Amendment 42, in clause 5, page 10, line 11, at end insert—
Amendment 43, in clause 5, page 10, line 11, at end insert—
Amendment 44, in clause 5, page 10, line 11, at end insert—
Good morning, Mr Williams. Happy St Patrick’s day to you and to everyone on the Committee. I am always abstemious during Lent, but if anyone is planning to celebrate, I remind them of my father’s admonition on drinking. He came from Cork, and said, “Two is plenty, and four is only half enough”, so do be careful this evening, if planning to celebrate.
Clause 5 removes the requirement to give parents a minimum of 24 hours’ written notice that their child is required to attend detention outside of usual school hours. Labour Members are worried about the clause and will listen carefully to what the Government have to say about it. We are concerned that it could put young children at risk, that it is discourteous to parents and that it could put young carers in a difficult situation. It could deny parents the knowledge of where their child is and could cause great anguish, anxiety and perhaps danger.
Why? Where is the great campaign for the removal of the requirement? Where are the people holding up banners saying, “24-hour notice of detention to be abolished now”? Was it a measure introduced by a red in tooth and claw, lily-livered, liberal Labour Government? No, the current Secretary of State for Wales introduced it under a Conservative Government in 1996. Where has the idea for its removal come from? My charge against the Government is that it is another one of their headline-grabbing initiatives. They dream up such stuff because they know that they will get a few headlines in the tabloids. That is the reason for this, so we will examine closely the Government’s motives. Presumably, they will have to write into regulation all the things that denote that the clause means nothing, which is what the Minister will probably say later.
Before the hon. Gentleman’s faux outrage gets too out of control, unless he thinks that head teachers are complete idiots, he must accept that they will exercise their freedom. This is only a freedom. We do not put in law a bar on an act of idiocy. Heads will use the power sensibly and proportionately, and come up with their own ways of supporting teachers and communicating with parents sensibly. Suggesting that teachers will all use it in a foolish way and that they necessarily will never communicate with parents is a parody of the truth.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the Secretary of State for Wales believes that all head teachers are idiots because she introduced the measure into law, probably for very good reasons, at the fag end of John Major’s Government.
Amendment 40 shows the importance of identifying the need for safeguards for young carers in particular. It is vital that the needs and responsibilities of young carers are considered when debating the clause. In many cases, schools are aware of pupils with caring responsibilities while, in many other cases, schools might not be fully aware of them or even aware of them at all. I was the Minister with responsibility for young carers for a short period, and I visited the young carers’ annual outing on the south coast—a remarkable event—to meet those remarkable young people. I hope that Ministers in the Department have the opportunity to do the same. One message that comes through very strongly is that schools are often unaware of the situation at home and the burden of responsibility faced by pupils.
Is it not true that one reason why schools may not be aware, sometimes despite their best efforts, is that there are lots of myths floating around in communities that lead people to fear that social services will get involved and that a young person who is caring for someone will be taken away from home? There are all sorts of disincentives for young carers and their parents to tell schools—not true disincentives, but ones that exist in community mythology.
Yes, and my hon. Friend has a great deal of practical experience of the issue from her former career.
We do not, of course, want young people to be carers; we would like to have a system in which, if there were such needs at home, there was sufficient support and they were able to enjoy their childhood and attend school like any other pupil, without having those responsibilities before they go to school and when they get back home.
Where there is a hidden caring role—perhaps in a chaotic household where a child helps out by playing a leadership role—does 24-hours’ notice make much difference? Does one expect a family in that situation to have the wherewithal to be able to call on additional support when the child knows that they will not be at home the following day? Are all of us on the Committee perhaps making more of this subject than is necessary?
I think it does, and I will say why in a moment.
The National Union of Teachers has informed us of a contribution from The Times Educational Supplement connect forum discussion on young carers in schools, which illustrates the additional stress and difficulties that young carers face if they are made to stay late in detention after school. A young carer at that TES conference said:
“If you were 14 and your mother needed the toilet but couldn’t get there without help would you help her and be late for school or would you get yourself to school on time knowing your mother is going to be sitting in urine for a couple of hours? When you got to school would you tell the teacher why you were late? If you are late will you be given detention that means you can’t get home and make your mum a cup of tea and you know she has been alone since 11am. For young carers detention can…be the worst sanction to give. It is one area where individual teachers can have a huge impact on a young carer’s life.”
It is not hard to see how a no-notice detention might make such difficult circumstances even worse. The person being cared for would have no notice to make alternative care arrangements.
The Education Committee, whose Chair intervened a moment ago, stated in its report “Behaviour and Discipline in Schools”, which has been helpful in informing the proceedings of this Committee, that schools
“must be particularly sensitive to the needs of young carers”.
The amendment recognises that the clause as it stands—allowing no-notice detentions—would make things unnecessarily difficult for pupils with caring responsibilities, and for the people they care for.
Amendment 41 deals with the age limit below which 24-hours’ notice would still be required, and its purpose is to probe the Government on how they will safeguard younger children under the provisions. The Association of School and College Leaders, in evidence to the Education Committee for its report on “Behaviour and Discipline in Schools”, stated:
“For after school detentions there are a number of practical considerations to take into account. Firstly there is the safeguarding for the child; is it appropriate to delay a 12 or 13 year old on a dark evening to then potentially travel home alone without having warned the parents (who may not be able to collect the child)?”
The NUT told us that
“schools should always take into account a pupil’s home circumstances or the age [and vulnerability] of the child when it comes to detaining after school—and this is difficult enough even with 24 hours notice, let alone none.”
The amendment would ensure that no-notice detentions cannot be applied to younger pupils.
I return to this idea that heads will come up with a policy within their school that aims to balance out such considerations. The provision would remove a statutory restriction on that. Heads will make common-sense adjustments and decisions. If I were a head, I would look to agree with parents. I would write to them and come up with a settlement with them so that we had clarity. Many parents would be quite happy for their child to be kept in if their child was out of order, especially the parents of younger children who are more likely to live nearby. If not, the head would make arrangements that met the practical realities of the situation.
