§ 4. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)
What progress he has made in meeting his target to reduce truancy. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)
This is the first Government to put attendance at the heart of their policies for improving standards and pupil achievement. Our measures provide both support for pupils and their parents and sanctions to reinforce parental responsibility. The year 2002–03 saw school attendance at a record high, and 1,300 truants back at school each day.
§ Mr. Djanogly
Despite £600 million of taxpayers' money having been spent on reducing truancy since 1997, secondary school truancy has shot up from 450,000 pupils in 1997 to 630,000 in 2003. Is that not another fine example of a Government who know how to spend very well, but how to manage very poorly?
§ Mr. Lewis
The hon. Gentleman has read out very effectively the briefing from central office. I should have thought that he would welcome the fact that attendance in our schools is at a record high and that those who are truanting do so less frequently. There are other realities, however, including the fact that when we give more priority to the issue of attendance, heads are far less likely to authorise a level of attendance that they previously authorised. In this country, 50 per cent. of truancy takes place with the knowledge and collusion of parents. This Government are tackling that problem in a serious, fundamental and long-term way by reforming the curriculum so that it is more relevant to the needs of individual young people and by offering individual support to pupils and families who have genuine challenges and problems, but also by ensuring that there is enforcement where parents are not fulfilling their responsibilities. That is a long-term sustained strategy to tackle truancy in a serious way.
§ Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)
In addition to those very important truancy-specific measures to which my hon. Friend has just alluded, which are certainly having their impact in my constituency, is it not the case that children stay in school if they are interested in what is going on there? They need to value that experience, and our focus on and success in improving teaching, learning and skill leadership is also having a significant impact.
§ Mr. Lewis
I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. That is central to raising school standards, to improving the leadership of schools and to having a positive ethos in e very school in every part of the country. We must hive a far more flexible curriculum to turn young people on to learning. The 14 to 16 flexibility programme has been a major success, and we are reducing the statutory core curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds from next September and introducing a new young apprenticeship. Central to the Tomlinson review on the future of 14 to 19 education is the need to ensure that we have pathways through the system for young people that motivate and inspire them, and do not differentiate between vocational and academic education. It is extremely important that we tackle not just the symptoms of truancy but their causes, by reforming the curriculum, tailoring education to suit the needs of every individual young person and ensuring that behaviour and discipline are central to our agenda of raising school standards.
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)
Will the Minister accept that the majority of the 1 million pupils who played truant last year were teenagers who voted with their feet because they were dissatisfied with the relevance to them of the education that they were receiving? Will he therefore take it from the Conservatives that we are genuinely willing, despite our differences on other educational matters, to work with him and Mike Tomlinson on providing a 14 to 19 curriculum that cat survive a change of Government and provide stability to teachers and others? Will he and his ministerial colleagues undertake to work with all parties in the House to ensure that we can do that constructively?
§ Mr. Lewis
I strongly welcome the hon. Gentleman's commitment to trying to achieve consensus on a new 14 to 19 phase of education that will stand the test of time and represent the test interests of every single young person who accesses the education system in this country. Yes, of course we will work with members of other political parties and with people with expertise in this field. It was brave of the Government to set up the Tomlinson group, external from and independent of Government, to make credible, acceptable proposals so that we have, for the first time in this country, a 14 to 19 phase of education that inspires young people and also gets rid of this country's historic divide between academic and vocational education. That is central to ensuring that we do something about the fact that far too many young people in this country drop out at 17. That is the great challenge facing the English education system, and I would welcome a political consensus to address that.