HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc303-10WH 4.15 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Unlike some other politicians in recent times, I start from the premise that there is such a thing as society. I want the Government to do for social behaviour what they have done so successfully for literacy and numeracy. That policy was an outstanding success in the first few years of the Government. I want them to consider whether they have a vision to take social behaviour to the same levels that have been so well achieved for literacy and numeracy.

We hear a lot about antisocial behaviour. I commend the work of local councils, the Government and our public services to combat the problem. During recent years, it has dominated the postbags of hon. Members throughout the parliamentary spectrum, regardless of party. It blights the lives of ever more of my constituents in Nottingham, North and no doubt in your constituency, too, Mr. Benton.

The campaign must be organised on two fronts. As well as doing what we have done so well in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill by attacking antisocial behaviour, we need to promote positive social behaviour so that the problem is tackled on both wings—the carrot and the stick. I am setting out on my learning curve for the campaign and I have no prescriptions for action, other than a strong sense that a statutory element is needed in the national curriculum up to seven years of age, just as we have citizenship in the national curriculum at secondary level. We need something measurable if we are to initiate the required extra necessary or remedial work at the earliest moment in a child's life. Beyond that, my mind is open. Building on personal, social and health education, developing emotional intelligence and the ability of children to relate to each other without violence can all help to create good, rounded people regardless of academic achievement, which cannot help but increase when more young people are mentally equipped to learn.

I have been greatly encouraged by the good will surrounding the concept. A few weeks ago, David Bell of Ofsted courageously raised the issue publicly. Along with the Minister for Children and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is already joining up Whitehall on such issues. He has suggested that I keep in touch with him on the agenda. Indeed, I wish to put it on the record that my right hon. Friend generously allowed me access to discussions with some helpful civil servants.

The former city council leader, Councillor Graham Chapman, is a constant inspiration to me when taking on the toughest issues in our local communities. The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) realises, as I do, that the issue transcends party politics. All parties, Ministers and shadow Ministers have a lot to swallow and much to think about, not least the life-academic balance in education. That is necessary to enable good social behaviour, not merely disable the systems of antisocial behaviour.

I am not suggesting that schools alone should take responsibility for inculcating social behaviour in our children. On the contrary, it requires a collective effort in which families and carers will play a leading part. However, the plain truth is that, day by day throughout the country, teachers are being forced to assume that task on their own. They are having to cope with children who have never learned how to communicate, how to express their feelings and manage their emotions, how to follow rules and routines or how to act in company with others—in other words, children who have never been socialised.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will know from his postbag—I have learned this during my brief time in the House—that an ever larger percentage of the trouble is caused by us having to skew our efforts to deal with the problems created by children who have not been properly socialised. If nothing else, putting social behaviour on the national curriculum would reward the teacher who succeeded, often against all the odds, in getting persistently disruptive children to stay still and be quiet during their lessons. It would also give teachers some guidance and support in what I would argue is a most important yet scarcely recognised aspect of their job.

I suggest that putting social behaviour on the national curriculum would help to define the required standards, and would force all departments and agencies to examine their input and decide what policies are necessary to achieve appropriate social behaviour. All of us, in our public lives and as private citizens, have to live with the cost of our collective failure to develop social behaviour—parents whose children's classes are disrupted; teachers who have to practice crowd control to the exclusion of teaching; heads who want to include but are made to go through the process of exclusion; truant and welfare officers; and, later in life, staff in social services and housing departments, councillors, those involved in drug rehabilitation, police officers, youth offending teams, magistrates courts and prisons. It adds up to a lifetime of expensive and time-consuming public service input.

Then there are the wider victims—bullied kids, frightened neighbours, repressed communities and victims of criminality—who in turn have their own children, who are often brought up to perpetuate and widen the antisocial cycle. We must not forget the greatest victims of all—the children, who massively fail to realise their human potential, sometimes arriving on their first day at primary school already emotionally disfigured and permanently hobbled by ignorance. I often think that it would be much easier for us to get a handle on the problem if it took a more physical form, and the children showed up at the school gate visibly gnarled and malformed. Thankfully, however, that does not happen.

