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16 Oct 2002 : Column 353—continued

Chris Grayling: Given the fact that teachers are leaving the profession at an alarming rate—one in seven each year—and that the exam system is clearly in chaos, as well as the obvious disciplinary problems in too many of our schools, will the hon. Lady say exactly what she has in mind when she uses the word Xrefocusing"?

Liz Blackman: I was about to come on to that. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, teachers are moving into the profession at an extremely rapid rate and we have never had a better qualified and more professional group of teachers, as acknowledged

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by Ofsted. I will move on to discipline because the issue needs airing, but I should like to finish what I was saying about key stage 2.

One of the issues with key stage 2 is related to the differential between boys and girls, which partly relates to the way boys are socialised and partly to the way males and females develop their linguistic skills. That issue has been around for a long time, but we are at least beginning to tackle it. Support packages are now going into schools and catch-up programmes are being rolled out nationally for all year 5 pupils, which is absolutely right. So further literacy support is being given. The intention is to give further support to schools that do not perform as well as others that operate in similar catchment areas, to ensure that their pupils catch up by having access to the same quality of education as their peers in similar schools.

The Government cannot be complacent, as the Secretary of State has clearly signalled this afternoon, but progress never follows an even, upward line. There are blockages in the system. For me, the issue involves recognising those blockages and finding ways to solve them, not sweeping them under the carpet and saying that we have not got a problem.

When I was considering speaking about key stage 2 in this debate, a press release arrived on my desk, and I shall quote it to rebalance the picture slightly:

As I represent a Derbyshire constituency, I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my local LEA.

Moving on to behaviour and exclusion, yes, there is a challenge in our schools—a challenge that a few pupils pose to teachers because of their unacceptable behaviour. I have always maintained that good teaching can eliminate poor behaviour from 90 per cent. of pupils. That quality of teaching draws pupils into a more positive attitude, works with them and moves them on to success. That is why we must continue to strive to improve the quality of teaching. I acknowledge that the quality of teaching is rising, as does the chief inspector of schools, but there is no doubt that children on the fringe of bad behaviour will not stray if they are given the right sort of high quality teaching.

That said, some children in our schools will demonstrate challenging and disturbed behaviour for whatever reason, and no matter how many strategies are tried, schools simply cannot move those children towards behaving acceptably. That damages everyone—the pupils themselves, the pupil cohort, the teachers and the reputation of the schools. That issue has to be addressed, but the question is how to do so.

There has been a lot of discussion this afternoon about the issue of the structure for permanent exclusion. In the first instance, it is the head's responsibility, and, in the second instance, it is the responsibility of the independent appeals panel. I agree with Chris Patten's justification for setting up the appeals panel in 1986, which was quoted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—parents must have an independent place to go to challenge a decision. That is an issue of natural justice, as he mentioned, and is related to the Human Rights Acts. There is also a place for the Secretary of State to comment on a decision that I, too, believe was

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profoundly wrong, as the guidance was not followed by the independent appeals panel. The structure and mechanisms of the system, however, have served us quite well since being set up in 1986. As has been flagged up, the guidance needs to be tougher and stronger and needs to make it extremely clear that the issue relates to the impact of such pupils on the school community. I therefore welcome the fact that one of the members of the independent appeals panel will be someone who has had direct experience in the classroom, which is essential.

I wanted to move on to the issue of the Conservative party's stance on this matter, but I must confess that I completely lost track of what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was proposing this afternoon when he was making policy on the hoof. I had understood that the Conservatives' official policy was that there should be legal home-school contracts, which I think is a barmy idea—it is extremely bureaucratic, and there would be many legal challenges and resource implications for the school. It would be a plate of spaghetti—a complete nightmare. It is therefore far better to toughen up the present system, which has served us quite well, than to follow that route, which would be a knee-jerk reaction.

Before I finish on the issue of exclusions, we should also recognise the importance of dealing with and acknowledging the rights of children who are permanently excluded. I recall from my teaching days that there was nothing for them—it was very difficult to get them into other schools if they were very challenging, and they entered what I call the twilight zone. They never touched base with any educator whatever. They got into trouble and began to get involved in petty crime. There was nothing for them—not even a safety net. I praise the Government's commitment to and delivery of full-time education for those children, for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because their behaviour is not irreversible at that stage in their lives if we do not walk away from them, which the previous Government did and this Government have not done. I note the comment by the Office for Standards in Education that the education standards of permanently excluded pupils have sharply improved, which is absolutely right.

Truancy is part of the problem, and good teaching minimises it, but there are other reasons for truancy, not least parents condoning it. A multi-agency approach is important in that regard. It is important that parents are supported and that there are police on the streets who are part of the solution in terms of identifying truants. That is where community beat teams, which have been doing sterling work in my community, fit in. Ultimately, however, it is important to recognise that parents, too, have a responsibility. When they are not discharging their responsibility and not accepting the support for that responsibility, they should be challenged, and we should make greater use of parenting orders and fines.

