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Green: Labour are betraying the hopes of a generation of children

Speech in a House of Commons Opposition Day Debate

As we pass the fifth anniversary of this Government's arrival in power, the threadbare nature of their claim to have made improvements in education is increasingly apparent. Today, the Opposition will pay particular attention to their failures on truancy and discipline because they lie at the heart of so many other failures.

Without effective discipline, there can be no effective teaching. Without regular and willing attendance, there can be no effective learning. If the Government cannot solve this crisis, they will be doomed to fail to solve the other crises in our school system, such as demoralised teachers, the widening gap in standards between the best and worst schools and, in particular, the Government's complete failure to give effective support to schools in our inner cities.

It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are not in a position to take anything away from today's debate, but I hope that the Government will take away one message: the underlying, basic problems of truancy and discipline will not be solved by the usual gimmicks that the Department for Education and Skills loves so much. Grabbing the headlines for a morning may delude Ministers into thinking that they have done something effective, but it does not delude teachers, parents and pupils.

Let us take this morning's headline-grabber by the Government, which is on drugs in schools. I do not suppose that there is anyone in the House who does not want tough measures to eliminate drugs from schools and to warn children about the dangers of drugs, but the Government are sending very mixed messages about their attitude to drugs in our society.

This morning, the Department for Education and Skills announced a crackdown and that it would be tougher on drugs, yet for months the Home Office has been espousing a softer line on drugs. That is a mixed message; nobody can know what the Government really want.

Quite apart from the mixed message on drugs, the Government are sending a mixed message about exclusions. Today, the Secretary of State and her colleagues have been talking tough. They are to insist that head teachers exclude pupils who are caught drug dealing. There will be no appeal; such pupils will be straight out on their first offence.

That is a very tough message, but I seem to remember that four years ago the Government sent out exactly the opposite message. They were instructing head teachers to exclude fewer pupils.

The confusion does not only date back four years. If the Secretary of State had made an honest U-turn, we would have applauded it, because today's policy is better than yesterday's policy. Unfortunately for the Government, I have taken the trouble to read the amendment that they have tabled to our motion.

Before the Minister for Lifelong Learning becomes too excited, I shall quote it. It is fascinating. I assume that it was written yesterday, presumably at the same time as the Department was writing its press releases on how exclusions need to be increased.

The amendment boasts: "exclusions have fallen by approximately 28 per cent." since 1996-97. At the press conference this morning, the Government said that a rise in exclusions is a good thing; yesterday, as their amendment shows, they said that a fall in exclusions is a good thing. There is a central confusion. The Government cannot know what they are talking about. It is clear that head teachers across Britain do not know which message the Government are trying to send. The reason is that the Government do not know. All they know is that they must say something tough about drugs.

The Department for Education and Skills is always one of the most willing Departments to say, "You want an announcement, we'll make it. Never mind the policy, coherence or implementation, we'll write the press release for you."

Not even the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions would have the gall to say that that central confusion over the attitude to exclusion shows consistency of purpose. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills by saying that she is a considerably more honest and straightforward politician than her right hon. Friend.

Everyone in the House and outside it and everyone connected with education hopes that the Government's new policy on drugs in schools will work, but we are right to be suspicious and sceptical that a Government who rely on spin and announcements rather than substance will not drive through an effective anti-drugs policy.

Let me turn to truancy. Again, there is no difference between the two sides of the House. We all agree that truancy deprives children of their best chance in life and that the Government have a duty—which they share, most notably with parents but also with schools—to ensure that children attend school. Let us look at the facts of what has happened since the Government came to power.

In the 1998 comprehensive spending review, the Government promised to cut school truancy drastically. They said that they would reduce the percentage of half-days missed a year through unauthorised absence from 0.7 per cent. to 0.5 per cent. That was a clear and unambiguous promise, but the result is complete failure. There has been no reduction in the percentage of half-days missed through unauthorised absence, which remains 0.7 per cent. In secondary schools, where the problem is most serious, it has risen since 1997 from 1 per cent. to 1.1 per cent.

I have taken those figures from the Department's own survey of pupil absence and truancy, but Ofsted too revealed growing problems.

Unsatisfactory attendance is up from 22 to 30 per cent. in primary schools, and from 29 to 37 per cent. in inspected secondary schools. Those are not abstract figures on the number of children missing school. Truancy Call, a charity that tries to deal with the problem of truancy, estimates that, on a typical school day, 50,000 children are truanting, their life chances disappearing. Most schools, it says, do not have the time or resources to undertake first-day contact with those children. [Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning says that she does not believe it. I do not know who else she is going to try to call a liar. Stephen Clarke, the director of Truancy Call, is extremely respected in the field.

