HC Deb 20 January 2004 vol 416 cc1232-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

1.38 pm
]The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis)

May I begin by saying that as well as opening the debate, I shall ask the leave of the House to respond to it at its conclusion? The Government are keen to have the debate because we believe that it focuses on an issue of profound importance for the country.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)(Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can the Government be keen to have the debate if they can field only one Minister to open and close it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not a matter for the Chair at this stage.

Mr. Lewis

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The fact is that my ministerial colleagues are throughout the country championing the Government's educational achievements.

The issue is important for our country. The Government have volunteered to have the debate—we always have arguments about parliamentary scrutiny—because we are keen to have a serious and sensible debate about the matter. Improving attendance and behaviour is important for several reasons: it is central to raising school standards; it is crucial to the fight against the modern scourges of antisocial behaviour and youth crime; and it is the key to the Government's determination to break the intergenerational deprivation and underperformance that permeates too many families in our communities. The stakes are high because we must never forget that the pupils of today quickly become the parents of tomorrow.

It is important that we begin with some facts. Approximately 50,000 pupils are missing school without permission every day, nearly half of young people in custody have been permanently excluded from school, and bad behaviour disrupts education at one secondary school in 12. Equally, the 2002 edition of "Education at a Glance", which covers school discipline, shows that UK schools are better than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average on five of the six indicators of pupil behaviour.

Whatever the statistics, our responsibilities are clear. The truth is that for too many of our young people, education has not been a bridge to hope and opportunity, but simply another step on an inevitable journey to self-destruction and community exclusion. In an act of collective timidity, the state has all too often failed to act either decisively or effectively.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)(Con)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the key to dealing with bad behaviour is swift remedial action, rather than long, time-consuming bureaucratic procedures? In that respect, when I was a schoolmaster we at least had recourse to corporal punishment. It was not always the answer, but it was useful in nipping bullying in the bud. That might not be available now, but we must have in its place a swift remedy to stop the spread of this disease.

Mr. Lewis

Some things never change. As for swift and effective action, it took 18 years of the hon. Gentleman's party being in government for many of the values and standards of behaviour that we want restored to our society to deteriorate. For years, the lack of preventive work and investment in our most disadvantaged communities was shameful—I repeat: shameful.

We are paying a heavy price for our failure to acknowledge the enduring truth that a society that values individual freedom and community solidarity must assert responsibilities as well as rights. Too often throughout history, we have appeared value neutral. We have allowed a society to develop in which parents, unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, have usually been treated as though they were unable to do so. Discipline has become a dirty word as too many teachers are expected to tolerate abuse as a regular part of their daily professional life. Many others have their morale sapped by pupils whose behaviour is consistently disruptive.

We have remained silent for too long as far too many teachers have left the profession citing pupil behaviour as a primary cause. The vast majority of pupils who behave well and work hard are sometimes expected to tolerate the disruption and bullying of a few of their peers. We have frequently appeared impotent as a small minority of families made life a misery for the decent majority in our communities.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would move on to special educational needs. As the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) implied in Question Time on Thursday, a significant cause of disruption cannot be put down to a self-destructive motivation among those involved. Why are the Government capping expenditure on special educational needs?

Mr. Lewis

I shall come to that. It is a little rich for the hon. Gentleman to lecture us on the use of public money when the Conservative party has said it would reduce public expenditure by 20 per cent. if it came back into power.

None of the deterioration that I described has been good for our young people or the fabric of our society. The time has come for action based on a new covenant between state and citizen—a covenant that holds true to the Government's passion for tackling disadvantage and unleashing human potential while exercising zero tolerance of those who fail to fulfil their responsibilities.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend give credit where it is due? Schools that have a sense of achievement seem better at tackling the problems he describes. Towneley high school in my constituency has had great success with its school band, which has given the whole school an impetus to improve. For the past couple of years, there has been an over-demand for the school, which was not the case three years ago.

Mr. Lewis

I agree that we must build on the successes of young people. We have to motivate them and find ways to inspire them, especially in communities where low aspirations have been endemic for too long. That is the way out of poverty and underperformance and is the way to achieve the fair and successful society that the Government are all about.

In pursuit of that objective, we are implementing radical reform at every stage of a child's educational life. Sure Start local programmes focus on supporting parents from before the time when they bring their baby into the world. Some 524 local programmes are available in 20 per cent. of the country's poorest wards and the Government are developing children's centres. The Chancellor made it clear in his pre-Budget report that the Government are aiming for a children's centre in every community.

Reduced infant class sizes allow teachers and support staff to manage, among other things, classroom behaviour better. The focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools has ensured that far more children reach an appropriate level at the age of 11. There is a focus on the first three years at secondary school where historically children's motivation, behaviour and attendance have deteriorated. Many of the gains secured at primary school are lost in the early years of secondary education.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

Bearing in mind that the Minister is outlining all the things that have happened and the great changes that have occurred, can he tell us why truancy is increasing?

Mr. Lewis

Attendance is at a record high. The unauthorised absence rate has reduced over the past 12 months, albeit very slowly. That does not mean that I underestimate the difficulties that we face in terms of truancy, with which I shall deal shortly.

The hon. Gentleman refers to me "outlining all the things". We are implementing the most radical reform of education for a generation. It is interesting that the Conservatives simply dismiss the changes when those in the education sector and those who benefit from the reforms know that we are beginning to achieve a step change, especially in those communities that have been denied educational opportunities for far too long.

The Connexions service is up and running in all parts of the country, ensuring that teenagers are supported to overcome whatever barriers get in the way of their educational progress. We should acknowledge that there are many reasons—some to do with school, some to do with home, some to do with environment—why young people do not fulfil their potential. It is important that we focus on individual young people to ensure that we have the capacity to remove those barriers, whatever they may be, and provide a holistic response.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)(Con)

So that the House has a true picture of what is really going on in our schools, will the Minister confirm the figure in the Library brief that 560,000 children in our secondary sector are absent without leave on at least one day in the year? Furthermore, it goes on to say that in the last year for which figures are available, the number of those absent without leave from our primary schools has gone up, not down, by 6 per cent. That contradicts what he just said.

Mr. Lewis

I will deal with attendance and truancy later. I have already dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin).

The country's secondary schools all have the opportunity to become specialist, and there will be at least 2,000 specialist schools by 2006. It is also important to focus on school leadership through the leadership incentive grant and the national college for school leadership. All hon. Members will acknowledge that effective leadership and a strong ethos are central to improving attendance and behaviour in all circumstances.

We are also embarking on a radical reform of the 14 to 19 phase of education, designed to create a fit for the purpose curriculum and learning pathways that motivate and engage young people. Changes that we have begun for 14 to 16-year-olds include the introduction in 2002 of eight new GCSEs in vocational subjects. A reduced core curriculum from September allows schools increasingly to build a curriculum around the needs, strengths and aspirations of each young person. There is also the 14 to 16 flexibility programme, benefiting 80,000 pupils in 1,800 schools, with young people spending a couple of days a week at school, a couple of days at college, and some spending a day with a local employer—again, building a learning experience that turns young people on, motivates them and shows them the importance of education.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to say a word about the education maintenance allowance, which has been introduced and piloted in a number of areas, including my own, and which is encouraging young people to stay on at school for academic subjects? Is it possible, now that we also have the possibility of a £3,000 a year grant for children from lower-income families going to university, to extend the EMA into a FEMA£a further education maintenance allowance£and then on to university, the HEMA, so that there is a seamless transition, with young people being able to see from the moment they start secondary school that they will be paid to learn at whatever level they need to qualify?

Mr. Lewis

The education maintenance allowance is one of the Government's proudest achievements. It is extremely positive that it will be available in September for all 16-year-olds to support them in making the choice to stay on in education. This is particularly for those from low-income families: young people who have been the most disadvantaged and have found access to further and higher education most challenging.

I also agree that if there is to be a variety of ways in which young people can stay on and progress and make achievements within the education system, down both an academic and a vocational track—a mixed pathway—we must ensure that the financial arrangements incentivise them to follow the path that is most appropriate to meet their needs. The Treasury is leading a review of all the financial support arrangements impacting on 16 to 19-year-olds, so that in due course we can create a level playing field providing equal support to all young people to encourage that progression and attainment.

Training allowances are being paid to young people participating in the entry to employment programme. It is often forgotten that modern apprentices are, on the whole, paid a wage. We need to ensure that we have a level playing field and that there is financial support to help young people progress in an appropriate way.

At Question Time recently I made the point that it will be exceptionally difficult to tell young people, "We want you to stay on in education to 16, to have high aspirations, and to aim to achieve your potential", if post-16 we have the situation that the Conservative party advocates of capping the number of young people who can go on to higher education. We all know full well that the consequence of that policy would be that young people from the poorest families—those most likely to be eligible for education maintenance allowances—would be denied the opportunity to participate in higher education.

I return to the reforms to the provision for those aged 14 to 16. Work-related learning is to be made statutory from next year. We are also determined to introduce enterprise education as part of the curriculum.

I come now to our changes to post-16 education. More than 25,000 young people are now participating in the entry to employment programme, which is for young people who reach the age of 16 and want to pursue a vocational route. They may have special education needs and so not be able to enter a foundation modern apprenticeship. We want to make sure that for even those young people who are the most challenged and who face the most barriers, we have a programme that supports their personal, social and educational development and, if possible, enables them to go on to foundation modern apprenticeships.

Mr. Allen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. He is being very generous, as we have come to expect of him.

There is a further area that I am sure my hon. Friend would want to look at: the myriad of possible qualifications that face a young person from the age of 16 onwards. There are initials galore, and it is extremely difficult for a young person to navigate through the various options. Do the Department and the Government have it in mind to review the plethora of qualifications, so that we may simplify the system and, as well as having a simple route for funding for these youngsters, have a simple progression through a series of understandable qualifications?

Mr. Lewis

I agree with my hon. Friend; that is why we are embarking on the review of 14 to 19 education by Mike Tomlinson, who will report during this year, to ensure that we have credible, easy to understand pathways for young people. It is also why the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is undertaking the most radical shake-up of adult vocational qualifications that we have ever seen, in terms of unitisation and credit transfer.

One of the barriers in education—in lifelong learning, and not just for young people—is the complex nature of the qualifications framework and the confusion that it brings to the system. Simplifying the system, making it easier to access and to understand, is vital so that people may make the link between lifelong learning and education and life opportunities. Therefore, the reform of qualifications is exceptionally important. We have to get it right. It is important that the Government were prepared to tell an external group, "Have a look at 14 to 19 education. We have tried to make this work through the generations, but have never succeeded. Therefore, we want a genuinely objective expert job done so that we can look at putting in place for the first time a 14 to 19 phase that really works."

It is also important in debates such as this to refer to modern apprenticeships. When I go to meetings with business people or speak to educationists, or even occasionally read the editorial columns of our newspapers or listen to Opposition politicians seeking to make dubious points about higher education, I could be led to believe that there is no apprenticeship system in this country, that we do not have apprenticeships and that apprenticeship is on the wane. In fact, 230,000 young people are undertaking modern apprenticeships this year, something that we should celebrate and promote. The Government are determined to build upon this.

We recognise that there are real obstacles, barriers and challenges in relation to modern apprenticeships. The non-completion rate is one. Moreover, we need modern apprenticeships that are more fit for the purpose, in terms of the needs of employers and sectors. We are embarking on that programme of reform, but the fact that 230,000 young people are making the positive choice to undertake modern apprenticeships is a positive and important step forward.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

I am a great supporter of modern apprenticeships, but in my area—I do not know how typical it is of the country—it is extremely difficult to get employers, particularly in the private sector, to take them up. A vast number of young people willing and able to go on the apprenticeships cannot be found a place.

Mr. Lewis

That is the very reason why we established the modern apprenticeship taskforce, chaired by Sir Roy Gardner, one of our country's leading business people. It is sad that he is also the chairman of Manchester United plc. If I had known that, perhaps I would not have agreed to his appointment as I am a Manchester City supporter.

One of the great challenges facing the taskforce is to reach out to employers of all sizes to get them to offer far more opportunities to young people. We have to have a correlation between supply and demand. I am optimistic both about the work that the modern apprenticeship taskforce has already undertaken—in engaging businesses that have previously been reluctant to participate, or had not been participating, in the taskforce—and about its plans to go further over the next 12 months and reach out particularly to small and medium-size enterprises. That should ensure that we have not only the volume of apprenticeships that are needed, but the variety of modern apprenticeships that young people genuinely want to undertake.

I have mentioned the Tomlinson review of the 14 to 19 group. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) mentioned education maintenance allowances. In that context, it is also important to focus on the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", focusing first on the need to protect children, at a minimum, but also on the need to nurture children so that they can achieve their full potential.

What is important about the Green Paper is that it seeks to bring together every body, both statutory and voluntary, as well as people from different professional backgrounds, and harness their talents, expertise and resources so that in every community we can focus on the needs of individual children and particularly of those young people with special needs—those who find that the existing system does not work for them and those who over many years have presented the greatest challenges to our system.

"Every Child Matters" maps out a framework, and is an important step in bringing resources and expertise together. There can be no doubt that all those reforms at every stage in a child's life will, over time, lead directly to an improvement in attendance and behaviour. We are providing support in the earliest years for the most vulnerable children. There are more adults in the classroom than ever before—since 1997, we have appointed more than 24,000 more teachers and 61,000 more classroom assistants. A personalised curriculum excites and motivates young people, plays to their strengths, and supports every individual so that they can fulfil their potential. Aspirations and ambitions have been raised in families, neighbourhoods and schools that have for too long been cut off from opportunities that hon. Members take for granted. Children are far more likely to behave well if they and their parents understand and experience the full value of education.

It is important to make a link between what we are doing to improve adult skills and the school standards agenda. If we get parents and grandparents back into learning so that they can experience the dignity of self-improvement, it is far more likely that they will understand the direct benefits to their children and grandchildren of education. It is not just about the work that we are doing directly for young people, but the tremendous progress that we are making in adult basic skills. The new level 2 entitlement for adults, for example, enables any adult who does not have the equivalent of five decent GCSEs to receive free training and support, which is brokered by the Government. All that incredibly important work enables us to challenge directly some of the culturally low aspirations that form a barrier to education in many of our communities.

Last year, the Secretary of State announced the country's first coherent national behaviour and attendance strategy. For years, politicians from all parties have bemoaned deteriorating behaviour and attendance, and there has been a lot of hand-wringing and rhetoric. We are the first Government to tackle directly the problems of truancy and deteriorating behaviour. Our programme consists of both a universal and a targeted element to address problems at different levels. The universal element deals with issues that affect every school and local education authority to a greater or lesser extent. The targeted element deals with problems that are particularly acute in certain areas.

Before we can achieve improvements, we need to identify strengths and weaknesses, so we are making behaviour and attendance audit materials available to every secondary and middle school in the country. Audits will identify training needs.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

The Minister has just said that before we can secure improvements we must put various measures in place. Only two years ago, the Government made a clear commitment, and said that they had a target to reduce unauthorised absences by a further 10 per cent. by 2004. Is that still a commitment and is it still on target?

Mr. Lewis

It is still a commitment, and we aspire to reach that target. I shall deal later with the progress that we are making, but I can confirm that it remains a target.

We are making behaviour and attendance audit materials available to every secondary and middle school. The audits will reveal training needs, so we are making high-quality training materials available to all staff, not just teachers. We have ensured that local education authorities have the expertise to support schools, particularly schools that have a serious problem with challenging behaviour. We started with secondary schools, because behavioural problems are most acute and urgent at that level. I have previously talked about preventive work and the early interventions that we are making. We are also piloting curriculum, audit and training materials in primary schools in 25 local education authorities, and are considering how to extend that provision to the rest of the country.

