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2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the debate. I agree that it is essential that we enable teachers to teach and children to learn in our classrooms without being disrupted by other children.

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I am afraid that I come to the Dispatch Box without any hints for bringing up children, so I will disappoint the hon. Gentleman on that score, but I hope that I can reassure him about the Government's action on exclusion.

When we came to office, permanent exclusions were at a peak of 12,700. There had been a threefold increase between the early and mid-1990s. Most young people excluded from school were offered little teaching--as little as two or three hours a week. The unacceptably high rate had to come down, because exclusion affects not only those children involved but the wider community. It may be an acceptable solution to a problem in an individual school, but often moves the problem to the streets, other schools or the local community, because excluded young people are more likely to get involved in crime. Nearly two thirds of young offenders of school age who are sentenced in court have been excluded from school or truant significantly. We should not forget that young people out of school wandering the streets are easy prey for those who would do them harm.

That is the context in which we set national targets to reduce exclusions by a third by 2002. We have also set a target that all excluded pupils should have a full-time education from 2002. Targets are important in focusing attention on the issue, but on their own are insufficient. That is why the Government have made available significant funding to support action on exclusion. Permanent exclusions have fallen by 18 per cent. from their peak in 1996-97, and we expect further reductions. There is no evidence that that has been at the expense of other children's learning. The local education authorities with the biggest drops in avoidable exclusions are showing the largest gains in pupil attainment.

We are investing record sums. In 2001-02, we are making available £174 million, 10 times the amount available in 1996-97, to help schools and LEAs to tackle poor behaviour and provide education outside school for excluded pupils. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the efforts of his local education authority to educate excluded pupils. I am sure that he is pleased that the authority received a 28 per cent. increase on last year's funding.

The funding is backed up by detailed guidance and advice, such as circular 10/99, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The guidance covers pupil behaviour, attendance, the use of exclusion and reintegration. It emphasises, as the hon. Gentleman did, the importance of early intervention and prevention, and offers examples of best practice, setting out preventive strategies that work.

One of those is learning support units, which are on-site units that enable heads and teachers to remove pupils quickly when they are disrupting classrooms. The hon. Gentleman referred to a constituent who suggested that a series of exclusions is not the best way to deal with children who have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Learning support units enable children with difficulties to be taken out of the classroom without being excluded, so that their particular needs can be met but they do not disrupt other children's learning.

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Learning support units are proving very popular with schools, which is why we already have 1,000 serving about 10,000 pupils at any one time. That network has been delivered a year ahead of the original target date of 2002. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that we will be making available funding for at least another 190 units.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the type of education that excluded pupils receive. The Government are transforming the quality and quantity of that education. By contrast with the position that I outlined at the beginning of my speech, in which many excluded pupils received very little education, by September two thirds of authorities will be offering over 20 hours' education for excluded secondary pupils.

By 2002, all excluded children must receive a full-time education. That is being delivered; there are now over 1,000 additional places and nearly 600 more teachers and support staff in pupil referral units than in 1997. Ofsted has shown that the quality of those units has improved significantly. I certainly commend the hon. Gentleman's own local education authority on working to develop that sort of provision for excluded children in his area. I was interested in what he said about the use of information technology links for educating excluded pupils, and I look forward to more details about the project that he outlined. He may be interested to know that the Department is already sponsoring a project that uses IT to help children who are out of school for a range of reasons to engage in education.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the key role of teachers who, with head teachers, are to be commended for the reduction in exclusion figures. We recognise that classroom disruptions make huge demands on teachers, who need skills to be able to handle challenging behaviour. We have therefore asked the Teacher Training Agency to strengthen the initial training of new teachers in behaviour management.

We also want to generalise the experience of the best learning support unit managers to teachers who want help in handling disruptive behaviour. We have therefore introduced a pilot programme of training to offer senior managers and teachers in the most difficult schools access to the expertise of those managers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced £500,000 of funding for that initiative on 23 March. Learning mentors, who play an increasing role in the excellence in cities initiative, and higher numbers of support staff in schools are important in helping to give teachers the classroom support that they need to be able to teach.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the importance of parents, and I agree that they play a key role. We should not forget that parents should take responsibility for the behaviour of their children. We want to look at how we can be tougher on parents who fail to take responsibility for the behaviour of their children or who themselves are abusive or violent in schools. I know that such parents are in a small minority, but they make the lives of heads and teachers a daily misery. We therefore plan to consult on extending the use of parenting orders, which have been used effectively to combat crime outside the school, to similar circumstances within the school walls.

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The hon. Gentleman talked about exclusion appeals and the guidance that the Government have issued. I reiterate that we do not expect teachers to keep troublemakers in the classroom at any cost. The Government have invested in preventative strategies that should help to reduce exclusions, but we recognise and have made it clear that heads can permanently exclude pupils whose behaviour is violent or very disruptive. Recognising the need to be clearer about exclusion appeal panels, we issued new guidance last August which makes it clear that the head's decision to exclude should not normally be overridden in a range of circumstances, including violence or a threat of violence against a member of staff or another pupil; sexual abuse; presenting a significant risk to the health and safety of other pupils by selling illegal drugs; and persistent or malicious disruption.

The hon. Gentleman raised a difficult case. I understand that there is uncertainty about whether it concerns possession or selling of illegal drugs, so I do not want to comment on it further. However, our guidance makes clear our view about the selling of illegal drugs in schools.

Some in the Conservative party have made the accusation recently--I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made it--that exclusion appeal panels are ignoring the guidance and are reinstating pupils left, right and centre. That is not the case. Of the 10,400 pupils permanently excluded in 1998-99, appeals were heard in relation to only 960. Of these, 220 pupils were reinstated--slightly more than 2 per cent. Local education authorities are telling us that even fewer are being reinstated since our new guidance was issued.

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Without wanting to make a party political point, I think we should remember that the independent appeal panels procedure is not new or an arbitrary part of the system. It was rightly introduced by the previous Conservative Government in 1987.

As I have already made clear in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman, where an appeal panel reinstates a pupil, Ministers have no power to quash its decision: only the courts can do that, the panels being independent in law. However, we are ensuring that panel members receive training to ensure that they know how properly to fulfil their responsibilities and duties. That, along with our guidance, should help to reduce the scope for perverse decisions.

We need to put the issues of exclusion and discipline in context. We are talking about the behaviour of a few pupils. The vast majority of children go about their school day in a normal, well-adjusted manner. Of course, we must not be complacent. Parents and teachers have the right to expect that the actions of disruptive pupils are controlled. We believe that, for the majority of these children, the problem should be dealt with before it gets to the critical stage. The policies that we have in place, backed by record levels of funding, are allowing us to do that. I congratulate the teachers and head teachers who are--

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.



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