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Crown Employment (Nationality)

Mr. Andrew Dismore accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the removal of general restrictions as to nationality which apply to persons employed or holding office in any civil capacity under the Crown; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 January, and to be printed [Bill 39].

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Schools (Attendance and Behaviour)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

1.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis) : May I begin by saying that as well as opening the debate, I shall ask the leave of the House to respond to it at its conclusion? The Government are keen to have the debate because we believe that it focuses on an issue of profound importance for the country.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can the Government be keen to have the debate if they can field only one Minister to open and close it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that that is not a matter for the Chair at this stage.

Mr. Lewis: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The fact is that my ministerial colleagues are throughout the country championing the Government's educational achievements.

The issue is important for our country. The Government have volunteered to have the debate—we always have arguments about parliamentary scrutiny—because we are keen to have a serious and sensible debate about the matter. Improving attendance and behaviour is important for several reasons: it is central to raising school standards; it is crucial to the fight against the modern scourges of antisocial behaviour and youth crime; and it is the key to the Government's determination to break the intergenerational deprivation and underperformance that permeates too many families in our communities. The stakes are high because we must never forget that the pupils of today quickly become the parents of tomorrow.

It is important that we begin with some facts. Approximately 50,000 pupils are missing school without permission every day, nearly half of young people in custody have been permanently excluded from school, and bad behaviour disrupts education at one secondary school in 12. Equally, the 2002 edition of "Education at a Glance", which covers school discipline, shows that UK schools are better than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average on five of the six indicators of pupil behaviour.

Whatever the statistics, our responsibilities are clear. The truth is that for too many of our young people, education has not been a bridge to hope and opportunity, but simply another step on an inevitable journey to self-destruction and community exclusion. In an act of collective timidity, the state has all too often failed to act either decisively or effectively.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the key to dealing with bad behaviour is swift remedial action, rather than long, time-consuming bureaucratic procedures? In that respect, when I was a schoolmaster we at least had recourse to corporal punishment. It was not always the

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answer, but it was useful in nipping bullying in the bud. That might not be available now, but we must have in its place a swift remedy to stop the spread of this disease.

Mr. Lewis: Some things never change. As for swift and effective action, it took 18 years of the hon. Gentleman's party being in government for many of the values and standards of behaviour that we want restored to our society to deteriorate. For years, the lack of preventive work and investment in our most disadvantaged communities was shameful—I repeat: shameful.

We are paying a heavy price for our failure to acknowledge the enduring truth that a society that values individual freedom and community solidarity must assert responsibilities as well as rights. Too often throughout history, we have appeared value neutral. We have allowed a society to develop in which parents, unwilling to fulfil their responsibilities, have usually been treated as though they were unable to do so. Discipline has become a dirty word as too many teachers are expected to tolerate abuse as a regular part of their daily professional life. Many others have their morale sapped by pupils whose behaviour is consistently disruptive.

We have remained silent for too long as far too many teachers have left the profession citing pupil behaviour as a primary cause. The vast majority of pupils who behave well and work hard are sometimes expected to tolerate the disruption and bullying of a few of their peers. We have frequently appeared impotent as a small minority of families made life a misery for the decent majority in our communities.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would move on to special educational needs. As the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) implied in Question Time on Thursday, a significant cause of disruption cannot be put down to a self-destructive motivation among those involved. Why are the Government capping expenditure on special educational needs?

Mr. Lewis: I shall come to that. It is a little rich for the hon. Gentleman to lecture us on the use of public money when the Conservative party has said it would reduce public expenditure by 20 per cent. if it came back into power.

None of the deterioration that I described has been good for our young people or the fabric of our society. The time has come for action based on a new covenant between state and citizen—a covenant that holds true to the Government's passion for tackling disadvantage and unleashing human potential while exercising zero tolerance of those who fail to fulfil their responsibilities.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give credit where it is due? Schools that have a sense of achievement seem better at tackling the problems he describes. Towneley high school in my constituency has had great success with its school band, which has given

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the whole school an impetus to improve. For the past couple of years, there has been an over-demand for the school, which was not the case three years ago.

Mr. Lewis: I agree that we must build on the successes of young people. We have to motivate them and find ways to inspire them, especially in communities where low aspirations have been endemic for too long. That is the way out of poverty and underperformance and is the way to achieve the fair and successful society that the Government are all about.

In pursuit of that objective, we are implementing radical reform at every stage of a child's educational life. Sure Start local programmes focus on supporting parents from before the time when they bring their baby into the world. Some 524 local programmes are available in 20 per cent. of the country's poorest wards and the Government are developing children's centres. The Chancellor made it clear in his pre-Budget report that the Government are aiming for a children's centre in every community.

Reduced infant class sizes allow teachers and support staff to manage, among other things, classroom behaviour better. The focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools has ensured that far more children reach an appropriate level at the age of 11. There is a focus on the first three years at secondary school where historically children's motivation, behaviour and attendance have deteriorated. Many of the gains secured at primary school are lost in the early years of secondary education.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Bearing in mind that the Minister is outlining all the things that have happened and the great changes that have occurred, can he tell us why truancy is increasing?

Mr. Lewis: Attendance is at a record high. The unauthorised absence rate has reduced over the past 12 months, albeit very slowly. That does not mean that I underestimate the difficulties that we face in terms of truancy, with which I shall deal shortly.

The hon. Gentleman refers to me "outlining all the things". We are implementing the most radical reform of education for a generation. It is interesting that the Conservatives simply dismiss the changes when those in the education sector and those who benefit from the reforms know that we are beginning to achieve a step change, especially in those communities that have been denied educational opportunities for far too long.

The Connexions service is up and running in all parts of the country, ensuring that teenagers are supported to overcome whatever barriers get in the way of their educational progress. We should acknowledge that there are many reasons—some to do with school, some to do with home, some to do with environment—why young people do not fulfil their potential. It is important that we focus on individual young people to ensure that we have the capacity to remove those barriers, whatever they may be, and provide a holistic response.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): So that the House has a true picture of what is really going on in our schools, will the Minister confirm the figure in the Library brief that 560,000 children in our secondary

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sector are absent without leave on at least one day in the year? Furthermore, it goes on to say that in the last year for which figures are available, the number of those absent without leave from our primary schools has gone up, not down, by 6 per cent. That contradicts what he just said.

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