If we legislated on the principle that we rely on the common sense of people in positions of responsibility 100% of the time, we would not need any legislation at all. The point is not that most heads would act with common sense; the point is that we legislate to ensure that there is not an opportunity in law for somebody legally to do something that would be dangerous and potentially put a child, their parents and family in a very difficult position. It would be extremely discourteous to parents, which is presumably why the Conservative Government legislated in such a way in the first place.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is legal now for a teacher or head teacher to do something that is potentially dangerous in so far as detention or any penalty applies to their students?
What I do know is that they have to give 24 hours’ notice of detention now. If that is to be abolished, we need far greater safeguards than are indicated in the Bill. I question the Minister’s motives. I want him to outline the vast array of evidence that he has of the massive call for him to make this change before he introduced the clause. He may have been able to garner some grudging support from people saying, “We’d never do this, but if you want to give us this power, fine.” I do not believe that he can produce evidence in any way, shape or form on which to base the legislation.
This is a power that is being given to head teachers, and I know not why. That is what I am trying to find out, not least because there has been no call for it, no evidence for it, and a former Conservative Government introduced the provision in the first place for very good reason.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very passionate point. Does he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Preston that the provision would allow teachers to be more unreasonable? Does he agree with me that in reality the provision is for the majority of children? It would not be focused towards young carers. Detentions would more likely be imposed at lunchtime for such children, because most responsible head teachers would take into account their home life.
We are referring to the amendment that I was speaking about a moment ago. The flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s argument is the assumption that schools have perfect knowledge of the caring responsibilities of the pupils who attend the school. I am afraid there is very powerful evidence that they do not.
Given that imperfect knowledge, one could make a case for never having any detention outside of school, because it could cause difficulties for some people. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is going that far, at which point one has to think about the practical implications of 24 hours’ notice in the hidden cases. He has not made that case strongly, but he seemed to be establishing the principle that we should legislate. He said that we would not need to legislate if we accepted that there is always commons sense. On the other hand, he seems to be suggesting that we should legislate to ensure that never do we assume any common sense on the part of school leaders. That is an insult to school leaders, and he should withdraw it.
If anyone examines the record, they will find that at no point did I insult school leaders. I have only, and frequently, expressed my respect for them. However, the days when we in this country simply accepted that people in positions of responsibility, in whatever walk of life, can be allowed to exercise that responsibility without accountability are long gone, thank goodness. We know from experience that that approach leads to all sorts of problems and difficulties. Head teachers are human beings in positions of responsibility.
I turn to amendment 42. The clause shows lack of respect, as Sir Alan Steer said in his oral evidence to us, for parents and their ability to make plans for their family on any given evening. The NASUWT told us that the clause
“erodes parental entitlement to a defined period of notice".
Under the clause, parents would not necessarily be given any notice. The Government do not seem to recognise that not all families can instantly drop everything to accommodate a change of plans. The clause ignores the fact that for many working parents a change in the time they must pick up their child could be extremely difficult to negotiate with their workplace at the last minute. The Government seem to be legislating to say that that is irrelevant.
The NUT told us that
“no-notice after school detentions would undo much of the work a school has done to build a positive, supportive relationship with parents. Behaviour systems and policies always work best when they are fully supported by parents. Detention without notice does nothing to bring parents on-side.”
We also heard concerns from some of the groups representing children with special needs. For example, Ambitious about Autism believes that
“detention without notice has the potential to cause relationship breakdown between the school and the child’s family…which can impact on the child’s success at school.”
The amendment seeks to put power back in parents’ hands by enabling them to have a guarantee that they could plan around any detention.
I move to amendment 43, which I suppose is designed to find a compromise, and I hope that the Government will accept it. We may not have the necessary votes to defeat the coalition because the Liberal Democrats have done an about-face on some children’s issues, but perhaps I am wrong about that. The Conservatives have done an about-face from their position in 1996, when the now Secretary of State for Wales legislated to introduce protection. If they use their majority to ram the measure through against reason, we must try to temper it with a reasonable amendment.
The Minister should be able to accept the amendment, although his civil servants will tell him not to accept any amendments in Committee. In the new politics of the coalition, I am sure that they will want to accept the amendment because it is extremely reasonable and rational. The Minister will give us some technical reasons why he cannot accept it, but he could introduce his own amendment.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman one or two things. For a start, I had experience of negotiating a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly in 2000 for my former boss, Rhodri Morgan. Secondly, the first Bill Committee that I sat on in this House, in 2001 or 2002, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley, dealt with similar territory: the Adoption of Children Bill. It was amended by the Labour Ministers following Back-Bench amendments, with cross-party support, which led to a bit of a crisis in the Conservative party because its Members wanted to support it, too. That was in relation to the law on adoption, when my hon. Friend and I introduced very reasonable amendments. So we have a lot of experience of being able to change legislation through this process.
If the Government are committed to reducing the 24-hour notice of detention, for whatever reason, we must ensure that there is a clear indication in the Bill that the parent must be informed. That is the intention of amendment 43. Not only must the parent be informed about the detention, but the school must confirm that the parent has been informed. As I read it, the clause takes away the 24-hour notice provision, but does not include in the Bill a duty on the part of the school to inform the parent.
Does the amendment not go further than what is necessary even now? What the hon. Gentleman is saying is that confirmation must be received from the parent or carer that they are aware of the detention. That provision goes further than the current provision, does it not?
