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7.11 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) on securing this debate. Adjournment debates are traditionally occasions when hon. Members bring concerns of individual constituents to the attention of Ministers and the House--and long may that continue--but I am not sure that I have ever answered an Adjournment debate in which an hon. Member has talked about the case of an individual constituent that has had such wide-ranging implications for my Department's work. I thank my hon. Friend both for letting us know what has happened to Mrs. Evans and for focusing us on some difficult issues.

I do not think that there are easy answers to any of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. People have deliberated about and discussed them for many a year. They are now perhaps further up the nation's agenda than they were previously. I suspect that that is in no small part due to the incidents that have surrounded the suspension and reinstatement of Mrs. Evans.

Having acknowledged my hon. Friend's contribution, I know that he will appreciate that I want most of all to acknowledge Marjorie Evans, her contribution to education and what has happened to her in the past 22 months. She is a teacher of long standing, high reputation and high esteem. She has been teaching for more than 30 years. If we added together the number of children whom she must have taught and the number of communities that she must have served, the total would be higher than any of us could imagine. As many good teachers who have been in the profession for as long as Marjorie Evans know, they change people's lives. I think that, when Marjorie Evans started her career, she never for a minute dreamed that she would make headline news because of these incidents.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Mrs. Evans on the steadfast way in which she has behaved throughout, and on her successful return to school. She has shown tremendous courage, energy and continuing commitment to her community and to the children. There will have been many who would not have withstood what she went through and still have wanted to return to school. As I said when I had the chance to spend a few minutes with her before the debate, I wish her well for her return and for September--the start of the first academic year in which she will have resumed her duties in full.

I put on the record my appreciation of the work and representation of the National Union of Teachers, the professional body of which Mrs. Evans is a member. Such bodies have many roles in our national life, but any individual teacher who is a member of a teachers' union hopes most of all that, when they need help individually in their professional life, the union will answer the call. The NUT has done that exceptionally well. I know that Mrs. Evans pays tribute to the work of the officers of the NUT in Wales. I join in recognising their steadfastness and enthusiasm in representing her.

My hon. Friend was right to say that Mrs. Evans is a teacher in a school in Wales and that this Parliament has no responsibility for what goes on in Welsh schools,

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which is properly the responsibility of the Assembly. I do not want to tread on any toes in that respect. Instead, in the time I have available, I should like to do two things. First, as I have had the opportunity to speak to my colleague Jane Davidson, the Assembly's Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning, I should like to confirm the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth. Secondly, I should like to reflect on some matters outside the Evans case from which we may be able to learn some lessons that we can apply in England, in Wales and in Scotland.

My hon. Friend was right that Jane Davidson has confirmed to me that she has written to the local authority and the governing body seeking information on the procedures that they followed in the Evans case. The Assembly will want to exercise its power to examine those procedures, but not the specific allegations against Mrs. Evans. As one of the features of the case has been a re-examination of allegations, it is important to make it clear that the Assembly and the Minister will want to examine only procedures and not the substance of the allegations. The examination will be conducted under section 496 of the Education Act 1996 which allows examination and consideration of the reasonableness of procedures used.

The governing body and the local authority were asked to respond to the Assembly by 12 April on the procedures, particularly on the time scale allowed for decision making. I am pleased that my colleague Jane Davidson has also invited the NUT to comment on the case and its involvement in it. I understand that the school's governing body has asked for a one-week extension, to 19 April, which has been granted.

I know that, on receiving the representations, my colleague Jane Davidson will decide on possible action as quickly as possible. She will want first to decide on copying the information in the responses to each of the parties, which will be a matter for her, and then to advise the Assembly on the information. Only after completing her investigations will she want to say whether the local education authority or the governing body acted unreasonably and whether, on behalf of the Welsh Assembly, she wants to direct them to change their procedures. As a Minister in the United Kingdom Parliament I will have no involvement in those matters.

Additionally, while she is investigating those matters, Jane Davidson will quite properly neither meet Mrs. Evans nor speak on the record about them. That is how the process should properly be conducted, and I think that it is in everyone's interests that we keep that process separate from my comments on possible lessons to be learned.

As I said, the specific case is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. However, I know from my duties in the House and in relation to teachers in England that such a case could have occurred in an English school. I think that we will all want to examine the case to determine whether we can improve how such matters are dealt with.

