Previous SectionIndexHome Page

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnson: I do not want to take interventions. [Interruption.] Go on then, blame society.

David Taylor: I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman says, but when his own children are old enough he may find that in fact, it is quite difficult to give teenagers sufficient constraints and incentives to go along with their parents' wishes, whether in terms of school attendance or any other aspect of their behaviour. Things are not always the fault of the parents, although they may be.

Mr. Johnson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for warning me of my fate when my children reach their teenage years. I listen to him with all humility and sincerity, but it is grossly patronising to many people who live on very low incomes and none the less produce polite, well-mannered and law-abiding children to say that everything is the fault of society.

David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Johnson: Hang on; hear me out, old boy. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I mean I ask the hon. Gentleman to hear me out.

It strikes me that the fault must lie fundamentally with the parents. In the past 20 to 25 years, we have seen a revolution in the relationship between children and adults in our society as fundamental as the revolution in the relationship between the sexes. Children no longer respect adult authority as they used to. There are many reasons for that, and in some ways it is a good thing, but in some ways it is a bad thing. We need to restore the chain of

21 May 2002 : Column 204

responsibility between child and adult, and if that means fining the parents of truanting and undisciplined children, I say that that is fine.

I am reminded of a friend of my family—a single mother from Bridlington in Yorkshire—[Interruption.] Is Bridlington in Yorkshire? [Interruption.] Yes, it is. When we were discussing the fall of the Berlin wall, she said that she did not know about that because when she was at school her mother used to say, "Don't worry about history. Let's go off shopping." If some measure, such as the one envisaged by the Government, could stop that casual truanting, it would be a very good thing.

It would be nice to find that the Government are prepared not just to filch an idea from a Tory paper, but to produce some serious ideas about how to carry it out. I genuinely believe that there is no problem more central to many of the ills of our society than that of truanting children and ill discipline in schools. I very much hope that the Government have taken those ideas on board and that they will produce practical solutions. If not, they can, of course, make way for those who will.

6.39 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)—which I think I did!

This has been an important if short debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) launched a typically trenchant attack on the Government's failures, which was succeeded by—I am afraid—a typically complacent response from the Secretary of State. The tenor of her remarks was "The problems of truancy and indiscipline are being addressed"; but, as even she was prepared to accept, those problems have become worse rather than better. She says that educational opportunities are being improved in inner cities. If that is so, why are the Government determined to lower standards of admissions to universities?

On cue, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, the hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), enters the Chamber. Why are the Government focusing on lowering admission standards for pupils from inner-city schools, rather than concentrating on raising standards in those schools to give such children as good a chance of entering higher education as everyone else?

There is a crisis in discipline in our schools, a crisis that is driving teachers out of the profession. It is making it impossible for other children to learn. According to the National Union of Teachers, 45 per cent. of those leaving the profession cite behaviour. Labour's response has been not to tackle discipline, but to prevent heads from excluding violent and disruptive pupils. A teacher from a private prep school whom I met recently made it very clear that he had left his job in a state school entirely because of problems involving discipline and behaviour. He told me that he would rather have swept the streets than remain in his former job. That represents a dismal failure—something with which we cannot be satisfied, and something of which the Government should be ashamed.

Labour's response has been to set a target to reduce the number of exclusions, possibly the only target that the party has met. What has been the cost of meeting that target? The number of exclusions was reduced from 12,668 in 1996–97 to 8,600 in 1999–2000, but only as

21 May 2002 : Column 205

a result of the then Secretary of State's publication of Department for Education and Employment circular 10/99, which stated:

It was shockingly disingenuous of the Secretary of State to claim earlier that heads had always had freedom to exclude. They have not—and the present Government took away that freedom, through circular 10/99, when she was a Minister in the Department. The fact that they have performed a U-turn and recognised the failure of the policy and the damage that it did is no excuse, and does not absolve the Secretary of State of responsibility. Moreover, for her not to admit—today, in the House of Commons—to what she did was unacceptable.

