HC Deb 23 June 1971 vol 819 cc1553-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Weatherill.]

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

The genesis of this debate in parliamentary terms lies in the answer to a Written Question of mine on 15th June last when I asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science whether she would institute an inquiry into the changing types of truancy being experienced in secondary schools. The answer had that simple clarity beloved of some Departments: "No." As this gave no information, not even clarification that there are other means of looking at this matter, and because practising teachers are concerned about it, I sought this Adjournment debate.

Parliamentary Questions have their own origins, and this is germane to the matter. On 1st June this year a resolution was discussed at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference at Cheltenham. It expressed: Great concern at the high rate of truancy which is a significant factor in juvenile delinquency. Mr. John Walker, the President of the Bradford Head Teachers' Association, said the problem of truancy was widespread in both urban and rural areas throughout the country, and that truancy was sometimes with the connivance of the parents. Mr. Walter Palmer of Hull, who actually proposed the resolution, said that the rate of truancy had soared to the extent that many authorities now regarded an attendance rate of 85 per cent. as the normal or even a satisfactory level.

Indeed, in the Evening News today the education correspondent of that newspaper says: Head teachers in London are alarmed by a sharp increase in truancy this year … One South London head teacher said: ' Over the past 18 months attendance figures have dropped from 93 per cent. to 75 per cent. and they are getting worse'. It is difficult for welfare officers—whose job it is to watch truancy—to cope. A London Welfare Office spokesman said: 'There is no doubt truancy is on the increase' …. A London magistrate said community centres were having difficulty with truants who broke in during school hours. At Eastbourne today, apparently, Alderman Patrick Crotty, who is the Tory leader in my own City of Leeds said: We have just had a meeting to discuss this alarming trend. We have decided to have a thorough inquiry to find out the facts. Our head teachers have noticed an increase in the number of teenagers taking Friday afternoon off. There is little we can do about that, and it is bound to increase when the school leaving age is raised to 16 in 1972. I thought the figures—not the ones given today which I have only just seen, but those given at the head teachers' conference—important, because they came from practising teachers, and I have discussed this on Yorkshire Television with Mr. Walker and Mr. Albert Rowe of Hull and with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn). It became quite clear that we needed the facts. What did I find? I received from the chief education officer in my own City of Leeds a letter which said: What is disturbing is the growing number of really difficult problem cases as opposed to casual and thoughtless truancies. This is reflected in the increase in cases where parents have to be brought before the Education Committee or even to the courts. Although, in general, such instances are found amongst the older age groups, there is an equally disturbing trend towards the involvement of younger children. … The fact that there is evidence of deterioration … can, I think, be attributed mainly to changes in attitudes, in society and in the family, which are bound to be reflected in the attitudes of children. The Leeds Evening Post made its own inquiry and said that there was an increase in parental apathy and in the number of working mothers, the child welfare departments were undermanned and there was inadequate punishment by magistrates. In Bradford, where 4,000 out of 56,000 children are absent from school each day, the article went on to say that of these 4,000 absentees only about 500 are actually playing truant, according to the chief education welfare officer. The comment was made by the deputy director of the same authority that there was often a ringleader who could not care less about authority.

In my own City of Leeds the principal probation and after-care officer said: Persistent truants are often the victims of a vicious circle. They fall behind their classmates by staying away—so they play truant even more. Sir Alec Clegg of the West Riding said: With the raising of the school-leaving age, we shall have to do much more for the slow-learning child if we are going to keep them at school. He went on to refer to magistrates who often treat this matter much too lightly.

This last point was echoed by Mr. Walker, at Cheltenham, who said: Reasonably salutary action should be taken by the head, with L.E.A. backing to prevent recurrence. This question and the question of the school-leaving age were taken up by the Education Welfare Officers National Association which wrote to me on 16th June: It is a problem which schools cannot tackle alone and their right arm in this field is the education welfare service. Why then has this service never been recognised? Why has there never been any attempt to build up this vital service to schools and, perhaps even more relevant, why is Mrs. Thatcher prepared to stand back and allow this service to disintegrate in the shadow of the new social services departments? I cannot answer these questions, perhaps Mrs. Thatcher can—all I know is that my association is fighting a rearguard action to save our service. We have the backing of the Association of Education Committees, the N.A.H.T., and other teachers' associations, but as yet no backing from the D.E.S. In answer to a Question about the school-leaving age, the Secretary of State said: I shall shortly be consulting the local education authorities and the teachers on the guidance to be given on raising the school-leaving age. Guidance on the curriculum is given by the Schools Council. She went on to say: I think that far more preparations have been made for the raising of the school-leaving age this time than could possibly have been made on the previous occasion, and I believe that the whole operation will go through fairly smoothly. On the same day in reply to a question about the minority who cause trouble and who will cause trouble when the school-leaving age goes up, the Minister said: …but if children are difficult at the age when they would have left school, this is a very good reason for having another go at trying to help them. …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 10th June, 1971; Vol. 818, c. 1224–7.] But she was in favour of the school-leaving age going up. There is scepticism. Many teachers are not convinced about this. The Minister is convinced, I am convinced, the teachers' organisations are convinced, but what teachers need to be told is what is being done.

