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9 Feb 2005 : Column 471WH—continued

Classroom Discipline

3.30 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am grateful for having secured this important and timely debate on classroom discipline, and in advance I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), for taking the time to respond. He will know that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills made a speech at the Secondary Heads Association conference in Blackpool on 1 February, in which she set out proposals to improve classroom behaviour. In her closing statement, she said:

So as we build on the emergent tradition in this excellent facility of Westminster Hall, I offer the Minister some thoughts, which I am sure he will take away and build on.

I have already been asked why a Welsh Member of Parliament should sally forth on an issue that has been devolved to Wales. There are two reasons. First, to define me or any of my Welsh colleagues as purely Welsh MPs is to miss the fact that we are also Members of the British Parliament. Proud as I am of being Welsh and of representing the fine constituency of Ogmore in south Wales, I have a role to play in all legislation and policy that passes through this House, so I boldly set foot on such territory.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the issue of classroom discipline reads across geopolitical boundaries in the United Kingdom, as our educational systems in Wales and England have developed together over a long period and still have fundamentally similar approaches. So a discussion in Westminster Hall has reverberations in the debating Chamber at Cardiff bay. Every parent and teacher in London, Llanelli, Bridgend or Birmingham has concerns about classroom behaviour.

At the outset, it is important to note that although the tabloids will rage about this issue, our classrooms are not in anarchy. However, the Ofsted report shows that 10 per cent. of secondary schools have unsatisfactory levels of behaviour. We should deplore that, but we should strongly applaud the seven in 10 schools whose pupils' behaviour is deemed good or better, and we should encourage the two in 10 schools that are deemed satisfactory to build on their success and to improve.

Hon. Members must be concerned that one in 10 schools have unsatisfactory standards of pupil behaviour. We must ask where those schools are located. What are their catchments? I am willing to hazard a guess that a disproportionate number are in communities that face the greatest social, cultural and economic challenges. The Minister might want to correct my assumption, but it is a pretty wise guess. If I am correct, there is an added imperative to tackle disruptive behaviour, because the children, teachers, head teachers, governors and parents whom we are failing in the most challenging communities will be the ones whom we most want to help.

The Government have singly pioneered the cause of social inclusion. Year after year and in so many ways, we have proved that we are bold enough to offer radical
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solutions to creating people's life opportunities. We have acknowledged that the debate has changed. We have put that on record and changed the debate, so that everyone now acknowledges that a good education in early years through to secondary school is of paramount importance to improving life chances. However, that good education can be marred by classroom indiscipline, and the life chances of any child thus diminished.

Just as we have come to recognise the corrosive effect of low-level antisocial behaviour in our communities, there has been recognition, at least in the Labour party, of the destructive power of low-level indiscipline in our classrooms. What might have been termed "having an attitude" a few years ago can be seen in many ways, such as arriving late to class—I warn anyone who might wander in late to this debate that that will be an indication of their classroom tendencies. There is chatting while the teacher talks, of which Mr. Deputy Speaker might also take notice; leaving the school grounds without authority; answering back; abusive language; and annoying and distracting other pupils.

Those might seem minor and relatively unimportant issues on their own—some might say that they are hardly worth bothering about—but they are highly important, as they systematically undermine teachers and support staff; and they destroy the classroom experience for the majority of pupils, who want to learn, and for the majority of parents, who want to see their children benefit from the school experience. We do not want every pupil to be the teacher's pet presenting a shiny new apple every day. However, if some children are themselves the bad apples, the whole barrel can rot from within.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently argued for zero tolerance of classroom indiscipline. That caused some controversy: the phrase "zero tolerance" caused some to go into a spin. The zero tolerance approach to education in the United States was pioneered in response to acts of violence that often involved firearms and knives, but can we really apply zero tolerance to low-level misbehaviour of the sort that I have described?

Critics argue that the concept of zero tolerance in the classroom is singularly unhelpful. It suggests punishments for minor infringements of behaviour that are far too severe. It implies a draconian approach to classroom discipline. It smacks of a clampdown. It treats all offences equally severely, and it does not recognise different levels of indiscipline. Importantly, it does not recognise that solutions should be tailored to the individual needs of the child. Yet I strongly believe that the concept and language of zero tolerance have a significant role to play—and it does not have to be to the exclusion of other complementary approaches.

Saying that all types of classroom misbehaviour, no matter how severe or minor, are not to be tolerated and will be dealt with is not incompatible with saying that the response to different types of misbehaviour will differ in scale and complexity. Zero tolerance and a flexible, tailor-made response to each pupil's needs are not incompatible.

