My Lords, the main purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect to proposals set out in our White Paper, The Importance of Teaching, published last November. To that extent, it has been well trailed and contains few surprises. In a number of respects, it builds on reforms introduced by the previous Government. In all respects, I hope that it will enable us to strengthen the autonomy of schools and colleges, to back heads and teachers as they go about their jobs, to move away from top-down prescription, to strengthen the ways in which we hold schools and Ministers to account, and to build on our efforts to tackle disadvantage and extend opportunity more widely. While I am sure that there will be proposals on which we will hold different views, I hope and expect that there will be broad agreement to the principles on which the Bill is built.
Why are we so keen to strengthen autonomy and accountability and to put our trust in schools and colleges? It is because the evidence from the best-performing educational systems around the world suggests that this combination is most effective at driving improvement. Greater autonomy, backing teachers and increased accountability are the threads that run through the Bill. I will say a little more about each.
“Autonomy” is a rather lifeless word to describe something that I believe that we are all keen to encourage: a situation where inspiring heads and outstanding teachers are free to use their judgment and experience for the good of children. There can sometimes be a temptation for legislators to prescribe everything that we think is desirable in order to guard against things going wrong. The difficulty with that impulse, which I understand, is that the effect over time can be to silt up the system and make professionals feel constrained in exercising their judgment on the ground.
In 2009, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee produced a report on the cumulative impact of statutory instruments on schools. It recommended that the former Department for Children, Schools and Families should shift its primary focus from the regulation of processes through statutory instruments towards establishing accountability for the delivery of the most important outcomes. In line with that, the Bill removes some unnecessary legislative duties from schools, such as: to produce a school profile; to co-operate through children’s trusts; to have regard to the area’s children and young people’s plan; and to take part in a behaviour and attendance partnership. We want schools to be able to co-operate in ways that are right for them, not to be asked to conform to a one-size-fits-all approach determined in Whitehall.
We are fortunate to have a strong and vibrant sixth-form college and further education sector. Again, we feel we should be able to trust that sector’s leadership and staff to meet the needs of young people and employers in their local community, yet they tell us that they too often feel weighed down by a complex statutory framework that holds them back from doing what they do best. That is why we are removing those duties and stripping away some of the powers that legislate for best practice or inhibit the sector’s ability to enhance the choice and experience of learners and employers.
The Association of Colleges has said that:
“AoC is pleased that Ministers have placed on a statutory footing the clear commitment they have already shown to freeing Further Education and Sixth Form Colleges from many regulatory burdens … Colleges don’t need a statutory duty to tell them they should take account of the views of students and local employers on the courses they offer or that they should have regard to promoting the well-being of the local economy and community”.
We know that governors play a critical role in the strategic leadership of schools. Current regulations prescribe proportions and categories of governors in minute detail. Therefore, we are keen that governing bodies should have more freedom, if they want it, to recruit governors primarily on the basis of skills and experience. During the passage of the Bill through the other place, there were strong representations, particularly from Liberal Democrat colleagues, that, in addition to the head teacher and parent governors, it is important for maintained school governing bodies to have a governor appointed by the local authority who has the skills required by the governing body, and a governor elected by staff. We listened to those views and will bring forward amendments to the Bill in Committee to reflect that position. There will also be amendments to correct defects in and omissions from legislation.
As noble Lords know, a key part of our drive to increase school autonomy is the academies and free school programme. The academies programme, pioneered by the party opposite, has been shown to raise standards for all children and for the disadvantaged most of all. Building on that, there are now over 700 academies open, and a third of secondary schools are already academies or are in the process of converting to academy status. The traditional emphasis on underperforming schools continues and is, indeed, accelerating. This Bill extends that programme further with new categories of academies for 16 to 19 year-olds and to provide alternative provision for the most vulnerable.
We also want local authorities to have a critical role in the education system as local champions of social justice. As the challenges and circumstances in each area are different, we want to avoid statutory duties which require a one-size-fits-all approach from authorities, such as: requiring every pupil to be able to access every diploma; requiring every school to be provided with a school improvement partner; and requiring the same type of admissions forum. It is our belief that it should be for local areas to determine these matters, reflecting what works best in their community, and the Bill provides this freedom to local authorities.
