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Liz Blackman (Erewash): Speaking as one person who has spent all their former life in education to another, and accepting that the problem is very complex, I must ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that one of the fundamental necessities in motivating children is the quality of the teaching offered in schools. Often children muck about or refuse to go to school because there is nothing on offer. I am not denigrating the majority of teachers, who provide a good service, but I spent a long time in school and I knew, by looking along the corridor, where children would be well served and where they would not. I could see bad behaviour forming as children walked down the corridor. Are not good teaching and the standards that we have driven up an absolutely core element?

Mr. Willis: If the hon. Lady believes that, she must be ashamed of her own Ministers, who have done even more than the Conservative Government to demoralise teachers during their five years in office. I agree with her overall sentiments. I certainly agree that quality teaching is at the heart of the agenda. But if she believes that putting up all those hurdles for pupils to fall over—introducing initiative after initiative in classrooms, and subjecting children to 87 different tests between the age of five, when they start school, and 19, when they leave—is improving the lot of youngsters, I disagree with her.

Liz Blackman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way again?

Mr. Willis: I am too generous; I will.

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Liz Blackman: Ofsted has found that the quality of teaching has risen significantly over the past few years. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he has made a pretty cheap point. The evidence is there: teaching is improving, and the results that pupils are achieving are improving as a consequence.

Mr. Willis: I did not mean to be disrespectful to the hon. Lady; it is just that, like her, I feel passionately about this subject.

It is true that for a significant number of young people in a significant number of schools, both the product offered and the results achieved are improving—but the gap between high-performing and low-performing schools is widening, and it is the kids whom we are discussing today who continue to get a poor deal at the bottom of the pile. I am glad that the hon. Member for Ashford agrees with the Liberal Democrats about the curriculum currently on offer. The diet presented to a significant number of our youngsters is entirely inappropriate; in 2002 it is not possible to provide a 1988 grammarian's national curriculum handed down from on high, with a "one size fits all" examination structure, and sustain the belief that children can be reconnected.

We must listen to young people. We must listen to the reasons why so many of them have been turned off school. What is being offered to numerous young people is unacceptable. That is not a criticism of our schools; it is a criticism of successive Governments who have been increasingly telling schools what to do, and when and how to do it. We must break out of that spiral.

It is sad that we should allow ourselves to reach a point at which permanent exclusions are seen as the only answer. The Secretary of State half fell into that trap today, and the hon. Member for Ashford constantly makes the same claim. All that the Tories had to say in their 2001 manifesto was that they wanted to give head teachers an instant ability to kick kids out of school. That is not the final solution. [Interruption.] With respect, the hon. Member for Ashford said very little else in that manifesto. Free schools and kick kids out of schools—that was about the sum total.

The subject of exclusions is crucial. It goes right back to an issue raised earlier by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight; it is a society issue. A head teacher may exclude a child from a school, but the child cannot be excluded from the community in which he or she lives. Members who represent deprived communities know that only too well. The kids I excluded from my school ended up at the school gates every day, because they had nowhere else to go. Providing full-time education for the kids who are excluded today is important, but it must be the right type of full-time education.

Members visiting Slough today would be able to observe an experiment involving an exclusion-free zone. Children's next port of call is organised before they actually need to be excluded. That goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies): we have to make the right provision. It is not merely a matter of giving children five, six or 10 hours a week—we have to offer them the right provision.

Geraint Davies: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willis: I am sorry, but I cannot give way; I must conclude my speech—otherwise I shall be shot.

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I meet many young people, especially in Lambeth, where I spend time at present, and in Islington. When they talk about school they say that no one ever listens to them. They talk about school as though it were an alien institution. I leave the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), with this thought: if we genuinely want to make inroads into the problems of truancy and exclusion, we must listen to young people. If we listen to why they opt out, ultimately we shall find a solution.

5.1 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I feel rather guilty after making the jocular suggestion that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) make a briefer contribution than normal, because I was really enjoying his speech. It was thoughtful, as ever. The hon. Gentleman's experience in education is almost unparalleled in the Chamber. When he is not making hardline political points, he addresses the question and it is very good to listen to him.

I experience a sense of disappointment on these occasions, however, because we are constricted by these Opposition day debates. The Opposition have to choose a subject; they have to be controversial and they have to be nasty about the Government. Sometimes that knockabout style works well, but it is really not right for the subjects of truancy and discipline which are important educational issues. An enormous amount of thought, research and activity are needed to address the problems.