Academic studies show that good parenting has a higher educational impact than schooling. I am grateful to the Minister for Children for supplying me with the information to support that proposition. It is not about blaming parents in general, many of whom do heroic things to ensure the best for their children's development. Parents must take responsibility for their children, and we should help and encourage them to do so. We should not hanker after a parental golden age—it never existed—nor should we return to the practice of giving children so-called discipline.

We should look instead to a time when all children can enjoy the right to a decent life, and they should have the social toolkit to make the best of themselves inside and outside school. That will not drop off the Christmas tree; we have to work for it. We have to prepare for that and implement our plans. I hope that the Government will continue the great work that has already been done to ensure that all children are able to prepare for school in the right way.

Much of the problem starts before school. The problems of an antisocial youth can be regressed to the first day at primary school. Head teachers, as hon. Members know from talking to them, can spot the children who are going to go wrong. However, we can and must take that regression back even further—if necessary, back to birth.

What role do we envisage for the health visitor in spotting those children who may be at risk of not receiving appropriate behavioural education? Should additional resources be devoted to them, at the earliest and probably most effective time? Should the Child Support Agency be involved at that point to ensure that the father's responsibility is not merely financial? Should a named local public service officer—this is about devolving responsibilities and making people accountable—be responsible for monitoring a dozen local families and charting their progress through life? A loving mother and/or father armed with the right knowledge at that point is the strongest antidote to the development of an antisocial child.

Parenting classes should be pre-natal as well as post-natal and, in an appropriate form, should be a thread throughout a child's life in the teaching of what could be called a social behaviour hour in the mandatory national curriculum. Parents could make links with the national curriculum through family learning. Parenting programmes are producing some very encouraging results, but they must be complemented by developing programmes to prevent antisocial behaviour in young children, not merely by reacting to misbehaviour when it has occurred, as has to happen.

I hope to work towards some of the answers when I convene a brains trust of primary heads in Nottingham, North next month. Perhaps I can suggest that, as a practical outcome of this debate, the Minister or one of his colleagues write to hon. Members of all parties to encourage them to do the same. We should engage Members of Parliament in this issue, and ask them to convene meetings of primary heads, educational welfare officers and local councillors to pool expertise and perhaps deliver answers, then send reports to the Minister or Secretary of State. The Secretary of State or Prime Minister might then consider giving the matter the political profile that it needs and initiate a genuine national debate. That is not an idea that I necessarily want the Minister to snap up today, but perhaps he could give it some thought.

There is so much brilliant and innovative best practice, not only at Government and local government level but on the ground in primary, pre-school and post-natal education. I know that for a fact from my constituency, where sure start and PSHE teaching are making a real impact; but we must go further. We must set out for the next term and the term after that a vision of what we want to achieve on this very sensitive matter. It is also politically sensitive. It concerns all our electors and all our constituencies. One thread must be making best practice universal.

I may appear to be contradicting myself, but I believe that anything included in the national curriculum on social behaviour must have flexibility. It does not have to be prescriptive. As my right hon. Friend knows, Nottingham, North has the ward with the lowest educational attainment in the United Kingdom: it has the fewest kids going to university of any constituency in the UK and five of the bottom 25 comprehensives in the UK. How social behaviour would be taught in my constituency need not necessarily be the model for everywhere. We may have something to teach other people, but they may have something to teach us. Anything put into the national curriculum should have the flexibility to allow for individual circumstances.

If the Government wish to think further on this important topic, which is all that I ask of the Minister today, I am sure that we in Nottingham will do all that we can to pilot and develop the idea. We—and society as a whole—have so much to gain if we take it seriously.

4.28 pm
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate. I hope that I can reassure him in my response of the Government's strong commitment to ensuring that children and young people can contribute fully to society through the development of positive social behaviour. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children would very much like to have been here for this debate, because she is passionate about the issue—almost as much so as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. His is a really good idea, and changing the emphasis from antisocial behaviour to social behaviour has a parallel in social exclusion: we first started talking about social exclusion and then started to talk of social inclusion.

