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4.48 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): The debate has been interesting, although it has been brief. I congratulate Members on both sides of the House who made thoughtful and interesting speeches: my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and the hon. Members for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

I was especially struck by a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, as it captured some of the flavour of an earlier debate on special educational needs. My hon. Friend said that children with Asperger's syndrome are 20 per cent. more likely to be excluded from school than other children. That highlights the problems that we need to tackle in determining how best to educate children with special educational needs and the extent to which they and other pupils benefit from their inclusion in mainstream schools rather than their being educated in special schools.

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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I beg my hon. Friend's pardon; my Lancashire accent obviously caused him to mishear me. In fact, I said that people with autism or Asperger's were 20 times more likely to be excluded, so the situation is even worse than he described.

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend corrects me. The comment is made more telling and powerful, given that a twentyfold increase in the risk of exclusion from school is involved.

The chief inspector of schools set out the problem very well in his last report, when he said:

That sentiment has been expressed most recently by the hon. Members for West Lancashire and for Nottingham, North, and it goes beyond just what happens in school. There is a link between some of the behavioural problems in school and crime—both when young people are at school and, indeed, when they have finished school. So it is clear that improving attendance and behaviour is at the heart of some of the education problems that we need to tackle in some of our most challenging schools.

Let us be quite clear that more children are truanting from school now than in 1997. In 2002–03, more than 630,000 children missed at least one half-day session. In 1997–98, the figure was just under 453,000. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in the number of children truanting from school at a time when overall pupil numbers changed only marginally.

The Minister said in his opening remarks that the proportion of days lost has barely changed. It has fallen by 0.3 per cent. since 1997. Although the Government might cite their record as one of modest progress, it should be set in the context of the target that they set at the start of their term in office, back in 1998, when they sought to cut truancy by a third by 2002—a target that, like so many, was set, missed and scrapped. The target now is to reduce truancy by 10 per cent. between 2002 and 2004; but, bearing in mind that the proportion of days lost between 2002 and 2003 fell by 0.1 per cent., the Government have a huge hurdle to leap to achieve that target. Like my hon. Friends, I am sceptical about whether the Government will achieve that target by the end of this academic year.

Why does truancy matter? It is crucial that all young people are able to learn. If we are to be competitive in today's global economy and the country is to thrive, we need a highly skilled work force. Also, to echo remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, if people are to succeed in our competitive economy, they need to be numerate and literate. Truancy and bad behaviour deny everyone the opportunity to participate fully in the competitive economy and weaken our whole economy.

There is clearly a relationship between high and above average truancy rates and below average exam results. Of the 15 LEAs with the greatest proportion of children failing to get any GCSEs, 14 had above average truancy rates. Of the 77 LEAs where more than 50 per cent. of

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children received five or more A* to C passes, only 12 had above average truancy rates. Low truancy sits beside higher attainment. If we want all pupils to improve their attainment, we need to tackle truancy. The attitude of a school or local authority to attendance sends a message to parents and pupils. A robust approach to attendance, following best practice, shows that a school or LEA is being serious about education, while being soft on truancy does no one any favours.

We talked about pupil behaviour, and one measure of pupil behaviour is the number of exclusions from school. Since the Government came to office until 1999–2000, the number of exclusions fell, partly as a result of the target that the Government set to reduce the number of exclusions. But again, that target has been changed because the Government have recognised—as head teachers, teachers and parents also recognise—that the policy was leading to more and more problem children remaining in school, harming not just their educational chances but the chances of those children who were in school and who wanted to learn. Since the policy was scrapped, exclusions have started to increase again. More than 1,000 more secondary school pupils were excluded in 2001–02 than in 1999–2000. In the same period, an extra 220 primary school pupils were excluded.

Reference has been made to Ofsted's findings on behaviour in schools. The 2001–02 Ofsted report said that behaviour was satisfactory or better in 11 out of 12 schools, but also said that behaviour in 27 per cent. of schools had deteriorated since the last time that they had been inspected.

