House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
Sir Alan Steer, Independent Adviser to the Department for Children, Schools and Families
Clare Tickell, Chief Executive, Action for Children
Anne Longfield, Chief Executive, 4Children
Clem Henricson, Director of Research and Policy and Deputy Chief Executive of the Family and Parenting Institute
Christina McAnea, Head of Education, Unison
Brian Strutton, National Secretary for Public Services, GMB
Peter Allenson, National Organiser for Public Services, Unite
David Algie, Principal Negotiating Officer, Local Government Employers
Mrs. Joan Binder, Chair of Governor Group, Foundation and Aided Schools National Association
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 5 March 2009
[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]Written evidence to be reported to the House
AS 12 Local Government Employers and Foundation & Aided Schools National Association
The Chairman: May I extend a warm welcome to Sir Alan Steer? Please introduce yourself for the record.
Sir Alan Steer: I am Sir Alan Steer. I was a head teacher until I retired last July and I am currently adviser at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Q250 1Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): Thank you for coming today. We all share your ambition to raise standards of behaviour in our schools. We believe, as you do, that that is paramount if we are to raise standards of education.
This morning, some of the teaching unions came along and said that they wanted a more general search power than the one in the Bill, which specifically extends the power of teachers to search for certain illegal items, drugs and so on. They wanted a more general power to enable them to search for any item that might cause harm, either to pupils or to staff in the school. Do you agree with that view?
Sir Alan Steer: Yes. The search power came about when I chaired the practitioners group in 2005. One of our concerns was that the legal position of teachers was not as clear as everybody thought it was. It was based on case law going back to the 19th century. One of our recommendations was that the right of teachers to discipline pupils should be put into statute. You need to see things in that context. Under what became the 2006 right to discipline is the right to require children to empty their pockets and produce goods. What was rather more specific was the powernot a dutyto search against consent for items of a really serious nature. Weapons were the most obvious items and so went in first. In conducting this review, I came to the view that weapons are rarely found in schools. It is far more common to find stolen property or alcohol. If teachers did search for those items without consent, they had to be protected the following morning from a subsequent litigious parent or awkward family saying that they had exceeded their powers.
I would have been happy with a more general power, and I included that in my report, although I did highlight alcohol, drugs and stolen property. However, I was advisedand accepted that advice because it was not my decisionthat there would be legal issues with a totally open right of search. I cannot comment on that. That was the advice which was, in a sense, subsequent to my report, which said that there ought to be search powers focused on those three items. I understand there would legal concerns and possible difficulties with totally open search powers.
Q 2Mr. Gibb: That is a helpful response which I will raise with Ministers when we interview them next week. The examples cited this morning were things like cigarettes or violent pornography, neither of which are in the list in clause 229, but they could be as harmful as alcohol or knives.
Sir Alan Steer: Personally, I would not see it like that. The things that I would be most concerned about are those that are now covered in the power to search without consent. I would assume that under nearly all circumstances one could cover things like cigarettes in the power of discipline in the Education and Inspections Act 2006. I do not want to repeat my earlier comment. I am advised that it would be unwise to have too broad a definition of what to search, because there would be difficulties.
Q 3Mr. Gibb: Can I ask you about reporting? Again, concerns were expressed this morning that the provision in the Bill is very prescriptive: they have to report to parents. An example was cited of a child who might have done something wrong at school: force is used and the school is required to tell the parent. The head or the teacher may be aware that that child comes from a violent home. The report could trigger another violent episode. The unions felt that there should be some discretion for head teachers not to report an incident of force against a child in those circumstances. Would you agree with that? Should we amend the Bill to take that into account?
Sir Alan Steer: I would not agree with that. It is worth reminding everyone that the report to a parent need not come directly from the school. In the case you outlined, perhaps it could come through social services. You could bring in other agencies if you were really concerned about a child protection issue. In fact it would be your duty to take certain steps to activate the child protection procedures. I was a head teacher for 23 years, so I see things very much with a head teachers eyes. I was also a parent. If there has been an incident involving my child which has required restraint to be used, I would be fairly militant about the fact that I, as a parent, needed to know that. I accept that the example you gave could occur on rare occasions, but there are ways around that. The need for parents to be engaged in their childrens education, discipline and upbringing overrides that.