In talking about concepts such as autonomy and the structural reform needed to help deliver it, we must not lose sight of the need to attract and retain the best graduates into teaching. Outside the Bill, we will shortly be announcing further proposals on teacher training, but I would like to mention two measures in the Bill which relate directly to teacher retention and which reflect concerns put directly to us by head teachers and teachers: behaviour and discipline, and anonymity from false allegations. We know that poor behaviour, or fear of it, puts many of our best graduates off teaching. A 2009 survey showed that in primary schools an average of 30 minutes of available teaching time per teacher per day was lost due to pupil indiscipline. In secondary schools, the figure for lost teaching time increased to 50 minutes per teacher per day.
This House is rightly concerned about children’s rights. But I believe that it will also accept the need to balance the right of individual children against the rights of all children to learn in an orderly environment. In the most recent year for which we have data, there were more than 360,000 fixed-term exclusions—almost 18,000 for physical violence against an adult and almost 80,000 for threatening or verbally abusing an adult.
To get more talented people into the classroom and give disadvantaged children the inspiration that they need to succeed, I believe that we have to support teachers and head teachers in maintaining high standards of behaviour in schools. That is why the Bill builds on the powers introduced in the Apprenticeship, Skills, Children and Learning Act on searching pupils and students. Teachers need the authority to search for items that have been brought into school with the intention of causing an offence, harm or injury. We also propose to give teachers the power to search for and to confiscate items banned under the school rules.
We also know, through evidence from children, that cyberbullying is a real problem, with nearly one in five 12 to 17 year-olds saying that they have been victims of it. Schools should be able to prevent mobile phones being brought into schools for cyberbullying and the Bill provides teachers with the power to confiscate them and, where there is good reason to do so, delete inappropriate material before they hand them back. I recognise that concerns have been expressed about the use of some of these powers, including the power in exceptional circumstances for opposite-sex searches where an item may cause serious harm if the search is not carried out urgently. These are permissive powers and we believe that there are sufficient safeguards in the legislation, as well as these powers only being available to staff whom the head teacher has specifically designated to conduct searches. The Bill also provides schools with the power to issue same-day detentions to children who misbehave.
Overall, these changes have been welcomed by the main head-teacher unions. The Association of School and College Leaders says that the discipline measures in the Bill are necessary and proportionate, and that head teachers and teachers can and should be trusted to use these permissive powers sensibly and in the interests of all pupils and staff in their schools. We also want to give schools the final say on whether a pupil is excluded in order to avoid those cases, which I acknowledge are rare, where a school is directed to reinstate a pupil who it believes, after proper consideration, should not be.
Finally, we want to give teachers better protection from false allegations made by pupils, which could be used to undermine their authority and have a devastating affect on their lives. The Bill therefore provides for reporting restrictions where a pupil, or someone on their behalf, alleges a teacher has committed an offence. These restrictions would be lifted once the teacher is charged. Alongside the work that the department is doing to strengthen guidance on dealing with allegations so that unnecessary delays are removed and that suspending staff is not seen as the default option, these measures will, we hope, provide better support teachers.
Hand in hand with increased freedoms for schools, we want stronger accountability directly to pupils and parents. The Bill therefore makes it easier for parents to see how well their school is doing by reducing the criteria for Ofsted inspections to four areas; namely, teaching, leadership, achievement, and behaviour and safety. We want also to free outstanding schools and colleges from inspection so that more time and resources can be devoted to those who need help most.
Alongside the Bill, we are reforming the performance information made available to parents, including measures on the progress children make at school and not just their raw attainment. That should remove some of the perverse incentives on schools, which led to a focus on a narrow group of children who might boost rankings in performance tables. New destination measures for schools and colleges will allow parents and young people to see for themselves how well institutions do at academic and vocational courses and how well they equip their students for life afterwards.
