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Mr. Willis: Labour reappointed him.

John Cryer: I gathered that. Such is life.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's thesis. As he has named someone, perhaps he will explain how that person's agenda was right wing?

John Cryer: From what I remember, that person expressed views that were consistent with the editorial policy of the Daily Mail and the policy of the Conservative party. He was appointed by the Conservative party. His attacks on teachers, which were almost always without foundation, were generally perceived as coming from a right-wing perspective. I think that that is generally accepted across the Chamber, the press and most of those involved in education, but it could be that we are all wrong and the hon. Gentleman is right. I have no idea.

Mr. Turner: The hon. Gentleman has indulged in guilt by association. Now will he explain why the policies that he has described are right wing?

John Cryer: Let me try to explain this as clearly as I can, so that the hon. Gentleman can understand. Chris Woodhead attacked the teaching profession, the teaching trade unions and what he saw as a lefty, liberal elite controlling teaching. That was generally seen and accepted as coming from a right-wing perspective. That is how most of us saw and analysed it. The idea that there is a liberal, vaguely lefty, wild-eyed revolutionary elite controlling teaching and education is absolute fantasy. It goes back to the days of the William Tyndale school in the 1960s, but things have changed a bit. As a matter of fact, I do not think that the teaching profession has ever been particularly dominated by people who are ideologically driven left wingers, but there we are.

Anonymity for teachers under threat of prosecution is a fair point that was raised by several speakers, including my hon. Friend the Minister, and it is worth looking at. I understand the objections that my hon. Friend made in respect of reviewing the legislation, but teachers are probably more in the firing line than people in any other profession, even carers. When such accusations are made, teachers get it in the neck more than anyone else—it is easier to accuse them than members of any other profession—and it is easy for pupils to make false accusations and make up false evidence against teachers, for whatever reason. It would be a good idea to at least consider the proposal to see whether there is any way in which we can change legislation to give teachers anonymity or at least slightly more protection.

On a general point, which was mentioned from the Liberal Benches by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), we are, to a large extent, dealing with cultural changes that go back many, many years. We can all see that there has been a rise in individualism. That has been responsible for the behaviour of a certain group of pupils and parents in schools, but only a minority.
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Baroness Thatcher said to people:

She was actually saying, "Nobody else matters; just you matter. You only have to care about yourself. You don't have to care about anybody else." In part, the process of growing up and of maturation is the realisation that one person is not the centre of the universe and that other people depend on us and we depend on them. If we say to people that that process does not matter and that they are the centre of the universe, we are giving them a licence to behave as they like.

Since then, and all three parties bear some responsibility for this, the issue of choice—choice itself—has been deified to an extent where consumerism is almost the new religion. When consumerism, individualism, choice and individual gratification are elevated to such a level, we can hardly be surprised that a minority of pupils are encouraged by their parents to think only of themselves and not ever of anybody else. Over the past few years, not enough of us have challenged that and attempted to assert the importance of collective duties and responsibilities—the duties towards the community.

To some extent, what we have been talking about this afternoon is a product of tabloid stories that we all read about how terrible schools are and how pupils cannot communicate, are thick and unable to talk to one another. That is not a picture that I recognise from my visits to schools. Last week, I visited two primary schools in my constituency, St. Alban's and St. Mary's, and I received a visit from Dunningford primary school in Parliament. When I talk to pupils, whether from primary or secondary schools, and when they ask me questions, I see children who are, not entirely but largely, motivated, eager and knowledgeable, and able to articulate ideas to a much greater extent than my generation at school.

The picture that I recognise is that a lot of schools—obviously, I am just talking about my constituency experience—are succeeding, moving ahead and producing children who are bright, able, gifted and articulate. We should not therefore get carried away with the idea that all schools are in a war zone. They are not. A minority of pupils are providing problems, and every teacher and head teacher can recount stories about that, but the vast majority of pupils are just the opposite.

5.26 pm

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): It is a great pleasure, as ever, to follow the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer). In response to his jibe about attendance in the House, I would point out only that the number of Opposition Members who have attended this debate has been approximately the same as the number of Government Members, if not greater. Of course, in relation to our representation in Parliament, in percentage terms, more Opposition Members have attended than Government Members.

I cannot promise to entertain the hon. Member for Hornchurch as he requested, but I want to make a number of points, the first of which is about discipline in our schools.

