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Michael Fabricant: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on mentioning autism. Will he also bring to the attention of the House a subsection of autism, Asperger's syndrome, which is far more difficult to diagnose, is not autism as one would normally understand it, results in behavioural problems that can result in the very issues
Mr. Pond: Like other types of autism, Asperger's syndrome can produce social and communications problems for children that can be perceived as difficulties. We need to make sure that teachers and schools can properly identify when that is the problem, as such cases cannot be addressed by disciplinary measures, and certainly not by exclusion, although we know from evidence that that often happens.
Finally, let me underline a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). We cannot expect teachers to carry the burden of dealing with these problems on their own. We appreciate the work that teachers do and the skills that they use, but very often those skills are undermined because parents are not fully engaged in the process. We need to take tough measures against abusive and aggressive parents. We need to use measures such as parenting orders, and in extreme cases where parents are colluding in truancy to take the toughest possible measures. However, we also need constructively to engage parents. We must create an atmosphere that allows parents and young people to feel that they can engage with the schools and their staff. If we treat young people as though they were casual observers, we will not tackle the problem of disruptive behaviour.
In common with many schools around the country, Painters Ash primary school in Northfleet in my constituency has a school council. Not only does it help to establish the boundaries of acceptable behaviour but the children themselves devise the sanctions to be imposed. They have not yet come up with anything equivalent to that mentioned by the hon. Member for Lichfield; the sanctions are low level but very effective as they are devised by the peer group.
Moving to a slightly higher age group, I pay tribute to Gravesham Youth Forum, which is helping to deal with problems involving youth disorder, crime and disruptive behaviour in schools. It has signed an agreement with the local police, the local education authorities and the local borough council to work to meet the challenges and the opportunities that lie ahead. I was very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister showed how important he considered that initiative to be by inviting Gravesham Youth Forum to No. 10 Downing street a few days ago to mark the signing of that agreement.
If we can find constructive ways forward involving young people, parents and schools, we can crack the problem. We must not get it out of perspective and assume that all young people and children will be disruptive and difficult, but we must give those who are not disruptive the chance of getting the highest standard of education by dealing with the few who are.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I am pleased to take part in this debate, albeit very briefly. The subject, certainly in its wider terms, is very important. As the Minister said in his impressive maiden speech from the Dispatch Box in an education debate, the value of education cannot be overestimated or overstated. I should like to explore what that means.
I have the distinction, which is not unique among Conservative Members, of having attended a secondary modern school when I was 11, although I did go on to grammar school for the sixth form. That secondary modern provided me with a good basic education and a lot more. I will never forget what the headmaster used to say every day in assembly. School assembly is still a legal requirement although some schools do not fulfil their legal duties in that respect. He used to remind us that the school was a family, and that sentiment will remain with me to my dying day as it was important. Not only did we learn about history, English and French, but about behaviour, morals and ethicswords that we do not use enough these days. I like to think that that fostered good behaviour within the school because pupils went to learn not only about history and geography, but about how to behave. I do not claim that no one who went to that school went wronghuman nature is such that some didbut it was an important aspect of running the school. However, that was a long time ago.
I was looking through some old papers a few years ago and found a report from my wife's school. My wife enjoys slight superiority to me, and we noticed that in her class she was one of 47 pupils. We now have a rule that classes of a certain age cannot have more than 30 pupils, but it was acceptable then. It was probably easier for the teacher to control the class of 46 or 47 pupils than it is to control a class of 30 now, so something has changed.
One change is that, in those days, pupils were far better behaved, which enabled teachers to control the class with no great difficulty. Those teachers did not have the same burden of paperwork as present-day teachers, and the pupils formed part of a more cohesive family unit. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) back in his place because he made a very useful contribution to the debate. He spoke about special needs, with which I shall deal in a moment, but also about the make-up of families. Although he was not critical of the modern family, he pointed out that new challenges were presented by the fact that families are not what they used to be. The wider family no longer exists in the same way.
When I visit schoolsI have regular meetings with head teachers and meet about a dozen every three monthsan issue that comes across strongly is that teachers now feel like social workers. The Minister and the whole House will be aware of that. Teachers feel that they are not getting the support to which they are entitled from many families. Teachers are not social workers and should not be expected to fulfil the role of parents. We should not be afraid of saying that.