The Government have increased the amount spent on truancy and behaviour. The Minister seemed rather hurt by several remarks made in the press about the amount that they have spent and the way in which it was supposed to cover truancy and behaviour. In an answer to me on 15 December 2003, he said that the amount spent on truancy and behaviour had increased from £10 million in 1997–98 to £84.5 million in 2002–03. He said that even more would be spent—an extra £50 million—on the behaviour improvement programme. In 2003–04, the Government will spend a further £150 million. He was proud that the Government have spent £600 million on truancy and behaviour since they came to office. However, given the modest decrease in truancy and the fact that more and more children are absent from school for one or more sessions, I am not sure that taxpayers or the Government have received value for money from the increased expenditure.

The Minister touched on the flagship behaviour improvement programme, which is part of the national behaviour and attendance strategy. Under the programme, as he said, every child who is at risk of truancy, exclusion or criminal behaviour should have a named key worker—that sounds very positive. However, we should consider the number of children who miss at least one session of school in the local education authorities that are part of the programme. I believe that about 26,000 pupils in Bradford truanted from school in 2002–03, and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) pointed out a cultural reason for that. About 36,000 children in Birmingham missed school for one or more sessions. How many key workers

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must we find to ensure that each of those children has support? That does not include the number that we must find for children at risk of exclusion or criminal damage.

Mr. Allen: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not disparage the concept of key workers entirely. Many people are involved in the public service at many levels locally, and it would clearly not be feasible to attach a key worker to everyone who has ever missed half a day of school. However, as I suggested earlier, attaching key workers at an early stage to known families in which problems might arise could be more practical.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but I am worried that the resources will be spread too thinly rather than sufficiently targeted at those who most need help and support.

As well as offering carrots such as the behaviour improvement programme, we know that the Government have used sticks. Parenting orders for exclusion and parenting contracts for truancy and exclusion were introduced in 1998. Further measures were introduced in the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. What will the impact of those measures actually be? The 1998 legislation did not have the beneficial impact on truancy and behaviour for which the Government hoped. Only 266 parenting orders were issued due to children's truancy in the year ending June 2002, so will penalty notices be more effective? Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Southport commented on condoned truancy. Will LEAs and the police take action to issue notices to parents who condone their children's absence?

The hon. Member for West Lancashire expressed concern, at some length, about giving head teachers the power to issue penalty notices and the impact that that will have on the relationship between the head, the family and the pupils. I am not sure how many heads in my constituency would be willing to exercise those powers given the fragility of the relationship between school and home in so many cases.

We all agree that truancy needs to be tackled. It is important that schools and LEAs decide how best to spend their resources. They need to understand how measures will work best in their area. Some techniques will only work in some areas. A school in an LEA near to mine shared the experience described by the hon. Member for Luton, North of older children acting as carers for their younger siblings. In their efforts to get the younger siblings to school, the older children missed the start of their school day and those absences were treated as unauthorised. That secondary school moved back its starting time to enable the older children to fulfil their responsibilities to the other siblings and to get to school on time. Those innovative local solutions need to be considered to improve behaviour and attendance in schools.

There are also innovative programmes to tackle problem behaviour. Six schools in Portsmouth have used emotional intelligence to help to tackle behavioural and learning problems, a suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North. By encouraging self-

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esteem and using techniques to encourage all in the school—not just the children, but the head, the teachers, the classroom assistants and the support staff—to develop their self-esteem, to take ownership of their problems and to find their own ways through those problems, behaviour in those schools has improved. Sadly, that scheme, which was funded by the LEA over three years, had to come to an end because of budget constraints. As that LEA is not part of the behavioural improvement programme, there is no money to develop the programme further.

I visited the Greig city academy in Haringey last year. It uses a scheme similar to that outlined by the hon. Member for West Lancashire, in which positive behaviour is rewarded by credits. The credits can be converted into goods, which include tickets to film premieres. The pupils I spoke to said that that was effective and that behaviour had improved significantly. My experience of the lessons in that school was that the children were well behaved, quiet and ready to learn.

There are other examples of ways in which behaviour and attendance can be tackled. The council in Slough, together with local businesses and a further education college, using money from the behavioural improvement programme, has introduced work-related learning to motivate disaffected pupils by offering a curriculum that meets their needs and re-engages them in education by offering work-based learning and vocational qualifications. I strongly believe that such programmes can be effective. Indeed, schools in my constituency offer that without using money from the behavioural improvement programme because they see the improvements in attendance and behaviour that derive from a curriculum that meets the needs of children, not the education system.

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