That approach could and should build on the good work already being done in the best local education authority areas and among the best schools, which share
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good practice. Solutions to misbehaviour should involve flexible discipline plans, formulated with the help of teachers, parents and pupils. They should involve excellent in-school, on-site support, to avoid the possibility of exclusion. We know too well the slippery slope that leads from school exclusion to a more fundamental social exclusion, and on to criminality. It is far too obvious to be ignored. Not taking steps to avoid exclusion also has costs. We should encourage schools to work together to develop active, engaged pupil referral units—units that work intensively with schools to re-engage the pupils with mainstream education.

All of those approaches are essential; and without them, talk of zero tolerance is meaningless. With them, however, zero tolerance takes on a new life. It sends out the clear message that we are on the side of teachers and of children. We should have zero tolerance not only of violence and abuse in the classroom but of low-level indiscipline by the few, which can disrupt the class and destroy the learning experience for others.

The message of zero tolerance signals that the Government believe that authority should be invested in the teachers, that classroom discipline is with the teachers, and that we trust the teachers to carry out that important role. The political signal is crucial but, as stated, it has to be backed by a parallel policy of co-ordinated, flexible support for the child and sometimes for the parents, to ensure that exclusion is avoided whenever possible.

Let us be clear, however, that exclusions have a role. We cannot do as Opposition spokesmen suggest and take away review panels and exclusions. Just as head teachers must have the backing of politicians to exclude pupils as a last resort to protect their staff, other children and the learning experience and ethos of the school, so should the child and the parents have the fundamental right to challenge the decision of a schoolteacher and a board of governors to exclude. In that way, on the rare occasions—and they are rare occasions—when the decision to exclude is questionable, it can be challenged and overturned if necessary.

Currently, the Opposition parties claim that the exclusions policy is in disarray owing to successful challenges. They would argue that every successful challenge diminishes the authority of the teacher, the head teacher and the governors, and also diminishes the culture of discipline in the school. If I were a teacher, and a pupil of mine were to argue that in an essay entitled, "The standards in our schools and the youth of today", my response would be to summon that individual to my office, order them to do extra homework and more research, and tell their parents those dreaded words, "Could do better."

In fact, as the Opposition know full well, only one in 50 appeals against exclusions is successful. Putting on my maths teacher hat, that means that 98 per cent. of exclusion decisions are deemed valid and appropriate. That is not an exclusions policy in chaos. Exclusions have a vital role to play. Would any MP seriously tell the parents in their constituency that, when their darling son or daughter is threatened with exclusion, there is no recourse to appeal, and that that is only natural justice? I hope not, but I suspect that over the next few months my hopes are likely to be dashed.
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Zero tolerance is a message not only for children and teachers but for parents. I know the implications of that all too well. I have three boys in primary school; they will grow up into teenagers and, if they are anything like me, heaven help us. I have triple the potential for disciplinary slip-ups as time goes on, especially when they get into comprehensive school and discover girls and parties. I therefore do not say what I am about to say lightly, but it needs to be said. Parents must take responsibility for the education of their own children as much as teachers do—in fact more so. By their own words and actions, parents can either reinforce or tear down the school's approach to discipline.

One day, in a school in my constituency—a school that has a very good track record on discipline and behaviour—I watched in amazement as a parent charged into the reception area while I was waiting for a meeting, towing behind him quite roughly a clearly distraught child who was in tears. The child was embarrassed and humiliated. He watched his father launching a tirade of abuse against the school secretary—abuse that would not have been out of place after the 9 o'clock watershed. He issued threats and accusations over a relatively minor issue that could easily have been sorted out. A teacher then came out to deal with him, and again I was amazed at the abuse and vitriol that he hurled at teaching staff in a public place.

I can understand a parent who comes to school with valid concerns and raises them—we try to encourage that—or someone who argues on behalf of their child with the teachers or the head teacher. However, what message would a child witnessing such an exchange take away about the authority of the school and the status of the teachers and school staff? What strategies did that child learn about how to tackle issues? He might himself want to challenge the teacher at some point, having learned that the appropriate way was to shout and harangue—not to listen, but to hurl abuse and invective, and not to show respect, but to denigrate those who should have some authority within the school. That is why I am adamant that, as well as the soft approaches of support for children and parents, and the harder measures to deal with children, such as exclusion, there must be similar packages to deal with parents.

We face a mixture of challenges. Some parents do not have the appropriate skills to parent effectively, and they do not know how to instil discipline in their own children or how to set boundaries for them. Such parents can and should be offered support and active intervention to help them to develop those skills. We should make much more use of parenting programmes. I know that the Government are committed to that. Parenting programmes are a classic example of something for which we are accused of being a nanny state and intervening, but they work very well, helping parents to turn around their approach to their children and to parenting.