It is important to tackle the problem of bullying, as it is causing so much misery to so many children. Every year, 20,000 children ring Child Line to say that they are being bullied. Recent surveys of young people show that large numbers have either experienced bullying themselves or have witnessed it. Editors of magazines for teenagers are probably in more regular contact with young people than MPs, and they say that one of the priority concerns articulated by young people is the effect of bullying. We therefore take bullying extremely seriously, and tackling it is central to the improvement of attendance and behaviour. Every school is required to have an anti-bullying policy, and Ofsted is empowered to inspect schools' approach to tackling bullying.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

Does the Minister have access to material that tries to identify whether or not bullying over the past decade or past couple of decades has increased or decreased in schools? It is clearly a problem, but is it a permanent one or one that has increased recently?

Mr. Lewis

We do not have the hard data to make such a comparison. However, we have a responsibility to deal with the concerns voiced by young people, for whom bullying is a serious and acute problem. In recent years, schools have become better at tackling bullying and taking innovative and imaginative approaches to the problem. However, there is no hard data to establish whether the problem is any worse or any better than it was 10 years ago. Our priority is to challenge that problem, as it is causing a great deal of concern among young people. We should not forget that it affects their educational performance and, in some cases, their attendance.

Mr. Pike

While it has always been recognised that bullying exists within boys, bullying within girls is an equally serious problem.

Mr. Lewis

I assume that my hon. Friend meant bullying among girls rather than within them. There is no evidence of a gender imbalance. In many cases, young women and young men are equally concerned about the effect of bullying on their lives and educational experience.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the first step is establishing an anti-bullying policy, but it is not worth the paper it is written on unless it is implemented? A key factor in implementation is quality leadership, as it is for performance indicators across the piece, which is why we are right to stress the need for quality leadership in all our schools.

Mr. Lewis

I agree entirely, which is why we established the leadership incentive grant and the National College for School Leadership. Only this week, I wrote to every school urging them to adopt our anti-bullying charter, which seeks to persuade schools to make progress on a policy that may be gathering dust on a shelf and take practical action that makes a difference. I am hosting conferences in every region of the country over the next six months under the banner, "Make the Difference." We have invited head teachers to attend, showcase good practice, share ideas and focus their energy on serious and sustainable ways of tackling the problem of bullying. Two conferences have already taken place—one in Wembley, the other in Brighton—and each was attended by 400 to 500 senior educationists. We could have filled each venue twice over. Education leaders are therefore genuinely committed to tackling the problem. Any head teacher who says that they do not have bullying in their school is not in touch with what is taking place daily. It is important that we acknowledge the seriousness of the problem but do not exaggerate it. If one child is being bullied, that is one child too many in a civilised society, and we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Mr. Andrew Turner

Of course, if one child is bullied, that is one too many. However, does the Minister appreciate that in schools that have tackled bullying well the incidence of the problem may be lower than it is elsewhere? It appears from the way in which he described it that his policy is a blanket policy for every single school, and is not sufficiently fine-tuned. Is that the case?

Mr. Lewis

No. The charter for action identifies broad principles in respect of practical action that individual schools could take or ought to take, but it does not prescribe the particular methods, initiatives or good practice that a school may choose to adopt. We recognise that each school and each head teacher must be allowed the autonomy and discretion to ensure that the overall management of the school leads to the minimum amount of bullying. That is why the showcasing of good practice, innovation and good ideas is so important. Schools have a great deal to learn from each other in this regard.

No one-size-fits-all model is being imposed on all schools in every part of the country. We have even said, with respect to the charter which, as I say, has pretty broad-brush principles, that if schools wish to modify it and adopt their own version of it, that is fine. I would be concerned about any school that said, "We have a policy but we don't need to move from having that policy to taking practical and decisive action." In any situation we are all suspicious when people hide behind policies. What matters is that there is a change of practice and of culture. That is more difficult to achieve, and it does not occur overnight.

It is important that we focus on attendance. I shall deal with some of the comments made by hon. Members. We believe that we must intervene in schools in the way I described to reform the system and to improve the quality of teaching and learning and the quality of leadership. That is central to improving behaviour and attendance. We also believe it is right to make the point that parents are legally responsible for ensuring that their children attend school regularly. Most parents carry out that responsibility conscientiously, but too many do not. We are determined to make them do so. That is why we are promoting "Fast Track to Prosecution", which is shorthand for a case management system for education welfare services designed to ensure that parents of persistent truants improve their child's attendance within a fixed time scale or are prosecuted.

"Fast Track" is being implemented by 105 local education authorities and we expect the remainder to do so by the end of this term. The indications already are that "Fast Track" can make a real difference. Initial feedback from pilot LEAs shows that half the parents finally engaged with education welfare services to get their children back to school. Only half the cases needed to reach court.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that after the first parent was given a custodial sentence for not taking her child to school, the very next week six pupils turned up at one school in my constituency who had not been seen for the whole of that term.

Mr. Lewis

That is extremely reassuring. One of the historic problems in this area, with reference to the comment about tough and effective action, is that these problems have been allowed to drift. Young people have remained out of school for weeks or months, and in some cases that has gone on for years. What is important is not the punitive aspect of the fast track to prosecution initiative, although there ought to be consequences for parents who do not fulfil such basic responsibilities, but the fact that for the first time it enables the system to get parents' co-operation to focus on getting the young person back into school as soon as possible.

Going through a court process is not always the most appropriate way to deal with the situation. When it comes into force in March, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 will provide other options. It will enable LEAs, senior school staff and police officers to issue penalty notices to truants' parents, and schools and LEAs to make parenting contracts with such parents where help with parenting skills is part of the answer.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)

Does the Minister have any concerns about head teachers and senior staff handing out penalty notices? Does he think that might conflict with their role in working closely with pupils and parents to re-integrate children?

Mr. Lewis

Liberal Democrats frequently lecture us about delegating to those at the sharp end—on the front line. We are giving education welfare officers, police officers and senior school staff the option of using fixed penalty notices if they feel that in some circumstances that is an appropriate way of getting the parents' co-operation in dealing with truancy. To deny head teachers that opportunity would be inappropriate. It is for head teachers to make a professional judgment as to whether to use that power.

Mr. Swayne

May I commend to the hon. Gentleman the idea of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the benefits system could be used as a powerful coercive against antisocial behaviour in this context?

Mr. Lewis

I have great respect for the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in this regard. We have considered using benefits conditionality in some areas, and the debate will no doubt go on. As a society, we will have to consider the appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities. In a context in which there has never been such a high level of investment in support for families, in preventive work and in education, it is not too much to ask that a parent fulfil the basic requirement of getting their child to school.

Where parents fail or are unwilling to co-operate, rather than where they are unable to co-operate, surely it is right that the Government make a statement and use the levers in their power to ensure that that situation is not allowed to continue. No one has the right to blight children's life chances and life choices. Although there must always be a balance between rights and responsibilities, and between family responsibility and state intervention, if parents are not willing to co-operate in the basic responsibility of getting their children to school, the Government have some responsibility.

Liz Blackman

On the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) that fixed penalty notices dished out by the school might break the trust between the parent and the school, does my hon. Friend agree that the school will have moved mountains to try to get the parents to co-operate and get their children to school, and the trust will already have been broken? The issuing of a fixed penalty notice may well be the start of a better relationship, rather than degrading the relationship further.

Mr. Lewis

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that some head teachers in some circumstances will make that judgment, and the Government believe that they have the right to do so. That belief is not confined to this policy area. Some political parties only ever talk about rights because that is popular in electoral terms, but they never talk about the responsibilities of citizenship. That is not the way to rebuild the kind of society that we seek to rebuild, from the kind of society we were left after 18 years of Tory rule.

It is important to acknowledge that some schools have worse attendance problems than others. That also applies to some LEAs. We are working intensively with 60 LEAs where attendance is significantly lower than one would expect. We are focusing on LEAs where there is no apparent explanation for the fact that attendance is so inferior to the average, and we are offering a tremendous amount of support.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab)

What will happen in the Bradford district, where many parents regard it as their right to take children back to the sub-continent for months on end? Will that be regarded as a cultural difference that we must tolerate, or will it be regarded as unfair to the children, so action should be taken?

Mr. Lewis

It is difficult for me to comment on all circumstances. I offer to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, which clearly has a direct impact on her constituency. If that blights the educational opportunities of many of her constituents in an unnecessary and unacceptable way, it is an issue that must be tackled. It cannot be shirked. I am willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how, together, we can tackle it.

The core of our attendance and behaviour programme is the behaviour improvement initiative, which provides intensive support for schools facing the greatest challenges. At present, the programme focuses on about 1,500 schools in 61 local education authority areas. Typically, a partnership would comprise four secondary schools and 20 primary schools. We offer them a menu of options to choose from in terms of intervening appropriately to improve attendance and behaviour in their particular environment and circumstances. Behaviour and education support teams, for example, bring together professionals from different backgrounds to work closely with schools on a day-to-day basis, instead of the situation whereby the social worker or other professional is at the other end of the phone and does not have a relationship with the school or direct responsibility for working with it.

We are extending learning support units, which provide in-school education for disruptive pupils outside mainstream classes and give head teachers the opportunity to withdraw young people from classes for a short period to work with them intensively, then to reintegrate them into class, rather than permanently to exclude them, with all the consequences that that brings.

Dr. Pugh

The Minister identified certain local education authorities that perform slightly worse than others. What features do those—in a sense—rogue authorities have in common? Is it something to do with their curriculum, application, council leadership or school leadership?

Mr. Lewis

I would not go so far as to describe them as rogue authorities; and given that one or two of them may be Liberal Democrat-run, it is a pretty dangerous label for the hon. Gentleman to attach to them. If one looks at socio-economic factors, for example, there is no objective reason why those authorities are having more difficulty than others in managing and improving attendance. We are focusing particularly on their record on attendance and giving them intensive support.

As well as the learning support units and the behaviour and education support teams, we are offering such schools additional learning mentors who can give pupils individual attention. One of the great success stories of this Government is that there are now far more adults working in a school environment, playing different roles and offering young people a far more individualised service. That will be the future of our education system as we go forward. We have to offer young people a far more personalised educational service.

We are basing police officers in schools where appropriate, not only to work with young people and teachers, but to improve relationships between schools and the wider community, including voluntary organisations and parents. That has been relatively successful.

Mr. Allen

In the context of police working in schools, will my hon. Friend commend the work that is being done by the drug abuse resistance education or DARE, programme in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, whereby police officers, who are normally retired, go into a school on 12 consecutive Fridays to teach the kids—by various means, including resisting peer pressure such as bullying—how to say no not only to drugs, but to smoking and drinking. That process also helps many of those children to make better educational advances as a result of the confidence that it gives them.

Mr. Lewis

I certainly pay tribute to the work of DARE. It is important to find opportunities to get role models into schools to work with young people and to establish a different relationship between the police and young people. That relationship is often based on misconceptions, ignorance and lack of contact. Bringing young people and police officers together in a more positive way has to be generally good for the fabric and cohesion of our communities.

We have made resources available for electronic registration systems and for enhanced pupil referral units, which enable us to support young people who are permanently excluded from school.

I am proud of the fact that we are the first Government seriously to attack poor attendance and ill discipline in our schools. To our critics, some of whom sit on the Opposition Benches, I say that are there are no magic wands, quick fix solutions or easy answers. We are seeking to achieve generational and cultural change: to restore values of good manners, civility, self-respect and respect for others; to raise aspirations in communities where education is not seen as the passport to personal fulfilment and success; to combine unprecedented rights to support and opportunities with non-negotiable responsibilities; and to undo the damage caused by the "no such thing as society" ideology that was applied by the Conservative party when it was in government.

I make no apologies for pursuing long-term sustainable improvements, but I can also point to some tangible evidence that our reforms and investment are delivering real progress. Attendance levels are at a record high. The percentage of time missed due to truancy is decreasing, and children are truanting for shorter periods. The fact that greater numbers of pupils are being identified as truanting is not necessarily bad news, because it means that instead of allowing young people to drift through the streets, unidentified by the system, we are ensuring that they are being identified: for the first time, we are seriously tackling that unauthorised absence. The more that one focuses on legitimacy in terms of absence and attendance, the more heads do not authorise certain absences in our school system that they used to authorise. We welcome that. However, this year the rate of unauthorised absence has gone down, if only marginally—I make no great claims for it, but it is important that it has gone down. Moreover, attendance is at a record high. If one talks to educationists and teachers, it is clear that the emphasis that the Government have placed on attendance has been very significant in beginning to shift the culture.

I do not claim that we have gone far enough—we still have a long way to go. However, this is not a simple issue. It is disingenuous for Opposition Members to attempt to roll up all the money that has been spent on behaviour, attendance, exclusions and preventive work and to say, "The Government have spent all this money, but there has not been a massive improvement in truancy." That completely distorts the purpose of that money, what it was used for, and the improvements that have been made.

I shall give some more examples of tangible improvements. Permanent exclusions are 25 per cent. lower then when we entered Government. In terms of behaviour improvement in secondary schools, fixed term exclusions were 11 per cent. lower in 2002–03 than in the previous year. For the first time ever, all but a handful of permanently excluded pupils are receiving a full-time education. Under the previous Government, permanently excluded pupils roamed the streets and were left to rot as the criminals of the future, with absolutely nothing being done about it. Those children's life chances were destroyed; and, worse than that, they became parents and passed it all on to the next generation.

We are proud of the fact that we are, for the first time, ensuring that all permanently excluded pupils have access to a full-time education, but the quality of that education is not what it should be. That is why the Government are now focusing not only on improving provision for young people who are permanently excluded, but on improving the quality of that provision. As there will always be some young people for whom education in the mainstream system does not work, permanent exclusion has to be a tool that is available to head teachers. Having made that difficult decision, however, we have a responsibility never to give up on those young people: if we do so, we will pay the price.

We now have more than 10,000 learning mentors working in schools giving individualised, personalised attention to pupils. There are 90 multi-agency teams in place and 40 more in the pipeline, bringing professionals together to work closely with schools. Key worker support has been given to 17,000 children at risk of exclusion, truancy or crime. Many of those young people have never had in their lives one adult who they can look up to and respect, and who is there for them. It is vital to take that key worker approach to some of the most difficult young people in our society. So there is an adult to whom those young people can relate. That person is also the professional who is responsible for making the system work for them. That is preferable to half a dozen or more agencies fishing in those young people's lives without making a great deal of difference.

As I said earlier, 100 police officers are based in schools and we intend to increase that figure to 200. Young people who are judged to be at the greatest risk of involvement in crime and antisocial behaviour are participating for the first time in positive activities in school holidays. If they are allowed to wander the streets during school holidays, we should not wonder at the increase in street crime and antisocial behaviour. Focusing on them and ensuring that they participate in positive activities in the holidays is therefore important.

We must put the debate on attendance and behaviour in a sensible context. In our most recent survey of stakeholders, 75 per cent. of teachers who responded said that pupil behaviour was generally good. More than 80 per cent. said that standards of behaviour are either being maintained or getting better. We therefore need to listen to the profession. For years, teachers said that they could not do their basic job of teaching because poor behaviour and ill discipline undermined their capacity to teach. It is important that teachers are acknowledging that things are getting better. They are not as good as they need to be but it is important that we base our assessment on the experiences and views of people who work in our classrooms daily.

