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6.8 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon). I shall respond in a moment to some of his remarks.

All Members, on both sides of the debate, have recognised the confluence of issues that lead to difficulties in and out of schools: truancy, discipline and bullying. Bullying leads to school refusal, truancy leads to crime, disorder and, in some cases, pregnancy, and discipline leads to exclusion and the possibilities of solving those problems. That is a complex web of conditions, into which I suspect that outsiders, among whom I number Members and Ministers, should tread with trepidation.

That is why I want to comment on the contribution of the hon. Member for Elmet. He seemed to suggest a range of solutions that were exactly the sort that one would like implemented in schools. I would hope, however, that the profession would already be recognising and implementing—or at least influencing—such solutions, and that we would not be approaching the problem of indiscipline in schools and truancy on a top-down basis.

I am sorry if that point is slightly outside the non-party aspirations of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is not in his place, but I recognise that Ministers feel compelled to do something. I am sure that we welcome many of the things that they have tried to do, but the final responsibility for ensuring the effective management of a school must surely rest with the manager of that school. A balance must be struck between the desires of Ministers—and, for that matter, Opposition Members—to find the right solution and the tendency to micro-manage. I hope therefore that we will show humility in our approach to the issue. We should not dole out just prescriptions, or even money. We should dole out responsibility and real power to those who have the difficult jobs of running our schools and looking after the condition of our communities.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of targets and statistics. It was evident from the friendly dispute between my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) that statistics are as open to

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manipulation and misunderstanding as any other form of debate. When reducing unauthorised absence becomes a target, schools are tempted to authorise absence.

I have been told of a case involving a friend of mine whose daughter persistently truanted from a very reputable school. The solution that the school adopted was to ring her parents and ask them to authorise the absences retrospectively. Otherwise, they would damage the school's statistics. I recognise that schools do not commonly adopt that approach, but anyone presented with the difficulty of solving such problems will search for a range of solutions. One of them is to fiddle the statistics.

We have wonderful figures for registration, but pupils have resorted to post-registration truancy. There has also been a shift from one kind of exclusion to another. If a school cannot exclude permanently, it opts for a series of temporary short-term exclusions until the Government clamp down on the number of days allowed for short-term exclusions. All absences relate to a figure that Ministers have in mind.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on alighting on a target for attendance. I welcome that approach because, without such a target, we cannot achieve the successful education at least in the narrow sense of the two senses that my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings mentioned. We will not be successful if pupils are not in class.

We must place more faith and confidence in, and offer more support to, the good sense and professionalism of head teachers and governors. We must also consider the local reputation of a school. Good discipline depends on clear signals from all levels in society backing those who are placed in authority. I recognise that those in authority can make mistakes, but it is incumbent on us—and particularly on those who sit on appeal panels dealing with exclusions—to recognise the relative importance of backing those who may have made mistakes from time to time. The good head teacher backs those of his staff who occasionally make mistakes and the good leader backs those of his supporters who occasionally make mistakes. It is important that we adopt such an approach because we must not undermine people responsible for those lower down the chain.

We give head teachers an extremely difficult job to do and the least that we can do is back them. Therefore, I would like an end to the system by which appeal panels undermine head teachers. Governors must set the policy, head teachers must manage its implementation and an appeal panel should overturn the implementation of the policy in relation to an exclusion only if there has been a clear failure of process. The panel should then refer the matter back for further consideration. Nothing could be worse than leaving a head teacher red faced and impotent, sometimes in the face of a pupil who has persistently flouted the discipline of the school and perhaps acted to endanger the well-being of other pupils. [Interruption.] I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) for his support.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said that schools are only a reflection of society. Of course they are, but they are extremely important not only in reflecting society but in developing it. I hope that society will support schools and offer more support to parents and carers by being less damning of those who do not measure up to our, the Government's and the media's prescriptions

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of how they should bring up their children. We should be less condemnatory, particularly of those who make a serious effort in the face of difficulty to bring up their children in a decent and honourable way.

I wonder why the Frenchman was hauled off Princes street in Edinburgh and put before the Scottish courts simply because he slapped his child. I wonder why a Scot was similarly treated for slapping his daughter in the dentist's surgery. That is not the approach to discipline that I would have chosen but, fortunately, I do not have to make such decisions because I do not have children. I would not have made a foul-mouthed son or daughter wash his or her mouth out with soap and water, but I am not convinced that doing that just once is a matter that should be taken before the courts. We must support parents in the incredibly difficult job that they are trying to do.

We should also support the police more effectively in the difficult job that they do. Therefore, I congratulate Labour Members on moving from the position that some of them and some of their predecessors took when they were in opposition. They recognise more than they did 10 years ago the difficulties that the police, parents and schools face.

The case of Mrs. Amos in Oxfordshire shows clearly the extent to which liberalism has failed. A huge number of interventions by social services for more than a year failed to persuade Mrs. Amos to send her daughters to school. I found it almost heartbreaking that she should be imprisoned for her failure to do so, but we must accept that it was the right response in this case. However, we must also recognise the difficulties that cause children to stay away from school. Sometimes the problem is as obvious as the failure of school transport or the failure of the school. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough pointed out, the curriculum sometimes fails. However, well before the introduction of the national curriculum, my friend, Dennis O'Keeffe, identified the problem of post-registration truancy.

Bullying in schools is a real problem that schools have acknowledged only recently. They have yet to deal with it successfully. I do not refer necessarily to high-level racist bullying, but to low-level intolerance of those who look different or speak differently. Appallingly, there is sometimes intolerance of the very able or of those who are very pretty. Such pupils are bullied, and that type of low-level disorder makes parents lose their faith in schools. It is no wonder that parents sometimes condone truancy because they need the child at home and feel that it is not worth their going to school.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Turner: Of course I will give way, although I was about to say that I do not intend to speak for much longer because I can see that other hon. Members want to take part in the debate.

David Taylor: Does the hon. Gentleman share the disappointment of many hon. Members on both sides of the House that the motion tabled by his party makes no

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mention of parents when it refers to tackling problems of truancy and bad behaviour? Should not parents, as well as schools, be a central part of the motion?

Mr. Turner: I do not share any such feeling because I have referred to parents in many of my remarks. However, we must recognise that parents have an incredibly difficult job to do in society.

We have to offer escape routes for pupils for whom school is not a satisfactory experience. We have to enable them more easily to go to smaller schools, to go to different kinds of schools and to go into further education, perhaps before the age of 16. Perhaps they could take time out of school and return later. We have to be imaginative in the opportunities that we offer. If we do that, we will at least begin to be successful in tackling this most difficult of problems.

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