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Area Child Protection Committees

Mr. Adrian Bailey accordingly presented a Bill to establish local authority responsibility for area child protection committees; to specify the functions of such committees; to require agencies charged with responsibilities for child protection to provide senior representation on such committees; to make provision about the funding of such committees; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June, and to be printed [Bill 142].

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Opposition Day

[14th Allotted Day]

School Discipline

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.43 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I beg to move,

As we pass the fifth anniversary of this Government's arrival in power, the threadbare nature of their claim to have made improvements in education is increasingly apparent. Today, the Opposition will pay particular attention to their failures on truancy and discipline because they lie at the heart of so many other failures. Without effective discipline, there can be no effective teaching. Without regular and willing attendance, there can be no effective learning. If the Government cannot solve this crisis, they will be doomed to fail to solve the other crises in our school system, such as demoralised teachers, the widening gap in standards between the best and worst schools and, in particular, the Government's complete failure to give effective support to schools in our inner cities.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): My hon. Friend mentioned regular and willing attendance. If we are to combat truancy by the example of what we do in the House, is it not a shame that, in a debate of this importance, there are so many Liberal Democrat truants? Only three of them have bothered to turn up.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes a valid and important point. The Liberal Democrats have in their time claimed to be a party that cares about education: they were to spend and re-spend the proceeds of the famous, magic 1p on income tax on education. However, they clearly do not care enough about the subject to turn up in the House of Commons to debate the real problems in education today.

It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are not in a position to take anything away from today's debate, but I hope that the Government will take away one message: the underlying, basic problems of truancy and discipline

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will not be solved by the usual gimmicks that the Department for Education and Skills loves so much. Grabbing the headlines for a morning may delude Ministers into thinking that they have done something effective, but it does not delude teachers, parents and pupils.

Let us take this morning's headline-grabber by the Government, which is on drugs in schools. I do not suppose that there is anyone in the House who does not want tough measures to eliminate drugs from schools and to warn children about the dangers of drugs, but the Government are sending very mixed messages about their attitude to drugs in our society. This morning, the Department for Education and Skills announced a crackdown and that it would be tougher on drugs, yet for months the Home Office has been espousing a softer line on drugs. That is a mixed message; nobody can know what the Government really want.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): My hon. Friend is right. When the Government announced their proposal to reclassify cannabis, the first people to write to me were the head teachers in my constituency. I wrote to each and every secondary school head, and they all replied saying how concerned they were about the proposal and that it would add to their problems of truancy, particularly after midday. There is no remorse from the Government or any attempt to support head teachers on the issue.

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend is right, as ever.

Quite apart from the mixed message on drugs, the Government are sending a mixed message about exclusions. Today, the Secretary of State and her colleagues have been talking tough. They are to insist that head teachers exclude pupils who are caught drug dealing. There will be no appeal; such pupils will be straight out on their first offence. That is a very tough message, but I seem to remember that four years ago the Government sent out exactly the opposite message. They were instructing head teachers to exclude fewer pupils.

The confusion does not only date back four years. If the Secretary of State had made an honest U-turn, we would have applauded it, because today's policy is better than yesterday's policy. Unfortunately for the Government, I have taken the trouble to read the amendment that they have tabled to our motion—[Interruption.] Before the Minister for Lifelong Learning becomes too excited, I shall quote it. It is fascinating. I assume that it was written yesterday, presumably at the same time as the Department was writing its press releases on how exclusions need to be increased.

The amendment boasts:

since 1996-97. At the press conference this morning, the Government said that a rise in exclusions is a good thing; yesterday, as their amendment shows, they said that a fall in exclusions is a good thing. There is a central confusion. The Government cannot know what they are talking about. It is clear that head teachers across Britain do not know which message the Government are trying to send. The reason is that the Government do not know. All they know is that they must say something tough about drugs.

The Department for Education and Skills is always one of the most willing Departments to say, "You want an announcement, we'll make it. Never mind the policy, coherence or implementation, we'll write the press release

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for you." Not even the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions would have the gall to say that that central confusion over the attitude to exclusion shows consistency of purpose. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills by saying that she is a considerably more honest and straightforward politician than her right hon. Friend.

Everyone in the House and outside it and everyone connected with education hopes that the Government's new policy on drugs in schools will work, but we are right to be suspicious that a Government who rely on spin and announcements rather than substance will not drive through an effective anti-drugs policy.

Let me turn to truancy. Again, there is no difference between the two sides of the House. We all agree that truancy deprives children of their best chance in life and that the Government have a duty—which they share, most notably with parents but also with schools—to ensure that children attend school. Let us look at the facts of what has happened since the Government came to power. In the 1998 comprehensive spending review, the Government promised to cut school truancy drastically. They said that they would reduce the percentage of half-days missed a year through unauthorised absence from 0.7 per cent. to 0.5 per cent. That was a clear and unambiguous promise, but the result is complete failure. There has been no reduction in the percentage of half-days missed through unauthorised absence, which remains 0.7 per cent. In secondary schools, where the problem is most serious, it has risen since 1997 from 1 per cent. to 1.1 per cent.

I have taken those figures from the Department's own survey of pupil absence and truancy, but Ofsted too revealed growing problems. Unsatisfactory attendance is up from 22 to 30 per cent. in primary schools, and from 29 to 37 per cent. in inspected secondary schools. Those are not abstract figures on the number of children missing school. Truancy Call, a charity that tries to deal with the problem of truancy, estimates that, on a typical school day, 50,000 children are truanting, their life chances disappearing. Most schools, it says, do not have the time or resources to undertake first-day contact with those children. [Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning says that she does not believe it. I do not know who else she is going to try to call a liar. Stephen Clarke, the director of Truancy Call, is extremely respected in the field.

Perhaps the hon. Lady will believe the previous head of Ofsted, who was appointed by the Government. Mike Tomlinson said:

Does the hon. Lady want to disagree with Mike Tomlinson as well? He found that statistic worrying and continued:

He is right to worry, as we know what too many of those children are doing when they are not in school; they are climbing on the conveyor belt of crime, which will damage their lives and communities, particularly in the inner cities.

I shall cite someone whom even the hon. Lady will believe—the Secretary of State, who said that official figures showed that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a

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third of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds at times when they should be in school. By any standard, that is a catalogue of failure by the Government, who have not met promises that they made in their early, happier days in office.

The Government have noticed that they have got a problem and have recently introduced a series of measures to reduce truancy. They announced that they want to put policemen in schools; they have half-announced that they are thinking of taking away child benefit from parents of persistent truants; and they announced £66 million to tackle truancy in the recent Budget.

Having policemen in schools is a sensible idea, and I welcome the Government's initiative. If head teachers want that, it is perfectly reasonable. I would be fascinated to know what the Secretary of State has to say about taking child benefit away from the parents of persistent truants, as the initiative appeared to emanate from the Prime Minister and No. 10, and volunteers in the Cabinet were called on to support it. It was notable that every other Cabinet Minister took a smart step backwards, leaving the right hon. Lady out at the front to defend the policy. I therefore hope that she will tell us later whether she still thinks that it is a good idea and, if so, when the Government propose to introduce it. I am afraid that if she cannot give us a date by which the Government are willing to do so, we will conclude once again that the announcement was made just to grab the headlines.

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