The Government regard education throughout life as the route to a fair and successful society. Improving school attendance and behaviour is our mission because we know that that is crucial to standards in every school in every community. We know that our success will free resources that are currently spent on social and economic failure.

Generational change is never easy for politicians because there are few quick wins and no artificial four or five-year cycles. However, we will not be distracted from our mission. We believe that it is right for our country and central to our belief that there is such a thing as society.

2.32 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)(Con)

Conservative Members welcome the debate. In common with most debates, both the subject and timing are at the discretion of Her Majesty's Government. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that a debate about whether people should turn up has not featured a contribution from a Minister with direct responsibility for schools. Neither the Minister for School Standards nor the Under-Secretary of State for Schools could be present. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Skills and Vocational Education made an entertaining, albeit lengthy, speech, it is especially curious that the Minister for School Standards pulled out of a long-standing engagement with me and several others to talk about schools to House Magazine this morning on the ground that he was preparing to contribute to the debate. We regret that he is unable to do so.

Many of the Under-Secretary's comments were unexceptional. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties and many outside the House would happily agree with them. They include his general description of the importance of high attendance at school and ensuring that teachers can teach. Education Ministers' genuine commitment to steadily improving school standards and steadily increasing investment in schools shone through his speech. I do not doubt his sincerity about his intentions. However, a Government who have been in office for nearly seven years cannot be judged merely on their intentions or even on their spending; they must also be judged on their attainments and especially on the targets that they set for themselves.

The Government have missed two targets on truancy. They had a target of reducing truancy by a third between 1998 and 2002, but they made no progress in that period. In 2002, a foreword to a document entitled "Tackling it Together", signed by the Home Secretary and the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, stated: We have a target to reduce unauthorised absences by a further 10 per cent. by 2004. The Under-Secretary graciously confirmed that the target remains. It is now 2004 and there is no evidence of a 10 per cent. reduction, or anything close to it, in truancy since 2002. The hon. Gentleman has set out in detail some impressive and worthwhile projects, which are doubtless successful in some schools, to tackle the problem. However, the Government said that their policies were designed to achieve specific, measured objectives, and they have failed to do that.

Mr. Lewis

We will not know whether we have hit the 2004 target until later this year. It is therefore premature to judge that we have failed.

Mr. Collins

I shall be delighted if the Under-Secretary can report spectacular progress later this year. However, we have the figures for the first half of the period. He described the improvement in the first year as "marginal". We would therefore need a spectacular improvement in the second year if the Government are to hit their 10 per cent. target. Of course, I accept that we have not yet reached the end of the academic year that concludes in 2004, but so far, there is no evidence that the Government are on track for hitting their target.

The Under-Secretary did not differ with me that the Government did not achieve their goal of reducing truancy by a third between 1998 and 2002. I remind him that in "Tackling it Together" the 10 per cent. reduction by 2004 was described as "a further 10 per cent". People are therefore entitled to assume that before the Government could claim credit, the 10 per cent. would have to be compounded on a third reduction on the 1998 figure. The chances of that are so minuscule that they are almost not worth discussing.

On any school day, 50,000 children who ought to be in school are not. In a year, that means 1 million or more absences. A total of approximately 8 million school days are being lost. It would be fair for the Under-Secretary to say that the problem did not begin in 1997; indeed, it did not begin in 1979. In the early 1900s, only 72 per cent. of pupils regularly attended school. The Under-Secretary may enjoy my observing that a Liberal Government were in power then. No party therefore has a 100 per cent, track record.

The work, to which the Under-Secretary referred, that Mike Tomlinson is conducting on reforming the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds and the burdens on teachers and students will be relevant to improving attendance and behaviour. If we are to improve teenagers' performance and attendance, it is critical for them to perceive their curriculum as relevant and interesting. I hope that Mike Tomlinson can make recommendations to help that objective.

Those who play truant are more likely to end up out of work and homeless. They are three times more likely to offend. According to Home Office statistics, 75 per cent. of boys and 50 per cent. of girls who truant only once a week have already committed offences. The Government are therefore right to establish a link between crime, especially street crime, and truancy. I do not doubt for a moment that the Government are right to devote resources to tackling that issue. We have all been guilty this afternoon of using the word "truancy". An interesting report about a year ago by the BBC's education correspondent, Mike Baker, pointed out that the word "truancy" is not recognised by most pupils or many adults, whereas they instantly recognise the phrase "bunking off". The language used in Parliament may not enable us most effectively to communicate with the electorate and the rest of society. Perhaps we should use words that are more widely recognised and understood.

Responding to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), the Minister said that he would seek to address my hon. Friend's point about the behaviour of children with special educational needs. While the Minister was undoubtedly correct to say that some behavioural issues relate to wider society issues and acts of collective timidity, many of them have much to do with pupils who are unable properly to exercise self-control and self-discipline, or who require a great deal of additional help and support to do so. When the Minister winds up, it will be helpful if he could say more about Government strategy for special educational needs—particularly in respect of the success or otherwise of Government initiatives after 1997 involving a move towards mainstreaming.

The Minister cited more mainstreaming as evidence of the Government's success and spoke of a sharp reduction in the number of permanent exclusions. That might be an indication of success in relation to pupils with problems that affect not only themselves but their teachers and themselves—and that have regrettable but unavoidable implications for the learning experience of other pupils. However, we must be confident that, by going down the broad mainstreaming route, we will not throw the baby out with the bath water and lose some of the excellent contributions by special schools in many parts of the country in providing a much better form of integration that can be possible in the mainstream environment.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting Witherslack Hall special school in my constituency, which has one of the largest concentrations of special schools in the country, numbering around half a dozen. Witherslack Hall is the lead school in a group that extends into the Knowsley area of Liverpool and south Cumbria. It has done impressive work with pupils with severe behavioural difficulties in the early stages of their education—almost all of whom arrive at the school with a letter not just from their parents but from a solicitor, dealing with often prolonged legal action. Almost all those pupils had been excluded for one reason or another, and come from local education authorities throughout the country. The point made powerfully by the head teacher of Witherslack Hall is that the day-to-day experience of its pupils is more about integration than it would be in a mainstream school. Without exception, all pupils take part in every lesson and have access to every part of the curriculum—Witherslack Hall delivers the national curriculum in full. Every pupil without exception receives detailed attention. Sadly, many mainstream schools have no choice but to place a difficult pupil in a quiet class or in a small room that is part of a library or storage facility. Every pupil at Witherslack Hall also has access to school trips, visits and other outside activities.

It would be as much of a mistake to assume that special schools are always the answer as to assume that they are never the answer. In examining the behavioural dimension, I hope that the simplistic assumption will not be made that mainstreaming is always appropriate or that the skills and attainments that many special schools have ratcheted up over the years should lightly be cast away, because they offer opportunities that should not be lost.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)

My hon. Friend touches on an issue close to my heart because the Alderman Knight special school in my constituency is under threat of closure—for no reason that I can see other than the Government's inclusion programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that if children are forced to attend mainstream schools, that may achieve inclusion but the exclusion of such pupils from many activities because of their lack of ability means that they will lose out?

Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend highlights a genuine difficulty. I do not challenge the sincerity of Ministers in seeking to provide a more inclusive approach, to enable individuals, through their educational years and in later life, to be more part of society. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that mainstream schools do a lot of excellent work and that it is not the case that all special schools are as successful as others.

My hon. Friend and I have pointed to schools in our respective constituencies that provide a genuine way forward and have a genuinely inclusive agenda. I hope that none of us will generalise. Special schools will not always be the answer, but they are not always wrong either.

Mr. Allen

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the sensible, non-partisan way in which he is raising an extremely serious subject. In educationally difficult areas, including pupils in classes that they should not attend makes even more difficult the work of teachers already labouring under immense pressures to raise standards from a low base. Perhaps that topic and the difficult judgments required are worthy of a separate debate.

Mr. Collins

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's point. Teachers in mainstream schools wish to do the very best for every child in their care, but some of them genuinely question whether it is practicable always to provide the best quality education to all the children in a class where there is a strong contrast between their behavioural abilities. That has nothing to do with stigmatising, apartheid or relegating pupils to second-class status; it is about providing appropriate education for every individual.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con)

I join the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in congratulating my hon. Friend on his balanced and thoughtful approach. Where a pupil is a marginal case for a special school or mainstream education, does my hon. Friend have any disposition as to which way that judgment might go?

Mr. Collins

That point, I imagine, is unlikely to divide the House. It is not really right for politicians of any political colour to get into the business of making judgments on individuals. That has to be done by those with the appropriate specialisms and training—and, above all, knowledge and care of the individuals in question. In a marginal case, however, such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred, I would hope that the judgment reached would be in the widest interests of that child, rather than dictated by a national presumption in either direction, or even simply by resource issues.

I have talked to various head teachers in mainstream secondary education, and they welcome the fact that the Government have provided them with additional resources to cope with the pupils for whom they now have to cater, who perhaps in previous times would have gone into special schools. However, they often say that even with those additional resources, those pupils still pose a significant challenge, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, for the classroom teacher. That is not through any lack of political will on the Government's part, but because of practical issues.

Mr. Hopkins

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have experienced cases in my constituency in which parents have wanted their child to go into a mainstream school but then, after an experimental period, have changed their minds and decided that their child would be happier at a special school. Should not the parents' views be taken into consideration, and should not they also be able to move from one option to the other if circumstances change?

Mr. Collins

I have much sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's point. For that form of parental choice to have any effect, it is necessary for there to be some special schools in most, if not all, local educational authorities. By definition, if there are not special schools there cannot be that element of choice when there is a recognition—it can occur to teachers as well as parents—that as needs change and people develop physically and mentally, what may have seemed entirely sensible at one age may no longer be appropriate when the child is older. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point.

I get the sense that, perhaps unusually, and in a debate in which we did not expect consensus to break out, there is a surprising degree of cross-party agreement on this matter, although some might not necessarily agree with our position.

Mr. Pickthall


Mr. Collins

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to join that consensus or to disagree.

Mr. Pickthall

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not want to break the consensus. There is a Witherslack school at Ormskirk in my constituency, and I do not disagree with anything in his description of those schools.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that out there in the great world—although this perhaps does not apply to us or to people who work in the schools and support systems—the very use of the term "special educational needs" does not help? It gives the impression that there is an homogeneity to children with special educational needs, when in fact they can range from children with mild dyslexia that does not prevent them from getting through the mainstream, to potential homicidal maniacs at the other end of the scale. If we referred to those needs as a range, or octave, of difficulties that young people have, we would be more likely to make the right decisions at the right times on who enters special education, or on whether it is necessary to have as much special educational provision as currently exists.

Mr. Collins

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful point. He is quite right. We all sometimes slip into the assumption that there are "normal" children and another kind, whereas in fact, all individuals are different. There is also an assumption, which we should challenge, that if someone has a difficulty or faces a challenge in one aspect of their education, that somehow lowers their performance in all other fields. As we all know, many children with statements of special education needs are well above average—in some cases, absolutely outstanding—in a range of other educational qualifications, attainments or skills. We should reflect on that.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) is right, but we should recognise that there has been progress under this Government, and perhaps earlier, in recognising the need to focus attention on the individual. The idea of having a statement of special educational needs was not an ignoble one, or misconceived from the first. However, the hon. Gentleman is right in that as we move through the 21st century, we need to find a definition that is not quite so broad and sweeping, and which enables judgments to be made that are relevant to the individual. That is the key point, and I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed something that he has said before: that a move to more individually focused teaching is a high Government priority. Perhaps we have identified a point today on which we can make progress on a cross-party basis.

Mr. Allen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for hosting a mini-debate within the major debate, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing us to extend this extremely important line of thought.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there can be a problem where people are struggling to raise standards? I am thinking of a school in my constituency that has worked incredibly hard to raise its own performance so that it has 13 per cent. of pupils gaining five or more grade A to C GCSE passes. That might not seem a very high performance level, but from where that school started, achieving a 1 per cent. incremental change each year is very commendable. However, if it has to take on perhaps 10 or 15 youngsters who have been excluded from other schools and who have no chance whatever, on any objective basis, of achieving similar performance levels, those pupils will take the school in the opposite direction from where its efforts were taking it. There must be a rational process by which pupils are allocated, and by which money follows them, so that schools can continue on the upward trend on which they have begun through their own hard work.

Mr. Collins

I agree. In addition to the general difficulties for schools in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, and the problems that that might cause their reputation, including among parents, there are implications for teacher recruitment and retention. That is because most teachers, perhaps not surprisingly, want to work in schools where they will be able to teach pupils who want to learn, and so on. I cannot speak for the Witherslack school in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Lancashire, but I have been struck at Witherslack Hall special school in my constituency, which is a single-sex school, by the behaviour of the boys. Every single one of them has at some stage experienced behavioural difficulties, usually major ones, but they are all well turned-out, quiet, polite, beautifully well behaved and follow the whole national curriculum, in a way that does not disrupt themselves or anyone else.

No one is suggesting that we should somehow ghettoise or marginalise people, and remove them from mainstream schools so that those schools can perform better, and I know that that is not what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North meant, although we should collectively put that point on the record. However, it is notable in many instances, although not in every instance, that going down the special school route secures a double win. There is a win for the pupils with special educational needs—we must, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire said, come up with a better phrase, but he will forgive me if I use that one for the moment—who in many cases have better chances and life opportunities. There is also a win for mainstream schools. That is why I genuinely believe that we have had a constructive discussion this afternoon. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and perhaps respond to it when he winds up.

I am anxious to conclude well in time for others to contribute, but I have one or two matters to draw to the Minister's attention, although I do not want to belittle, ignore or sweep aside the very positive indications, to which he referred, that in many respects our schools are improving. There is no doubt about that. The traditional role of the Opposition is to say that everything is doom and gloom and must, by definition, be going to hell in a handcart. However, that is not true of our school system. Many aspects of it are improving and it is evident that the Government are putting much more money into it. I do not challenge that, but the Minister, who perhaps inevitably focused principally on those aspects that are going well, will not be surprised if I draw his attention to one or two matters that are not going quite so well. I should be grateful for his response. I do not allege that these matters are the direct or deliberate result of Government policy, but they are phenomena with which we should all be concerned.

The statistics that I have in front of me show that between 1998 and 2001, the number of serious assaults on teachers quadrupled. Clearly, assaults do not happen every day or in every school, but it is none the less concerning that the trend should be so strongly upwards. Four out of five teachers now report that pupils have threatened them with physical violence; two out of three say that pupils swear at them regularly; and just under half of all teachers now report

persistent malice including open defiance". I do not take the view, and, on reflection, perhaps the Minister would not either, that standards of behaviour in our schools are inevitably the consequence of whichever party happens to be holding the keys to No. 10 Downing street at the time. The House would not expect me to agree with his assumption that bad behaviour was the product of 18 years of Conservative government, and I do not match that assertion by saying that if there is more violence in our schools since 1997, it is because the Prime Minister's name is Blair. Both would be somewhat simplistic assertions. We are considering societal change that has taken place under Governments of both colours, has been going on for many decades, and is connected to a change in the way in which we relate to ourselves and to others. The objectives set by the Minister of trying to create or re-create a society of respect for others, civility and good manners, are not ones on which we would differ. The sad fact, however, is that whatever the origins, many of which have nothing to do with decisions taken recently or a long time ago by people in this place, the problems are growing.

