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Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): The Minister has just said that before we can secure improvements we must put various measures in place. Only two years ago, the Government made a clear commitment, and said that they had a target to reduce unauthorised absences by a further 10 per cent. by 2004. Is that still a commitment and is it still on target?

Mr. Lewis: It is still a commitment, and we aspire to reach that target. I shall deal later with the progress that we are making, but I can confirm that it remains a target.

We are making behaviour and attendance audit materials available to every secondary and middle school. The audits will reveal training needs, so we are making high-quality training materials available to all staff, not just teachers. We have ensured that local education authorities have the expertise to support schools, particularly schools that have a serious problem with challenging behaviour. We started with secondary schools, because behavioural problems are most acute and urgent at that level. I have previously talked about preventive work and the early interventions that we are making. We are also piloting curriculum, audit and training materials in primary schools in 25 local education authorities, and are considering how to extend that provision to the rest of the country.

It is important to tackle the problem of bullying, as it is causing so much misery to so many children. Every year, 20,000 children ring ChildLine to say that they are being bullied. Recent surveys of young people show that large numbers have either experienced bullying themselves or have witnessed it. Editors of magazines for teenagers are probably in more regular contact with young people than MPs, and they say that one of the priority concerns articulated by young people is the effect of bullying. We therefore take bullying extremely seriously, and tackling it is central to the improvement of attendance and behaviour. Every school is required to have an anti-bullying policy, and Ofsted is empowered to inspect schools' approach to tackling bullying.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Does the Minister have access to material that tries to identify whether or not bullying over the past decade or past couple of decades has increased or decreased in schools? It is clearly a problem, but is it a permanent one or one that has increased recently?

Mr. Lewis: We do not have the hard data to make such a comparison. However, we have a responsibility to deal with the concerns voiced by young people, for whom bullying is a serious and acute problem. In recent years, schools have become better at tackling bullying and taking innovative and imaginative approaches to

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the problem. However, there is no hard data to establish whether the problem is any worse or any better than it was 10 years ago. Our priority is to challenge that problem, as it is causing a great deal of concern among young people. We should not forget that it affects their educational performance and, in some cases, their attendance.

Mr. Pike: While it has always been recognised that bullying exists within boys, bullying within girls is an equally serious problem.

Mr. Lewis: I assume that my hon. Friend meant bullying among girls rather than within them. There is no evidence of a gender imbalance. In many cases, young women and young men are equally concerned about the effect of bullying on their lives and educational experience.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the first step is establishing an anti-bullying policy, but it is not worth the paper it is written on unless it is implemented? A key factor in implementation is quality leadership, as it is for performance indicators across the piece, which is why we are right to stress the need for quality leadership in all our schools.

Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely, which is why we established the leadership incentive grant and the National College for School Leadership. Only this week, I wrote to every school urging them to adopt our anti-bullying charter, which seeks to persuade schools to make progress on a policy that may be gathering dust on a shelf and take practical action that makes a difference. I am hosting conferences in every region of the country over the next six months under the banner, "Make the Difference." We have invited head teachers to attend, showcase good practice, share ideas and focus their energy on serious and sustainable ways of tackling the problem of bullying. Two conferences have already taken place—one in Wembley, the other in Brighton—and each was attended by 400 to 500 senior educationists. We could have filled each venue twice over. Education leaders are therefore genuinely committed to tackling the problem. Any head teacher who says that they do not have bullying in their school is not in touch with what is taking place daily. It is important that we acknowledge the seriousness of the problem but do not exaggerate it. If one child is being bullied, that is one child too many in a civilised society, and we have a responsibility to do something about it.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Of course, if one child is bullied, that is one too many. However, does the Minister appreciate that in schools that have tackled bullying well the incidence of the problem may be lower than it is elsewhere? It appears from the way in which he described it that his policy is a blanket policy for every single school, and is not sufficiently fine-tuned. Is that the case?

Mr. Lewis: No. The charter for action identifies broad principles in respect of practical action that individual schools could take or ought to take, but it does not prescribe the particular methods, initiatives or good practice that a school may choose to adopt. We

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recognise that each school and each head teacher must be allowed the autonomy and discretion to ensure that the overall management of the school leads to the minimum amount of bullying. That is why the showcasing of good practice, innovation and good ideas is so important. Schools have a great deal to learn from each other in this regard.

No one-size-fits-all model is being imposed on all schools in every part of the country. We have even said, with respect to the charter which, as I say, has pretty broad-brush principles, that if schools wish to modify it and adopt their own version of it, that is fine. I would be concerned about any school that said, "We have a policy but we don't need to move from having that policy to taking practical and decisive action." In any situation we are all suspicious when people hide behind policies. What matters is that there is a change of practice and of culture. That is more difficult to achieve, and it does not occur overnight.

It is important that we focus on attendance. I shall deal with some of the comments made by hon. Members. We believe that we must intervene in schools in the way I described to reform the system and to improve the quality of teaching and learning and the quality of leadership. That is central to improving behaviour and attendance. We also believe it is right to make the point that parents are legally responsible for ensuring that their children attend school regularly. Most parents carry out that responsibility conscientiously, but too many do not. We are determined to make them do so. That is why we are promoting "Fast Track to Prosecution", which is shorthand for a case management system for education welfare services designed to ensure that parents of persistent truants improve their child's attendance within a fixed time scale or are prosecuted.

"Fast Track" is being implemented by 105 local education authorities and we expect the remainder to do so by the end of this term. The indications already are that "Fast Track" can make a real difference. Initial feedback from pilot LEAs shows that half the parents finally engaged with education welfare services to get their children back to school. Only half the cases needed to reach court.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend may be interested to know that after the first parent was given a custodial sentence for not taking her child to school, the very next week six pupils turned up at one school in my constituency who had not been seen for the whole of that term.

Mr. Lewis: That is extremely reassuring. One of the historic problems in this area, with reference to the comment about tough and effective action, is that these problems have been allowed to drift. Young people have remained out of school for weeks or months, and in some cases that has gone on for years. What is important is not the punitive aspect of the fast track to prosecution initiative, although there ought to be consequences for parents who do not fulfil such basic responsibilities, but the fact that for the first time it enables the system to get parents' co-operation to focus on getting the young person back into school as soon as possible.

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Going through a court process is not always the most appropriate way to deal with the situation. When it comes into force in March, the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 will provide other options. It will enable LEAs, senior school staff and police officers to issue penalty notices to truants' parents, and schools and LEAs to make parenting contracts with such parents where help with parenting skills is part of the answer.

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