Where it is a same-day detention, we are in a very different position from when 24-hour notice is given. It might not be unreasonable with 24-hour notice to assume that, but if the hon. Lady wanted to propose an amendment to strengthen the provision in order to ensure that the parent or carer’s confirmation had been received, I think Labour Members would be able to support that amendment. I think that in this instance—
Tessa Munt rose—
If the hon. Lady is going to re-intervene, this is an opportunity to ask her whether she thinks that, if there is no 24-hour notice of detention, parent or carer confirmation should be required?
Having had some discussions with the Minister about this particular issue, I would like to wait and see what will happen. I might have the opportunity to clarify my position a bit later. I am making the point that I think what the hon. Gentleman is saying goes further than is currently the case for notice.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I have said that, if she wants to propose an amendment to go further, Labour Members will be happy to support it. It is not only an issue of courtesy, but of safety, that parents or carers should be informed, and there should be confirmation that they have been informed. As I recall, she herself commented on the issue as it related to pupils in rural areas in our discussions at the evidence stage of the Bill. She said:
“Many parents will have access to e-mail or at least to a mobile phone, so an e-mail or text could be sent.” ––[Official Report, Education Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2011; c. 22, Q43.]
I agree with that, but I think that there should be confirmation that that has been received, in particular where there is not 24-hour notice of that detention. I am a very busy person, and so is my wife, and I could not necessarily guarantee that I would receive a text or an email and have a chance to read it on the day if a detention were being imposed on my child.
The problem that I find with this provision is that it requires something active on the part of the parent or carer, as opposed to it being a matter of courtesy to inform the parents. This whole thing is about giving notice—it is not about having a conversation. I can see that there are cases where parents might choose not to accept that they have been made aware of a detention. What would happen in those cases? The problem with the provision is that it says that in some way they have to confirm that.
The hon. Lady might be happy with not knowing, but I certainly would not be. I would not be happy with my child being kept in same-day detention, if they were a young child on a dark night, unless I had an opportunity to confirm that that was okay. If the school made a phone call to a parent, that is confirmation enough. I am not saying that they have to accept the detention; I am saying that the school needs to know that parents are aware of it. That is a basic issue of courtesy and safety.
I am the father of two young children, as the hon. Gentleman knows. My eldest William performed in a cello concert in Spalding last night to great acclaim. I just want to put that on the record.
This is about the balance of trust. The Bill is trying to recalibrate assumptions about authority and responsibility against a background of the exhortation of rights, which is starting to ring hollow in most people’s ears, including in those of parents of young children. Trust in the relationship between home and school is essential, if we are going to build the right kind of education system.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s son on his musical achievements. Being a great music fan myself, I am sure he is a proud father.
It is about a balance of trust, and the Government are getting it wrong—that is my point. What is important is that the parents have received reasonable notice of the detention. Some of the issues that I set out a few minutes ago made that clear. Such notice can also avoid issues relating to pupils with special educational needs. Organisations such as Ambitious about Autism have concerns about the repeal of the requirement to give notice of a detention to a parent. It is worried that children on the autistic spectrum might have a limited understanding of risk and danger. Disruption to their travel plans home from school, changes to their routine, or parents being uncertain about their whereabouts can all cause serious distress and create safeguarding risks. We want more clarity from Government on how they will ensure that the additional needs of children with autism are considered in proposals. What proposals does the Minister have to ensure that children with autism and other SEN are not disproportionately affected by the clause?
The Education Committee report, which we have referred to several times, said:
“The impact of removing the notice for detentions on school-parent relations was raised by several witnesses as being potentially extremely damaging, with Sir Alan Steer commenting that ‘it is disrespectful. You do not teach good behaviour by behaving badly’.”
In the report, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, said that
“this isn't a prescriptive policy...This is a permissive power that says that if you do not wish to give 24 hours, as a school, you do not have to. Schools are public bodies and as a public body they have to behave reasonably”— although we heard earlier that the Minister is giving public authorities powers to behave unreasonably in other regards—
“so I don't believe that any school would—well, any school would simply not be permitted to—act unreasonably in giving a detention”.
In the Bill, what will ensure that, as he said,
“any school would simply not be permitted to—act unreasonably in giving a detention”?
The amendment seeks to ensure that the Bill does not allow schools to act unreasonably in giving detentions.
Amendment 44 recognises that for some pupils, being required to stay behind late at school might leave them without a safe means of getting home. I note that the hon. Member for Wells raised this point in the evidence sessions, when she asked for witnesses’ views on 24-hour detention. She said:
“I say that in the light particularly of rural students, who do not have a public bus service on which they can rely and must therefore depend on school transport.”––[Official Report, Education Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2011; c. 22, Q43.]
The Education Committee report said:
“Schools must be particularly sensitive to the needs of…those with transport difficulties.”
Does the Minister intend the clause to disproportionately affect pupils living in rural areas, those in areas with poor public transport and those with other transport difficulties? This amendment seeks to avoid those issues.
To conclude, Sir Alan Steer made it clear that it was simply bad manners for schools to proceed in that way. It is a good thing that the days have gone—there used to be such days—of heads who used to say of parents, “Tell them nothing. Don’t let them through the school gates.” That used to be an attitude prevalent in education. I wonder sometimes whether the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, has a slight hankering for those days, given how he approaches some subjects. Power without any accountability can be a dangerous thing.
I fear that the policy is not based on evidence put to the Government. I want to hear about the relevant submissions, who they were from and this powerful campaign for the change. It is more to do with the Government winning a few headlines saying that they are backing head teachers against the culture of rights, as the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning put it. It is not about that though.
Let us have a sensible position and, at least, ensure that we are not, potentially, putting children into a position of walking home late at night—their parents having no notice of where they are—and possibly being in danger of an accident or something else. We do not want that to happen and we do not want to put into the Bill a piece of law that enables that to happen. I am afraid that, despite all the common sense in the world, when such things are done, mistakes are made and misunderstandings occur and, sometimes, that can lead to great danger. We should think carefully before we put the clause into the Bill.
