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Mr. Stephen Twigg: If only.

Michael Fabricant: I know how the Minister feels. It is important to have continuity within a school.

The subject of grammar was raised earlier. A previous occupant of the Chair cut me off in mid-stream, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I did not say what I wanted to say. I can well understand why certain pupils would not want to learn how to parse a sentence or understand the structures of the English language. I found grammar immensely boring when I was taught it at school. I only became interested in it when I learned German. I make a little cri de coeur—which is French—a Schrei des Herzes: if only there were enough German teachers, it would be a good idea for German, instead of French, to be the first foreign language taught in schools, because it helps people to understand English grammar better.

Mr. Pound: What about Latin?

Michael Fabricant: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is impractical in this modern day and age. [Interruption.] If he disagrees with me, I can accept that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we need silence at the back of the classroom.

Michael Fabricant: Thank you for your protection headmaster—I mean, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This has been a good, thoughtful debate. I do not think that anyone has made party political points, which is good. Everyone has spoken about what would benefit pupils and teachers. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

1.46 pm

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). I am sure that all of us would agree that he managed to achieve his 80 per cent. entertainment quotient. We are all still pondering the image of a sea of hands of those in his class who wanted voluntarily to receive the strap. No doubt the lines that he was going to give them would have been even more devastating for them.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his opening remarks. His speech was wide ranging, and gave us plenty to work on. I also pay tribute to him for being the Member of Parliament for the Enfield, Southgate constituency, where

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I went to school. The school has since closed, but I promise not to blame him for that if he does not blame me.

The hon. Member for Lichfield referred to the need for resources to deal with problems in some parts of the country from which complaints have been received. I do not want to shatter his illusion that no party political points have been made in the debate, so I shall not ask how he expects more resources to go into education, given that the Conservative party said only a few days ago that it refuses to match the spending plans that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce on Monday. We expect him to give significant extra resources to education.

In one sense, it is right that the debate is not about resources. We know that more resources will go into education, and we desperately need that investment, but without the changes that are necessary to deal with disruptive behaviour, we will not get the high standards of education that our young people deserve. We know that the stakes are high. Disruptive pupils can seriously damage the education of other children by disrupting the programme of teaching, undermining staff morale, absorbing a disproportionate amount of staff energy and resources, and undermining other students' enthusiasm to learn.

If disruptive students are out of school, because of exclusion or truancy, the community pays a heavy price. We have seen that in today's figures on street crime. We must find a way of dealing with disruptive behaviour without excluding children from school, and thus from the hope of an education that will give them a future.

A factor that has not featured in the debate is the effect of children's employment. I raised that issue in a private Member's Bill in 1998. I was concerned about the evidence from a number of sources, which showed that about 40 per cent. of school-age children have some form of employment. Some of it is regulated, but three quarters is illegal because of its nature or the hours that the children work. The evidence was that unregulated and illegal child employment had a significant impact on children's education, partly because of the time they spent out of school and partly because when they were in school they were often tired and could be disruptive as a result. I urge the Minister to establish, along with his colleagues in the Department of Health—which for reasons I cannot understand is responsible for that area of policy—whether regulations can be introduced to update the law established by the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

I have talked to teachers in my constituency, as, no doubt, have other Members. They have made it clear to me that disruptive behaviour is increasing. Yesterday I received a letter from one of the most respected head teachers in Kent and, probably, the country. Mr. Simon Harrison is the head of Ifield special school in Gravesham, a beacon school described by the Office for Standards in Education as


and the recipient of an award from Sport England. He has been a head teacher in Kent for 16 years, and has worked in special education and with pupils exhibiting difficult and challenging behaviour for 29. He is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and successful head teachers.

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Mr. Harrison wrote:


Mr. Harrison also pointed out that many children voluntarily give service to their communities—they do so very willingly, in fact—and that the problem must be kept in perspective. It is a growing problem and a serious problem for many schools, but we should not use it to demonise all children and young people.

One problem mentioned by Mr. Harrison, and by Members today, is that teachers may have too few sanctions at their disposal. I am not sure whether Mr. Harrison or I would be in favour of some of the proposals advanced by the hon. Member for Lichfield, but exclusion is often seen as the only possible sanction. Most schools see it as the ultimate deterrent, but one that fails.

Michael Fabricant: In fact, it is often not a deterrent. Some children actively seek it, which causes a real problem.

Just for the record, I did not advocate any form of capital punishment—

Mr. Pound: Capital?

Michael Fabricant: I mean corporal punishment. I merely suggested that the issue should at least be looked at.

Mr. Pond: I take the point, and I know that the hon. Gentleman did not advocate either capital or corporal punishment in schools. I also accept that many children would be happy to be on the streets rather than at school, because they themselves have given up. I think that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) observed that disruptive children often have a bad self-image and low self-esteem, and are keen to get out of school for that reason. We must, however, establish a range of constructive measures, short of exclusion, to deal with this serious problem.

I welcome the initiatives announced by my hon. Friend the Minister and the Secretary of State—including the £66 million package announced in April, which is intended to deal with truancy and other bad behaviour and will include the introduction of new or expanded learning support units, as well as pupil referral units.

Westcourt primary school in Gravesend has tried hard to deal with the problem of disruptive and difficult children, and has managed to do so quite successfully. It has made considerable progress in recent years, lifting itself out of "special measures" status, but it faces the continuing challenge of disruptive pupils. It decided that it was worth investing its own resources to set up an internal learning support unit. It cost the school £45,000 a year, but the impact was significant, not only for the 10 or 11 children who were in the unit—about 8 per cent. of the children in the school—but for the rest of the children, who were able to learn in a much more conducive atmosphere.

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The unit was set up by the head teacher, Mrs. Jean Everest, in April 2000 but, sadly, it had to close in April 2002 because the school could not continue to find the resources internally. As soon as the unit closed, three of its 10 children were excluded, three went into part-time education because no full-time alternative was available and the others were transferred. Therefore, the cost of closing the unit was probably far higher than the £45,000 that it cost to keep it open.

I lobbied Kent county council's education authority to see whether it would help with the cost of the unit. It wrote to me and said that


If those discussions develop, that will be significant and important. Most of the units are focused on the secondary sector, but most of the problems of disruptive behaviour begin in the eight to 11 age group. We need to find a way of dealing with the problems where they begin, rather than trying to address them after they have been established in the secondary sector. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to see whether we cannot do more for primary schools in dealing with such matters.

In Kent, as in much of the south-east, there are real difficulties with teacher recruitment. We must ensure that the boroughs that border the London ring can still compete with salaries in London boroughs and that—it is perhaps of equal importance—we can deal with the problem of disruptive pupils, which discourages people from staying in education.

I share with the House another initiative that has been developed by Ifield school—the SMILE centre; I prefer that title to its full title, which is supporting multiprofessional inclusive education. It does some important work. Ifield school set up the unit, which is a resource available to all schools in the borough of Gravesham and beyond. It is a multidisciplinary, multi-agency approach to help to deal with children with special needs and with difficult and disruptive behaviour.

One concept that I would like the Minister to take away from the debate is that of the smiley boxes—literally, boxes containing resource materials that can be used by parents and teachers on a range of issues, whether it be asylum seekers, conditions such as autism and difficulties with literacy, numeracy and thinking skills. The initiative acts as a way of improving the ability of all schools to deal with those issues.

We are in the middle of autism awareness year. We need to think carefully about the role of special needs in this issue. Often, children with special needs can be perceived to be difficult and disruptive, partly because of the way in which they operate in a school, but partly because of the reaction of other children to them.


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