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Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has just said that head teachers should be given absolute authority to exclude pupils. If one head teacher has a low threshold for exclusion and is allowed to exercise that right untrammelled, they can offload every child who exhibits any problems on to other secondary schools in the area.

Mr. Collins: The hon. Lady has come to the heart of one of the profound differences between her party and mine. Her comment evidences a lack of trust in the professionals. We believe that if head teachers are allowed to take those decisions, they will not abuse that right and will use exclusion as a last resort, not a first resort. We have many of the problems that face us today precisely because the Government do not trust head teachers to take those decisions.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has put his name to the motion, which states that

When we discussed changes to asylum and immigration policy, the Conservative party rightly opposed getting rid of all the levels of appeal, so why is he suggesting getting rid of a level of appeal for schools? Under that
 
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policy, such matters would end up in the courts rather than with the local education authority, which would make the situation worse.

Mr. Collins: I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider whether the independent judgment of head teachers should be trusted in a way in which employees of the present Home Office should not.

The Times Educational Supplement reported that teaching unions thought that the figures might be underestimates, since schools may have failed to report the full figures for fear of being labelled "failing". In other words, the numbers involved in acts of violence may be greater than the statistics that I quoted earlier. The Government may say that they have set a target to reduce permanent exclusions, which have been reduced by some 3,000 since 1997. However, given the steady rise in incidents of violence and indiscipline in schools and the number of teachers who cite poor behaviour as a major contributor to their stress, it cannot be argued that exclusions are falling because behaviour is improving. On the contrary, the Government have introduced a target to reduce the number of punishments handed out, rather than the number of offences committed. It is like the Home Office aiming to reduce the number of arrests rather than the number of crimes.

That is simply the wrong way to go about things. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and many senior members of the Government have rightly discussed the need to implement zero-tolerance policies to tackle yobbishness among young people. They have spoken persuasively about the way in which small acts of rule infringement escalate into far more serious issues if society sends out the message that it either does not care about those rules or is incapable of enforcing them, and they are entirely right. What is strange, however, is to take the view that zero tolerance is the right approach towards young people out on the street, but the wrong approach when they are in school. Indeed, zero tolerance is arguably more important in schools, given that by definition those who are shaped by the prevailing attitude towards rules are at the most impressionable stages of their lives.

The first part of the distinctive Conservative approach towards restoring discipline is to restore to heads the absolute and final authority to expel pupils whose poor behaviour makes them unfit to be part of that community. There should be no targets for the number of exclusions and no pressure, implicit or explicit, to go for a softer option. We do not believe that heads would use expulsion as anything other than a last resort, but if they need to use it, they must be able to use it without fear or favour.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were to come to pass, would the number of exclusions in England increase or decrease, and by how much?

Mr. Collins: Certainly in the short term, I would expect the number of exclusions to increase, which is why—I shall come on to this point later in my remarks—we have allocated significant public spending to multiply by six the number of places in what the Government currently call pupil referral units, which we
 
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would call "turnaround schools". We take the view that the subject is serious and that head teachers should be given greater freedom. If that means that more are excluded, more provision needs to be made for them.

A recent poll showed that 74 per cent. of the public—

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Collins: If I may just finish this point, I will by all means give way. My hon. Friend may be anticipating me, but I shall explain why he and I should be confident that we have the public on our side on this.

A recent poll shows that 74 per cent. of the public and 79 per cent. of teachers agree with us that independent appeals panels should be abolished and should lose the powers granted them by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to overrule heads and force them to take back disruptive pupils.

Mr. McLoughlin: My hon. Friend referred to the expectation that exclusions may increase in the short term once this policy has been put into effect. Does not he agree that although that may be the case in the short term, in the longer term parents and pupils will be given the message that if children do not behave, they will be removed from school, which will mean that fewer people are referred to turnaround schools?

