HC Deb 12 July 2002 vol 388 cc1181-216

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

11.56 am
Michael Fabricant

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have had an interesting statement from the Foreign Secretary, but have you received notice that the Home Secretary will make a statement today, given that we have just heard that the Government's crime policy has resulted in a 28 per cent. rise in crime and the lowest detection rates ever? That is a huge indictment of Government policy to be tough on crime and tough on causes of crime. The Foreign Secretary has come to the House, but where is the Home Secretary?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. I have not had any notice of that. The hon. Gentleman can make his comments at a more appropriate time.

11.57 am
Mr. Willis

As I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he opened the debate and for raising the issue of homophobic bullying. Contributions from Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), have focused on the value of education and what education is about. I do not know whether Members had a chance last night to see the interview between Michael Parkinson and Nelson Mandela in South Africa in connection with the sports aid programme. The interview was particularly interesting because it showed that Nelson Mandela and the South African people had a thirst for education that could not be satisfied. Our youngsters have access to what is arguably one of the world's highest quality education systems, despite its flaws, yet here we are, discussing how we can get them in and engage them, while in other parts of the world, particularly in southern Africa, tens of thousands of youngsters have no education at all and face an incredibly uncertain future.

Mr. Djanogly

It is interesting that we are filling our schools with foreign teachers because of the lack of our own. I note the enormous numbers that are coming over from South Africa. Given the hon. Gentleman's comments, that must be a problem for the South Africans.

Mr. Willis

I am grateful for that intervention. I have raised the same issue in the House on a number of occasions. It is deplorable that, because of appalling management of the teacher supply, we have to denude the countries of sub-Saharan Africa of teachers—countries where they are most needed—to make up our shortfall. I hope that the Government will return to the issue, but I shall not pursue it today.

As hon. Members know, I spent not just one year before I went to university, but 34 years in classrooms. Apart from four years when I was deputy head in a boys' grammar school, which, I am delighted to say, was becoming a comprehensive, all my time in education was spent at the sharp end, dealing with youngsters from challenging homes and circumstances. I say to the House in all humility that in all that time, the children did not change. They were exactly the same when I left teaching in 1997 as they were when I started in 1963. What changed was society around them. We should always try to get that in perspective.

There have always been disruptive and violent pupils in our schools; the idea that they have suddenly appeared over the past two or three years is nonsense. I met violent and disruptive pupils, and I met violent and disruptive parents. Although I was attacked only once by a violent parent, who hit me over the head with an umbrella, having ambushed me at the bottom of the stairs, I know that a number of my colleagues encountered real difficulties from time to time.

I should also say that I remember my very first day at school and a disruptive child aged five. The little boy was going off to Rosehill primary school. His mother had bought him a new coat, but it was raining when he went to school, so his old coat was put on top of his new coat. The teacher met him at the school gates, sent his mother away, took him inside and said, "Will you take your coat off?", to which the little boy said, "No. My mother says I have to keep it on to protect my new coat." The teacher grabbed hold of the child and shook him rather violently to get his coat off, at which point he stood on her foot rather violently and ran out of school.

Later that day, my father caused me to go back and make humble apologies, but the point of telling the tale is to illustrate that many children are temporarily involved in disruptive behaviour—a one-off incident, or a small incident. We must recognise that from time to time children growing up in all sorts of environments stray from the strait and narrow.

Michael Fabricant

The hon. Gentleman gives an interesting example and makes a powerful point, but does he accept that there is a difference between such an incident at a primary school, and one involving some hulking great brute of 17 years of age in a secondary school?

Mr. Willis

Of course. I merely wanted to show that we should not get incidents of disruptive behaviour out of perspective, and we should not believe that the problem is new; it is on-going. Sadly, what is new is that many youngsters today have an anarchistic view of authority: authority is there to be opposed. Many of their parents come with exactly the same view, whether towards school, the benefits office, the housing office or wherever.

I want to emphasise, and I hope that the Minister will accept, that we do not have a universal breakdown of discipline in our schools. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, who spoke for the Conservatives, gave some horrific examples, but they are exceptional. The vast majority of our schools do not have that awful problem.

We cannot look at school discipline without looking at the whole issue of discipline in society. As many hon. Members know, my daughter was attacked recently on the streets of Kennington, just for the sake of a mobile phone. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time and suffered a fairly brutal attack. That is becoming quite common. In one month in Lambeth and Brixton there were 17,000 such incidents. It is a major problem.

Let us consider the examples that our young people are given in, for example, popular television series such as "Men Behaving Badly" or even the one with those wonderful ladies, Joanna Lumley and co—

Mr. Pound

"Absolutely Fabulous".

Mr. Willis

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

There is a relish and glorification in the appalling behaviour depicted in those programmes, but in schools such behaviour is out of order. We now have a laddish culture on our streets. There was an appalling report of City brokers—highly educated young men and, I presume, young women—who trawl the sex bars of London and regard that as normal behaviour. They are as heavily involved in the drug culture as are the youth on our streets. Let us not simply think that the only people involved in the drug problem are youngsters in poor communities. That is nonsense and we must understand that.

It also horrifies me that the behaviour of footballers such as the two from Leeds United has been glorified. The club, which I support and have supported for many years, should have set an example by condemning such behaviour.

There is no doubt that discipline in schools is becoming worse and more polarised, as is evident from the number of exclusions, up 11 per cent. between 1999–2000 and 2000–01. I think that the Minister will accept that it was a gross mistake for the previous Secretary of State to have issued a target to reduce exclusions—that was a nonsense of a policy. Schools supported that, but discipline and heads' authority in schools was undermined.

The House should know that the greatest rise in permanent exclusions occurred under the previous Conservative Government. Between 1993 and 1998, permanent exclusions rose from 3,000 to 13,000, an increase of more than 400 per cent. Let us not give the impression, as Conservative Front Benchers sometimes do, that those exclusions are the result of the failure of this Government and of schools. They have been rising for many years, and that is something with which all of us, irrespective of our political persuasions, must deal.

The Keele university study has been referred to and I shall not repeat the statistics, but it was interesting because each year between 5,000 and 10,000 young people are interviewed about their attitudes. Poor behaviour in schools is creating a culture where it is de rigueur not to work and engage in the curriculum and in what the school wishes to achieve on behalf of young people. It is an increasingly worrying trend. The peer pressure is not to work and to fool around and to be one of the crowd. We must get to grips with that.

The NUT-Warwick university study produced some appalling statistics, to which it is right to draw attention, on the effect of poor behaviour on teachers and on what they have to put up with. If we want to support our teachers and schools, the Government must address such key issues head on. They must recognise the reality of working in a classroom and accept that every new initiative that is thrust down from on high, in relation to which teachers must perform like performing monkeys, undermines what they should be doing: tackling the relationships in a school. That is what they often cannot do.

I am pleased that Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, referred in two of his last reports to the deterioration of pupil behaviour. The problem might affect only one in 12 schools, but that is an enormous number. The consequence is that teachers want out, which is a problem for us all, but in many ways the real problem is that many of our youngsters cannot engage with the education process, as they cannot learn in a disruptive environment—a matter on which I am sure the whole House can unite.

I want now to turn to the analysis of the youngsters who are causing disruption in our schools—especially those who are being permanently excluded—and whether we can learn any lessons from it. On breaking down the statistics, we see that 83 per cent. of youngsters who were permanently excluded last year were boys, so it is significantly a boys' problem. Some 61 per cent. of those boys were aged 13, 14 or 15. There is an immediate challenge for the Government to consider what is happening to boys with challenging behaviour. The Government need to ask what is being taught and what they are doing in relation to the curriculum to say to those boys that it is far better to mess about, be permanently excluded and get out of the system than to engage with schools.

More worrying is the fact that children with special educational needs are seven times more likely than any other child to be excluded from school. Those with emotional and behavioural needs are especially affected. I applaud both the previous and the current Governments for the work that they have done in respect of special educational needs—a comment that I frequently make in the House, as that work is a credit to those on both sides of the Chamber—but we have not got it right. We now have an inclusion policy that I support with all my heart, but we are finding that the children whom we are including, who have emotional and behavioural difficulties, are the very ones who are being turfed out because schools cannot handle them and do not have the strategies to enable them to do so. One cannot teach these youngsters in groups of 30 or 35; it is just not possible for a teacher to engage with them in such circumstances. That is a lesson that the Government must try to learn.

Before the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) became so excited that he had to leave the Chamber, he mentioned the ethnic minority issue, but I was hoping that he would go a little further. It is all right to say that there are problems in engaging with young people from ethnic minorities who speak another language, but it is utterly wrong to say that children from such backgrounds do not want to learn English. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that that is the case. I accept that such evidence exists in respect of parents, although it applies to a very small number of them, but the children have a thirst to learn English. The fact that most of those youngsters are bilingual—indeed, some are trilingual—is a huge compliment to them.

The ethnic minority group that poses a real problem is Afro-Caribbeans. The expulsion rate of Afro-Caribbean youngsters is 38 in every 10,000 children, making them the largest ethnic group of youngsters who are being permanently excluded. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) recently made a number of very challenging statements to the Government in asking how we should deal with black students, but I do not believe that they engaged with her comments. It is not that the Afro-Caribbean community does not want its kids not to be educated or involved in society, but that the schooling system that we are offering and the culture in many of our schools is totally alien to its youngsters. We have got to address some of those problems.

Michael Fabricant

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising that point. There is a genuine problem with some of the ethnic groups in our society. Some perform far better than white caucasians, but the problems must be tackled. So many Members of Parliament and others, even the Government, do not deal with them because of the tyranny of political correctness.

Mr. Willis

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman made that intervention because I was trying to make an important point about analysing the problem, not suggesting simple solutions. We have all failed to tackle the problem in the past. That includes previous Conservative Governments. It is now time to act.

