Education Bill

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Mr. Brady: I am grateful that the Minister dealt with my question concerning the use of illegal drugs. His response partially answers my concerns, in that he says that the guidance will preclude reinstatement of a pupil permanently excluded on the grounds of misuse of controlled drugs. Will he go further and undertake that the guidance will also inform schools and LEAs that permanent exclusion should remain the typical course of action if a pupil is misusing illegal drugs. The Minister is saying that the Government will issue guidance about how appeals should be handled. However, he is not giving guidance, which schools desperately need, about how the Government expect them to treat cannabis now that it is regarded in a less serious way by criminal law.

Mr. Lewis: That is a contradictory argument. We have heard a lot of arguments during the proceedings about schools, and those in positions of responsibility being trusted as professionals to make sensible and reasonable and decisions. The issue is straightforward. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred to a head teacher who did not want to criminalise the young people in question, which is why he did not call in the police. Whether one thinks that is right or wrong, it is a reasonable judgment for a head teacher to make. Each head teacher will judge a case on its

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merits. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell used the word ''dealer''. The vast majority of head teachers would take a different view of a young person who was dealing drugs within a school or its vicinity than they would of a young person who was found for the first time in possession of a small amount of marijuana.

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to tell people outside the Committee that an Education Minister says that it is okay to carry marijuana to school, because it is clearly unacceptable for children, or anyone, to break the law of the land, which says that cannabis remains a controlled drug. We are engaged in grown-up politics and know that head teachers must make difficult decisions about complex issues every day of every week. It would be wrong to take that discretion away from head teachers.

The majority of the debate has been dominated by permanent exclusion. The option is available to teachers to use fixed-period exclusions, and there are different levels of unacceptable behaviour for which individual head teachers must decide a management of discipline policy. From a good practice point of view, everyone in the school should be aware of, signed up to and involved in it, and understand clearly the consequences of particular forms of behaviour. A good head teacher will ensure that that happens and not simply deal with each case randomly. It is unacceptable to take any illegal substance to school, but it is right that head teachers are allowed the discretion to make judgments about the powers at their disposal, whether that is no action, fixed-period exclusion or a permanent exclusion.

Mr. Willis: The Minister's response is incredibly reasonable. I was pleased that he mentioned fixed-term as well as permanent exclusions, because they are two specific categories. It would worry me enormously if the Minister were to issue guidance that said that someone could be permanently excluded for a criminal offence without being reported for it. That would be an unacceptable contradiction.

There is also a difference between the Home Secretary's proposed declassification of the possession of cannabis from class B to class C—and in some guidance coming from the Police Federation about how it is tackling the drugs problem on the streets—and his insistence that there will be no let up in the pressure on dealers. I largely agree with the Home Secretary's approach, and we must consider what is happening in Brixton. The local police superintendent has said that they will not stop and charge people for having small amounts of cannabis on them, which surely must apply to young people. If those people were dealing, they would be dealt with.

The same issue arises with weapons, and they are the two issues that reflect a growing problem in our schools and are a real threat to members of staff and other students. When the Minister produces his guidance, before the Bill is passed if that is possible, will he pay specific attention to those two issues?

Mr. Lewis: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we will address those two issues in the way that he suggests.

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If I may, I shall make a partially flippant point. The Committee will remember the Conservative party's debate about drugs immediately before the general election, and it is likely that more than half the shadow Cabinet of the day would have been permanently excluded from school and had their life stigmatised—although they may have ended up with a better career—had we adopted the simplistic view expressed by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West.

Mr. Brady: I am sorry that the Minister is not prepared to treat this important subject seriously. I asked for clear and sensible guidance because schools, whether in Brixton or elsewhere, are unsure of what is expected of them by the Government and communities that they serve. They perceive the law to be in a state of flux. Specific instances of schools in Oxfordshire were raised, in which they were given guidance by the LEA that was then amended. There have been problems, and it is unacceptable for the Minister to refuse to give any proper guidance about how the Government expect the matter to be addressed. It is not fair on heads and governors to expect them to be left in the dark and arrive at whatever position they see fit. The Government are stimulating a debate and changing the lie of the land, and schools have a right to know where the Government want them to stand.

