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House of Commons

Thursday 20 January 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Truancy (East Anglia)

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans she has to reduce the levels of truancy in schools in East Anglia. [209673]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): This is the first Government to put school attendance at the heart of policies for improving standards and pupil achievement. Our measures provide both support for pupils and their parents, and sanctions to reinforce parental responsibility. In 2003–04 school attendance increased for the third consecutive year to a record high of 93 per cent. On average 40,000 more pupils are attending school every day than in 1996–97.

Mr. Bellingham: I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her well deserved promotion and wish her well in her task ahead. Will she join me in thanking and paying tribute to all the head teachers in my constituency who have been working tirelessly to reduce truancy levels? They are doing their level best and working with Mrs. Val Creasy, the new education officer dealing with attendance. What progress are the Government making in reaching their targets? Does the right hon. Lady agree that today's school drop-out is all too often tomorrow's criminal?

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and pay tribute to him for the seriousness with which he approaches the subject. He is right to say that we must tackle absence. If we are to have an effect on the next generation, we must make sure that children get to school. We are the first Government to have invested directly in anti-truancy measures. The hon. Gentleman is also right to draw attention to the fact that there is a stubborn, persistent number of children who are serial truants. We have to tackle that. The proportion has remained about 0.7 per cent. since records began. It is clear that schools are cracking down, and the number of authorised absences has fallen dramatically. Again, I congratulate the teachers and the local authority in the
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hon. Gentleman's area, who are doing everything they can to make sure that children attend school and are ready to learn.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I, too, congratulate the Secretary of State on her promotion. As she and I have something in common, in that we both have young children, I am sure that our commitment to raising educational standards for everybody is shared, and is total. On the subject of truancy in East Anglia and elsewhere, does she agree that one of the measures necessary to reduce truancy is to give children a disciplined environment where they feel safe? I am sure that parents in East Anglia and elsewhere will agree with what she said, as reported in one of this morning's newspapers:

Why, then, earlier this week, did the Minister in her Department block an amendment in the other place that would have given head teachers the final say on exclusions?

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman, too, for his kind words. As a parent, I share his objectives of good discipline in the classroom and good teaching, and children learning in a good learning environment. Over the next few weeks and months I intend to draw attention to Conservative policies, which would wreak havoc on our plans for school discipline, on our measures to tackle truancy and open up university access for all children, and on our support for working parents in East Anglia and elsewhere. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) is drawing attention to them, too.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) is right to say that children are entitled to a good disciplined learning environment. I am surprised that he criticises Labour's measures to ensure that there are fair admissions procedures, which are supported by Kent and Surrey county councils, among others, and head teachers in those Conservative councils are saying the Government are doing exactly the right thing. Yes, we must back head teachers in making disciplinary decisions, and in the decisions that they take on exclusions. We must also ensure that parents take their responsibilities seriously and get their children into school, with respect for learning and ready to learn.

Mr. Collins: One gathers that the Secretary of State wants to back head teachers on expulsions, but does not want to give them the power to take the final decision. That is very disappointing, but exactly in line with her predecessors. With reference to truancy in East Anglia and elsewhere, does she agree that head teachers wanting to raise standards will give a wide welcome to her statement, again reported in one of this morning's papers:

Why, then, under her Government, have only four schools in eight years been funded to expand?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have tried to give a little leeway, but that goes far beyond the question before us.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I, too, begin by welcoming the new Secretary of
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State and wishing her every success. It is no advantage to any hon. Member if a Secretary of State fails in such a key policy area. Now that she has launched the general election campaign on East Anglia schools, does she agree—judging by her comments at the North of England education conference, I hope she will—that one of the key groups for increasing student attendance and dealing with truancy is parents? Parents in East Anglia and elsewhere must be able to be involved in what happens in schools. Can the Secretary of State therefore explain why the number of parent governors in the new foundation-status schools will be reduced from one third of the governing body to one, and why academies will have no parent governors—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Andrew Mackay.

Ruth Kelly: Thank you, Mr. Speaker—I am enjoying these questions already.


2. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What measures the Government are taking to tackle bullying in schools. [209674]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): We take all types of bullying seriously, and attach unprecedented importance to tackling it. In November 2004, the first ever national anti-bullying week was launched, featuring a variety of events including a Radio 1 campaign and a new public information film. From November this year, anti-bullying week will become an annual event. We have also launched the anti-bullying charter and a programme of regional conferences for head teachers and local education authority representatives.