I want to consider in more detail the youngsters who are being turfed out of our schools and permanently excluded. Evidence from the Youth Justice cohort study in 2002 was published in March this year. It showed that permanently excluded students were less likely than school pupils to live in a two-parent household—47 per cent., compared with 79 per cent. Permanently excluded students are far more likely to live in a single-parent household; 40 per cent. are in that category. Thirteen per cent. of such students live in a household with no parent or step-parent; many are in care. It is a major problem that many of our most disadvantaged youngsters, who are in care, are more likely to be excluded.

We must acknowledge that excluded children are often concentrated in specific sorts of schools in particular sorts of communities. We often discuss grammar schools, but I point out to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that such children do not come from grammar schools; 84 per cent. come from community schools, where the number of pupils who receive free school meals is three times higher than the average. They come from schools where twice as many pupils as the average are on the SEN register and have statements, and from schools that have three times the average level of unauthorised absences. Such schools have three times the average number of permanently excluded pupils.

Although we must consider specific categories of schools, we should tackle one issue perhaps above all others. I say that while acknowledging that the Minister has a genuine feel for young people and the circumstances that we are discussing. I have met many disruptive youngsters, but I have not met any who did not hate themselves more than the people against whom their behaviour was directed. They have an appalling self-image. That applies increasingly to many ethnic minority communities. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) referred to that at the weekend. There is a major problem of self-image and the way in which society perceives those students. Unless we can make young people feel good about themselves, they will not engage with education, society or end their offending or disruptive behaviour. Who is to blame?

Mr. Brady

I want to explore that issue further. From the hon. Gentleman's extensive teaching experience, does he agree that pupils, especially boys, who, he says, constitute the majority of excluded pupils, need to know the boundaries to be happy and confident? They need to know the limits and they require good discipline. In a school where discipline works, children can learn in a happy, confident environment.

Mr. Willis

I could not agree more. Knowing the boundaries within which we have to work is crucial, whether in the home, the youth club, the local football team or at school—but may I add a rider to that? When I began teaching, it was easy to go into a classroom and set out the boundaries. By and large, youngsters met those criteria, and their parents did so as well. Today, that is not the case. Now, we have to negotiate with young people in terms of agreeing the boundaries, and, more importantly, we have to bring their parents along to agree to them, too. According to the clock, I have been going for nearly two hours now, but before I finish, I want to say that that is a real issue, and I might come back to it a little later.

Who is to blame? If I am honest, I have to say that I do not blame anybody. I do not blame any party in government, although some of this Government's present policies are not helping to deal with this problem, despite being well-intentioned. The Secretary of State has now said that she wants to get rid of the one-size-fits-all comprehensive school, but I think that that is the wrong tack. Instead, we should get rid of the one-size-fits-all curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all testing regime and examination system—the way in which we make our schools conform to a centralist agenda.

That conformity has been occurring, with respect, since the great reform Bill of 1988. It is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that is hampering schools' ability to deal with problems. With respect to most hon. Members present today, most of us have been reasonably successful when we have had a test put in front of us. We might not have done so early on and instead achieved our success later, but we have none the less been reasonably successful. A public policy research paper in 2001 identified one of the biggest rises in illness among young people as being in the incidence of mental health problems. Much of that is associated with the pressure of testing.

I want to make it clear that neither I nor my party is opposed to testing, but the Government must seriously address the fact that the whole education system is geared to testing. That is now its purpose: not to educate but to test. On average, youngsters will take as many as 68 formal exams between starting school as five-year-olds and leaving at 18. Most of those exams are not diagnostic tests to determine how to improve performance; they are simply hurdles. If youngsters do not get over those hurdles, the message that goes out to them is that they have failed.

We now have level 4 for English, maths and science at the end of key stage 2 as a target. For a significant number of the youngsters whom we are talking about, who exhibit poor discipline and poor behaviour in school, one of the problems is that they cannot cope with what is going on; yet they know that, a year later, they will be faced with the next barrier, and that if they do not get over that, the reward will be to have more of the same. In secondary schools, year 7 children who fail to get their level 4 standard assessment tests in English are now getting a booster programme that involves their doing what they were doing the year before in primary school.

I say to the Minister that that is genuinely well-intentioned, but it is not addressing the needs of the children. I want him to intervene on me at this point, and to tell me what a subordinate clause is. I move on. I suspect that, if I looked round the House now and asked all hon. Members to give me a definition of a subordinate clause, and to tell me when they would use it and when it was useful, they would struggle.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

It is not a main clause.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman, quick as a flash, says that it is not a main clause, but it would be worth hon. Members' going into a school next week and asking the teachers how they teach subordinate clauses to children who fail, who have not got level 2 English.

My point is that we constantly teach for tests rather than teaching children what they need to know and the skills they need to be able to function.

Michael Fabricant

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis

In a moment; I am getting excited about the subject.

If hon. Members are telling me that authors such as Roald Dahl, who wrote wonderful children's books, and the people who wrote the Harry Potter books and the book on which "Kes" was based sat down and said, "How do I get a subordinate clause into this?", that is nonsense. We must teach youngsters a love of language. Of course they need skills and fluidity, but our strict testing regime is driving those out.

Michael Fabricant

I totally agree, although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that it is important for people to understand grammar. I have heard even my great colleague who sits on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, use the words "between you and I". We all know that the preposition takes the accusative, but the question—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should relate his remarks to the debate, which is on behaviour improvement in schools.

Michael Fabricant


Mr. Willis

I take your hint and I shall move on, Madam Deputy Speaker.

There is poor discipline in schools because children are not coping with the diet that has been offered to them. That is a valid point, which I hope is raised in the winding-up speeches. Yesterday, the Science and Technology Committee published a report on science teaching in schools, which all Members should read. One comment is that course work is tedious and dull; I have heard that endlessly from youngsters. Other comments are that it does not engage youngsters in topical debate and that teachers slog through completely pointless practical lessons. Our Select Committee is saying that about secondary school science teaching—a key subject area—so there is work to be done there.

What can we do? I take my hat off to the Minister and his colleagues for putting in resources, recognising problems and trying to tackle them, but they are not tackling the key issues. We must free schools up so that we do not have this endless conveyor belt of exams and testing. We must free schools up so that they can innovate on the curriculum; the Education Bill is attempting to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and I—we are still at one on the issue, I think—genuinely believe that the schools that most need to innovate will not he given the powers to achieve that, as they would not pass the other tests. Furthermore, the schools that most want autonomy will not get it, because they, too, would not pass the tests. I hope that the Minister makes it clear that the very schools that we are talking about—those that need to engage with some of the most disruptive children—must be given the greatest freedom to innovate, act autonomously and devise new methodology.

Above all, we must give our schools time. For many of the youngsters to whom I referred earlier, who often come from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, school is the place where there is some stability, and they need that more than anything else. School is the place where someone engages with them and has time for them. Of course, that is important.

I worked in Chapeltown in Leeds in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a hugely dysfunctional community and there were 26 nationalities on the roll. There was a violent atmosphere in Chapeltown then, including tremendous hostility towards the police. I worked with an inspirational head, who said to us, "Your job is to be out in the homes as well as in school so that you can engage with parents and not simply expect them to come to you." We operated with vertical tutor groups and people also came to the schools. We must do that today.

The management of exclusions must be dealt with. I worry about the Conservative policy of simply saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." The Conservatives think that if they get the children out, the problem will be solved. I accept that that is not totally fair, but it appears to be the case. It may be good for a headline to say, "Let us support schools by getting the kids out." However, I say to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that a child excluded from a school is not excluded from the community. The child remains and has to be dealt with in the community. It is crucial that we adopt strategies to deal with that.

I commend to the Minister the strategy that came from Toronto and is now operating in Slough of a no-exclusion policy. There is an exclusion-free zone, the principle of which is that we do not wait for a situation to arise whereby a child is permanently excluded, as that reinforces offending behaviour and negative imagery. Instead, we manage transfer before that occurs. One must put into place, with local authorities, rapid responses, so that a head knows that there is somewhere for a child to go if the situation is about to explode. The head knows that there will be support in terms of case conferences within five working days, and not five weeks, which is often the case with many local authorities.

Exclusion is an issue not only for schools, but for the whole of society. I implore the Government not to seek simple solutions to complex problems. They must look for comprehensive solutions to take communities, parents and, most of all, young people with them.

12.31 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

It is always disconcerting to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as I nearly always agree with most of what he has to say. He anticipated many of my points, although I differ from him—in emphasis, certainly—on exclusions.

My wife is the head of an urban comprehensive in Skelmersdale and the convenor of an excellence cluster in the town. As I am liable to say good things about the excellence cluster, the school and my wife, I ought to declare a sort of interest.

Mr. Pound

It is self-preservation.

Mr. Pickthall

That is right.

I began my working life as a teacher in Kirkby in Merseyside, in what was then the largest secondary school in Europe. Every moment of that experience—although it was nowhere near as long as that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, if a lot longer than that of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—is etched on my memory. However, that was more than 30 years ago. I must take care not to analyse the present situation with behaviour in schools as though it were the 1960s or 1970s. The debate on behaviour in schools has been bedevilled in recent years by the comparison between "then"—whenever that was—and now. Society has changed enormously in those years, and the norms of people's lives and behaviour have changed.

Family structures have changed dramatically, and not enough research has been done on that. I was dealing with a family last week—a perfectly decent family with six children. Two of the children were the father's, but not the female partner's; two were the mother's but not the male partner's; and two belonged to both partners. Such a "step-sibling" situation is very common and has tensions of its own, with difficulties that are transferred into schools and elsewhere. That situation is multiplied again and again in my constituency, and everybody else's.

Schools have a peculiar place in society. On the one hand, they are isolated—almost all schools these days are surrounded by huge security fences and have CCTV. Some hon. Members may have read a novel by Graham Greene called "It's a Battlefield", in which he describes a school, a factory and a prison in the town in such a way that the reader cannot tell the difference between them.

Although schools are isolated from society, they are also integrated, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough described. Parents are invited into schools, and schools invite themselves into homes. Schools are connected to their local towns and villages through a network of partnerships and other agencies.