In the Minister's closing remarks, I should be grateful if he would focus on one thing: the position of the teacher. He referred to some survey evidence indicating that teachers are becoming more satisfied with their lot, which, if true, is welcome. He will know, however, that the teacher unions speak with some eloquence on the difficulty for classroom teachers of asserting their authority in circumstances in which the most persistent troublemaker or offender is often all too aware of the present balance of the law. They know that if they allege that a teacher touched them, a procedure can stretch out often for as much as 18 months, in which there is almost a presumption of guilt relating to the teacher and one of innocence relating to the child. Even if that ultimately results, as it normally does, with the teacher being cleared entirely, it can so shatter the morale and self-respect of that teacher that they may not return to the teaching profession.

I know that the Minister will have heard teacher union representatives say that to him and his colleagues, as I have heard them say it to me. In the spirit of what has so far been a relatively non-partisan debate, I want to extend an offer to the Minister. In terms of the precise topic of this debate, which is both attendance and behaviour in schools, if he and his colleagues wish to bring forward proposals for legislation that would address directly teachers' perception that they are under growing pressure and no longer have all the tools at their disposal to exercise discipline as they would like—particularly with regard to the burden of proof and anonymity for teachers accused of certain offences—the Opposition will not only greet them positively and warmly, but will be happy to speed their progress through both Houses.

We must recognise that the starting point—not the end point—of high—quality education in all kinds of schools and areas, and for all kinds of pupils, is teachers' ability to believe that they are in charge, to exercise authority and to impose discipline. Even with the best tools at their disposal, incidents and difficulties will occur. Teachers should be under no doubt whatever, however, that the political, judicial and legal system in this country is on their side, and is not in some sense against them. Sadly, that is not what many of them feel at the moment.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that school governors throughout the United Kingdom are concerned that fewer and fewer teachers are applying for posts of senior responsibility in schools, and that the Minister will need to examine why that is happening and how more teachers can be encouraged to come forward and to take on higher responsibility?

Mr. Collins

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great knowledge of these matters, is right that that is an issue to which we would all welcome a response from the Minister. In fairness, the Government have introduced several initiatives to try to encourage teachers to take up greater responsibilities, and several initiatives to reward more fulsomely those who do so. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that difficulties exist, particularly in some schools and some areas. Several of these phenomena have multiple explanations, and it is not simply the case that problems arise because of the agenda that we are discussing this afternoon relating to attendance and behaviour.

It is notable, however, that although many admirable individuals are choosing to enter teacher training colleges—I hope that this will not be regarded as in any way sexist—I view with some concern the extent to which an overwhelming majority are young women rather than young men. Close to 80 per cent. of applicants are now women as opposed to men. Clearly, there are many different explanations for that, and many high-quality teachers in our land who are women. Given that, in terms of the wider societal context to which the Minister referred, many—although, of course, not all—of those children who are a cause of particular concern do not have male role models in their domestic environments, is it desirable for them not to have many, if any, male role models in their educational environment either? To what extent—I ask this as a question, as I do not pretend to know the answer—is the perception of declining teacher authority in the classroom, and the sense that it is more difficult than it was in the past to exercise appropriate discipline, differentially deterring male as opposed to female applicants from going into teacher training? We should not have a rigid view that the ratio of the sexes must be 50:50. We should at least note, however, if it has become 75:25 or 80:20, that some interesting issues arise from that. Again, the Minister may feel able to comment on that when he winds up.

To conclude, I welcome this debate. We have had a particularly interesting discussion about the special educational needs field and the future of special schools. I hope that we will put these matters in their proper context: the vast majority of our schools and our pupils are places and individuals of good behaviour and high standards. The vast majority of our teachers do not face day-to-day enormous difficulties in getting their work done, but there are too many who do. While welcoming the Government's genuine commitment to try to tackle these problems, I hope that we will recognise that they need to be assessed not only by their aspirations but by their achievements. As they make progress on that agenda, they will have the genuine support of everyone in the House, of whatever political party, who recognises that these issues are of real importance for our nation's future.

3.8 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and sorry that more hon. Members are not here to take part on such an important subject. At least I have a little more time to say what I want to say, which is helpful.

I pay tribute to both Front-Bench spokespersons for both making thoughtful and helpful contributions. It is pleasing to be able to agree with almost everything that they said, which would not have been the case some years ago. It is as well to recall that only recently there have been some sea changes in thinking about education and behaviour in schools. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister in particular on his focus on bullying in schools. I have seen him perform on television and speak at length and sincerely on bullying, about which I have felt strongly for a long time. He is doing a good job for the whole country, and particularly for those people who suffer from bullying, by targeting proactively that serious problem.

I want to mention schools and teachers in my constituency, where there have been some tremendous improvements in recent years. I shall not dwell on individual schools because there are too many good news stories to recount, but we should recall that, only a few years ago, several schools in my constituency were in special measures and had very serious problems indeed. We had to introduce a whole flight of new head teachers, and since then there has been a dramatic transformation and improvement; indeed, I have taken great pleasure in visiting those schools time and again. Many have received national awards for their performance. In fact, last year one head teacher received the award for the best head teacher of a British primary school, which was a major achievement.

The problem of poor attendance and behaviour in schools involves a very small minority of pupils. The great majority behave well, attend school regularly and have supportive parents. However, a minority do not, and they cause serious problems not just for themselves but for everybody else as well. The policy changes of the past two or three years, however, have made a difference. Until five years ago, the emphasis was on simple inclusion in a rather zealous way, without giving attention or thought to the full implications of blanket inclusion. Within a year or two of my coming to this place, parents of children with difficulties were telling me, "We don't want the authority to force our children into mainstream schools. We don't think that that would be right for them. We want to retain, where necessary, special schools and special units in which our children can be given the attention that they need. Nor do we want them to disrupt the good teaching and good classroom behaviour that goes on in other schools."

It is clear that physical disabilities and learning disabilities entail special needs. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and others have pointed out, not all disabilities are the same. We need a range of special schools to cater for different disabilities. A good friend of mine has a son—a very bright young man—with cerebral palsy. He has gone to a boarding school for children with that disability. He is academically very able, and his situation is quite different from that of someone who is physically able but who has learning difficulties and is perhaps not very quick.

Today, we are talking about behaviour, in which family factors undoubtedly play a role. Teachers in my constituency have told me of children with chronically alcoholic single parents who have a simply dreadful time at home. Other pupils do not attend school very often, and upon investigation it is discovered that they are looking after younger siblings while the single parent goes out to work. In other words, child care responsibility is being put on 12 or 13-year-olds, who are not attending school because the parent—usually the mother—goes out to work. All such problems have to be dealt with individually.

Some behaviour problems are of a physical nature. I spoke to a group of children in my constituency who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their parents expressed great concern about the lack of special needs attention given to them. They also told me that they, too, suffered from that condition when at school, because a degree of inheritance is involved. They said, "I was an ADHD pupil at school, and my child is now in the same situation." We need much more support than is currently being given. I know that the Government are providing more specialist support, but such conditions have to be looked at in specific terms. Many other difficulties are of an almost medical or psychological nature. There are many adults with mental difficulties, and such problems are also reflected in children because they start very young.

Let us look at what was happening three to five years ago in some schools. I shall not recount too many anecdotes, but I offer a serious example that I discussed with the Secretary of State. A high school for 11 to 16- year-olds in my constituency was in special measures, and a new head teacher was brought in to try to pick it up. Shortly after he arrived, a violent incident occurred in which one pupil attacked another with a pair of scissors. The teacher who intervened was also attacked, and the pupil in question was permanently excluded from the school. He was clearly very violent and dangerous; indeed, he had also uttered threats against the other pupil. The incident was very unpleasant, and it is understandable that he was excluded permanently. Indeed, he had a record of bad behaviour, of which this incident was the culmination. The teacher and the other pupil had to go to hospital for stitches. Fortunately, no serious injury was inflicted, but it was a very serious incident.

The parents of the pupil in question appealed, and the appeal panel put the child back into the school. That completely undermined the head teacher, making it very difficult for his attempt to take the school out of special measures to have any credibility. I took the matter up with the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris). She changed the policy, saying that she would no longer accept such panel decisions willy-nilly. She took the view that we cannot simply allow panels to put back into schools, on appeal, pupils who behave in this way, and that we have to look at these cases more seriously. That approach was a success.

At about the same time, I was having a difficult and tense debate with representatives of my local authority. It was a Labour-run authority consisting of very fine people, but both the officers and one or two members were zealous in their support for blanket inclusion. On the one side were the parents, with whom I agreed, who were saying that they wanted special education for their children who had behavioural problems. On the other side was the authority, and one or two leading officers and members, who said that they wanted the children in mainstream schools. That was a difficult time. That tension has now been resolved, and the most zealous of those officers has moved on elsewhere.

The Government have also introduced learning support units in schools, for which one of my high schools was a pilot. The project proved very successful; indeed, The Sunday Telegraph published a large feature on our unit. We had to fight somewhat for continuing funding, but it has arrived and the unit is doing an extremely good job. Every time a particular pupil has, shall we say, a difficult day in school, the teacher can suggest that they go along to the learning support unit, at which they will receive one-to-one teaching for a day or two, until they have calmed down. The unit finds out what the problem is at home and the reason for the behaviour, and the pupil returns to their class having lost nothing, and having perhaps received some good one-to-one education while in the unit. Such work goes on within the physical building of the school, and has made an enormous difference. Pressure has been taken off the teachers, the other pupils do not suffer disruption in the classroom, and the pupil in question receives special attention, which is often what they want. The policy has been a great success, and I urge the Government to continue it, spread it more widely and ensure that it is properly resourced.

At the end of the day the issue is about resourcing. I have some second-hand experience in that regard. My wife worked in primary education in our town for many years as a reception class teacher and special needs co-ordinator. She had pupils with serious behavioural difficulties in her infant class. I remember that the school had difficulty persuading the authority to statement any of the children. Statementing was expensive—it cost money—so the children would be kept there for a year and another year beyond that, when it was obvious that they needed special education of some sort.

On one occasion my wife told a county co-ordinator from the authority that she had a problem with a young boy who needed special treatment because he could not behave himself or learn anything. He told her, "Mrs. Hopkins, you need to give him one-to-one teaching," and she replied that she had a class of 23 pupils and could not provide one-to-one teaching all the time. He then offered to take the child away and spend a little time with him. When he came back after half an hour, he said, "Mrs.,Hopkins, I can do nothing with him", making the point that the pupil needed some sort of special education and should be statemented. It was a resource-based constraint because the authority was encouraging a no response to all statementing because it cost money. Resources have to be provided not just for the pupils concerned, but for classes and teachers to relieve the pressures. If we want people to go into teaching, we have to ensure that they are not going to suffer from disruptive and poorly behaved pupils in the classroom.

As has been recognised many times, one of the biggest difficulties faced by secondary school teachers is pupil behaviour in the classroom. That is what causes them most stress. If one is threatened, or even abused verbally, by a pupil, it can be upsetting and distressing. It takes one's attention off the job and often means teaching less well. It certainly makes teachers less happy in their job and more likely to leave teaching than would be the case if bad behaviour were not a problem.

Mr. Beggs

I take it that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the earlier a child is statemented, the better for the child and for the rest of the pupils in the area. Does he further agree that once a child has been statemented, that statement should be applicable and acceptable across educational borders?

Mr. Hopkins

I accept both the hon. Gentleman's points. I was about to come to the point about early interventions, which are crucial in so many respects. Some of my friends have children who suffer from dyslexia. If the problem is caught early enough and they are properly supported, such youngsters can often go straight to university like many other bright young people. However, dyslexia has caused serious difficulties for many. A high proportion of our prison population has serious problems with literacy in English, largely derived from dyslexia, so it is important to tackle it earlier. Similarly, if we can find out early enough what is causing behavioural problems, we can start to solve them.

Finally, we have a cultural problem with behaviour. In some cultures, it is seen as right to be quiet and deferential to adults; in other cultures, more relaxed and liberal attitudes to adults are common. If pupils are to learn anything in schools, there cannot be a hubbub or noisy atmosphere. There must be quiet. I know from my own constituency that the most successful schools and classes tend to be quiet. We should teach children from their earliest school days that it is better for them—and everyone else—to learn to be quiet and self-controlled. That can be difficult when pupils come from a background that is not quiet. It may sound almost prissy to say it, but I know from experience that I cannot work in a hubbub: I must have some quiet. I am sure that that is true for five-year-olds and, indeed, five-year-olds of lower ability. In the past, the most disciplined and orderly classes tended to be for the most able. What we really want is more rigour, more quietness and more calm for the less able, so that they can catch up and make the best of their abilities.

The gulf between the best educated and the poorest educated in Britain is among the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development area. If we examine the OECD figures, we find that the top 10 per cent. of our population are among the best educated in the world. We can outshine the world on that basis, but in respect of our poorest 10 per cent. —or even poorest third—we are right at the bottom of the table. That is the problem that we must address. Dealing with behaviour and absences is a major part of solving that problem: we should give the people at the bottom a start in life equal to that of their peers.

3.24 pm
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

The object of the debate is to draw attention to issues of attendance and behaviour in schools, but it is not at all obvious to all participants in the debate that the Government can directly influence all the variables or be held accountable for every aspect of the problem. It is a fundamental error to think that the Government are omnipotent. Although the Secretary of State is undoubtedly powerful, no Secretary of State has yet found the secret of making every pupil in the UK attend and behave. Any Secretary of State who actually achieved that would be in the same league as a Home Secretary who eliminated crime or a Chancellor who eliminated unemployment.

The best result that Whitehall and Westminster can obtain is enabling pupils by removing the obstacles that prevent the utopia where every pupil attends and no pupil misbehaves. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said, since the Government made school attendance compulsory there has been unauthorised absenteeism—otherwise known as bunking off or truancy. Since the days of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, truancy has been a fact of life.

Real truancy does not involve the roguish cheerfulness of Mark Twain or Jimmy Tarbuck, who on a recent edition of "Desert Island Discs" told the story of his school career, which was punctuated by more than occasional bouts of truancy. Truancy and absenteeism are linked with underachievement, the exploitation of children—as other hon. Members have noted, sometimes by their parents—petty deviance and crime. The children experience boredom and joyless drifting, which goes on day after day.

To their credit, the Government have identified the phenomenon and aspire to address it. They have introduced a catalogue of coercive and remedial measures—there are many such measures and their effects are various. Truancy sweeps have received a lot of publicity and have had some effect, although it remains to be seen whether it is permanent. There are more educational welfare officers and a faster courts system for non-compliant parents, which is laudable. Another idea is penalty fines, which are perhaps not such a good idea in all circumstances, but the Government have none the less broached them. There is better tracking and recording of pupils by schools and other agencies and parenting orders for misbehaviour and truancy.

A range of remedies and coercive measures is available. Even the Audit Commission has joined in—it seems to join in on just about every problem and thinks it can solve almost all of them. It has chipped in with a paper called "Missing Out", in which it suggests that we need strategies, the sharing of information and clear lines of responsibility. I must say that those are the Audit Commission's solutions to nearly every problem and that the paper looks like a universal, off-the-shelf solution, but the Audit Commission is none the less concerned.

The Minister has almost admitted the fact that the effect of the remedies has been marginal. The figures for school attendance and unauthorised absence have remained broadly constant over time. There are variations and better and worse local education authorities, but the figures are consistent. There is no LEA with a 20 per cent. record on truancy and there is no LEA with a 0 per cent. record—all LEAs fall in a spectrum between 2.5 and 0.4 per cent.

