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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) rose

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) rose

Estelle Morris: I will give way eventually. I want to make progress on this first point.

In 1997, the link between social class and educational attainment was more stark in this country than in any of our competitor nations. That is what we have taken on, and we have a tough task. If the Conservatives are interested, as the hon. Member for Ashford claims, in concentrating on education provided for the disadvantaged, he should have stood up today and applauded the fact that, after six years of a Labour Government working with the education service, the percentage of pupils from working-class families reaching the expected standard in English has risen from 34 to 58 per cent. Which is the most improved borough in England, in terms of literacy and numeracy? It is Tower Hamlets. The next most improved boroughs are Darlington—[Interruption.] They were starting from a low base, but they had remained at that level year after year, and decade after decade.

The factor that has blighted our nation's education system is that Government after Government—of both political complexions—have failed to break the historic link between social class and educational attainment. We are beginning to change that.

Mr. Andrew Turner rose

Estelle Morris: I will give way in half a second.

21 May 2002 : Column 169

I will not take from any Tory Member, in the House or outside, any lecturing on their care for the education of disadvantaged children, when we can see their record and we can see the record of our progress.

Mr. Prisk: As a former chairman of an inner-London education establishment, I had to fight tooth and nail against a Labour local education authority that was trying to shut a school down. The Secretary of State's colleague, the Minister for School Standards, will know precisely the school to which I am referring, because he was leader of the council at the time. It is unacceptable for the Secretary of State to lecture hon. Members, saying that support for vulnerable children can come from only one side of the Chamber. All hon. Members on both sides of the House care about children, and to be lectured by the Secretary of State in this patronising manner is unacceptable.

Estelle Morris: Care does not get people a job; care does not get them into university; and care does not give them the skills that they need to earn a living. We get care from the Tories and action from Labour; that is the difference between the two sides in this Chamber. I do not deny that the Conservatives care. Care is not the preserve of any one political party.

Mr. Prisk rose

Estelle Morris: If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would remember that I have just said that Governments of both parties have failed to break the historic link between social class and educational attainment. That describes past Labour Governments as much as past Tory Governments, but every time that Labour has been in power, we have taken the action and made the investment to close that gap. The reality is, however, that in 1997, the link between social class and educational attainment was strong. A poor kid of 11 had less chance of being able to read and write. A poor kid of 16 had less chance of getting five grade A to C GCSEs. A poor kid of 18 had a one in 15 chance of going to university, while a middle-class kid had a 70 per cent. chance of doing so at that age.

Okay, the Conservatives care, but this is about anger. This is about being furious that, historically, we have had a system that has not delivered for the poor. There is a difference between me and the hon. Member for Ashford. He says that he now cares for those in deprived areas, and that none of the action that we have taken in the past five years has had any impact. I shall stop talking about this issue, because it is not the main point of the debate. We inherited a system in which the children of the less well off were performing at a lower rate than those from the middle classes, and that gap was wider than in any of our competitor nations. We are beginning to close that gap. If the Conservatives do not believe us, they should look at the standard assessment test results, and at what Ofsted says. They should look at the results that the children are achieving.

I shall talk about truancy.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) rose

Estelle Morris: I shall take one last point on this, then, with permission, I should like to move on to the main subject of the debate.

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Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her attack on Labour local authorities. When the policy of child benefit removal comes into being, who will make the decision to remove child benefit from a family?

Estelle Morris: I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Ashford has decided that the head teacher will have that power. That needs a lot of thinking about. With respect, perhaps it would be better if I answered that question towards the end of my speech.

This is a serious issue. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can ask questions in the way that they see fit; I will answer in the way that I see fit. The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) raises an important issue. My view is clear: there are many other steps that we can take before we get to that point. However, because the consequences of truancy are so dire for children who miss school, we have to contemplate not only the withdrawal of benefit but imprisonment, as a magistrates court did last week. Talking about withdrawing child benefit has started a debate, and it is right that it has.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point about who would withdraw the benefit, it could be a number of people or agencies, including head teachers and courts. When we have consulted on the issue, we will come back, as the Prime Minister said, with suggestions.

As far as I am concerned, such a measure is the end of the line. We hope that things work before such action is taken. I hoped that things would work before that mother was imprisoned, but they did not. There had been two years of intervention, investment and support that had been ignored. It is a difficult issue, but given that it could be one more weapon in our armoury for getting to grips with the problem, I think that it deserves the widest consideration in a mature way from people of all political parties and the nation as a whole.

I should like to make some progress on truancy and exclusions. It is right to say that the truancy figure has not budged—it has stayed stubbornly the same. Most of my Department's other public service agreement targets have moved in the right direction. I am immensely proud of what has been delivered by the education service, but the one PSA target on which we have not made any progress has been picked out for debate. I have no objection to that, but before we discuss the causes and what can be done, we should look further at the figures.

Before 1997, the truancy figures tell a different story. In fact, they have not budged since 1994. The hon. Member for Ashford may use the word "crisis" about figures of 0.7 per cent. in schools as a whole and 1.1 per cent. in secondary schools, but the figures have not increased between 1997 and 2001, and were the same in 1994. They are steady and sustained—they have not budged from when they were first collected in 1994 to 2002. Indeed, the figure for unauthorised absence in 1996 was 6.9 per cent., and we have managed to get that down to 6.5 per cent. In a debate about which party has the best set of figures, we win and the Tories lose. However, it is more serious than that. The truth is that ever since truancy and exclusion figures were first collected, no Government have managed to reduce the figures of 0.7 per cent. and 1.1 per cent.

Mr. George Osborne: The difference between this and the previous Government is that this Government had a

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target to reduce the figures by a third. It is no good the Secretary of State saying that the figures have not budged—the Government have not kept their promise.

Estelle Morris: I am speechless. So this debate is not about boys and girls whose life chances are being ruined because they truant from school. Apparently it is about a Government target that has not been met. Let me tell the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) that the Government have targets so that we can be publicly accountable and transparent, we can monitor our progress and, at the end of the day, we can make life better for boys, girls, pupils, students and their families.

It does not matter, apparently, that the Tories did nothing to improve attendance—the fact that they did not have a target makes everything all right. That is the most pathetic excuse that I have ever heard for four years of Tory inaction.

Perhaps I might add to the tale of woe by agreeing that the consequences of not attending school are more dire than we might care to imagine. We can all make a long list of such consequences. Some 30 per cent. of current prisoners were truants. Truants are 10 per cent. more likely to be arrested, and 15 per cent. more likely to receive a formal police caution. Excluded pupils are more likely to offend than others. The list goes on and on, and there is the additional obvious point that those who are not at school cannot learn, and if they cannot learn they cannot pass exams. We live in a world where examination success is increasingly the currency that opens doors to life chances and earning a living.

I agree that this issue is important, and that we have found it very difficult to budge the figure, but we have made progress in many areas. I want to talk about some of the things that we have tried to do, the successes, and where we might go from here. However, I want to make the important point that most schools are orderly and disciplined places in which children and teachers are safe and a good standard of education is provided, and in which each and every one of us would be pleased and proud to have our children educated. It is right that we concentrate on the small but growing number of schools in which behaviour is a real problem, but in doing so we must acknowledge the good work that is done and positive ethos that exists in many of our schools.

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