Mr. Lewis: The hon. Gentleman intervened after I made it clear what the draft guidance on the issue will say. It will say that the Secretary of State would normally regard it as inappropriate to reinstate a pupil who had been permanently excluded for misuse of a controlled drug—and the drugs to which the hon. Gentleman referred are controlled. That is clear. When the hon. Gentleman intervened, he asked me about head teachers and gave a particular example of the action that he believed should be taken in a particular set of circumstances. My point was that a head teacher has at his or her disposal a range of disciplinary options when a child is in breach of the law of the land or, short of that, the rules of the school. We must continue to allow professional leaders of our schools to use their experience and good judgment to make the right decisions about the available range of sanctions. On the vast majority of occasions in this country, those head teachers and governing bodies take the common-sense, reasonable decisions.

Chris Grayling: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: I shall give way, but we really should make progress.

Chris Grayling: I am intervening only because this is a particularly important point. The Minister has just read from the draft guidelines, which effectively said that a teenager who is found smoking a joint in school can be excluded and that an exclusion panel would not normally have the right to overrule. There is a different level of offence between a teenager caught smoking a joint behind the bike sheds and one caught selling joints across the school, but decisions taken by

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different heads may vary because it is a subjective judgment. In setting out guidance rather than using a statutory framework, the Government are leaving the judgment to the subjective decision of heads and exclusion panels in a way that could lead to different judgments in different areas for the same action. I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I would feel much more comfortable with a statutory and regulatory power rather than guidance.

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the Minister, I echo his comment before he gave way. I recognise that this is an important debate, but we should be making progress.

Mr. Lewis: Every day of every week, head teachers make difficult decisions in difficult circumstances and, hopefully, possession of all the facts. That is why they are head teachers; they are paid to take that responsibility. We are trying to reach a judgment with partial information and with no knowledge of a child's family circumstances, of other behaviour that the child may have exhibited in the school in the past, of the effect of that behaviour on the rest of the class, of whether it is a one-off incident or whether a problem child is causing mayhem in the school every day of the week.

This is becoming a fatuous discussion. It is clear what the draft guidance will tell appeals panels. We trust the professional judgment of head teachers to make reasonable and sensible decisions on these matters. In view of the reassurances that have been given and the fact that our objectives are similar, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

3.45 pm

Mr. Brady: My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has the lead amendment in this group and he may wish to comment on the amendments that stand in his name. I rise to respond to the Minister's remarks on amendments Nos. 261 and 341. Amendment No. 262 raised some important points and it was useful for them to be given an airing, but it was very much a probing amendment.

Amendment No. 261 is deeply serious. I am grateful that the Minister paid proper attention to it and gave credit for an attempt to tackle something that is accepted by the Government as a serious concern. He said that a statutory duty would be created under the Government's proposed regulations to balance the interests of the staff, the pupil and the rest of the school community. He went on to describe it as a matter of natural justice. We can all agree with much of that. My concern is that there is still a long distance between a requirement to balance the interests of the excluded pupil with those of the school community as a whole and our objective in amendment No. 261. It would give statutory footing to an attempt to protect the teaching and non-teaching staff of a school if health and safety issues or the possibility of malicious allegations come into play.

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These are extremely important questions. I am not entirely satisfied that the regulations that the Government propose are sufficient to deal with the problem, notwithstanding the other measures that the Minister enumerated. I do not intend to press amendment No. 261 to a Division, but I stress the importance that the Opposition attach to the issue. Unless we see Government amendments or draft regulations that go a little further, we may table an amendment along those lines at a later stage.

We had an important debate on amendment No. 341, which has not reached a satisfactory conclusion. We could consider two different aspects, one of which I would characterise as the desire of heads and governors to have clearer criteria in regulations. That would be welcomed, and the amendment would allow more details to be provided. I am minded to ask my hon. Friends to support me in pressing the matter to a Division.

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