HC Deb 11 April 2000 vol 348 cc340-6

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

1.25 am
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Although the hour is late and many people are going home to bed, this is an important Adjournment debate because it touches on one of the most important issues affecting our schools and the Government's attempts to raise educational achievement.

I should start by declaring an interest as a member of the National Union of Teachers. Before I address the main topic of the debate, I want to set the context because it is important to realise that we have a Government who are committed to the education of our children and determined to put more money into our schools to raise achievement and to introduce policies that will improve standards. In particular, we can see the success that the numeracy and literacy strategies have had over the past two and a half years. They have started to have an impact on the quality of education that primary school children are receiving.

I praise our teaching profession. It is important that the debate sends out the message that we recognise the tremendous work done by the vast majority of our teachers, often in difficult circumstances. It is important to recognise that Ministers often acknowledge that. They are often criticised for not praising teachers but, when they do so, it is not reported as widely as when they sometimes say that there are challenges to be met. The majority of members of our teaching profession are doing an extremely good job.

The important point at the heart of the Government's policies is that they are tackling the social exclusion in many of our communities. They are prepared to take on social exclusion, and not to duck the issue.

In their agenda of raising achievement, the Government face the challenge of the disaffection of a sizeable number of young people which is evident in our classrooms. All hon. Members will have heard examples of that from our constituents. Poor behaviour includes shouting out in class, kicking out, fights that teachers are expected to break up, vandalism, intimidation of staff, increasing numbers of attacks of staff and serious verbal abuse that constantly challenges and undermines teachers and the school's authority. There is a basic refusal to co-operate.

It is important to recognise the difficulties and stress experienced by teachers who are trying to teach a group of children but who do not have the basic standard of behaviour or the teaching environment that we would want them to have. Unfortunately, when schools try to get the support of parents in dealing with poor behaviour, a small number of parents not only refuse to support the school but join in the undermining of its authority.

Recently, we have seen evidence of that from the National Association of Head Teachers, which pointed out that increasing numbers of parents challenge what is happening in schools. It is important to acknowledge that parents have a right to know what is happening and to ask questions but, where children and young people are challenging the school's authority, some parents support that. That is a crucial issue, because if we cannot address the poor behaviour and social disaffection in our schools, we will not prevent the massive exodus of pupils from many of our cities.

In my own city, Nottingham, as hard as some of our schools work, people flood out of the city to the suburbs, where they believe that they will find a better education for their children. However, it is not only an inner-city problem: in other areas, people try to avoid problem schools.

To illustrate the scale of the problem, I shall quote from "Young People", the social exclusion report published last week by policy action team 12. Each year, one in 16 young people—almost 40,000—leave school without qualifications; of those, 80 per cent. were not entered for examinations. In England and Wales, more than 30,000 children in year 11 truant for days or weeks at a time; in England, about 60,000 truant at least once a week. There are 1,500 permanent exclusions from primary schools and 11,500 from secondary schools each year; and, at any one time, more than 150,000 young people are out of school on fixed-term exclusions.

There has been a 400 per cent. increase in permanent exclusions from primary schools since 1990–91, although the rate has been stable since 1995. There has been a 350 per cent. increase in permanent exclusions from secondary schools since 1990–91, although, in the past year or so, there has been a small drop. Those massive figures reveal the scale of the challenge facing us.

The previous Government's answer and the reason for the huge rise was that everything should be left to the market—the market would deal with it through the mechanism of parental choice. In fact, schools pushed out children who caused problems and we witnessed the creation of sink schools and a two-tier education system. This Government will not tolerate that and we will not allow sink schools. We want the best for all pupils in all areas.

We cannot simply tell schools to stop excluding pupils. We have to establish a framework to support schools and teachers as they try to deal with the problems. If we are to raise standards, teachers must be able to teach in an effective learning environment, and pupils must be able to learn. We cannot allow a small minority to deprive the majority in the classroom of their entitlement to an education. Parents understand the problems that some individual pupils have, but their view is that those problems must not be dealt with at the expense of the minority of pupils and in a way that undermines the authority of teachers.

Effective head teachers, good management and good-quality staff are key factors, but so are better training and implementation of sound policies to tackle the problems. If fresh start initiatives, city academies and our efforts to raise the achievement of all pupils in all schools in all areas are to succeed, we have to meet the challenge head on. In addition to improving teachers' training in dealing with difficult situations, we have to increase the number of learning support units in schools.

We should not underestimate the extent of the problem. There are problems with a small number of pupils not only in the inner cities, but in almost all our schools. If we are serious about raising standards right across the ability range, learning support units must be available to every school, whether they are provided in the school or whether schools have a collaborative arrangement. Every school in the country needs access to a learning support unit.

Pupils who are persistently disruptive or violent and who simply refuse to co-operate need a learning support unit off-site, not as a dumping ground—that was the policy of the Conservatives, who were prepared to throw difficult pupils out and were not worried where they went—but as a unit where an alternative curriculum can be offered and individual counselling can take place, with the aim of re-integrating those young people back into mainstream education. The objective should be their return to ordinary classrooms when they have learned to act in a way that is consistent with effective learning.