As an aside, the method of school reorganisation is extremely important in the context of the age group with which I am concerned. Above all, why not look at the nature of this modern truancy? Is it growing and, if it is, why? The evidence I have given so far from other people with knowledge of this subject shows that it is. If it is, why? Is there a change of type?

I once did some research on education in the 1870s and 1880s. If one looks at the school log books of that time, when children who had not been used to the discipline of schools were being first drawn into the system, one finds that the major problem in the 1880s when compulsory education was introduced, was truancy, and it is mentioned in practically every school log book. I can remember in a mining village that when one attended school regularly one had a banner in one's class and had half a day or half an hour off on the Friday. School attendance in those days obviously was a problem. I am not saying that there is anything new. I am asking whether there is evidence as to a change of type.

Is there a growth of phobic school absence? Is there a situation involving introverted children from good homes staying at home with the connivance of parents who are genuinely concerned? I am told by a psychiatric social worker friend that such people attend weekly visits at clinics for discussions, and this group might account for a growth in the number of primary children who stay at home. This may not count as truancy in the true sense of the term.

Is there any different treatment for the more outgoing child from the deprived home who ends up in the courts with a care order? Are the social welfare officers brought in to help the older child who stays at home to look after the other children in the family when the mother is ill, or when there is death in the family? I gather that some local authorities bring in the home help system to assist such children.

Section 92 of the 1944 Act provides that Every local education authority shall make to the Minister such reports and returns and to give him such information as he may require for the purpose of the exercise of his functions under this Act. His function under this Act is to promote the education of people in England and Wales. My own city of Leeds, according to Mr. Crotty, is to conduct an inquiry into this matter. I understand from the Leeds Evening Post that Bradford also is investigating the situation. Furthermore, the North-West Association of Chief Education Welfare Officers is carrying out an inquiry. Why not the Department of Education and Science?

The Secretary of State this week revealed her concern for what will happen when the school-leaving age is raised. We require facts and more detailed knowledge of what is involved in this growing truancy if the newspaper reports are to be believed, and the extract I quoted from the Yorkshire newspaper is vital. It is not the only factor, but is one part of the story. Undoubtedly there is concern about the type of schooling that is to be provided in this extra school year.

Why was the Minister's answer to my Parliamentary Question a blunt "No"? It was a blunt answer from the blunt end of the educational system. But those at the sharp end, the teachers, the welfare officers and those who have to deal with the matter from day to day will not be satisfied. The purpose of my request for this debate is to ask the Minister what his Department is doing about this matter. Everybody else seems to be concerned about it, and a straight "No" from the Department is not good enough.

10.23 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

It is a valuable exercise that we should be allowed these few moments in which to talk about a subject that is of enormous importance. I shall do my best to answer as completely as I can the questions which have been so persuasively raised by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees). We are certainly not divided about the importance of this matter, though we might conceivably find that there is a difference in emphasis as to the way in which we should tackle it.

The hon. Gentleman said that we need the facts. It is true that there is a certain weakness—though I believe the strengths are infinitely greater—about our partnership system in that we do not centralise statistical information about the entirety of our educational system. I believe that the strengths of this are much greater than the weaknesses.

It is true that we at the centre do not send out requests for statistics on every aspect of our education service. I can see in the House a former headmaster who I am sure will confirm that headmasters and headmistresses in our education service feel that they have, if anything, to deal with too many returns rather than too few, and we are asked constantly not to request information of this kind, since its provision would take up a very great deal of time. That is one but only one reason why we do not search out information of this kind.

We all recognise that the causes and the backgrounds of truancy can be so many and varied that some kind of central statistical analysis would be a very difficult matter. That is not to say that, at the centre, we are disinterested. I have before me at the moment one of the standard works on the subject by a distinguished author who, to my pleasure, since writing that book has become one of Her Majesty's Inspectors and is available to my right hon. Friend for advice and guidance. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has benefited from this work, as I have.

The overall impression from the literature and inquiries available is to confirm what the hon. Gentleman said. The patterns of school attendance have probably changed very little in the last 10 years. Such evidence as there is suggests that real truancy accounts for only a very small proportion of absences from school, I put it at about 2 per cent.

