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Mr. Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman may be interested in the Library document that shows that absences and school exclusion rates for the Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations are lower than for the white population. That reflects his points.
Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. I suspect that the two points are closely linked. The net result of lack of respect for authority and lack of discipline is bullying, truancy and expulsions. They are big problems in schools, but in many cases they are symptoms of bigger ones. I stress that every school must have the right to exclude, but we must be careful about our treatment of those who are excluded. Where do they go and what do they do? If we are not careful, we shall make matters worse.
I want to consider further the reason for exclusion, which is often unmet special educational needs. I have often spoken about that subject in the House; I make no apology for that and I hope that I shall have the opportunity to speak about it many more times. My research demonstrates that unmet special educational needs are a major source of exclusion. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice reports that 3,000 new cases a year are referred to it and 20 per cent. relate to pupils who are excluded or threatened with exclusion largely because their needs are not fulfilled.
The needs are often not fulfilled because they are not recognised. Dyslexia and dyspraxia are hard to detect partly because they are often found in bright pupils. Yet because the problems are not detected sufficiently early, the pupils are perceived to be rather dim. That is unfair because the reverse is the case. The National Autistic Society says that children with autism or Asperger's syndrome are 20 times more likely to be excluded than pupils without special educational needs.
I served on the Committee that considered the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, which was designed to promote inclusion. I readily accept that many pupils with special educational needs are rightly included in mainstream schools because we cannot categorise people as normal or not normal. However, that is not right for all children and it is dangerous to make inclusion a party-political issue. In Gloucestershire, that appears to have happened.
The Liberal Democrat/Labour-controlled county council appears determined to close the special schools in Gloucestershire. It has started by closing Bownham Park school in Stroud and it is targeting Alderman Knight school in my constituency. I fear that the county council is using the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 as an excuse to save money. That must be unacceptable. Alderman Knight school is under threat.
Exclusion from the activities of an inappropriate mainstream school can lead to exclusion in later life, although attendance at a mainstream school does not itself ensure inclusion. Mainstream schools cannot always provide the care and education required by children with special needs, whereas special schools often can do so. The children in question do not always suffer from educational, behavioural or learning difficultieswhich are bad enough. Many have physical difficulties, as with some pupils at Alderman Knight. If they attend mainstream schools, they may become bullies themselves or, more likely, be bullied because their problems make them stand out. They might drop out of school, play truant, disengage or be disruptivecausing problems for other pupils and teachers.
Many teachers, governors, parents and pupils are against the proposed closure of Alderman Knight school and the forced inappropriate inclusion of some pupils in mainstream schools. I believe that the county council's consultation in respect of Alderman Knight school is something of a sham and that a decision has already been made. When I made that claim at a county council meeting last Friday, nothing that was said convinced me that it was not the case. It is a shameful decision. Anyone who decides to close a special school that is doing so well is blighting the lives of many pupils and denying them the help that they need. Pupils themselves say that they are having their hopes removed. It does not matter what we think; the pupils themselves know that they could not cope in a mainstream school.
I have invited the Minister many times to visit Alderman Knight school, where he will be most welcome. I hope that he will at last take me up on that genuine offer. The Minister is generous enough to acknowledge that the threat to Alderman Knight is close to my heart. I do not want more and more pupils put into inappropriate education, to become the problems of the future.
Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow a fellow Lancastrian, albeit one exiled in Tewkesbury, and to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on refusing to lose his Lancashire accent. There are too few of us about.
I declare an interest in that my wife is the head teacher of a large comprehensive school, Glenburn high school, in Skelmersdale. My contribution will be a distillation of many weekends of detailed conversations about what goes on at that school and others in the town and throughout the county.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) nostalgically reminded me of my many happy years as a teacher trainer on a beat that included his constituency, which is next door to mine, and Bootle. Shirley Williams was then Secretary of State for Education, so the House can imagine how long ago that was. At one school in BootleI shall not name it because it is reformed and a fine school nowI regularly witnessed fist fights between teachers and pupils. On one famous occasion, I witnessed a fight between two teachers. One of the best students I taught, who has been a head teacher for some time, had to be taken out of that school because he was being physically attacked. I have never seen anything quite like it since. The idea that is sometimes promulgated that behaviour, attendance or punctuality in schools is in general worse now than it was back in the 1970s is, in my experience, nonsense.
My wife's school is in a difficult area, and a substantial minority of pupils make the intake very challenging, including some from a substantial number of dysfunctional families. Nevertheless, the school is achievingmassively soand improves its achievement year by year. Not least among the reasons for that is the fact that the Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), when she was a junior Minister in the Department for Education and Skills, came up with the idea of excellence clusters, and created one in Skelmersdale. There are a few others scattered around the country, but the one in Skelmersdale involves three comprehensive schools in the town and about half its primary schools. That has brought in extra resources, which have largely been used on learning mentors and similar support systems, which have been magnificently successful. If the Government found more money for excellence clusters and the similar partnerships that the Minister mentioned at the beginning of the debate to provide more learning mentors especially to deal with disaffected young people, that would be as good a use of money as any that could be found in the education world.
Unauthorised absence, on which I shall focus, and unpunctuality are the products of a cultural problem whose roots are in dysfunctional and care-less families, and it does not take many such families to create a problem for a school. A school, more than any other organisation, is expected to deal with those problems. We expect a vast amount from our schools, and for the most part they respond to that expectation. I shall return to that point later.
