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Mr. Allen : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the sensible, non-partisan way in which he is raising an extremely serious subject. In educationally difficult areas, including pupils in classes that they should not attend makes even more difficult the work of teachers already labouring under immense pressures to raise standards from a low base. Perhaps that topic and the difficult judgments required are worthy of a separate debate.

Mr. Collins: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's point. Teachers in mainstream schools wish to do the very best for every child in their care, but some of them genuinely question whether it is practicable always to provide the best quality education to all the children in a class where there is a strong contrast between their behavioural abilities. That has nothing to do with stigmatising, apartheid or relegating pupils to second-class status; it is about providing appropriate education for every individual.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con): I join the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) in congratulating my hon. Friend on his balanced and thoughtful approach. Where a pupil is a marginal case for a special school or mainstream education, does my hon. Friend have any disposition as to which way that judgment might go?

Mr. Collins: That point, I imagine, is unlikely to divide the House. It is not really right for politicians of any political colour to get into the business of making judgments on individuals. That has to be done by those with the appropriate specialisms and training—and, above all, knowledge and care of the individuals in question. In a marginal case, however, such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred, I would hope that the judgment reached would be in the widest interests of that child, rather than dictated by a national presumption in either direction, or even simply by resource issues.

I have talked to various head teachers in mainstream secondary education, and they welcome the fact that the Government have provided them with additional resources to cope with the pupils for whom they now have to cater, who perhaps in previous times would have gone into special schools. However, they often say that even with those additional resources, those pupils still pose a significant challenge, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, for the classroom teacher. That is not through any lack of political will on the Government's part, but because of practical issues.

Mr. Hopkins: I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have experienced cases in my constituency in which parents have wanted their child to go into a mainstream school but then, after an experimental period, have changed their minds and decided that their child would be happier at a special school. Should not the parents' views be taken into consideration, and should not they also be able to move from one option to the other if circumstances change?

Mr. Collins: I have much sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's point. For that form of parental choice to

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have any effect, it is necessary for there to be some special schools in most, if not all, local educational authorities. By definition, if there are not special schools there cannot be that element of choice when there is a recognition—it can occur to teachers as well as parents—that as needs change and people develop physically and mentally, what may have seemed entirely sensible at one age may no longer be appropriate when the child is older. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's point.

I get the sense that, perhaps unusually, and in a debate in which we did not expect consensus to break out, there is a surprising degree of cross-party agreement on this matter, although some might not necessarily agree with our position.

Mr. Pickthall rose—

Mr. Collins: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wants to join that consensus or to disagree.

Mr. Pickthall: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not want to break the consensus. There is a Witherslack school at Ormskirk in my constituency, and I do not disagree with anything in his description of those schools.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that out there in the great world—although this perhaps does not apply to us or to people who work in the schools and support systems—the very use of the term "special educational needs" does not help? It gives the impression that there is an homogeneity to children with special educational needs, when in fact they can range from children with mild dyslexia that does not prevent them from getting through the mainstream, to potential homicidal maniacs at the other end of the scale. If we referred to those needs as a range, or octave, of difficulties that young people have, we would be more likely to make the right decisions at the right times on who enters special education, or on whether it is necessary to have as much special educational provision as currently exists.

Mr. Collins: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful point. He is quite right. We all sometimes slip into the assumption that there are "normal" children and another kind, whereas in fact, all individuals are different. There is also an assumption, which we should challenge, that if someone has a difficulty or faces a challenge in one aspect of their education, that somehow lowers their performance in all other fields. As we all know, many children with statements of special education needs are well above average—in some cases, absolutely outstanding—in a range of other educational qualifications, attainments or skills. We should reflect on that.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) is right, but we should recognise that there has been progress under this Government, and perhaps earlier, in recognising the need to focus attention on the individual. The idea of having a statement of special educational needs was not an ignoble one, or misconceived from the first. However, the hon. Gentleman is right in that as we move through the 21st century, we need to find a definition that is not quite so broad and sweeping, and which enables judgments to be

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made that are relevant to the individual. That is the key point, and I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed something that he has said before: that a move to more individually focused teaching is a high Government priority. Perhaps we have identified a point today on which we can make progress on a cross-party basis.

Mr. Allen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for hosting a mini-debate within the major debate, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing us to extend this extremely important line of thought.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there can be a problem where people are struggling to raise standards? I am thinking of a school in my constituency that has worked incredibly hard to raise its own performance so that it has 13 per cent. of pupils gaining five or more grade A to C GCSE passes. That might not seem a very high performance level, but from where that school started, achieving a 1 per cent. incremental change each year is very commendable. However, if it has to take on perhaps 10 or 15 youngsters who have been excluded from other schools and who have no chance whatever, on any objective basis, of achieving similar performance levels, those pupils will take the school in the opposite direction from where its efforts were taking it. There must be a rational process by which pupils are allocated, and by which money follows them, so that schools can continue on the upward trend on which they have begun through their own hard work.