If we set up a system of learning support units across the country, that would make a real difference not only to the education of the young people concerned, but to the morale of the teaching profession, who would see the Government acting to support teachers in their schools.

There is an issue for society as well as for Government. One of the main problems in our schools and in society is that there has been an erosion of respect for what I call legitimate authority, whether that is represented by a police officer or a teacher. As a Government, we need to consider how we can restore legitimate authority to schools, head teachers and teachers, so that we get back the respect that many of us remember from our school days. Our parents often told us about the respect that the school teacher enjoyed in the community.

All parents want and demand decent education for their children. If we can start to restore authority to the teaching profession, we will have done a great service to the country. We must do that by working with parents and local authorities. We must lay down what is acceptable and hold to it, even when the rules and standards of behaviour in a school are challenged.

It is up to us as a Government to send out a clear message to our teachers and schools that, where they are sensibly implementing standards of behaviour and codes of conduct in a school which are designed to create an effective learning environment and to provide teachers and schools with the authority that they need, the Government will support them. We must reiterate that to teachers.

When I was a deputy head teacher and we had to enforce the uniform code, there were parents who asked why their children should wear a uniform to school and challenged our authority to impose a uniform. We must support schools in such circumstances. If a school has determined with parents that a school uniform and certain codes of behaviour are required, that should be respected by those who attend the school. If we do not enforce that, it will undermine the authority of the teacher and the school, and their efforts to create a learning environment.

The Government are concerned about rights for individuals, and also about responsibilities. They have an agenda to raise achievement, to put more resources into schools and to modernise the comprehensive principle. If we ensure that we create in all our schools—rural, inner city or suburban—the learning environment that is essential to achievement by all our pupils, we will raise achievement right across the spectrum of ability.

What a radical, hugely satisfying achievement that would be: city schools to which people flocked and to which, because they were beacons of excellence in their communities, they wanted to send their children. Education would play a part in regenerating communities that have been neglected for so long. We face that challenge. To meet it, we must recognise that teachers in many of our schools face genuine difficulties in tackling the challenging behaviour of some young people. If we support teachers, we can raise standards together.

1.40 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) for his thoughtful speech. Despite the lateness of the hour, we always have higher quality debates when hon. Members bring the benefit of experience—as my hon. Friend does—to them, or when they represent their constituents' interests in the same hard-working, conscientious way as my hon. Friend.

We are determined to raise standards for all pupils. Children get only one chance at school, and they and their teachers have the right not to have that chance disrupted by other pupils' behaviour. I hope that the debate will send that clear message. I strongly endorse my hon. Friend's commendation of our teachers' excellent work, in sometimes difficult and challenging circumstances, with difficult children. I hope that our debate will also convey that clear message.

We have an overall strategy for tackling poor behaviour and preventing exclusion. It is backed up by generous amounts of funding. The key to avoiding disaffection and disruption is early intervention and prevention through multi-agency working and partnership with parents.

How are we helping to achieve that? The Government have provided nearly £500 million over three years through the "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" grant for preventive work. Funding in 2000–01 will be £140 million—that is 110 per cent. higher than in 1999–2000. The requirement to devolve the grant to secondary schools in 2000–01 will offer schools throughout the country a better way of tackling developing problems at their root. My hon. Friend rightly suggested that that was important.

The money will be supported by the "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" guidance, which was sent to schools and local education authorities last July. It is important to stress that the guidance is a joint publication between the Department of Health, the Home Office and the social exclusion unit. That emphasises, as my hon. Friend did, the need for a joined-up approach to poor behaviour in schools, and the realisation that such problems are often closely linked to wider problems in the home and in society. It is essential that different agencies, for example, social services departments and youth offending teams as well as local education authorities and schools, work together effectively to tackle the problems that affect a child.

Schools and teachers are not responsible for social exclusion, but they have to deal with its effects every day. That is why Government policy on crime reduction, community renewal and developing parental skills and responsibilities has a key role to play. My hon. Friend has contributed to that through his proposals on curfews.

Teachers need and deserve practical support. That is why the guidance includes case studies and examples of good practice in managing poor behaviour. It recommends a range of practical strategies that have been shown to work, including, as my hon. Friend pointed out, in-school learning support units for disruptive pupils, which have been funded by the "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" grant. They provide separate, short-term teaching, which is tailored to the needs of difficult pupils while preventing disruption to normal classes and the need for exclusion. Research that the Department published last October shows that the units were successful in reducing exclusions and that they were also cost-effective.

The guidance also recommends innovative multi-agency pastoral support programmes. The pastoral support programme is a practical intervention to focus a school, together with support agencies, on early intervention for pupils at serious risk of permanent exclusion or criminal activity. It offers designated support when pupils have failed to respond to other interventions. The pupil should be set short-term targets broken down into fortnightly tasks and the PSP should be reviewed halfway through its agreed duration. That practical support is the background to our target to reduce exclusions and truancy.

