Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.7 am

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 also spoke a little about his background and some of the reasons why he cared so much about education. Without taking too long a trip down memory

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1152

lane or into family history, I reflected that while his parents were living in working-class areas of the east end of London, mine were living in Salford in similar circumstances. Obviously, something went horribly wrong, either in his case or mine, and one of us took a wrong turning in life. Perhaps we can decide when that happened and help to put it right in this debate.

The Minister spoke of education as a ladder of opportunity. In particular, he referred to a balance of rights and responsibilities in education—a point that I strongly endorse—and 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 half—46.8 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.

I shall read some comments by pupils in response to the research. A female pupil said:

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1153

Another female pupil said:

A male pupil said:

It is striking that not only the teachers who face abuse, violence or threatening behaviour in schools are worried and want action to be taken—pupils are also urging action.

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:

a newspaper,

I shall consider the comment of the chairman of governors shortly.

Another dreadful story made the national newspapers in March. I shall quote BBC Online's version:

The incident took place in Islington Green school in London. The article continued:

She did that. The article stated:

We should reflect on those two stories. Education is a right for everyone, but should it override that of other pupils to personal safety? Should it force a teacher to face young thugs in her class who have threatened to assault her or her baby? No hon. Member would tolerate that environment for his child; we should not tolerate it for other people's children. We need a clear, unequivocal message that violent or abusive behaviour will not be tolerated.

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

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1154

school, regardless of their behaviour. He said that they must feel proud of their school and that they owe something to the school community as well as having a right to take something from it. That reflects the Minister's point about the balance between rights and responsibilities, which is too often tipped in the wrong direction.

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 Under–Secretary 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:

I accept that head teachers should have the discretion to make decisions. However, when they make such decisions and reach a conclusion about the appropriate disciplinary policy, they are too often undermined on appeal. Ministers should get to grips with that.

Between January, when I had exchanges in Committee with the Under–Secretary, and May, the Government appeared to have moved—at 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.

As evidence of that, it is only necessary to cite the concerns raised by some of the head teachers' leaders. To quote from The Times of 11 July:

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1155

That concern was also picked up by David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers—

Next Section

IndexHome Page