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12.31 pm

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): It is always disconcerting to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as I nearly always agree with most of what he has to say. He anticipated many of my points, although I differ from him—in emphasis, certainly—on exclusions.

My wife is the head of an urban comprehensive in Skelmersdale and the convenor of an excellence cluster in the town. As I am liable to say good things about the excellence cluster, the school and my wife, I ought to declare a sort of interest.

Mr. Pound: It is self-preservation.

Mr. Pickthall: That is right.

I began my working life as a teacher in Kirkby in Merseyside, in what was then the largest secondary school in Europe. Every moment of that experience—although it was nowhere near as long as that of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, if a lot longer than that of the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—is etched on my memory. However, that was more than 30 years ago. I must take care not to analyse the present situation with behaviour in schools as though it were the 1960s or 1970s. The debate on behaviour in schools has been bedevilled in recent years by the comparison between "then"—whenever that was—and now. Society has changed enormously in those years, and the norms of people's lives and behaviour have changed.

Family structures have changed dramatically, and not enough research has been done on that. I was dealing with a family last week—a perfectly decent family with six children. Two of the children were the father's, but not the female partner's; two were the mother's but not the male partner's; and two belonged to both partners. Such a "step-sibling" situation is very common and has tensions of its own, with difficulties that are transferred into schools and elsewhere. That situation is multiplied again and again in my constituency, and everybody else's.

Schools have a peculiar place in society. On the one hand, they are isolated—almost all schools these days are surrounded by huge security fences and have CCTV. Some hon. Members may have read a novel by Graham Greene called "It's a Battlefield", in which he describes a school, a factory and a prison in the town in such a way that the reader cannot tell the difference between them.

Although schools are isolated from society, they are also integrated, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough described. Parents are invited into schools, and schools invite themselves into homes. Schools are connected to their local towns and villages through a network of partnerships and other agencies.

Many of the problems of bad behaviour and violence occur when students, especially secondary school students, are going to and from school, such as on bus journeys. Bullies wait outside school gates for their victims. At those points of movement, the responsibilities

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and obligations of teachers and head teachers are less clear and more complex, and sometimes more dangerous. They may sometimes be in peril, as in the case of the unfortunate head teacher who was stabbed to death a few years ago when he tried to stop a bullying incident outside his school.

It is important for schools to invite parents into the school, but on occasions they are inviting trouble. I may be stretching the parameters of the debate, which is about the behaviour of pupils and students, but I believe that it should also be about parental behaviour. These days, parents are more legalistic. They are encouraged to take legal action—looking for compo—when the slightest thing goes wrong in their lives.

More parents now automatically take the side of their son or daughter in a dispute with the school, even though they know that the child is wrong. More parents are prepared to be psychologically, verbally and sometimes physically aggressive towards reception staff. To defend reception staff as much as anything else, schools have complex systems of bells and alarms which people—even the local MP or policeman—have to ring to get into the building. More parents use violent language and violent threats against teachers and heads—and even against students, the children of their neighbours. Parents are more prepared to participate in their children's quarrels with other children, instead of letting them sort things out for themselves. They are sometimes violent towards their partner's children or their stepchildren. More males are prepared to be violent and aggressive towards female teachers.

I list those incidents, because they are known to the children in the school and highlight the vulnerability of teachers. Youngsters who are inclined to be unco-operative see that their teachers are vulnerable to such threats. Such incidents also reveal the lack of consequences for the perpetrator against whom no action is taken. They set an example for everyone in the school. That is frightening, but I do not know what the answer is. I am describing a problem that I see every day, but I do not know what the Government can do to sort it out, although I welcome their recent strong words.

My strongest assertion is that none of us should tolerate verbal, psychological or physical abuse directed towards school staff or children by parents. Our assumption—the school's assumption; the local authority's assumption—should be that such behaviour cannot be tolerated, and that those responsible will be prosecuted. It is no good shrugging it off and hoping that it will not happen again, because these people do not go away for good; they come back.

Ministers have made strong statements about parents' violence towards those in schools, but I think much sterner action is needed. Schools are entitled to a much closer relationship with the police. Indeed, it occurs to me that perhaps secondary schools, at least, should have a police officer on their governing bodies, not just for their own benefit, but to give the police a better idea of what schools must put up with. Some students who have been excluded keep returning to the school gates and trying to get into the school to harass staff or other students. They should expect arrest and prosecution. I would not have said that 10 or 15 years ago; the iron is entering my soul increasingly in this context.

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What I have described does not, of course, happen daily in every school. It would be crazy to suggest that. Very few adults behave in such a way—but it takes only one such incident to destroy a school's confidence and knock it off course, and to destroy its reputation in the local community. That reputation is a precious thing nowadays, as school intakes rise and fall according to rumour. Episodes are reported in newspapers, and in the towns I represent rumours seem to get around in 10 minutes—and to be embellished in the process.

I can think of no other job that requires a woman or a man to stand in front of large groups of young people for hour after hour. That is certainly not our experience today: we are standing in front of rows of empty Benches. When I think of doing that day after day, year after year, for 40 years, my heart sinks. I did it for a few years, and was happy to get out after that. Those young people often do not want to be there. There are young people in secondary schools whose hormones are popping. The teacher must stand there and, through sheer force of character—but mostly through sheer bluff—stay sane, keep the young people happy and keep them learning. It is, in fact, an impossible task.