Mr. Mackay: As there is nothing more unacceptable in our schools than bullying and there should be zero tolerance of it, does the Secretary of State really think that having an anti-bullying week or an anti-bullying charter is sufficient? Do we not need to do much more? Does she agree that a high level of bullying is a clear sign of a poor and failing school?

Ruth Kelly: Hon. Members may be surprised to hear that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to a large extent. We must tackle bullying and create a culture in which every child is valued; indeed, we must have zero tolerance of bullying. There is a clear link between schools with a good record on bullying and attainment in those schools, as well as between LEAs with a good record on tackling bullying in schools and attainment in those LEAs. We have to create a new culture. I pay tribute to the work led by the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who has personally taken charge of this programme. Pioneering work is taking place. Head teachers, and indeed pupils themselves, are telling the Department that they now realise that bullying must be tackled, and that they will stand up and fight it wherever it occurs.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her richly deserved new
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position, and I am pleased to see her in her place. My right hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the welfare of children during the school day. Is she concerned, as I am, that some schools' approach to bullying is inconsistent with that of others that are more successful? The kind of school day that children have affects their home life, and can lead to truancy if they are too miserable to continue to go to school. Is it not important that we take a consistent and sustained approach to ensure that all schools engage with the problem, particularly through peer mentoring and other approaches that gather all pupils into the fold?

Ruth Kelly: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Children tell us all the time that this matters to them. Not only do they not want to be bullied themselves, they want to learn in an environment where there is no bullying, and no toleration of bullying. That is why we are trying to change the culture, and learning mentors and support in the classroom have an important role to play. As a Government, we have secured a broad consensus across groups, working with teachers organisations as well as the voluntary sector and the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Many schools are signing up to the anti-bullying charter, and I should like that to be widespread across the country.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): But should not head teachers have the right to expel children who are bullying, without being second-guessed by another body?

Ruth Kelly: Head teachers do that. If the hon. Gentleman is referring to Conservative proposals to get rid of independent appeal panels, may I remind him that only 149 out of 9,290 permanently excluded pupils were reinstated by that process? Everyone can see that the facts speak for themselves.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend on her promotion. Is she aware that there have been problems with bullying, and wider disciplinary problems, in some Northampton schools, partly as a result of reorganisation? I agree that heads should be able to exclude pupils, but should there not be facilities outside schools so that children who are excluded can be picked up, receive a good education and return to mainstream schooling as quickly as possible, which is in their long-term interests?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words, and I entirely agree with her question. We are making real efforts to tackle bullying and I think that that is having an impact on schools, but of course there is much more to be done. For instance, teenagers should be able to engage in activities not just at school but outside. I shall return to that subject in due course. I recently looked at evidence from surveys in which parents were asked what they wanted, and top of the list were things for their teenage children to do. This Government are prepared to do something about that, whereas the Conservatives refuse to take it seriously. They would slash local education authority budgets, and they say that they would not protect any of the money that goes into such programmes.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new post. Most
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schools take bullying very seriously, and their policies enable victims to report incidents on a confidential basis. They also provide staff and pupil mentors to counsel both victims and bullies, which is important. The most insidious form of bullying, however, is unseen and sometimes occurs outside school. Does the Secretary of State acknowledge the important role of parents in tackling this problem? Without that role, policies implemented in schools would be hampered. In the interests of ensuring that parents accept responsibility for their children's unacceptable behaviour and for trying to modify it, will the Secretary of State give teachers the freedom and flexibility to draw up enforceable home-school contracts and to have the final say on exclusions, by scrapping independent appeal panels?

Ruth Kelly: We have come to the independent appeal panels at long last! I have quoted authoritative figures showing that head teachers have the power to exclude pupils. The hon. Lady is right, however: we must take every child seriously. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families has been promoting that agenda, and we have published proposals entitled "Every Child Matters". In future, the role of local authorities will be to ensure that the needs of every child are met, both academically and in terms of their overall welfare. I should like the hon. Lady to confirm, now or later, that the Conservative party would keep education welfare officers at local authority level—or would it scrap them?

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