Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that opposition is not just about opposing, but about providing constructive alternatives. Can he give the House his view on withdrawing child benefit from parents?

Mr. Green: Our solution to truancy covers a number of aspects, which I shall come to shortly. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall make some positive proposals, as I have done already by supporting the Government's initiative on policemen in schools.

I am fascinated to discover whether the Government in power are capable of taking the decision on child benefit, or whether they are simply floating tough-sounding ideas.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) rose

Mr. Green: I want to carry on with the series of measures announced by the Government recently to reduce truancy, then of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, particularly after his sterling performance in his Select Committee, which produced a report on individual learning accounts that exposed yet another cataclysmic failure of Government policy.

The third issue is the £66 million to tackle truancy in schools across Britain. What the Government have not told us is that the means by which they are funding that—the increase in national insurance contributions—will take £150 million out of school budgets, year after year. The Budget therefore did not put money into schools but took it away.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman might like one of my Committee's reports, but he might not like the fact that the very weekend that that was being discussed, our report on our interview with Mike Tomlinson, the former

21 May 2002 : Column 163

head of Ofsted, pushed the chief inspector to discuss a range of methods that could be used to bring the truancy figures down. There was an interesting debate over those few days. I wish the hon. Gentleman had joined it in a positive way.

Mr. Green: One of the purposes of this debate is to use the Chamber of the House of Commons, which is a debating chamber, to carry on the debate constructively. I hope and expect that the hon. Gentleman will make his own authoritative contribution later.

The Government are coming up with tough-sounding gimmicks. They know as well as everyone now—notably Mrs. Patricia Amos, who has been sent to jail—that an extremely tough range of measures is already available in the criminal law to stop truanting. This is part of the answer to the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell). Some of those measures were put in place by the present Government, and some by the previous Conservative Government, so there is no partisan politics involved.

It is clear that when Governments and courts have powers that can end up with a parent being jailed for allowing children to truant persistently, even tougher new measures are not necessarily needed. The Government already have all the tough measures that they could want to deter parents from allowing their children to truant. The Government are trying to pretend that those tough measures are not available, but their cover has been blown by the jailing of Mrs. Amos. That shows how tough the measures already on the statute book are. I hope that they work, and that every parent with a child who persistently truants looks at Mrs. Amos being sent to jail and thinks, "I don't want to go that way. I'm going to do something about my child now."

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): It is interesting that the day that Mrs. Amos went to jail, her children went to school. That is to be welcomed, but it was preceded by two years of activity by those in the education service, the school and others, in an attempt to get those girls into school. It took two years and ended in court. Surely we should be looking for measures that could nip the problem in the bud much earlier.

Mr. Green: If the measures were shown to be practical, of course that should happen. The jailing of one parent will send a shock wave round the country. Let us hope that, for once, the deterrent effect of a court sentence works.

The underlying problem is that the children who are let down most badly by the Government's failure on truancy are those who are most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves. Many of those children, as we know, live in our inner cities and therefore attend inner-city schools. The figures are terrifying. Between 2000 and 2001, in several inner-city areas, truancy rose by as much as 16 times the national average. At the same time, GCSE standards—a strongly related issue—are far below the national average in such areas. Growth in truancy has persisted throughout England, where it has increased by an average of 1.7 per cent. in recent times, and the average proportion of pupils achieving the good GCSE score of five grades of A* to C is 50 per cent. It is terrifying to compare with those averages the figures for some of our

21 May 2002 : Column 164

inner-city areas. In Hackney, truancy is up 27 per cent. and the average GCSE score—the proportion achieving five or more A* to C grades—is 33.5 per cent. In Liverpool, truancy is up 26.2 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 35.1 per cent. In Sheffield, which was run until so recently by the Liberal Democrats, truancy is up 24 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 41.9 per cent. In Leicester, truancy is up 21.7 per cent. and the average GCSE score is 36.9 per cent.

Those figures tell a stark story. The Government are failing our inner-city children; their rhetoric is not matched by action. They are tough on truants and on the parents of truants, but they are soft on the causes of truancy. Let us consider what they could be doing. The basic challenge on which they have failed is that of making every day at school relevant to every pupil. If pupils think that nothing that they do at school will be relevant, useful or interesting, they will start bunking off. Clearly, the long-term policy must be to reduce the number of regular truants to the hard core. There will always be a hard core, but we need to reduce truancy so that only that hard core remains. [Interruption.] I am glad that Government Front Benchers agree; perhaps they will adopt the policy that I am about to put to them.

The first and most widespread thing that the Government should do is make a radical improvement in the provision of vocational education in our education system. [Interruption.] If the Under–Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), really believes that the Green Paper on 14 to 19-year-olds will lead to a radical change in anything, I suggest that he reads it. The first and most important radical change that should be made is that of rewriting the Green Paper in English, instead of the current jargon. The Green Paper is not remotely adequate to cope with the crisis in vocational education.

The Government do not need Green Papers; they need to do what we do and learn from some other countries. [Interruption.] Clearly, they are so perfect that they have nothing to learn. Let me tell them about the experience in Holland and Germany. In Holland, for example, I visited classes in which 13-year-olds were rewiring rooms and plastering real brick walls. They were non-academic children in a non-academic stream—the sort of children who are failed by the school system far too often in this country and go out truanting. They were doing something at school that they could see was relevant, which they enjoyed and which they were good at. That was what got them into school, made them do the other lessons and allowed them to leave school having worked on a balanced curriculum and learned something useful, instead of taking the path of truancy and then crime to which far too many of our young people are condemned by the inaction and complacency of the Government.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Will the hon. Gentleman therefore take this opportunity to apologise for the introduction in 1988 of a grammarian national curriculum that drove vocational education out of every single school in the country? Does he now accept that that was a total failure and will he apologise to the thousands of youngsters who fell through the system because of those policies?

Mr. Green: No. I congratulate the previous Conservative Government on introducing the vocational

21 May 2002 : Column 165

initiative in education in 1983. The policy was a serious attempt to get to grips with the issue that was opposed by the Labour party. I cannot remember what the Lib Dems did. They probably opposed it, as they oppose most good ideas. The hon. Gentleman has tried to go back into history—indeed, many of us think that he might live in history—but he did not go back far enough.

The problem is not new and is not even one of the past 20 years; it a problem of the past 140 years. Let me break the habit of a lifetime and quote Lord Callaghan, who rejected 25 years ago the idea that we should fit

He was right that children who need a vocational education need more than that. That is pure common sense, and I am surprised that Government Front Benchers are so exercised by it. If those children are looking to the world of work, that is what we should prepare them for, by providing both the basic academic tools and proper vocational training when they are still willing to learn. Too often, the tragedy is that we wait too long, and by the time we seek to engage children who would benefit from a vocational education in proper vocational training, it is too late—they have got out of the habit of learning and into the habit of truanting. In five years, the Government have done nothing to help that dangerous lost generation.

Next Section

IndexHome Page