Previous SectionIndexHome Page

2.32 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): Conservative Members welcome the debate. In common with most debates, both the subject and timing are at the discretion of Her Majesty's Government. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that a debate about

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1247

whether people should turn up has not featured a contribution from a Minister with direct responsibility for schools. Neither the Minister for School Standards nor the Under-Secretary of State for Schools could be present. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Skills and Vocational Education made an entertaining, albeit lengthy, speech, it is especially curious that the Minister for School Standards pulled out of a long-standing engagement with me and several others to talk about schools to House Magazine this morning on the ground that he was preparing to contribute to the debate. We regret that he is unable to do so.

Many of the Under-Secretary's comments were unexceptional. I am sure that hon. Members of all parties and many outside the House would happily agree with them. They include his general description of the importance of high attendance at school and ensuring that teachers can teach. Education Ministers' genuine commitment to steadily improving school standards and steadily increasing investment in schools shone through his speech. I do not doubt his sincerity about his intentions. However, a Government who have been in office for nearly seven years cannot be judged merely on their intentions or even on their spending; they must also be judged on their attainments and especially on the targets that they set for themselves.

The Government have missed two targets on truancy. They had a target of reducing truancy by a third between 1998 and 2002, but they made no progress in that period. In 2002, a foreword to a document entitled "Tackling it Together", signed by the Home Secretary and the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, stated:

The Under-Secretary graciously confirmed that the target remains. It is now 2004 and there is no evidence of a 10 per cent. reduction, or anything close to it, in truancy since 2002. The hon. Gentleman has set out in detail some impressive and worthwhile projects, which are doubtless successful in some schools, to tackle the problem. However, the Government said that their policies were designed to achieve specific, measured objectives, and they have failed to do that.

Mr. Lewis: We will not know whether we have hit the 2004 target until later this year. It is therefore premature to judge that we have failed.

Mr. Collins: I shall be delighted if the Under-Secretary can report spectacular progress later this year. However, we have the figures for the first half of the period. He described the improvement in the first year as "marginal". We would therefore need a spectacular improvement in the second year if the Government are to hit their 10 per cent. target. Of course, I accept that we have not yet reached the end of the academic year that concludes in 2004, but so far, there is no evidence that the Government are on track for hitting their target.

The Under-Secretary did not differ with me that the Government did not achieve their goal of reducing truancy by a third between 1998 and 2002. I remind him that in "Tackling it Together" the 10 per cent. reduction by 2004 was described as "a further 10 per cent.". People are therefore entitled to assume that before the

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1248

Government could claim credit, the 10 per cent. would have to be compounded on a third reduction on the 1998 figure. The chances of that are so minuscule that they are almost not worth discussing.

On any school day, 50,000 children who ought to be in school are not. In a year, that means 1 million or more absences. A total of approximately 8 million school days are being lost. It would be fair for the Under-Secretary to say that the problem did not begin in 1997; indeed, it did not begin in 1979. In the early 1900s, only 72 per cent. of pupils regularly attended school. The Under-Secretary may enjoy my observing that a Liberal Government were in power then. No party therefore has a 100 per cent. track record.

The work, to which the Under-Secretary referred, that Mike Tomlinson is conducting on reforming the curriculum for 14 to 19-year-olds and the burdens on teachers and students will be relevant to improving attendance and behaviour. If we are to improve teenagers' performance and attendance, it is critical for them to perceive their curriculum as relevant and interesting. I hope that Mike Tomlinson can make recommendations to help that objective.

Those who play truant are more likely to end up out of work and homeless. They are three times more likely to offend. According to Home Office statistics, 75 per cent. of boys and 50 per cent. of girls who truant only once a week have already committed offences. The Government are therefore right to establish a link between crime, especially street crime, and truancy. I do not doubt for a moment that the Government are right to devote resources to tackling that issue. We have all been guilty this afternoon of using the word "truancy". An interesting report about a year ago by the BBC's education correspondent, Mike Baker, pointed out that the word "truancy" is not recognised by most pupils or many adults, whereas they instantly recognise the phrase "bunking off". The language used in Parliament may not enable us most effectively to communicate with the electorate and the rest of society. Perhaps we should use words that are more widely recognised and understood.

Responding to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), the Minister said that he would seek to address my hon. Friend's point about the behaviour of children with special educational needs. While the Minister was undoubtedly correct to say that some behavioural issues relate to wider society issues and acts of collective timidity, many of them have much to do with pupils who are unable properly to exercise self-control and self-discipline, or who require a great deal of additional help and support to do so. When the Minister winds up, it will be helpful if he could say more about Government strategy for special educational needs—particularly in respect of the success or otherwise of Government initiatives after 1997 involving a move towards mainstreaming.

The Minister cited more mainstreaming as evidence of the Government's success and spoke of a sharp reduction in the number of permanent exclusions. That might be an indication of success in relation to pupils with problems that affect not only themselves but their teachers and themselves—and that have regrettable but unavoidable implications for the learning experience of other pupils. However, we must be confident that, by going down the broad mainstreaming route, we will not

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1249

throw the baby out with the bath water and lose some of the excellent contributions by special schools in many parts of the country in providing a much better form of integration that can be possible in the mainstream environment.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting Witherslack Hall special school in my constituency, which has one of the largest concentrations of special schools in the country, numbering around half a dozen. Witherslack Hall is the lead school in a group that extends into the Knowsley area of Liverpool and south Cumbria. It has done impressive work with pupils with severe behavioural difficulties in the early stages of their education—almost all of whom arrive at the school with a letter not just from their parents but from a solicitor, dealing with often prolonged legal action. Almost all those pupils had been excluded for one reason or another, and come from local education authorities throughout the country. The point made powerfully by the head teacher of Witherslack Hall is that the day-to-day experience of its pupils is more about integration than it would be in a mainstream school. Without exception, all pupils take part in every lesson and have access to every part of the curriculum—Witherslack Hall delivers the national curriculum in full. Every pupil without exception receives detailed attention. Sadly, many mainstream schools have no choice but to place a difficult pupil in a quiet class or in a small room that is part of a library or storage facility. Every pupil at Witherslack Hall also has access to school trips, visits and other outside activities.

It would be as much of a mistake to assume that special schools are always the answer as to assume that they are never the answer. In examining the behavioural dimension, I hope that the simplistic assumption will not be made that mainstreaming is always appropriate or that the skills and attainments that many special schools have ratcheted up over the years should lightly be cast away, because they offer opportunities that should not be lost.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): My hon. Friend touches on an issue close to my heart because the Alderman Knight special school in my constituency is under threat of closure—for no reason that I can see other than the Government's inclusion programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that if children are forced to attend mainstream schools, that may achieve inclusion but the exclusion of such pupils from many activities because of their lack of ability means that they will lose out?

Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend highlights a genuine difficulty. I do not challenge the sincerity of Ministers in seeking to provide a more inclusive approach, to enable individuals, through their educational years and in later life, to be more part of society. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that mainstream schools do a lot of excellent work and that it is not the case that all special schools are as successful as others.

My hon. Friend and I have pointed to schools in our respective constituencies that provide a genuine way forward and have a genuinely inclusive agenda. I hope

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1250

that none of us will generalise. Special schools will not always be the answer, but they are not always wrong either.

Next Section

IndexHome Page