Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Extraordinary!

Mr. Sheerman: He does not usually comment.

Mr. Brady: The Chairman of the Select Committee thinks it extraordinary that the general secretary of the NAHT should wish to comment on such an important matter, but I think it is entirely right. The comments that Mr. Hart made in the statement issued by the association raised those concerns and sought to send the sort of clear message that I would like the Government to send.

The NAHT has stated that decriminalisation of cannabis should not be allowed to undermine school drugs policies. Schools need robust guidance from the Department for Education and Skills that drug abuse will not be tolerated. When heads exclude a pupil for offences connected with drugs, that decision should not be overturned on appeal.

The same confusion underlies the Government's whole policy on exclusions. The rhetoric is tough but the practice is weak. Three years ago, the Government deliberately set about undermining discipline in schools.

Mr. Willis: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive my interrupting him as he prepares to move on to another point, but I would like to ask him a question before he leaves the drug issue. He has made it clear that Conservative Front Bench policy is to exclude all youngsters who bring drugs into school or who deal in drugs. Is that it? What would happen to those youngsters at that point? They do not get excluded from society; they have to go somewhere. I know that the hon. Gentleman is sincere in what he says, but will he give us some insight into Conservative policy on excluded youngsters?

Mr. Brady: I am flattered by the hon. Gentleman's compliments about my sincerity, but I fear that he was not paying sufficient attention to my remarks. As I made clear earlier, it is not our view that all pupils who are involved with drugs, in whatever way, must be permanently excluded. It is right that the head teacher should make such decisions. Our concern is that, all too often, the decisions taken by the head are subsequently undermined on appeal. Heads across the country are worried about that, in relation not only to drugs, but a wide range of other disciplinary problems. We believe that that needs to be tackled. There must be clear guidance from Ministers—the kind of guidance that they have been prepared to give in relation to part of the problem—namely, those who deal in drugs, but not to other aspects of it. I think that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was present in Committee when we considered some of these problems during our deliberations on the Education Bill earlier in the year.

One of the difficulties for heads now is that, in a climate in which the Government have prompted a fairly major debate on what is appropriate behaviour in the context of drugs, they are left in the position of having to make individual judgments not only on the particular circumstances of a case and what is appropriate for a particular pupil, but on what is expected of them by society in our country today in terms of whether it is a serious disciplinary offence for a child to take drugs.

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1156

Ministers have repeatedly refused to help head teachers with that issue. They issue tough-sounding press releases to the Daily Mail, saying that they are going to crack down on drug abuse, but the small print makes it clear that the guidance applies only to drug dealing. Once again, heads are left to draw their own conclusions. That is not fair on the heads or on the schools, and it will certainly lead to wild inconsistency across the country in the way in which similar cases are dealt with.

The same confusion that we find in the Government's approach to drugs in schools underlies the whole policy of the Government on exclusion. The rhetoric is tough, but the practice is weak. Three years ago, they set about deliberately undermining discipline in schools. Their circular 10/99 required schools to undertake a variety of prior alternative strategies. What prior alternative strategy to exclusion could be appropriate in a case such as that of Linda Townsend, whose case was reported in the education section of The Guardian this week? She is a teacher who was covering a lesson for a colleague when she was assaulted. A boy attacked her because she asked him to leave the room. She was kicked and punched to the floor. She said:

She says that she suffered bruising over her whole upper body and lost cartilage in both knees. She was off school for a month. She said:

Again, we have to think back to the 45 per cent. of teachers leaving the profession who cite pupil behaviour as their principal reason for doing so. That becomes all too readily understandable when we hear of cases such as this.

Mr. Pound: The tone that the hon. Gentleman has struck in his current comments is rather at variance with the much more supportive and, perhaps, henotic statements that he was making earlier. On the prior warning indications, does he not realise that he is doing a grave disservice to teachers and educational professionals by implying that they do not do that anyway? Even in the extreme cases that he cites, the school community will address those issues at the earliest identification in every case. Bad cases make bad law, and the case to which he referred could easily be one that suddenly appeared; but, in the majority of cases, it is early identification that the educational professionals want, and on which the Government want to support them.

Mr. Brady: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's point. I fear that the truth of the matter is that it was the Department for Education and Skills' circular that did a grave disservice to those professionals in the world of education, for precisely the reason that he cites—namely, that heads already undertake a variety of alternative strategies when it is appropriate and possible to do so. I never encounter heads in my constituency or in the many other schools that I visit around the country who are gung-ho about excluding pupils. That is not what they want to do, so they will certainly seek appropriate other strategies when such strategies exist.

I shall return to the case that I was describing a moment ago. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) says that hard cases make bad law; they sometimes also

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1157

illustrate a wider point, however, and I think that that is the case here. It is clear that the incident in question was not an isolated one. The report in The Guardian goes on:

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that this kind of problem is directly attributable to the Department's guidance, which has undermined schools' ability to enforce proper and appropriate discipline. When a child has assaulted a teacher once, it is quite remarkable to suggest that anything other than exclusion is appropriate; the fact that we expect a teacher to go back into a classroom with the same pupil who has assaulted him or her on a previous occasion—or occasions—is a remarkable comment on what we expect teachers to face in carrying out their duties.

Michael Fabricant: It is not just a matter of how teachers will react to that appalling situation when they meet those children again. Does not the fact that those children will be back again, with the same teacher, wrongly signal to other children in the class that they can do the same?

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fixing a target to reduce the number of exclusions, the Government were motivated not by educational good practice but by the policy of the social exclusion unit—it was a social, not an educational, policy. There may be some merit in its aim, but the result in our schools was, in some cases, horrific.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North is an amateur comedian from time to time, but, if he will allow me, I will make the slightly more complimentary remark that behind it all he is a level-headed sort of chap—[Laughter.] My remarks are provoking considerable dissent on the Government Benches. I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the scenario that I have described is not an isolated one, even in that school, let alone in many other schools around the country and that it is not acceptable. The fact that the Department for Education and Skills issued guidance that prevented head teachers from excluding pupils who had committed any disciplinary offence, without having prior alternative strategies in place, was clearly wrong, especially in the light of those hard cases of the most appalling abuse and violence. The policy could have been introduced only by people who are out of touch with what really goes on in schools and classrooms around the country.

Eventually even the Government accepted that the policy was wrong and was doing more harm than good and, thankfully, they have moved to water down and change the policy. It is now possible, for a limited number of different offences, to exclude on a first offence and without undertaking those prior strategies. Despite that, time and again I hear head teachers say that the difficulty is that they arrive at what they believe to be the right and necessary solution to deal with a problem in their school, and take what they believe to be the appropriate

12 Jul 2002 : Column 1158

disciplinary action to exclude—it is not a decision that they take lightly—only to find that their decision is undermined on appeal.

Next Section

IndexHome Page