Mr. Collins: I agree. In addition to the general difficulties for schools in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, and the problems that that might cause their reputation, including among parents, there are implications for teacher recruitment and retention. That is because most teachers, perhaps not surprisingly, want to work in schools where they will be able to teach pupils who want to learn, and so on. I cannot speak for the Witherslack school in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Lancashire, but I have been struck at Witherslack Hall special school in my constituency, which is a single-sex school, by the behaviour of the boys. Every single one of them has at some stage experienced behavioural difficulties, usually major ones, but they are all well turned-out, quiet, polite, beautifully well behaved and follow the whole national curriculum, in a way that does not disrupt themselves or anyone else.

No one is suggesting that we should somehow ghettoise or marginalise people, and remove them from mainstream schools so that those schools can perform better, and I know that that is not what the hon. Member for Nottingham, North meant, although we should collectively put that point on the record. However, it is notable in many instances, although not in every instance, that going down the special school route secures a double win. There is a win for the pupils with special educational needs—we must, as the hon. Member for West Lancashire said, come up with a better phrase, but he will forgive me if I use that one for the moment—who in many cases have better chances and life opportunities. There is also a win for mainstream schools. That is why I genuinely believe that we have had a constructive discussion this afternoon. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and perhaps respond to it when he winds up.

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I am anxious to conclude well in time for others to contribute, but I have one or two matters to draw to the Minister's attention, although I do not want to belittle, ignore or sweep aside the very positive indications, to which he referred, that in many respects our schools are improving. There is no doubt about that. The traditional role of the Opposition is to say that everything is doom and gloom and must, by definition, be going to hell in a handcart. However, that is not true of our school system. Many aspects of it are improving and it is evident that the Government are putting much more money into it. I do not challenge that, but the Minister, who perhaps inevitably focused principally on those aspects that are going well, will not be surprised if I draw his attention to one or two matters that are not going quite so well. I should be grateful for his response. I do not allege that these matters are the direct or deliberate result of Government policy, but they are phenomena with which we should all be concerned.

The statistics that I have in front of me show that between 1998 and 2001, the number of serious assaults on teachers quadrupled. Clearly, assaults do not happen every day or in every school, but it is none the less concerning that the trend should be so strongly upwards. Four out of five teachers now report that pupils have threatened them with physical violence; two out of three say that pupils swear at them regularly; and just under half of all teachers now report

I do not take the view, and, on reflection, perhaps the Minister would not either, that standards of behaviour in our schools are inevitably the consequence of whichever party happens to be holding the keys to No. 10 Downing street at the time. The House would not expect me to agree with his assumption that bad behaviour was the product of 18 years of Conservative government, and I do not match that assertion by saying that if there is more violence in our schools since 1997, it is because the Prime Minister's name is Blair. Both would be somewhat simplistic assertions. We are considering societal change that has taken place under Governments of both colours, has been going on for many decades, and is connected to a change in the way in which we relate to ourselves and to others. The objectives set by the Minister of trying to create or re-create a society of respect for others, civility and good manners, are not ones on which we would differ. The sad fact, however, is that whatever the origins, many of which have nothing to do with decisions taken recently or a long time ago by people in this place, the problems are growing.

In the Minister's closing remarks, I should be grateful if he would focus on one thing: the position of the teacher. He referred to some survey evidence indicating that teachers are becoming more satisfied with their lot, which, if true, is welcome. He will know, however, that the teacher unions speak with some eloquence on the difficulty for classroom teachers of asserting their authority in circumstances in which the most persistent troublemaker or offender is often all too aware of the present balance of the law. They know that if they allege that a teacher touched them, a procedure can stretch out often for as much as 18 months, in which there is almost a presumption of guilt relating to the teacher and one of

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innocence relating to the child. Even if that ultimately results, as it normally does, with the teacher being cleared entirely, it can so shatter the morale and self-respect of that teacher that they may not return to the teaching profession.

I know that the Minister will have heard teacher union representatives say that to him and his colleagues, as I have heard them say it to me. In the spirit of what has so far been a relatively non-partisan debate, I want to extend an offer to the Minister. In terms of the precise topic of this debate, which is both attendance and behaviour in schools, if he and his colleagues wish to bring forward proposals for legislation that would address directly teachers' perception that they are under growing pressure and no longer have all the tools at their disposal to exercise discipline as they would like—particularly with regard to the burden of proof and anonymity for teachers accused of certain offences—the Opposition will not only greet them positively and warmly, but will be happy to speed their progress through both Houses.

We must recognise that the starting point—not the end point—of high-quality education in all kinds of schools and areas, and for all kinds of pupils, is teachers' ability to believe that they are in charge, to exercise authority and to impose discipline. Even with the best tools at their disposal, incidents and difficulties will occur. Teachers should be under no doubt whatever, however, that the political, judicial and legal system in this country is on their side, and is not in some sense against them. Sadly, that is not what many of them feel at the moment.

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