HC Deb 01 March 1994 vol 238 cc765-7
1. Mr. Heald

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what steps he has taken to crack down on truancy following the publication of truancy levels in the recent school performance tables.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

My right hon. Friend recently announced a £14 million programme in 1994–95 to help schools and the wider community fight truancy. Eighty-six English local education authorities successfully applied for funds as part of the grants for education support and training—GEST—scheme. A similar programme has been supporting expenditure of some £9.6 million in 1993–94 on schemes proposed by 71 local education authorities.

Mr. Heald

I welcome that reply, but does my right hon. Friend—sorry, my hon. Friend accept that the educational and social consequences of truancy are disastrous for young people? Will he take even more action, first by encouraging the Office for Standards in Education to ensure that the figures submitted by schools are accurate and, secondly, by ensuring that local education authorities employ sufficient educational welfare officers to enforce the provisions?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend's second point is a matter for local education authorities, but I hope that the publication of truancy figures which we began this year will concentrate their minds sufficiently to deal with the problem properly. Ofsted will indeed be seeking to ensure that the returns produced by schools on truancy are correct. We must ensure that all young people of school age are in school where they should be, not only so that they are educated but so that they are kept out of trouble. Those who are not in school when they should be are likely to be getting into trouble, perhaps being pursued by drug pushers or becoming involved in petty crime. Truancy is unacceptable and we must stamp it out.

Mr. Pope

Is the Minister aware of the problems caused by people posing as social workers in order to gain access to children? Will he accept that schemes such as Truancy Watch are nothing but a gimmick, and a dangerous gimmick at that, and that, if the Government were serious about combating truancy, they would invest in more educational welfare officers and in better training and qualifications for them?

Mr. Forth

I am glad to say that that rather pathetic and disgraceful point of view is not shared by the Labour local education authorities which are queuing up to participate in the imaginative Truancy Watch scheme. The hon. Gentleman has apparently taken no account of the fact that in the area that pioneered the scheme juvenile crime during school hours has dropped by 50 per cent. in the first few months of the scheme. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his attitude because it will not gain him any friends.

2. Lady Olga Maitland

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what representations he has received regarding Truancy Watch.

Mr. Forth

One hundred and one schemes were suggested by local education authorities for inclusion in the 1994–95 truancy and disaffected pupils GEST programme. Half the 86 approved schemes include a Truancy Watch element along the lines of a pilot scheme currently operating in Staffordshire. A number of senior police officers and representatives of the business community have welcomed these schemes.

Lady Olga Maitland

May I give a warm welcome to what is clearly a very successful start for Truancy Watch? Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a result of the pilot scheme, juvenile crime has dropped by half? Does he agree that it is absolutely disgraceful that the civil rights organisation, Liberty, is telling children to stand up for their rights and ignore police requests to return to school? Should not children be in school, learning right from wrong and learning to respect authority, rather than cocking a snook at it?

Mr. Forth

It would be tempting to dismiss Liberty as a bunch of eccentric mischief-makers if what it was saying was not so serious. To encourage young people to stay away from school when they should be in school is a social scandal about which I hope the organisation is thoroughly apologetic. I hope that it will reconsider its advice, which does not reflect the widespread concern that I know exists about truancy. I am glad to say that most local education authorities are now very concerned about the problem, as evidenced by the number that have come forward with imaginative ideas to participate in my right hon. Friend's scheme, which is offering £14 million. I hope that everyone will co-operate in reducing truancy across the country.

Mr. Bradley

Will the Minister explain why, despite the success of truancy schemes in Manchester, no resources have been allocated to such schemes for the next financial year?

Mr. Forth

Yes. They produced a rotten bid.

Mr. Lord

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to reduce truancy is to make schools more attractive to pupils? May I urge him and the Secretary of State to reconsider the proposal to make team games compulsory, especially in secondary schools? Does he agree that team games are enjoyed enormously by most pupils and that even those who may not at first think that they would enjoy them often do so once they are involved?

Mr. Forth

Yes, the importance of team games is very much recognised by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister and by the Government as a whole. For precisely the reason that my hon. Friend has given, we must find the best and most satisfactory way of ensuring that everybody connected with schools—teachers, governors and pupils—is involved as far as possible in team games and in all other kinds of sport. I have great confidence that that will happen in future.