It is not unusual for a pupil excluded from one school for, inter alia, poor attendance to be forced into another school, which often has to accept that student, knowing that its overall record on attendance and behaviour problems will be badly affected. The beginning of that process therefore causes problems between the student and their family, and the school. The school might not want that kid to start with, which is a bad way for anyone to begin a school career.
By excluding regularly, the big excluders among our schools can advantage themselves over those schools that are reluctant to exclude. I must put on the record the case of one primary school in my patch that has had the same head for 22 years. He was in great distress just before Christmas because he had had finally to exclude his first pupil ever. He does not believe in excluding, believing instead that the school can include and deal with the problem, with help. This time, things had gone beyond the pale. It is a beacon school with an excellent headmaster, an old student of mine, who is doing a magnificent job.
We also have a problem in some areasnot in Skelmersdale, as relationships are good inside the excellence cluster therewhen the Roman Catholic school excludes children who must be found a place often in the county school next door. The reverse does not apply, however. Roman Catholic schools can refuse to take their share of excluded students from other schools, and in parts of the country they do so regularly. The Department should examine carefully such difficulties with exclusion, which cause head teachers much misery.
I had not intended to comment on bullying, but the issue was raised by several hon. Members. Partly because of the publicity in newspapers, we are in danger of creating a special crime called school bullying. Bullies are not special to schools: society is full of bullies. School bullies may have bullying neighbours, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) referred. Antisocial behaviour is a form of bullying, and it happens all the time in all our communities. Many school bullies have parents who bully. Racial discrimination is a species of bullying. They may have parents who are bullied in the workplace. There are head teachers and teachers who are bullieshead teachers who bully other teachers, and teachers who bully one another in their departments. Bullying is endemic throughout our society. Bullying in schools is presented in the media and by politicians as something peculiar to schools, but it is not. We must solve the problem of bullying and tackle it right across our society as well as in schools. Schools are among the few places in our society that, by law, have anti-bullying policies, and must maintain them.
Schools have a large number of problems in those areas. They are tackling them, as I will describe in a moment. First, I want to tell the Minister that it is good that the Government are pumping money into schools to tackle some of those problems, but we also need social services to be well funded. Social services must back up schools' work with dysfunctional families. We cannot just deal with a child in school and bring in people to help. We must go out and see the family. There are all sorts of problems in familiesI do not need to list them because other hon. Members have described themthat must be coped with. Schools cannot possibly do that. Social services are struggling. Good people, certainly in my part of the world, are working extremely hard but they cannot provide the back-up service that schools need.
In recent weeks, we have discussed fixed penalties for bad attendance. There have been big newspaper splashes about parents being fined £100 for taking their children on holiday in term time, in addition to normal bad attendance cases. Giving head teachersmy hon. Friend the Minister referred in his opening speech to head teachers, education welfare officers, and someone else whom I have forgottenthe ability to fine parents £100 for taking a child on holiday seems to me a poisoned chalice. First, it will not deter parents who are prepared to lie and say, "My child was ill." They will do it anyway. It might upset perfectly responsible parents who are supportive of the school in every other way, and who, incidentally, would probably be surprised to learn how many Members of Parliament take holidays during term time, given the length of our recesses. For those parents with two or three kids, who would save up to £600 by taking a holiday in term time rather than during the rush month, having to cough up £100 would still enable them to save £500. How would that deter a parent?
That power will irritate and create a lot of bad feeling. My biggest worry is that such a system could endanger the often difficult and delicate relationship of head teachers, and perhaps educational welfare officers, with parents. Politicians must understand something that we perhaps do not fully understand: the intensity and time-consuming nature of day-to-day negotiations with pupils, who might turn up or might not and who have to be cajoled, bribed and bullied, and with parents who often do not care two hoots whether their kid is in school, so long as they are not at home, which is the main purpose, and who might just be cajoled into co-operating.
We should also recallthis issue has been mentioned in a sidelong waythat a large minority of pupils in our secondary schools come from broken families. Often, they require two holidays: one with mum, who usually has care, and one with dad. Who are we to say that the holiday with dad is less important than going to school for that particular week? Denying the opportunity for a 14-year-old to spend a week with his father would do damage that a week in school could not correct. It might be more effective if parents who want to take their children on holiday in term time were obliged to make them produce relevant work of some kind, which the school could set. For families on tight budgets, going on holiday in term time is often the only option. We need to be more understanding in that regard.
I return to the daily battle against unauthorised absence and unpunctuality. It is some 30 years since I was a teacherthank God. I taught in a very tough but very good comprehensive school in Kirby, outside Liverpool. On the whole, I enjoyed it, but I remember the immense relief that I felt when some of the most ghastly young men did not turn up. There was no way that I was going to complain that Joe Bloggs, who made my life a misery every time he was in the classroom, had not turned up; I simply hoped that he would not turn up tomorrow either. That was a long time ago, and we cannot adopt such attitudes now. However, that feeling must exist among teachers who perhaps have one child who creates trouble in the classroom day after day. Yet now they must constantly chase up that kid, to ensure that he attends and that attendance is maximised.
A minority of secondary school students have no concept whatsoever of the importance to them of school attendance, and, as several Members have said, no interest in what is going on in the school. That might not always be the fault of an inadequate curriculum.