Many of the problems of bad behaviour and violence occur when students, especially secondary school students, are going to and from school, such as on bus journeys. Bullies wait outside school gates for their victims. At those points of movement, the responsibilities and obligations of teachers and head teachers are less clear and more complex, and sometimes more dangerous. They may sometimes be in peril, as in the case of the unfortunate head teacher who was stabbed to death a few years ago when he tried to stop a bullying incident outside his school.

It is important for schools to invite parents into the school, but on occasions they are inviting trouble. I may be stretching the parameters of the debate, which is about the behaviour of pupils and students, but I believe that it should also be about parental behaviour. These days, parents are more legalistic. They are encouraged to take legal action—looking for compo—when the slightest thing goes wrong in their lives.

More parents now automatically take the side of their son or daughter in a dispute with the school, even though they know that the child is wrong. More parents are prepared to be psychologically, verbally and sometimes physically aggressive towards reception staff. To defend reception staff as much as anything else, schools have complex systems of bells and alarms which people—even the local MP or policeman—have to ring to get into the building. More parents use violent language and violent threats against teachers and heads—and even against students, the children of their neighbours. Parents are more prepared to participate in their children's quarrels with other children, instead of letting them sort things out for themselves. They are sometimes violent towards their partner's children or their stepchildren. More males are prepared to be violent and aggressive towards female teachers.

I list those incidents, because they are known to the children in the school and highlight the vulnerability of teachers. Youngsters who are inclined to be unto-operative see that their teachers are vulnerable to such threats. Such incidents also reveal the lack of consequences for the perpetrator against whom no action is taken. They set an example for everyone in the school. That is frightening, but I do not know what the answer is. I am describing a problem that I see every day, but I do not know what the Government can do to sort it out, although I welcome their recent strong words.

My strongest assertion is that none of us should tolerate verbal, psychological or physical abuse directed towards school staff or children by parents. Our assumption—the school's assumption; the local authority's assumption—should be that such behaviour cannot be tolerated, and that those responsible will be prosecuted. It is no good shrugging it off and hoping that it will not happen again, because these people do not go away for good; they come back.

Ministers have made strong statements about parents' violence towards those in schools, but I think much sterner action is needed. Schools are entitled to a much closer relationship with the police. Indeed, it occurs to me that perhaps secondary schools, at least, should have a police officer on their governing bodies, not just for their own benefit, but to give the police a better idea of what schools must put up with. Some students who have been excluded keep returning to the school gates and trying to get into the school to harass staff or other students. They should expect arrest and prosecution. I would not have said that 10 or 15 years ago; the iron is entering my soul increasingly in this context.

What I have described does not, of course, happen daily in every school. It would be crazy to suggest that. Very few adults behave in such a way—but it takes only one such incident to destroy a school's confidence and knock it off course, and to destroy its reputation in the local community. That reputation is a precious thing nowadays, as school intakes rise and fall according to rumour. Episodes are reported in newspapers, and in the towns I represent rumours seem to get around in 10 minutes—and to be embellished in the process.

I can think of no other job that requires a woman or a man to stand in front of large groups of young people for hour after hour. That is certainly not our experience today: we are standing in front of rows of empty Benches. When I think of doing that day after day, year after year, for 40 years, my heart sinks. I did it for a few years, and was happy to get out after that. Those young people often do not want to be there. There are young people in secondary schools whose hormones are popping. The teacher must stand there and, through sheer force of character—but mostly through sheer bluff—stay sane, keep the young people happy and keep them learning. It is, in fact, an impossible task.

I am more and more convinced that teaching depends entirely on bluff. Somehow, the teacher must keep the bluff going, because once a kid realises he can call the teacher's bluff, the teacher is dead and gone: all the others will realise that the bluff does not work any more. That applies to some of the children others have described today. However skilled the teacher is by nature and through training, he and his students know that it only takes one nutter. If one person is prepared to call the bluff, everything begins to collapse.

Each school must have its own boundaries—the invisible boundaries that separate mischief, cheek, rumbustious behaviour and the one-off incidents described by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough from disruptive and destructive behaviour. They will vary from school to school. I said that I would not use examples from my own dim and distant teaching past, but I think that one is very relevant.

When I started teaching—I taught English—it struck me as odd that children of 13, 14 and 15 were expected to sit down all day, except when they were engaging in games or other enjoyable pursuits. If they were learning English or history, they were expected to sit. It seemed unnatural that pupils should be expected to sit down for 40 minutes, or an hour and 20 minutes for a double period, to write or to do an exercise, so I did not mind if the kids stood up and walked around, even if they talked to their fellow pupils, so long as it was constructive and they were working. They could stand up and work on the window sills or whatever. Other teachers in the school did not allow that. They wanted pupils to sit down so that they knew where they were. They had to sit at the same desks so that the teacher could remember their names.

Every school, perhaps every teacher, has different boundaries, but given schools' clear contracts with students about what those boundaries are—they have clear contracts now—schools should be prepared to exercise the clear right to remove students whose behaviour is preventing their peers from being educated and who are destroying the bluff, as I have called it.

Over the past 10 years—I am critical of my own Government as well as Conservative Governments for this—the messages that Governments have put out on exclusion have fluctuated. Schools and communities do not know where they are. The message should be clear and consistent. It should support the school's right to exclude on the ground of unacceptable behaviour. It should be the school's decision—it cannot be decided by central Government—what unacceptable behaviour is.

Once a pupil has been excluded, the problems increase. There are difficulties with admissions of excluded pupils to other schools. In some local authorities, the county schools are obliged to take on pupils excluded by other schools, but some schools do not do so. I will not mention any names because it would be invidious. I have been trying to do something about it. Some schools in Lancashire will not under any circumstances accept any student who has been excluded from another school, but exclude their own pupils from time to time and expect the rest of the school community to pick up the tab.

Home tuition does not work; it has never worked. It has always been a mess, insufficient and slipshod. Schools have their own policies to deal with the problem, usually before it gets to exclusion, but we need more PRUs. They work if they are run properly. I know that the Minister is looking at exclusion from day one, and getting the young person back into a proper curriculum and a proper environment. It has to be like that, but PRUs have to be everywhere. All communities must have access to them. That is not the case at the moment.

So far, I have spoken about how we deal with social failure, but schools do have positive and assertive discipline programmes. They have systems to try to instil class self-discipline. We need to think in such positive terms as well as analysing the negative things that are going on. We must be tough on unacceptable behaviour and tough on the causes of unacceptable behaviour.

I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. We find ourselves wandering into a culture where it is desirable, acceptable and cool not to work. That is not just the case in schools. When I taught in higher education, I knew that students were working like the devil at night, and they would pretend to their friends that they had not done any work at all because it was cool not to work. However, it is more the case among children.

We indulge our children from the earliest days. We indulge them with consumer goods and by giving in to their demands. It is so hard to expect children to change their habits once they go into the classroom if they have got their own way at home; they cannot. I suggest that we fail our children in that respect. We expect schools to patch up the sorry mess that we, as parents and communities, have created. When my children were growing up I was guilty of this, too. We shove our kids in front of the television so that we can get a bit of peace and quiet and so that we do not have to bother talking to them. When they get bored with the television they go upstairs and look at the computer screen. They spend half their time looking at screens and when they go to school they look at more screens as they are shown endless videos and have to work on computers. The amount of decent human interaction between adults and children has been shrinking for a long time at school just as it has at home.

We give children mobile phones because we cannot think of anything else to give them for Christmas. They take them to school where they are obliged to switch them off. However, I have had more than one incident reported to me by teachers of a teacher telling a child off for misbehaviour and the child phoning his mum. Ten minutes later the mum arrives at school and starts berating the staff.

I do not have time to go into detail as I want to conclude my remarks, but there are huge problems with special educational needs. I note what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said in congratulating the work of successive Governments on special educational needs, but it is far short of what is needed. Vast numbers of new cases of dyslexia and dyspraxia seem to be emerging from the darkness and we are slow to tackle a wide range of disabilities. For years, kids do not find out that they have a disability which has not been detected or assessed. When it is assessed, the processes for dealing with it are very slow. Such children often need one-to-one tuition which is very expensive and local education authorities are reluctant to spend piles of money which they do not have. However, these problems produce extra unacceptable behaviour for which the kids cannot be blamed. Nevertheless, it has to be addressed.

Special educational needs require more resources. I hate to say that as it is not the answer to everything. Local education authorities need to take a more intelligent approach.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Is it not the case that parents often become frustrated because they cannot get resources or statementing for their children? Parents are a community and talk to each other and those who are upset with the system help to draw down the perceptions of other parents of the education system and the schools because they are not getting the essential resources that their children need.

Mr. Pickthall

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have all had constituents come to us in torment because they cannot access the right facilities for their child. They see their child's education disappearing down the drain for months and years until something is done. That time can never be made up. When I meet constituents in that situation, I feel that if I were in their place I would be prepared to tear the local authority to pieces to get the right resources for my child.

We need joined-up action between local education authorities and the police service to tackle severe misbehaviour. We need much more research into the self-discipline of the classroom. In the past, if a disrupter became more than a little nuisance the class would sort it out somehow because most of the class wanted to work. We need to address the reasons why that discipline breaks down. We need much more support for teachers who are ashamed, frightened and, in the case of men perhaps, a little emasculated when they find themselves being challenged by young children. They are ashamed to report it, so they hide it and try to cover it up, and it has to be discovered from outside.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said earlier, we also need sure start. That brilliant programme operates in the most deprived ward in my constituency, Skelmersdale, where it is doing some tremendous work. One can feel the difference. A home start programme also operates throughout the constituency, with volunteers looking after people with small babies in deprived or neglected areas.

Many of those solutions need to be strung together. Misbehaviour in schools is a serious problem and it is no good hiding from it. No matter how much we work on understanding the problem, finding out where it comes from and the many reasons for it, we must concentrate resources and energy in all sorts of areas, which I and others in the debate have identified, so that the lives of perfectly ordinary, decent kids and their education are not disrupted by half a dozen baddies who can destroy an entire school.

12.56 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I am pleased to take part in this interesting debate on what is clearly a complex issue. It is as important to consider the reasons for behavioural problems in schools as what we should do about them.