It was good to have you in the Chair, Mr Williams, when my hon. Friend was reminiscing about our collective experience on the Adoption and Children Bill.
I spent considerable time working in social services, in particular with children and in the area of child protection. I fully accept that because of that I have a different perspective on the world and about children and families. One of the reasons why it might have been a good idea for me to move on to something else is that when we spend our working life with families with difficulties and meeting people who are setting out to abuse children, we look at things differently.
I was, therefore, surprised when the Minister announced the change during Education questions, some time back in the summer. On that very day, I was fortunate enough to be called in topical questions and was able to raise the issue, and I have been raising the issue ever since. Unfortunately, the Government have not accepted the real concerns here. The Minister sets out—with admirable faith and trust in teachers, head teachers and so on—that we have to trust professionals. What would he say to the parents who I knew, whose children were abused by a head teacher, using the position to do so? The reality is that some people malevolently, and some through lack of care, put children in situations of danger. The amendments seek to row back from children possibly being put, either deliberately or inadvertently, in situations that none of us would want them to be in.
I do not attribute to the Minister, the Secretary of State or the coalition Government a desire to cause problems for vulnerable children. However, as has often been discussed, the matter is one of balance. The issue was last debated more recently than when the regulations were brought in, under clause 79 of the Education and Inspections Bill, which became section 92 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The Committee on that Bill had precisely this debate about balance. The Minister, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who is not in his place, was present at that debate, and he was remarkably consistent. However, the Committee also heard from Liberal Democrat MPs, including the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has much experience of children’s issues, and she said:
“The serious point is that we can get the balance wrong, and we have done so in certain well publicised circumstances. I make no apology for making what was always going to be a tough argument. Somebody should make that argument, because we do not always get the balance right.”––[Official Report, Education and Inspections Public Bill Committee, 10 May 2006; c. 854-55.]
Her colleague, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), is now the Minister with responsibility for children. She is the person in the Government who is supposed, above anybody else, to put forward the concerns, issues and well-being of children. On an amendment that was tabled by the coalition—I mean the Conservative party, how easily we make such slips—she said:
“I understand that it would remove the requirement to give 24 hours notice…I may have misunderstood the amendment…For the record, we would not be in favour of removing the period of notice. It would be totally impractical. In rural areas, especially on dark evenings, parents would not know what had happened to their child and would be extremely concerned. It is perfectly acceptable to give 24 hours’ notice, as it will allow parents to make other arrangements for travel or to arrange for a neighbour or other family member to stay at home to provide cover. Anything else would be unacceptable.”––[Official Report, Education and Inspections Public Bill Committee, 10 May 2006; c. 855-56.]
The Education Minister made that comment only five short years ago. I join my hon. Friend the shadow Minister in calling for the Government to tell us what evidence they have received since then to make the Minister with responsibility for children think that something that was unacceptable five years ago is now acceptable.
I apologise for getting worked up about the matter, but I have worked with children and have seen and heard some of the things that happen to them, which should not happen to any children in our society. I accept the Minister’s argument for schools to be safe, to have discipline, and to have teachers who have authority, but it is also entirely reasonable to have some safeguards.
As my hon. Friend has said, I am not wedded to 24-hour notice. Time has moved on since the measure was first introduced, as have we all. Most of us have mobile devices and better ways of keeping in touch, and many schools have systems. Schools in my constituency subscribe to systems that enable alerts to go out to parents, so that they are informed if, for example, the school is closed because of snow. Systems are in place that were simply not there before, so 24 hours may be neither here nor there.
My hon. Friend and I are wedded to giving parents notice, however, which is entirely reasonable. In what other circumstances would anybody behave in this way? I know that Government Members—including the Chair of the Education Committee, who is not in his place—would say, “Well, teachers and head teachers are all reasonable.” Unfortunately, that is not my experience. If the measure would lead to one, two or 10 children every year finding themselves in situations that any of us would not want our own children, nephews or nieces to be in, we should not be introducing it. We should not be going for the headline, “We are making teachers all-powerful. We have got rid of this issue.” The matter is more important than headlines.
We have spoken at length about young carers, and I have tabled questions and received unsatisfactory responses on that. I know that the Minister recognises the problem. The hon. Member for Wells has also raised the issues. They are better understood than when the Minister first made his statement, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West has said, we know that every young carer is not known to the school, so we cannot make assumptions about any child. Notice therefore seems entirely reasonable, otherwise children will be left in the situation, described by my hon. Friend, of having to make a decision about whether they obey a teacher or whether they do something that causes a problem for the person for whom they are caring, for a young sibling or for themselves. Putting young children in situations in which they have to make those kinds of decisions is not right.
I am also concerned about wider child protection issues. I accept that people who seek to abuse children will use whatever means available, but we should not make it easier for them. For example, somebody might befriend a child in an internet chat room by pretending to be another 13-year-old boy or girl and ask them to meet them after school. The child might reply that they have to get home, but the other person might say, “Tell your parents that you have detention.” A requirement for notice makes it less easy for an abuser to do that.
We all wish that we could live in a world in which we could trust what anybody says, trust teachers to always make the right decisions, and trust head teachers to know everything about their children and to be able to put things right.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting point about children with special educational needs and young carers. However, in the example that she has just given, surely the abuser would suggest to the child to tell their parents that they have detention the following night instead.
If the hon. Gentleman follows that argument, and if the school had to give notice, the parent would know that it had come from the school. I accept that, if we close a loophole by saying that there has to be notice, an abuser would find another one, but does the Minister really want to be the person who says, “It didn’t matter that a child was abused, because we said that schools did not have to give notice and an abuser used that as an opportunity”?
Is not the point that, if there is communication between the parent and the teacher, the likelihood of an abuser eyeing an opportunity would be that much less?
Yes, that is exactly the point—it would be reduced. Somebody who is intent on persuading a child to meet them will use whatever mechanisms they can, but do we really want to be in a position where it is known that schools can just keep a child in, which enables an abuser to get to a child more easily?
