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House of Commons

Friday 12 July 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Behaviour Improvement in Schools

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

9.33 am

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am pleased to have the opportunity to open today's Adjournment debate on improving behaviour in our schools—my first opportunity to open an education debate from the Dispatch Box.

I shall say a few words about education more generally. Education is at the heart of what brought me into politics and the House. As I am sure is the case for Members on both sides of the House, my parents, but especially my mother, greatly influenced my outlook. From a working-class background in the east end of London, my mother passed the 11-plus and went to Dame Alice Owen's school but was expected to leave at 15, which very much affected her outlook and the way she brought up my sister and me. We were very much encouraged to regard education as a way forward in our lives.

Education provides a ladder of opportunity. It unlocks talent and empowers people, so it is a vital weapon in the fight against disadvantage, deprivation and poverty. It also enables us to promote a society in which rights and responsibilities are valued. Behaviour in our schools is at the core of many of the key challenges facing us in debates on education policy, including the debate on how we can improve standards in all our schools; the inclusion debate, on promoting inclusive education and equality of opportunity; the debate about truancy, violence and street crime; the debate about how to give a platform to young people—empowering them, listening to them and acting on what they say; and, of course, the crucial debate about how to recruit and retain the best possible teachers in all our schools.

Behaviour in schools is an important issue with far-reaching consequences, which is why we take it very seriously indeed. It is a priority not just in the Department for Education and Skills but across Government. Poor behaviour has a ripple effect throughout society. From the occasional truant to the hardened street criminal, from heckling in class to serious incidents of bullying, poor behaviour leaves its mark on those whom it touches. For example, low-level disruption in class can demoralise teachers and pupils alike. Behaviour such as talking over the teacher and deliberately distracting others can have a long-term cumulative effect. The atmosphere in class changes, gradually grinding down pupil and staff morale,

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often resulting in lower standards overall and difficulties in teacher recruitment and retention. That is just one way in which poor behaviour can manifest itself.

The statistics on behaviour in our schools speak volumes. Forty-five per cent. of teachers leaving the profession cited poor behaviour as the main reason.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I am following the Minister's arguments with considerable interest. I taught for a year before going up to university—it was an interesting experience. One thing I learned was that communication is sometimes more important than education when one is trying to involve the class. However, a sanction is also needed. Does the Minister appreciate that many teachers feel that because they have virtually no sanction any more to punish, in the broadest possible sense, they can do very little to achieve good behaviour in a class where there is a will against such behaviour?

Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman said that teaching was an interesting experience. I am sure that it was interesting for him, as well as pupils and fellow staff members.

The hon. Gentleman is correct—we need to get the right balance between carrot and stick. Young people need positive incentives to be in school and behave well, but schools must also have the capability to deal with bad behaviour. I shall come to that in a moment. As I said, almost half the teachers who leave the teaching profession cite poor behaviour as the main reason for doing so. Getting to the root of behaviour problems before they result in a child falling behind in lessons is therefore imperative. Once a child has fallen behind, it is hard for them to catch up again. It is all too easy for them to continue playing up in class or playing truant, perhaps even ending up being excluded.

Once children have been excluded, it is much harder to reintegrate them into the mainstream and help them with their problems. It is at that point that many of our young people fall into a spiral of decline. We know that exclusion can swiftly lead a young person down a slippery slope, with 72 per cent. of excluded children committing an offence while out of education.

At the same time, the numbers of children with behavioural problems are increasing: 6 per cent. of children have clinically identifiable behavioural problems and 4 per cent. have emotional problems. Up to one in four of the children who do not reach their attainment targets has behavioural problems, which of course can mask underlying learning difficulties. As 80 per cent. of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties are in mainstream classes, their learning and the learning of those around them will be affected.

Poor attendance at school and truancy are obviously indicators of wider behavioural challenges. Addressing them as part of the overall strategy to improve behaviour is vital—the children concerned are vulnerable and at risk of becoming victims of crime, or drifting into crime themselves as perpetrators.

We are well aware of the impact of alcohol and drug misuse and abuse on the behaviour of young people. The children of our country are the future of our country, and their life chances cannot be jeopardised. There are clear and unarguable links between drug and alcohol use and offending by young people—we know that from the street

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crime initiative that the Government launched a few months ago. More needs to be done in this regard, in particular in addressing alcohol abuse by young people. In the autumn I will issue new guidance to schools on alcohol education. I will also seek the views of young people as to how we can most effectively take forward our strategy on alcohol and, in particular, alcohol education in schools.

I know that there will be concern about the announcement this week reclassifying cannabis from a class B to a class C drug. Some teachers may be concerned that young people will view that as a licence to bring cannabis into schools. Let there be no mistake: we will not tolerate drugs in schools, and we will do all that we can to support teachers and other staff in making drug-free schools a reality.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Does the Minister accept that while it is the task of Parliament and Ministers to pass legislation, the message sent from this place is equally important? Does he therefore also accept that the message sent this week to children about drugs is wrong?

Mr. Twigg: No, I do not accept that. There are good arguments for the reclassification, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary this week. As it happens, yesterday afternoon I visited the Highlands school in my constituency and spoke to a group of 12 and 13-year-olds. The reclassification of cannabis was a live issue with them, as it was the leading news story yesterday. We are dealing with sophisticated young people. We can certainly send out a powerful message, but they can differentiate. They understand what we mean when we say that we want to focus police time, effort and energy on hard drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, but they also understand that we are not in any way saying that cannabis is acceptable in our schools.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he has been generous. Does he accept what many police officers tell me—that most heroin users start off with cannabis?

Mr. Twigg: We are in danger of straying into a different debate, but I know that that proposition is contested.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Most alcoholics start off with half a shandy.

Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend makes a point about alcoholism. It was one I discussed in the school that I visited yesterday. Alcohol has a considerable effect on peoples' lives: many die on our roads and in our hospitals as a result of it. I do not want to go too far down that route, but it is clear that there are differences of opinion on both sides of the House and within the police force. The leadership of the Metropolitan police and the Association of Chief Police Officers have endorsed the announcement that was made this week.

Whatever happens on that issue, all of us in the House can agree that improving drugs education is vital, and conducting our drugs education in a style and in language

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that will resonate with young people is crucial if it is to be effective—indeed, if it is to be more effective than in the past.

Another key issue that we need to tackle head-on is bullying in our schools. That is a crucial element of any successful policy to improve general behaviour in schools. I know that most schools treat the matter extremely seriously, and that there are many positive examples of schools which ensure that their pupils know that bullying is wrong and they cannot get away with it. In September we will re-issue our anti-bullying guidance pack. We will do all we can to ensure that we are working with and assisting schools so that pupils are not left to suffer in silence.

All bullying is wrong, whatever form it takes. We know that there are aggravating circumstances in certain instances of bullying. A great deal of work has been done, for example, to tackle racist bullying, which involves children being picked on because of the colour of their skin, their religion or their ethnic origin, and the bullying of disabled children or children who are a little bit different.

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