I do not accept that the problem can simply be blamed on modern-day society. That is much too superficial a way to approach the subject. Nor do I have much sympathy with those who blame pupils' bad behaviour only on poverty and disadvantage. Essentially, children have not changed over the years, yet at the turn of the last century schools did not have the same behavioural problems as we see today. Although bad behaviour in schools is clearly worse in inner cities than it is in rural areas, it would be wrong automatically to assume that there is no poverty or deprivation in rural areas.

I served as an inner-city councillor in a previous political existence and I now serve as a rural Member of Parliament, and I have a few observations to make. First, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, we should not shy away from discussing the difficulties posed by multi-ethnic classrooms. Simply to avoid the issue for fear of sounding racist plays into the hands of those who would feed on people's ignorance. It is important that we consider those issues so that communities do not become isolated and we do not return to the ethnic strife that we unfortunately saw in some cities earlier in the year.

If, as was the case in my London borough, 60 to 70 per cent. of secondary school pupils have English as a second language, it is almost inevitable that some children will communicate less effectively than others. They may then become disinterested in their class studies and a higher proportion might behave badly as a result. In that connection, I feel strongly that we must continue to address the high levels of illiteracy in this country.

My second observation is that family life in cities is often more diverse and fractured than it is in rural areas. My constituency is in the eastern region, which has relatively few exclusions. Generally, family units tend to be more cohesive there than in the big cities. Perhaps the fact that children find it harder to travel in rural areas than in big cities means that they tend to be more home-centric. Marriage rates are higher and the number of single-parent families is lower than elsewhere in the country. That must have an impact on a child's stability and therefore on the incidence of behavioural problems. Support for the family and for family values need to be prioritised when we are considering children's behaviour.

Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a growing number of parents who, for whatever reason, believe that the schools, society as a whole—indeed, anyone but themselves—should have the primary responsibility for socialising their children and asserting discipline over them. Of course, we are where we are. It would be nice to believe that all parents would hear the elaborate contributions in today's debate and behave accordingly, but that is unlikely.

It is the duty of Parliament to tackle the issue and remind parents of their obligations to others. To my mind, it is a question of helping parents as well as punishing them; of providing schools with the ability to discipline children; and of re-examining the judicial system, so that extreme behavioural problems can be dealt with more effectively and swiftly. We have a long way to go.

This is certainly not a problem just for parents. The school system is part of the problem. Three quarters of exclusions happen in our secondary schools, where there are significant teacher shortages and up to 40 per cent. of teachers leave within three years of joining the profession. Increasingly, foreign teachers are being recruited to fill the gaps. It is an unsatisfactory situation.

At the same time, children, being children, will often be difficult. Anyone who has had children will know exactly what I mean. They will push things to the limit, just to see how far they can take them. They need to be disciplined, to learn what is and what is not acceptable—what the boundaries are. When we have fewer and less well-qualified teachers struggling with growing class sizes in secondary schools while filling in more and more Government forms, they are likely to have less time to devote to the one or two children in a class who are creating a problem and who probably need a little more attention.

Lack of home and school discipline is leading to worse behaviour. In my experience, most parents value discipline and a strong school ethos just as highly as academic standards. If behaviour is not controlled, a vicious circle can come into play whereby pupils lose interest in their studies and teachers can lose interest in their careers.

As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) noted, significant recent research shows that pupil behaviour is now one of the main reasons that teachers give for leaving the profession. In the year to March 2000—I believe that these are the last available figures—more than 26,000 teachers left. As one leaving male maths and physics teacher in the eastern region put it: It's having to fight this uphill battle against—if I am allowed to call them that—'naughty kids'. They get involved in so much low level misbehaviour. And rudeness and the language…Quite often the parents don't support you. You are battling against it, because parents don't believe their child can be naughty. It's like that in every class and it's got more common. I think a lot of staff feel that the kids are untouchable.

The proportion of schools where behaviour is unsatisfactory is now one in 12. I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. I feel that he underplayed the seriousness of one in 12 schools having that problem, although as any parent knows, in some ways it is irrelevant how many or how few schools have a problem: if one's children have to share a lesson with one or two disruptive kids, that lesson can be utterly destroyed. The fact that one in 12 schools have a problem is not relevant to parents who have children in that class.

Expulsion of the troublemakers has been made increasingly difficult in recent years by the Government, who have been proudly stating that they have reduced exclusions to low levels. To my mind, and to that of many people in this country, the policy has been a disaster, so I am relieved that the Government are now going to change it. It has not been mentioned in our debate, but the Government issued a consultation paper on exclusion policy—the deadline for replies was 19 April. The Government have not yet commented on the consultation's findings, so it would be helpful if the Minister could do so.

However, there is still a catch, because exclusion will have financial implications for the school concerned. In fact, it can cost the school between £3,000 and £6,000 in lost budget per excluded pupil, which seems most unfair. If the Government are moving towards accepting further exclusions, they must address the issue of funding. Why should the school have to suffer? If anyone is going to suffer, it should be the pupil and his family, rather than the school. If it is now acceptable for a mother to be sent to prison for her children's truancy, why should parents not pay the price for disruption to the education of 30 other children? That would instil a more direct lesson about parents taking responsibility for their children. It would also be more relevant than the Prime Minister's gimmicky suggestion of withholding child benefit.

I would not argue that the Government have been ignoring problematic behaviour in schools. The Minister made an eloquent speech and explained a number of Government policies. At the same time, however, we must realise that, to date, Government solutions have made the problem worse. There is more disruption and youth crime, and more teachers are leaving schools. I heard what the Minister said, but I hope that everyone agrees that we still have an awful long way to go. In fairness, however, I commend the Government policy of getting schools to build links with local police forces to tackle bad behaviour and truancy in schools. Schools in Huntingdonshire have been following that policy for some years, and have been extremely successful in building bridges with the community and making young people understand their relationship with the police. The Government's handling of bad behaviour in schools has been deficient, and it is vital that we all work together to get that right for the future of our communities.

I shall end with a couple of suggestions, and would be grateful for the Minister's views. First, we should recognise that many children are not suited to, or interested in, academic study. We have become much too academic-centred, particularly in the national curriculum, as other hon. Members have mentioned. We need to look at vocational options, which are much more likely to win the attention of children with behavioural problems and reduce those problems.

Secondly, we should realise that some parents are incapable, for whatever reason, of giving adequate guidance to their children. They need, or could benefit from, the help of a mentor. In the same way, children will often get great benefit from having a role model, especially if they are not surrounded by role models. I believe, therefore, that there is room for child mentoring.

As chairman of a social services committee on a council, I became aware of a pervasive view that teachers, social workers and probation officers are the only people qualified to deal with the problems of parents or children, but I have seen at first hand in New York the superb success of a scheme whereby unambitious and poorly educated children benefit from the advice and the relationship involved in a long-term mentoring scheme.

The nearest equivalent that I have seen in the United Kingdom is the Prince's Trust, where the addition of a role model or the input of friendly business or tactical advice from an experienced mentor can make the world of difference to a young person's chances of succeeding and moving forward in the community. I should very much like to see such a scheme put in place for children, especially in our inner cities.

1.11 pm
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I concur with the comments of many other hon. Members in the Chamber today about the extraordinary degree of skill, ability and dedication that we cherish and respect in the teaching profession in this country. If there is one lesson that we have learned, which is appropriate in a debate on education, it is that many parents seem to wish to abdicate responsibility for their children's upbringing and put that responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, support staff and the entire school community. I have been massively impressed, both today and in my day-to-day experience, by the extraordinary skills of our teachers. None of us should miss any opportunity to make that point.

At 8.30 this morning, I was speaking to Peter La Farge, the head teacher of Greenwood school in my constituency, about a fairly serious matter—the replacement of hutted accommodation. He broke off from the conversation to identify two pupils in the playground who he was convinced were about to start a fight. It is that quality of anticipation and sheer skill in teachers to which we must pay credit.

As many other hon. Members have done, I pay credit to the assured, skilled and deeply caring and committed introduction to the debate by my hon. Friend the Minister. I do not share his happy childhood memories of education. I was the original schoolboy with shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school", though had I faced the prospect of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) as a supply teacher, I might have revised my opinion.

However, I left school at the age of 15 and a half, by mutual agreement with the head teacher, and was fortunate, as one could do in those days, to go straight into the Royal Navy, where I learned to kill people with expediency, which stood me in no little good stead when I came to apply for a job later. I was told that as that was my only qualification, I should try the national health service. In fact, I spent 10 years working as a hospital porter.

The point—which relates to the comment by the hon. Member for Lichfield about sanctions—is that, like many schoolboys and, sadly, even some schoolgirls of my generation, I was beaten continuously and thrashed remorselessly on a daily basis. I will not state, as many people do, that it did me no harm. It did me a great deal of harm. I had absolutely no interest whatever in education. I was out the door at the earliest opportunity, without a GCSE, O-level, A-level or any qualification to my name. Fortunately, I found sanctuary in the structured and disciplined violence of boxing and London Labour politics, and was able to make something of a career for myself. I do not think that looking back to some black-and-white past of cane-wielding teachers, even should they now repose in Lichfield, is the way that we should aim to approach the debate today.

I felt sorry for the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) with his cri de coeur that he was ever the bridesmaid and never the blushing bride, and the House has sympathy with him for that. However, he did refer to drugs, which in many ways illustrate one of the horrors of the reality of education and, in particular, parental involvement.

Some of the worst cases of drug involvement in schools that I have been aware of have been where boys have sold cannabis which they obtained from their father, who grows it, smokes it and allows it in the home and in no way condemns it, and even gives his son that drug to sell. That is an actual case.

Two years ago I was at a school asking year 6 pupils what they most wanted in life and one child said that what she most wanted was for her mother's boyfriend to stop injecting himself in the kitchen because he sprayed blood all over the tiles.

I could give many other horrific examples, but I shall give only one more. At a show-and-tell in an adjoining borough to mine, a primary school child brought in the most valued object in the house, which was a small glass cocaine container that her mother obviously cherished and valued. That is the reality.