As the hon. Gentleman said, like Dr. Joad, it depends what one means by "truancy". I define "truancy" as absence from school on the initiative of the child with or without the knowledge of the parent. I feel that the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important point when he says that numerically as great a problem—it could be even a greater one—is that of the children who are kept away from school on the initiative of their parents. This may be one of the newer features in our education service. However truancy is defined, I do not question that it is possible to point to individual areas and even to individual schools where there is an obvious increase of absenteeism of one sort or another outside the general range.

I want to establish at the outset that I take this matter seriously. The fact that it is taking place at all obviously derives from broken homes, unhappy homes, unstable homes, irresponsible parents—of whom there are some, alas—emotional disturbance in the home, and so on, which have a major effect upon the children concerned.

In the nature of our education service, I believe that this points to local action in the light of the circumstances of the area, of the school and of the family. I hope that the greater co-ordination available to local authority social services which come into force under the Local Authority Social Services Act, 1970, will provide a framework within which we can work more effectively. The body responsible for enforcing school attendance remains the local education authority, including in the extreme case the duty of considering whether to prosecute. If the authority considers under the Children and Young Persons Act. 1969, that there is a need for care and control which will not be available unless the court makes an appropriate order, it can apply for an order.

However the local authority organises its social services—I am not entering tonight into the controversial question of how the authority should organise its social services—it is obvious that we need the closest possible co-operation between the schools, the education welfare services and the other relevant local services.

The hon. Gentleman hinged some of his remarks on to the undoubted problems which arise as a result of the raising of the school leaving age. It must be said, and it is understandable that it should be said, that when the upper school age is raised some schools may find that they have an additional problem in the presence of pupils who do not want to stay at school and who therefore may be tempted to stay away. It is obvious that where the present rate of staying on at school beyond the age of 15 is not particularly high, the potential problems may be greater.

I want to make quite clear how very grateful I am to have the hon. Gentleman's assistance. There is no possibility of the postponement of the basic decision to raise the school leaving age. I state simply that I do not think that there is any action available to Government which does more to give equality of opportunity to young people than this action.

It is possible to exaggerate the difficulties, but the hon. Gentleman was right in saying that there are problems. I want to state five positive approaches at the centre which I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find helpful in discussing this very important matter. I do not put them in order of priority.

First, the hon. Gentleman will know that for the age group we are discussing—those who will be brought into compulsory school age very shortly—a period of work experience is often of enormous assistance and a period organised by schools in industrial and other undertakings contributes enormously to meaningful secondary education. As the law stands, there is a real difficulty which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has stated publicly that in consultation with her colleagues principally involved she wishes to deal with.

I ask the hon. Gentleman's assistance. One of the principal difficulties is opposition by the T.U.C. I am not making a party point about this. I simply state it and I can understand it. It is possible that the hon. Gentleman could help. I believe it to be mistaken opposition, though I respect it and accept that it is sincere. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends with their contacts could assist, this could genuinely be of very material advantage.

Second, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the chosen instrument for central activity on curriculum development is the Schools Council, because under our system the Secretary of State—quite rightly—does not control the curriculum. At its very first meeting in 1964 the Schools Council decided to give high priority to activity in curriculum development in preparation for raising the school leaving age. That is why much of its work has been directed towards revision of the secondary school curriculum, with the needs of the young school leaver particularly in mind. I hope that this in itself shows the urgency of the matter.

Third, we at the Department have our own modest programme—we are initiators in this matter—of short courses for in-service training of teachers. Regional courses have also been organised. The hon. Gentleman represents part of the great city of Leeds. There is one organised by the Leeds Institute of Education. Local education authorities, through teacher centres, are helping teachers to prepare themselves for the real problems of the raising of the school leaving age. The B.B.C. has plans for substantial radio and television programmes during 1972 designed as a basis for local discussions and to assist local developments.

Fourth, major building projects to provide accommodation for the extra pupils will be provided in 1970–73. I give the fullest possible credit here to the last Government. A building bulletin which they published gave practical suggestions on the range of buildings which may be appropriate.

Fifth, the hon. Gentleman mentioned a circular which my right hon. Friend intends to issue, giving advice and information about the implications of raising the age. We do not assume the rôle of a centralised collector of statistics. I doubt whether a centralised inquiry based on the Department is the right way of going forward, when so much is based on the areas. I have sought to put forward five positive points.

I should like to recall some words in the Ministry of Education's annual report in 1948 about the raising of the school leaving age in 1947: On the whole, the picture is encouraging … the only safe generalisation is that the success or failure of the extra year depended in each school more on the quality of the head and assistant staff than on all the other factors combined. Wherever the teachers showed energy and initiative in providing for the older children, the year was a success, whatever the material obstacles. Where these qualities were lacking, the year was largely wasted and the children themselves were resentful and frustrated. If I have concentrated on the raising of the school leaving age, it is because it is in this connection that the problems of truancy comes particularly to people's minds. The problems and material obstacles are infinitely less this time owing to the preparations and care of successive Governments.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.