Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that school governors throughout the United Kingdom are concerned that fewer and fewer teachers are applying for posts of senior responsibility in schools, and that the Minister will need to examine why that is happening and how more teachers can be encouraged to come forward and to take on higher responsibility?

Mr. Collins: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great knowledge of these matters, is right that that is an issue to which we would all welcome a response from the Minister. In fairness, the Government have introduced several initiatives to try to encourage teachers to take up greater responsibilities, and several initiatives to reward more fulsomely those who do so. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, that difficulties exist, particularly in some schools and some areas. Several of these phenomena have multiple explanations, and it is not simply the case that problems arise because of the agenda that we are discussing this afternoon relating to attendance and behaviour.

It is notable, however, that although many admirable individuals are choosing to enter teacher training colleges—I hope that this will not be regarded as in any way sexist—I view with some concern the extent to which an overwhelming majority are young women rather than young men. Close to 80 per cent. of applicants are now women as opposed to men. Clearly, there are many different explanations for that, and many high-quality teachers in our land who are women. Given that, in terms of the wider societal context to which the Minister referred, many—although, of

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1255

course, not all—of those children who are a cause of particular concern do not have male role models in their domestic environments, is it desirable for them not to have many, if any, male role models in their educational environment either? To what extent—I ask this as a question, as I do not pretend to know the answer—is the perception of declining teacher authority in the classroom, and the sense that it is more difficult than it was in the past to exercise appropriate discipline, differentially deterring male as opposed to female applicants from going into teacher training? We should not have a rigid view that the ratio of the sexes must be 50:50. We should at least note, however, if it has become 75:25 or 80:20, that some interesting issues arise from that. Again, the Minister may feel able to comment on that when he winds up.

To conclude, I welcome this debate. We have had a particularly interesting discussion about the special educational needs field and the future of special schools. I hope that we will put these matters in their proper context: the vast majority of our schools and our pupils are places and individuals of good behaviour and high standards. The vast majority of our teachers do not face day-to-day enormous difficulties in getting their work done, but there are too many who do. While welcoming the Government's genuine commitment to try to tackle these problems, I hope that we will recognise that they need to be assessed not only by their aspirations but by their achievements. As they make progress on that agenda, they will have the genuine support of everyone in the House, of whatever political party, who recognises that these issues are of real importance for our nation's future.

3.8 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and sorry that more hon. Members are not here to take part on such an important subject. At least I have a little more time to say what I want to say, which is helpful.

I pay tribute to both Front-Bench spokespersons for both making thoughtful and helpful contributions. It is pleasing to be able to agree with almost everything that they said, which would not have been the case some years ago. It is as well to recall that only recently there have been some sea changes in thinking about education and behaviour in schools. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister in particular on his focus on bullying in schools. I have seen him perform on television and speak at length and sincerely on bullying, about which I have felt strongly for a long time. He is doing a good job for the whole country, and particularly for those people who suffer from bullying, by targeting proactively that serious problem.

I want to mention schools and teachers in my constituency, where there have been some tremendous improvements in recent years. I shall not dwell on individual schools because there are too many good news stories to recount, but we should recall that, only a few years ago, several schools in my constituency were in special measures and had very serious problems indeed. We had to introduce a whole flight of new head teachers, and since then there has been a dramatic transformation and improvement; indeed, I have taken great pleasure in visiting those schools time and again. Many have received national awards for their

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1256

performance. In fact, last year one head teacher received the award for the best head teacher of a British primary school, which was a major achievement.

The problem of poor attendance and behaviour in schools involves a very small minority of pupils. The great majority behave well, attend school regularly and have supportive parents. However, a minority do not, and they cause serious problems not just for themselves but for everybody else as well. The policy changes of the past two or three years, however, have made a difference. Until five years ago, the emphasis was on simple inclusion in a rather zealous way, without giving attention or thought to the full implications of blanket inclusion. Within a year or two of my coming to this place, parents of children with difficulties were telling me, "We don't want the authority to force our children into mainstream schools. We don't think that that would be right for them. We want to retain, where necessary, special schools and special units in which our children can be given the attention that they need. Nor do we want them to disrupt the good teaching and good classroom behaviour that goes on in other schools."

It is clear that physical disabilities and learning disabilities entail special needs. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and others have pointed out, not all disabilities are the same. We need a range of special schools to cater for different disabilities. A good friend of mine has a son—a very bright young man—with cerebral palsy. He has gone to a boarding school for children with that disability. He is academically very able, and his situation is quite different from that of someone who is physically able but who has learning difficulties and is perhaps not very quick.

Today, we are talking about behaviour, in which family factors undoubtedly play a role. Teachers in my constituency have told me of children with chronically alcoholic single parents who have a simply dreadful time at home. Other pupils do not attend school very often, and upon investigation it is discovered that they are looking after younger siblings while the single parent goes out to work. In other words, child care responsibility is being put on 12 or 13-year-olds, who are not attending school because the parent—usually the mother—goes out to work. All such problems have to be dealt with individually.