We saw from last year's Ofsted report that 80 per cent. of children found truanting were accompanied by an adult. Adults have real responsibilities in this regard and we cannot, as a House, as individuals, as parents, simply stand back and expect teachers to take up that slack and carry that load. Parents must become more involved. How right my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was to pay credit to sure start, the lesson of which is precisely that everyone must be involved in a child's education. If it takes a village to educate a child, it takes a family to nurture and support that child. Everyone must be involved.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) rightly drew attention to the decline in the number of exclusions, which he said peaked at 13.000. About 12,700 pupils were excluded in 1996–97 and there has been a 28 per cent. reduction in that figure. That points towards the core of this debate, which is the need to achieve a balance between the needs of the excluded and allowing teachers to teach, pupils to learn, schools to operate as schools and classrooms to be the places where children can grow and learn and expand their horizons and become better people.

As has rightly been said, one may be excluded from school but one is not excluded from society. Simply taking the children from the school may solve the problem in that place, at that hour, on that day, but it displaces the problem to society at large. We must address that in the round. If the curse of modern politics is the constant reference to things being joined up, let us live with that, because we must see things in the totality, in their global perspective, and work with that.

Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall briefly refer to experience in the London borough of Ealing where we faced precisely that problem. When I was elected, all the high schools bar one were grant-maintained and the pupils that they excluded all ended up in the one non-grant-maintained high school, which, inevitably, despite the best efforts of the teachers, support staff and governors, became perceived as a sink school. It is now being relaunched as a city academy. It simply is not enough to move the problem on.

In Ealing, we have worked with the Government on sure start throughout. I pay credit to assistant director Howard Shephardson and our inspirational director of education, Dr. Caroline Whalley, and particularly to Councillor Leo Thompson, the council cabinet member with responsibility for this area. We had a high level of permanent exclusions, but we now have a joint LEA-school panel, known as a placement panel, which meets regularly for referral purposes, to discuss policy issues involving partnerships.

I give credit to the excellence in cities partnership forum, which allows us to develop a behaviour and social inclusion strategy for secondary-aged pupils in Ealing. That allows us to share out pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties so that no one school is over-burdened. That is completely different from the beggar-my-neighbour, devil-take-the-hindmost policy that sadly existed among some proponents of grant-maintained schools. Support systems for any child who is being reintegrated are agreed through the panel members working together.

The primary sector in Ealing has undergone an extensive review, resulting in a decision to close the primary EBD or educational and behavioural difficulties school and develop more flexible and inclusive provision. We have replaced the school with a centre that has a multi-agency approach providing educational programmes and therapeutic support. The primary behaviour team works from the centre to support schools in behaviour management and reintegration of pupils who have had a placement at the centre. In other words, it addresses the needs of the pupil while recognising the importance of the school being allowed to teach and the pupils being allowed to learn.

The number of permanent exclusions has been massively reduced. The preventive role of the PRUs, or pupil referral units, has been mentioned. In Ealing, we have developed over the past few years an "at risk" model for early identification—an issue that was picked up earlier. We have done so because we owe it to our children and young people, who are the citizens of tomorrow—the child is the father or mother of the adult—to give them that early identification. I would recommend the "at risk" model to anyone.

In Ealing, we are currently working with a range of agencies on developing the multi-agency provision and support plan that sets out the contribution that each of the support agencies will make. The process is defined and delineated from stage one, and provides for 25 hours of education for permanently excluded pupils. That is slightly below the Government's target, which is, I think, 27 hours, but I assure the Minister that we are getting there. The provision is intended to extend to at risk and vulnerable pupils.

I should like to refer also to the children and young people's strategic partnership, which is overseeing the children's fund development. That is beginning to contribute significantly. An early intervention co-ordinator and panel, mentoring and summer schemes are all designed to target intervention to prevent children from becoming involved in youth crime. Through the excellence in cities programme and PRG—pupil retention grant—funding, Ealing high schools have become self-sufficient in meeting the needs of students with a range of difficulties. We now have specialist counsellors, learning mentors, therapists and business mentor schemes—precisely the theories that we have talked and heard about today. We are now seeing those concepts being delivered in practice in my borough, in the place where my children go to school. The improvements are now working, and the local education authority team aims through regular consultation with schools to complement those schemes and assist them where they require additional help and where an objective outside agency input is required.

Intervention and support for children with mental health and therapeutic needs have also been referred to. They are a major focus area for primary and secondary behaviour support and provision development. In Ealing, we currently have a partnership project between the child and adolescent mental health service—the CAMHS—and the study centre of the PRU to develop a bridge for parents and pupils in accessing mental health services. A therapeutic inclusion project is planned to link the PRU with an Ealing high school that currently has good practice in support and intervention for its pupils. We also co-ordinate training and support across the borough.

In addition to the core support services provided by the LEA, there is a range of other ongoing and developing initiatives to support primary and secondary pupils in improving the management of pupil behaviour to support vulnerable groups. Those initiatives include the looked-after children education/social services team, a multidisciplinary team that we are continuing this year and which again brings together all the experts in the field, the "at risk" preventive programme and the PRU curriculum, which has developed substantially in the past two years and which incorporates the explorer programme, about which we may hear more.

The Ealing parent partnership mentoring programme for pupils in years 3, 4, 5 and 6 provides the assistance and support for which hon. Members have called. Such a mentoring service exists in Ealing, thanks to a Government initiative, my hon. Friend the Minister's pathfinding work and the local education authority's active response. Ealing parent partnership and the primary and secondary behaviour teams are currently working with feeder primary and secondary schools. Thirty year 6 children, who were identified as vulnerable, are taking part in a transition skills programme. They will be supported until they reach year 7.

We have a new joint social services and education post through the standards fund. We are grateful for that. A social worker who supports the work of the primary and secondary behaviour teams will therefore be placed in the social services teams and provide a direct link between education and social services.

Connexions was mentioned earlier. It is the finest example of mentoring for secondary school pupils. It provides a role model and support as well as the parameters and boundaries that young people need. We are delighted to be one of the first education authorities to work with Connexions.

We obviously support a continuation and extension of the excellence in cities initiatives, for example, the excellence challenge for post-16 students and further funding for standards fund initiatives.

Richard Younger-Ross

The hon. Gentleman cites a catalogue of great achievements that, he claims, the Government have facilitated for his constituents. Does he agree that many initiatives depend on the money that has been made available? Should not the same funding be made available for other local authorities, especially in the south-west, that receive a much lower standard spending assessment?

Mr. Pound

I am not convinced that an election address by me to the voters of Ealing, North calling for additional funding for the south-west of England would garner me many votes. I was trying to make the point that we are considering not money, but one of the biggest societal factors that affect us today. We are examining the way in which tomorrow's leaders, workers and society are shaped and formed today. That does not depend simply on giving more money; that is meaningless. Money without commitment or an overarching policy has no value.

I do not apologise for listing the wonderful achievements in the London borough of Ealing in partnership with central Government. I am proud of that list because my kids go to schools in my constituency and benefit from it. I promise the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) that any left-over money that we do not need will head in his direction post haste.

We are witnessing a pivotal moment, not only in my borough and my city, but in our country. Education is being perceived as part of the growth of society and the future of our country. It is not enough to concentrate on those who do well and do not cause problems and are not "creeping unwillingly to school." We must consider the whole picture and realise that education will not be a good system for anyone unless it is good for everyone.

I do not underestimate the extent of the problems that disruptive behaviour causes in schools. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West gave examples of horror stories, and I could match them. That applies to all hon. Members. We know how much teachers put up with. However, that is only part of the story. We are trying to value those who have been considered valueless in the past. The people who cause the problems are the hardest to work with. They will not go away and we must either work with them now or face the consequences of our neglect later, when they cause even more serious problems. I am therefore delighted to participate in the debate.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has popped out, probably to issue a press release. I sympathised greatly with his point about the ever-expanding horizon of hurdles over which secondary school pupils must leap. That issue was particularly brought home to me last week when my daughter told me that she had just got her third level 7. I was delighted until she told me that I had to pay her £25 for each of them, as I had rashly promised. So, it is not just the pupils who suffer in these cases; parents feel the pain, too.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his earlier comments, and I look forward to his winding-up speech, as do we all. I would like to say, with him, that this is an issue that cannot be ignored. It must receive the attention and the resources that it deserves. I shall close as I started, by saying: let us pause for a moment and give thanks to those who teach our children and shape our future citizens.

1.30 pm
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

And that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is a lovely thought. I would like to join the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) in expressing it, because teachers work very hard, not only in their jobs but for the maintenance of the education of their children. It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman. Although he said he agreed with the mutual arrangement between him and his headmaster that he should leave school when he was 15 and a half, the eloquence of his speech demonstrated that there is not only a university of life but a school of life. Clearly the Royal Navy taught him not only how to kill ruthlessly—and perhaps to do so metaphorically in the Chamber—but how to be articulate. It obviously gave him a vocabulary that is most appropriate in the Chamber—not the sort that I would have thought one would learn in the Royal Navy.

While we are in the mood to offer congratulations across the Chamber, I would also like to congratulate the Minister on his debut speech in his new post. His comments were thoughtful and interesting, and he mentioned a particular subject to which I shall return later. He spoke about his mother, and his background. My own mother was born in Aberavon and had to leave school when she was 14. As I am speaking from the Conservative Benches, I had better say that I went to an ordinary state school, just in case anyone thinks that I went to Eton or one of those other schools mentioned earlier which have a problem with cannabis. I certainly do not think that Eton is exclusive in that respect.

I also mention—not really to boast, but to give some justification for my taking part in this debate—that I taught for a year before going up to university, and also undertook some tutoring of masters degree students learning statistics when I was doing my doctoral studies. I think it was the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) who said that he had been a teacher for 34 years. Oh, no—that was the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I think the hon. Member for West Lancashire had been a teacher for 20 or 25 years—more than a decade, anyway, and certainly more than a year. Anyway, I certainly do not claim to he an expert in this subject. Nevertheless, like everybody else, I went to school, so I know the experiences that I went through there. I would, therefore, like to speak of my own experiences both as a teacher—in my own small way—and in school itself.