It is generally accepted on both sides of the House that poor discipline is a serious problem and must be addressed. We know that there is a strong correlation
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between poor discipline in schools and low educational attainment or performance of that school, and between poor discipline and truancy. I think that the Minister suggested that the increase in unauthorised absence was attributable to the way in which it is recorded. I do not know whether that is true, but it is clear that over the past seven years and longer few inroads have been made into the problem of truancy, which we all recognise is a very serious issue.

Equally, the level of exclusions remains stubbornly high, and I share with the Liberal Democrat spokesman the view that any exclusion represents a failure, at many levels, in the community and in that school. There is a strong correlation, of course, between truancy and exclusion, and criminality and subsequent economic failure of the individual. The cost to society of failure of discipline, which in turn leads to exclusion or unauthorised absence, is therefore very high later in the child's life.

As many hon. Members said, poor discipline is not prevalent or chronic across all schools. Most schools have good standards of discipline and highly motivated pupils, and in general there has been some improvement in performance over the past decade or so. Indeed, the Minister mentioned the Ofsted figures, which suggest that standards of behaviour, as recorded by Ofsted, have improved in most schools. That may well be so, although we must cast some doubt over the way in which Ofsted measures behaviour. Clearly, however, failing schools are still failing, and the problem is not with the generality of the school system but with those few schools—perhaps one in 10 or fewer—that have serious discipline problems. Typically, those schools are in areas of social deprivation in our inner cities. Indeed, a recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Government's favourite think-thank, demonstrates the strong relationship between exclusions, school discipline problems and failure, and inner cities and failing LEAs.

We must therefore recognise the nature of the problem, which is not a general problem but one of selected schools in selected areas—typically, areas of high social deprivation. That is why this is an issue not just of school discipline and leadership but of communities and how we tackle communities that are failing to produce good schools and good education for their children.

I think it is agreed on all sides that the problem starts very early, and that intervention must therefore also start very early. Studies show that it is possible to forecast a high level of exclusion or truancy among children between the ages of three and six. That strongly suggests that if we intervene at that stage, especially in areas where parenting and the general community context are poor, we will achieve value for money. To that extent, the Government's investment in Sure Start and other measures to increase pre-school education are worthwhile and can be supported by us all.

My comparatively well-off constituency contains pockets of social deprivation, some featuring large numbers of single parents who are out of work and whose own educational attainment is poor. I recently visited the Panda pre-school nursery in Sherwood, run by volunteers who concentrate on giving children aged
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two or three basic social skills such as the ability to sit down and eat a meal with other children. Members may say that that is a substitute for parenting, and perhaps to an extent it is, but it is what is required nevertheless. I am convinced that early investment in such programmes will pay greater dividends than almost any other measure.

Sure Start and other pre-school programmes must emphasise the importance of discipline. Even today, far too many children attend primary school without the basic social skills that should have resulted from investment in pre-school education and nurseries. As I have said, the lack of discipline is partly a problem of social deprivation. All too often we see heroic head teachers doing a magnificent job in very difficult circumstances in relatively deprived areas, but complaining—as nearly all of them do—about a shortage of resources and the sheer intensity of the effort required to lift a school out of its problems.

Schools in deprived areas, with high levels of special educational need and other community problems, need extra resources if they are to impose discipline. Partly because of the high level of selection in Kent, almost all children with special needs or behavioural problems end up at Tunbridge Wells high school in my constituency. As a result, it is a very challenged school. Graham Smith, the headmaster, has made an heroic effort to raise its educational attainment over the last seven years, almost single-handed. He emphasised discipline heavily from the start of the turnaround phase, which led to a large number of exclusions, which created resentment and difficulty in the local school population and were not always greeted enthusiastically by the LEA; but those exclusions were a necessary step towards improving the quality of the school during the turnaround.

Mr. Smith says that because his is a difficult school with a large percentage of challenged or problem pupils, he finds it difficult to attract teachers and has a high turnover rate. Investing in teacher accommodation, and being able to pay more to attract teachers, are important first steps towards the establishment of a disciplined school that performs well. Mr. Smith also says that because of the high proportion of violent kids in his school—whose play and behaviour tend to be more robust than those of others—the physical wear and tear on the school, and the budget that he must allocate to basic maintenance, are possibly greater than in schools not faced with such problems.

