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Liz Blackman: My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Does he agree that children without reasonable literacy or numeracy skills cannot access the curriculum, whatever its content?

Mr. Sheerman: Absolutely. I was about to make an even stronger point: if children feel embarrassed because they have not learned to read and write, that quickly becomes apparent to their peers in the classroom. Lack of esteem and self-worth can lead to fear of going to school. There is a lot of evidence that children who do not attain basic literacy skills become school-phobic.

Ofsted also looked at poor relationships with school staff; poor relationships with fellow pupils at key stages 2 and 3; and difficult home circumstances, including lack of parental discipline and control.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman has made a number of important points; I was particularly struck by the one that he just made about self-esteem in the classroom. He referred to the transient nature of some school populations. Does he accept that society probably needs to look again at the parental behaviour towards children that it is prepared to tolerate, and the transient lifestyle that moves children from one school to another, week after week? That kind of behaviour does not allow children to develop properly, so should we take steps to prevent it?

Mr. Sheerman: Absolutely. Figures published this morning on drug addiction show that there are 40,000 drug addicts in the country, but some people reckon that that is an underestimate and the true figure is four or five times higher and is about 200,000. A lot of those people are parents; children in Huddersfield, and elsewhere I

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am sure, have been brought up by drug-addicted parents. The relationship between drug addiction, drug dependency and quality of home life is horrible to contemplate. We should also think about alcohol abuse by parents and many other deficiencies in children's home background.

The methods that we use to get children to come to school, stay there and get the education that will fulfil their potential are a sensitive issue. It is a crime to say that there is a one size fits all solution because there is not. We know that different parts of our constituencies and different communities have different problems. I, too, am horrified by the fact that a woman has gone to prison for not sending her child to school. However, I disagree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, as I believe that the sentence was correct. We have a system in which people worked with a parent—I do not want to mention her name—for two years. Given the cost to society of working with that family, in which there are five children, and the fact that that still resulted in failing to get the parent to co-operate and send her children to school, a sentence is needed that makes the public realise that the responsibility rests with the parent.

It hurts me that there should be such a sentence; I hate it. In a former life I was the shadow Minister for Home Affairs, and I remember campaigning about the large number of women who went to prison in the mid-1990s for not paying their television licences. There were hundreds of them, every year—800 in the mid-1990s. The courts did not know how to deal with their refusal to pay, so they went to prison. Some went to prison willingly, having refused to pay the fine. Now there are just a few—the last statistic was 30 or 40, mostly women—who go to prison for not paying their television licences.

Some of the laws of our society conclude with a prison sentence. I feel bad about that. Of course we do not want any more people to go to prison for failing to send their children to school, but that must remain a last resort.

We pushed the chief inspector to suggest other ways of making sure that children come to school and that parents co-operate and understand the importance of a child attending school. There has been a great fuss about even contemplating the withdrawal of child benefit, but we should not exclude that as an option. Most of the resources—90 per cent.—must be devoted to encouraging children to go to school, making it a good experience for them. But perhaps someone in society must say to parents, "You are receiving benefit, so perhaps you have a responsibility to act like a responsible citizen."

I shall give the House one example. I do not want to pick on one part of the community, but we know that there is a problem of non-attendance among Afro- Caribbean boys. There are also problems of discipline and non-attendance among white working-class boys in many inner-city constituencies. There is also the example of Asian girls; I have a particular problem in west Yorkshire, where parents take young girls out of school for long periods. The girls might end up as domestic drudges at home or be taken back to Pakistan or Bangladesh for a long time, and come back only when their education is utterly destroyed, sometimes two or three years later. It is not acceptable to destroy someone's life chances like that.

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For different communities, there should be a range of measures to show that society expects parents to bring their children to school and to encourage them to attend school. In any community, some behaviour which results in the children being kept out of school is not acceptable. I am not saying that withdrawal of child benefit is the right answer, but we should consider all the options and the difficulties in the various communities, and make sure that we get it right.

Mr. Willis: I have been listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. May I inform him that under a Labour Government there are 4,000 women in prison on short-term sentences, which is the largest number since the Victorian era? Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that Asian parents whose children go back to Pakistan or Bangladesh for six months would come before the courts for sentencing because their children had been deliberately excluded from school? Is that under consideration? The hon. Gentleman is very honest, as he usually is, in supporting the proposal to remove benefit. In a family of four, if the benefit for one child is removed, how does that improve the life chances of that family?

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman knows that, as Chairman of the Select Committee, I am trying to be as thoughtful as possible about the issue. I am trying to underline its complexity. I do not want to throw out of consideration anything that will help in tackling the diverse problems and in handling the different reactions in communities. The discussions and research that have so far occurred have raised some new issues. We may consider the option of child benefit withdrawal and then discard it. As I said, I would hate imprisonment routinely to be considered, as it should be the end of a long journey and is to be avoided at every cost.

Of course, I come back to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough quickly and say that there must be incentives—and perhaps penalties—for people who take their children out of education for long enough to damage their long-term life chances. The House does not know what the right balance is, but it has every right to consider that question in terms of the real people whom we represent in our constituencies and not some unreal set of people and circumstances.

Let us consider all the circumstances. For example, we have all been rather quiescent about the size of schools. Some very interesting American research suggests that truancy and reluctance to go to school are very much related to the size of the institution. We have all been part of the conspiracy that believes that big schools are cheaper and more efficient and effective. I remember visiting a school that I thought to be pretty large as it had 700 pupils; unfortunately, in those days, they were all boys. However, when I now visit comprehensive schools of double that size, I wonder what sort of community can be built in a school that has more than 1,000 pupils.

Chris Grayling: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore share my concerns about the future of small sixth forms, which can also provide the sense of community to which he refers and deliver excellent results?

Mr. Sheerman: That question may be relevant, but I want to concentrate on smaller schools. The building of communities is very important in any institution. Some

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sixth forms are far too small and some are too large. A sixth form must be of a viable size if a community is to be built; equally, schools should not be so big as to make it very difficult for that to happen.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was absolutely right to finish on the note of listening to pupils—something that is often left out in education debates. We must also remember, however, that the essence of a school is a community. The people in a school work and live together for a large part of the week and have all the hallmarks of a community. If we cannot build a community in a school, we are in trouble. Some of the schools that I have visited are struggling on the problem of building a community.

Yes, there are some answers. We should look to smaller schools, homework clubs, family literacy classes and, yes, truancy officers. We need good practice on identifying the problems of truancy and working at them. The difference between good and average practice is dramatic. I have visited schools where staff have been working as a team to identify problems early. The most important thing about truancy is to nip it in the bud early, and there is a need to watch carefully which pupils are likely to play truant and check very quickly when they start failing to appear. That means staff visits; of course, we can all almost hear the National Union of Teachers saying, "So you're expecting members of staff to trail round to people's homes." In the best schools, good practice on truancy also happens in terms of team work, early identification and nipping problems in the bud. The educational welfare officer will be considering the individual circumstances of the child and family and tackling them by finding out whether the problem is bullying or whether the school is not as approachable as it should be.

I suspect that not much progress will be made on getting the awful 0.7 per cent. truancy level down—let us realise that it is only 0.7 per cent.—through central direction, which will not deliver easy and quick results. Indeed, we have already seen that it has not done so. What will work most effectively is to find out what is good practice and who uses it, then to network and spread it as fast as we can. That is not dramatic, nor is it probably what the Government are looking for, because all Governments want to be able to say, "Look what we did, and we did it through this miracle piece of legislation." The work will be much harder than that. It will mean working in partnership with schools—a whole range of people, including governors—to ensure that this difficult problem, which will not go away, is resolved.

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