The Minister talked about the carrot and stick approach—although that is not the main issue of his that I wanted to discuss—to behaviour and discipline in schools. I want to return to the issue of sanctions, because it is a real problem. This is not a party political matter; the same problem has faced Conservative Governments in the past. We can talk about a carrot and stick approach, but the fact is that there is no stick at the moment. Although I am not advocating bringing back corporal punishment, I am not totally sure that that is such an outrageous idea—I shall say why in a moment—and it is certainly one that we need to think about.

I rather fear that we have reached the stage in schools at which we have not only parents who are barrack-room lawyers, but pupils who are, too. Some of those pupils really do get away, if not with murder, with disrupting the whole class, to the detriment not only of the teachers but of the other pupils in the class That is wrong and unfair.

I do not know whether I am going to regret saying this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will tell you that when I first became a teacher—when I had finished my A-levels and wanted a year's gap before going up to university—I taught first and second-years in a high school. My head of department gave me two pieces of advice for maintaining behaviour and discipline in my class. The first was that to capture the interest of the class and maintain discipline, one must provide 20 per cent. education and 80 per cent. entertainment. Members should remember that when they speak in the Chamber. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, North, who is traversing the Chamber as I speak, because he is able to combine entertainment with educating the House. That is important, because if one gives boring speeches or boring addresses in class, one will not retain the listener's interest.

The second piece of advice is a little more controversial, and it brings us back to the carrot and stick. My head of department at the state school at which I taught gave me a strap and told me that I was to use it if I had any problems. I very rarely had to use discipline, and I hope that my pupils enjoyed the year when I taught them. I certainly did. However, I used the strap two or three times, but I never, ever forced it on the pupil. I used to tell pupils at that boys' school, "Look, either do 100 lines or take the strap. It's up to you." Invariably, the pupil would rather have the strap—thwack, it was over and done with.

A little sanction is called for, but let me set the record straight: I am not advocating the return of corporal punishment. I am saying that it is interesting that when pupils were given the choice between 100 lines or the strap, they chose the strap, which took half a second to administer, stung for perhaps 10 seconds more and perhaps involved an element of humiliation. They would rather have that than go home and do 100 lines.

I say to the Minister that there must be some form of sanction, because teachers in some schools are finding it difficult to maintain discipline. We must be aware that pupils and their parents are barrack-room lawyers and that sometimes discipline breaks down, for all the reasons that have been outlined. We must address those problems.

I was not getting at the Minister or the Government when I mentioned the tyranny of political correctness earlier. However, just as we should not allow political correctness to get in the way of addressing the problems of racial groups in society, likewise we should not allow it to get in the way of discussions on bringing back some sanctions for teachers. Teachers in Lichfield and in Burntwood in my constituency tell me that they have no way of controlling their classes when things start to break down seriously.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned bullying, because it is a serious problem. Because this is the first time that it has ever been addressed in the House, I am especially pleased that the Minister raised the issue of homophobic bullying. Can you imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, being a young man or, indeed, a young woman growing up without understanding things about themselves and being bullied for being different? They may then try not to be different and deceive themselves.

I congratulate the Minister and the Government on undertaking research and providing guidelines on that important issue. Perhaps he will send me a copy of the guidelines when they are printed. I suspect that most teachers are not aware that homophobic bullying is even an issue, although I may be wrong and that may be unfair. However, the fact that the Government have highlighted it today will make teachers and head teachers aware that it can be a problem in our schools.

The Minister also spoke about the problems of exclusion, and it is useful that we have all agreed that, once a pupil is excluded, he enters society, from which he cannot be excluded. How will that be dealt with?

The Minister talked about the 6 per cent. of those who have been excluded who have been identified as having clinical problems, and the 4 per cent. with serious emotional problems. That demonstrates that we cannot look at behaviour in isolation. We must be able to diagnose the causes, just as a GP does. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) said that we cannot look at problems of indiscipline in isolation. Often there are real causes and we must be tough on them, as well as on the crime itself.

Money is also a factor. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) is not alone in belonging to an area where people feel that funding has been unfair. The Government said in 1997 that they would look at this problem, and they have kept their promise. However, we have a real problem in Staffordshire because the four recommendations that have been made all make Staffordshire worse off than before, and that needs to be addressed.

I want to make a few recommendations to the Minister and I would appreciate him giving them some thought. Acoustics in a classroom are important. When I taught in a laboratory, which had a wooden floor and wooden benches, discipline went a bit. The reason was that people at the back could not hear me properly, and the louder I spoke, the more it echoed. Some schools are investing in carpets and other acoustical devices to ensure that there is not too much echo and that not too much noise comes in from outside the classroom. Has any research been done on whether there is a correlation between indiscipline and classroom acoustics? When children cannot hear what the teacher has to say, it can lead to indiscipline.

Another issue is the continuity of teachers. The hon. Member for Ealing, North said that I was a supply teacher. I was not; I was at the school for a year. I like to think that I gave a little continuity to the class. Whether they enjoyed that is another matter. No doubt some of my former pupils will write to me if they hear about this debate; I dread to think what they might have to say. However, continuity is important. The general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said: The huge expansion in the market for supply teachers in the last three years has sent the market out of control. The Department for Education and Skills should put in place a Licensing system for supply agencies, with a Code of Practice and clear sanctions if the agencies fall below accepted standards. That is important, but even more important would be not to need supply teachers.

Mr. Stephen Twigg

If only.

Michael Fabricant

I know how the Minister feels. It is important to have continuity within a school.

The subject of grammar was raised earlier. A previous occupant of the Chair cut me off in mid-stream, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I did not say what I wanted to say. I can well understand why certain pupils would not want to learn how to parse a sentence or understand the structures of the English language. I found grammar immensely boring when I was taught it at school. I only became interested in it when I learned German. I make a little cri de coeur—which is French—a Schrei des Herzes: if only there were enough German teachers, it would be a good idea for German, instead of French, to be the first foreign language taught in schools, because it helps people to understand English grammar better.

Mr. Pound

What about Latin?

Michael Fabricant

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is impractical in this modern day and age. [Interruption.] If he disagrees with me, I can accept that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we need silence at the back of the classroom.

Michael Fabricant

Thank you for your protection headmaster—I mean, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This has been a good, thoughtful debate. I do not think that anyone has made party political points, which is good. Everyone has spoken about what would benefit pupils and teachers. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

1.46 pm
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I am sure that all of us would agree that he managed to achieve his 80 per cent. entertainment quotient. We are all still pondering the image of a sea of hands of those in his class who wanted voluntarily to receive the strap. No doubt the lines that he was going to give them would have been even more devastating for them.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his opening remarks. His speech was wide ranging, and gave us plenty to work on. I also pay tribute to him for being the Member of Parliament for the Enfield, Southgate constituency, where I went to school. The school has since closed, but I promise not to blame him for that if he does not blame me.

The hon. Member for Lichfield referred to the need for resources to deal with problems in some parts of the country from which complaints have been received. I do not want to shatter his illusion that no party political points have been made in the debate, so I shall not ask how he expects more resources to go into education, given that the Conservative party said only a few days ago that it refuses to match the spending plans that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce on Monday. We expect him to give significant extra resources to education.

In one sense, it is right that the debate is not about resources. We know that more resources will go into education, and we desperately need that investment, but without the changes that are necessary to deal with disruptive behaviour, we will not get the high standards of education that our young people deserve. We know that the stakes are high. Disruptive pupils can seriously damage the education of other children by disrupting the programme of teaching, undermining staff morale, absorbing a disproportionate amount of staff energy and resources, and undermining other students' enthusiasm to learn.

If disruptive students are out of school, because of exclusion or truancy, the community pays a heavy price. We have seen that in today's figures on street crime. We must find a way of dealing with disruptive behaviour without excluding children from school, and thus from the hope of an education that will give them a future.

A factor that has not featured in the debate is the effect of children's employment. I raised that issue in a private Member's Bill in 1998. I was concerned about the evidence from a number of sources, which showed that about 40 per cent. of school-age children have some form of employment. Some of it is regulated, but three quarters is illegal because of its nature or the hours that the children work. The evidence was that unregulated and illegal child employment had a significant impact on children's education, partly because of the time they spent out of school and partly because when they were in school they were often tired and could be disruptive as a result. I urge the Minister to establish, along with his colleagues in the Department of Health—which for reasons I cannot understand is responsible for that area of policy—whether regulations can be introduced to update the law established by the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

I have talked to teachers in my constituency, as, no doubt, have other Members. They have made it clear to me that disruptive behaviour is increasing. Yesterday It received a letter from one of the most respected head teachers in Kent and, probably, the country. Mr. Simon Harrison is the head of Ifield special school in Gravesham, a beacon school described by the Office for Standards in Education as outstanding with some excellent features", and the recipient of an award from Sport England. He has been a head teacher in Kent for 16 years, and has worked in special education and with pupils exhibiting difficult and challenging behaviour for 29. He is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and successful head teachers.

Mr. Harrison wrote: Children in general have become much more difficult to deal with in the last few years and are less responsive to the range of creative strategies we employ to correct their behaviour. It is more difficult to engage parents in the partnership required to help students exercise greater self-control. The reasons are complex and really related to us living in a more selfish society where 'I' is a much more important word than 'you', and treating other people as you would like to be treated yourself has become a rather quaint notion within a culture of get what you can.

Mr. Harrison also pointed out that many children voluntarily give service to their communities—they do so very willingly, in fact—and that the problem must be kept in perspective. It is a growing problem and a serious problem for many schools, but we should not use it to demonise all children and young people.

One problem mentioned by Mr. Harrison, and by Members today, is that teachers may have too few sanctions at their disposal. I am not sure whether Mr. Harrison or I would be in favour of some of the proposals advanced by the hon. Member for Lichfield, but exclusion is often seen as the only possible sanction. Most schools see it as the ultimate deterrent, but one that fails.