A cynic could as easily attribute the overall improvement to statistical vagaries or changes in methods of recording as to the outright success or failure of Government policies. In saying that, I recognise individual and creditable success stories. In particular, I would like to mention the result that Liverpool LEA has managed to produce in its schools. I must say that it is a Liberal Democrat council, although that could be coincidence, but none the less the success is real. Odd statistics in Bradford have also been alluded to, and they need special attention. Pressure must be maintained, but we are still in a situation in which 50 per cent. of children caught truanting are doing so with their parents, so the broad scale of the problem remains.

The basic cause of systematic truancy—hanging around shopping malls and estates—is disengagement from the educational process, which has been widely acknowledged in the House today. Such disengagement can be on an individual, family or community basis, but in each case those involved take the fundamental decision that the school curriculum does not relate to their aspirations and goals. They are wrong in that judgment, but it is none the less one that some pupils and some families make. That is often why, when children return to school, the school does not welcome them like a prodigal son; fatted calf is not on the menu, because those disengaged pupils are disengaged permanently and are potentially disruptive.

A couple of weeks ago, an article in The Times Educational Supplement described research undertaken by a headmaster into stress among his staff. He examined how stress varied over time and how it related to a series of variables. Oddly enough, they did not include directives from the head teacher or even new demands imposed by the Government. The largest variable was the presence or absence of certain pupils. The head teacher found that if he adopted a more pliant attitude to exclusion, by applying it more forcefully, stress levels went down.

Trends in behaviour at school are a concern. Authority is more commonly challenged than ever before, both in school and elsewhere. Violence is all too obvious and is quite near the surface in some schools. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to statistics for physical attacks on teachers. Respect for teachers in general is down and stress is up. A fair amount of bullying—possibly more than ever—goes unchecked.

It would be handy to make the Government the only fall guy and to blame the Secretary of State, but we all realise that many factors are in play. Adolescents are larger than in previous generations but no less hormonally challenged, and they are thus a more difficult proposition to teach. Mass culture has changed. We cannot expect children not to swear in the schoolyard if, in the evenings, they have to put up with swearing on television as commonplace—as indeed they do.

Children are highly imitative and even on daytime television they are not safe from bad examples. Anyone who tunes into the parliamentary channel at 12 noon tomorrow, well before the watershed, will see misbehaviour on a grand scale from those who aspire to lead the nation. Prime Minister's Question Time has it all: mayhem, shouting out, gesticulating, name calling, bullying, picking on people's mannerisms and weaknesses and, occasionally—albeit sotto voce—swearing. It is institutionalised yobbery in suits.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

The hon. Gentleman is right. Does he agree that it is sad that there is always a long queue of people waiting to go into the Strangers Gallery because they cannot resist watching that event?

Dr. Pugh

That is not surprising. When there is a fight in the schoolyard many people run to see it, and the media mob to Prime Minister's questions like a crowd at a schoolyard fight; they genuinely enjoy that kind of thing. It is an instinctive human reaction, although not a laudable one, and we have to acknowledge that it occurs.

What are children to conclude confronted with that event? We may be debating misbehaviour today, but tomorrow at 12 noon they could form their own conclusions about us. They must wonder why Mr. Speaker does not keep us in after the sitting and force us to copy out pages of Hansard—I pause there.

In pointing to those general cultural trends, I do not want to exonerate the Department for Education and Skills entirely. Culture is a determinant of pupils' behaviour. The increasingly disturbed family structures of England generate more difficult pupils, in two senses. Poor patterns of behaviour can be replicated by quite ordinary pupils, who have no major psychological problems; but there is also an increasing number of extremely disruptive pupils who require special attention. In passing, I commend the Government on introducing pupil referral units. I was sceptical about them, but I have come to realise that they perform a useful function in the school system. I used to think that they would be destinations from which pupils would never return and that they would have no good effect, but in most local authorities they work well and contribute to a reduction in misbehaviour.

As I said earlier, disengagement is the root cause of poor behaviour. Children naturally want to learn and develop, but they want attention. The disengagement that results from bad behaviour can be overcome only by a relevant, realistic and interesting curriculum, delivered by committed, good and dedicated teachers in a settled and suitable educational environment. The Government cannot by themselves guarantee those things, but they can facilitate them.

Buildings are important. The environment in which lessons take place is important, and the Government's buildings programme, coincidentally and not necessarily intentionally, will have done something to improve standards of behaviour. Teacher ratios are important. Keeping good classroom teachers in schools is important. Decent pastoral provision in schools is very important. However, probably the pivotal factor is a meaningful curriculum, and the Minister has said a great deal about how he hopes to make the curriculum more meaningful for the pupil, including the recalcitrant and difficult pupil.

Mr. Hopkins

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it sounds a little like the kind of worthy education speech that we heard 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We have come to learn that the interface between the teacher and the pupil—the teacher's expectation of the pupil's behaviour—is now of fundamental importance. Precisely how people behave in the classroom is as important as all the other factors.

Dr. Pugh

Yes, I thoroughly agree. Nothing that I have said so far is remotely inconsistent with that observation, so I have no problem in concurring with what the hon. Gentleman says. However, individual teachers in the classroom must be put in the right sort of psychological condition to do the job as well as they possibly can. They cannot be demoralised or overloaded, as some teachers accuse the Government of doing to them. They cannot work with a curriculum that is seen to be inflexible and inappropriate. They cannot be forced to concentrate on the cosmetics of teaching—the school's public relations and where it features in the league tables—rather than on the reality of pupils' lives. They cannot spend their time jockeying, by whatever means, to secure a higher position in the league tables. If that happens, there is an overall tendency for schools to disown problematic pupils and pass them on to another school that does not yet know them.

Another factor of Government overload to which we also have to draw attention is that some of the community building aspects of the school—the sport, the extra-curricular activities and the things that go to make the school a good community—diminish. Some of that has to be laid at the door of the Government and their policies, and some of it has to be laid at the door of Ofsted, which is very strong on spotting problems but very weak on offering solutions.

Finally and briefly, I come to a problem that has occupied and concerned me quite a lot. It has already been touched on by other hon. Members. Bullying is going on in many schools in the land every day, week after week. We are talking about persistent misery visited on individuals day after day, often hour by hour. The statistics on that are not entirely clear and the research is inconclusive, but a number of high profile, tragic cases draw our attention to that issue. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that bullying is on the increase.

In particular, I want to draw attention to the problem of bullying among females, which, as far as I can recall, was not mentioned and not much evident many years ago, but is now very prevalent and troubling. The Government have responded to that. They have a strategy and a website. They have some strange links on the website to Disney and things like that, but none the less they have website to which people can gain access. There is a helpline and a charter. There are anti-bullying strategies and anti-bullying policies in every school. There are conferences on bullying—LEAs and schools talk the talk—but the lads and girls victimised in the corridor today are not necessarily greatly comforted by knowing that there is a strategy. They do not say, "Oh good. I am safe—the Minister has got a strategy."

There is very good practice, and I am sure that the Minister wants to spread good practice. I draw attention in particular to a phenomenon in Scotland, which has an anti-bullying network. Not only is good advice given, but there is an opportunity for pupils who have problems to talk to other pupils with similar difficulties. If hon. Members have not inspected the website, I suggest that they look at it because I am sure that it provides some help—not the only help—towards exterminating bullying in Scotland. A further measure in Scotland that I would recommend is the buddy system, through which many younger pupils in Scottish schools are befriended by older pupils. That breaks up the gang mentality that can exist in individual age cohorts, which does a lot to provide protection for vulnerable pupils who are finding their feet in what might be a large secondary school.

Bullying is a difficult problem that is not unique to schools. The really effective solution is to free up professional teachers so that they may perform traditional pastoral roles. Schools should be treated as communities, rather than simply as target-setting, league-hopping, exam-driven, inspection-dominated, paper-chasing, Gradgrind institutions. If schools were communities that approached the model of a family more than that of a business, bullying would be less manifest and good behaviour more manifest. If the Government could understand that their role is to enable education rather than to direct it, they would get more respect and, interestingly, probably less blame.

3.41 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab)

It is a long time since I participated in an education debate—[Interruption.] It must be at least three hours since my education debate in Westminster Hall. It is a long time since I participated in an education debate on the Floor of the House.

First, I shall pay tribute to several people: Bernie Groves, Peter Brown, Peter Plummer, Tom Meghahy, Pat Dubass, Den Coral, Joan Young, Bernard Bonner and Phil Lidstone—the head teachers in Nottingham, North. Hon. Members may be familiar with the fact that Nottingham, North is arguably the toughest educational environment in the UK. It is the constituency with the fewest number of youngsters who go on to university. It contains four of the bottom 200 secondary schools in the UK and the lowest educationally attaining ward in the UK. None of those things are badges of honour, but I hope that they put in perspective my thanks to those head teachers. They do not need to be in Nottingham, North, but they choose to be there. They are definitely part of the answer rather than part of the problem. Many have come to the city in the past few years, so I thought it appropriate to open my remarks by thanking them and their teaching staff for the incredible job that they do in my constituency day in, day out.

We started to realise the seriousness of the education problem in the city of Nottingham over the past three or four years because it became a unitary authority during that period. We always knew that there were difficulties in the city, but the separation of the city and the county made the difficulties and their serious nature evident. None the less, we have been fortunate throughout that period to have a great range of people who have been uniformly positive about tackling the problems. Bit by bit—1 per cent. here; 0.5 per cent. there—the schools in my constituency have dragged themselves up by their bootlaces, and we get better every year.

It is important to put on record the assistance that we have received from the Government. At one point, I felt that every school in my constituency was a building site and that I needed wellingtons to visit most of them. New roofs were built, as were inside toilets and new blocks for science, and gyms were rebuilt. All that was paid for by the moneys that the Government pushed through, and I, for one, am grateful for that assistance.

Personalities locally have been able to capitalise on the Government's ability to assist us, including a succession of senior officers in our local council—the current director of education, Heather Tomlinson, is continuing that superb work. A succession of education chairmen for the local authority—Councillor Don Scott, Councillor Jon Collins and now Councillor Graham Chapman—have been superb. They have intelligently pushed the new opportunities forward and dragged educational standards up. The Minister knows me well enough to know that I would be the first to tell him about any weaknesses. Instead, I can tell him that those people are putting effort in day and night to raise the standard for our children in Nottingham.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put on the record those remarks about those excellent people. I am sure that that gratitude is replicated in constituencies throughout the country as hon. Members respect the work that teachers, head teachers, council officers and councillors do on a daily basis to help the children in our areas.

On the specific issue of attendance and behaviour, one of the biggest problems in Nottingham—I think the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) touched on this—is condoned absences. Police searches and checks have revealed that many of the youngsters who were stopped were with their parents in the shopping malls and the city centre. It is incumbent on those parents not to say, "Well, I had to take little Johnny to get his feet measured to buy a pair of shoes", but to take the steps necessary to ensure that those young people are in school. That is not bunking off; it is almost a conspiracy to avoid school. Without too much exaggeration, if a parent denies their child schooling, it is, in my opinion, not just a form of neglect, but a form of abuse. That parent is removing from their own child life chances and an ability to progress. In an area like mine, those chances are hard enough to come by without the parents abetting that abuse. I hope that parents will do everything humanly possible to ensure that their children get the education they deserve.

One thing that we are doing in Nottingham is developing a multi-agency truancy team, consisting of police officers and education welfare officers. They go out and about in the city, on a day-to-day basis, picking up truants and taking them back to where they should be. The city is also in the process of establishing a "without school place" team for children who have been removed from rolls. Again, that involves police officers, education welfare officers and the truancy team, who have to work with Connexions, the young offenders' teams and social services. All that work and effort, and making school fun and exciting, has paid off. Attendance in Nottingham in the last year for which we have figures is the best since 1996. The city's secondary schools, whose heads I mentioned, have the most improved truancy rate in the country over the past year and the second most improved attendance rate. My hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to hear that. It is a positive aspect to the work in Nottingham, North.

On the stick side of the equation rather than the carrot side, we have introduced a fast track to court for non-school attendance so that we can move those cases forward with all due speed. In addition, attendance panels operate in all secondary schools. They are made up of a senior education welfare officer, a senior staff member and, where possible, a school governor. Parents are brought before the panel and an action plan, which is kept under review, is agreed. If the situation is not satisfactory after four weeks, a court date can be arranged. That has been negotiated with the senior magistrates clerk, whose work on the issue I commend.

Although there is a negative side to the debate, there is also a positive side, which includes attendance certificates and a city-wide attendance campaign, as well as the national press coverage, which we appreciate, on truancy teams. We had one of the first full-time truancy teams in the country.

Why is this important? It is not merely for educational reasons, but because more than 40 per cent. of the children who truant become involved in street crime and can also be the victims of child abuse. Therefore, in the specific terms of the debate, I hope that Nottingham city is seen to be tackling these problems. There is still a long way to go, but we need to keep at it.

The broader points that I wish to make revolve more around the context in which this debate on attendance and truancy takes place. I take a slightly different angle, in referring to social behaviour. It is a topic that I have raised before, and I make no apology for returning to it.

By this time tomorrow in every constituency in the United Kingdom an average of a thousand reports of antisocial behaviour will have been recorded. So tomorrow there will be over 66,000 new victims, whose homes, cars or physical or mental health have been damaged because of antisocial behaviour. By this time tomorrow this antisocial behaviour will have cost the taxpayer more than £164 million.

I do not need to continue with these facts, because colleagues in all parts of the House realise from their own postbag how important the matter is. Thirteen years ago, when I started as a Member, it was one of a large number of items in the postbag; 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. of casework related to antisocial behaviour. Now it must be about 70 per cent. I do not know whether it is possible to quantify an increase in bullying, as the hon. Member for Southport suggested in an intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister, but antisocial behaviour is certainly anecdotally very definitely capable of being quantified in the postbag as an avalanche during my period in the House.

I am not hankering after some sort of parental golden age. That has never existed. Nor do I wish us to return to the brutalisation of children masquerading sometimes under the word "discipline". Nor am I blaming the parents, many of whom do heroic things to ensure the best for their children. However, parents must take responsibility for their children.

The present Government are now both tough on antisocial behaviour and supportive of parents. Now is the right time for us to start looking at the other side of the campaign against antisocial behaviour by promoting social behaviour in our children. It is necessary to enable good social behaviour, not merely to disable the impact of antisocial behaviour. We must do both.

I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and his team, and indeed those in No. 10 Downing street, will accept that social behaviour could be one of the big ideas of the third term as well as a thread throughout a child's life. Just as the Government have successfully attacked antisocial behaviour at all ages through parenting contracts, antisocial behaviour orders and truancy sweeps, we must make social behaviour a continuum throughout a child's life.

] For a child who is likely to develop antisocial behaviour there can be no question—a number of colleagues from all parts of the House have referred to this—but that the earlier the intervention, the better. The first contact with public services must take place at the earliest possible moment. We could regress the problem even further back and say that the earlier the contact with the parents, or even parents-to-be, the better. This will allow the earliest, most cost-effective and most telling intervention.

For example, I would like parenting classes to extend to secondary school children, so that even before they become parents, teenagers will be fully aware of the awesome responsibilities, as well as the joys, they will face if they have children of their own.

For the youngest people in our communities, prenatal as well as postnatal parenting classes, run by midwives and health care professionals, would help to identify and enable intervention as early as possible, in order to help some of the parents who may encounter difficulties.

Dr. Pugh

I too am a keen supporter of parenting classes in the secondary school. It is crucial to create a generation of good, knowing parents. It may be regrettable, but it is necessary. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that will require space to be made in the curriculum to make sure that schools do the job properly?