It is hugely difficult to strike the right balance in dealing with such cases. I am not being complacent, but I suspect that whatever rules, lessons or guidance we decide we want to follow, some of the most difficult decisions that Ministers, local authorities and governing bodies ever

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have to make will be on such cases. However, we have to become better at making such decisions by establishing clear guidelines and ensuring that everyone understands his or her responsibilities. As I shall explain later, we particularly have to ensure that action is taken in a timely fashion.

I think that there is great agreement on the challenge facing us and that it is more a matter of striking the right balance. Regardless of what people think about Mrs. Evans's case or other cases that have come to public attention, no one--not Mrs. Evans, the school, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth, the Welsh Assembly, and certainly not the United Kingdom Government--wants allegations of abuse or inappropriate behaviour against children not to be investigated.

There have been too many debates in the House on cases--not least in Wales--in which allegations have not been properly investigated for us not to have learned some lessons. Some children's lives have been blighted because there have not been timely investigations. However, although the facts sometimes show that allegations are true and that there was a need for an investigation and action, sometimes the facts show that allegations are not true. When they are not true, a different set of people--teachers, teachers' families, the wider school community and the wider general community--become the victims.

That is the difficulty involved in examination of cases such as this. Once the allegations have been made, whether they are true or not, a life may be ruined unless they are dealt with in a timely and correct fashion. We must work harder to get the balance right.

Let me acknowledge something, without giving any figures. I do not think that anyone, certainly in Government, has ever said that some teachers' careers have not been blighted. As one who taught in a school for 18 years, I know what it must be like to have taught children, to have trusted them and gone to work every day to further their chances in life--to have put heart, soul and professional energy into that--then to find that false allegations have been made about one's professional conduct. I well understand what it must be like to find that one's standing in the community that is the most important to one has been put at risk. But we need to get the balance right, and there are no easy solutions in that regard.

I am especially struck by the inordinate length of time that it seemed to take to process the case that we are assessing. We need to examine the way in which such cases are dealt with and to find out why progress is so slow--why there are gaps of weeks or months while nothing is resolved. During the last 12 months, the Government have been working with a teacher and child protection group consisting of a joint forum, containing representatives of teachers' unions--including all six teacher representatives of the NUT--and representatives of local authorities. We have looked at ways of speeding up the process to ensure that any allegations of abuse are dealt with as quickly and fairly as possible.

That, I think, is how we should act. While not cutting out investigations, proper consideration, discussion with governing bodies, letting local authorities have their say and following the proper course of law, we should ensure that all those elements of justice--which we want to retain--do not move as slowly as they seemed to in the

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case of Mrs. Evans. My hon. Friend is right: in due course the Secretary of State will want to report to the nation on what we have learned from our working party, and how we want to proceed on the basis of that.

Of all the lessons that have been learned, I think that the one relating to speed needs most to be considered. We should think about guidance and guidelines that suggest how governing bodies should carry out their responsibilities. Considering those who go on to governing bodies, and choose to give their time--voluntarily--to a community and a school, I suspect that not many governors imagine that they could eventually be put in this position. At times like this, when difficult decisions must be made, governing bodies--not just the governing body at St. Mary's, but governing bodies of schools throughout our countries--need support.

We should also consider whether the guidelines that we give governing bodies help them to do their jobs as effectively as they might, and whether, during that difficult procedure, they need support to carry out their functions. I do not want anyone to interpret that as a suggestion that their rights or obligations should be removed; we should ensure that they are supported as much as possible.

The process that we have been discussing has been unusually lengthy. What I have been most conscious of throughout is this: we may reflect nationally on what it means for the 450,000 teachers in our two countries, and for the 24,000 schools and 24,000 governing bodies, but at the centre of the debate is one school, St. Mary's junior school--not in my hon. Friend's constituency, but in the neighbouring constituency of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts--one governing body, and one community that wants to get on with learning, teaching and furthering life chances. Over the past two years--nearly--those people have been propelled, not through their wishes or for reasons of their making, into national headlines that they did not invite.

Every teacher at St. Mary's, every parent who sent a child there and every governor who gave generously of his or her time did so not to have a debate about this issue, but to get on with the process of teaching and learning. That is the agenda on the basis of which that school can move forward. We should not forget that.


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