Teachers are also concerned about their inability to expelor "exclude", or whatever the modern word ispupils from school and there is some confusion as to whether they can or should expel and what happens to the expelled pupil thereafter. I am mature enough to realise that the story does not end with expelling a pupil; indeed, that is only the beginning. What does that pupil go on to do? The heads to whom I speak claim, with great justification, that they must have the ability to remove a pupil from school not only to punish the pupil, although that should be part of it, but to protect the education of the other 29 pupils in the class. Another problem is that pupils are aware of their rights. How often do we hear the word "rights" without its being linked to responsibilities? Pupils are aware of their rights and they play on that. Teachers have a heck of a job trying to control classes.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that, according to the reports that he has seen, only one school in 12 has problems. That, however, is an awful lot of schools. It is a frightening figure, so let us not try to play it down. I come from an area that used to have very high unemployment, which I regret, with one in 10 or 11 out of work. Labour Members used to say that that was a shameful figure. The figure of one in 12 schools is also shameful. I do not entirely blame the present Government, but let us not pretend that there is not a serious problem; there certainly is.
I accept that parents must play their role, but I draw the House's attention to one or two other role models who have not quite played the game as they should have done. I have deliberately used the phrase "played the game" because I refer to footballers, pop stars and even Members of Parliament. Few people are impressed by the yah-boo politics that we sometimes have in the House and they wonder why they send us here. I am all for the dramatic speeches that we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), and the House would be a much poorer place without such speeches. There was a good deal of common sense and sound politics in what they said. The House will understand when I say that perhaps we, too, should take seriously our duty as role models.
I do not want to be party political, but I have to be somewhat critical of the Government as I deeply regret what they have done concerning cannabis this week. The House is not only about passing laws but about the signals that we send, and reducing the classification has sent a most unfortunate signal to young people. Cannabis is not the same as alcohol or tobacco. The taking of drugs leads to disrupted and ruined lives, and to criminal activity to finance the habit. That has a terribly destructive effect on schools.
On the subject of crime, I return to the value of education. This really is a piecemeal speech, and I am trying to get through it as quickly as I can. I understand that 90-odd per cent. of people in prison have some form of mental illness, be it severe or mild, and I think that between 50 and 60 per cent. have virtually no education and are either illiterate or semi-literate. We should be ashamed of that in this day and age, when we spend billions of pounds on education. Too many people come out of school without being able to read and write. That is not an excuse for committing crime, but it is a fact that many of those people do it. We must accept that that is a failure in our society.
I have raised this point with the Minister several times, and I will continue to do so until I get a satisfactory response. I admired the Secretary of State when she gave her verdict on the comprehensive system. I was a victim of the 11-plusI failed itbut I also stood out against the introduction of the comprehensive system, because I thought it was wrong. She did not condemn all comprehensive schools, and neither will I. My daughter went to a very good comprehensive schoolBournside, in Cheltenhamhaving left a very poor public school. The Secretary of State made a good point when she said that the system is not delivering what was intended.
If the Government are being brave and enlightened enough to take that line and accept that comprehensive schooling may not be the answer to all society's ills, what is the logic of their programme of the inclusion of children
I urge Ministers to talk to teachers, heads, parents, governors and, indeed, the children about whether their special schools should be closed. The Government have said that their inclusion policy is not a green light to close special schools. I am sure that everyone is sick of hearing me say it, but the fact is that in Gloucestershire, which is not controlled by the Conservative party, there is a deliberate programme of closure of the special schools. It is a wrong policy. Pupils have come to me in tears because they feel that they are losing not only their school but their best chance of an appropriate education.
The word "appropriate" is the key. I had an appropriate education. It was not a university educationbefore the sixth form, it was not even a grammar school educationbut it was the appropriate education for me. I urge the Minister to look into what is happening in Gloucestershire and tell the Liberal Democrat and Labour groups which control the county council that it is not the Government's intention that special schools should be closed. I urge the Minister, for goodness sake, to go to Gloucestershire and tell the council that it should not be closing those schools.