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Mr. Beggs: I take it that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the earlier a child is statemented, the better for the child and for the rest of the pupils in the area. Does he further agree that once a child has been statemented, that statement should be applicable and acceptable across educational borders?

Mr. Hopkins: I accept both the hon. Gentleman's points. I was about to come to the point about early interventions, which are crucial in so many respects. Some of my friends have children who suffer from dyslexia. If the problem is caught early enough and they are properly supported, such youngsters can often go straight to university like many other bright young people. However, dyslexia has caused serious difficulties for many. A high proportion of our prison population has serious problems with literacy in English, largely derived from dyslexia, so it is important to tackle it earlier. Similarly, if we can find out early enough what is causing behavioural problems, we can start to solve them.

Finally, we have a cultural problem with behaviour. In some cultures, it is seen as right to be quiet and deferential to adults; in other cultures, more relaxed and

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liberal attitudes to adults are common. If pupils are to learn anything in schools, there cannot be a hubbub or noisy atmosphere. There must be quiet. I know from my own constituency that the most successful schools and classes tend to be quiet. We should teach children from their earliest school days that it is better for them—and everyone else—to learn to be quiet and self-controlled. That can be difficult when pupils come from a background that is not quiet. It may sound almost prissy to say it, but I know from experience that I cannot work in a hubbub: I must have some quiet. I am sure that that is true for five-year-olds and, indeed, five-year-olds of lower ability. In the past, the most disciplined and orderly classes tended to be for the most able. What we really want is more rigour, more quietness and more calm for the less able, so that they can catch up and make the best of their abilities.

The gulf between the best educated and the poorest educated in Britain is among the highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development area. If we examine the OECD figures, we find that the top 10 per cent. of our population are among the best educated in the world. We can outshine the world on that basis, but in respect of our poorest 10 per cent.—or even poorest third—we are right at the bottom of the table. That is the problem that we must address. Dealing with behaviour and absences is a major part of solving that problem: we should give the people at the bottom a start in life equal to that of their peers.

3.24 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The object of the debate is to draw attention to issues of attendance and behaviour in schools, but it is not at all obvious to all participants in the debate that the Government can directly influence all the variables or be held accountable for every aspect of the problem. It is a fundamental error to think that the Government are omnipotent. Although the Secretary of State is undoubtedly powerful, no Secretary of State has yet found the secret of making every pupil in the UK attend and behave. Any Secretary of State who actually achieved that would be in the same league as a Home Secretary who eliminated crime or a Chancellor who eliminated unemployment.

The best result that Whitehall and Westminster can obtain is enabling pupils by removing the obstacles that prevent the utopia where every pupil attends and no pupil misbehaves. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said, since the Government made school attendance compulsory there has been unauthorised absenteeism—otherwise known as bunking off or truancy. Since the days of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, truancy has been a fact of life.

Real truancy does not involve the roguish cheerfulness of Mark Twain or Jimmy Tarbuck, who on a recent edition of "Desert Island Discs" told the story of his school career, which was punctuated by more than occasional bouts of truancy. Truancy and absenteeism are linked with underachievement, the exploitation of children—as other hon. Members have noted, sometimes by their parents—petty deviance and crime. The children experience boredom and joyless drifting, which goes on day after day.

To their credit, the Government have identified the phenomenon and aspire to address it. They have introduced a catalogue of coercive and remedial

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measures—there are many such measures and their effects are various. Truancy sweeps have received a lot of publicity and have had some effect, although it remains to be seen whether it is permanent. There are more educational welfare officers and a faster courts system for non-compliant parents, which is laudable. Another idea is penalty fines, which are perhaps not such a good idea in all circumstances, but the Government have none the less broached them. There is better tracking and recording of pupils by schools and other agencies and parenting orders for misbehaviour and truancy.

A range of remedies and coercive measures is available. Even the Audit Commission has joined in—it seems to join in on just about every problem and thinks it can solve almost all of them. It has chipped in with a paper called "Missing Out", in which it suggests that we need strategies, the sharing of information and clear lines of responsibility. I must say that those are the Audit Commission's solutions to nearly every problem and that the paper looks like a universal, off-the-shelf solution, but the Audit Commission is none the less concerned.

The Minister has almost admitted the fact that the effect of the remedies has been marginal. The figures for school attendance and unauthorised absence have remained broadly constant over time. There are variations and better and worse local education authorities, but the figures are consistent. There is no LEA with a 20 per cent. record on truancy and there is no LEA with a 0 per cent. record—all LEAs fall in a spectrum between 2.5 and 0.4 per cent.

A cynic could as easily attribute the overall improvement to statistical vagaries or changes in methods of recording as to the outright success or failure of Government policies. In saying that, I recognise individual and creditable success stories. In particular, I would like to mention the result that Liverpool LEA has managed to produce in its schools. I must say that it is a Liberal Democrat council, although that could be coincidence, but none the less the success is real. Odd statistics in Bradford have also been alluded to, and they need special attention. Pressure must be maintained, but we are still in a situation in which 50 per cent. of children caught truanting are doing so with their parents, so the broad scale of the problem remains.

The basic cause of systematic truancy—hanging around shopping malls and estates—is disengagement from the educational process, which has been widely acknowledged in the House today. Such disengagement can be on an individual, family or community basis, but in each case those involved take the fundamental decision that the school curriculum does not relate to their aspirations and goals. They are wrong in that judgment, but it is none the less one that some pupils and some families make. That is often why, when children return to school, the school does not welcome them like a prodigal son; fatted calf is not on the menu, because those disengaged pupils are disengaged permanently and are potentially disruptive.

A couple of weeks ago, an article in The Times Educational Supplement described research undertaken by a headmaster into stress among his staff. He examined how stress varied over time and how it related to a series of variables. Oddly enough, they did not

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include directives from the head teacher or even new demands imposed by the Government. The largest variable was the presence or absence of certain pupils. The head teacher found that if he adopted a more pliant attitude to exclusion, by applying it more forcefully, stress levels went down.

Trends in behaviour at school are a concern. Authority is more commonly challenged than ever before, both in school and elsewhere. Violence is all too obvious and is quite near the surface in some schools. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to statistics for physical attacks on teachers. Respect for teachers in general is down and stress is up. A fair amount of bullying—possibly more than ever—goes unchecked.

It would be handy to make the Government the only fall guy and to blame the Secretary of State, but we all realise that many factors are in play. Adolescents are larger than in previous generations but no less hormonally challenged, and they are thus a more difficult proposition to teach. Mass culture has changed. We cannot expect children not to swear in the schoolyard if, in the evenings, they have to put up with swearing on television as commonplace—as indeed they do.

Children are highly imitative and even on daytime television they are not safe from bad examples. Anyone who tunes into the parliamentary channel at 12 noon tomorrow, well before the watershed, will see misbehaviour on a grand scale from those who aspire to lead the nation. Prime Minister's Question Time has it all: mayhem, shouting out, gesticulating, name calling, bullying, picking on people's mannerisms and weaknesses and, occasionally—albeit sotto voce—swearing. It is institutionalised yobbery in suits.


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