I am not clear about the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. In my experience—I am not a parent myself, but I have extended family with children—if a child goes to an out-of-school activity, parents generally know about it. I have never been aware of a teacher saying to a child, “You must stay behind and play football tonight.”
What my hon. Friend is asking is whether it would be required under law that they had to provide 24 hours’ notice. The amendments suggest that we should prescribe in law a requirement for 24 hours’ notice.
I think the route that we are going down is a bit of a red herring, if that is the right expression. It is a completely different situation when children are involved in out-of-school activities. In my humble experience, parents usually know if their child plays football, chess or whatever, as opposed to a situation that has arisen for disciplinary purposes—again, I accept that that is not an unreasonable sanction, but we are discussing keeping a child in detention without a period of notice. Let me say to hon. Members that I am raising a concern about the way that such a measure might be used, rather than thinking on the hoof of situations that are not relevant to the issue. I have been raising this matter for months and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West has probed the Minister on that campaign. We have seen no evidence for this; it is not something that we need to do.
The essential difference between the debate club that my daughter attended last night in school—I do not know where she gets that interest from—and a detention is that such clubs are regular, well timetabled activities. A detention arises on the day.
My hon. Friend is a parent and provides a better example than I can. My main concern is about children who are placed in difficult situations that put their safety and well-being at risk, whether they are young carers or live in a rural area. The amendments are entirely reasonable, and seek to put in place a system that is not wedded to a period of 24 hours. A minority of the witnesses said that the ability to issue a detention quickly was important. I accept that, but I do not accept that it can be reasonable or safe in any circumstances to have children kept in school without their parents or carers knowing.
My point is that detention with 24-hours’ notice—or not—still has to take place. Clearly it is a courtesy to bring parents on side, and that is an important part of ensuring that the school works effectively with parents. There must be that working relationship for the school to excel, and for pupils to be happy and excel. The Minister is fully aware of my concerns about students who live in rural areas and use the school bus as their only route home. There is little public transport in rural areas, and I have commented on that matter in the Education Committee and elsewhere.
The hon. Lady gave an example about schools in rural areas where there is only one route home—the school bus. I am sure that a school would be aware of such circumstances and would consider them if it had to give a detention.
The school will be aware of such circumstances, but that does not magic up a school bus, more public transport or another route home for the children concerned. The school will be fully aware of those who use the school bus, but that does not solve the transport problem. I have said that it would be appropriate for a school to contact parents, preferably by text or e-mail so that there is a record to prove that contact has been made. Amendment 42 states that there should be
“full consideration of the implications for the parent or carer”.
That is an impossibility; it is not measurable or deliverable in any way. Teachers might think that they were aware of the implications, but the measure is unworkable.
Amendment 43 says:
“the school must give reasonable notice to the parent or carer of the pupil”.
I am not entirely sure what “reasonable notice” means, because in some people’s view it might be longer than 24 hours. Someone needs to define what “reasonable” is, because we have no idea what that term means or how long would be deemed reasonable.
My second point is one that I have raised before. In amendment 43, there is a requirement for “confirmation”. What happens if that confirmation is withheld? Is an automatic response to an e-mail deemed to be confirmation of receipt? What happens in the case of a text? Alternatively, if there is a phone call how would that call be recorded, in case it was ever challenged at some point in the future?
The issue is really that of 24 hours’ notice. We already have 24-hour notice detentions and the previous Government certainly seemed to have been happy with that arrangement. I go back to the fact that we should look purely at a duty on the school to—
It was not just the previous Government who were happy with 24-hour notice detentions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out, in the deliberations of the Committee on the Education and Inspections Bill in 2006, the hon. Lady’s colleague, the current Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who is the Minister with responsibility for children, said that she
What has happened since then—apart from the obvious—that means that the world has changed?
What strikes me is that between 2006 and last year the hon. Gentleman’s Government were in power and they had the power to do something about this issue but chose not to.
What I am saying is that the hon. Lady’s colleague, who is now the Minister with responsibility for children, asked us not to do anything about it. That is the point. The current Minister said that the situation as it stood was acceptable and should not be changed. Her position was that she agreed with us.
I shall move on, because I want to finish by saying that the previous Government were happy with the arrangements as they were and that the issue is purely a matter of courtesy about giving 24 hours’ notice to parents.
The purpose of my speaking to these amendments is to probe the Government, to try to understand—because I do not understand—why they are seeking to repeal the requirement to give 24-hour notice to parents.
I am a member of the Education Committee, as is the hon. Member for Wells and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman, who is not in his place at the moment, is the Chair of the Committee. We have looked at this issue in great detail. In our recent report, “Behaviour and Discipline in Schools”, we clearly set out that many of our witnesses—I must say that it was probably all of our witnesses—were wary of the Government’s proposal to abolish the requirement to give 24-hour notice of detention outside school hours. The report says that the concerns of the witnesses
“were summed up by the Association of School and College Leaders…For after school detentions there are a number of practical considerations to take into account. Firstly there is the safeguarding for the child”.
“Is it appropriate to delay a 12 or 13 year old on a dark evening to then potentially travel home alone without having warned the parents (who may not be able to collect the child)? For many schools there are transport issues where students travel to school by coach and parents would need to make arrangements to collect their child after the detention.”
Our Committee recommended that when schools are dealing with these issues they must be particularly sensitive to the needs of young carers and pupils with transport difficulties.
There are many sanctions in place already that teachers and head teachers can use. We have talked at great length about permanent exclusions, which are in place. There are also fixed-term exclusions, and they can be on the premises or off the premises. Sometimes—on rare occasions—it is necessary to use fixed-term exclusions to give both the child and the school an opportunity to look at the situation again, to see what needs to be put in place before the child comes back. Increasingly, schools are using fixed-term exclusions on the premises.