Every Member who has contributed to the debate—apart from the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green)—agreed that most of our students attend school regularly, enjoy quality teaching and perform pretty well. We know that standards have been rising during the past six years—as we hear in the Select Committee on Education and Skills when we interview Ofsted officials. That is not a partisan political point.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the number of unauthorised school non-attendances has not budged; it is 0.7 per cent. There is a slight change in the numbers when we compare primary and secondary schools, but by and large the level is constant. When the Select Committee visited France to study the parallels between our system and the French one, the chief inspector of schools in France said that the problem was similar—the truancy rate is persistent. From my American connections, I know that that is true in the United States; it is also true in Germany. The problem is not unique to the United Kingdom.

The percentage is small but the problem can be made to sound like the end of the civilised world by tabling an early-day motion or an Opposition motion on it. To say that there are 5 million or 6 million unauthorised non-attendances in an average year sounds horrific, but that ignores the fact that although the problem is persistent, the rate is constant.

The Government were unwise to set a target on that most difficult matter. They are satisfied that they have met some of their targets, or have at least made some progress, but they have not met their target on truancy. It is a very difficult problem, all of whose aspects are interconnected. If one talks frankly to teachers about non-attendance, some of them—quietly, yet wisely—say

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that if the 0.7 per cent. who should be in school were there, it would make life in the classroom much more difficult. That is the truth of the matter. So we must consider such people and decide how to tackle them.

We are not going to get everybody to go to school. Indeed, I confess that there were one or two days on which I did not go to school in Hampton—at that time in my career it was probably because of the lure of taking a boat out on the Thames. That was not with my parents' approval. I feel guilty now about the days that I missed, but let us consider the serious parts of the problem.

Some of the research is very interesting. In his book, "Tackling Truancy in Schools", which is published by Routledge, Ken Reid has broken down the causes of truancy into social, psychological and institutional factors and conducted in-depth research into those who are truants.

Under social factors, the domestic lives of those asked—family circumstances, and so on—account for 16 per cent. of truancy. Peer-group influence accounts for 10 per cent., and going out for a bit of entertainment, as I did for a couple of days, accounts for 2 per cent. Employment is cited as a cause in 1 per cent. of cases. On the psychological side, the figure for illness is 9 per cent., and for psychosomatic disorders it is 1 per cent. Pure laziness accounts for only 2 per cent., which I thought was refreshing. So, the picture is complicated.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough disagreed with one of my hon. Friends on the subject of quality of teaching. I do not think that truancy is a question of the quality of teaching. We have heard much criticism of inner cities, and I note that the Opposition have today criticised the Government on that matter and that the Leader of the Opposition has launched an initiative highlighting problems in those areas. The truth is that teaching in the inner city is difficult in particular because of the transient nature of the population. If one talks to teachers just down the road from these Houses of Parliament, they say "For goodness sake, we do not know on any day who will be there to be taught." That is not because of truancy but because of the nature of the moving populations in our inner cities. According to the research, school transfers, which are listed under the institutional factors relating to truancy, account for 16 per cent. of cases.

Another very worrying figure in the research is that 15 per cent. of truancy is attributable to bullying, and I know that the Government have taken initiatives on bullying. In reflecting on the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough on the matter, I think that violence in schools, whether against teachers or pupils, is a no-go area, and that exclusion should be used in response to it.

Only 10 per cent. of truancy is caused by unhappiness with the curriculum and examinations, which is significant, and I entirely agree with other speakers in this debate on that subject. I know that I sometimes become tedious when, in reflecting on my own school experience, I comment on the number of children who were sat at the back or in the middle of a class, not excited by the curriculum or the diet of education that they received at school. Many such pupils always felt that only the pure academics in the class received all the stars, the brownie points and the encouragement. The other pupils felt disheartened and lacked self-esteem as a result.

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The Government are starting to address the problem—but not fast enough—of exciting the imagination of all the young people in a classroom. I know that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough agrees with me on that.

Only 6 per cent. of truancy is caused by school rules and punishment. Only 5 per cent. of those asked said that the teachers put them off school and made them play truant. The desire to leave accounts for 4 per cent. of truancy. I have gone through that research because it shows the complexity of the subject. We asked Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, which were the best ways of tackling that complex area. He came up with a range of proposals that Ofsted is considering; I am surprised that the hon. Member for Ashford did not mention any of them. Ofsted has been looking at absences condoned by parents who do not value school attendance highly; poor resistance to, and recovery from, illness, especially among low-income families, where there is a higher rate of illness; disaffection with the curriculum offered at school, particularly key stage 4; and difficulty coping with school work because of underdeveloped literacy skills, which is very important indeed. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made a political point about central direction from the Government and the Department. Of course there is a balance, but if four out of 10 pupils are not reaching literacy and numeracy targets, the Government know that that is important. Any Secretary of State would realise that they must do something.


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