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Truancy

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1980

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10.

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what is the latest estimate of the level of truancy in maintained schools in England and Wales, and if he will introduce measures to reduce this figure.

The most recent survey of attendance in all maintained middle and secondary schools in England and Wales, carried out in 1974, showed that just over 2 per cent. of pupils were absent without a known legitimate reason on the day of the survey. A selective survey in 1977 confirmed this figure. Responsibility for action to combat truancy rests primarily with local education authorities. Last year, however, my Department published the results of a survey by Her Majesty's Inspectorate about helpful practice in dealing with truancy and behavioural problems, which we hope will be of assistance to LEAs and teachers.

Will my hon. Friend give more details about the good practice dealing with truancy? Will he say whether that includes the establishment of special units to deal with persistent truants?

On the latter aspect, it is for the local authorities to decide on how many units are required. Her Majesty's Inspectorate produced two reports in 1978 which reviewed closely the effect of truants and their behaviour in special units. It is not a role of the Department of Education and Science to develop the units directly.

On the good practice aspect, it is the intention of my Department to coordinate a conference towards the end of the year, which will involve the Department, the inspectorate and the local education authorities. Its aim will be to iron out some of the remaining problems.

Is it not a fact that truancy in schools compares very favourably with truancy in the House? Would it not be helpful to consider the problem in a sensible manner and realise that when we achieve a better teacher-pupil relationship—the opportunity to do so now presents itself because of falling school rolls—teachers will be able to teach that much better? We shall be able to handle the matter in a civilised manner, instead of in the backward manner of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Montgomery).

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman indulged in that unnecessarily harsh assessment of an important question. The hon. Gentleman has had experience of truancy both in school and in the House. We shall leave it to him to assess it on his own judgment. Let us hope that his assessment is better balanced than his question.

The matter is closely under review by my Department. It takes the matter seriously, and the local education authorities are responding. I hope that the seminar in which the Schools Council hopes to be involved later this year will be an integral part of the review of our conference.

Is my hon Friend aware of the activities of the National Union of School Students, which, with local Labour Party support in my constituency, is encouraging pupils to play truant as well as distributing obscene literature and disrupting classes? Will he consider recommending to local education authorities that that obnoxious organisation is banned from schools?

I think that the House will deplore that sort of action if it is happening in my hon. Friend's constituency. Such behaviour is to be totally deplored. It is a matter for initiative not by my Department but by the local education authority.

Will the Minister tell the Home Secretary and other members of the Cabinet that it is no use increasing expenditure on police if the Government, through the local authorities, intend to cut expenditure in education welfare services which tackle truancy at its roots? Truancy is the initial cause of a great deal of crime.

That question should be tabled to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. On the question of expenditure on this important aspect, I hope that local authorities will be able to judge precisely what is required in their communities and deal with the position accordingly.