I am more and more convinced that teaching depends entirely on bluff. Somehow, the teacher must keep the bluff going, because once a kid realises he can call the teacher's bluff, the teacher is dead and gone: all the others will realise that the bluff does not work any more. That applies to some of the children others have described today. However skilled the teacher is by nature and through training, he and his students know that it only takes one nutter. If one person is prepared to call the bluff, everything begins to collapse.

Each school must have its own boundaries—the invisible boundaries that separate mischief, cheek, rumbustious behaviour and the one-off incidents described by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough from disruptive and destructive behaviour. They will vary from school to school. I said that I would not use examples from my own dim and distant teaching past, but I think that one is very relevant.

When I started teaching—I taught English—it struck me as odd that children of 13, 14 and 15 were expected to sit down all day, except when they were engaging in games or other enjoyable pursuits. If they were learning English or history, they were expected to sit. It seemed unnatural that pupils should be expected to sit down for 40 minutes, or an hour and 20 minutes for a double period, to write or to do an exercise, so I did not mind if the kids stood up and walked around, even if they talked to their fellow pupils, so long as it was constructive and they were working. They could stand up and work on the window sills or whatever. Other teachers in the school did not allow that. They wanted pupils to sit down so that they knew where they were. They had to sit at the same desks so that the teacher could remember their names.

Every school, perhaps every teacher, has different boundaries, but given schools' clear contracts with students about what those boundaries are—they have clear contracts now—schools should be prepared to exercise the clear right to remove students whose behaviour is preventing their peers from being educated and who are destroying the bluff, as I have called it.

Over the past 10 years—I am critical of my own Government as well as Conservative Governments for this—the messages that Governments have put out on

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exclusion have fluctuated. Schools and communities do not know where they are. The message should be clear and consistent. It should support the school's right to exclude on the ground of unacceptable behaviour. It should be the school's decision—it cannot be decided by central Government—what unacceptable behaviour is.

Once a pupil has been excluded, the problems increase. There are difficulties with admissions of excluded pupils to other schools. In some local authorities, the county schools are obliged to take on pupils excluded by other schools, but some schools do not do so. I will not mention any names because it would be invidious. I have been trying to do something about it. Some schools in Lancashire will not under any circumstances accept any student who has been excluded from another school, but exclude their own pupils from time to time and expect the rest of the school community to pick up the tab.

Home tuition does not work; it has never worked. It has always been a mess, insufficient and slipshod. Schools have their own policies to deal with the problem, usually before it gets to exclusion, but we need more PRUs. They work if they are run properly. I know that the Minister is looking at exclusion from day one, and getting the young person back into a proper curriculum and a proper environment. It has to be like that, but PRUs have to be everywhere. All communities must have access to them. That is not the case at the moment.

So far, I have spoken about how we deal with social failure, but schools do have positive and assertive discipline programmes. They have systems to try to instil class self-discipline. We need to think in such positive terms as well as analysing the negative things that are going on. We must be tough on unacceptable behaviour and tough on the causes of unacceptable behaviour.

I agree with the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. We find ourselves wandering into a culture where it is desirable, acceptable and cool not to work. That is not just the case in schools. When I taught in higher education, I knew that students were working like the devil at night, and they would pretend to their friends that they had not done any work at all because it was cool not to work. However, it is more the case among children.

We indulge our children from the earliest days. We indulge them with consumer goods and by giving in to their demands. It is so hard to expect children to change their habits once they go into the classroom if they have got their own way at home; they cannot. I suggest that we fail our children in that respect. We expect schools to patch up the sorry mess that we, as parents and communities, have created. When my children were growing up I was guilty of this, too. We shove our kids in front of the television so that we can get a bit of peace and quiet and so that we do not have to bother talking to them. When they get bored with the television they go upstairs and look at the computer screen. They spend half their time looking at screens and when they go to school they look at more screens as they are shown endless videos and have to work on computers. The amount of decent human interaction between adults and children has been shrinking for a long time at school just as it has at home.

We give children mobile phones because we cannot think of anything else to give them for Christmas. They take them to school where they are obliged to switch them

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off. However, I have had more than one incident reported to me by teachers of a teacher telling a child off for misbehaviour and the child phoning his mum. Ten minutes later the mum arrives at school and starts berating the staff.

I do not have time to go into detail as I want to conclude my remarks, but there are huge problems with special educational needs. I note what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said in congratulating the work of successive Governments on special educational needs, but it is far short of what is needed. Vast numbers of new cases of dyslexia and dyspraxia seem to be emerging from the darkness and we are slow to tackle a wide range of disabilities. For years, kids do not find out that they have a disability which has not been detected or assessed. When it is assessed, the processes for dealing with it are very slow. Such children often need one-to-one tuition which is very expensive and local education authorities are reluctant to spend piles of money which they do not have. However, these problems produce extra unacceptable behaviour for which the kids cannot be blamed. Nevertheless, it has to be addressed.

Special educational needs require more resources. I hate to say that as it is not the answer to everything. Local education authorities need to take a more intelligent approach.

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