We must also be outward-looking, comparing our education system with the best in the world. That is why we are strengthening the role of the independent regulator, Ofqual, and requiring it to look not just backwards in time to make sure our qualifications maintain standards, but outwards to ensure that they compare well with qualifications overseas. The Bill will also require schools that are sampled to take part in international surveys of educational standards to participate.
However, it is not only school-level accountability that we are keen to strengthen in the education system. Local and central government needs to be more accountable. We have a shared goal with local authorities to tackle underperformance and in most cases we are able to work together to achieve that. But in some instances local authorities have not gripped underperformance, so we propose to take a new power in the Bill to increase the focus on tackling weak schools.
The Bill also restores ministerial accountability to Parliament by abolishing four major statutory arm’s-length bodies—the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, the General Teaching Council for England, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Young People’s Learning Agency. Many of their activities will cease, as teachers and school and college leaders decide for themselves how best to meet the needs of their pupils and students, rather than receiving pages and pages of guidance. Where roles continue, they will be brought back within the department and Ministers will be accountable to Parliament, which is where accountability should sit.
The final theme that I want to cover is fairness. For far too long, children from disadvantaged backgrounds have not fulfilled their potential. That is why this Government, in difficult economic circumstances, have managed to find additional resources and target them on those most in need. Starting in the early years, the Bill provides for the extension of the entitlement for free childcare to all two year-olds from the most disadvantaged families. The previous Government did much work in this area and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, who oversaw a significant growth in early-years education, which this Bill continues. We will move from 20,000 to 130,000 two year-olds benefitting each year over this Parliament.
Outside the Bill, noble Lords will know that we are introducing the pupil premium—£2.5 billion a year by the end of the Parliament—to support children on free school meals, looked-after children and children from service families.
We are committed to continuing the last Government’s drive to raise the participation age. Overall, we can fund more than 360,000 apprenticeships across all ages in the coming academic year, while making changes to the underlying legislation in this Bill so that they are deliverable in practice. In particular, there will be sufficient funding for 135,500 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2011-12 for 16 to 18 year-olds.
We are taking a new approach in the Bill by requiring schools to secure careers advice—which must be impartial and independent—for their pupils. That is supported by a range of measures, working with the careers sector, to improve the quality and professionalism of services in this area.
So far as higher education is concerned, the Bill takes forward two elements of the new student finance arrangements. They will be more progressive, with the lowest-earning 25 per cent of graduates paying less over their lifetime than they do at present. It will also mean that fees for part-time courses are capped so that new loans can meet them.
We are extremely fortunate in our country to have so many great schools and colleges, led by a superb generation of heads and supported by an extremely talented and committed cohort of teachers. Despite the dedication of these professionals and the fact that our children seem to work harder than ever at exams, other nations still appear to be overtaking us. Our 15 year-olds are a full two years behind their Shanghai-Chinese peers in maths and a year behind teenagers in Korea or Finland in reading. Evidence from these best-performing countries shows that giving greater freedom to professionals and schools, with stronger accountability, provides the best route to improving our education system. That, in essence, is what lies at the heart of the Education Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to the Bill. He has done the best that he can to enthuse us but the Bill is heavy with structural change and light on what really matters—the delivery of high standards in every school for every child. At least the Minister did not fall into the trap of his boss, Michael Gove, who took his reputation for exaggeration to new heights in the Commons debate when he said:
“This Bill provides an historic opportunity for this country. It will help to guarantee every child a high quality education, which will equip them for the technological, economic, social and cultural challenges of the next century”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/2/2011; col. 180.]
Regrettably the Bill does not meet any of those lofty aspirations. At a time when the debate going on in the country is about how to drive up academic standards, how to ensure that every child has a chance to excel and how to distribute resources fairly to compensate for deprivation, the Bill fails to meet the challenge. Instead, it seeks to redefine the relationship between schools, parents and local communities, diminishing accountability and dismantling the procedures that ensure fairness and equity. As such, there is plenty in the Bill to give us cause for concern.
