HC Deb 23 May 2002 vol 386 cc377-80
6. Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

What measures she is proposing to tackle the problem of truancy. [56349]

8. Colin Burgon (Elmet)

What further plans she has for helping teachers to improve discipline in schools. [56351]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Estelle Morris)

It is vital that we tackle both truancy and bad behaviour in schools. In the past five years, we have invested more than £600 million to support teachers in dealing with bad behaviour and tackling truancy. Earlier this month, we allocated a further £66 million of funding to targeted local education authorities to pilot our long-term strategy on improving behaviour and attendance.

Caroline Flint

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the introduction of pupil referral units, which give many children who have been excluded or are frequent truants the chance of an education. However, my right hon. Friend will know that parents are part of the problem. In the Banbury case, one of the excuses used over two years about why a daughter was not in school was that a dog ate her trainers. I heard of an excuse used by a local parent after a week's half-term holiday. When the education welfare officer called round, she was confronted with the excuse that the school uniform had been nicked off the washing line. I did not realise that school uniform was such a desirable fashion item.

As we have found in Doncaster when truancy sweeps are held, many of the truants are found in the company of a parent, with no valid excuse. When visits are made to homes, parents have no valid excuse for why their child is not in school. However, the truancy teams have no powers to return a child to school if he or she is in the company of a parent. Can we strengthen the law in that regard?

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we are to tackle the problem of truancy, we have to demand that parents work with schools. We cannot ask everything of teachers, nor can we blame schools for all the ills of society. The schools that have been successful have worked carefully with parents, and my hon. Friend gave good examples. She may be interested to hear that in the past four weeks we have held truancy sweeps in more than 230 places, mainly in urban areas. We funded the police to work with education welfare officers and more than 600 children were returned directly to school. For the parents who were with the other children—a sizeable number—the message was clear: "This is not on. Get your child in school and give teachers and schools a chance."

Colin Burgon

In Tuesday's debate on discipline in schools, I was able to raise the issue of Team Teach, which is a programme that attempts to equip teachers with the necessary verbal and physical skills to confront difficult situations. Will my right hon. Friend evaluate that scheme and, if she thinks that it is of value, will she ensure that it is rolled out to all the secondary schools to which it would be applicable?

Estelle Morris

I am interested to hear about that scheme, because I do not know about it. I will certainly evaluate it. If it proved to be a good project, we would make it available to schools so that they could choose whether to implement it. The point that my hon. Friend makes about training teachers is important. For too long, teachers could train to be teachers without any guidance on how to enforce discipline in schools. Children cannot learn unless their classroom is well ordered. Therefore, my hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that we will ensure that every teacher who completes training has had a sound grounding in how to maintain discipline in schools. Indeed, the project that he mentions could be used in initial teacher training as well for continuous professional development.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

The latest Ofsted report has clearly stated that poor behaviour by a minority of pupils is the major reason for teachers leaving the profession, and in recent written answers the Government admitted that they do not know how many teachers and pupils are attacked by other pupils. When will the Government discover the scale of the problem so that they can deal effectively with it?

Estelle Morris

The hon. Gentleman calls for us to collect information, and earlier in the week during the Opposition day debate, a Conservative Front Bencher said that we should collect data on children's violence against children. Normally, we hear from the Opposition about the need to reduce bureaucracy and paperwork. Indeed, only this Question Time, the Conservatives have said that they do not want to collect figures on achievement by ethnic minorities, because that is added bureaucracy. They should get their message straight.