Such softer support mechanisms have to be reinforced with firmer measures. They should include sanctions and penalties. It is no good pretending that support measures, coupled with the good will of the school and agencies, will be sufficient to convince every parent of the need for discipline and of the role that they have to play. I applaud the Government's commitment to further the use of stronger measures. Those have to
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include, as a last resort, parenting orders administered through the courts and penalty notices for truancy. There has to be more willingness to use those measures.

It is right that teachers demand of the Government and politicians at all levels that we put appropriate mechanisms in place to assist with classroom discipline, and that we put ourselves firmly on the side of teachers and children. We must support teachers and give them the message that we trust them to get on with using the measures, flexibly and with autonomy, to meet the needs in their schools. However, zero tolerance is an important message in setting that agenda and the benchmark of the type of discipline that we expect.

We have a right to expect that those approaches should be used. Schools and local education authorities should be allowed flexibility and autonomy but they should not be allowed to leave any appropriate tool unused in the toolbox. The adage that a bad workman blames his tools could be rephrased as a bad workman is bad because he does not use the proper tools at the appropriate time. We can innovate; we have seen it already in schools across England and Wales. There is the yellow card system, for example, and the idea that boundaries for behaviour are clearly set for children. It is not a simple knee-jerk reaction, with one penalty fitting all. There is a warning system that shows that children are stepping over the line.

Crucially, while we talk about zero tolerance, we must recognise that children face different challenges. Some have emotional needs; they need help and support. Some are not getting the parental support that they need. Some, quite frankly, do not know what the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are. All of those approaches have to be available in that toolbox and used.

How do we make progress? Further support for teachers in the classroom is undoubtedly necessary, as is support on school sites, so that children are not excluded too readily and we can try to turn the situation around and keep them within mainstream education. Learning support units, which the Government are pushing strongly, are to be welcomed. They need to be used more frequently in more local education authority areas. Schools should be encouraged to exclude where appropriate as a last resort, and backing should be given to head teachers and governors to do so. There is good practice in pupil referral units in England, as there is in Wales, but it is not consistent. We need to push much harder to ensure that, if local education authorities are not developing the resources and expertise, schools work together as consortiums to try to do so. Parental support and parental penalties are also important.

This approach needs some holistic thinking, using all the measures available. The Government and politicians should be unafraid to say not only that bringing weaponry into school and the physical abuse of teachers will not be tolerated, but that boundaries will be set for low-level misbehaviour in class. That will undoubtedly improve the life chances of the children concerned. Correspondingly, if we fail to do that and if schools fail to play their part, they will fail the children in their charge.

I look forward to the Minister's response. This issue is of fundamental importance, and should be considered as such by the Labour Government, who have been so
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good at tackling social inclusion issues. If we get things right, especially from a grass-roots level, with schools and LEAs consistently taking part, we will deliver a major service, particularly to our most disadvantaged communities, whose schools face the greatest challenges.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Derek Twigg) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on securing this important debate on what is a crucial area of education. He expressed well his concern, interest and knowledge of the subject.

We take behaviour in schools seriously, and we are the first Government to do so. We have invested a great deal of money in improving behaviour, because we believe that every child has the right to the best possible education, to enjoy learning in a positive environment, to achieve, and to make the best of their life. That applies to every child, not just a few.

Everyone thinks that they know what to do about behaviour, and a lot of ill-informed comments are made and simplistic solutions suggested. Many suggest that most children are disorderly, even out of control, and that behaviour is getting worse all the time. That simply is not true. Ofsted tells us that more than 90 per cent. of behaviour in secondary schools is just satisfactory or better. Schools are often the most secure and stable environment in the communities that they serve.

We know that there is a long way to go. So far, we have taken a two-pronged approach to the issue. First, we have addressed the most challenging areas through the behaviour improvement programme—involving about 1,500 schools that face serious behaviour challenges—through which we provide intensive support in the form of extra learning mentors, learning support units, behaviour and education support teams, and police in schools. The programme will be extended to a further 500 schools later this month.

As my hon. Friend said, there are issues of social disadvantage in relation to behaviour, but that should not be an excuse. Many schools are achieving against serious odds. Brinkburn school draws most of its 920 pupils—one third of whom are entitled to free school meals—from surrounding housing estates in an area of high unemployment and deprivation. It is part of the excellence in cities initiative and the behaviour improvement programme, and has suffered the usual range of behaviour-related problems, which led to a high rate of exclusion. However, the latest Ofsted inspection rated the behaviour of pupils at Brinkburn school as "very good". It stated:

It went on to say:

Improvements in behaviour are reflected in the reduced number of exclusions. In 1998–99, a total of 178 pupils had fixed-term exclusions and 11 were permanently excluded. Those figures have steadily fallen. In 2003–04, 108 pupils had fixed-term exclusions and three were permanently excluded. In the current year, so far only nine pupils have had fixed-term
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exclusions and only one has been permanently excluded. Those figures effectively represent half-yearly results and put the school on course to far exceed the BIP targets for the year, which are 70 fixed-term and three permanent exclusions.