Michael Fabricant

In fact, it is often not a deterrent. Some children actively seek it, which causes a real problem.

Just for the record, I did not advocate any form of capital punishment—

Mr. Pound


Michael Fabricant

I mean corporal punishment. I merely suggested that the issue should at least be looked at.

Mr. Pond

I take the point, and I know that the hon. Gentleman did not advocate either capital or corporal punishment in schools. I also accept that many children would be happy to be on the streets rather than at school, because they themselves have given up. I think that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knareshorough (Mr. Willis) observed that disruptive children often have a bad self-image and low self-esteem, and are keen to get out of school for that reason. We must, however, establish a range of constructive measures, short of exclusion, to deal with this serious problem.

I welcome the initiatives announced by my hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State—including the £66 million package announced in April, which is intended to deal with truancy and other bad behaviour and will include the introduction of new or expanded learning support units, as well as pupil referral units.

Westcourt primary school in Gravesend has tried hard to deal with the problem of disruptive and difficult children, and has managed to do so quite successfully. It has made considerable progress in recent years, lifting itself out of "special measures" status, but it faces the continuing challenge of disruptive pupils. It decided that it was worth investing its own resources to set up an internal learning support unit. It cost the school £45,000 a year, but the impact was significant, not only for the 10 or 11 children who were in the unit—about 8 per cent. of the children in the school—but for the rest of the children, who were able to learn in a much more conducive atmosphere.

The unit was set up by the head teacher, Mrs. Jean Everest, in April 2000 but, sadly, it had to close in April 2002 because the school could not continue to find the resources internally. As soon as the unit closed, three of its 10 children were excluded, three went into part-time education because no full-time alternative was available and the others were transferred. Therefore, the cost of closing the unit was probably far higher than the £45,000 that it cost to keep it open.

I lobbied Kent county council's education authority to see whether it would help with the cost of the unit. It wrote to me and said that the LEA is currently engaged in a review of provision for pupils with behavioural difficulties in the County. As part of that process, some consideration is being given to the possibility of establishing a primary Learning Support Unit which could support a number of schools in the locality, including Westcourt. Discussion was taking place about whether this unit could be on the Westcourt site. If those discussions develop, that will be significant and important. Most of the units are focused on the secondary sector, but most of the problems of disruptive behaviour begin in the eight to 11 age group. We need to find a way of dealing with the problems where they begin, rather than trying to address them after they have been established in the secondary sector. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to see whether we cannot do more for primary schools in dealing with such matters.

In Kent, as in much of the south-east, there are real difficulties with teacher recruitment. We must ensure that the boroughs that border the London ring can still compete with salaries in London boroughs and that—it is perhaps of equal importance—we can deal with the problem of disruptive pupils, which discourages people from staying in education.

I share with the House another initiative that has been developed by Ifield school—the SMILE centre; I prefer that title to its full title, which is supporting multiprofessional inclusive education. It does some important work. Ifield school set up the unit, which is a resource available to all schools in the borough of Gravesham and beyond. It is a multidisciplinary, multi-agency approach to help to deal with children with special needs and with difficult and disruptive behaviour.

One concept that I would like the Minister to take away from the debate is that of the smiley boxes—literally, boxes containing resource materials that can be used by parents and teachers on a range of issues, whether it be asylum seekers, conditions such as autism and difficulties with literacy, numeracy and thinking skills. The initiative acts as a way of improving the ability of all schools to deal with those issues.

We are in the middle of autism awareness year. We need to think carefully about the role of special needs in this issue. Often, children with special needs can be perceived to be difficult and disruptive, partly because of the way in which they operate in a school, but partly because of the reaction of other children to them.

Michael Fabricant

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on mentioning autism. Will he also bring to the attention of the House a subsection of autism, Asperger's syndrome, which is far more difficult to diagnose, is not autism as one would normally understand it, results in behavioural problems that can result in the very issues that we are discussing today and needs the attention of teachers and others so that they are able to diagnose and deal with it?

Mr. Pond

Like other types of autism, Asperger's syndrome can produce social and communications problems for children that can be perceived as difficulties. We need to make sure that teachers and schools can properly identify when that is the problem, as such cases cannot be addressed by disciplinary measures, and certainly not by exclusion, although we know from evidence that that often happens.

Finally, let me underline a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). We cannot expect teachers to carry the burden of dealing with these problems on their own. We appreciate the work that teachers do and the skills that they use, but very often those skills are undermined because parents are not fully engaged in the process. We need to take tough measures against abusive and aggressive parents. We need to use measures such as parenting orders, and in extreme cases where parents are colluding in truancy to take the toughest possible measures. However, we also need constructively to engage parents. We must create an atmosphere that allows parents and young people to feel that they can engage with the schools and their staff. If we treat young people as though they were casual observers, we will not tackle the problem of disruptive behaviour.

In common with many schools around the country, Painters Ash primary school in Northfleet in my constituency has a school council. Not only does it help to establish the boundaries of acceptable behaviour but the children themselves devise the sanctions to be imposed. They have not yet come up with anything equivalent to that mentioned by the hon. Member for Lichfield; the sanctions are low level but very effective as they are devised by the peer group.

Moving to a slightly higher age group, I pay tribute to Gravesham Youth Forum, which is helping to deal with problems involving youth disorder, crime and disruptive behaviour in schools. It has signed an agreement with the local police, the local education authorities and the local borough council to work to meet the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead. I was very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister showed how important he considered that initiative to be by inviting Gravesham Youth Forum to No. 10 Downing street a few days ago to mark the signing of that agreement.

If we can find constructive ways forward involving young people, parents and schools, we can crack the problem. We must not get it out of perspective and assume that all young people and children will be disruptive and difficult, but we must give those who are not disruptive the chance of getting the highest standard of education by dealing with the few who are.

2.3 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I am pleased to take part in this debate, albeit very briefly. The subject, certainly in its wider terms, is very important. As the Minister said in his impressive maiden speech from the Dispatch Box in an education debate, the value of education cannot be overestimated or overstated. I should like to explore what that means.

I have the distinction, which is not unique among Conservative Members, of having attended a secondary modern school when I was 11, although I did go on to grammar school for the sixth form. That secondary modern provided me with a good basic education and a lot more. I will never forget what the headmaster used to say every day in assembly. School assembly is still a legal requirement although some schools do not fulfil their legal duties in that respect. He used to remind us that the school was a family, and that sentiment will remain with me to my dying day as it was important. Not only did we learn about history, English and French, but about behaviour, morals and ethics—words that we do not use enough these days. I like to think that that fostered good behaviour within the school because pupils went to learn not only about history and geography, but about how to behave. I do not claim that no one who went to that school went wrong—human nature is such that some did—but it was an important aspect of running the school. However, that was a long time ago.

I was looking through some old papers a few years ago and found a report from my wife's school. My wife enjoys slight superiority to me, and we noticed that in her class she was one of 47 pupils. We now have a rule that classes of a certain age cannot have more than 30 pupils, but it was acceptable then. It was probably easier for the teacher to control the class of 46 or 47 pupils than it is to control a class of 30 now, so something has changed.

One change is that, in those days, pupils were far better behaved, which enabled teachers to control the class with no great difficulty. Those teachers did not have the same burden of paperwork as present-day teachers, and the pupils formed part of a more cohesive family unit. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) back in his place because he made a very useful contribution to the debate. He spoke about special needs, with which I shall deal in a moment, but also about the make-up of families. Although he was not critical of the modern family, he pointed out that new challenges were presented by the fact that families are not what they used to be. The wider family no longer exists in the same way.

When I visit schools—I have regular meetings with head teachers and meet about a dozen every three months—an issue that comes across strongly is that teachers now feel like social workers. The Minister and the whole House will be aware of that. Teachers feel that they are not getting the support to which they are entitled from many families. Teachers are not social workers and should not be expected to fulfil the role of parents. We should not be afraid of saying that.

Teachers are also concerned about their inability to expel—or "exclude", or whatever the modern word is—pupils from school and there is some confusion as to whether they can or should expel and what happens to the expelled pupil thereafter. I am mature enough to realise that the story does not end with expelling a pupil; indeed, that is only the beginning. What does that pupil go on to do? The heads to whom I speak claim, with great justification, that they must have the ability to remove a pupil from school not only to punish the pupil, although that should be part of it, but to protect the education of the other 29 pupils in the class. Another problem is that pupils are aware of their rights. How often do we hear the word "rights" without its being linked to responsibilities? Pupils are aware of their rights and they play on that. Teachers have a heck of a job trying to control classes.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that, according to the reports that he has seen, only one school in 12 has problems. That, however, is an awful lot of schools. It is a frightening figure, so let us not try to play it down. I come from an area that used to have very high unemployment, which I regret, with one in 10 or 11 out of work. Labour Members used to say that that was a shameful figure. The figure of one in 12 schools is also shameful. I do not entirely blame the present Government, but let us not pretend that there is not a serious problem; there certainly is.

I accept that parents must play their role, but I draw the House's attention to one or two other role models who have not quite played the game as they should have done. I have deliberately used the phrase "played the game" because I refer to footballers, pop stars and even Members of Parliament. Few people are impressed by the yah-boo politics that we sometimes have in the House and they wonder why they send us here. I am all for the dramatic speeches that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and the House would be a much poorer place without such speeches. There was a good deal of common sense and sound politics in what they said. The House will understand when I say that perhaps we, too, should take seriously our duty as role models.

I do not want to be party political, but I have to be somewhat critical of the Government as I deeply regret what they have done concerning cannabis this week. The House is not only about passing laws but about the signals that we send, and reducing the classification has sent a most unfortunate signal to young people. Cannabis is not the same as alcohol or tobacco. The taking of drugs leads to disrupted and mined lives, and to criminal activity to finance the habit. That has a terribly destructive effect on schools.