The one thing that I think is clear to all of us in the House is that it is critical that we support head teachers who undertake the often thankless task of ensuring that failing schools recover and that discipline is restored. All too often, it is those head teachers who feel relatively under-resourced and under-supported.

The central role of the head teacher as leader of the school and, in a sense, leader of the community brings us on to the difficult question of exclusions. Exclusions have become a curiously totemic issue in the debate. I suspect that there is more consensus on the underlying issues surrounding exclusions than may appear on the surface. One thing is clear: when they happen, exclusions are extremely damaging not just to the children but to the community in which they operate.
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The IPPR study to which I referred earlier demonstrates that exclusions are not a major problem across the entire school system—they are a problem in a minority of schools and in a minority of areas that are challenged. Unsurprisingly, those tend to be inner-city areas, which often face other difficulties, perhaps associated with the ethnic mix and failing local education authorities. Often, there are a number of failing schools in those areas, not just one, so pupils get moved from one struggling school to another.

It is clear that turnaround of a failing school is unlikely to be achieved without tough action on discipline. Therefore, our approach to exclusions must be related to the nature of that school and to the challenge that the head teacher and staff face. It is simply not possible to produce blanket conclusions. One area in which the Government have been culpable is in setting targets for exclusions and applying pressure across the board. The problem is not susceptible to across-the-board targeting and pressure; it is situational.

It is important to recognise that any exclusion is likely to be a life-defining experience for the child involved. We should not treat it lightly; nor should we regard an exclusion as something that can be readily accepted or encouraged. All too often, when a child is excluded from school, there is a conspicuous gap before he is found another place in another school. In west Kent, I have met parents of children who have been excluded from school for four or five months before finding an alternative. That gap is extraordinarily damaging not just to their education but to their self-esteem. All too often, during that period, they are on the streets or at home getting up to no good.

As we know, there is a high correlation between the level of exclusions and criminality. According to the Youth Justice Board, 32 per cent. of children caught up in the youth justice system have been excluded. A high proportion of the children excluded from schools end up in criminal difficulty of one sort or another. It is also true that children who have been excluded are more likely to be guilty of serious criminal offences than those who have not. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), said, exclusion should be the last resort and, by that stage, it is a failure.

We need to bear it in mind that, if a child is excluded from school, the replacement school can be miles away. In a high proportion of cases, these are children with a single parent or with no access to transport. Therefore, either it is going to cost the LEA a lot of money to transport that child, or the likelihood is that he will not get to the other school and we end up with a recurring truancy problem.

The number of excluded children who get back into mainstream education successfully and enjoy any sort of educational attainment is woefully low. Again, we need to recognise that, once excluded, we are close to the end of the road and the incidence of successful recovery of excluded kids is pretty low.

For all those reasons, I am cautious about giving head teachers an unfettered right to exclude. I agree that there is a problem with the appeals panel, but that is often as much symbolic as actual, because the head teachers feel that they do not have the authority. In the rare instances
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in which their decision is overturned, there can be a serious problem with morale for both staff and the other kids, and their authority can be undermined. The practices of head teachers in relation to exclusion vary extremely widely, and given the traumatic effect on the pupils concerned, it is essential to have some due process and an opportunity for the child and the parents to represent their case, perhaps to school governors or others.

I share the view that a great investment in turnaround schools or referral places—whichever term we prefer—is merited. We have to accept that some kids have failed in or been failed by the school system and cannot readily be accommodated in normal schools. I accept it unwillingly, and I do not believe that it has to be the case in the long term, but I am afraid that in today's schools and communities there are such instances, and that is exactly why there has been investment in referral units. We need to take that investment further.

We must recognise, too, however, that that is only a small part of the solution and that we must intervene early. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, arranging transfers and so on is a much better route than exclusion or a move to a turnaround school. Such schools are likely to be remote from where many of the children referred to them live, so there are practical problems. Transport is not the only problem, because part of turning around or bringing back a child is to do with the parents and the local community.

We must also recognise that there is a risk—I am not saying that it cannot be managed—that turnaround schools will become places where young offenders or children who have fallen into criminal habits will get together, so that we create concentrated pools of criminality instead of effective turnarounds. The schools or units need an intensive, and I must say expensive, strategy of working with the individual child to find a route back to normal education. I say to Front Benchers on either side that it is critical that we do not underestimate the cost and the investment required to bring a child who has been excluded back into normal education.

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