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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

9.4 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): This is a long and mixed Bill, but I wish to start by welcoming certain elements of it. In particular, I welcome the support for faith schools. It is a pity that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is no longer present, because I would have liked to reassure him on several points.

I am the governor of a single sex denominational school that has its own sixth form—it does not therefore endear itself to the local authority—and it does not select any of its pupils according to the financial status of the parents. It is important that the faith is held not just by the parents, but by the pupils as well. The school adds to the choice and diversity of education in the neighbourhood. It is oversubscribed to the extent that it could probably fill its places several times over every year, and I believe that its existence is justified on the ground of demand alone.

I have heard nothing but respect for other faiths in the school. It has the utmost respect for other people and for citizenship, and it encourages the height of good manners among its pupils. When I was at prize giving a couple of weeks ago, two students with statements of special educational needs received certificates for five GCSE grades A to C, which establishes its credentials as a truly comprehensive school.

I also welcome the extension of specialist schools. It is difficult for me to do that because this afternoon I received a telephone call from the head teacher of the other school for which I am a governor, which is a mixed comprehensive, to tell me that our second attempt to achieve specialist school status had been refused. We are bitterly disappointed. An enormous amount of time and effort went into preparing the bids. We were given to understand that the first attempt only just failed and we were encouraged by the Department to try again. Yet more time, energy and resources were put into preparing the second bid, which we were led to believe would succeed. Although it did not, the ethos of the school is such that we will not give up, and I support specialist schools.

I also welcome the repayment of student loans for newly qualified teachers, which is an excellent move. Only six out of 10 newly qualified teachers go into the profession; the other four seek employment elsewhere. If we repay their student loans, it may encourage all 10 to come into the profession, and they are badly needed.

There are, however, two deficiencies. One is the missed opportunity to deal more robustly with the problem of retention and recruitment of teachers. There are 5,000 vacancies at a time when 61 per cent. of our established working teachers are aged over 40. The problem will get worse rather than better.

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A delegation of teachers from Upminster, which is an extremely pleasant place to live, with good schools, had to go Australia recently to do block interviewing and recruitment because of the difficulty of recruiting in this country. However talented those Australian teachers may be, it does not bode well for continuity in schools and for long-term stability in the staff room. It is difficult to recruit teachers because the status of teaching has reached an all-time low. Teachers are overburdened with bureaucracy, initiatives and directives, which take up too much professional, pupil-contact teaching time. They did not train to do that; they trained to impart knowledge and to inspire and prepare pupils for adult life. However, much of their time is devoted to office work.

The problem of maintaining discipline in the classroom and how to deal with disaffected pupils is an important consideration when people decide whether to go into teaching. The balance of power has sprung too far towards pupils, away from the control of teachers and head teachers. In the Select Committee on Home Affairs this morning, we heard the interesting statistic that the female prison population is rising alarmingly and that half of those women did not attend school beyond the age of 13. We need to give that serious consideration and ensure that disaffected pupils who are not attending school are provided with specialist help. They have special needs, and I use the term advisedly, just like children with physical disabilities. We have to address those needs before they are drawn into a life of drug-taking and crime.

I want to illustrate my point about too much power lying with pupils by relating two anecdotes. The first I was told at the weekend by a teacher from outside my constituency, and it concerns a pupil who refused to conform in school or to obey any of the school rules. He would not wear uniform; he smoked; he swore at teachers; and he physically attacked, and stole from, pupils and staff. The police were involved and there was irrefutable evidence of his behaviour, yet the head teacher's decision to exclude him was not supported by the governors. That was not because the governors disputed the evidence or thought that the pupil did not deserve to be excluded, but because there is pressure on schools and governors not to exclude pupils. We need to find other means of dealing with disaffected pupils so that they receive what they need to return to education without disadvantaging other pupils and staff.

The other anecdote is more serious. It concerns a teacher of many years' standing who lost not only his job but his reputation, his home and his position as a foster parent and a scout leader because of a pupil's malicious, unfounded accusation against him. He has fostered so many children over the decades that they are now bringing their own children to visit him. It has taken six years for that man to be exonerated, and his life is ruined. Because he lost his job, and it took two years for the case to come to court, he lost his income and therefore his home.

We know that people may be vilified in the local press and their reputations lost because it is thought that there is no smoke without fire, so even when that teacher was found not guilty, it did him no good at all. It was a further two years before the local education authority approved him as a supply teacher. Every time he got a job in a school, with the head teacher's full knowledge of the history, one of the parents would find out about it, the gossip would begin and he would have to leave. That man is now lost to the profession—an innocent, good man who

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dedicated his whole life to youth work. We need to consider seriously how we can preserve the reputations of teachers, rather than always assuming that the pupil is telling the truth. The pupil must not always be believed, because sometimes accusations are malicious.