This does not mean that we are opposed to all the clauses in the Bill. We can support a number of them and others we hope to clarify by amendment in Committee. I will say a little more on that shortly. I hope your Lordships and perhaps even the Minister will recognise that there is something slightly obsessive about a Secretary of State who produces a Bill that gives him more than 50 additional powers. It is an irony that, at the same time as we are debating the Localism Bill, this Bill is moving in the opposite direction, taking decisions away from parents, communities and elected local authorities and centralising them in a department ill-prepared for the raft of new responsibilities coming its way.
On this issue, as perhaps on many others in the Bill, I hope that we might have a common cause with noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches as I see in their election manifesto that they were committed to,
“introduce an Education Freedom Act banning politicians from getting involved in the day-to-day running of schools”.
Not surprisingly, that did not make it into the coalition agreement. Am I the only person to suspect that when something goes wrong, as things inevitably do, and his department is held responsible for a bad decision or a failure to act on the new responsibilities, the Secretary of State will be noticeably absent? Either by then he will have been conveniently reshuffled into another department or he will just expect the Minister opposite to take to the airwaves to explain away the error once again. We are not happy about the centralisation of power. We will scrutinise these clauses with particular care and measure them against a simple yardstick of whether they are in the interests of pupils, parents, professionals and local communities.
As I mentioned earlier, there are some clauses in the Bill that deserve our support. We welcome the extension of free early years provision for disadvantaged two year-olds. We will in due course seek firmer guarantees that the provisions in the Bill cannot subsequently be watered down, but you would expect the party that introduced the universal entitlement for three and four year-olds to approve its extension.
We also welcome the clauses that give teachers anonymity when accusations are made against them. We all know examples of good teachers whose lives have been blighted and their careers damaged when false allegations are made against them. It has on occasions been used as a cynical tool of revenge by some pupils and it is absolutely right that teachers have the right to anonymity until allegations have been investigated and formal charges brought. However, we fail to understand why the Government have so far failed to follow the logic of their own arguments in this regard in extending the provisions to all school staff and those working in further education and the youth sector, who are equally vulnerable.
We will also support practical measures to give teachers more power to intervene in bad behaviour in the classroom. However, we remain concerned that the specific additional search powers in this Bill are not matched by the appropriate safeguards. Moreover, there is a danger that the new measures could be simply symbolic. I read with interest the oral evidence given by head teachers to the Education Bill Committee in the other place. They struggled to find examples of where these additional powers would be useful and the teachers’ unions reported that their members would be very reluctant to use them. Nevertheless, we will welcome alternative proposals that send a clear message to pupils that bad behaviour will not be tolerated.
The Bill is guilty of sending mixed messages to the teaching profession. On the one hand, it wants to strengthen their authority in the classroom while, on the other hand, it waters down their professional status through the abolition of the General Teaching Council for England. So far, the Government have failed to produce a credible position on this. We believe that there is still a need for a regulator with a degree of independence in this sector. Surely, the sensible approach would be to learn the best practice from other professional bodies and work with the teachers’ associations to find a better method of setting standards, regulating entry to the profession, maintaining a comprehensive register and managing teacher discipline.
What message does it send to parents and teachers about the importance of professional standards when the Government make it clear that free schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers? Surely, parents should be able to choose the best school for their child, safe in the knowledge that all publicly funded schools will employ teachers with relevant training and qualifications?
Equally, if we are committed to driving up standards in schools, what justification can there be for the abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body? This organisation was halfway through producing job profiles for support staff which would have recognised their important contribution to children's learning experience in schools. It was a welcome development that school leaders and teachers alike have supported, so I hope that in Committee we will be able to persuade the Minister to reconsider that decision.
I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments around the clauses today, but I would like to highlight some areas of particular concern. First, the Bill dilutes parents' rights over school admissions. This is a massively sensitive subject and will continue to be so as long as parents detect that there are schools of varying quality in their area. The Bill abolishes local admissions forums and waters down the capacity of the schools adjudicator to intervene to ensure fair play. The new draft admissions code, published after the Bill had received its Third Reading in the other place, would allow grammar schools to expand beyond their current physical capacity, leading to a potential expansion of selection in the state school system. A weakened admissions system means less power for parents to ensure their child can go to the school they choose. A weaker system also risks unfairness going unchallenged.