We collect reasons for exclusion, so if the hon. Gentleman wishes to find out how many exclusions are because of violence towards teachers, he can do so. Without checking—so I am a little cautious about the figures—the number of such incidents has fallen slightly in the past year. However, I make nothing of that and I do not claim it as any improvement. It is important to collect data, as we do on exclusions, but we do not want to demand of schools that they collect data and return them to a host of organisations after every incident of child violence. We would sooner spend our resources, time and effort on supporting teachers in trying to eradicate that behaviour. That is the key to raising standards.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Will the Secretary of State look at the excellent initiative launched by Devon and Cornwall police with all the local authorities to stop truancy in the two counties? In so doing, will she hold discussions with the local authority in Devon and perhaps look at some of the work carried out in some Devon schools? Vyv Game, the deputy principal of Exmouth community college—the largest school in Devon—said: If we can recognise the reasons for someone's behaviour we can try to do something about it. Prevention is better than cure. If the right hon. Lady agrees with that, will she tell us how depriving families of income helps in that understanding?

Estelle Morris

My starting point is that it is crucial to get children in school and to keep them there to enable them to learn. One thing I can guarantee is that if a child from a financially deprived home truants from school, that child will not learn and attain. All that happens is that the cycle of deprivation passes into the next generation and we never, never break it.

My starting point is that we should begin with support and cajoling; we should work with the parent and the child, try alternative forms of curriculum and as many innovative things as possible; but if, at the end of the day, the parent still does not accept their responsibility to send a child to school, we are faced with a decision. We must either turn our back, shrug and say, "There, let us condemn that child to a lifetime of poverty as well", or we take tough measures. Courts and others are right to take tough steps, but they are end of the road measures. In some recent cases, we have seen that they worked and that children are back in school and learning. At the end of the day, that is what we want.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

May I inform my right hon. Friend that many schools in St. Helens face major discipline problems due to yobs trespassing on school premises? At present, that is not a criminal action. Will my right hon. Friend look into whether we can change the law to give our children more protection in school?

Estelle Morris

I shall certainly look into that matter. I am not quite clear whether my hon. Friend is talking about trespass during school time or out of school time. When one visits a school, one of the saddest things—although it is necessary—is to see how much has to be spent on securing buildings because of the behaviour of people in the community. The irony is that sometimes the school is the best-equipped place to serve the community, yet it is destroyed by the actions of an irresponsible few. I take my hon. Friend's point and although I am not sure what my conclusions will be, I am happy to look into it.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

The Secretary of State has loyally given a following wind to the Prime Minister's latest headline grabbing gimmick—withdrawing benefits from parents of truants—and in the debate on Tuesday her hon. Friends talked about holding consultations to work out whether that would be practical, so why was I told, when I tabled a question to her Department on the subject, that any consultation would be undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions?

Estelle Morris

Because child benefit is administered by the Department for Work and Pensions—the answer is quite simple. In the name of joined-up government—that is what we are—I am in close contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and when the consultation takes place, no doubt part of it will reflect the contributions made by my Department to that debate. The important thing is that we debate and consult—I do not care two hoots about which Department that emanates from.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

Is it not the case that the presence of drugs in schools is a major impediment to overall discipline, and that young people in school who are under the influence of drugs, taking drugs or dealing in drugs are not in a condition to learn? They affect their own learning and that of others. Do not schools need to work with the police, local authorities and social and health services to deal with that matter? What are my right hon. Friend and her Department doing to help local education services and schools to tackle that particular problem?

Estelle Morris

My hon. Friend is right. We learn quickly that we cannot protect schools from what is going on in the wider community. Often, schools are havens—well ordered and disciplined places; sometimes they are the most disciplined place in a child's life. However, we cannot always protect children from the activities of the neighbourhood so, sadly, my hon. Friend is right: there are incidents of drug taking and inappropriate behaviour in schools. There is no easy solution. That is why the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has responsibility for young people and learning, held a seminar this week where we could gather together those people who are beginning to develop good practice and take it forward. Without going into that matter, my hon. Friend made one important point: this has to be about all the services coming together: police, social services, the health authorities and mentors as well as the education service. If we can get the expertise from all those professionals, we may stand a chance. On top of that, we may make progress with parental support. I do not underestimate the nature of the difficulties, but progress has to be made as the problem is a barrier to real social cohesion and advancement.