik, lovey-dovey drug-smoking stuff that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings would be violently opposed to. I am horrified by the thought that he might be reading this assiduously at his  breakfast table, or over a long dinner in a couple of days’ time. I hope he has nothing in his mouth when he reads the suggestions that are being made.

I imagined that the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton might have thought of something more consistent with his own principles: phonic recovery schools, perhaps, or discipline schools or short, sharp shock schools—something of that kind. He has come up with an odd name, but we must wait for the Minister to confirm why “prospect school” was turned down.

I am not sure that I particularly care what the name is—what is important is what happens inside those institutions—but I welcome the fact that, whatever else, these institutions will be called something “school”. The pupil referral units are part of the same gobbledegook of education speak, and perhaps much else, whereby the name obscures what is going on, rather than shedding light on it. When I was first elected MP for the Yeovil constituency, I heard about my local pupil referral unit and was not clear about what it was there to do. Transparency in such matters is important.

There is a more important point, which I will touch on now. I will not return to it during the clause stand part debate. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton also referred to the fact that these schools—whatever they are called—have been seriously underperforming for many years. That has been confirmed by the Ofsted reports. It is long overdue for the Government to treat these schools as a higher priority, and to ensure that youngsters are not encouraged to be in them for a long period and that there are good connections with other mainstream schools, as the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families mentioned. We should not write off the youngsters in these institutions. What matters is not the name, but what they do, and how they help youngsters to recover from the chaotic circumstances that they were often in when they entered these institutions.

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

Amendments 97 and 98 would rename pupil referral units “schools for alternative education” and “prospect schools” rather than “short stay schools”. In our White Paper, we stated our intention to rename pupil referral units. We asked for suggestions for the new name and received more than 100. We also asked for suggestions from the ministerial stakeholder group on behaviour and attendance and the National Organisation for Pupil Referral Units. The name “short stay school” was chosen because it includes the word “school”, thus emphasising similarity with the mainstream, rather than differences. “Short stay” offers a broadly accurate and neutral description of what those schools do differently from other schools.

I appreciate that, in some cases, pupils may spend an extended period in a pupil referral unit. Examples of that might include pupils at key stage 4, for whom it makes sense to do their exams and complete their schooling in a pupil referral unit, or pupils with long-term medical needs. We expect placements to be short term in the majority of cases.

One clear message that we received from many consultation respondents was that they did not want the new name for pupil referral units to include words such  as “centre” or “alternative”, which they felt emphasised difference from the mainstream and obscured the fact that the units are schools and the main focus is on teaching and learning.

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

Is my hon. Friend saying that they are to be called “short stay schools” because they are schools in which pupils will ideally stay for a short time?

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

That is what it says on the tin. “Prospect school” was suggested in the consultation process. We thought that it was a good suggestion and investigated it further, but, as the hon. Member for Yeovil said, four schools in England already use “prospect” in their titles. After consulting with those schools, we decided that using the word could lead to confusion in the areas where the schools are placed.

Changing the name of PRUs in legislation makes an important statement, which sends a clear message that the Government are deeply committed to bringing about a step change in the quality of alternative provision. The name change marks a positive new beginning for the sector and sheds the baggage of negative attitudes that have grown up around the term “pupil referral unit”. As I have just said to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, “short stay school” is the most appropriate name. I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

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

I take on board the Minister‘s point about wanting the institutions to sound as similar as possible to mainstream schools, so I agree that “school” should remain in the title. My progressive title also had “school” in it—school for alternative education. I am intrigued that there seems to be a move among some schools to cease calling themselves schools and to use the phrase “learning centre”. Let us hope that that phase and fad will cease and “school” remains the title of all schools, not least so they remain consistent with the new short stay schools being created.

I hope that we see improved quality in this sector of education, because it is important that children in those institutions get an education, as well as have their behavioural problems addressed. We have had a short and fairly interesting debate, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 236 ordered to stand part of the Bill.