I am discussing the sanctions that are available to schools. Detentions tend to be for the most minor infringements of school rules such as not bringing homework to school or minor disruptions. For all the other things, there are plenty of sanctions in place.
The only argument the Government have put forward is about the child who says, “I know my rights.” That is incredibly difficult for any teacher to deal with, but good teachers do not get defensive, argue with the child or get into a confrontation—they handle such things sensibly. A good teacher, faced with the argument, “I know my rights. You have to give 24 hours’ notice”, would simply say, “You’re absolutely right. I have a life as well, and I, too, need 24 hours’ notice to put my life in place, so I’ll see you back here at 4 o’clock tomorrow, and we’ll entertain each other a bit longer.” They take the confrontation out of the situation. The clause appears to be legislation for poor teaching, and goes against everything that the Minister has said about the Bill.
Why was the measure introduced in the first place? It was introduced by a Conservative Government, and was sensible in the view of most people in education. It was introduced because of the huge number of complaints from parents—not unreasonable parents who said, “I know my rights”, but parents who were worried that their children were simply not turning up at the right time. Serious distress was caused by children not turning up at home at the time they should have and parents were justifiably angry about that.
There were complaints from parents, but there were complaints from staff as well. As I said earlier, they, too, have a right to a life, and they need 24 hours’ notice because they need to make arrangements. So there were complaints from parents and teachers. Coming back to what I said earlier, I do not understand where this is coming from. I am not aware of a huge groundswell of opinion in schools or requests from teachers that they need to have 24 hours’ notice.
My hon. Friends have already spoken at great length about the dangers, and the Select Committee looked at the matter. Parents have a right to know where their children are. It is not fair to make a child walk home on their own—a lone child, 13 or 14-years-old—on a dark night and for parents not to know about that. There is also the issue of children who live in rural areas, and the hon. Member for Wells spoke eloquently about them. Some children live in areas where there is one bus that they can catch, or they need to get the school bus, otherwise they have serious problems.
The Select Committee heard a great deal of evidence about young carers and children with SEN. The fact is that schools do not always know who their young carers are. I remember a situation some years ago when I was called to a child protection case conference, which is a serious matter. We assume that head teachers use common sense but are then confronted with evidence that they do not always do that. A young child of five was coming into school very dirty and hungry at about 11 o’clock every morning. The child had serious speech and language difficulties and could not tell the teachers what was happening. The head teacher called a child protection case conference, which is a serious issue, but a little bit of digging would have identified that the mother, who was a cleaner, went out to work at 5 o’clock in the morning. Normally, a 17-year-old sibling got the child up and got him ready and off to school. Because of circumstances, that sibling was in youth custody, so the child was getting up in the morning on his own. He was dirty because he was setting the fire before he came to school. He would think, “I am hungry and I can get a free school meal. I’ll wander off to school.”
That was an actual case where a head teacher could simply have used a little common sense and gone into the home to find out what was happening, but did not. A massive case conference involving huge expense was called, and the issue became serious.
Head teachers should act sensibly and use common sense, but experience suggests that they do not always do that. I ask the Minister genuinely: what is the reasoning? Given the whole range of sanctions available to teachers—permanent exclusion, fixed-term inclusion, internal exclusion and detention, which is used for minor infringements of school rules—I cannot think of an incident where it would not be possible or right to give 24 hours’ notice. I can only think that the Minister is legislating for poor teaching, which he clearly would not want to do. That would not be in the interest of good schools or good teachers, and certainly not in the interest of parents. The children who are most likely to be disadvantaged, as we have said many times, would be those who have special needs, who are living in poverty or who are living in rural areas. I am looking to the Minister for an answer on why he has come up with that proposal, because I simply do not understand.
We are having a wide-ranging debate on the amendments to clause 5, so I would like to give the Committee notice now that I am not minded to have a clause stand part debate.
Thank you, Mr Williams, and welcome back to the chair. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North West Durham. I understand and accept the sincerity of her argument and also the sincerity of hon. Members who contributed to the debate. She asked where the groundswell of opinion was on the issue. There is a groundswell of opinion in the country clamouring for a Government who will take behaviour in our schools seriously and take measures to tackle persistent disruptive behaviour in our schools. The Government are determined to raise standards of behaviour in our schools.
The hon. Member for Cardiff West’s charge is that the reform is unnecessary. It is the same charge that he has levelled against most of the Government’s reforms designed to raise standards of behaviour in our schools. I refer hon. Members to a survey done by the university of Plymouth, reported in today’s Daily Mirror. The article states:
“Tormented teachers are being driven to the brink of suicide by online bullying. A third of teachers say they have been abused”.
That is how life is different today from 2006 or indeed from 1996. Also, if the hon. Gentleman reads the OECD report into the UK’s economic performance published yesterday, he will see a damning indictment of academic standards in the education system decreed by his Government.
In 2006, the cyber-bullying of teachers was not a pervasive issue, but it is today. There is a concern in the public about low-level disruption in our schools and about children not doing their homework. Teachers tell me that it is hard to get children to learn their vocabulary for the next lesson. People may think that that is not the most important issue in behaviour, but it is. If we are to raise behavioural and academic standards in our schools, we have to tackle serious incidents of poor behaviour and the persistent low-level disruption that happens in too many of our schools. We also have to change the culture in our schools so that pupils understand that they have to do their homework, concentrate and achieve if we are to have an education system that will enable them to compete in a global economy.
I am interested in the examples that the Minister gave. Surely he is not suggesting that a detention would be a suitable punishment for cyber-bullying? That would be much more serious, and we would be looking at exclusions of some kind, fixed term or otherwise. As far as I am aware, Ofsted is not reporting that there are children in huge swathes of the country not doing their homework. In my experience, that is not a problem in schools.