Mr. Collins: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who is, after all, making precisely the point that the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others make when they advocate zero tolerance in other contexts—namely, that securing more arrests, more convictions and possibly more people being sent to prison in the short term sends a clear signal that society will take rule-breaking and lawbreaking seriously, which results in better behaviour and less crime in the long term. In the context of schools, the zero-tolerance approach would mean that in the medium to long term there would be fewer disciplinary offences. As my hon. Friend will agree, one cannot take the view that there are an acceptable number of people breaking the rules. We will deal with those people severely to ensure that we reduce the incidence of indiscipline over the medium to long term.

Several of us were intrigued by various parts of the Government's amendment, particularly the section—for which, no doubt, Labour Members will be invited to vote this evening—that says that the House supports

That is an interesting interpretation of the Government's record since 1997, given that it was they who introduced the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, which gave independent appeals panels the power to overrule head teachers and to force them to take back disruptive pupils. That did not strengthen the power of head teachers—it removed and undermined it. Indeed, there has been at least one case in which an appeals panel forced a school to take back a pupil who had violently attacked a teacher. It is impossible to imagine a scenario that is more likely to demonstrate the impotence of authority or to lead to further, ever more
 
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severe, acts of indiscipline. Conservatives will therefore scrap those panels outright; I do not believe that many teachers will mourn their passing.

Rob Marris: The Government amendment goes on to say that the House

If the independent appeals panels were abolished, head teachers would face being taken to court under judicial review. That is the very power that his party rightly said should not be removed in asylum and immigration cases, and I am glad to say that the Government backed off on that. Is he saying unequivocally, to use the word in his motion, that judicial review would not even be allowed in these cases and that the decision of the head teacher would be final, with no legal redress whatsoever?

Mr. Collins: Of course, there is a theoretical possibility of judicial review, in common with all other decisions taken by public bodies. However, we intend to take steps that will make it extremely unlikely that parents will choose to take that route. Parents who choose to sue schools will not have access to legal aid or to no win, no fee arrangements. It will take only one or two cases to go against parents, so that they have to face the entirety of the costs—not only their own but of the school in defending itself—for them to realise that they do not wish to follow that procedure. That will give heads an enormously strengthened role.

Of course, our approach of giving head teachers the final say and encouraging zero-tolerance policies is in even starker contrast with the latest evolution in Government policy. The Secretary of State announced last month that he intends to require every state school, irrespective of the wishes of its head or governors, to take its share of pupils with a disruptive, or even violent past. That means that even schools that were oases of calm and good order until now might not be so in future.

We believe that we are considering a fundamental issue of principle: do we take the view that violence and disruptive behaviour is such an ingrained and unshakeable factor in school life that it is only fair to spread the misery around evenly; or do we believe that it is not inevitable, acceptable or tolerable, and that heads who are determined to stamp it out completely in their schools deserve not to be undermined or second-guessed but given full backing?

Of course, a strategy of exclusion alone cannot be the be-all and end-all of enforcing discipline. At least two other elements are needed. First, early intervention to help where possible avoids problems later in life. That will not work in every case but it is important to try, and the Government are to be commended for their commitment to early-years education. Conservatives will shortly set out how we hope to build on that.

Secondly, those who are excluded cannot simply be left to their own devices. Half of those sent to pupil referral units spend less than 20 hours a week there. Both the quantity and quality of the provision need to improve. The number of places at PRUs is insufficient and, therefore, the Leader of the Opposition and I recently announced that the next Conservative
 
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Government will make spending on separate specialist centres for excluded pupils—turn-around schools—our top spending priority. We will allocate at least £200 million extra a year to it. That sum could fund a sixfold increase in the number of places, or a smaller increase in the number of places but more investment per pupil.

It is in the interests of everyone who is involved in education—teachers, parents and pupils alike—for the issue of disruptive pupils to be tackled vigorously and for the rights of the 29 pupils out of 30 who wish to learn to be given higher priority than the one in the 30 who wishes to disrupt.


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