Q 4Mr. Gibb: In your fourth interim report, you say that you are concerned about the lack of focus in a number of behaviour partnerships on the level of fixed-term exclusions. You go on to say that some schools have high numbers of repetitive fixed-term exclusions. I have noticed in recent years that the number of fixed-term
Sir Alan Steer: That is a difficult one to speculate on. The thrust of the work in which I have been engaged since 2005I came to it as an experienced head teacher rather than someone with huge expertise, although possibly one has acquired a bit subsequentlyis to try to move the handling of behaviour in schools into a more intelligent way to produce a good result. In other words, you change that childs behaviour and help that child to overcome their problems and become a good citizen. What concerns me is using strategies that clearly do not work. If a child is repeatedly given fixed-term exclusions, a reasonable assumption would be that what you are doing is not working. You might need to look at other strategies. A permanent exclusion might be appropriate. It is hard to speculate. Perhaps the schools should be permanently excluding the child, but they are not doing so. It may be that the child has other issues that are not being addressed such as special needs issues or social issues relating to home circumstances. It could, perish the thought, be that the school needs to look at its practices, which are not working with that child. We need to be just as concerned about fixed-term exclusions as we quite rightly are about permanent exclusions. They are both of equal significance.
Q 5Mr. Gibb: Where a permanent exclusion is resorted to, do you have a view about the type of education that those children should have to help them tackle their behavioural problems?
Sir Alan Steer: I addressed this back in May in my second report when we looked at alternative provision. I think that this is a major area for development. I was very pleased when the Back on Track paper was produced. One could say that children who fall through the net often really do fall through the net. The case of a child in Sussex hit the headlines this week. Such children lack champions. They are difficult children to deal with and there are no easy solutions. I would hate to sit before the Committee as the man who has easy solutions. There are no easy solutions in such circumstances, but there are pointers that can improve the situation.
We need a range of provisions. One of the problems is that we sometimes have a one-size-fits-all provision when a range is needed. We might be talking about children with mental health problems. The quality of support services for children and adolescents with mental health problems is of serious concern to me and to head teachers nationally. There is a range of things with which we have to deal: it might be pregnant schoolgirls, or it might be scar-faced Harry. We must broaden what we do. Pilots were launched in the autumn that will be very interesting. It pleased me that a range of provisions were included in those pilots. I hope that we will look at them and learn from them.
One concern over pupil referral units is that they can get blocked. If the basis is that it is possible for some children to turn their behaviour around and reintegrate, there is obviously an appropriate time for such children to receive in-depth intervention before going back into the mainstream. Other children may have such severe behavioural problems that they will never go back into
Q 6Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is very nice to meet you, Sir Alan. May I backtrack to the powers to search? I believe that there was going to be a full evaluation of the powers to search for weapons. Has that taken place? I read your letter to the Secretary of State, but it was not clear whether there had been a full evaluation.
Sir Alan Steer: I think that I will have to pass on that. An evaluation has taken place, and I understand that to date no child has been searched for a weapon against consent. I am afraid I cannot say how far beyond that the evaluation has gone.
Q 7Annette Brooke: I will move on to a more detailed question. This morning, one of the unions felt that the requirement in the Bill on the number of staff who must be present could be rather onerous. Two members of the same sex might be needed on a school trip, but before the trip, you would not know which sex was needed. There would not necessarily be four members of staff on a trip. Will that requirement work in practice?
Sir Alan Steer: I understand the point, and it needs to be thought about. A lot of what is recommended is a form of protection for teachers. I will not avoid the question, but on the reporting issue, I see reporting to parents as a huge protection for teachers. As a teacher, I would not have wanted to restrain a child without making a proper record of the occasion. If an accusation was made against me two or three weeks or two or three months later, I would not have had anything to put forward.
The same is true of the point you raised. When searching a child, which might require some form of bodily contact, you would be unwise not to have another person present because of the danger of a subsequent complaint. I take your point and recognise the difficulty. The only answer I can give is that there are so many things in school life that require you to adjust according to the circumstances. Some things may not be possible that would be possible under other circumstances. That is a slightly woolly answer, but I think that it is close to the truth.
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