I want to outline the range of opportunities that is already available in the school curriculum for young people to learn about responsibilities, whether moral, social or parental, or those of citizens. I shall set out the work that we are doing to address antisocial behaviour in and out of schools before it becomes problematic, and shall refer to a variety of initiatives that support effective parenting and improve family functioning. Finally, I shall outline the plans set out in the recent Green Paper, "Every Child Matters", both to review family policy and to ensure that we have a coherent account of the work across Government that affects families. My hon. Friend's campaign, which we were at the launch of today, will be an important part of those deliberations.

The national curriculum ensures that schools provide a broad and balanced education for all pupils, and social behaviour is taught throughout the curriculum; however, citizenship, and personal, social and health education are the most important subjects for many schools. Giving pupils opportunities to learn about responsibilities is central to citizenship education, which is compulsory for all those between the ages of 11 and 16. My hon. Friend made the point about moving that range back, which we should consider. The programmes of study for citizenship ensure that pupils will learn about the rights and responsibilities that underpin society. Studying citizenship complements the framework of PSHE, which provides for pupils in both primary and secondary schools to be taught about relationships, including marriage and those between friends and families, and to develop the skills to be effective in relationships. The framework also provides for those pupils to be taught about the role and feelings of parents and carers, the value of family life, the nature and importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children, the role and responsibilities of a parent, and the qualities of good parenting and its value to family life.

We want schools to have the freedom to explore with young people a broad range of issues, in relation to which we would all want them to behave responsibly as adults. We believe that PSHE and citizenship provide opportunities to teach about social behaviour in the curriculum and the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. The non-statutory nature of the PSHE framework means that teachers have the flexibility to deliver the subject in ways that best meet the needs of their pupils. Teaching beyond the curriculum, however, is just as important. The Robin Hood primary school in Nottinghamshire, for example, had concerns about poor standards of behaviour, which led to an extensive programme of out-of-hours learning, including football clubs. That built self-esteem and improved results.

It is crucial that good standards of behaviour are promoted and that any problem behaviour is identified and tackled quickly. However, surveys show that the vast majority of teachers consider pupil behaviour to be generally good, with a majority believing that standards are improving, although poor behaviour is of course a serious problem where it occurs. It has an impact not just on the individual pupil, but on the whole class. We are committed to raising standards further still and are investing almost £470 million over the next three years to do so. This September every LEA is being funded to appoint expert behaviour and attendance consultants, in order to help schools maintain and secure high levels of positive behaviour and attendance, and tackle bullying wherever it occurs. In addition, senior staff in all secondary and middle schools are being trained to use audits to identify current strengths and weaknesses in behaviour and attendance, and to draw up action plans.

It is crucial that we instil good standards of behaviour in children from an early age. This month we are rolling out a two-year attendance and behaviour pilot in primary schools in 25 LEAs. The pilot will test new social and emotional behaviour teaching materials developed in line with literacy and numeracy strategies for primary schools, so there is a link there with the points made by my hon. Friend. That will develop a model for supporting school improvement where behaviour and attendance are key issues, which could lead to a social behaviour hour, or a part of the day dedicated to that subject.

Some pupils have greater difficulties that impact on their behaviour and we have developed a range of support measures for those pupils, their families and teachers. They include multi-agency behaviour and educational support teams, which have proved highly effective by providing early professional intervention for pupils and their families to help them deal with behaviour issues and prevent problems from escalating. We are currently funding 93 of those teams in 36 local education authorities, and that will be extended to a further 27 LEAs early next year.

Learning support units are helping to minimise disruption in the classroom and reduce the number of exclusions by removing pupils with behavioural difficulties from mainstream classes. Such units provide a setting to educate those pupils and address their behavioural difficulties within the school so that they can be effectively reintegrated at the earliest opportunity.

Involving parents at an early stage of their child's antisocial behaviour helps prevent it from becoming entrenched. That is why we are proposing in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill that youth offending teams will have a statutory power to make parenting contracts with parents of children who are engaging, or are likely to engage, in offending or antisocial behaviour in the community. The introduction of parenting contracts will give youth offending teams an additional tool to tackle antisocial behaviour effectively, and give them some authority with the parents to whom they are offered.

