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Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Collins: I have given way twice to the hon. Gentleman, so, if he will forgive me, I shall make progress.

This morning, on Radio 4's "Today" programme, a teacher named Richard Anderson appeared. He is the teacher whose case has been widely publicised after huge numbers of present and past pupils backed him when he was suspended after a bag he threw towards a disruptive pupil hit that child. Mr. Anderson said this morning:

That teacher is right. Teaching unions are right. Discipline matters, so protecting teachers matters. If the Government will not take action to do that before the election, Conservatives in office will do so after it.

4.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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We take the issue of behaviour and discipline in schools extremely seriously. For that reason, I very much welcome today's opportunity to set out the progress that we are making and the challenges that we continue to face. Discipline in schools matters for many of the reasons that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) set out. It matters for obvious educational reasons in the school; it matters because ill-discipline and bullying can affect the confidence and self-esteem of children, and their safety; and it matters because improving behaviour and tackling ill-discipline in schools will reduce criminal and antisocial behaviour later on, with a wide community benefit.

That is why we have invested significantly in improving behaviour, with a programme over the last three years of £470 million to improve behaviour both universally and through targeted support for schools, where the challenges are at their greatest. It is why we believe that every child has the right to the best possible education, the right to enjoy their learning in a positive environment, the right to achieve, and the right to make the very best of their life—every child, not just the few.

I shall address the points raised in the motion in turn. In a sense, the motion starts with the areas of consensus:

Of course I agree that the vast majority of pupils are well behaved and eager to learn. The vast majority of learners behave well almost all the time. They benefit from engaging teaching, and from the encouragement and support that they get from teachers and other members of our staff. They also benefit from this Government's massive investment in support for positive behaviour.

When I go to schools and meet pupils, I am impressed with what I see, as, I am sure, are Members in all parts of the House. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Diana awards, at which I met a young woman who had set up a bereavement counselling service in her school, and a young man who is leading the anti-bullying peer support network in his school. More recently, I went to Deptford Green school in south London, where I met pupils involved in the school council, which is ensuring that the voice of pupils is properly heard at all levels within the school.

Dr. Starkey : Does my hon. Friend accept that children are often led to become disruptive because they are having extreme difficulty in coping with the teaching in the classroom? In those circumstances, investment in classroom assistants or support mechanisms for those children is a more useful tactic than immediately excluding them from school and further disrupting their education before they are allocated to another school.

Mr. Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend. She is absolutely right. The investment in classroom assistants and other adults working in schools—I shall refer later to the role of learning mentors—plays a vital part in enabling schools to promote the very best behaviour.

We must, however, accept that there is a disruptive minority, as the motion correctly states. A central plank of our policy is to tackle disruption and to promote
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good behaviour. Contrary to what the motion says, there are some signs that behaviour overall is improving: the 25 per cent. reduction in exclusions since 1997 is something to be proud of. If we examine the evidence from Ofsted, we see that behaviour is regarded as satisfactory or better in well over 90 per cent. of schools inspected. Of course, we all know that good attendance reflects an improving climate of good discipline in schools.

Truancy is a big challenge. We were disappointed by a small increase in unauthorised absence in the past year, but that was combined with a larger decrease in authorised absence. As a result, school attendance is at its highest since records began. When we came to power in 1997, school attendance stood at 92.77 per cent. The latest figures, published provisionally in September, showed an increase to 93.43 per cent.—

Mr. Bercow: Revolutionary.

Mr. Twigg: Expressed in percentage terms, it does not sound dramatic, but when expressed in terms of the number of pupils, I am sure that even the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) would accept that an additional 17,000 pupils in school each day this year, compared with the previous year, is to be celebrated. The fact that there are over 40,000 more pupils each day in school, compared with 1996–97, is real evidence of improvement, which I would hope that all parts of the House would celebrate.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Is the Minister using the aggregate figures for authorised and unauthorised absence, or merely those for unauthorised absence?

Mr. Twigg: I am using the aggregate figure for authorised and/or unauthorised absence. At the beginning, I acknowledged the weakness in my case by saying that, in the past year, unauthorised absence had marginally increased, although authorised absence had fallen much more dramatically than the overall figure showed. That resulted, as I said, in school attendance being the highest on record. Part of the reason for that shift is the fact that schools are increasingly reluctant to authorise certain forms of absence that they authorised in the past—for example, term-time holidays. We still have a long way to go on truancy, and I do not underestimate the challenge, but I think we can be positive about a 25 per cent. fall in exclusions, behaviour said to be satisfactory or better in well over 95 per cent. of schools inspected by Ofsted, and school attendance at its highest-ever level.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The Minister obviously visits a number of schools. Indeed, we all do so, in our role as constituency Members. I have never yet met a head teacher who made the decision to exclude a pupil lightly, but I am sure the Minister would agree that a disruptive pupil takes up a disproportionate amount of the time of both classroom teacher and head. When will the Government start thinking about the 29 children in the class who suffer because of a disruptive pupil, instead of always seeking to defend the disruptive pupil to the disbenefit of all the well-behaved children?
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