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Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am rather worried about the message that might be sent to our young people by the Government telling businesses that employees should be given time off to watch the World cup. Should we also be telling kids that they should have time off to do what they want to do?

Estelle Morris: What employers tell their employees is a matter for them, and I am not going to intervene in that issue. I accept that such situations can arise, and—with the greatest respect—the Queen Mother's funeral was an example. Head teachers debated whether to allow their pupils to miss lessons on the day of the funeral, and such decisions are best left to individual head teachers. I do not mean to sound evasive, but these are difficult issues for employers and head teachers. Of course, the World cup takes place every four years. Thankfully, more

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serious events do not occur that often, so I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is particularly pertinent to today's discussion

Geraint Davies: My right hon. Friend mentions the link between exclusions and crime, and as I have pointed out, 17 per cent. of current prison inmates were excluded from school. Does she accept that such people reoffend within two years of leaving prison? It costs this country £34,000 a year to keep someone in prison, and we have the largest prison population in Europe, excluding Portugal. Would not that money be better spent on education, and is not her Department therefore right to focus on permanent education for all our children from September?

Estelle Morris: My hon. Friend is right: the best investment that we can make is in education—not only to help individuals, but to reduce social incohesion and ensure that such people get back into work and stay out of prison. That is a short, medium and long-term investment, with short, medium and long-term results.

Exclusions were rising in 1997. They fell to 8,000 last year, but they are rising again, as the formal figures will show when they are published later this week. However, the difference is that some of the 12,000 children who were excluded in 1997 were limited to as little as two, three or four hours' education a week. That was a national disgrace. Anyone who is genuinely interested in providing education for our most disadvantaged children—who have so much to lose by not remaining in education—should remember that the previous Tory Government's willingness to tolerate excluded children receiving so little education was a cause not for national concern, but of international disgrace.

The difference is that we have done two things. First, we have said to heads that they have the right to decide whether to exclude a child. Secondly, from September, we have set a target, which will be met, that if heads decide to exclude a child, that child will receive full-time education. That does not sound like too much to ask, but it has taken a Labour Government, five years of investment and a target that has been met to deliver that opportunity for excluded children, and we have done that by giving head teachers the choice about whether they exclude.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I welcome the fact that the Government expect to achieve that target, but how many of those 12,000 excluded pupils in 1997 who failed to be provided with full-time education were the customers of Labour education authorities?

Estelle Morris: I despair. When there is full-time education for excluded pupils in every local education authority in September, it does not matter whether it is provided by the Tories, Labour or Liberal Democrats. A Government have a responsibility—[Interruption.] I can tell the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) that we are achieving the target by investing and spending money. We ask every LEA what they should be providing and what shortage they are experiencing. We then put in the capital so that they can build pupil referral units and provide the revenue so that they have the staff. That is why there are 1,000 more places in pupil referral units and 600 more staff than there were in 1997. It does not

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matter whether the authority is Tory or Labour; the investment is spread throughout the country. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that every Conservative-controlled local authority provided full-time education in 1997 for excluded pupils, I will take a risk and bet that he is wrong.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Surely the right hon. Lady must realise that the drive to reduce exclusions and to leave troublesome pupils in school, often by overruling head teachers and governing bodies, has made matters worse because it gives the message to troublemakers that they can get away with it. Many of today's problems have been caused by the drive to leave troublemakers unsanctioned in schools.

Estelle Morris: The issue is difficult. Front-Bench spokesmen, including myself, have made speeches about the problems of truancy and children not being in mainstream school. When exclusion meant as little as two, three or four hours' education a week, I believe that it was responsible of us to ask head teachers to think carefully about whether they should exclude because of the consequences of that decision, but the right to exclude was never removed. I think what happened was that as we were the first government to ask head teachers to think carefully before excluding, they felt a pressure not to exclude. Nothing was written down. There was no law. They were not directed not to exclude. However, I know from talking to heads that they were never happy excluding because they knew the nature of the provision that the child would then receive.