Mr. Allen

I accept that it will require space. That is a difficult judgment, both nationally and for teachers in the classroom, but we need that flexibility. However, if we get it right early on, it will save much grief, effort, time and money. We want to develop people's capabilities so that they become decent human beings rather than let them go their own way, often without any assistance or guidance. We all have a responsibility, particularly in this place, but also at every level in society, to make sure that that approach works.

I welcome the Government's proposals on a flagging-up system to track and help individuals. That is not a Big Brother concept; helping individuals and getting assistance to children and toddlers so that they have the mindset and skills to benefit from their education is not an imposition but a liberation. We are giving people the ability and skills to make the most of their lives. I organised a consultation on promoting social behaviour as a way of undermining antisocial behaviour in my constituency. I spoke to midwives, health visitors and education welfare officers, who told me about parents who refused to allow public officials into their home to give youngsters hearing and sight tests. I make no apology for saying that we must consider whether compulsion should be used in such cases. Allowing a child to go deaf or developing a sight impairment is not a matter of parental choice, and should not happen because parents cannot be bothered or refuse to let in a qualified professional to assist their youngsters at a very early stage.

I was taken by the idea of key workers proposed by Members on both sides of the House and by my hon. Friend the Minister. We have enough public officials at all levels in our constituencies to examine the possibility of ensuring that somebody, somewhere takes responsibility for families identified as requiring assistance early in the process. We need to look at that far more carefully. If we tot up all the health visitors, midwives, police officers, housing officers and everybody else, it may be possible to give responsibility to somebody for one or two families to make sure that we can keep them up to speed and give them the assistance that they need. The early integration of parents in the education system is also important. One of my schools in Nottingham, North holds pre-school planning meetings that bring together parents and child care services before the youngsters start to attend school. Meetings continue to take place once the children are at school. Involving the parents in school is good for the youngsters and allows the parents to start to resurrect their own educational career. We had a debate earlier today in Westminster Hall about further education, and it would be perfectly possible for parents to start exploring through school involvement pathways back into education, thus realising the dream that my hon. Friend the Minister described of lifelong learning.

I should like to float a serious proposal about maintaining and developing a young person's values, ethics and social behaviour as a way of countering antisocial behaviour. We need to look at the teaching of social behaviour. I pay tribute to the work that is already being done in primary schools, but if children are not getting those values at home, we may need to consider introducing a mandatory component in the national curriculum, perhaps on an experimental basis in certain areas, so that young people can develop emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and use non-violent means of communications. They would thus be in a position to start learning on day one at primary school. If we had that in our national curriculum, my hope and ambition for the Government in a third term might be that we could do for social behaviour what we have done for literacy and numeracy, and kit out young people with the emotional skill set that will enable them to take advantage of their education and the educational opportunities on offer.

I could say a great deal more about the topic, but I am conscious that others wish to come in. In conclusion, if we fail to get youngsters participating in our society, and if as a society we fail to equip them with the skills to make the best of themselves, we will be landing ourselves with an incredibly large social and economic bill. Where we have not intervened properly, the tailback from one youngster who goes wrong—one youngster who goes through the exclusion process, the appeals process, the criminal courts, the police, possibly drug rehabilitation and possibly prison—results in huge expenditure that society has to fork out, which might have been avoided had we spent a minor pot at the earliest opportunity. The earlier we intervene, the less money we need to spend to make decent people in our society.

Against the background of this debate on attendance and behaviour at school, I hope that the Minister—I do not expect a reply even in his winding-up speech—will go away and think about the possibilities of countering the antisocial behaviour that we see every day in our schools with a serious programme of social behaviour, with the Government fully behind it.

4.2 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). As is customary, he raised many good points, and the one on which he finished was extremely important. That is where I shall start.

Education, in terms not just of qualifications achieved, but of school life, shapes the lives of many people, if not everybody. Many years ago, I was chairman of governors of a school in Lancashire, which is where I am from, as my accent suggests. The school had many children with social difficulties and many with learning difficulties. It had a 54 per cent. Muslim population—a point to which I shall return—and a 10 per cent. population of travellers, as they are called these days; originally, the term was Gypsies, then itinerants. That mix taught me a great deal and sharpened the keen interest that I already had in education, possibly because my education was not as extensive as I might have liked.

These days, it seems, we have more education than ever—children often go to school way beyond the age of 16, and many go to university—yet in some ways the problems have worsened. We have concentrated, rightly, on the number of pupils who become disengaged from the lessons at school. Many of those who go to university become rather disengaged there as well and tend to drop out of their courses, because the course is inappropriate or they do not like university life, or for some other reason. We are not here to discuss university, but there is a lesson to be learned from the drop-out rate from higher education courses.

As the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said, if we consider the number of people being educated in this country and specifically the top 10 per cent., it is quite impressive, and probably comparable with education standards throughout the world. However, those in the bottom 10 per cent. represent a big problem.

Many changes came about during the 20th century. Although there was better health, better education—or certainly more education—and greater prosperity, there was also a massive increase in crime, which has continued to go up. Much, although not all, of that crime is committed by those in the bottom 10 per cent. to whom the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and I referred, and who might be called "the underclass"—that is an unfortunate term, but I cannot think of a better way to put it. They have been excluded from so much in society, and that starts when they leave school without a proper education. As many as one in three may leave primary school with a low standard of literacy and numeracy, and that continues into secondary school. According to my research, about 33,000 children leave secondary school with no GCSEs at all. I started by saying that qualifications are not everything, but we need to ensure that people leave school with an acceptable degree of literacy and numeracy. If they do not, we will find, if we fast forward a few years, that between 50 and 60 per cent. of the prison population are still illiterate or innumerate, or have very low literacy or numeracy standards.

For the record, I am not saying that having no education is an excuse for crime—of course, many people with poor education do not commit any crime— nor that punishments for people with no education who commit should be less severe than those for anybody else. A lack of education is not an excuse for committing crime, but it might be a reason for it, and we must address that.

As the hon. Member for Southport said, it is not only a lack of education that leads to crime or to poor behaviour in schools; much of it is brought about by changes in society. An increasing lack of respect for authority naturally leads to a lack of respect for teachers and an unruly classroom. At one time—I accept that it was quite a few years ago—large classes sizes were never a problem, and classes of 45 to 50 were not at all unusual. They were manageable because there was greater discipline in schools and, I suspect, in the home. Nowadays, such class sizes would be unacceptable and unimaginable—not only because of the educational problems and challenges that would be created, but because of behavioural problems. Assaults on teachers were once relatively unheard of, but are now so commonplace that they go almost unreported in the media. According to a recent parliamentary answer, in the last year for which figures are available 110 assaults that the Health and Safety Executive describes as serious—that is, resulting in the teacher taking more than three days off work to recover—were committed. That is a frightening statistic.

That change in society's attitudes has led to a great deal of truancy—or "bunking-off", as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) described it. That means that children miss lessons, reducing their ability to learn and taking them on the downward spiral that might be an excuse or a reason for them to commit crime. Whether they truant because they are being bullied, or are disengaged with what is going on at school, or are bored—they are not necessarily stupid, but may be quite bright—the common factor is that they can see no point in school. Far too many parents these days feel the same, and some cause a great deal of disruption by taking their children away on unnecessary holidays during term-time. That is not helpful, but perhaps it suggests the lack of respect for authority that is prevalent in society today.

I appreciate that I am about to tread on dangerous ground, but a reason for lack of respect was brought home to me at the school where I was chairman of governors. I hope that my remarks will be taken in the spirit in which they are meant. Fifty-four per cent. of the school's population were Muslim and the attitude was different. All the children in that population had a stable family background, yet in one class, every child from the indigenous population came from a broken home. I do not want to make moral judgments other than to say that that cannot help behaviour and discipline.

Mr. Hopkins

The hon. Gentleman may be interested in the Library document that shows that absences and school exclusion rates for the Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations are lower than for the white population. That reflects his points.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I suspect that the two points are closely linked. The net result of lack of respect for authority and lack of discipline is bullying, truancy and expulsions. They are big problems in schools, but in many cases they are symptoms of bigger ones. I stress that every school must have the right to exclude, but we must be careful about our treatment of those who are excluded. Where do they go and what do they do? If we are not careful, we shall make matters worse.

I want to consider further the reason for exclusion, which is often unmet special educational needs. I have often spoken about that subject in the House; I make no apology for that and I hope that I shall have the opportunity to speak about it many more times. My research demonstrates that unmet special educational needs are a major source of exclusion. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice reports that 3,000 new cases a year are referred to it and 20 per cent. relate to pupils who are excluded or threatened with exclusion largely because their needs are not fulfilled.

The needs are often not fulfilled because they are not recognised. Dyslexia and dyspraxia are hard to detect partly because they are often found in bright pupils. Yet because the problems are not detected sufficiently early, the pupils are perceived to be rather dim. That is unfair because the reverse is the case. The National Autistic Society says that children with autism or Asperger's syndrome are 20 times more likely to be excluded than pupils without special educational needs.

I served on the Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, which was designed to promote inclusion. I readily accept that many pupils with special educational needs are rightly included in mainstream schools because we cannot categorise people as normal or not normal. However, that is not right for all children and it is dangerous to make inclusion a party-political issue. In Gloucestershire, that appears to have happened.

The Liberal Democrat/Labour-controlled county council appears determined to close the special schools in Gloucestershire. It has started by closing Bownham Park school in Stroud and it is targeting Alderman Knight school in my constituency. I fear that the county council is using the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 as an excuse to save money. That must be unacceptable. Alderman Knight school is under threat.

Exclusion from the activities of an inappropriate mainstream school can lead to exclusion in later life, although attendance at a mainstream school does not itself ensure inclusion. Mainstream schools cannot always provide the care and education required by children with special needs, whereas special schools often can do so. The children in question do not always suffer from educational, behavioural or learning difficulties—which are bad enough. Many have physical difficulties, as with some pupils at Alderman Knight. If they attend mainstream schools, they may become bullies themselves or, more likely, be bullied because their problems make them stand out. They might drop out of school, play truant, disengage or be disruptive—causing problems for other pupils and teachers.

Many teachers, governors, parents and pupils are against the proposed closure of Alderman Knight school and the forced inappropriate inclusion of some pupils in mainstream schools. I believe that the county council's consultation in respect of Alderman Knight school is something of a sham and that a decision has already been made. When I made that claim at a county council meeting last Friday, nothing that was said convinced me that it was not the case. It is a shameful decision. Anyone who decides to close a special school that is doing so well is blighting the lives of many pupils and denying them the help that they need. Pupils themselves say that they are having their hopes removed. It does not matter what we think; the pupils themselves know that they could not cope in a mainstream school.

I have invited the Minister many times to visit Alderman Knight school, where he will be most welcome. I hope that he will at last take me up on that genuine offer. The Minister is generous enough to acknowledge that the threat to Alderman Knight is close to my heart. I do not want more and more pupils put into inappropriate education, to become the problems of the future.

4.18 pm
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow a fellow Lancastrian, albeit one exiled in Tewkesbury, and to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on refusing to lose his Lancashire accent. There are too few of us about.

I declare an interest in that my wife is the head teacher of a large comprehensive school, Glenburn high school, in Skelmersdale. My contribution will be a distillation of many weekends of detailed conversations about what goes on at that school and others in the town and throughout the county.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) nostalgically reminded me of my many happy years as a teacher trainer on a beat that included his constituency, which is next door to mine, and Bootle. Shirley Williams was then Secretary of State for Education, so the House can imagine how long ago that was. At one school in Bootle—I shall not name it because it is reformed and a fine school now—I regularly witnessed fist fights between teachers and pupils. On one famous occasion, I witnessed a fight between two teachers. One of the best students I taught, who has been a head teacher for some time, had to be taken out of that school because he was being physically attacked. I have never seen anything quite like it since. The idea that is sometimes promulgated that behaviour, attendance or punctuality in schools is in general worse now than it was back in the 1970s is, in my experience, nonsense.

My wife's school is in a difficult area, and a substantial minority of pupils make the intake very challenging, including some from a substantial number of dysfunctional families. Nevertheless, the school is achieving—massively so—and improves its achievement year by year. Not least among the reasons for that is the fact that the Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), when she was a junior Minister in the Department for Education and Skills, came up with the idea of excellence clusters, and created one in Skelmersdale. There are a few others scattered around the country, but the one in Skelmersdale involves three comprehensive schools in the town and about half its primary schools. That has brought in extra resources, which have largely been used on learning mentors and similar support systems, which have been magnificently successful. If the Government found more money for excellence clusters and the similar partnerships that the Minister mentioned at the beginning of the debate to provide more learning mentors especially to deal with disaffected young people, that would be as good a use of money as any that could be found in the education world.

Unauthorised absence, on which I shall focus, and unpunctuality are the products of a cultural problem whose roots are in dysfunctional and care-less families, and it does not take many such families to create a problem for a school. A school, more than any other organisation, is expected to deal with those problems. We expect a vast amount from our schools, and for the most part they respond to that expectation. I shall return to that point later.

Schools are expected to tackle and correct absenteeism and they are "punished" if they do not by the publication of raw statistics that often take no account of many problems in the societies that the schools are part of. For example, if two families each have three or four kids in one school—this happens regularly in one of my schools—all of whom are bad attenders with constant problems of 20, 25 or 30 per cent. attendance, that can completely destroy what might otherwise be a good school record on attendance. It also leads to a vast amount of teacher and support staff time being concentrated on attending to those families and those difficulties.

It is not unusual for a pupil excluded from one school for, inter alia, poor attendance to be forced into another school, which often has to accept that student, knowing that its overall record on attendance and behaviour problems will be badly affected. The beginning of that process therefore causes problems between the student and their family, and the school. The school might not want that kid to start with, which is a bad way for anyone to begin a school career.

By excluding regularly, the big excluders among our schools can advantage themselves over those schools that are reluctant to exclude. I must put on the record the case of one primary school in my patch that has had the same head for 22 years. He was in great distress just before Christmas because he had had finally to exclude his first pupil ever. He does not believe in excluding, believing instead that the school can include and deal with the problem, with help. This time, things had gone beyond the pale. It is a beacon school with an excellent headmaster, an old student of mine, who is doing a magnificent job.

We also have a problem in some areas—not in Skelmersdale, as relationships are good inside the excellence cluster there—when the Roman Catholic school excludes children who must be found a place often in the county school next door. The reverse does not apply, however. Roman Catholic schools can refuse to take their share of excluded students from other schools, and in parts of the country they do so regularly. The Department should examine carefully such difficulties with exclusion, which cause head teachers much misery.

I had not intended to comment on bullying, but the issue was raised by several hon. Members. Partly because of the publicity in newspapers, we are in danger of creating a special crime called school bullying. Bullies are not special to schools: society is full of bullies. School bullies may have bullying neighbours, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) referred. Antisocial behaviour is a form of bullying, and it happens all the time in all our communities. Many school bullies have parents who bully. Racial discrimination is a species of bullying. They may have parents who are bullied in the workplace. There are head teachers and teachers who are bullies—head teachers who bully other teachers, and teachers who bully one another in their departments. Bullying is endemic throughout our society. Bullying in schools is presented in the media and by politicians as something peculiar to schools, but it is not. We must solve the problem of bullying and tackle it right across our society as well as in schools. Schools are among the few places in our society that, by law, have anti-bullying policies, and must maintain them.

Schools have a large number of problems in those areas. They are tackling them, as I will describe in a moment. First, I want to tell the Minister that it is good that the Government are pumping money into schools to tackle some of those problems, but we also need social services to be well funded. Social services must back up schools' work with dysfunctional families. We cannot just deal with a child in school and bring in people to help. We must go out and see the family. There are all sorts of problems in families—I do not need to list them because other hon. Members have described them—that must be coped with. Schools cannot possibly do that. Social services are struggling. Good people, certainly in my part of the world, are working extremely hard but they cannot provide the back-up service that schools need.