The problem in schools highlighted by the OECD report is that standards in this country are languishing and that there is a serious problem, if we want our young people to compete for jobs in a global market. I sense a lack of understanding from hon. Members opposite about the problems we face as this country drops down international league tables of academic standards. There was another report yesterday by the OECD confirming these problems; we have to tackle them and this Government are determined to do so.
It is all these things; they are all interlinked. This is not, of course, the only measure we are introducing to tackle poor behaviour and, of course, a detention may not be sufficient to tackle very serious issues of poor behaviour. It is one of many measures, but the problem is that all the measures we are proposing to tackle poor behaviour—or too many of them—are being opposed by Opposition Members.
Clause 5 removes the requirement in England that a pupil’s parents must be given 24-hours’ written notice of detention outside school hours. Being able to use detentions more effectively will help teachers nip persistent disruption in the bud, before it escalates to the point at which a pupil is excluded. That is what we all want to achieve: we do not want to have to resort to the nuclear option of expulsion whenever a child commits a serious offence. It is better if these behavioural problems can be nipped in the bud and that is what this and other measures are designed to achieve. The requirement to give 24-hours’ written notice can encourage pupils and parents to challenge teachers over a detention and thereby diminish their authority.
As we have said, it is about restoring authority to the teaching profession. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, the sincerity of whose concerns I do understand—I listen carefully to what she says and her words are influential—said just now that the Minister had an admirable faith in teachers. I do and the Government do. It is the thrust, the direction of travel of our education policy. Our education White Paper was called “The Importance of Teaching”and the premise of our approach to education is that we trust the profession. In answer to our belief that teachers and head teachers are reasonable, she said that that is not her experience.
I am disappointed in the Minister’s response, because he is responding in a global way to our very specific concerns. I said that it is not my experience that all head teachers and all teachers are reasonable. That does not mean that I do not think that the vast majority of them are, but the fact that there are teachers and head teachers who are not reasonable makes it important that there are safeguards in place.
I will come in detail to those points that she has raised genuinely. I do understand and I will try to demonstrate in the course of my response to the debate that those safeguards are in place. I hope to persuade her that they are sufficient.
It does give that possibility. The more of these rights are in statute, the more parents and pupils are able to say, “We know our rights”. We are trying to shift the balance of authority in schools back to the teacher and head teacher and we do not apologise for that. That is the direction of travel we want for schools. Head teachers will be given the freedom to decide what arrangements are most appropriate for their school. They will set a general approach to detentions in their school behaviour policy and individual teachers will be able to decide, within the framework of the behaviour policy and taking into account the particular circumstances of each case, what arrangements for giving notice of detention are appropriate.
Once this requirement is removed, a number of safeguards will remain in place. There is already a legal requirement that disciplinary penalties must be reasonable in all circumstances and when considering this, teachers must take account of the special circumstances of the pupil, including age and any special educational needs or disabilities. That requirement applies when issuing detention outside school hours and it means that an out-of-hours detention will be unlawful if the pupil’s parents are not given notice, if that is appropriate in the circumstances. Teachers are well placed to consider the individual needs of particular pupils in these contexts and they should be trusted to do so.
This is not saying that schools should never give notice. All we are doing is removing a statutory requirement for a particular way to behave reasonably. We are saying that we trust head teachers and teachers to behave reasonably. There are many instances when issuing an immediate detention could well be reasonable, for example, a summer evening when it stays light until 10 pm or when a school serves a very small local community. In such circumstances, it is perfectly reasonable for a child to stay an extra hour after school and walk the quarter of a mile back home, in a light evening and in a safe area. There are many examples.
I shall also quote the head teachers who gave evidence to our Committee. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the principal of Mossbourne academy, said
Mike Gibbons said:
“Sometimes, having no notice for detention can be a good, immediate, sharp punishment”.––[Official Report, Education Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2011; c. 7, Q13.]
We also did some insight research, which I will come on to in a moment.
I caution the Minister against talking about safe areas. We know from very bitter, tragic experience that some of the areas that seem the safest, are not—even very close to school. To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, leaving aside whether the provision is reasonable or not, the Minister said that there would still be circumstances in which it would, in fact, be unlawful for a teacher to give a detention. Could he give a practical example of an instance where it would be unlawful for a teacher to do so because we are, after all, changing the law here?
Well, it would be unlawful for any punishment to be given by a school if it were unreasonable. That is the current legal position. Examples have been given today of when it might be unreasonable for a detention to be given. Indeed, any detention on any night with any period of notice might be unreasonable in some circumstances for some pupils. That is the current law, and we do not intend to change that.
May I consider some of the evidence? We carried out some insight research, which is entitled, “Informing the power to discipline in schools: a qualitative research with teachers and school leaders.” That study was carried out by the Department in September 2010 and found that teachers reported that removing the requirement for 24-hour notice of detention would be empowering, as it would allow timely detention at the teacher’s convenience, rather than at that of the pupil. Ofsted, which we cited during the debate, reports that 20.2% of state-funded secondary schools are judged only satisfactory for behaviour and that a further 1.1% are judged inadequate. That is a huge number of schools, serving a large number of pupils.
The Association of School and College Leaders has also been quoted during the debate. It said:
“ASCL has long advocated a reduction in the number of statutory duties on schools…as they undermine the capacity of leaders”— school and college leaders—
“and governing bodies to make decisions appropriate to local circumstances.”
Today, we are debating a series of amendments that would impose new such statutory duties on schools.
Section 91 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 sets out several conditions that must be satisfied for a disciplinary penalty to become law. Under subsection (3)(b), all disciplinary sanctions, including detentions, must be “reasonable” and consideration must be given to “all the circumstances”. Subsection (6) provides that, when considering whether a disciplinary penalty is reasonable, the special circumstances of the pupil,
“which are known to the person imposing” the penalty must be taken into account.