Perhaps the hon. Lady will believe the previous head of Ofsted, who was appointed by the Government. Mike Tomlinson said:

"Statistics suggest that there are 10,000 children who should be in school but are not."

Does the hon. Lady want to disagree with Mike Tomlinson as well? He found that statistic worrying and continued:

"I wonder about what they are up to when they are not in school."

He is right to worry, as we know what too many of those children are doing when they are not in school; they are climbing on the conveyor belt of crime, which will damage their lives and communities, particularly in the inner cities.

I shall cite someone whom even the hon. Lady will believe—the Secretary of State, who said that official figures showed that 40 per cent. of street crime, 25 per cent. of burglaries, 20 per cent. of criminal damage and a third of car thefts are carried out by 10 to 16-year-olds at times when they should be in school. By any standard, that is a catalogue of failure by the Government, who have not met promises that they made in their early, happier days in office.

The Government have noticed that they have got a problem and have recently introduced a series of measures to reduce truancy. They announced that they want to put policemen in schools; they have half-announced that they are thinking of taking away child benefit from parents of persistent truants; and they announced £66 million to tackle truancy in the recent Budget.

Having policemen in schools is a sensible idea, and I welcome the Government's initiative. If head teachers want that, it is perfectly reasonable. I would be fascinated to know what the Secretary of State has to say about taking child benefit away from the parents of persistent truants, as the initiative appeared to emanate from the Prime Minister and No. 10, and volunteers in the Cabinet were called on to support it.

It was notable that every other Cabinet Minister took a smart step backwards, leaving the right hon. Lady out at the front to defend the policy. I therefore hope that she will tell us later whether she still thinks that it is a good idea and, if so, when the Government propose to introduce it. I am afraid that if she cannot give us a date by which the Government are willing to do so, we will conclude once again that the announcement was made just to grab the headlines.

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.

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. 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."

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 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. 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. 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. 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.

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 "a so-called inferior group of children with just enough learning to earn their living in the factory". 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.

Whatever the situation that they inherited, what they have done has been relatively worst in its effects on inner cities. They have let down all children, but they have particularly let down those in the inner cities. I hope that she will reflect on that in her calmer moments. If she wants to talk about initiatives, I remember that education action zones were one of the great initiatives launched by the Secretary of State's predecessor and junked by the right hon. Lady as soon as she had the chance.

Let me move on to the wider problem of discipline.

One reason why disciplinary problems in schools have increased under this Government is precisely that the authority has been taken away from head teachers to exclude those whom they want to exclude. Teachers, not only heads, are unhappy with the situation. The Government always get cross when I quote the National Union of Teachers at them, so let me quote the Association of Teachers and Lecturers instead. It says that in the past year it received 120 complaints from teachers about physical abuse at school and that assaults on teachers rose fivefold between 1998 and 2001. That is terrible.

If the ATL is another trade union to which the Government do not want to listen, perhaps they will listen to Ofsted. It points out that the poor behaviour of a minority of pupils is cited as the major reason for teachers leaving the profession. If that is true, it is a great shame that the Government have spent much of their first five years in office encouraging the undermining of head teachers' authority and therefore encouraging the increase in violence in schools.

It is extraordinary that, although the Government have so much information at their disposal, they do not bother to collect facts about the scale of violence in schools.

My colleagues and I have asked the Government for some weeks for the number of teachers who are assaulted each year, the number who are assaulted by pupils and the number of assaults on pupils by pupils. The Government do not know the answer.

The Secretary of State says, "Oh no". I refer her to written answers from her colleagues that state that they do not collect that information. Why do not the Government collect it? They know that matters are getting worse and are trying to disguise the fact rather than dealing with it.

We propose giving power over exclusions back where it belongs—with heads and governors. If they have the power to discipline children, discipline in schools will improve. That would send clear signals to unruly pupils and irresponsible and potentially violent parents that they cannot get away with their behaviour any longer. The Government have spent too long undermining heads and teachers; it is about time that they got behind them.

The Government's never-ending stream of initiatives has failed to tackle the two fundamental crises in our schools. Until they use something more substantial than summits, press conferences and initiatives, our most vulnerable children will never receive the education that they deserve. That stands as an indictment against the Government for five wasted years. They are betraying the hopes of a generation of children. They will not be forgiven and they do not deserve to be forgiven.

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