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Mr. Twigg: With respect, this Government think about all 30 pupils, but it is vital that we address the needs of those 29. I shall say something shortly about measures that we have taken and are taking, some of which are criticised in the Opposition motion.
We are the first Government to operate national truancy sweeps. A record 146 local education authoritiesalmost all of themrecently participated in the latest round of sweeps, which ended on 3 December. Earlier sweeps have stopped more than 25,000 truants. In particular, truancy has been tackled successfully in schools supported by the behaviour improvement programme. The amount of time lost to truancy in those schools has fallen by an average of 63 days for each school. They are bucking the trend in that there has been both a fall in their authorised absence figures, matching what is happening in the country as a whole, and a fallincluding in the past yearin their unauthorised absence figures.
I believe that our drive to improve behaviour is earning respect. For example, we conduct regular stakeholder surveys. In the most recent, head teachers were asked to describe the pattern of behaviour: was it improving, worsening or staying about the same? The result showed a significant improvement in the optimism of head teachers, 41 per cent. of whom said that behaviour was improving. Three years ago the figure was 34 per cent. The number saying that behaviour was getting worse fell, albeit slightly, from 15 per cent. to 13 per cent. Although it is clearly not acceptable for 13 per cent. of heads to regard behaviour as worsening, I believe that, seen in the round, the figures show that the terms used in the motion cannot be justified.
Mr. Twigg: In my experience of working with head teachers, they are never reluctant to talk about the challenging as well as the positive aspectsand quite right too. That is reflected in the response from the 13 per cent., and borne out by other surveys of head teachers.
Many behaviour problems in schools have their origins in incidents of bullying. The Government have led an unprecedented drive against bullying. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who has taken personal charge of the programmeincluding the establishment of the anti-bullying alliance and the anti-bullying charter, which has been endorsed by all the professional associations and by key voluntary sector organisations and children's charities. We believe that the recent anti-bullying week and the wider work of the alliance are critical to providing a real, concerted drive to give support and confidence to those who face bullying in our schools.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD):
I apologise to the Minister and to the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), for not being here for the beginning of the debate.
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We support what the Minister is doing on bullying and we commend the Government for that, but Bullying Online, which for a decade has been at the vanguard of dealing with bullying in schools and is the most respected group in the country, is being denied access to the alliance because it will not sign a code of conduct that says that it must not criticise Government officials. Surely that is unacceptable. There should not be a gagging order on any organisation, certainly not a well respected organisation such as Bullying Online. That is bullying.
Mr. Twigg: I am happy to look into the hon. Gentleman's specific suggestion. I am acutely aware of Bullying Online's concern because I have received a considerable number of letters from colleagues on both sides of the House about it. We are putting substantial additional resources into supporting anti-bullying work, including that by a wide range of respected voluntary organisations. I am happy to look into his specific suggestion and to respond to him.
Mr. Bercow: It is always a pleasure to joust with the Minister. If he will escape just for a moment from his statistical snowstorm, will he tell the House what objection ethically or intellectually he has to the idea that the ultimate arbiter of whether a child stays in the school or not should be the head teacher of that school?
Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman anticipates the part of my speech that I will come to in a moment. I decided to structure my speech around the motion. The ultimate arbiter is the head teacher, but any system beyond that will have some right of appeal. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) emphasised the fact that, without an appeal panel system in place, there is the danger of an increase in litigation, with parents going to the courts. I will come to that when I address that part of the motion.
Dr. Starkey : Does the Minister accept that, although many of us, as constituency MPs, would wish for the most part to support the head teachers of our various schools, parents in my constituency have approached menot all of them had children in the state sector; one in particular complained about the private sectorbecause, apparently, head teachers have acted arbitrarily and the rights of pupils and their parents have been compromised. It is essential that we strike a balance. Although head teachers for the most part make the correct judgment, they are not infallible. They are not God.
Mr. Twigg: My hon. Friend makes her point powerfully. She is right. I will not enter into a debate about the God-like qualities of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I shall move instead to the second part of the motion, which
Clearly, any assault on a teacher is unacceptable and everything must be done to prevent that from happening and to ensure appropriate punishment if it does happen.
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The allegation is based on a 2002 survey by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. Of the 287 members who took part, 212 reported verbal abuse. Of course, no member of staff should be expected to suffer verbal abuse, but all of us in the House would accept that verbal abuse is not the same as physical assault. Indeed, Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said in response to the tragic death of David Sandham:
"It must be remembered that schools place a high priority on maintaining high standards of pupil behaviour and that compared with the growing incidence of violence on the streets, they remain relatively safe havens of peace and security."
Mr. Collins: The Minister is right to say that it is important to give an accurate and balanced sense of what is going on, but he said that the NASUWT figures related to only 60 or 70 assaults on teachersI think that that is what he impliedso would he not also put that in the context of the more recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics showing that in a single term in 2003 more than 4,000 pupils were excluded either temporarily or permanently for violent assaults on adults, almost all of them teachers? It is important to stress that side of it, too.
Mr. Twigg: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is a serious challenge that we must face together. I referred to the survey for the sole reason that it is the one that he has chosen to refer to in the motion. In no sense was I seeking to suggest that there is not a big challenge here. We must work both to ensure that schools and their head teachers are in a position to deal with these incidents when they happen and, more optimistically, to bring about a position in which they do not happen in the first place.
That is one of the reasons why we have established the behaviour improvement programme, focusing on some of the schools that face the severest challenges, schools that are now often achieving against serious odds. I will not go into detail about some of the programme's provisionsextra learning mentors, learning support units, behaviour and education support teams, and police in schoolsbenefiting about 1,500 schools that face especially serious behaviour challenges and being extended to a further 500 next year.
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