Secondly, we support the Government’s aim to establish an all-age careers service by April 2012. However, the lack of a transition plan from the existing careers service providers, compounded by the impact of local authority cuts, means that most of the staffing and expertise will be lost before the new service has had a chance to establish itself. As the ASCL has said,
“More than 2 million young people aged 16 to 19 could lose out on valuable careers advice while the government overhauls the national careers advice service, at a time when young people’s unemployment is reaching record highs”.
There is a real danger that, in this vacuum, careers advice will end up being provided online or collectively, whereas we believe that young people need personalised, ongoing, face-to-face advice that is tailored to their individual skills and interests. They also need real choice between academic and vocational training, including access to good-quality apprenticeships.
Finally, this Bill rewrites the Academies Act passed last summer at breakneck speed and without adequate scrutiny in the other place. As a result, only one of its original 14 sections has escaped being replaced or amended. The model created by the previous Government to use academies to turn around failing schools in deprived areas has now been turned on its head. The resemblance between the old and the new is in name only; now, every school will be encouraged to become an academy.
The Bill could mean that by 2015 we would have an all-academy world: 20,000 schools, each with its own admissions policy, all being judged on the prescriptive English baccalaureate that is geared towards the top 30 per cent of children. Schools will have a clear incentive to admit the most able students and, with a weakened adjudicator and greater competition between schools, back-door selection becomes more likely. Such a world could be a dangerous place for less academic children or those with special needs.
In this new world, the role of elected local authorities in planning schools and services is marginalised. The strategic role envisaged for them in the education White Paper is abandoned. They will have no significant role and scarce resources to co-ordinate provision, whereas we believe that local people and local communities should be in the driving seat in determining what is best for their children’s education.
I said at the outset that this Bill ducked many of the key arguments about education today. While it is true that those do not appear in the Bill, it is also true that there are potentially profound consequences arising from the restructuring of education services being pursued by the Secretary of State. The expansion of academies, each with its own budget, will create a vast new marketplace for schools to buy services that have previously been provided without charge by local authorities. New private providers of education services are already moving into that void. No doubt some services will be able to be procured more cheaply, but schools will also be under pressure to save on the cost of expensive services for those who have special needs or require learning support.
No doubt the Government will argue that the pupil premium will help offset some of those additional costs. However, can we be sure that the money involved will compensate for the complexities of trying to provide an education service in a deprived area? What will be the consequence of the private sector supplying those support services? Can we be sure that they will be properly regulated and that schools will be protected from market failure?
What of the management of these academies? It is hard to imagine how the Secretary of State thinks he is going individually to manage thousands of academies, so it is rather convenient for him that they are already forming themselves into chains and federations. Instead of managing individual schools, he could ultimately manage contracts of large private providers—some no doubt bigger than the democratic local authorities they seek to replace. Those providers currently make a virtue of their charitable status being not-for-profit, but can we be confident that that protection will continue? Could we one day be facing the educational equivalent of Southern Cross, with all the challenges of maintaining continuity of education in the school system that could result?
When we scrutinise the Bill, we will be looking at the detail of the clauses as written, but we will also be mindful of the potential consequences of a market-dominated education system and what it means for the school system as a whole. We will put forward measures to ensure that the right checks and balances keep children’s interests paramount. We will aim to place the rights and priorities of pupils, parents, professionals and the public at the heart of the Bill, and reassert the right of communities to determine their children’s education. We hope very much that, in the course of the discussions, we can make common cause with noble Lords across the House, perhaps including the Minister, to strengthen the Bill on this basis. We look forward to the remainder of the debate today.
My Lords, I welcome the emphasis in this Bill on improving the ability of teachers to teach. Given what she has just said, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, will not be surprised to hear me agree with my noble friend the Minister about the importance of freeing up schools to get on with the job. Members on these Benches will emphasise the rights of every child, particularly the most vulnerable, and judge the Bill on whether it furthers the Government’s objective of encouraging social mobility and inclusion. There are a lot of issues in the Bill, so I shall focus my remarks on Parts 1, 2, 4 and 5, and leave the rest to my noble friends on these Benches.
