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The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Figures are collected not for truancy but for unauthorised absence as a whole. In 200405, around 1.4 million pupils, out of a total maintained school population of more than 6.5 million pupils, were recorded as having at least one half-day session of unauthorised absence. Unauthorised absence includes pupils who arrive late, term-time holidays taken without the school's permission and absences for which the explanation is unsatisfactory, such as shopping.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that the figure is far too high. The Government have spent just under £1 billion on combating truancy, yet the rate of unauthorised absence is higher now than when Labour came to power. Does she think that the taxpayer is getting good value for money from the Government's anti-truancy schemes?
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Beverley Hughes: The amount of money that the hon. Gentleman quoted goes towards a wide range of measures, most of which, contrary to press reports, are focused on behaviour rather than truancy. However, Opposition Members need to understand the real story, which is that the 199596 absences total of more than 7.5 per cent. of half-day sessions missed was a record high since statistics were first collected. Since the Government took control and started bearing down on absences as a whole, the figure has fallen every year for the past four years and is now down to below 6.5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman must also understand that head teachers are trying to bear down on authorised as well as unauthorised absencesfor example, by refusing to give parents permission to take their children out of school for holidays in term time. That is bringing down the overall level, but it has resulted in a very small increase on last year in authorised absences. He has to take the picture as a whole
Mrs. Villiers: Does the Minister agree that the Government's manifest failure to tackle truancy has been a significant contributory factor to the epidemic of antisocial behaviour under Labour? That has caused much misery to many thousands of people across the countrysadly, including in my constituency of Chipping Barnet.
Beverley Hughes: Unfortunately, the hon. Lady is very ill informed. As I have just explained, unauthorised absences cover circumstances that go well beyond persistent truancy. We reckon that about 2 per cent. of pupils are persistent truants, and Government action has caused schools to bear down on that in a very deliberate way. Hot spots have been identified, and there is a fast-track system of individual case management for the young people involved. Various measures for parents, including penalty notices and prosecution, are helping to tackle the problem in a meaningful way. It is also important to give support to young people, some of whom truant because of self-esteem problems or family difficulties. For the first time, those problems are being dealt with in a real way.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): May I urge my right hon. Friend not to lose sight of the fact that truancy is often linked to poor behaviour in schools, and in particular to bullying? That is what causes pupils to absent themselves. As well as bearing down on parents who wilfully refuse to send their children to school, will she ensure that the causes of some children being absent are tackled properly?
My hon. Friend is right. Persistent truancy will not be tolerated: that is the bottom line, and the approach that we are encouraging schools to take. However, pupils truant for a variety of reasons. Poor self-esteem is the reason for some, while others feel that they are not doing well in school or experience serious problems at home, with parents who cannot help them to go to school regularly. It is very important that those
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problems are also dealt with, and schools work with local authorities and social services to ensure that that happens.
Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): My right hon. Friend should take no notice of the Conservative party, because when it was in power it could not care less about truancy. I praise the Government for giving our council tremendous support in tackling truancy. [Interruption.] If you wait a minute, I will tell you. Middlesbrough council
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that one way to minimise the incidence of truancy is to maximise the number of interesting and productive lessons, will the Minister confirm that in future there will be no place whatever in our schools for the advice of Kimberley, Meek and Miller on the teaching of reading, for those three academics are on the record as saying:
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I share my right hon. Friend's concern that we should worry about persistent truants rather than those who have one absence in a period. What action is being taken to make parents take their responsibility seriously and to give them support in preventing children from becoming and remaining persistent truants?
Beverley Hughes: Schools are operating a fast-track case management system that requires them to identify persistent truants and develop an individual action plan that involves their parents. It enables schools to use penalty notices and the threat of prosecution if parents cannot within 12 weeks show an improvement in their child's attendance. It is an individualised, focused approach that enables schools to address some of the needs of young people and parents. It is showing good results. There has been an overall 11 per cent. improvement where the fast-track management system is being used.
The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith):
Since 1997, when the Government's first White Paper on schools made clear the presumption that setting should be the norm in secondary schools, we have used our national strategies, the gifted and talented programme, case studies and research evidence to help schools to consider a range of ways to group by ability. That is why there is more setting by ability in secondary schools now than there was in 1997.
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Mr. Evennett : I note the Minister's reply, but for the past eight years the Government have allowed political dogma to dominate their education policies, not the best interests of children. We welcome some aspects of the recent White Paper and hope to see the return of setting and streaming across the majority of schools. What assurances can the Minister give that setting and streaming will become the norm in all schools to allow children to develop their full potential and achieve excellence at their own pace and according to their own aptitude?
Jacqui Smith: I think that the hon. Gentleman has let political dogma get in the way of, first, listening to my answer and, secondly, understanding what the Government have put in place. In 1997 we made it clear in the first schools White Paper that, unless a school can demonstrate that it is getting better than expected results through a different approach, we would presume that setting should be the norm in secondary schools. We backed that up with support for our national strategies through guidance to teachersthe sort of guidance and support that, in the 11 years I spent as a teacher, I never received from the previous Government.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): After more than 20 years as a parent and governor in secondary schools, I strongly support setting and welcome what the Government have done since 1997, but will the Minister decouple streaming and setting? Streaming can have negative effects. It can reinforce social class divisions, it can lead to bias and inconsistency in the allocation of pupils to sets and it can reduce the teaching expectations of the less able. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he speaks from knowledge. The advantage of setting is that it enables a sophisticated targeted approach for different subjects, where it would be appropriate in some cases and less so in others. That is why, for example, there is variance across subjects, with more than 80 per cent. of maths lessons being set, but probably less than 10 per cent. in classes such as physical education. It is for head teachers, with the support and guidance of Government, to make the decisions that, in their professional judgment, are right for their schools. That is the approach that the Government takenot trying to run schools from Whitehall, as I suspect the Opposition propose.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)
(Con): As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) said, one of the elements of the White Paper that we support is the encouragement for schools to adopt setting, as we also did when that policy was first announced in the Government's White Paper in 1997. So why today are 60 per cent. of academic lessons in secondary schools still being taught in mixed-ability classes? Why, if the Government are serious about encouraging setting in secondary schools, did they remove from Ofsted inspection criteria the requirement to monitor and record whether lessons are setted?
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Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman knows from the various parliamentary answers I have given him recently, Ofsted changed the way in which it measures grouping by ability[Hon. Members: "When?"] In 200304, precisely so that there could be a more sophisticated and clearer understanding of grouping by ability, rather than conflating, banding and setting. The key point, as I emphasised earlier, is that we have made clear our support for setting. We have put more guidance and practical support into schools to deliver setting. There is more setting in our secondary schools than there was when we came into government. The hon. Gentleman appears to be arguing for the running of schools, the setting of timetables and the division of pupils from Whitehall rather than from the head teacher's office. That is the approach that he is proposing, but he is wrong. The approach that we are taking is much more likely to ensure that pupils can progress and that schools can make the decisions that are right for them.
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