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Mr. John Taylor: The hon. Gentleman has particular experience that I never had of being a teacher in a perhaps difficult area, and of the character whom he called Joe Bloggs who made life difficult in the classroom. Can he give the House the benefit of his thoughts as to the sanction or punishment available that might work for a Joe Bloggs, or is the situation usually hopeless?
Mr. Pickthall: It was not always hopeless, although some childrenas I said, this was a long time ago, for which I am gratefulwere undoubtedly mentally unbalanced, and nothing could be done to solve that problem. At that time, caning was still used. I never had one of my students caned, because I disapproved of that method, but I did have the capacity to look as though I might kill them at any moment. On the whole, one jollied along, but it was tense and difficult. I vividly recallthis is turning into "All Our Yesterdays"that in my first year of teaching at the age of about 23, I lost 2 stone in weight. That was much better than the Atkins diet. In fact, I could do with going back into school to lose a bit more weight now.
Some students come from families where no one gets up to go to work, and no one has done so for a considerable time, so it becomes a habit in the home. In some families, one or both parents was a bunkerand perhaps not so many years earlier eitherand believe that there is nothing of value in education, because they received nothing valuable from it. In those cases, the relationship between parents and school is likely to be fraught, sometimes even violent. If I recall correctly, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned the prevalence of assaults against teachers. I remember assaults against members of staff who manned reception desks and I know of one case in my constituency where a nice, capable and highly intelligent woman working in reception was confronted by a man with a cudgel who had come in to beat up somebodywhoever he could findbecause the school had upset his child. My wife, who is about 7 stone, had to defuse those difficult circumstances. Teachers sometimes have to face them down, which I mention to highlight the difficulty of coping with such problems.
In disputes, such parents are the most likely, though not the only ones, always to believe their child's version of events rather than the school's version. They are often not discouraged by our friends in the legal profession, who constantly seek to lure them into legal action against a school. Schools are barraged by legal actions for all sorts of things and by other accusations, which are not unusually a cover-up for the reality of the child's poor behaviour or bad attendance.
In the particular schoolI am convinced that it is fairly typical of many secondary schools todaythe structures in place to deal with problems of poor attendance are enormous and complex. There is a full-time attendance officer, supported by two clerical officers. Electronic registration, which the Minister mentioned, takes place daily so that every lesson is registered. Every absence is instantly recorded and followed up with the family over the telephone on the same day. If it goes on more than a day, further layers of action can be resorted to.
Incidentally, two words are used to describe the problem. One is "bunking", which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) mentioned, and it means not going into school at all. "Sagging" is going in and then legging it once the pupil's name has been registered in the morning. That certainly applies in the Merseyside area.
Much of the school's success stemmed from a decision taken some years ago to structure tutor work vertically, so that the teacher follows the child right through from year 1 and from year 8. The tutor thus gets to know the children well. Because the age range is vertical and covers all five years, it provides a great counter to bullying. There is a lot of mutual support between the younger and older students. That system has been in operation for three years and has been highly successful.
When a student's attendance figures fall below 80 per cent., the EWO is instantly brought in, as are the learning mentors, the learning support unit and the youth workers. They hold conferences to examine why the child has not been attending more and determine what can be done. In many cases, the problem can be solved.
Various carrots and sticks can be used. The carrots are what one might expect: 100 per cent. attenders get free cinema tickets and pizzas, and so on. There are many such benefits, but they are likely to be most effective with those students who are not fundamentally disaffected when it comes to school. That approach creates a more positive atmosphere. It tackles casual truancy and the aim is to create mutual pressure. One thing that I learned, in the dim and distant past when I was a teacher, was that a class that felt ashamed, or worried that one of its members was letting the rest down, carried out much of the discipline for the teacher. Taking positive action, and rewarding those who attend well, helps to create that sort of atmosphere.
The sticks that can be used range from 10-minute detentions on the day of latenessthe maximum that can be imposed without proper noticeto truancy detention of one or two hours each week. Pupils who truant from lessons have meetings with the attendance
There is also a range of curriculum strategies. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the alternative curriculum for key stage 4, which is vital for those young people who have no interest at all in what the curriculum has to offer, and who resist it.
There is also the valued youth project, in which secondary school students are rewarded with vouchers that they can exchange for clothes, sports equipment and so on. Vouchers are given to students who help primary school pupils who have some learning difficulties. The scheme has been extremely successful and especially notable for the way in which it has helped motivate boys. The secondary schools in the town are hoping to extend it.
In addition, extended work experience is encouraged for all those who have succeeded in the valued youth scheme. However, it must be said that a significant minority of parents do not support either the valued youth project or the extended work experience scheme. They say that children should spend their time at school doing GCSEs, as they are all important, or that they do not support the time-keeping disciplines that are imposed on young people who go into proper work places.
Most effective of all has been the Skillforce project. I do not know whether that scheme operates across the country, but it is certainly offered in my patch. It is run by the Army, whose tutors help students to obtain practical qualifications. I do not know how far the Army could extend the scheme, but it has been extremely successful. The Army education service is very professional and effective.
The House will be familiar with the Connexions service. Another approach is to send youngsters on college courses, although I do not think that that has been successful, as not every college tutor is especially skilled at looking after disaffected young people.
Finally, there is an inclusion group for year 10 pupils who have not taken advantage of the other programmes. Small groups are taught separately by the most experienced and skilful staff. Of the 12 students who followed that course last year, eight are responding well and, after severe disaffection, developing a more positive attitude to the school. Three of the four students who failed in all those programmeswhose parents may be prosecutedwere pupils whom the school was trying to reintegrate after their attendance at a pupil referral unit.
There are no easy answers to the problems of truancy. It is a relentless daily grind for the many schools faced with a small proportion of unco-operative or incompetent parents. Perhaps the most effective of all the methods used in the school that I described was the employment of a full-time attendance officer whose remit was to inquire instantly
Mr. Pickthall: It would not be fair to name the school where those events occurred, as it has changed substantiallyit has even changed its name. However, I shall talk to the hon. Gentleman about it after the debate; he will probably recognise it. Things have got much better in schools since then. Of course, there are problems but not to the extent that I saw in those days.
We cannot expect our schools easily to control crises that the rest of society cannot control, or does not want to control: the bad language, racism, bullying and violence that youngsters see all around them in everyday life. The fact that most schools do so much better than the wider society in which they are embedded is an enormous credit to the bulk of the teaching and other staff, the governors and head teachers in those schoolsincluding my wife. If I have done half as much for Skelmersdale as the town's head teachers have when I retire from my parliamentary career, I shall have done a pretty good job.