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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): Whatever differences the debate has highlighted, there is clearly a consensus in the House that school discipline is important in defining the kind of society that we want to help shape. Pupil behaviour is central to every school's mission to raise standards. Schools, along with parents, have a duty to teach young people about the responsibilities as well as the rights that go with citizenship in a civilised society and our approach to discipline can have a powerful effect on inter-generational opportunities and aspirations. The pupils of today will be the parents of tomorrow. These issues affect us all. High standards of behaviour matter to the vast majority of young people who go to school every day determined to make the most of their education. Behaviour affects teachers and support staff, who can have their lives made difficult by a small disruptive element in any class or school community.
Phil Sawford (Kettering) (Lab): I have listened carefully to the debate. Head teachers have been described as heroic, and as my brother is a head teacher, I do not want dispute that but I honestly believe that the adjective "heroic" is best applied to classroom teachers, who day in and day out in many difficult schools find their personalities under assault in a way that unless one has experienced itI speak as an ex-teacherone cannot empathise with. I am interested in practical measures and a key one is to ensure that parents are involved in everything that a child gets up to. Can we look to a strengthening of the home-school contracts, which are a vital way forward?
Mr. Lewis: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the relationship between home and school is essential. We can have the best teachers, curriculum and heads, but the support, involvement and engagement of parents is vital.
It is also true to say that behaviour can shape the destiny of disruptive children whose negative behaviour leads to poor grades and, all too frequently, entry into the criminal justice system. We all know that poor behaviour can eat away at the heart of communities, spilling out of the classroom into the neighbourhood with a small minority engaging in corrosive antisocial behaviour. We all accept the importance of these issues and we have had a range of sensible, mature contributions to today's debate. What has been lacking in quantity has been made up for in quality.
The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) cited recent opinion polls in defence of his view that standards of behaviour are in decline. If we use opinion polls as a measure, I am not sure whether Labour is heading for a majority of 120 or 150 at the next general election. He talked about the number of Members who contributed to the debate, but a ratio of 3:1 Opposition and Labour Back Benchers is hardly a ringing endorsement of an Opposition day. My hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), for Rhondda (Chris
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Bryant) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) made important interventions, although they did not have the opportunity to make full speeches.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the question of behaviour and discipline is not exclusively concerned with areas of social deprivation. I also accept that we need to do better in terms of the delays in placing children appropriately when things go wrong at schools. But it is a little rich when he speaks for a party that in government did not insist on any requirement to offer excluded children any quality or quantity of education. Indeed, those were the very children who were roaming the streets, causing havoc, with no sensible Government response.
The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) raised the important issue of the need to consider the consequences of dysfunctional families and young people's home lives. He also talked about the exciting flexibilities that are beginning to open up now in terms of the 14 to 16 curriculum. Partnerships between schools and colleges, and between schools, colleges and employers, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned, are trying to motivate young people and turn them on to education, rather than to turn them off. The White Paper, which we will introduce in January in response to the Tomlinson proposals, will directly address the issue of a flexible, responsive and personalised curriculum.
The hon. Member for Southport and other hon. Members raised the anonymity of teachers, which is clearly an important, delicate and sensitive issue. We have expressed our concern about further legislation, although we are concerned about undue delays. We must not send out the message today that, when children make allegations, the assumption must be that they are not telling the truth. The calibration of the message from this debate is important, because there are many examples of children who have disclosed abuses that turned out to be true. We also know that, throughout history, many children in our society have suffered in silence as a consequence of adult abuse. That does not mean that we should not do everything that we can to be sensitive to those teachers who are subject to allegations that prove to be entirely untrue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) made a powerful contribution, the central element of which was that Conservative policies do not stack up. How can a party say that it will slash taxes and raise public expenditure on education at the same time? Those two policies do not square with each other. If we add to that the Conservative party's record in government and its disinvestment in public serviceswe are now paying the price in terms of the social problems that the Government are having to deal withthe British people will simply not buy their policies or find them credible.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) made a powerful, well-informed and authoritative speech, which perhaps explains why he is having to leave the House at the next election. He acknowledged the recent improvements, which are largely the result of not only this Government, but head teachers and teachers up and down the country, and did not perpetuate the myth that the situation is getting worse and that behaviour is deteriorating. He rightly raised the questions of low aspirations, poor parenting and community influence
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over the behaviour of children and young people. We must address those issues through not only the education system, but joined-up policies.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to heroic school leaders. We should pay tribute to the many dynamic heads who deal with children of all abilities, potential and behavioural standards on a day-to-day basis and who make their schools work impressively.
