|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman is making a most thoughtful and considered speech. Does he share the concern that I have about the solution proposed by his party's Front Benchers? They seem to be looking for an institutional, one-size-fits-all solution to what is an incredibly complex problem. He will know from a former life that one of the things that turn around some of our most disillusioned young people is engaging with the world of work: employers can be part of the solution. Turnaround schools, or borstals, or whatever we want to call them, cannot be the only solution. We need to seek a plethora of solutions, including one on one, distance learning, perhaps home tuition, workplace placements and pupil referral units, as well as other schools and institutions.
I agree, and I do so without in any sense demurring from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale in his opening speech. Turnaround units can of course play an important part, and as I have said, we have to accept that in today's world there are kids for whom such units
13 Dec 2004 : Column 1431
are probably the only solution. But it is important to recognise that that solution is very intensive and individual and is likely to require a great deal of investment. However, we should not shirk from such investment, because in the long run it will be worth while. That said, I share entirely the view that that solution has to be but one of a variety. We also need to recognise that by the time that we reach that stage, the education system will probably have been failing the child in question for many years.
Of course, we can all get excited about discipline, but we should recognise that it is not an issue in all schools. We have many good schools with good standards of discipline and highly motivated teachers and pupils, and we need to support them. We should also recognise that in general there has been some improvement. I am not so sure that we should entirely believe Ofsted's judgment in this respect, but there has probably been some improvement in many average and better schools in the past few years. Unfortunately, such improvement has not occurred in the failing schools as well; they are still failing, and therein lies the problem.
It is clear that if we can deal with failing schools, which tend to be clustered with other failing schools in failing LEAs in socially deprived areas, the subsequent dividend to society will be great; that is to say nothing, of course, of the value to the pupils in question. That is why this is a very important issue. It requires early investment, increased resources for schools that are trying to achieve some form of turnaround, backing for head teachers and measures to ensure that they feel in a position of complete authority.
The Minister will perhaps agree that we simply have not seen enough improvement in the past seven years in the worst schoolsthose that are failing their pupilswhich tend to be located in the most difficult areas. Members from all parts of the House must accept that this is a very important challenge, and one that the Government have yet to meet. Schools with poor discipline that fail their own children tend to be concentrated in those areas where children do not have the opportunities enjoyed by those living in more affluent areas, such as the benefit of a better start in life or good early years parenting. The priority for all Members must be to bring freedom and opportunity to children who have the poorest start in life. They usually attend the schools with the worst disciplinary records, which is why we need to make this investment.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I begin by echoing what the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said about the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). It was indeed thoughtful and constructive, and I hope that I can add further to that tendency in this debate.
I support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that teachers should be entitled to anonymity when allegations are made against them, and certainly up to the point at which they are formally charged. I should make it clear that Alastair Wilbeethe former head
13 Dec 2004 : Column 1432
teacher of Summerfields school, who killed himself following the allegations made against himwas not named in the Isle of Wight County Press until after he had been charged. I have had long discussions about the rights and wrongs of my hon. Friend's proposal with the editor of that publication, and I have also discussed them with Alastair's widow. I also met representatives of other teachers and head teachers in my constituency and I believe that there is a considerable measure of support for the proposal. Other measures could be taken as well to make the trauma of such an allegation less damaging. One such measure that I would like the House to consider is whether it is right for suspension always, or almost always, to take place when such allegations are made.
I recognise that the allegation of abuse covers a wide range of activities, some of which we would all agree should lead to immediate suspension and some of which might be accommodated by a lesser step. I accept, of course, that it is difficult to contemplate a lesser step when a head teacher is concerned. Nevertheless, I would not suggest that a representative of the local education authority should go to the chairman of governors to say that a head teacher should be suspended or that the chairman should feel under pressure to suspend and should decide to do so with the LEA representative present. Simply giving someone 10 minutes to clear his desk and leave is an overreaction to some kinds of allegation. It might be more appropriate for the LEA representative to remain in the school for a while and perhaps for the heador any teacher, for that matternot to be allowed to be with a child unaccompanied, particularly not with the child who has made the allegation. Those matters need to be considered carefully and unemotionally.
It is my belief that Mr. Wilbee's trauma arose from the fact that he was unable to speak to any of his staff, to any of the parents or to his professional colleagues to any great extent, with the LEA simply casting him adrift and leaving him for months with the allegations hanging over him before there was any decision to prosecute him. There was a long period between his suspension and the decision to prosecute. I believe that that could happen to other head teachers. I support the proposal advanced by Conservative Front Benchers because I find it extraordinary that, as a society, we are prepared to accept the anonymity of convicted paedophiles, but not to protect that of unconvicted teachers and head teachers.
Other aspects of the motion have been debated at some length, but I should like to add a little to each. On exclusions, it is extraordinary to listen to Government Front Benchers who give the impression not that the history of education began in 1997, but almost that it began in 2001. Perhaps the Home Secretary was right when he said that the Secretary of State for Education and Skills had gone a bit soft. Certainly the Secretary of State and his team appear a great deal more reasonable, at least most of the time, than their predecessors between 1997 and 2001. It was those predecessors who said that too many pupils were being excluded, who demanded reductions in their number and who suggested that schools should be fined for excluding pupils. Those same predecessors also made the rules much more difficult for head teachers confronted by appeal panels. I see the Under-Secretary
13 Dec 2004 : Column 1433
of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis) nodding. He obviously recognises the failure of his predecessors in this matter.
Mr. Turner: Now he is shaking his head, but he was nodding when I suggested the failure earlier. His predecessors made it more difficult for a head teacher to secure the exclusion of a child who should be excluded. In doing so, they were sending out the wrong signals to parents and pupilsthat the decisions of teachers and head teachers in disciplinary matters could not be trusted, could routinely be appealed against and, in many cases, overturned. Children, who are not as sophisticated as their parents and teachers, were given the signal that they could get away with bad behaviour. The behaviour of those predecessors when in opposition suggested that schools should not have the power to exclude, that voluntary and grant-maintained schools should not have that power and should be subject to decisions by the local education authority. I am sorry to say that that message in opposition was reinforced by the message they conveyed between 1997 and 2001.
Well, the sinner repenteth, at least slightly, for which I congratulate the Secretary of State. Occasionally, however, he still feels the need to play to the gallery, which he did when he talked about sharing out bad pupils. The gloss that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), provided in response to my earlier intervention was welcome, but it was not a gloss that was widely reported when the Secretary of State's remarksthat all schools should be forced to take their share of badly behaved pupilsfirst appeared on the BBC website. Of course, the Secretary of State is not responsible for the content of the BBC website, any more than he is responsible for headlines in the Daily Mail, but I am sure that the authors of those articles take a little backstairs briefing from Ministers and their advisers from time to time. They print the headlines that they believe will secure the readers' interest and Ministers frequently create the headlines that will secure their interest by a little careful backstairs briefing.
As I said, the Under-Secretary provided a gloss today. First, the gloss is that the policy works elsewherein Surrey and a number of other areas. I accept that. The process of moving one child from a school in which he is failing to one in which he might get a second chance works elsewhere, but that is not what Ministers are proposing. They are proposing to force pupils on to schools even though they may not have the space and the head teacher may be opposed to the admissions.
The second part of the Under-Secretary's gloss was that pupils would be returned only when they were reformed, but if they are reformed, they can be returned to any school, not just those without available places, so how will he secure the return of reformed pupils to schools that are already full?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|