In recent weeks, we have discussed fixed penalties for bad attendance. There have been big newspaper splashes about parents being fined £100 for taking their children on holiday in term time, in addition to normal bad attendance cases. Giving head teachers—my hon. Friend the Minister referred in his opening speech to head teachers, education welfare officers, and someone else whom I have forgotten—the ability to fine parents £100 for taking a child on holiday seems to me a poisoned chalice. First, it will not deter parents who are prepared to lie and say, "My child was ill." They will do it anyway. It might upset perfectly responsible parents who are supportive of the school in every other way, and who, incidentally, would probably be surprised to learn how many Members of Parliament take holidays during term time, given the length of our recesses. For those parents with two or three kids, who would save up to £600 by taking a holiday in term time rather than during the rush month, having to cough up £100 would still enable them to save £500. How would that deter a parent?

That power will irritate and create a lot of bad feeling. My biggest worry is that such a system could endanger the often difficult and delicate relationship of head teachers, and perhaps educational welfare officers, with parents. Politicians must understand something that we perhaps do not fully understand: the intensity and time-consuming nature of day-to-day negotiations with pupils, who might turn up or might not and who have to be cajoled, bribed and bullied, and with parents who often do not care two hoots whether their kid is in school, so long as they are not at home, which is the main purpose, and who might just be cajoled into co-operating.

We should also recall—this issue has been mentioned in a sidelong way—that a large minority of pupils in our secondary schools come from broken families. Often, they require two holidays: one with mum, who usually has care, and one with dad. Who are we to say that the holiday with dad is less important than going to school for that particular week? Denying the opportunity for a 14-year-old to spend a week with his father would do damage that a week in school could not correct. It might be more effective if parents who want to take their children on holiday in term time were obliged to make them produce relevant work of some kind, which the school could set. For families on tight budgets, going on holiday in term time is often the only option. We need to be more understanding in that regard.

I return to the daily battle against unauthorised absence and unpunctuality. It is some 30 years since I was a teacher—thank God. I taught in a very tough but very good comprehensive school in Kirby, outside Liverpool. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I remember the immense relief that I felt when some of the most ghastly young men did not turn up. There was no way that I was going to complain that Joe Bloggs, who made my life a misery every time he was in the classroom, had not turned up; I simply hoped that he would not turn up tomorrow either. That was a long time ago, and we cannot adopt such attitudes now. However, that feeling must exist among teachers who perhaps have one child who creates trouble in the classroom day after day. Yet now they must constantly chase up that kid, to ensure that he attends and that attendance is maximised.

A minority of secondary school students have no concept whatsoever of the importance to them of school attendance, and, as several Members have said, no interest in what is going on in the school. That might not always be the fault of an inadequate curriculum.

Mr. John Taylor

The hon. Gentleman has particular experience that I never had of being a teacher in a perhaps difficult area, and of the character whom he called Joe Bloggs who made life difficult in the classroom. Can he give the House the benefit of his thoughts as to the sanction or punishment available that might work for a Joe Bloggs, or is the situation usually hopeless?

Mr. Pickthall

It was not always hopeless, although some children—as I said, this was a long time ago, for which I am grateful—were undoubtedly mentally unbalanced, and nothing could be done to solve that problem. At that time, caning was still used. I never had one of my students caned, because I disapproved of that method, but I did have the capacity to look as though I might kill them at any moment. On the whole, one jollied along, but it was tense and difficult. I vividly recall—this is turning into "All Our Yesterdays"—that in my first year of teaching at the age of about 23, I lost 2 stone in weight. That was much better than the Atkins diet. In fact, I could do with going back into school to lose a bit more weight now.

Some students come from families where no one gets up to go to work, and no one has done so for a considerable time, so it becomes a habit in the home. In some families, one or both parents was a bunker—and perhaps not so many years earlier either—and believe that there is nothing of value in education, because they received nothing valuable from it. In those cases, the relationship between parents and school is likely to be fraught, sometimes even violent. If I recall correctly, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned the prevalence of assaults against teachers. I remember assaults against members of staff who manned reception desks and I know of one case in my constituency where a nice, capable and highly intelligent woman working in reception was confronted by a man with a cudgel who had come in to beat up somebody—whoever he could find—because the school had upset his child. My wife, who is about 7 stone, had to defuse those difficult circumstances. Teachers sometimes have to face them down, which I mention to highlight the difficulty of coping with such problems.

In disputes, such parents are the most likely, though not the only ones, always to believe their child's version of events rather than the school's version. They are often not discouraged by our friends in the legal profession, who constantly seek to lure them into legal action against a school. Schools are barraged by legal actions for all sorts of things and by other accusations, which are not unusually a cover-up for the reality of the child's poor behaviour or bad attendance.

In the particular school—I am convinced that it is fairly typical of many secondary schools today—the structures in place to deal with problems of poor attendance are enormous and complex. There is a full-time attendance officer, supported by two clerical officers. Electronic registration, which the Minister mentioned, takes place daily so that every lesson is registered. Every absence is instantly recorded and followed up with the family over the telephone on the same day. If it goes on more than a day, further layers of action can be resorted to.

Incidentally, two words are used to describe the problem. One is "bunking", which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) mentioned, and it means not going into school at all. "Sagging" is going in and then legging it once the pupil's name has been registered in the morning. That certainly applies in the Merseyside area.

Much of the school's success stemmed from a decision taken some years ago to structure tutor work vertically, so that the teacher follows the child right through from year 1 and from year 8. The tutor thus gets to know the children well. Because the age range is vertical and covers all five years, it provides a great counter to bullying. There is a lot of mutual support between the younger and older students. That system has been in operation for three years and has been highly successful.

When a student's attendance figures fall below 80 per cent., the EWO is instantly brought in, as are the learning mentors, the learning support unit and the youth workers. They hold conferences to examine why the child has not been attending more and determine what can be done. In many cases, the problem can be solved.

Various carrots and sticks can be used. The carrots are what one might expect: 100 per cent. attenders get free cinema tickets and pizzas, and so on. There are many such benefits, but they are likely to be most effective with those students who are not fundamentally disaffected when it comes to school. That approach creates a more positive atmosphere. It tackles casual truancy and the aim is to create mutual pressure. One thing that I learned, in the dim and distant past when I was a teacher, was that a class that felt ashamed, or worried that one of its members was letting the rest down, carried out much of the discipline for the teacher. Taking positive action, and rewarding those who attend well, helps to create that sort of atmosphere.

The sticks that can be used range from 10-minute detentions on the day of lateness—the maximum that can be imposed without proper notice—to truancy detention of one or two hours each week. Pupils who truant from lessons have meetings with the attendance officer, heads of houses, senior managers, and the EWO. There is also a police attendance project, in which the local police work with teenagers, setting targets and reviewing them weekly. Parents are also involved in that.

There is also a range of curriculum strategies. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the alternative curriculum for key stage 4, which is vital for those young people who have no interest at all in what the curriculum has to offer, and who resist it.

There is also the valued youth project, in which secondary school students are rewarded with vouchers that they can exchange for clothes, sports equipment and so on. Vouchers are given to students who help primary school pupils who have some learning difficulties. The scheme has been extremely successful and especially notable for the way in which it has helped motivate boys. The secondary schools in the town are hoping to extend it.

In addition, extended work experience is encouraged for all those who have succeeded in the valued youth scheme. However, it must be said that a significant minority of parents do not support either the valued youth project or the extended work experience scheme. They say that children should spend their time at school doing GCSEs, as they are all important, or that they do not support the time-keeping disciplines that are imposed on young people who go into proper work places.

Most effective of all has been the Skillforce project. I do not know whether that scheme operates across the country, but it is certainly offered in my patch. It is run by the Army, whose tutors help students to obtain practical qualifications. I do not know how far the Army could extend the scheme, but it has been extremely successful. The Army education service is very professional and effective.

The House will be familiar with the Connexions service. Another approach is to send youngsters on college courses, although I do not think that that has been successful, as not every college tutor is especially skilled at looking after disaffected young people.

Finally, there is an inclusion group for year 10 pupils who have not taken advantage of the other programmes. Small groups are taught separately by the most experienced and skilful staff. Of the 12 students who followed that course last year, eight are responding well and, after severe disaffection, developing a more positive attitude to the school. Three of the four students who failed in all those programmes—whose parents may be prosecuted—were pupils whom the school was trying to reintegrate after their attendance at a pupil referral unit.

There are no easy answers to the problems of truancy. It is a relentless daily grind for the many schools faced with a small proportion of unco-operative or incompetent parents. Perhaps the most effective of all the methods used in the school that I described was the employment of a full-time attendance officer whose remit was to inquire instantly into the absence of a child on the same day that it occurred. Large comprehensives can afford to employ such officers and the clerical help that they need, but that is not the case for primary schools where such things may be left to the school secretary, who may only work part-time. The partnerships to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred may be the way for all schools with a less than satisfactory attendance record to obtain the full-time assistance that they require to undertake such work.

Dr. Pugh

The hon. Gentleman started his speech by referring to his experience in Bootle in the 1970s when he heard of or witnessed fights between teachers and pupils.

Mr. Pickthall

I witnessed them.

Dr. Pugh

I was teaching in Bootle in the 1970s and I seem to have missed all that. Is the hon. Gentleman's verdict that things are much the same, getting better or getting worse?

Mr. Pickthall

It would not be fair to name the school where those events occurred, as it has changed substantially—it has even changed its name. However, I shall talk to the hon. Gentleman about it after the debate; he will probably recognise it. Things have got much better in schools since then. Of course, there are problems but not to the extent that I saw in those days.

We cannot expect our schools easily to control crises that the rest of society cannot control, or does not want to control: the bad language, racism, bullying and violence that youngsters see all around them in everyday life. The fact that most schools do so much better than the wider society in which they are embedded is an enormous credit to the bulk of the teaching and other staff, the governors and head teachers in those schools—including my wife. If I have done half as much for Skelmersdale as the town's head teachers have when I retire from my parliamentary career, I shall have done a pretty good job.

4.48 pm
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)(Con)

The debate has been interesting, although it has been brief. I congratulate Members on both sides of the House who made thoughtful and interesting speeches: my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

I was especially struck by a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, as it captured some of the flavour of an earlier debate on special educational needs. My hon. Friend said that children with Asperger's syndrome are 20 per cent. more likely to be excluded from school than other children. That highlights the problems that we need to tackle in determining how best to educate children with special educational needs and the extent to which they and other pupils benefit from their inclusion in mainstream schools rather than their being educated in special schools.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

I beg my hon. Friend's pardon; my Lancashire accent obviously caused him to mishear me. In fact, I said that people with autism or Asperger's were 20 times more likely to be excluded, so the situation is even worse than he described.

Mr. Hoban

My hon. Friend corrects me. The comment is made more telling and powerful, given that a twentyfold increase in the risk of exclusion from school is involved.

The chief inspector of schools set out the problem very well in his last report, when he said: I know the relentless draining of staff morale and the sapping of energy and initiative that insubordination and cynicism from disaffected pupils can cause day in day out. I am convinced that improving behaviour and improving attainment go hand in hand…There is a chain of connection between attainment and progress and pupils' behaviour, attitudes to school and their personal development. That sentiment has been expressed most recently by the hon. Members for West Lancashire and for Nottingham, North, and it goes beyond just what happens in school. There is a link between some of the behavioural problems in school and crime—both when young people are at school and, indeed, when they have finished school. So it is clear that improving attendance and behaviour is at the heart of some of the education problems that we need to tackle in some of our most challenging schools.

Let us be quite clear that more children are truanting from school now than in 1997. In 2002–03, more than 630,000 children missed at least one half-day session. In 1997–98, the figure was just under 453,000. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in the number of children truanting from school at a time when overall pupil numbers changed only marginally.

The Minister said in his opening remarks that the proportion of days lost has barely changed. It has fallen by 0.3 per cent. since 1997. Although the Government might cite their record as one of modest progress, it should be set in the context of the target that they set at the start of their term in office, back in 1998, when they sought to cut truancy by a third by 2002—a target that, like so many, was set, missed and scrapped. The target now is to reduce truancy by 10 per cent. between 2002 and 2004; but, bearing in mind that the proportion of days lost between 2002 and 2003 fell by 0.1 per cent., the Government have a huge hurdle to leap to achieve that target. Like my hon. Friends, I am sceptical about whether the Government will achieve that target by the end of this academic year.

Why does truancy matter? It is crucial that all young people are able to learn. If we are to be competitive in today's global economy and the country is to thrive, we need a highly skilled work force. Also, to echo remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, if people are to succeed in our competitive economy, they need to be numerate and literate. Truancy and bad behaviour deny everyone the opportunity to participate fully in the competitive economy and weaken our whole economy.

There is clearly a relationship between high and above average truancy rates and below average exam results. Of the 15 LEAs with the greatest proportion of children failing to get any GCSEs, 14 had above average truancy rates. Of the 77 LEAs where more than 50 per cent. of children received five or more A∗ to C passes, only 12 had above average truancy rates. Low truancy sits beside higher attainment. If we want all pupils to improve their attainment, we need to tackle truancy. The attitude of a school or local authority to attendance sends a message to parents and pupils. A robust approach to attendance, following best practice, shows that a school or LEA is being serious about education, while being soft on truancy does no one any favours.

We talked about pupil behaviour, and one measure of pupil behaviour is the number of exclusions from school. Since the Government came to office until 1999–2000, the number of exclusions fell, partly as a result of the target that the Government set to reduce the number of exclusions. But again, that target has been changed because the Government have recognised—as head teachers, teachers and parents also recognise—that the policy was leading to more and more problem children remaining in school, harming not just their educational chances but the chances of those children who were in school and who wanted to learn. Since the policy was scrapped, exclusions have started to increase again. More than 1,000 more secondary school pupils were excluded in 2001–02 than in 1999–2000. In the same period, an extra 220 primary school pupils were excluded.

Reference has been made to Ofsted's findings on behaviour in schools. The 2001–02 Ofsted report said that behaviour was satisfactory or better in 11 out of 12 schools, but also said that behaviour in 27 per cent. of schools had deteriorated since the last time that they had been inspected.

The Government have increased the amount spent on truancy and behaviour. The Minister seemed rather hurt by several remarks made in the press about the amount that they have spent and the way in which it was supposed to cover truancy and behaviour. In an answer to me on 15 December 2003, he said that the amount spent on truancy and behaviour had increased from £10 million in 1997–98 to £84.5 million in 2002–03. He said that even more would be spent—an extra £50 million—on the behaviour improvement programme. In 2003–04, the Government will spend a further £150 million. He was proud that the Government have spent £600 million on truancy and behaviour since they came to office. However, given the modest decrease in truancy and the fact that more and more children are absent from school for one or more sessions, I am not sure that taxpayers or the Government have received value for money from the increased expenditure.

The Minister touched on the flagship behaviour improvement programme, which is part of the national behaviour and attendance strategy. Under the programme, as he said, every child who is at risk of truancy, exclusion or criminal behaviour should have a named key worker—that sounds very positive. However, we should consider the number of children who miss at least one session of school in the local education authorities that are part of the programme. I believe that about 26,000 pupils in Bradford truanted from school in 2002–03, and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) pointed out a cultural reason for that. About 36,000 children in Birmingham missed school for one or more sessions. How many key workers must we find to ensure that each of those children has support? That does not include the number that we must find for children at risk of exclusion or criminal damage.