Mr. Allen

I am very pleased to hear what the Minister has said so far. Aside from the cultural aim of ensuring that our estates return to a decent level of social behaviour, I appeal to him economically. He will be aware that given the amount of money that has to be spent on one disruptive child who may then encounter the criminal justice system or drug rehab, public service is paying for a lifetime of getting it wrong instead of spending a couple of thousand pounds on intervention early on in life. That is an economic argument; I know that the Minister is keen to expand the provision for education post-16 and perhaps he may be able to corner a little money if he gets the issue of social behaviour right too.

Alan Johnson

I agree that there is an economic case for early intervention and preventing the problems from arising in the first place. That is a very important part of the Green Paper that I shall mention in just a second.

Recent research commissioned by my Department highlights the crucial role of parenting in children's education. That is the nub of the debate this afternoon. In particular, it highlights the crucial role of parenting for primary age children. That is why our strong commitment to supporting families is central to our vision. Strong families are at the heart of strong communities, and successful and confident parenting is essential to help to create healthy families.

Our role as a Government is to enable parents to do the best they can for their children. Most parents strive to do so, but how they do that will vary according to individual parents' own experiences. An effective means of providing direct support in parenting is through the voluntary sector. For example, the new parenting fund will provide £25 million over three years for voluntary and community sector initiatives to help parents improve their parenting skills. Sure start children's centres—one of the most, if not the most successful initiative of this Government—will also have an important role to play. Integrated support programmes provide services such as outreach support, home visits, community support, child minding networks, counselling and parenting classes.

Finally, it is important to identify areas in which more joined-up policy development may be necessary to ensure that work is as effective as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that the creation of the department in the Department for Education and Skills, which under my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children is taking in all the various children's issues from other Government Departments, is a step in the right direction.

A review led by the family policy unit will map current Government work and provide a coherent account of what the Government are doing to support children and their families. The Green Paper, "Every Child Matters" did not receive much press coverage, but was an important document in this whole sphere and for education. In it, we set out our aim to ensure that every child has the chance to fulfil their potential. We described our proposals for building on the progress already made and the main areas for further action to improve children's lives. They include improving parenting and family support, and early intervention when problems are identified.

The range of measures that I have described to support the teaching of social behaviour in the classroom provides a firm foundation on which to build. Some of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend are important in taking that forward. We have the foundations and we now need to build on them.

Mr. Allen

I sense that my right hon. Friend is coming to the end of his comments and I want to draw him further on a couple of matters. As well as being a distinguished Minister, my right hon. Friend is a Member of Parliament for an area not dissimilar to mine. He must have seen the consequences of antisocial behaviour, weekend after weekend at his surgeries. He knows what it means to our electorate.

Will my right hon. Friend take back to our right hon. Friend the Minister for Children the idea of involving Members of Parliament as a sounding board on the possibilities that I have outlined today? Will he also take back to her the possibility of convening a group of Members of Parliament of all parties with an interest in the matter and using it as her own focus group or brains trust to try to bring forward some ideas from the very good practice that exists across the United Kingdom?

Alan Johnson

I certainly take that suggestion on board. It would be good for parliamentarians and Parliament to play such a co-ordinating role. I cannot think of any other person in a community better placed than the local Member of Parliament to galvanise action in that direction. I am sure that when my hon. Friend has his meeting with primary school heads in Nottingham, North shortly they will turn up in droves, as I am sure they would in west Hull and Bootle. My ministerial colleague will be very interested in that suggestion and in my hon. Friend's point that this is a cross-party issue with huge support throughout the House. Again, it will benefit Parliament to be seen to be acting in a cross-party way on such issues.

We have laid the foundations. Equally important is the range of initiatives to support parents in their role as children's first educators and enduring role models. Most of the social divisions in society and educational attainment problems are embedded by the age of three, which is why sure start was such an important initiative. Those measures and the proposals in the Green Paper to provide better early identification of problems are important.

Mr. Allen

In the last few seconds, could my right hon. Friend outline—he could write to me if he cannot answer immediately—the co-ordination that takes place, in addition to that through our right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, which is very welcome, at Cabinet and Cabinet Committee levels to ensure that social services and work and pensions issues are joined up throughout Whitehall? Everyone has an interest in the matter.

Alan Johnson

My right hon. Friend will write to my hon. Friend. She is very keen for it to work properly throughout Whitehall and the result will be more coherent support for the social development of every child, the result of which will be a better society.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Five o'clock.

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