The professionals, who are the real experts, tell us that their top priority is to continue the support to end low-level classroom disruption, to which my hon. Friend referred. Therefore, the second part of our strategy is to provide all secondary schools with training, materials and extra expert support to tackle the behaviour issues that schools identify as their top priorities. Schools can deal with the great majority of behaviour problems through good teaching, and good behaviour policies and procedures. We are giving them the tools to do so and to improve things.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said last week, there are things that we just cannot tolerate: we cannot let pupils arrive at classes with the wrong attitude; we do not want pupils whose thoughts are elsewhere when they should be on their lessons; and we cannot accept such pupils disrupting teaching by annoying their classmates. Every pupil and teacher has the right to expect a safe, secure and orderly classroom, so that teaching and learning can flourish.

My hon. Friend talked about zero tolerance. I am talking about a zero tolerance policy under which any incident and any level of bad behaviour is dealt with promptly and appropriately. Zero tolerance is about creating a climate in a school where everyone—pupils and staff—shows respect for each other and for each other's work. That does not mean excluding more pupils. Schools that involve parents and the whole school community in creating their behaviour policy are less likely to have to exclude pupils. Zero tolerance means zero tolerance of the behaviours that disrupt pupils' learning, not of pupils themselves. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the additional things that we will do.

The great majority of schools are effective in this respect; they have agreed a clear behaviour policy, which is respected and supported by the whole school community and developed with parental and pupil involvement. For secondary schools where Ofsted finds behaviour unsatisfactory, we are working with local authorities to ensure that schools develop plans to improve the situation as a matter of urgency, and to ensure that specialist help for improving behaviour is channelled to those schools straight away.

It is not a job just for schools; we must all offer our full support to head teachers, who are striving to promote good behaviour. It is imperative that parents support the school's behaviour policy and do not automatically assume that when their child is punished he or she must be in the right and the school in the wrong. Above all, it means parents taking responsibility for their children's behaviour.

It is not easy for some parents to manage their children's behaviour and there is help and support available to help parents to do that more effectively. Schools and local authorities are being encouraged to engage with parents and to guide them towards sources of help when their children persistently misbehave in
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school, using home-school agreements and, in cases of exclusion, the parenting contracts that we have introduced. When parents are unwilling to engage, it is right that we take action to ensure that they do so, through parenting orders administered by the courts.

We want every secondary school to have access to a wide range of high-quality support in and out of school. In the classroom, most teachers can manage most forms of poor behaviour and, as I said, we have done a great deal to help to develop those skills, through our key stage 3 behaviour and attendance materials, for example.

Huw Irranca-Davies : Will the Minister on behalf of the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that discussions take place with the Welsh Assembly, so that best practice can be disseminated on both sides of Offa's Dyke—not so that in Wales they follow what we are doing, but so that we can learn from each other's experience?

Derek Twigg : My hon. Friend knows that we are keen to promote best practice, and I shall come to why that is important.

Some children need more; for those at risk of exclusion, support needs to be available within the school but outside the classroom. Schools should have access to approaches such as learning support units, learning mentors and behaviour support teams, which have shown their value in helping young people with challenging behaviour and those at risk of exclusion. The support systems within schools have a vital role in helping head teachers to promote good behaviour, but sometimes they are not enough. We continue to support the right of head teachers to exclude children from school when they need to.

It has been suggested that the existence of appeals panels undermines the rights of heads to exclude; that is nonsense. Exclusion appeals panels provide a safety net for parents and, crucially, keep exclusion decisions out of court and avoid all the extra stress and bureaucracy that that would cause. Less than 2 per cent. of head teachers' decisions on exclusion are overturned by appeals panels ordering the reinstatement of the excluded pupil.

We want to provide quality education for every child, even those who have been excluded. We need a high quality of out-of-school provision that continues their education and deals with their behaviour issues. As part of the local authority-led reviews, local authorities and schools are looking at the adequacy of provision for excluded pupils provided in pupil referral units, for example, or by voluntary organisations. We expect groups of schools increasingly to act as the commissioner for such provisions, purchasing them from local authorities or from the voluntary sector. By exercising their collective buying power, groups of schools will be able to use customer pressure to drive up the quality of provision outside schools and for challenging pupils.

The aim for excluded pupils is that they can eventually return to the classroom when their behavioural problems have been addressed. We remain convinced that schools collectively taking responsibility for such pupils is the right thing to do. It is completely
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unfair when weaker schools, which are unpopular and have spare places, are required to take all the hard-to-place pupils in an area, which makes it even more difficult for them to bring about the improvements that they need to make. It is also unfair if vulnerable children, such as looked-after children, are denied access to better schools—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We come now to the final debate this afternoon.

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