Throughout the country, many teachers nearing their retirement are looking to that time as a welcome light at the end of the tunnel because their job has changed so much over the years. The scales have tipped too far towards disaffected pupils, and that allows resentment to build up and morale to be lost. In many cases teachers are powerless to do anything about that. Their vulnerability is unacceptable, and we need to reintroduce balance and common sense in dealing with these cases.

The Bill is deficient on special educational needs. I know that we recently passed an Act introducing a code of practice on special needs, and I looked carefully in that code for a reference to special schools, but I found none. This Bill mentions special needs only in reference to Wales. I have a real fear, which is shared by professional people in special schools, that there is a long-term plan to bring about the demise of such schools within the spectrum of special needs provision by slowly starving them of pupils. If fewer and fewer children are referred to the schools, they will lose their viability. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point when he responds to the debate.

There is a special needs nursery unit in my constituency which had no children referred to it this September. It has consistently had 20 children, but this term there are none. The LEA told me that there were no suitable children to be referred to that unit. I am deeply suspicious about that and hope that it is not an indication of things to come. I am also concerned about federations of schools in which one member is a special school and the other a mainstream school. There may be a loss of special needs expertise and experience on the joint governing bodies, so I hope that that will be looked at.

Many of the Bill's provisions will be considered without coming before the House. I hope that special attention will be given to the points that I have made, particularly the future of special schools and the protection of teachers when malicious accusations are made.

9.15 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I wish to declare an interest as vice president of NIACE—the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—which is the adult learners body for England and Wales. I warmly welcome the Second Reading of the Bill and wish to focus on two aspects that relate specifically to Wales and another, more general, aspect.

The Bill has many origins, principally, but not exclusively, the White Papers for England, "Schools—achieving success", and for Wales, "The Learning Country". The significance of the Bill, and the significance of "The Learning Country" in the context of devolution, was summed up on 27 November by Jane Davidson, the Education and Lifelong Learning Minister in the National Assembly for Wales. She said:

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She concluded:

The Bill is significant because it is based on the vision of devolution. Indeed, it is thoroughly appropriate, with its echoes of Raymond Williams' "Border Country", that the title "The Learning Country" comes from the adult learners body in Wales, NIACE Cymru—now NIACE Dysgu Cymru—whose 1997 general election manifesto was entitled "Wales, the Learning Country". Its principles of equity, social justice, active citizenship and lifelong learning underpin the spirit of the Bill, particularly its Welsh clauses.

I now come specifically to clauses 185 to 189, which relate to special educational needs in Wales. They will ensure regional provision for children with more complex needs and difficulties and will establish a special educational needs tribunal for Wales. It is thoroughly appropriate and heartwarming that we should discuss those clauses the day after the first ever educational conference organised by the Disability Rights Commission, which was addressed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, was held on the European Day for Disabled People.

The Bill requires greater regional collaboration across Wales. It is with some pride that I draw the House's attention to the achievements in Wales in this field. As a carer of a child with special needs for 16 years, I know of the great efforts made by local educational authorities, often in times of adversity such as the 1980s and early l990s, when there were public expenditure cuts. The spirit of regional and local collaboration has manifested itself in many parts of Wales and the proposals build on the best practice of several LEAs.

In my own authority of Neath Port Talbot, we have the excellent Ysgol Hendre residential special school, which includes a deaf-blind centre serving children with multi-sensory impairment. The centre has an international reputation, and specialists from India and the Philippines trained there last year. It serves the needs of children from most of the education authorities in south Wales, from Pembrokeshire in the west to Rhondda Cynon Taff in the east.

This week, in the European week of awareness raising for disability rights, the Secretary of State for Wales will open the Shaw Trust disability action centre at Llandarcy in my constituency. It is the first of its kind in Wales and, we believe, is unique in bringing together independent living services and employment services. Again, the centre serves a number of neighbouring authorities.

Much still needs to be done, but the Bill, underpinned by the spirit of partnership and social inclusion, builds on the best practice that already exists across Wales. We now have a national framework to progress equitably.

I end with a more general point. Today, the TUC organised a lobby of Parliament to celebrate the hard work and commitment of public servants and to support the public service ethos. The Bill, particularly in the clauses relating to the special educational needs of children in

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Wales, recognises and strengthens that public ethos—a public ethos that is best represented by teachers, ancillary staff, governors and parents, for the benefit of all learners, whatever their needs and their aspirations.

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