HL Deb 21 March 2002 vol 632 cc1465-8

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they have reversed their previous policy of seeking to minimise the exclusion from school of disruptive pupils.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we have not reversed our policy on exclusions. We no longer have targets for permanent exclusions, but our revised draft guidance restates that, in most cases, before excluding a pupil, a range of alternative strategies should have been tried. However, some incidents may be so serious that permanent exclusion may be appropriate for a first or one-off offence. The new guidance helps to ensure that a balanced approach is taken on this issue.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply and am reassured by what she had to say. Does she agree that, at a time when there is concern about rising street crime, it is extremely important that we make sure that young people who are excluded from school—who often come from deeply disturbed backgrounds—are given the chance to have full-time schooling and are not just put into units where they are, perhaps, given only two or three hours' education a week?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree entirely. We must strike a balance between ensuring that children who can be educated in mainstream education are educated in that way and recognising that, for some children, that is impossible. From September, we will work towards the position in which full-time education will be provided for all children who are excluded. The most important part of the strategy, in many ways, is preventing children getting to the stage at which they are excluded.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister said that, in the autumn, we would be working towards a position where we would get all children who are excluded into full-time education. I thought that we had been working towards that for some years. Can she tell us what effective steps have already been taken and what proportion of excluded children are still free to roam the streets without supervision?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, let me make it clear that by September 2002 we expect all children who have been excluded to be in full-time education. We have made that commitment. We are working with local education authorities to ensure that they have the right kind of provision. Noble Lords will be aware that for some children the appropriate provision will be pupil referral units, with the anticipation that children will move back into full-time education. For others it may be simply a different school, with additional support. For yet others, it may the provision of other kinds of educational support. It is a broad range. I did not wish to give the impression that we have not arrived at that point, but rather that we are ensuring that we have in place the breadth of provision that is needed.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree—from what I know of the noble Baroness, I am sure she will agree—that a particular problem with regard to disruption in the classroom is that occasioned by young people with autistic spectrum disorder? That very often results in disruption in the classroom. What is really needed is more screening and earlier intervention so that such children are not simply dubbed as disruptive and then left to the devices of a pupil referral unit.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. It is absolutely right and proper to ensure that children with special educational needs are identified early, that support is provided for them within the classroom and that the right kind of support is provided for teachers so that they understand the needs of such children. We also need to ensure that, by working together, those children can enjoy a happy and fulfilling life at school and thus are able to remain in mainstream schooling, where that is appropriate for them, throughout their education.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the most difficult problems, if not the most difficult problem, for teachers is that of dealing with disruptive children? It may well be—I am sure my noble friend will agree—that exclusion should be used in certain circumstances and for a certain time. Is any research being done and training given to overcome the increasingly difficult problem of dealing with disruptive children?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, we are very concerned about disruption in schools. Within the department I chair a group which is looking specifically at behavioural issues. We are working with colleagues across departments, particularly those in educational psychology and those from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit at the Department of Health, in order to achieve solutions.

It is worth saying to my noble friend that we are also interested in looking at those schools which have been very successful at ensuring that children are not excluded through working with, for example, learning support mentors and establishing learning support units on site. We are developing a range of strategies which will enable our children to be in mainstream schools, while also supporting our teachers, for whom this is a serious issue.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, in view of recent press reports, has the Minister paid attention to what teachers have to face in the classroom when dealing with disruptive children? There are times when children need to be referred to pupil referral units, but I gather that the units in East London are small. I speak from anecdotal evidence, but I understand that in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, there are hardly any such units. How are teachers to deal with pupils who curse and defy them when all they can do is to refer them for counselling and so forth? Attention must be given to providing sufficient referral units, and after that of course bringing children back into the mainstream. Can the Minister tell the House what attention is being given to the provision of referral units?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions. We are ensuring that we have on the ground in local education authorities the right breadth of provision and support for students. Pupil referral units are an important part of that provision. We are ensuring, through the allocation of resources, that we do have in place the right level of support for young people.

However, this problem also concerns preventive measures in the classroom. It is about ensuring that our children receive the right kind of support and, I would argue, it is about parental involvement. We must ensure that parents work with schools, that they send the right messages to their young children about the role of schools, that they work with teachers and are seen to be supportive and respectful of schools.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that learning support units in schools, to which she referred in an earlier answer, often provide an easier route back into the mainstream after a temporary exclusion has been, it is hoped, successful? Can she tell the House a little about the balance between the two? Are learning support units always the first recourse, with exclusion units being the last recourse for children who cause disruption in the classroom?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the answer to the noble Baroness's question depends partly on what resources a particular local education authority has put in place. We believe that learning support units are making a big difference and we are particularly interested in their work in inner-city schools. However, they are not yet in place everywhere and so they will not be available for every school.

However, decisions also depend on the reason for the exclusion. I think that noble Lords would agree that, wherever possible, we want those children who come out of mainstream education and into a unit to be able to return to school in due course. That also applies to special schools when considering behavioural issues in children. Among their criteria for success is the number of children they are able to reintegrate into mainstream education.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the noble Baroness has told us that the Government have abandoned a system of targets in relation to children excluded from school. Does the Minister agree that that system has proved totally unsuitable? In certain areas of activity, targets can be really very damaging to the work of professionals on the ground. Will she agree to bring to the attention of her right honourable friend that there are other areas in education where targets might well be damaging and, indeed, other areas in government, such as the National Health Service? It is only too easy to set targets and think that one is managing from the centre, but they can do a great deal of damage.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, noble Lords will know that I have been on the receiving end of many targets in the course of my professional life. I have to say that targets play an important role in ensuring not least that the Government do what they say they will do. Noble Lords in this House will certainly ensure that the Government report back on the targets they have set. Indeed, for many organisations, including schools and—if I may trespass into another area of public sector life—the health service, it is important that we set ourselves the right kind of targets. With regard to education, we are discussing here the one chance that young people have to receive a good education. I think that we should set targets for ourselves.