I give an enthusiastic welcome to the extension of free early years provision to disadvantaged two year-olds, but I am a little concerned about charging for provision beyond the statutory three hours, and I worry that those families who most need high-quality early years education might be deterred from taking up the free hours by their lack of ability to pay for the additional hours they actually need. Will the Government please review this to ensure that disadvantaged families do not lose out?
Wide concern has been expressed about the proposals in Clause 2 on searching pupils. We on these Benches of course agree with the coalition agreement, which says that teachers will be given the tools they need to maintain discipline. I echo the Minister’s statement that every child has a right to learn, so schools must ensure that the behaviour of one child does not impinge on the rights of other pupils to an education. However, there are two questions. First, are these the measures that will support teachers to maintain discipline? Secondly, are these the measures that teachers and heads want? In answer to the first, I think they are much less relevant than a fair code of school rules and a strong leadership team supporting the authority of all teachers. In answer to the second, some heads want these measures but most teachers do not, so the profession is divided.
I think that searching affects the fundamental relationship between teachers and pupils, which changes from one of trust, about preparing the child for its future life at work and in the family, to one of policing. I have concerns about training and teachers searching children alone, and I will raise these as the Bill progresses. The Joint Committee on Human Rights also has concerns about the impact of this very widely drawn power on the rights of the child and recommends three amendments to restrict it. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend to introduce these amendments in Committee? Most FE colleges have a security officer trained to search safely. However, if a 20 year-old male security officer wishes to search a 14 year-old female student, we have a human rights problem.
On exclusions, Clause 4 removes the exclusion appeals panel and replaces it with a review panel, which cannot insist that a child should be reinstated if it feels that the decision has been unfair. I accept that this happens in only a very few cases, but we need to have an eye to natural justice. The fact that appealing parents can have the support of an SEN expert is welcome, but I would like them to be able to choose the expert for themselves. The threat of a fine might not be enough to deter a school from excluding a child unfairly, but I would ask whether there will be a sliding scale, since £4,000 seems an awful lot for a small primary school. We must of course balance the right of a child to a placement that best suits his needs with the rights of the other pupils in the school.
We welcome the proposal in the White Paper for schools that exclude a child to retain responsibility for both his funding and his future achievement. However, that does not appear in the Bill. We are told that there are to be pilots. Will the Minister commit the Government to legislating for this if the pilots prove a successful disincentive to unfair exclusions?
Clause 5 removes the duty to give 24 hours’ notice of an after-school detention, which was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for the good reason that it would avoid a child’s journey home being unsafe. I am very concerned about the removal of this duty. We do not want another Milly Dowler case. A child can disappear in the blink of an eye. However, schools tell me that there are problems with 24 hours’ notice, so I will table an amendment to ensure that parents are contacted on the day and that the school satisfies itself that the child can get home safely. We need to be very specific about that.
Many schools have found behaviour and attendance partnerships to be of great value in arranging managed exclusions. With the removal of the duty to take part in such partnerships, how will the Government ensure that schools work together to manage children who are not settling down, or those with special needs for whom the school is not properly catering? The Minister will know that children with SEN are disproportionately excluded. This has gone on for years. Can he explain how it will be avoided?
The abolition of the QCDA passes control of the curriculum to the Secretary of State. The QCDA was established only recently to advise the Secretary of State on the curriculum, but now he feels that he does not need its advice. Perhaps we shall see established an external review of the national curriculum and an internal review of PSHE. It seems a great deal of trouble and expense at a time when the Government are urging all schools to become academies, which do not have to follow the national curriculum anyway. Perhaps that is why the Secretary of State feels that there will not be enough work for the QCDA in the future. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on this.
I am particularly concerned about the abolition of the duty to co-operate with local authorities. It is very important that professionals work together around the child. We need to make sure that that continues to happen.