The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the impact of exclusion. The correlation between exclusion and entry into the criminal justice system is indisputable. We should therefore do everything that we can to minimise the number of children and young people who are excluded from our education system in the first place, while recognising that some will always need to be excluded because their behaviour is unacceptable. The link between young people in the criminal justice system and those who are excluded from school is frightening and should concern us all.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) spoke sensitively about the effect on his constituent of allegations that perhaps turned out not to be truethe consequences were certainly tragic. He also referred to suspension. The difficultly is that suspension, which occurs in all sorts of walks of life and workplaces, is often described as a neutral measure. Its victims do not always feel that the measure is neutral, but people in management and leadership positions must have a way in which to make these difficult choices. I will pass on to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills his powerful defence of his record on behaviour and discipline.
On the fair distribution of challenging pupils, many pupils do not go from school to a pupil referral unit or out of the school system. Sometimes schools feel that they have no option but to place a child elsewhere when things do not work out. In those circumstances, is it not right that every school in an area should take some responsibility for those challenging children who are not placed in a pupil referral unit but placed in a school setting? Some schools are doing their best to come out of special measures and difficult circumstances, and they are doing incredibly well. Is it right to expect them to deal with all the challenging young people and children in any one community? That cannot be fair or equitable.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to this Government's chequered history, which is cheeky coming from a party that had 18 years of unbroken rule in which to transform and challenge some of those difficulties.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) made a thoughtful and informed contribution. She discussed college-school partnerships and made the point that they should be rooted in clear responsibility and accountability. I was worried when she said that whenever she sits on an appeals panel, she always supports the head teacher because if one were on a jury and admitted that approach, one would be in some difficultly. She described how she weakened on one occasion, and I wish that I had been there to see it.
The hon. Lady rightly pointed to the important contribution that school councils can make. School councils can get young people to discuss behaviour and
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see the importance of parameters and boundaries. They make a direct difference to standards of behaviour in schools, which is why the Government have said that pupil councils and student councils should be good practice in all our schools. She was also right to emphasise the importance of parental involvement.
We accept that this issue is important, but the differences between us are simple. We differ on the solutions and on the attempt by the Tories to misrepresent the state of the system. This Government were the first to put attendance and discipline at the heart of school standards. Through our early years education and child care revolution, we are offering interventions that can make a long-term difference. We are focusing on school leadership as the key to creating the right ethos and an effective approach to discipline in every school.
This Government are ensuring that every classroom teacher has access to training and support on how to manage discipline. We have introduced a focus on the early years of secondary school, where pupil behaviour frequently deteriorates. We are freeing up the curriculum and rebuilding vocational educationand not only for difficult and challenging young people. We also seek a personalised learning offer to motivate young people, not turn them off, and to engage with voluntary organisations and colleges.
This Government have caused schools to place a much greater priority on school attendance. We have introduced learning support units, learning mentors and police in schools to help manage discipline. We have doubled the number of places in pupil referral units and insisted that permanently excluded pupils should have access to full-time education for the first time. As the hon. Member for Fareham acknowledged, we have reformed exclusion appeal panels to include more people with classroom experience and required those panels to balance the interests of the overall school community with individual pupil's rights. We have introduced a focus on parental responsibility to support schools through parenting contracts and orders and are taking tackling bullying seriously.
Despite the encouraging signs, we are not complacent and will continue to put behaviour at the heart of our school standards agenda. By contrast, the Tories would introduce a network of sink specialist schools that would produce yet another generation of sink children. They would abolish appeals panels, leading to cases ending in the courts mired in a swamp of litigation and legal bills, which is a charter for lawyers, not for improved discipline.
The Tories' cuts to early-years provision would ensure that more children and young people behave badly and are excluded. Their refusal to support fair admission means that some schools would face an unfair share of the responsibility to offer high quality education for all. Their introduction of five-plus and reintroduction of the 11-plus would mean young children labelled as "difficult" spending their entire education outside mainstream education.
A decline in the standards of behaviour, civility and respect should be a source of concern to all those who care about the future of our country. However, politicians who are fit to govern have a duty to present honest solutions that seek to tackle complex, long-term
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problems in a serious waysolutions that recognise the need for long-term strategies, not short-term headlines. The Conservatives had 18 years of unbroken rule in which they had a unique opportunity to build a different kind of society. Instead, the consequences of their values and policies can be seen all around us. Ill discipline in our schools, antisocial behaviour in our streets and poor parenting are not the sole responsibility of the Conservatives, but the tragedy is that when faced with choices in Government, they turned their back on the big issues that determined the long-term nature and character of this country.
This Government will not shirk from the big issues. We will continue to put the rights and responsibilities of citizens at the heart of our determination to raise standards and rebuild the fabric of entire communities.
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