Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Laurence Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is right. Does he agree that it is sad that there is always a long queue of people waiting to go into the Strangers Gallery because they cannot resist watching that event?

Dr. Pugh: That is not surprising. When there is a fight in the schoolyard many people run to see it, and the media mob to Prime Minister's questions like a crowd at a schoolyard fight; they genuinely enjoy that kind of thing. It is an instinctive human reaction, although not a laudable one, and we have to acknowledge that it occurs.

What are children to conclude confronted with that event? We may be debating misbehaviour today, but tomorrow at 12 noon they could form their own conclusions about us. They must wonder why Mr. Speaker does not keep us in after the sitting and force us to copy out pages of Hansard—I pause there.

In pointing to those general cultural trends, I do not want to exonerate the Department for Education and Skills entirely. Culture is a determinant of pupils' behaviour. The increasingly disturbed family structures of England generate more difficult pupils, in two senses. Poor patterns of behaviour can be replicated by quite ordinary pupils, who have no major psychological problems; but there is also an increasing number of extremely disruptive pupils who require special

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1262

attention. In passing, I commend the Government on introducing pupil referral units. I was sceptical about them, but I have come to realise that they perform a useful function in the school system. I used to think that they would be destinations from which pupils would never return and that they would have no good effect, but in most local authorities they work well and contribute to a reduction in misbehaviour.

As I said earlier, disengagement is the root cause of poor behaviour. Children naturally want to learn and develop, but they want attention. The disengagement that results from bad behaviour can be overcome only by a relevant, realistic and interesting curriculum, delivered by committed, good and dedicated teachers in a settled and suitable educational environment. The Government cannot by themselves guarantee those things, but they can facilitate them.

Buildings are important. The environment in which lessons take place is important, and the Government's buildings programme, coincidentally and not necessarily intentionally, will have done something to improve standards of behaviour. Teacher ratios are important. Keeping good classroom teachers in schools is important. Decent pastoral provision in schools is very important. However, probably the pivotal factor is a meaningful curriculum, and the Minister has said a great deal about how he hopes to make the curriculum more meaningful for the pupil, including the recalcitrant and difficult pupil.

Mr. Hopkins: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it sounds a little like the kind of worthy education speech that we heard 10, 15 or 20 years ago. We have come to learn that the interface between the teacher and the pupil—the teacher's expectation of the pupil's behaviour—is now of fundamental importance. Precisely how people behave in the classroom is as important as all the other factors.

Dr. Pugh: Yes, I thoroughly agree. Nothing that I have said so far is remotely inconsistent with that observation, so I have no problem in concurring with what the hon. Gentleman says. However, individual teachers in the classroom must be put in the right sort of psychological condition to do the job as well as they possibly can. They cannot be demoralised or overloaded, as some teachers accuse the Government of doing to them. They cannot work with a curriculum that is seen to be inflexible and inappropriate. They cannot be forced to concentrate on the cosmetics of teaching—the school's public relations and where it features in the league tables—rather than on the reality of pupils' lives. They cannot spend their time jockeying, by whatever means, to secure a higher position in the league tables. If that happens, there is an overall tendency for schools to disown problematic pupils and pass them on to another school that does not yet know them.

Another factor of Government overload to which we also have to draw attention is that some of the community building aspects of the school—the sport, the extra-curricular activities and the things that go to make the school a good community—diminish. Some of that has to be laid at the door of the Government and their policies, and some of it has to be laid at the door of Ofsted, which is very strong on spotting problems but very weak on offering solutions.

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1263

Finally and briefly, I come to a problem that has occupied and concerned me quite a lot. It has already been touched on by other hon. Members. Bullying is going on in many schools in the land every day, week after week. We are talking about persistent misery visited on individuals day after day, often hour by hour. The statistics on that are not entirely clear and the research is inconclusive, but a number of high profile, tragic cases draw our attention to that issue. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that bullying is on the increase.

In particular, I want to draw attention to the problem of bullying among females, which, as far as I can recall, was not mentioned and not much evident many years ago, but is now very prevalent and troubling. The Government have responded to that. They have a strategy and a website. They have some strange links on the website to Disney and things like that, but none the less they have website to which people can gain access. There is a helpline and a charter. There are anti-bullying strategies and anti-bullying policies in every school. There are conferences on bullying—LEAs and schools talk the talk—but the lads and girls victimised in the corridor today are not necessarily greatly comforted by knowing that there is a strategy. They do not say, "Oh good. I am safe—the Minister has got a strategy."

