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Vernon Coaker (Gedling): No, I am just listening.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman does not want to intervene; that was just a sedentary intervention. I know that he had an extremely distinguished career as an educator in the leafy suburbs—

Vernon Coaker: It was not in a leafy suburb.

Mr. Hayes: Just a distinguished career, then.

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Given the choice, most teachers would, not unnaturally, opt for the quieter life. We have a responsibility to ensure that they are motivated, encouraged and rewarded for taking on the difficult challenges involved in educating the children who may not necessarily have the same support from home, and who will not necessarily come to school as well prepared, as their contemporaries out in the leafy suburbs, in which the hon. Gentleman certainly did not teach but which he equally certainly now represents.

Geraint Davies: In my constituency there is an economically challenged area which contains an education action zone. The Good Shepherd Catholic school in the education action zone had the highest level of unauthorised absences in the country last year, at 7.7 per cent. I am pleased to say that this year, the figure for unauthorised absences is down to 0.2 per cent., when the national average is 0.5 per cent. The secret is that the head teacher has been telephoning the parents on the first day of absence, asking why the pupil is not at school and working through the problems—which are varied, as has been mentioned—with the parents. The local authority is now employing people to do that. I mention this to make the point that even in the most challenging area that has the worst history of absenteeism—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is very lengthy.

Mr. Hayes: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to be the first and possibly the only person to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) for his contribution to that improvement in the school, for no other reason than the fact that he has raised it in the House. It is important that we celebrate good work, because that is part of re-instilling a sense of pride and purpose in our teachers and our head teachers when they face challenges and difficulties.

Chris Grayling rose

Mr. Hayes: I know that other hon. Members want to intervene to seek the very same kind of praise so that they can issue local press releases.

Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am not planning to issue a local press release but merely to ask him whether he believes that the amount of initiatives and paperwork that head teachers routinely deal with makes it more or less likely that they will have the time to do what the head teacher in the constituency of the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) has done.

Mr. Hayes: I said that I would not be unnecessarily partisan, but part of the agenda in terms of maintaining the morale of head teachers and classroom teachers is to ensure that they focus on their role as educators and are not taken down the tributary of becoming managers. Of course, there has always been a management function associated with running any school, but it is also true that there has been excessive red tape in schools. I am less concerned about the pen pushing than about the confusion created by a succession of initiatives—some are contradictory and many overlap—that sap the energy, initiative and drive of head teachers, teachers and

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governors. That is the real problem that lies at the heart of my hon. Friend's question. However, to avoid accusations of not being balanced, I pay tribute to him as well for the work that he has done in highlighting that important matter on behalf of his constituents.

The problem of discipline in schools is acknowledged by the Government and by the hon. Members for Gedling and for Croydon, Central. Only the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee does not acknowledge it, but I think that on this occasion we can regard him as a noble exception to the rule.

I suggest that there are five things that we can do about the problem. I thought initially of four ideas, but four does not sound as good as five, so I thought of another one. First, we should be bold and brave enough to give schools more power to deal with these problems in ways they feel appropriate. In different situations, different parts of the country and different communities, different solutions will apply. In schools with a significant proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities, where Afro-Caribbean or Asian pupils may form the majority, solutions to problems will be entirely different from those relevant to disaffected, white working-class pupils. Of course there will be similarities and parallels, but such schools may well have to adopt different solutions that involve working with local communities and being sensitive to local needs and differences. It is appropriate to be much more bold in devolving power to local communities and institutions, so that they can sort out such matters.

The second solution is to re-elevate the role of the educator. Every great civilisation throughout history—ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Persians, the Chinese—has valued and revered educators, yet early 21st-century western society demeans and diminishes them. What does that say about our faith in the future of our nation and our children? We should not only give our teachers more authority and the power to adapt to local needs to sort out such problems, but support them when they get into difficulties. One of the great cries of teachers is that they do not feel properly supported when parents and pupils subject them to legal challenges and other such difficulties. If we believe in teachers and we want others to do so, it is essential that we support them when they have problems with discipline.

We need also to develop a curriculum that is more relevant to people's needs. As the hon. Member for Gedling will know—he probably experienced what I am about to describe, although not in the leafy suburbs—it is no fun taking out a battered textbook on a wet Friday afternoon and trying to teach the French revolution to a group of dissolute 16-year-olds who want to go home and do something much more exciting. Many teachers are faced with that prospect, and we must be more sensitive to the differing needs of pupils and groups of pupils. We need a curriculum that is relevant. If education is not relevant, we cannot expect to engage a significant number of those who do not see their future as academic and involving further and higher education. We need to provide an education that they regard as relevant to their real potential.

We certainly need more inter-agency work. We must work much more creatively with the different agencies involved with truanting students and their families. In that regard, there is significant overlap between police, social services, other local authority departments, the voluntary sector and schools. Information is not always exchanged

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as effectively as it could be, and the experts involved do not always communicate well with each other. Parents and communities do not feel that such problems are being approached holistically. Labour and Conservative Governments have failed to grasp that nettle, but given that we are discussing the current Government, it is the Under-Secretary who had better grasp it—and with both hands.

We need to be absolutely clear about what happens to pupils when they are excluded. As truancy has increased—I am surprised that the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee is no longer here to challenge my figures, but he can do so later—exclusions have diminished. They have diminished because the Government took the wrong decision. They set unrealistic and deeply unpopular exclusion targets that took power away from governors and head teachers, and did not enable teachers to follow their instincts on excluding pupils, even when such instincts were entirely justified and right.

Part of the problem is that excluded pupils are often sent into a black hole. I have already mentioned the 10,000 pupils whom we know nothing about. Reports to the local education committee of which I was a member on what was happening to excluded pupils were usually summarised by the phrase: "Work is being set." We never heard what that work was, how it was going to be marked, whether it got there, whether it came back, or at what level it was set. All we knew was that work was being set and we were meant to satisfied with that. The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) and I did not have a chance to consider that further in our local education committee because of the lack of time. However, I am sure he was as concerned as I was that those pupils who were excluded sometimes—perhaps often—disappeared from the system.

Pupil exclusion units often do a fine job, but we must be more certain about what education is being offered to excluded children. We need to have faith that exclusion does not mean permanent banishment to outer space. There should be more opportunity for children to move in and out of the system. There is a feeling that once children are excluded permanently from a single school, they are banished for ever. The approach needs to be more flexible so that people have another chance. We need to give them another bite of the cherry so that they can be brought back into the system to fulfil their potential.

I have cited five ideas, none of which is partisan or, I hope, too negative. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is not in the Chamber to hear my non-partisan speech. If he were, he might have to revise his stereotyped ideas about the Conservatives. It is right that we should raise our sights beyond the partisan debate to a more glorious future, not least because, as Aristotle said:

We do not hear Aristotle quoted often in the House, so I hope that hon. Members pricked up their ears at that. Although I would not go as far as Aristotle, I would go as far as Plutarch, who said:

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It is because of that that we have to raise our sights beyond the party political squabble.

I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House are committed to providing decent quality education for all our children. I make no apology for saying that that applies disproportionately to the most vulnerable; nor do I apologise for saying that it is my responsibility and, I believe, the responsibility of the House to devote disproportionate time and energy to that group. We must bring all our skills to the problem so that our children get a fair and decent chance, especially those who are most disadvantaged.

That is certainly our duty; let us make it our mission.

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