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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I am pleased to respond to the Minister this morning. He said that this was the first time he had been able to open a debate from the Dispatch Box. Like him, it usually falls to me to wind up debates, so I sometimes feel that I am always the bridesmaid and never the bride. The benefit of this being a Friday debate is that we both get to open this important discussion.
The Minister spoke of education as a ladder of opportunity. In particular, he referred to a balance of rights and responsibilities in educationa point that I strongly endorseand went on to refer to the now well-known research showing that 45 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession cite pupil behaviour as their principal reason for making that career move. That is an especially strong indicator of the scale of the problem that we face in our schools.
Improving pupil behaviour in our schools is not a simple problem. It is not easy to tackle because many factors lie behind it, ranging from the pressure of examinations to bullying, mental health issues, drugs and the Government's exclusion policy. The spectrum of pupil misbehaviour ranges from persistent low-level disruption to vicious assaults on other pupils or teachers.
Schools face a massive challenge, which affects academic results and teacher recruitment and retention. I recently met a teacher from a preparatory school in London. I asked him whether he had always taught in the independent sector or whether his background was in the maintained sector. The reply was the latter, and when I asked him why he had moved from the maintained to the independent sector, he immediately cited pupil behaviour. He said that he could not bear it any longer and that it was so bad that he would prefer to sweep the streets than continue in his previous school. That is appalling, and none of us can rest easy as long as it pertains.
The scale of the problem is shown in the research that Warwick university undertook on behalf of the National Union of Teachers. A third of the teachers who responded to the study said that they had witnessed offensive weapons in their schools; 83.2 per cent. reported threatened pupil-pupil violence, and nearly half experienced that weekly. More than half the respondents experienced threats from third parties, usually parents, and less often, former pupils, through written comments.
Nearly two thirds of respondents reported offensive language at least weekly. Damage to property was a routine occurrence in the working lives of almost half the respondents. Nearly half46.8 per cent.encountered persistent disruption and defiance weekly. More than four fifths of teachers regularly experienced disruption to their teaching. More than half the respondents encountered pupil-pupil bullying regularly. A tenth of teachers regularly experienced violent threats. Those are shocking statistics; I know that the Minister agrees.
One of the most worrying aspects is the evidence that suggests that the problems are getting worse, not better. An annual survey that Keele university conducted in November of the views of thousands of pupils in England and Wales recorded more than 40 per cent. saying that their lessons were being disrupted. That is a third more than when surveys began 10 years ago.
We read more and more reports of horror stories that strike fear into the heart of any parent. This week, the Evening Standard reported a story, which appeared in several national newspapers, under the headline: "School told to let sex assault boy back in". The article stated:
The chairman of the governors said: 'Education is a right for everyone.'"
'I reported the incident to the head teacher. The student was given a suspension, I cannot tell for how long' said Mrs. Blackburn.
'She was subsequently readmitted to my class, over my objections.'"
As the chairman of governors at the excellent King David high school in Manchester said to me recently when I visited the school, pupils should be grateful that they are allowed to be part of a school. That does not happen if they are told that they have a right to be at the
Exclusion is not the only solution or the end of the story. The Government continue to expand the pupil referral unit, and we welcome that. The Government are right to do it. However, a clear and robust strategy for improving pupil behaviour should be underpinned by the knowledge that appeals panels and Ministers will back up teachers and well-behaved pupils. The disruptive few must not be allowed to ruin educational opportunity for the hard-working many.
I want to consider the problem of drugs in our schools. The message is hopelessly confused, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said in an earlier intervention. After the Home Secretary's statement this week, schools are in a state of uncertainty and confusion. Problems were already experienced in schools, and we considered that when the Education Bill was in Committee in January. I pressed the UnderSecretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to give clear guidance to schools about drug abuse. I asked him to issue guidance to make it clear that pupils who had been excluded for drug abuse should not be readmitted. He said:
Between January, when I had exchanges in Committee with the UnderSecretary, and May, the Government appeared to have movedat least, they were going to toughen up their rhetoric. Statements were made to the press, and a new tough line on discipline and drugs in schools was widely reported. However, on closer inspection, the Government's new tough policy was limited to those who deal in drugs. The sort of guidance for which I pressed would be given to appeals panels only when a pupil was excluded for dealing, not other instances of drug abuse. The head should set a disciplinary policy for the school; Ministers talked tough, went to the press and said that they endorsed that, and supported heads and parents who wanted a clear and tough policy. However, the small print made it clear that little movement had occurred. That confusion can only increase following the Home Secretary's statement this week.
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the move sent a mixed message to children. 'For many years now, cannabis has been understood to be a dangerous drug. The Government is now re-categorising it, with limited explanation, and without the support of its drugs czar'".