There is very good practice, and I am sure that the Minister wants to spread good practice. I draw attention in particular to a phenomenon in Scotland, which has an anti-bullying network. Not only is good advice given, but there is an opportunity for pupils who have problems to talk to other pupils with similar difficulties. If hon. Members have not inspected the website, I suggest that they look at it because I am sure that it provides some help—not the only help—towards exterminating bullying in Scotland. A further measure in Scotland that I would recommend is the buddy system, through which many younger pupils in Scottish schools are befriended by older pupils. That breaks up the gang mentality that can exist in individual age cohorts, which does a lot to provide protection for vulnerable pupils who are finding their feet in what might be a large secondary school.

Bullying is a difficult problem that is not unique to schools. The really effective solution is to free up professional teachers so that they may perform traditional pastoral roles. Schools should be treated as communities, rather than simply as target-setting, league-hopping, exam-driven, inspection-dominated, paper-chasing, Gradgrind institutions. If schools were communities that approached the model of a family more than that of a business, bullying would be less manifest and good behaviour more manifest. If the Government could understand that their role is to enable education rather than to direct it, they would get more respect and, interestingly, probably less blame.

3.41 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): It is a long time since I participated in an education debate—[Interruption.] It must be at least three hours since my education debate in Westminster Hall. It is a long time since I participated in an education debate on the Floor of the House.

First, I shall pay tribute to several people: Bernie Groves, Peter Brown, Peter Plummer, Tom Meghahy, Pat Dubass, Den Coral, Joan Young, Bernard Bonner

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1264

and Phil Lidstone—the head teachers in Nottingham, North. Hon. Members may be familiar with the fact that Nottingham, North is arguably the toughest educational environment in the UK. It is the constituency with the fewest number of youngsters who go on to university. It contains four of the bottom 200 secondary schools in the UK and the lowest educationally attaining ward in the UK. None of those things are badges of honour, but I hope that they put in perspective my thanks to those head teachers. They do not need to be in Nottingham, North, but they choose to be there. They are definitely part of the answer rather than part of the problem. Many have come to the city in the past few years, so I thought it appropriate to open my remarks by thanking them and their teaching staff for the incredible job that they do in my constituency day in, day out.

We started to realise the seriousness of the education problem in the city of Nottingham over the past three or four years because it became a unitary authority during that period. We always knew that there were difficulties in the city, but the separation of the city and the county made the difficulties and their serious nature evident. None the less, we have been fortunate throughout that period to have a great range of people who have been uniformly positive about tackling the problems. Bit by bit—1 per cent. here; 0.5 per cent. there—the schools in my constituency have dragged themselves up by their bootlaces, and we get better every year.

It is important to put on record the assistance that we have received from the Government. At one point, I felt that every school in my constituency was a building site and that I needed wellingtons to visit most of them. New roofs were built, as were inside toilets and new blocks for science, and gyms were rebuilt. All that was paid for by the moneys that the Government pushed through, and I, for one, am grateful for that assistance.

Personalities locally have been able to capitalise on the Government's ability to assist us, including a succession of senior officers in our local council—the current director of education, Heather Tomlinson, is continuing that superb work. A succession of education chairmen for the local authority—Councillor Don Scott, Councillor Jon Collins and now Councillor Graham Chapman—have been superb. They have intelligently pushed the new opportunities forward and dragged educational standards up. The Minister knows me well enough to know that I would be the first to tell him about any weaknesses. Instead, I can tell him that those people are putting effort in day and night to raise the standard for our children in Nottingham.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put on the record those remarks about those excellent people. I am sure that that gratitude is replicated in constituencies throughout the country as hon. Members respect the work that teachers, head teachers, council officers and councillors do on a daily basis to help the children in our areas.

On the specific issue of attendance and behaviour, one of the biggest problems in Nottingham—I think the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) touched on this—is condoned absences. Police searches and checks have revealed that many of the youngsters who were stopped were with their parents in the shopping malls

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1265

and the city centre. It is incumbent on those parents not to say, "Well, I had to take little Johnny to get his feet measured to buy a pair of shoes", but to take the steps necessary to ensure that those young people are in school. That is not bunking off; it is almost a conspiracy to avoid school. Without too much exaggeration, if a parent denies their child schooling, it is, in my opinion, not just a form of neglect, but a form of abuse. That parent is removing from their own child life chances and an ability to progress. In an area like mine, those chances are hard enough to come by without the parents abetting that abuse. I hope that parents will do everything humanly possible to ensure that their children get the education they deserve.