Clause 36 means that you cannot have a new community school unless no one wants to set up an academy or a foundation school. This does not sit well with the Government’s intentions on localism, fairness and parental choice. I have no doubt that we will have considerable discussions about this in Committee.
My Lords, I strongly support this Government’s policies on teaching in schools and academies. They are right to do more to improve the nation’s academic standards across the board. In particular, it is important to give more opportunities to our ablest children. However, the Government hope to achieve more than that. They hope to achieve greater equality, better outcomes for children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and more social mobility. These are all important objectives, which the Government have a good chance of achieving if, and only if, they successfully address the problems of disruption by pupils and disaffection in our schools. They will achieve this only if they pay more attention to the role and the problems of parents in the education of their children.
I fear the Government may be making the mistake of thinking that a child’s education takes place only in school. The truth is that every waking hour, from birth onwards, the child is learning. A child in full-time education spends around 28.5 per cent, I believe, of his waking hours in school. In the first three years of its life, a child’s experiences are wholly mediated by its parents and family. Parents get the first innings, but school readiness is crucial to their child’s success in school later.
In his introduction to last year’s White Paper The Importance of Teaching, Michael Gove says this:
“At the heart of our plan is a vision of the teacher as our society’s most valuable asset”.
In the same year a major report from Demos says:
“Parents are the … architects of a fairer society”.
The truth is that children need both teachers and parents working together. What parents do, or fail to do, is a powerful influence on their child’s development and life chances. Some speakers have already referred to Chinese children in this regard. Working with parents matters, yet the Bill makes no mention of the role of parents in preparing their child for school or in supporting them in school. Is this an intentional omission?
In reply to an Oral Question that I asked the Minister the other day, he said that the vast majority of the nation’s parents,
“are doing a good job”.—[Official Report, 19/5/11; col. 1483.]
Of course, he is absolutely right, but that does not mean that we should not pay attention to that minority who still have problems. To say that a significant minority of this nation’s children are not getting in their family the start in life they need is not necessarily to criticise or stigmatise those parents. In our society today quite a lot of parents need more help, education and support. In their recent reports to Government, Frank Field, Graham Allen and Clare Tickell have all addressed these issues and have made excellent proposals. However, as I read the signs—I hope I am wrong—it seems to me that many of their proposals are already beginning to be swept under the carpet by this Government because they are politically inconvenient. If that were to happen, it would be a tragedy. It would in my opinion greatly reduce the chances of achieving success in the Government’s objective of reducing social inequality and increasing social mobility. It could also prejudice the Government’s chances of achieving success in their objective of educating all children better because disruption in class damages the learning environment of all pupils and diverts resources from teaching to behaviour management. When they came into power, this Government undertook to help struggling families. Do they stick to that commitment?
My Lords, last Friday, rather curiously, I found myself at Blenheim Palace twice in the day. In the evening I was at a ball celebrating 100 years of a diocesan social work agency called PACT, which specialises in working with adoption, fostering and children’s support, but in the morning I was with 200 head teachers of church schools in the diocese of Oxford, celebrating, among other things, 200 years of church schools throughout the country. They were a very impressive group of head teachers, skilled, dedicated and looking forward to the challenges of this new era and the new things that are to be done.
As we all know, the Church of England has a huge commitment to education, going back not just 200 years to the foundation of the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor, but way beyond that to the first schools in the country in the monasteries and religious foundations of our land. We are proud to have been deeply committed to this most essential of tasks for a very long time. Our nearly 5,000 schools, with nearly a million children in them, have high standards, are popular, and have values, disciplines and habits of the heart that parents recognise as deeply worth while. The future, seen through the eyes of those head teachers at Blenheim, is indeed full of opportunity as we continue to provide schools of both distinctive and inclusive quality, serving the communities in which they are set.
The Bill before us seems by and large to be a tidying -up exercise, but I find myself wondering whether we have had a sufficiently broad, conceptual debate into which it fits. I wonder whether we have seen the coherence of the overall educational strategy, or if we are simply letting a thousand flowers bloom and trusting that, with a bit of luck, the eventual outcome will be a garden that is both beautiful and productive. Those of us involved in education are scrambling to keep up with the pace of change and are hoping that there are not too many unintended consequences. Is the overall educational vision clear, beyond, of course, promoting localism?