Mr. Allen

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not disparage the concept of key workers entirely. Many people are involved in the public service at many levels locally, and it would clearly not be feasible to attach a key worker to everyone who has ever missed half a day of school. However, as I suggested earlier, attaching key workers at an early stage to known families in which problems might arise could be more practical.

Mr. Hoban

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but I am worried that the resources will be spread too thinly rather than sufficiently targeted at those who most need help and support.

As well as offering carrots such as the behaviour improvement programme, we know that the Government have used sticks. Parenting orders for exclusion and parenting contracts for truancy and exclusion were introduced in 1998. Further measures were introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. What will the impact of those measures actually be? The 1998 legislation did not have the beneficial impact on truancy and behaviour for which the Government hoped. Only 266 parenting orders were issued due to children's truancy in the year ending June 2002, so will penalty notices be more effective? Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Southport commented on condoned truancy. Will LEAs and the police take action to issue notices to parents who condone their children's absence?

The hon. Member for West Lancashire expressed concern, at some length, about giving head teachers the power to issue penalty notices and the impact that that will have on the relationship between the head, the family and the pupils. I am not sure how many heads in my constituency would be willing to exercise those powers given the fragility of the relationship between school and home in so many cases.

We all agree that truancy needs to be tackled. It is important that schools and LEAs decide how best to spend their resources. They need to understand how measures will work best in their area. Some techniques will only work in some areas. A school in an LEA near to mine shared the experience described by the hon. Member for Luton, North of older children acting as carers for their younger siblings. In their efforts to get the younger siblings to school, the older children missed the start of their school day and those absences were treated as unauthorised. That secondary school moved back its starting time to enable the older children to fulfil their responsibilities to the other siblings and to get to school on time. Those innovative local solutions need to be considered to improve behaviour and attendance in schools.

There are also innovative programmes to tackle problem behaviour. Six schools in Portsmouth have used emotional intelligence to help to tackle behavioural and learning problems, a suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. By encouraging self- esteem and using techniques to encourage all in the school—not just the children, but the head, the teachers, the classroom assistants and the support staff —to develop their self-esteem, to take ownership of their problems and to find their own ways through those problems, behaviour in those schools has improved. Sadly, that scheme, which was funded by the LEA over three years, had to come to an end because of budget constraints. As that LEA is not part of the behavioural improvement programme, there is no money to develop the programme further.

I visited the Greig city academy in Haringey last year. It uses a scheme similar to that outlined by the hon. Member for West Lancashire, in which positive behaviour is rewarded by credits. The credits can be converted into goods, which include tickets to film premieres. The pupils I spoke to said that that was effective and that behaviour had improved significantly. My experience of the lessons in that school was that the children were well behaved, quiet and ready to learn.

There are other examples of ways in which behaviour and attendance can be tackled. The council in Slough, together with local businesses and a further education college, using money from the behavioural improvement programme, has introduced work-related learning to motivate disaffected pupils by offering a curriculum that meets their needs and re-engages them in education by offering work-based learning and vocational qualifications. I strongly believe that such programmes can be effective. Indeed, schools in my constituency offer that without using money from the behavioural improvement programme because they see the improvements in attendance and behaviour that derive from a curriculum that meets the needs of children, not the education system.

Mr. Allen

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that neither parents alone nor schools alone can tackle the problems of misbehaviour or of developing social behaviour? As I said, I carried out a consultation so that I could talk to all the primary heads in my constituency. One said to me, "You must understand, Mr. Allen, that there are two cultures. We can do a lot at school, but if little Johnny leaves school proudly carrying his painting and his mum says, 'Come here, you f…ing b…',screws up the painting, throws it in the gutter and says, 'Don't bring that rubbish home from school', then all the excellent work in schools can be blown apart immediately because that child has to live in that environment for the rest of the day." Is it not essential that we unite both the home culture and the school culture?

Mr. Hoban

The hon. Gentleman yet again makes a very telling point. If the home is not engaged in improving children's behaviour, any improvement made at school will be short lived. However, given that some behavioural problems are deep-seated, cultural and part of the local community, a short programme does not necessarily work. Longer-term support is needed for the families concerned. We cannot expect money put in over one, two or three years to work that magic.

This has been a very important debate, as the quality of the contributions indicates. Many of the issues that we have to tackle with regard to attendance and behaviour are deep-seated in the local communities. They are problems that will have to be tackled over time, but they also need to be tackled with the support of local communities. We need solutions that meet the needs of those communities and not those laid down by central Government. We must allow greater local discretion in tackling these important problems. Unless we tackle them, children will continue to be excluded from school and the work force.

5.6 pm

Mr. Ivan Lewis

Having opened the debate, I seek the leave of the House to wind-up for the Government.

This has been an excellent, constructive debate. All hon. Members who have contributed have tried to address the issues in a fundamental and mature way. I thought in particular that the contribution of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) was on the whole constructive and helpful.

The specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised included that of children with special needs, which rightly was the focus of much discussion today, because we do not give enough attention to this group of young people. Because of their needs, appropriate provision should be made for each and every child, and that provision will be different in different circumstances. That is certainly true of the integration of children with special needs into mainstream education. Having more adults in the classroom than we have had before and learning support unit provision will help to make integration easier than it has been historically.

But there must also be a continued important role for special schools. I have an excellent special school in my constituency: Elms Bank Community High special school. I am familiar with the Delamere school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). It is true that for many young people at this stage of educational development, and in terms of parental preference and choice, special schools still have an important role to play.

We should remember that there are some difficult issues to grapple with: parental priority, preference and choice are changing in this area. There is probably now a higher proportion of parents of young people with special needs than there were 20 years ago who, given a choice, want their children educated in a mainstream environment. We must take account of that, while recognising that the mainstream environment is not in all circumstances yet ready to give the holistic education that many of those young people need.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) mentioned specific concerns about a school in his constituency. While I am sympathetic to looking at the issue, it would be entirely inappropriate for a Minister in Westminster, and Whitehall, to second-guess the judgments made by the local decision makers. Indeed, the party of which the hon. Gentleman is a member wants maximum devolution to the front line, maximum local decision making and minimal interference from Westminster and Whitehall. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere in decisions that have been made about the best use of resources and most appropriate provision in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

The hon. Gentleman should reinforce the message given by Ministers during the passage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, that that should not be seen as a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools. I think I quote the then Minister exactly.

Secondly, the Minister makes a point about local decision making. When decisions end up with an adjudicator who lives 200 or 300 miles from the school, I do not think he could describe that as local decision making.

Mr. Lewis

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I have repeated the assurance that was given when that measure was introduced. It is not a green light for wholesale changes or a one-size-fits-all approach to local provision and local need. It is for local decision makers to make their best judgment in consultation with those affected, including parents and, where appropriate, young people themselves. However, at this stage it is not for me to interfere with those decisions.

As was said in our debate, we use the term "special needs" generically. Ofsted is looking at the range of provisions for children with severe behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, and I believe that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale rightly raised the issue of teachers' welfare and security. He will be interested to know that this term we have begun to work with the teaching unions on violence and fear of violence in the classroom. We are working in partnership with the unions with a view to proposing appropriate responses that make teachers feel safer. It is important to put on the record, however, the fact that there is no evidence of a significant increase in violent incidents. Serious injuries to staff as a result of violence have to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, and figures from 1996–97 until the current year do not show a significant increase. It is important to give accurate information in our debates so as not to cause undue alarm.

We have increased significantly the resources available for school security, which individual schools have chosen to use in different ways. We have tightened up the exclusion appeal process, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), to make the interests of the entire school community as important as the interests of the individual pupil. We are trying to make sure that we avoid a situation in which appeal panels, in circumstances that are difficult to justify, overturn head teachers' decisions. There must always be a right of appeal, and the panel has to make the best possible judgment, but the criteria on which a judgment is made and the composition of the panel is important, as panel members must understand in the round the challenges faced by schools, particularly head teachers.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale raised the issue of male teaching recruits. That is important, as we want male role models in the classroom, particularly as many young people do not have male role models at home. We are experiencing difficulties, however, because although male recruitment is not generally a problem in secondary schools, it is in primary schools. The Teacher Training Agency is conducting a campaign to encourage more men to come into teaching, and there is some evidence of success, as male recruitment to primary education is 8.4 per cent. higher in 2003–04 than in 2002–03. Progress has therefore been made. Consensus is required on the issue—there is no need for party political point scoring.

On the whole, the contribution of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) was reasonably constructive. However, may I point out that we need a clear evaluation of whether or not the Government are succeeding in their aim to improve behaviour and attendance? The Opposition choose to use statistics to claim that we are failing. Every hon. Member who has participated in our debate has acknowledged that the problems stem from intergenerational deprivation and underperformances, so there are no quick-fix solutions. However, in measuring performance, success rates and value for money, to which the hon. Member for Fareham referred, we must look at all the relevant factors—not just truancy but attendance generally, behaviour and discipline.

It is important to put on the record the fact that school attendance is at a record high; the rate of unauthorised absence has gone down, albeit marginally; and children are truanting for shorter periods, with the relevant figures going down by 25 per cent. since 1996–97. I regard as a success the fact that permanent exclusions are 25 per cent. lower than they were when we entered government. For the first time, permanently excluded pupils have access to a full-time education; 10,000 learning mentors are working in schools; there are 90 multi-agency teams and 40 more in the pipeline; and 17,000 children at risk of exclusion, truancy or crime have key worker support. Police officers spend time working in schools, and we are also making sure that young people in every community deemed to be at risk of drifting into crime and antisocial behaviour are, for the first time, being given positive activities in the long school holiday.

As well as the teacher-stakeholder returns, we should, however, recognise that there is a long way to go in improving behaviour, discipline and attendance. In the round, significant progress has been made. Where behaviour improvement programmes are being implemented and where the attendance strategies that have been described are being put into effect, it is important to speak to the heads, teachers and learning mentors and ask them whether the extra resources have made a tangible difference to their capacity to do their job as they want to do it. They will tell hon. Members in all parts of the House that those extra resources have made a tremendous difference, particularly where heads have been given discretion about how to use them to maximum effect, as is the case in the behaviour improvement programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North gave some examples of progress and innovative work in his constituency. He spoke of the environment in a school being quiet, peaceful and conducive to learning. That is extremely important and depends to a large extent on the quality of the leadership and the ethos in the school. Those who argue that it is purely about social factors and family issues overlook the fact that there are such different levels of success in managing attendance and discipline in different schools with similar socio- economic profiles. A qualitative difference can be made as a consequence of effective leadership and a strong ethos in a school.

Mr. Hopkins

It is not just a question of quality of leadership. There are competing teaching philosophies. There are teachers, and no doubt head teachers, who still believe that a more social, lively atmosphere in a school is the way forward, and that social development is as important as academic development—a wonderful idea, but I believe that learning is less effective in those circumstances.

Mr. Lewis

I agree. We need to learn from best practice, use hard evidence and examine the conclusions that Ofsted reaches about schools that are at the cutting edge in that respect.

In his contribution, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) referred to the limits of the state. I agree that the state can do only so much, but it can create the framework that empowers the front line, and it can make resources available to institutions and professionals who were starved of resources for year after year, and who were asked to do an impossible job, tackling the consequences of social breakdown without the necessary resources. We must not run away from the fact that the massive investment that the Government have put into education has made a tangible difference to the ability of schools to provide the kind of education that we want for all our children, although there remains a long way to go.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman praised pupil referral units, which have been a success. We need to look at the quality of provision for young people who are permanently excluded and are not in mainstream schools. At least full-time education is now being provided to those who are permanently excluded.

The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that young people and teachers want practical support to deal with bullying. I was fortunate not only to address the "Make the Difference" regional conference on bullying yesterday in Brighton, but to visit the West Dene primary school, where I met some of the playground buddies—children of eight or nine who are available to support other young children in the playground who feel threatened or unhappy or who are being attacked verbally. When opportunities are provided to share and spread good practice and to learn from each other, that leads to practical change. That was evident at the conference in Brighton yesterday and on my visit.

Dr. Pugh

Good practice should always be rewarded and highlighted in this House. Is it not the case that an internet site has been set up in Brighton—by the same people, I assume—to enable pupils to diagnose situations involving bullying and learn how to cope with them?

Mr. Lewis

There is indeed such a scheme, and many schools around the country have introduced initiatives such as peer mentors and playground buddies. Bringing those schools together to learn from each other leads to practical change and support for those on the front line in tackling bullying.

I have spent rather a long time with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) today—in fact, I have probably spent more time with him over the past fortnight than with my own family, but that is another story. He paid tribute to the excellent professionals who make a difference in our communities on every day of the week—that is something that we do not do often enough. He was right to name them, and I am sure that they will feel a sense of pride that he recognises the contribution that they have made to improving education in his community.

My hon. Friend rightly said that parentally condoned truancy is unacceptable. I would say to those politicians who run away from that problem and offer no solutions that the Government are right to hold to account parents who simply will not co-operate in getting their children to school. Their attitude is different from that of those who have genuine reasons for being unable to co-operate.

On my hon. Friend's commitment to the teaching of social behaviour, he will know that 25 local education authorities are receiving resources specifically for primary schools to buy in expertise on social and emotional development. I will be happy to talk to him about what is happening in those LEAs and the possible lessons that can be learned in terms of national policy.

I want to conclude by responding to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall). He was, of course, right to say that schools have to deal with the consequences of social deprivation and underperformance. For some young people, school is the only way in which we can intervene where parents are unable or unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities. We can never allow young people's life chances and choices to be blighted—the state has a duty to intervene through the school system. However, we have to do it in a way that also supports the family.

My hon. Friend talked about the statistics that are used to measure attendance. The Government accept the case that has been made to us by many professionals that in future, measuring attendance will be more helpful than separating unauthorised and authorised absence. That is not an attempt to get away from the 2004 target, which, as I said, we shall aspire to meet. However, it is right that we should look beyond that by working with professionals to consider how best to proceed, and we believe that measuring attendance is one way to go.

My hon. Friend was exercised about holiday absence during term time. If there are special circumstances or good reasons, every parent has the right, given the approval of the head teacher, to take up to 10 days' leave per year during term time. My hon. Friend cited the example of split families where children need to go away with mum and dad. However, hundreds of thousands of families—the majority, including many on low incomes—do not go away during term time as a matter of choice. What do we say to them? Do we say that it is legitimate and acceptable to go on holiday during term time? I applaud the local initiatives by travel agents and LEAs in trying to broker agreements on reducing peak season holiday prices. In some areas, such agreements have made a difference to prices. We will consider whether lessons from that can be applied across the country.

My hon. Friend referred to the innovative work that is being done on truancy. I should like to mention Glenburn school, which is in his constituency, and which I have had the pleasure of visiting. The head teacher's name is Mrs. J. A. Pickthall—hon. Members may now understand where he got his excellent briefing from. It is an excellent school and she is an excellent head teacher. The partnership between the schools in Skelmersdale is especially exciting; it shows collaboration, not the competition that did so much damage to our education system in the past 20 years.

The debate has been of unusually high quality with limited party political point scoring. Attendance and behaviour are central to improving school standards. The stakes are high; as I said earlier, the children of today are the parents of tomorrow. It we are truly to end the intergenerational deprivation and underperformance that scars not only our education system but our society, we must make significant progress on attendance and behaviour.

The Government have a good story to tell but there are no quick fixes, no easy wins or slick slogans. We are considering long-term, sustainable change and rebuilding in our country the concept that there is such a thing as society. We are not simply a collection of individuals.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to