The key difference that we have made is that heads now have real choices. They can be assured that if they come to the end of the line and do not want a child in school for whatever reason—perhaps because of drug dealing, which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), has been dealing with today, or because of an assault on a member of staff—that child can be out of school but will still receive full-time education. Unless we do that, head teachers have no choice and there is no deal for young people.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Estelle Morris: No, I have been generous in giving way and this is a short debate.

Head teachers need other forms of support between telling a child off and excluding them. The hon. Member for Ashford said that no action had been taken in five years. We are now spending 10 times as much—£600 million—on truancy, exclusion and pupils' behaviour than the Tory Government did. That is why there are more than 1,000 on-site learning units that were not available in 1997; 3,500 learning mentors who were not available in 1997; 1,000 more places in pupil referral units that were not available in 1997; and 600 more staff than there were in 1997. In addition, the Connexions service serves all children from 13 upwards and we have provided more money for truancy sweeps so that education welfare officers can work with the police. Those improvements were not available in 1997. That is the nature of the investment, and that is the nature of our approach.

There is a real issue about whether that investment—which is massive, and there are always tough choices for Departments and Ministers about where the money

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goes—has been effective. I think that it has. Although the global figures show that truancy does not budge much, and we have found it really difficult to move, the figures for the excellence in cities areas, which are the most disadvantaged—some people feel sorry about the children there, while some are determined to do something—show a decrease of 0.25 per cent., whereas the England average has increased by 0.2 per cent. I am not putting those figures to the House, saying, "There, we've found all the solutions, we've found the panacea." I am seriously saying, however, that an investment of £600 million, the introduction of initiatives that did not exist previously, and full-time education for children who are excluded have brought about real and better life chances in this most difficult of areas.

We have accepted the problem, and we have been very upfront about our difficulty in making the truancy target figures budge. This Government, more than any other, have, working with the profession, tried new and innovative ways of ensuring that we make progress. We have made progress, but not enough. In the years to come, however, we shall continue to evaluate carefully what works, and make sure that we spread that good practice to all our schools throughout the country.

4.36 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): May I commence my speech, which I promise the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) will be fairly brief, by thanking the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for introducing this debate? As the Secretary of State said, it is about a very important issue, and it saddens me enormously that part of the debate descended into farce—we stopped talking about the real issues that affect long-term and even short-term truancy and exclusions, and were reduced to petty point-scoring across the Chamber.

I am unique on the Front Bench at the moment, as I spent the whole of my career as a teacher, particularly as a head, in schools that served the most demanding communities—in Middlesbrough, in east Leeds, in Chapeltown in Leeds, in Seacroft and in Gipton—where crime is especially high. I find it galling when I hear Front-Bench Conservative spokesmen talk about what the Government are failing to do. I can say with my hand on my heart that throughout my whole teaching career, very little changed for a significant proportion of those youngsters. There are no simplistic solutions—and with all due respect to the Secretary of State, I must add that if she believes that by introducing draconian solutions we can suddenly put an end to this problem, she does herself and her Government a disservice. The Conservatives need to look at some other countries to find a solution.

There is no doubt that the hon. Member for Ashford is right to say that the incidence of violence—pupil-on-pupil, pupil-on-teacher, and particularly parent- on-teacher—has increased alarmingly over the last four or five years. That issue was not part of my experience as a head or as a teacher. I remember a lady hitting me over the head with an umbrella on one occasion, because she was annoyed that her daughter had not been allowed to go to a school disco. I presume that that was a spur of the moment action, however, and I am sure that she intended the umbrella for somebody else.

It is important to echo what the Secretary of State said—and, sadly, what the hon. Member for Ashford did not say—that the vast majority of children, in the vast

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majority of our schools throughout the United Kingdom, not only in England and Wales, do not face a daily diet of violence, and teachers do not face a daily diet of assault. Most children achieve exceptionally well in our school system.

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