One thing that we are doing in Nottingham is developing a multi-agency truancy team, consisting of police officers and education welfare officers. They go out and about in the city, on a day-to-day basis, picking up truants and taking them back to where they should be. The city is also in the process of establishing a "without school place" team for children who have been removed from rolls. Again, that involves police officers, education welfare officers and the truancy team, who have to work with Connexions, the young offenders' teams and social services. All that work and effort, and making school fun and exciting, has paid off. Attendance in Nottingham in the last year for which we have figures is the best since 1996. The city's secondary schools, whose heads I mentioned, have the most improved truancy rate in the country over the past year and the second most improved attendance rate. My hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to hear that. It is a positive aspect to the work in Nottingham, North.

On the stick side of the equation rather than the carrot side, we have introduced a fast track to court for non-school attendance so that we can move those cases forward with all due speed. In addition, attendance panels operate in all secondary schools. They are made up of a senior education welfare officer, a senior staff member and, where possible, a school governor. Parents are brought before the panel and an action plan, which is kept under review, is agreed. If the situation is not satisfactory after four weeks, a court date can be arranged. That has been negotiated with the senior magistrates clerk, whose work on the issue I commend.

Although there is a negative side to the debate, there is also a positive side, which includes attendance certificates and a city-wide attendance campaign, as well as the national press coverage, which we appreciate, on truancy teams. We had one of the first full-time truancy teams in the country.

Why is this important? It is not merely for educational reasons, but because more than 40 per cent. of the children who truant become involved in street crime and can also be the victims of child abuse. Therefore, in the specific terms of the debate, I hope that Nottingham city is seen to be tackling these problems. There is still a long way to go, but we need to keep at it.

The broader points that I wish to make revolve more around the context in which this debate on attendance and truancy takes place. I take a slightly different angle, in referring to social behaviour. It is a topic that I have raised before, and I make no apology for returning to it.

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1266

By this time tomorrow in every constituency in the United Kingdom an average of a thousand reports of antisocial behaviour will have been recorded. So tomorrow there will be over 66,000 new victims, whose homes, cars or physical or mental health have been damaged because of antisocial behaviour. By this time tomorrow this antisocial behaviour will have cost the taxpayer more than £164 million.

I do not need to continue with these facts, because colleagues in all parts of the House realise from their own postbag how important the matter is. Thirteen years ago, when I started as a Member, it was one of a large number of items in the postbag; 20 per cent. or 30 per cent. of casework related to antisocial behaviour. Now it must be about 70 per cent.I do not know whether it is possible to quantify an increase in bullying, as the hon. Member for Southport suggested in an intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister, but antisocial behaviour is certainly anecdotally very definitely capable of being quantified in the postbag as an avalanche during my period in the House.

I am not hankering after some sort of parental golden age. That has never existed. Nor do I wish us to return to the brutalisation of children masquerading sometimes under the word "discipline". Nor am I blaming the parents, many of whom do heroic things to ensure the best for their children. However, parents must take responsibility for their children.

The present Government are now both tough on antisocial behaviour and supportive of parents. Now is the right time for us to start looking at the other side of the campaign against antisocial behaviour by promoting social behaviour in our children. It is necessary to enable good social behaviour, not merely to disable the impact of antisocial behaviour. We must do both.

I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and his team, and indeed those in No. 10 Downing street, will accept that social behaviour could be one of the big ideas of the third term as well as a thread throughout a child's life. Just as the Government have successfully attacked antisocial behaviour at all ages through parenting contracts, antisocial behaviour orders and truancy sweeps, we must make social behaviour a continuum throughout a child's life.

For a child who is likely to develop antisocial behaviour there can be no question —a number of colleagues from all parts of the House have referred to this—but that the earlier the intervention, the better. The first contact with public services must take place at the earliest possible moment. We could regress the problem even further back and say that the earlier the contact with the parents, or even parents-to-be, the better. This will allow the earliest, most cost-effective and most telling intervention.

For example, I would like parenting classes to extend to secondary school children, so that even before they become parents, teenagers will be fully aware of the awesome responsibilities, as well as the joys, they will face if they have children of their own.

20 Jan 2004 : Column 1267

For the youngest people in our communities, prenatal as well as postnatal parenting classes, run by midwives and health care professionals, would help to identify and enable intervention as early as possible, in order to help some of the parents who may encounter difficulties.

Next Section

IndexHome Page