On the subject of crime, I return to the value of education. This really is a piecemeal speech, and I am trying to get through it as quickly as I can. I understand that 90-odd per cent. of people in prison have some form of mental illness, be it severe or mild, and I think that between 50 and 60 per cent. have virtually no education and are either illiterate or semi-literate. We should be ashamed of that in this day and age, when we spend billions of pounds on education. Too many people come out of school without being able to read and write. That is not an excuse for committing crime, but it is a fact that many of those people do it. We must accept that that is a failure in our society.

I have raised this point with the Minister several times, and I will continue to do so until I get a satisfactory response. I admired the Secretary of State when she gave her verdict on the comprehensive system. I was a victim of the 11-plus—I failed it—but I also stood out against the introduction of the comprehensive system, because I thought it was wrong. She did not condemn all comprehensive schools, and neither will I. My daughter went to a very good comprehensive school—Bournside, in Cheltenham—having left a very poor public school. The Secretary of State made a good point when she said that the system is not delivering what was intended.

If the Government are being brave and enlightened enough to take that line and accept that comprehensive schooling may not be the answer to all society's ills, what is the logic of their programme of the inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools? Many such children are included entirely appropriately, but a great many others need special schools for their own sake. It may be convenient to call it inclusion, but if they come out of the school without the proper education that they need, they are excluded from society for the rest of their lives.

I urge Ministers to talk to teachers, heads, parents, governors and, indeed, the children about whether their special schools should be closed. The Government have said that their inclusion policy is not a green light to close special schools. I am sure that everyone is sick of hearing me say it, but the fact is that in Gloucestershire, which is not controlled by the Conservative party, there is a deliberate programme of closure of the special schools. It is a wrong policy. Pupils have come to me in tears because they feel that they are losing not only their school but their best chance of an appropriate education.

The word "appropriate" is the key. I had an appropriate education. It was not a university education—before the sixth form, it was not even a grammar school education—but it was the appropriate education for me. I urge the Minister to look into what is happening in Gloucestershire and tell the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups which control the county council that it is not the Government's intention that special schools should be closed. I urge the Minister, for goodness sake, to go to Gloucestershire and tell the council that it should not be closing those schools.


Mr. Brady

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a brief response.

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), particularly given his compelling point about the continuation of special schools and their ability to provide education appropriate to children with special needs. We have had a good debate, even though it was interrupted by a statement on a completely different subject. However, because of that, we had almost two debates and have had some useful exchanges. Members who read the record of proceedings this morning will see that there is quite a lot of agreement between Members on both sides of the House about the scale of the problem, its importance and, surprisingly, more agreement than expected about the steps needed to tackle it. There is no doubt that those steps must cover the services for pupils with difficulties who need support before serious problems arise, and improvements in the services for children who have been excluded.

There was also substantial agreement about the need to trust teachers and heads to introduce policies in our schools that will create a learning environment with proper discipline in which behaviour can be improved. I know that the House will want to hear the Minister's response, so I ask Members to forgive me for not referring to their remarks in detail. I should like to apologise to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) for missing his contribution, although I have been given notes, and I believe that he said some important and appropriate things.

The fundamental lesson to be drawn from our debate is that teachers and heads must be supported in their mission to raise behaviour standards in our schools. There must be clear, robust guidance for schools and appeal panels, and there must be genuine trust in the professionals, who have the interests of our children at heart. I hope that the Minister will send a clear message—this point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury—that drug abuse and violence in schools will not be tolerated. I repeat my invitation to the Minister to issue tough guidance on that, and make it clear that heads will be supported in implementing the policy of maintaining and improving behaviour and discipline in schools.


Mr. Stephen Twigg

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate, albeit interrupted. I shall do my best to do justice to the various points made by hon. Members.

First, may I clarify an important question asked by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)? It slipped my mind earlier, but a subordinate clause is a clause that functions as a noun, adjective or adverb in a complex sentence and is dependent on the main clause.

Mr. Pound

We knew that.

Mr. Twigg

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House did.

I thank Members for their kind remarks about my first speech at the Dispatch Box as an Education Minister. Members on both sides of the House raised specific issues relating to their constituencies, which I shall follow up after the debate. However, I want to pursue a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) about the excellent work of a head in his constituency, Simon Harrison. I can certainly give him the encouragement that he is seeking, and assure him that the Department will do what it can to support the good work of Mr. Harrison and his staff.

Everyone agrees that behaviour in schools is a serious issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is right to quote the latest report from the chief inspector of schools, which states that behaviour in secondary schools in 2000–01 was very similar to that in the previous year. We must be careful not to give the impression that all is doom and gloom. There is not a universal breakdown in behaviour in schools. However, I agree with hon. Members in all parts of the House that it is unacceptable that one in 12 schools has a problem with pupil behaviour. That is why we provided the opportunity for a debate on this important matter in Government time.

Many hon. Members stressed that the issue of behaviour in schools cannot be isolated from wider factors in society—a decline in discipline and in respect, and a certain change in the ethical and moral values of our society. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield that some of the materialism and excessive individualism fostered in the 1980s contributed to the change. All of us should join together to rebuild a sense of respect, cohesion and discipline, not only in our schools, but in our wider society.

Many hon. Members referred to the advice that the Government issue to schools in cases where pupils have been excluded. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) who, I know, had to return to his constituency, asked about the outcome of the consultation on exclusions that was concluded on 19 April. I can inform the House that the responses to that are being fed into the on-going work on circular 10/99, which is being revised as result, and which is also to be revised to incorporate changes in the Education Bill, which comes back before the House on Monday. Those changes are due to be implemented in January 2003, so fresh guidance will be issued later this year for implementation next year.

We are committed to continuing with the independent appeals panels set up by the previous Conservative Government. It is only right that a parent of the child has the right of appeal against a decision permanently to exclude their son or daughter, but we want to send out the clear message to schools and head teachers that we support heads in their management of their schools. We do not want the inappropriate reinstatement of pupils. That is why, in the Education Bill, we are making the changes to the panels.

We want to ensure that independent appeals panels will have at least one member who has direct classroom experience—for example, a teacher or retired teacher. We will ask that in reaching their decisions, panels will balance the interests of the excluded pupil and those of the wider school community, including the other pupils. The panels will not be able to reinstate a pupil solely on the basis of a technicality in the way that they were excluded.

On discipline committees, the trigger for an automatic meeting of a discipline committee will be relaxed from more than five school days in a term to more than 15 school days in a term. We believe that that will help to reduce the burden on heads and governors.

A number of specific cases were raised by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench. I shall refer briefly to one which I agree is extremely serious—the case that was reported in the press this week of the 14-year-old boy who was reinstated after a sexual assault.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills asked this week for the facts of the case to be brought in for her attention. They showed that the boy is not currently at the school and will not be returning to the school, and that the girls left the school in June, following the completion of their GCSE courses. In the light of that, and the governing body's apology, my right hon. Friend has decided that no further action will be taken, but we have asked that she be kept informed should the situation change. It is worth pointing out that in that case, it was the discipline committee of the governing body that made the decision, rather than the independent appeals panel.

A number of hon. Members expressed concern about the availability of sanctions to schools. Our guidance will take that into account when we issue it later this year.

It is worth making the point that all schools exist within the same framework and some have a much better record in dealing with these matters than others, so the ethos, practice and leadership within the classroom and the wider school community are important factors when considering the policy and what works in particular schools.

I am also pleased to reaffirm what I said in my opening remarks in response to the challenge from the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West regarding drugs and alcohol. The important signal that is sent by the House and by the Government is that schools must be drug-free zones. We shall continue to debate the rights and wrongs of the Home Secretary's announcement earlier this week. I think that he was right, but we can have that debate elsewhere. However, all will agree that that message must be sent out strongly. In my opening remarks I sought to say that we should also seriously address the issue of alcohol.

Mr. Brady

The Government tightened their guidelines for appeals panels earlier in the year in respect of pupils found dealing in drugs. Is the Minister now saying that it is the Government's view that it would be wrong for appeals panels to overturn the view of a head who has excluded a pupil for a drugs-related offence other than dealing?

Mr. Twigg

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the change that we made concerned dealing. We are having a wider review of the guidance, and I am not issuing new guidance from the Dispatch Box today. Clearly, dealing is serious and we want to send a strong message from the Department, and I hope from Parliament, that such behaviour is completely and utterly unacceptable and will not be allowed.

Several hon. Members today have referred to the importance of listening to young people and providing opportunities for school students and other young people to have their say, whether it be through schools councils or through youth assemblies and councils. That will be important in taking forward the policy initiatives that we have been debating.

I referred in my opening remarks to bullying and, in particular, homophobic bullying, and I welcome the cross-party support from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches for my remarks on that.

Several hon. Members referred to the nature of the curriculum. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to 13 to 15-year-old boys. The curriculum reforms contained in our Green Paper "14–19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards" and the 'wider debate on that are vital and we shall return to that soon.

A number of the initiatives to which I referred will begin in those local authority areas that have the most serious problems with street crime and truancy. We are starting there, but we want the good practice established by the setting up of behaviour and education support teams and encouraging more pupil referral units and learning support units to spread elsewhere. I very much take the points that have been made by several hon. Members that if that good practice is to be taken up as part of a universal service, that will sometimes require support in terms of resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made an important point from the experience of Ealing about the danger that excluded students from a number of schools can all end up going to one or two particular schools. That problem is not specific to London, although perhaps it is more pronounced in London than elsewhere, but part of the work that I am doing on London schools will attempt to address that. It is not an easy matter to address, but it will provide a further set of challenges for a school that might already have challenging circumstances if it finds itself as the school that effectively has to pick up all the young people excluded from other schools in the area.

Many hon. Members have referred to parental involvement and support, and that is clearly important. Several of my hon. Friends emphasised the importance of other programmes, notably the sure start programme, but also mentoring, not just for pupils but for their parents and other adult role models.

This has been a very good debate about an important matter. I hope that the cross-party spirit in which it has been conducted can be reflected afterwards, so that all of us can work both in our constituencies and nationally for the sort of step change in pupil behaviour that we want, to enhance standards in our schools and to make schools a better place for teachers to work in and for students to study in. I thank everyone for taking part.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.