The social exclusion unit report "Truancy and School Exclusion" sets targets to reduce truancy and exclusion by a third by 2002. We believe that our goal of raising standards is achievable only if children are in school and learning. However, that does not mean that exclusion can never be an option. We have never pretended that that is the case and recently confirmed that a head teacher can exclude a pupil for a serious offence—a violent incident, for example—without first needing to implement alternative strategies. As my hon. Friend said, head teachers must make the decisions about exclusions. There was no action or practical support under the previous Government and exclusions rose, but we are providing the support and the money for schools to be able to achieve that reduction.

Successive reports by Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools have found that most schools are orderly and that violence is fortunately rare. Our teachers and school managers deserve congratulations on that. Certain schools face greater than average problems of indiscipline or bullying and their teachers need additional advice and support. I agree with my hon. Friend that such problems occur especially, although not exclusively, in deprived inner-city areas. We have recognised the wider problems facing teachers and pupils and are putting more resources than ever before into on-site units for disruptive pupils.

In addition, we are supporting more work-related learning for 14 and 15-year-olds to reduce disaffection. The Department has funded 36 work-related learning projects at key stage 4, and early evidence shows that unauthorised absence rates have been reduced from above average to below. At a project in Leicester, a student who attended 49 per cent. of year 8 attended 97 per cent. of an off-site placement in year 11. We are putting many more learning mentors in secondary schools so that pupils who need help will get it to overcome barriers to their individual learning. There are early indications of the success of that strategy. For example, a learning mentor at a school in Southwark is involved in counselling, running programmes to improve behaviour, running a sports leadership award scheme for disaffected pupils and working closely with parents.

Our aim in those strategies is to tackle the causes of the problem, not to transfer it from one school to another or out on to the streets, as the previous Government were willing to do. That is why we are funding the learning mentors as well as the additional learning support units through the excellence in cities initiative. It currently operates in 24 local education authorities that form some of the most disadvantaged inner-city areas.

On 23 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced an expansion of the initiative to 21 new local education authorities from September and among the additional cities to be included are Nottingham, Leicester, Stoke-on-Trent and Hull. Aspects of the initiative will be piloted in primary schools in the existing inner-city areas. If our objective is early intervention, we should recognise that primary schools are affected as well.

Poor behaviour can also be a problem for other children. Bullying is a serious problem, and much of it goes unreported. It can seriously affect a child's emotional well-being and educational achievement. We attach a high priority to helping schools to prevent and combat bullying in all its forms, because there is no excuse for it. It is disruptive and intolerable, and should have no place in our schools. Since last September, schools have been required by law to have an anti-bullying policy. Further advice on bullying and harassment was contained in our "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" guidance.

We shall also shortly be launching a new anti-bullying initiative. We shall be updating and reissuing our anti-bullying pack for schools, and producing a video for them to use as a teaching resource to generate discussion of the problem. It will emphasise the simple but powerful message that pupils need not suffer in silence, but should speak out and let someone know. We may not be able to eliminate bullying completely, but everyone needs to work together to reduce and prevent it wherever possible. We should not allow the misery and disruption caused by bullying in our schools to go unchallenged; as my hon. Friend said, the stakes are too high in the context of our children's education and achievements.

We are also very concerned about the rate of unauthorised absence from school. My hon. Friend mentioned that as well. The 1999 Audit Commission report "Missing Out" showed very mixed approaches on the part of local education authorities to the tackling of truancy. Some performed very well, while others did less well. We need to respond to the challenge.

Schools themselves must actively discourage truancy, and they need support to be able to do that. Our guidance recommended that schools should report unauthorised absence to parents on the morning on which it occurs. That sometimes presents a practical challenge, but it has been shown to help in increasing attendance. We hope that the "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" money can be used for that purpose as well.

Following consultation on our "Tackling Truancy Together" strategy document last autumn, we recently announced that the level of fines for parents of truanting pupils would increase to level 4 of the national scale of penalties. That will, in particular, allow magistrates to require parents to attend court or risk arrest, and will give them more opportunity to emphasise the seriousness of the offence to parents. I agree with my hon. Friend that the community and parents have both a right to expect schools to deliver a high standard of education and a responsibility to ensure that children attend schools, and to support the policies implemented by them.

I do not minimise the task that teachers must perform in deciding on appropriate strategies for the management of pupils. I know my hon. Friend is aware of that, given his extensive experience in the teaching profession. Although the Department has provided detailed guidance, it is for heads and other teachers to apply it to the circumstances of their schools.

I agree with my hon. Friend that inexperienced teachers need training and help from more experienced teachers, although if experienced teachers occasionally experience difficulties they should not see that as a sign of personal failure. Initial teacher training should focus on issues of discipline, and how to tackle disaffection.

Because this is essentially a two-way process, my officials—with assistance from the National Children's Bureau, and other Government Departments—are currently involved in disseminating the key recommendations of "Social Inclusion: Pupil Support" guidance, in order to give schools and teachers the practical support and assistance that will enable them to cope with the problems.

We can lead as a Government by setting the framework, but we cannot do everything that is needed. We can provide the resources that are important, but in the end it will be for schools and local partners across the country to work together to achieve the goal of higher standards for our young people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Two o'clock.