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5.25 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am always delighted to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who brings a particular and extraordinary insight to these matters. If he had been able to continue for even longer with his sensitive remarks about incarceration, he would have begun to engage the interest of the whole House.

Mark Twain said that he never let his schooling get in the way of his education. Behind that piece of wit lies an important truth. Education is not solely about the work of schools, and it is certainly not solely about book learning—it is also about attitudes and values. I guess that most hon. Members would agree with that sentiment, but some might not want to continue on the journey with me

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when I say that schools' concentration on that which is measurable has obscured much of the central purpose of education—to produce young people who are well balanced, well rounded, positive and have a clear sense of responsibility towards their fellow men and of duty towards their communities and their nation. If education is reduced to a factory process designed to manufacture a product to a common standard, the currency of education is debased and the role of the educator is minimised. That is the temptation for Governments of all political persuasions. They like targets on which they can be measured and on which they are able to champion their achievements, and shy away from dealing with more complex aspects of education such as the measurement of attitudes or values—if indeed those can be measured in any definitive way.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, if one forces people by law to go to school for 11 years and endure education for at least that long, one has certain responsibilities and duties towards them as regards the ethos of the school that they attend, the attitudes of the people who educate them, the behaviour of their fellow students and, ultimately, the quality of life that they can expect to enjoy. This debate is principally about the quality of life, not the measurables that politicians dwell on too much.

The critical issue concerns our expectations about the quality of life that all students should be able to enjoy at school, regardless of whether they happen to be born and educated in an inner city, a leafy suburb or a rural backwater. I would never describe any part of my constituency as a backwater—although water is pretty prevalent in the fens—but historically in some rural areas, including the Lincolnshire fens, educational expectations have not been as high as they should be. It is not easy for teachers in such places, with very small schools and communities, to raise the horizons of individual students. However, that is the task in which they are engaged, and they do sterling work.

Regardless of background, children should be able to expect a decent quality of life in the statutory period of schooling. When that does not happen, it is too easy for parents and communities to blame teachers, and for teachers to blame the people at home. I do not believe that good teachers or sensible parents do that, but it is an easy route to take. We have all heard, "If only they had sorted him out at school and got a grip on the situation, Johnny wouldn't be in the mess he's in today." Similarly, teachers sometimes say, "Why don't we have more support from home? If we could do something about the parents, the problem would disappear." Everyone who takes a keen interest in the subject, including educators and responsible parents, understands that there is a partnership between home and school: the one is inseparable from the other.

Society has wider expectations of standards of decency and responsibility, and Members of Parliament have a duty to pay attention to them. Just as Governments are fond of limiting education to its measurable aspects, so politicians shy away from discussion of attitudes and values because they are hard to measure or change through legislation. However, if we do not deal with them, we ignore important aspects of the human condition that extend beyond standard of living, beyond material self-interest and beyond individual attainment to the quality of life that we should expect not only in schools but in society more generally.

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Against that background, I want to make three points. None is especially partisan; I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) will be pleased to hear that as he criticised my honourable, noble and distinguished colleagues on the Front Bench for being too partisan.

Standards of behaviour in our schools are undoubtedly declining. I do not pretend that that started in 1997, and it may be a product of lower expectations and the brutalisation of society. Conservative Members who are conservative to our very core instinctively believe that things were once better than they are. Perhaps that sentiment is in every true Conservative's heart. Perhaps the progressives and radicals who occupy the Labour Benches—I hesitate so that someone may correct me—similarly mislead and deceive themselves that things are inevitably getting better. That is part of the tension between ideas in this House. Yet it is palpably true that standards of behaviour in our schools have declined. We have evidence for that from several sources, including Ofsted. Its annual reports repeatedly draw attention to its anxieties about standards of behaviour. Teaching unions and representatives draw attention to the quality of life that their members and those whom their members teach have sadly to endure. Earlier in the debate, we heard about the increasing incidence of violence in schools, by pupils against teachers and pupils against pupils. They are all causes for sadness and regret, but they must be acknowledged. We should not pretend that everything in the garden is rosy.

I am not a sycophant, but I make no apology for quoting my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I admire the comments that he made earlier today:

This issue is also centred on particular parts of the country. We know that there are profound problems in some of our inner cities, and among certain social groups. We also know that the standards that can be expected by parents and students on some estates in some parts of the country are all too low. So this is not simply a problem; it is a problem that disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable citizens, and we have a particular and special duty to those people to address it.

Similarly, truancy is increasing, and it is all very well for the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, to suggest that this is a matter about which we can be relatively complacent. I was surprised to hear him suggest that we could, because he is a responsible chap who takes his role on that Committee very seriously. The truth of the matter is that truancy is increasing. The Government's own figures tell us that it has increased in each and every year since 1997. The hon. Gentleman will know that the incidence of truancy is disproportionate in certain parts of the country

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and that it affects certain schools very seriously. I obviously have figures different from those that the hon. Gentleman is using.

Mr. Sheerman: The House of Commons Library, which I normally rely on, has given me the figures for unauthorised absence in all schools for 1993–94, right through to 2001. Those figures do not change: they are 0.7 per cent. for each year. There is a little difference between maintained secondary and maintained primary schools, but that same figure of 0.7 per cent. applied for nine years.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman masks the truth using statistics, as people who are trying to mask the truth often do. Let me tell him the numbers. They have risen consistently, year on year. The number of days lost at all schools in 1997–98 had increased by something like 10 per cent. by 2001. We can bandy figures about, but it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that truancy is a significant problem, when Members on his Front Bench do. They recognise that fact, which is why they have set targets, made speeches about the problem, and believe that measures need to be introduced to address it. I do not want to open up a gulf between Labour Front Benchers and the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, so I suggest that he look at some of their speeches, study some of the measures, and hold further discussions with his ministerial colleagues.

Ofsted certainly recognises the problem of truancy. On 6 February 2002, it suggested that 10,000 children are missing from state schools, and that no one knows exactly what they get up to when they should be in class. Mr. Tomlinson, the chief inspector of schools, suggested that some might be working "in the black economy". Unfortunately, many of them stray into criminal activity. Of course, there is no direct correlation between truancy and crime, but we know, from what the local constabularies and the social services departments of councils tell us, that there is a relationship between truancy and crime, and that should be a matter of grave concern for Members throughout House. Truancy is a significant and growing problem.

Most significant of all, perhaps, is the fact that teacher demoralisation is a real problem. This is, of course, related to the quality of life that teachers can expect to endure in our schools. Given a choice between teaching in a comfortable school somewhere in the leafy suburbs of London or teaching in the inner city, it would take a brave, devoted and committed person to teach in the inner city. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) wants to intervene to tell me about his teaching experiences in the leafy suburbs.

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