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It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), particularly given his compelling point about the continuation of special schools and their ability to provide education appropriate to children with special needs. We have had a good debate, even though it was interrupted by a statement on a completely different subject. However, because of that, we had almost two debates and have had some useful exchanges. Members who read the record of proceedings this morning will see that there is quite a lot of agreement between Members on both sides of the House about the scale of the problem, its importance and, surprisingly, more agreement than expected about the steps needed to tackle it. There is no doubt that those steps must cover the services for pupils with difficulties who need support before serious problems arise, and improvements in the services for children who have been excluded.
There was also substantial agreement about the need to trust teachers and heads to introduce policies in our schools that will create a learning environment with proper discipline in which behaviour can be improved. I know that the House will want to hear the Minister's response, so I ask Members to forgive me for not referring to their remarks in detail. I should like to apologise to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) for missing his contribution, although I have been given notes, and I believe that he said some important and appropriate things.
The fundamental lesson to be drawn from our debate is that teachers and heads must be supported in their mission to raise behaviour standards in our schools. There must be clear, robust guidance for schools and appeal panels,
Mr. Stephen Twigg: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate, albeit interrupted. I shall do my best to do justice to the various points made by hon. Members.
First, may I clarify an important question asked by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)? It slipped my mind earlier, but a subordinate clause is a clause that functions as a noun, adjective or adverb in a complex sentence and is dependent on the main clause.
I thank Members for their kind remarks about my first speech at the Dispatch Box as an Education Minister. Members on both sides of the House raised specific issues relating to their constituencies, which I shall follow up after the debate. However, I want to pursue a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) about the excellent work of a head in his constituency, Simon Harrison. I can certainly give him the encouragement that he is seeking, and assure him that the Department will do what it can to support the good work of Mr. Harrison and his staff.
Everyone agrees that behaviour in schools is a serious issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is right to quote the latest report from the chief inspector of schools, which states that behaviour in secondary schools in 200001 was very similar to that in the previous year. We must be careful not to give the impression that all is doom and gloom. There is not a universal breakdown in behaviour in schools. However, I agree with hon. Members in all parts of the House that it is unacceptable that one in 12 schools has a problem with pupil behaviour. That is why we provided the opportunity for a debate on this important matter in Government time.
Many hon. Members stressed that the issue of behaviour in schools cannot be isolated from wider factors in societya decline in discipline and in respect, and a certain change in the ethical and moral values of our society. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield that some of the materialism and excessive individualism fostered in the 1980s contributed to the change. All of us should join together to rebuild a sense of respect, cohesion and discipline, not only in our schools, but in our wider society.
Many hon. Members referred to the advice that the Government issue to schools in cases where pupils have been excluded. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) who, I know, had to return to his constituency,
We are committed to continuing with the independent appeals panels set up by the previous Conservative Government. It is only right that a parent of the child has the right of appeal against a decision permanently to exclude their son or daughter, but we want to send out the clear message to schools and head teachers that we support heads in their management of their schools. We do not want the inappropriate reinstatement of pupils. That is why, in the Education Bill, we are making the changes to the panels.
We want to ensure that independent appeals panels will have at least one member who has direct classroom experiencefor example, a teacher or retired teacher. We will ask that in reaching their decisions, panels will balance the interests of the excluded pupil and those of the wider school community, including the other pupils. The panels will not be able to reinstate a pupil solely on the basis of a technicality in the way that they were excluded.
On discipline committees, the trigger for an automatic meeting of a discipline committee will be relaxed from more than five school days in a term to more than 15 school days in a term. We believe that that will help to reduce the burden on heads and governors.
A number of specific cases were raised by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench. I shall refer briefly to one which I agree is extremely seriousthe case that was reported in the press this week of the 14-year-old boy who was reinstated after a sexual assault.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills asked this week for the facts of the case to be brought in for her attention. They showed that the boy is not currently at the school and will not be returning to the school, and that the girls left the school in June, following the completion of their GCSE courses. In the light of that, and the governing body's apology, my right hon. Friend has decided that no further action will be taken, but we have asked that she be kept informed should the situation change. It is worth pointing out that in that case, it was the discipline committee of the governing body that made the decision, rather than the independent appeals panel.
It is worth making the point that all schools exist within the same framework and some have a much better record in dealing with these matters than others, so the ethos, practice and leadership within the classroom and the wider school community are important factors when considering the policy and what works in particular schools.
I am also pleased to reaffirm what I said in my opening remarks in response to the challenge from the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West regarding drugs and alcohol. The important signal that is sent by the
Mr. Brady: The Government tightened their guidelines for appeals panels earlier in the year in respect of pupils found dealing in drugs. Is the Minister now saying that it is the Government's view that it would be wrong for appeals panels to overturn the view of a head who has excluded a pupil for a drugs-related offence other than dealing?
Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the change that we made concerned dealing. We are having a wider review of the guidance, and I am not issuing new guidance from the Dispatch Box today. Clearly, dealing is serious and we want to send a strong message from the Department, and I hope from Parliament, that such behaviour is completely and utterly unacceptable and will not be allowed.
Several hon. Members today have referred to the importance of listening to young people and providing opportunities for school students and other young people to have their say, whether it be through schools councils or through youth assemblies and councils. That will be important in taking forward the policy initiatives that we have been debating.
Several hon. Members referred to the nature of the curriculum. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred to 13 to 15-year-old boys. The curriculum reforms contained in our Green Paper "14-19: Extending Opportunities, Raising Standards" and the wider debate on that are vital and we shall return to that soon.
A number of the initiatives to which I referred will begin in those local authority areas that have the most serious problems with street crime and truancy. We are starting there, but we want the good practice established by the setting up of behaviour and education support teams and encouraging more pupil referral units and learning support units to spread elsewhere. I very much take the points that have been made by several hon. Members that if that good practice is to be taken up as part of a universal service, that will sometimes require support in terms of resources.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) made an important point from the experience of Ealing about the danger that excluded students from a number of schools can all end up going to one or two particular schools. That problem is not specific to London, although perhaps it is more pronounced in London than elsewhere, but part of the work that I am doing on London schools will attempt to address that. It is not an easy matter to address, but it will provide a further set of challenges for a school that might already have challenging circumstances if it finds itself as the school that effectively has to pick up all the young people excluded from other schools in the area.
Many hon. Members have referred to parental involvement and support, and that is clearly important. Several of my hon. Friends emphasised the importance of other programmes, notably the sure start programme, but also mentoring, not just for pupils but for their parents and other adult role models.
This has been a very good debate about an important matter. I hope that the cross-party spirit in which it has been conducted can be reflected afterwards, so that all of us can work both in our constituencies and nationally for the sort of step change in pupil behaviour that we want, to enhance standards in our schools and to make schools a better place for teachers to work in and for students to study in. I thank everyone for taking part.