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Behaviour Improvement in Schools

12th July 2002

It is as important to consider the reasons for behavioural problems in schools as what we should do about them.

12.56 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I am pleased to take part in this interesting debate on what is clearly a complex issue. It is as important to consider the reasons for behavioural problems in schools as what we should do about them.

I do not accept that the problem can simply be blamed on modern-day society. That is much too superficial a way to approach the subject. Nor do I have much sympathy with those who blame pupils' bad behaviour only on poverty and disadvantage. Essentially, children have not changed over the years, yet at the turn of the last century schools did not have the same behavioural problems as we see today. Although bad behaviour in schools is clearly worse in inner cities than it is in rural areas, it would be wrong automatically to assume that there is no poverty or deprivation in rural areas.

I served as an inner-city councillor in a previous political existence and I now serve as a rural Member of Parliament, and I have a few observations to make. First, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, we should not shy away from discussing the difficulties posed by multi-ethnic classrooms. Simply to avoid the issue for fear of sounding racist plays into the hands of those who would feed on people's ignorance. It is important that we consider those issues so that communities do not become isolated and we do not return to the ethnic strife that we unfortunately saw in some cities earlier in the year.

If, as was the case in my London borough, 60 to 70 per cent. of secondary school pupils have English as a second language, it is almost inevitable that some children will communicate less effectively than others. They may then become disinterested in their class studies and a higher proportion might behave badly as a result. In that connection, I feel strongly that we must continue to address the high levels of illiteracy in this country.

My second observation is that family life in cities is often more diverse and fractured than it is in rural areas. My constituency is in the eastern region, which has relatively few exclusions. Generally, family units tend to be more cohesive there than in the big cities. Perhaps the fact that children find it harder to travel in rural areas than in big cities means that they tend to be more home-centric. Marriage rates are higher and the number of single-parent families is lower than elsewhere in the country. That must have an impact on a child's stability and therefore on the incidence of behavioural problems. Support for the family and for family values need to be prioritised when we are considering children's behaviour.

Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a growing number of parents who, for whatever reason, believe that the schools, society as a whole-indeed, anyone but themselves-should have the primary responsibility for socialising their children and asserting discipline over them. Of course, we are where we are. It would be nice to believe that all parents would hear the elaborate contributions in today's debate and behave accordingly, but that is unlikely.

It is the duty of Parliament to tackle the issue and remind parents of their obligations to others. To my mind, it is a question of helping parents as well as punishing them; of providing schools with the ability to discipline children; and of re-examining the judicial system, so that extreme behavioural problems can be dealt with more effectively and swiftly. We have a long way to go.

This is certainly not a problem just for parents. The school system is part of the problem. Three quarters of exclusions happen in our secondary schools, where there are significant teacher shortages and up to 40 per cent. of teachers leave within three years of joining the profession. Increasingly, foreign teachers are being recruited to fill the gaps. It is an unsatisfactory situation.

At the same time, children, being children, will often be difficult. Anyone who has had children will know exactly what I mean. They will push things to the limit, just to see how far they can take them. They need to be disciplined, to learn what is and what is not acceptable-what the boundaries are. When we have fewer and less well-qualified teachers struggling with growing class sizes in secondary schools while filling in more and more Government forms, they are likely to have less time to devote to the one or two children in a class who are creating a problem and who probably need a little more attention.

Lack of home and school discipline is leading to worse behaviour. In my experience, most parents value discipline and a strong school ethos just as highly as academic standards. If behaviour is not controlled, a vicious circle can come into play whereby pupils lose interest in their studies and teachers can lose interest in their careers.

As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) noted, significant recent research shows that pupil behaviour is now one of the main reasons that teachers give for leaving the profession. In the year to March 2000-I believe that these are the last available figures-more than 26,000 teachers left. As one leaving male maths and physics teacher in the eastern region put it:

"It's having to fight this uphill battle against-if I am allowed to call them that-'naughty kids'. They get involved in so much low level misbehaviour. And rudeness and the language . . . Quite often the parents don't support you. You are battling against it, because parents don't believe their child can be naughty. It's like that in every class and it's got more common. I think a lot of staff feel that the kids are untouchable."

The proportion of schools where behaviour is unsatisfactory is now one in 12. I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said. I feel that he underplayed the seriousness of one in 12 schools having that problem, although as any parent knows, in some ways it is irrelevant how many or how few schools have a problem: if one's children have to share a lesson with one or two disruptive kids, that lesson can be utterly destroyed. The fact that one in 12 schools have a problem is not relevant to parents who have children in that class.

Expulsion of the troublemakers has been made increasingly difficult in recent years by the Government, who have been proudly stating that they have reduced exclusions to low levels. To my mind, and to that of many people in this country, the policy has been a disaster, so I am relieved that the Government are now going to change it. It has not been mentioned in our debate, but the Government issued a consultation paper on exclusion policy-the deadline for replies was 19 April. The Government have not yet commented on the consultation's findings, so it would be helpful if the Minister could do so.

However, there is still a catch, because exclusion will have financial implications for the school concerned. In fact, it can cost the school between £3,000 and £6,000 in lost budget per excluded pupil, which seems most unfair. If the Government are moving towards accepting further exclusions, they must address the issue of funding. Why should the school have to suffer? If anyone is going to suffer, it should be the pupil and his family, rather than the school. If it is now acceptable for a mother to be sent to prison for her children's truancy, why should parents not pay the price for disruption to the education of 30 other children? That would instil a more direct lesson about parents taking responsibility for their children. It would also be more relevant than the Prime Minister's gimmicky suggestion of withholding child benefit.

I would not argue that the Government have been ignoring problematic behaviour in schools. The Minister made an eloquent speech and explained a number of Government policies. At the same time, however, we must realise that, to date, Government solutions have made the problem worse. There is more disruption and youth crime, and more teachers are leaving schools. I heard what the Minister said, but I hope that everyone agrees that we still have an awful long way to go. In fairness, however, I commend the Government policy of getting schools to build links with local police forces to tackle bad behaviour and truancy in schools. Schools in Huntingdonshire have been following that policy for some years, and have been extremely successful in building bridges with the community and making young people understand their relationship with the police. The Government's handling of bad behaviour in schools has been deficient, and it is vital that we all work together to get that right for the future of our communities.

I shall end with a couple of suggestions, and would be grateful for the Minister's views. First, we should recognise that many children are not suited to, or interested in, academic study. We have become much too academic-centred, particularly in the national curriculum, as other hon. Members have mentioned. We need to look at vocational options, which are much more likely to win the attention of children with behavioural problems and reduce those problems.

Secondly, we should realise that some parents are incapable, for whatever reason, of giving adequate guidance to their children. They need, or could benefit from, the help of a mentor. In the same way, children will often get great benefit from having a role model, especially if they are not surrounded by role models. I believe, therefore, that there is room for child mentoring.

As chairman of a social services committee on a council, I became aware of a pervasive view that teachers, social workers and probation officers are the only people qualified to deal with the problems of parents or children, but I have seen at first hand in New York the superb success of a scheme whereby unambitious and poorly educated children benefit from the advice and the relationship involved in a long-term mentoring scheme.

The nearest equivalent that I have seen in the United Kingdom is the Prince's Trust, where the addition of a role model or the input of friendly business or tactical advice from an experienced mentor can make the world of difference to a young person's chances of succeeding and moving forward in the community. I should very much like to see such a scheme put in place for children, especially in our inner cities.

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