What prior strategies had Ministers in mind for dealing with a pupil who had threatened his teacher with a knife, or sexually assaulted another child in the classroom? What right did Ministers think they had to interfere with a head teacher's ability to maintain proper discipline in a school—to protect the safety and dignity of his staff, and of the children in his care? Their policy was clearly wrong; only someone who was detached from reality could ever have considered it appropriate or reasonable.

Yet even when the policy had been changed—even when Ministers were saying that it was wrong to focus solely on reducing the number of exclusions, rather than concentrating on tackling the underlying problems—Ministers boasted in the House about reductions, hoping that they would continue along the same lines. In April last year, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), then an Education Minister, said:

There is such evidence, and Ministers have belatedly accepted it—although one or two Labour Members still do not appear to appreciate it. The hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) boasted earlier about the reduction in the number of exclusions, although it had been achieved at the cost of massively increased indiscipline and disruption in schools and a huge blow to morale in the teaching profession.

A one third cut in the amount of truancy has not been achieved. In fact there has been no cut whatever, and in secondary schools truancy has increased. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford pointed out, it has increased most in inner-city areas—the areas at which most of the Government's gimmicks and initiatives have been directed, and to which most of the money has gone. The number of days lost in schools because of truancy has increased in all big inner-city areas. All that has happened while the Secretary of State has been a Minister in the Department. She cannot blame it all on her predecessor; she must share the blame.

What does Labour propose to do now? What will it do to tackle the results of truancy, about which we have heard today? What will it do about the 50,000 children who play truant on a typical school day? What will it do about the fact that 40 per cent. of street robberies and 25 per cent. of burglaries are committed by truant children who should be at school? I will not recite all the figures that have already been given by Members on both sides of the House.

21 May 2002 : Column 206

What are the implications for child drug abuse and teenage pregnancies? At least the Chairman of the Select Committee was only punting on the Thames when he was not at school, as he was supposed to be. We are grateful for that.

The latest foray—the latest proposed gimmick—is the docking of child benefit. The Secretary of State was the only Cabinet Minister who was prepared to come out as a supporter of the scheme after the Prime Minister floated it—perhaps because, as the Manchester press reveals, Dame Jean Else, head teacher at the Secretary of State's old school, claims that it was her policy. Perhaps she offered it to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State brought it to the Government. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Henley: the parentage of the policy is obviously extremely doubtful.

The key question is "Will this really happen, or is it just another attempt to grab a headline, like the absurd chaos of the Government's policy on drugs in schools?" The Government are swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. Just a few months ago, in January, the Daily Mail produced a report from DfES sources—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), who is a Government Whip for the time being, at least, should not disparage the Daily Mail, which the Prime Minister regards as the main yardstick of the success or failure of the present Government.

According to the Daily Mail,

Also in January, there was an exchange on the subject of policy to control drug abuse in schools. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), will recall that he said:

There is a huge shift between that and what is now being spun by the Government in the media. We read and hear that they are getting tough on dealers in schools, and that there is zero tolerance for those caught supplying drugs within the school gates. In Committee, the Under-Secretary made clear the Government's belief that this was a matter entirely for head teachers. He refused to issue guidance to schools saying whether those dealing in or taking drugs would be permanently excluded.

Labour's policies on discipline and truancy have been an abject failure. Ministers lurch from gimmick to gimmick, abandoning each failed policy in turn. They swing wildly from one prescription to the opposite. My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford highlighted the contradiction between the Government's amendment and this morning's announcement from the Department for Education and Skills. At a time when there is an intense focus on the difference between what the Government

21 May 2002 : Column 207

spend on public services and what they actually deliver, it is remarkable that their amendment notes that £600 million has been spent on

The Secretary of State admitted that truancy rates have not improved while violence in schools has mushroomed. There can be no better example of the Government's failure to deliver than the words of their amendment: £600 million has been spent, yet the truancy rate has stood still—as the Secretary of State pointed out—and behaviour has got worse.

The torrent of gimmicks and directives has failed. It is time that we had a Government who backed up heads and allowed them to maintain discipline. It is time that we had a Government who had real aspirations to raise standards in all communities throughout our country. Labour has failed for too long. In two or three years, they will be permanently excluded from office.

Next Section

IndexHome Page