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Mr. Willis: I could not agree more. Knowing the boundaries within which we have to work is crucial, whether in the home, the youth club, the local football team or at schoolbut may I add a rider to that? When I began teaching, it was easy to go into a classroom and set out the boundaries. By and large, youngsters met those criteria, and their parents did so as well. Today, that is not the case. Now, we have to negotiate with young people in terms of agreeing the boundaries, and, more importantly, we have to bring their parents along to agree to them, too. According to the clock, I have been going for nearly two hours now, but before I finish, I want to say that that is a real issue, and I might come back to it a little later.
Who is to blame? If I am honest, I have to say that I do not blame anybody. I do not blame any party in government, although some of this Government's present policies are not helping to deal with this problem, despite being well-intentioned. The Secretary of State has now said that she wants to get rid of the one-size-fits-all comprehensive school, but I think that that is the wrong tack. Instead, we should get rid of the one-size-fits-all curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all testing regime and examination systemthe way in which we make our schools conform to a centralist agenda.
That conformity has been occurring, with respect, since the great reform Bill of 1988. It is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that is hampering schools' ability to deal with problems. With respect to most hon. Members present today, most of us have been reasonably successful when we have had a test put in front of us. We might not have done so early on and instead achieved our success later, but we have none the less been reasonably successful. A public policy research paper in 2001 identified one of the biggest rises in illness among young people as being in the incidence of mental health problems. Much of that is associated with the pressure of testing.
I want to make it clear that neither I nor my party is opposed to testing, but the Government must seriously address the fact that the whole education system is geared to testing. That is now its purpose: not to educate but to test. On average, youngsters will take as many as 68 formal exams between starting school as five-year-olds and leaving at 18. Most of those exams are not diagnostic tests to determine how to improve performance; they are simply hurdles. If youngsters do not get over those hurdles, the message that goes out to them is that they have failed.
We now have level 4 for English, maths and science at the end of key stage 2 as a target. For a significant number of the youngsters whom we are talking about, who exhibit poor discipline and poor behaviour in school, one of the problems is that they cannot cope with what is going on; yet they know that, a year later, they will be faced with the next barrier, and that if they do not get over that, the reward will be to have more of the same. In secondary schools, year 7 children who fail to get their level 4 standard assessment tests in English are now getting a booster programme that involves their doing what they were doing the year before in primary school.
I say to the Minister that that is genuinely well-intentioned, but it is not addressing the needs of the children. I want him to intervene on me at this point, and to tell me what a subordinate clause is. I move on. I suspect that, if I looked round the House now and asked all hon. Members to give me a definition of a subordinate clause, and to tell me when they would use it and when it was useful, they would struggle.
Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman, quick as a flash, says that it is not a main clause, but it would be worth hon. Members' going into a school next week and asking the teachers how they teach subordinate clauses to children who fail, who have not got level 2 English.
If hon. Members are telling me that authors such as Roald Dahl, who wrote wonderful children's books, and the people who wrote the Harry Potter books and the book on which "Kes" was based sat down and said, "How do I get a subordinate clause into this?", that is nonsense. We must teach youngsters a love of language. Of course they need skills and fluidity, but our strict testing regime is driving those out.
Michael Fabricant: I totally agree, although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that it is important for people to understand grammar. I have heard even my great colleague who sits on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, use the words "between you and I". We all know that the preposition takes the accusative, but the question
There is poor discipline in schools because children are not coping with the diet that has been offered to them. That is a valid point, which I hope is raised in the winding-up speeches. Yesterday, the Science and Technology Committee published a report on science teaching in schools, which all Members should read. One comment is that course work is tedious and dull; I have heard that endlessly from youngsters. Other comments are that it does not engage youngsters in topical debate and that teachers slog through completely pointless practical lessons. Our Select Committee is saying that about secondary school science teachinga key subject areaso there is work to be done there.
What can we do? I take my hat off to the Minister and his colleagues for putting in resources, recognising problems and trying to tackle them, but they are not tackling the key issues. We must free schools up so that we do not have this endless conveyor belt of exams and testing. We must free schools up so that they can innovate on the curriculum; the Education Bill is attempting to achieve that.
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West and Iwe are still at one on the issue, I thinkgenuinely believe that the schools that most need to innovate will not be given the powers to achieve that, as they would not pass the other tests. Furthermore, the schools that most want autonomy will not get it, because they, too, would not pass the tests. I hope that the Minister makes it clear that the very schools that we are talking aboutthose that need to engage with some of the most disruptive childrenmust be given the greatest freedom to innovate, act autonomously and devise new methodology.
Above all, we must give our schools time. For many of the youngsters to whom I referred earlier, who often come from dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, school is the place where there is some stability, and they need that more than anything else. School is the place where someone engages with them and has time for them. Of course, that is important.
I worked in Chapeltown in Leeds in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was a hugely dysfunctional community and there were 26 nationalities on the roll. There was a violent atmosphere in Chapeltown then, including tremendous hostility towards the police. I worked with an inspirational head, who said to us, "Your job is to be out in the homes as well as in school so that you can engage with parents and not simply expect them to come to you." We operated with vertical tutor groups and people also came to the schools. We must do that today.
The management of exclusions must be dealt with. I worry about the Conservative policy of simply saying, "Out of sight, out of mind." The Conservatives think that if they get the children out, the problem will be solved. I accept that that is not totally fair, but it appears to be the case. It may be good for a headline to say, "Let us support schools by getting the kids out." However, I say to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West that a child excluded from a school is not excluded from the community. The child remains and has to be dealt with in the community. It is crucial that we adopt strategies to deal with that.
I commend to the Minister the strategy that came from Toronto and is now operating in Slough of a no-exclusion policy. There is an exclusion-free zone, the principle of which is that we do not wait for a situation to arise whereby a child is permanently excluded, as that reinforces offending behaviour and negative imagery. Instead, we manage transfer before that occurs. One must put into place, with local authorities, rapid responses, so that a head knows that there is somewhere for a child to go if the situation is about to explode. The head knows that there will be support in terms of case conferences within five working days, and not five weeks, which is often the case with many local authorities.