Some behaviour problems are of a physical nature. I spoke to a group of children in my constituency who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their parents expressed great concern about the lack of special needs attention given to them. They also told me that they, too, suffered from that condition when at school, because a degree of inheritance is involved. They said, "I was an ADHD pupil at school, and my child is now in the same situation." We need much more support than is currently being given. I know that the Government are providing more specialist support, but such conditions have to be looked at in specific terms. Many other difficulties are of an almost medical or psychological nature. There are many adults with mental difficulties, and such problems are also reflected in children because they start very young.

Let us look at what was happening three to five years ago in some schools. I shall not recount too many anecdotes, but I offer a serious example that I discussed with the Secretary of State. A high school for 11 to 16-

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1257

year-olds in my constituency was in special measures, and a new head teacher was brought in to try to pick it up. Shortly after he arrived, a violent incident occurred in which one pupil attacked another with a pair of scissors. The teacher who intervened was also attacked, and the pupil in question was permanently excluded from the school. He was clearly very violent and dangerous; indeed, he had also uttered threats against the other pupil. The incident was very unpleasant, and it is understandable that he was excluded permanently. Indeed, he had a record of bad behaviour, of which this incident was the culmination. The teacher and the other pupil had to go to hospital for stitches. Fortunately, no serious injury was inflicted, but it was a very serious incident.

The parents of the pupil in question appealed, and the appeal panel put the child back into the school. That completely undermined the head teacher, making it very difficult for his attempt to take the school out of special measures to have any credibility. I took the matter up with the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris). She changed the policy, saying that she would no longer accept such panel decisions willy-nilly. She took the view that we cannot simply allow panels to put back into schools, on appeal, pupils who behave in this way, and that we have to look at these cases more seriously. That approach was a success.

At about the same time, I was having a difficult and tense debate with representatives of my local authority. It was a Labour-run authority consisting of very fine people, but both the officers and one or two members were zealous in their support for blanket inclusion. On the one side were the parents, with whom I agreed, who were saying that they wanted special education for their children who had behavioural problems. On the other side was the authority, and one or two leading officers and members, who said that they wanted the children in mainstream schools. That was a difficult time. That tension has now been resolved, and the most zealous of those officers has moved on elsewhere.

The Government have also introduced learning support units in schools, for which one of my high schools was a pilot. The project proved very successful; indeed, The Sunday Telegraph published a large feature on our unit. We had to fight somewhat for continuing funding, but it has arrived and the unit is doing an extremely good job. Every time a particular pupil has, shall we say, a difficult day in school, the teacher can suggest that they go along to the learning support unit, at which they will receive one-to-one teaching for a day or two, until they have calmed down. The unit finds out what the problem is at home and the reason for the behaviour, and the pupil returns to their class having lost nothing, and having perhaps received some good one-to-one education while in the unit. Such work goes on within the physical building of the school, and has made an enormous difference. Pressure has been taken off the teachers, the other pupils do not suffer disruption in the classroom, and the pupil in question receives special attention, which is often what they want. The policy has been a great success, and I urge the Government to continue it, spread it more widely and ensure that it is properly resourced.

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1258

At the end of the day the issue is about resourcing. I have some second-hand experience in that regard. My wife worked in primary education in our town for many years as a reception class teacher and special needs co-ordinator. She had pupils with serious behavioural difficulties in her infant class. I remember that the school had difficulty persuading the authority to statement any of the children. Statementing was expensive—it cost money—so the children would be kept there for a year and another year beyond that, when it was obvious that they needed special education of some sort.

On one occasion my wife told a county co-ordinator from the authority that she had a problem with a young boy who needed special treatment because he could not behave himself or learn anything. He told her, "Mrs. Hopkins, you need to give him one-to-one teaching," and she replied that she had a class of 23 pupils and could not provide one-to-one teaching all the time. He then offered to take the child away and spend a little time with him. When he came back after half an hour, he said, "Mrs. Hopkins, I can do nothing with him", making the point that the pupil needed some sort of special education and should be statemented. It was a resource-based constraint because the authority was encouraging a no response to all statementing because it cost money. Resources have to be provided not just for the pupils concerned, but for classes and teachers to relieve the pressures. If we want people to go into teaching, we have to ensure that they are not going to suffer from disruptive and poorly behaved pupils in the classroom.

As has been recognised many times, one of the biggest difficulties faced by secondary school teachers is pupil behaviour in the classroom. That is what causes them most stress. If one is threatened, or even abused verbally, by a pupil, it can be upsetting and distressing. It takes one's attention off the job and often means teaching less well. It certainly makes teachers less happy in their job and more likely to leave teaching than would be the case if bad behaviour were not a problem.

Next Section

IndexHome Page