In particular, consideration must be given to the pupil’s age, and any special educational needs or disability that the pupil might have. The list is not exhaustive when deciding whether an out-of-hours detention is reasonable for a pupil. Teachers must consider what notification to the parent is reasonable, as well as all the relevant circumstances. There is not a fixed rule, and the current safeguards recognise that decisions about notice should depend on the facts of each case, and that it is a common-sense matter on which we ought to trust the judgment of teachers.
One of my concerns is that children with special needs or carers are already subject to some disadvantage from their peers. They are frequently subject to bullying and being seen as different. Saying that children and young people who have caring responsibilities or who have a disability cannot have a same-day detention but other children can, makes those children more vulnerable to discrimination from their peers. I do not understand why we want to put those children at more disadvantage and risk by saying that they cannot be treated the same as their peer group.
I do not think that such children should be treated the same as their peer group when it comes to punishments if they have special needs and extra responsibilities at home. Those are issues that the school should take into account, when issuing detentions. We must give teachers, head teachers and schools the power to impose discipline in our schools. I feel strongly about that because it is a matter not just of raising standards in our schools, which we have to do as a country, but of preventing children, such as those the hon. Lady is citing, from being bullied.
Each year, 20,000 calls are made to ChildLine from children who are being bullied, of whom in 2009-10, 342 were thinking of suicide. Among those numbers, we will find a disproportionate number of carers, looked-after children and children with special educational needs. It is to protect them that we want to create in our country a safe environment in which children can learn. That is what we want to achieve and why we must introduce measures to deliver such an outcome.
I caution the Minister. To many of us who have worked with young children, there is a big difference between what happens in schools and the ability of schools to manage challenging behaviour, and the support networks that those young people need. It is a dangerous path to conflate the support that we need to give young people who are facing difficult challenges in their lives, and the ways in which schools are operating. There are dangers in not looking at how the powers could be used by head teachers and teachers, and in using the cover of being concerned about what is happening within schools and with our young people in Britain today. The hon. Gentleman must think carefully about conflating those two serious issues.
I caution the hon. Lady to take seriously the issue of behaviour in our schools. We must create an environment where all children can feel safe, and in too many of our schools, the children who feel less safe are those who are the most vulnerable.
In a moment. I just want to finish the point about what safeguards are already in place. In addition to the safeguards that I have highlighted, such as public bodies and schools acting reasonably and the specific safeguards under the 2006 Act, governing bodies will continue to have a statutory duty under the Education Act 2002 to make arrangements to ensure that their functions are carried out with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of pupils under the age of 18 at school. For example, they must consider safeguarding issues when drawing up a statement of general principles to which the head teacher is to have regard when determining the school’s behaviour policy. That would include issues arising outside school hours.
The hon. Lady’s accusation was that the clause puts at risk the safety and well-being of pupils. However, it does not, because current law does not permit schools to put children at such risk. That is what I demonstrated by citing the 2002 and 2006 Acts and general principles of common law.
I want to make an entirely different point, because we have moved on and it has been raised by the Minister. I have no reason to doubt the Minister—he has set out the law—but what is the purpose of not having any notice for detention? All such notice would do is add an extra safeguard to enable a teacher who, for whatever reason, was not aware of the special needs—teachers, like everybody else, do not have special powers—to act in the same way as they can under other laws.
Those safeguards are already in place. The problem with a statutory requirement for 24 hours’ notice is that it would prevent head teachers and principals from taking the action needed to tackle poor behaviour in our schools by children who are not subject to those extra responsibilities and special needs. Again, I cite Sir Michael Wilshaw. His school is in a difficult and challenging part of London in Hackney, and it would be difficult to say that that is a safe area all the time. He said:
“The same-day detentions that we have followed have been a crucial plank in our behavioural policy. If someone is misbehaving in a very serious way, disrupting lessons and being rude to members of staff, the expectation is that they stay behind at school that day until 6 o’clock.”––[Official Report, Education Bill Public Bill Committee, 1 March 2011; c. 51, Q104.]
The purpose of the clause is to enable heads to do that.
I have heard the Minister give that quote a couple of times. Same-day detentions are not the same as no-notice detentions. I suspect that that head teacher has an arrangement with the parents to contact them in the event of a detention. I am not certain that that is the case, but, if he is a good head teacher, he will do that.
I agree. I am not saying that head teachers should not contact parents, or have arrangements in place with them. However, it should be left to the professional judgment of teachers and head teachers. We should not write into statute a series of new duties telling schools how they should be run. The general duties that I have cited state that they should act reasonably and, in doing so, take into account the circumstances of children with special needs and special responsibilities. That is the law at the moment, and I do not think that we need to go beyond that and specify what letters they have to write to whom within whatever number of hours. That is the problem that confronts us on this and so many other measures that we are trying to tackle in order to reduce the burden of bureaucracy on our schools. When considering the issues, teachers have to take into account the special circumstances of the pupil and any caring responsibilities that they have. That is the law and it will remain so after clause 5 is agreed to.
An out-of-hours detention will be unlawful if the person imposing it is aware of the pupil’s caring responsibilities but does not take account of them by giving, for instance, appropriate notice. However, as the Princess Royal Trust for Carers has pointed out to me, it is not the notice that is the main issue for children with caring responsibilities, but it may be the detention itself, with or without notice. If children are picking up their siblings at the primary school down the road at half-past 3, they have to do that every day and, in many cases, will not be able to make alternative arrangements. Schools need to take that into account right now, with or without the requirement for 24 hours’ notice. Teachers are well placed to consider the individual needs of pupils in such circumstances, and they should be trusted to do so.
The teaching profession is aware of the need to take account of the issues. Members may have read the ASCL briefing on the clause:
“School leaders are well aware of the position of child carers, as well as other concerns such as children walking home alone in the dark and in the vast majority of cases will continue to give 24 hours’ notice. We are confident that schools can and should be trusted with this additional discretion.”