The question that exercises me is whether we are promoting, and whether this Bill supports, a vision of education for the whole person or for just part of a person. Are we concerned with the full human flourishing of every child, or just developing the skills that will serve the economy? William Temple told the story of a father who sent a note to his son’s school that said: “Don't teach my son poetry; he’s going to be a grocer”. That is a very impoverished view of education. This is the debate that I wish we could be having today, and which, in a sense, lies unexamined behind our Bill. There is a risk, for example, that the review of the national curriculum could skew the learning outcomes in a more instrumentalist direction, when what we want is the full, rich development of children’s incredibly diverse potential.
In this context, I do have some concerns, as noble Lords can imagine, about the English baccalaureate. We need our children to be more factually informed—absolutely—but not at the expense of the grocer’s son learning poetry. The humanities matter, and I could make a particular case for the high value of RE as a rigorous tool for learning about human society, local harmony and global peace making, as well as exploring personal values, ethics and belief systems. If we are to have the English baccalaureate and RE is not included in it, society will be very much the poorer in the next generation.
These are general comments on the context of the Bill, and I regret that we are not first discussing and exploring an overall educational vision. However, there are three markers that I should like to put down at this Second Reading. These are to do with the way in which the Bill and the White Paper on which it is based impact on the work of churches in their schools and colleges.
First, we will want to follow up in Committee—and, I trust, in further discussions with officials—a number of technical issues concerned with land and trusts for schools converting to academy status, and staffing arrangements at academies with a religious character.
Secondly, I want to express some concerns about teacher training in the future. It will be essential to ensure a denominational balance in initial teacher training. This is currently a duty, but I am not convinced, from what I know so far, that it will remain so. It is vital that the denominational balance be retained in order to ensure an adequate supply of appropriately trained teachers for our church schools. This is not just about RE teachers but all teachers. I am concerned about that.
I was at Whitelands College at Roehampton University last month, where the principal said it was the most rewarding job that he had ever done in his life. There are 11 other Anglican and four Catholic universities and university colleges, but because they have teacher training as a major part of their foundation, the proposal to base training in schools is posing a very real and destabilising challenge to them, I have yet to be convinced that it will improve the quality of training. Between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of training time is already spent in schools.
Thirdly, and in conclusion, the Church of England is committed to working with this Government and Governments of every hue to further the goal of offering the best educational experience possible to every child in the country, including the grocer’s son. Education unlocks virtually everything else in a young person’s life. In the church, we want children to think for themselves and to act for others. To that end, through the national society and the diocesan boards of education, we are, in a thoroughly open-minded and energetic way, pursuing how to make all these new systems work, and are looking forward to making those changes to the system that are ahead of us. We are committed to all of this.
Could I ask the right reverend Prelate a question, as he speaks in this House for the Church of England? This Bill promotes the establishment of more faith schools and more Church of England schools; I went to one myself. What is the current admissions procedure of Church of England schools? I believe he made a speech during Holy Week that seemed to be slightly at variance with the Statement made in this House three years ago, when there were long debates on this subject, on amendments that I moved, to ensure that any new faith schools would recruit at least 25 per cent from outside the faith. That was something the previous Government supported for a time but then abandoned. Following that, the archbishop said that the admissions procedure of all new Church of England schools would be 25 per cent from outside the faith, or from no faith. I thought that was very sensible and appropriate, and I hope that it would be an example for other faiths. Is that still the admissions procedure of the Church of England?
The admissions procedure for the Church of England always rests in the hands of the local governors. They are advised by the diocesan boards of education, which in turn are advised by the National Society, which I chair, so in our admissions advice we give no particular figures. That 25 per cent is on the books but it is not in the current advice. That is for individual decisions to be made. I could expand on what I was trying to say, but I think this is probably not the time.
We are committed to co-operation with Government, but if we are going to back these head teachers, like the ones I was with at Blenheim last week, I hope that there are some changes yet to be made to the Bill.