Rob Marris : Would my hon. Friend agree that, by way of analogy—this is an Opposition day debate, and I can see only five Conservative Members in the Chamber—the Conservatives are playing truant and their quiet man is not taking responsibility in leading them either?

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Liz Blackman: I acknowledge my hon. Friend's point. The Chamber has indeed become rather sparsely populated.

I want to move on to other issues. I want to flag up another particularly good policy, which, again, relates to discipline, truancy and school performance—the idea of federations of schools and of taking good leaders who have a track record of turning schools around and making their talents available to others. We should take that forward swiftly. On the day that policy was announced, a head from Sheffield, I think, was wheeled out by Radio 4 to comment on it. He had turned around the culture in several schools that were now performing well. We need to encourage more good leaders to come into schools as heads, but at the same time, we need to use the people with the track record and the expertise who are already there.

I have concentrated on discipline, achievement and behaviour, but those are bread-and-butter issues. I am really disappointed that the Conservatives have virtually nothing positive to say about how they would move the agenda forward and raise achievement. I am equally disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have come forward with very little. We have the commitment and the track record in terms of pupil performance, but what really heartens me is that, when we have got it wrong, we have the honesty to say that we have got it wrong. It is not easy to move forward. When there are problems, we tackle them, and we say that there are problems. We consult and we try again to move the agenda forward. That is important. We are an open Government in that respect. By listening, and by recognising the issues, we have achieved a great deal in the last five years.

5.57 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I shall try to keep my remarks relatively brief, as I know that other Members want to speak.

The House will not be surprised to learn that my biggest concern in relation to this debate is the situation surrounding the school in my constituency; however, I also want to make several points about the predicament that many of the other head teachers in my area and around the country face in trying to maintain the improvements that have taken place under governments of both parties in the past 15 years.

It is important to remember that recent international surveys of educational performance in different countries—the most recent of which was carried out by the OECD a couple of years ago—highlighted the high quality of the education that our 15-year-olds receive. Those 15-year-olds have been educated under Conservative and Labour Governments. The reality is that, over that 15-year period, good work has been done across the political spectrum to raise standards, given that in the preceding era, teaching strategies in this country were broadly speaking not as good as they should have been.

The tragic thing today is that we risk losing many of the improvements that have taken place over that 15-year period. Ultimately, we risk losing them because the teaching profession is becoming demoralised and teachers are leaving their jobs. Good heads and good

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teachers are leaving, for a variety of reasons. At the heart of those reasons—this is backed up by specific research concerning those leaving the profession—is the issue of discipline. Sadly, although the vast majority of our young people are a credit to us—they work hard, achieve excellent exam results and go on to do an excellent job in our society—a minority continues to cause trouble in our schools. That minority continues to disrupt otherwise hard-working classes and to set an example to its peers that we would not wish to be set. We should have a system that backs up heads and teachers when they take difficult decisions about that troublesome minority. As we have seen in my constituency in the past few weeks, the tragedy is that such a system does not exist.

I feel very much for the predicament that the governors and teachers of Glyn school have faced. This is not the first time that they have had to face such a problem. Eighteen months ago, they decided to exclude a boy who was caught with drugs in the school. That decision was overturned by an appeal panel and it caused great distress in the school, not because of the principle of the individual case but because of the signal that it sent to every other pupil that they could get away with it. There is no ultimate sanction if pupils who are excluded can go to an appeal panel and be placed back in the same classroom with the same teachers who tried to discipline them in the first place. What message does that send to anyone tempted to cause trouble in future?

One can imagine the great distress caused to the head of the school, his governing body and the teaching staff when the same thing happened again 18 months later. The circumstances may have been different but, as outlined specifically in a letter from the Secretary of State, they were such that the decision to exclude should have had a rock-solid foundation. There should have been no doubt at all. There had been a clear indication from the Government that, this time, in taking a decision to exclude, the school and its governing body was right. One can imagine their distress when the decision was overturned and they were instructed to take the boys back into the school.

We have seen the rest of the story unfold in the media in the past few days. It is very much my hope that the media attention will die down and that the school, the LEA and the parents of the boys can sort the matter out. The school will then be able to return to normal. The boys will be able to continue their education, which they must have, in a different place, perhaps separated from each other, but in an environment in which they can be sorted out and placed on to the straight and narrow and achieve their potential without a further signal being sent to pupils in that and other schools that they can get away with such behaviour.

Fundamentally, however, we will still be left with a system that is flawed. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that only 3 per cent. of exclusions were overturned by appeals panels, but one third of appeals involve pupils being returned to schools from which they have been excluded. In one third of exclusion cases, a message is sent to the rest of the boys and girls in those schools that they can get away with bad behaviour. That is wrong. It is right and proper that every case is considered carefully, and I do not believe that any head teacher or governing body takes lightly the decision to exclude. I must correct the hon. Member for Erewash

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(Liz Blackman), who said that the decision is taken first by the head and then by the appeal panel. It is not. We have governing bodies that represent local authorities, teaching and non-teaching staff and other people in the community; who better to be the ultimate arbiter of whether a head teacher's decision is correct?

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