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Education (Environment and Sustainable Citizenship) Bill [HL]

Volume 816: debated on Friday 3 December 2021


Clause 1: Curriculum requirements regarding citizenship and the natural environment

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 17, after “must” insert “by regulations”

My Lords, I rise to move the little amendment in my name and, since the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, has also signed up to it, I can cut my speech down from one hour to no more than 45 minutes. I hope that I will not be too patronising in delivering it. This is a simple amendment. Clause 1(4) of the Bill—which I support—as it stands at the moment, states:

“The Secretary of State must give guidance about the provision of education”.

After “must”, I wish to insert the words “by regulations” —because, if one looks slightly further on, the proposed subsection (3) in Clause 1(4) says:

“The governing body of a maintained secondary school must have regard to guidance under this section.”

I am moving this amendment in a private capacity but—for the next couple of weeks, in any case—I am the chair of the Delegated Powers Committee, which looked at the Bill, as it looks at all Private Members’ Bills. We do not change our guidance for private Members any more than we do for the Government. When we look at Bills, our normal rule is that, where guidance is advisory, we suggest that it should be laid before Parliament but does not have to be debated—it does not need the negative or the affirmative procedure. But when it is guidance that one “must have regard to”—as we increasingly see from government these days—we say that, in effect, it is almost mandatory, and there are legal consequences for the person or body if they do not have regard to it.

In our report, we say:

“Although a duty to have regard to statutory guidance does not imply a duty to follow it in … all respects, we have in recent years observed that a person or body required by statute to have regard to guidance will normally be expected to follow it and will in practice normally do so unless there are cogent reasons for not doing so. And yet this guidance is subject to no parliamentary scrutiny at all.”

We are therefore suggesting that the Secretary of State makes the guidance by way of regulations that are subject to the negative procedure. That is not a heavy burden on the Secretary of State or the department. As we know, most negative-procedure SIs go through on the nod; they are very seldom debated or prayed against. I cannot imagine any side of the House wishing to pray against guidance in this regard, but the power exists there, if the House wishes to exercise it in certain circumstances.

I will give noble Lords one more minute of technical stuff. How would this actually take effect, when I am only inserting the words “by regulations”? I am advised by our lawyers that the guidance would in fact be covered by Section 210 of the Education Act 2002, which provides that:

“Subject to subsections (5) and (6), a statutory instrument which contains any order or regulations made under this Act by the Secretary of State and is not subject to the requirement … that a draft of the instrument be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House … is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

Merely putting in the words “by regulations” would mean that any guidance that the Secretary of State produces on this measure in future would be caught by that provision and subject to the negative procedure. In essence, that is it.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for signing up to the amendment. I do not think that we will have a highly contentious debate for the rest of the afternoon.

My Lords, although it is my Bill, I thought that I could probably take advantage of Committee and speak twice. But I take this advantage to outline why I am in support of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in his very helpful amendment. When I put together the original wording, I stole it from the Act that he quoted, and I perhaps could have paid more close attention to Parliament’s role. I am very grateful to the Delegated Powers Committee for its report and consideration.

The noble Lord was kind enough to send me an email on Wednesday. When I received it, it was with a little trepidation as to what he might have to say about how he would proceed today. It was of huge reassurance when he said that his amendment is not a re-emergence of the old Eric Forth and David Maclean “wreck a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday” scenario. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support for the Bill and for the way in which he has gone about this.

One reason for wanting to speak early in the discussion of this amendment is to have an opportunity to ask the Minister a couple of things for her to consider in her response. I think the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, agrees that there is sometimes a danger of it feeling as though the Department for Education, because it makes a lot of regulations, is reluctant to go down the road of guidance being in the regulatory form. My question to the Minister is: is there a good reason why we should not have this sort of guidance in regulation, as opposed to a good reason why, because it is important?

This is also an opportunity for me to ask the Minister whether the announcement made by the Secretary of State on 5 November, in the context of COP 26 in Glasgow, changes the Government’s position as we heard it at Second Reading. We had a different set of Ministers then and a slightly different situation. The Secretary of State made his announcement in the foreword to the document that he has then consulted upon. He said:

“Education is critical to fighting climate change. We have both the responsibility and privilege of educating and preparing young people for a changing world—ensuring they are equipped with the right knowledge, understanding and skills to meet their biggest challenge head on.”

It was almost as if he had been listening to the Second Reading debate. I was so encouraged to read the consultation document and hear what he had to say, and to see that there is an emphasis on climate education, green skills, the education estate and the supply chain. Indeed, I loved the idea of the national education nature park and the climate leaders awards, which are part of what Secretary of State is proposing.

Can we push the department that little bit further on the climate education side of things, so that we get this guidance and ensure that there is more than just a voluntary approach from our schools to delivering climate and sustainability education, which is what the Bill would do? Also recently—I think it was last week or the week before—we had Nadia Whittome introducing her own Private Member’s Bill on this subject. The subject is not going to go away, so I strongly encourage the new ministerial team to give it their own encouragement. It might not be now; I would be really delighted to meet the Minister to discuss whether we can do anything with this Bill to get it into the national curriculum. However, I want to hear from her whether there has been any slight shift in her position.

My Lords, this is a short, precise and extremely welcome Bill, improved by the helpful amendment presented today. I am pleased to tell noble Lords that the National Education Union—the largest education union in Europe, with 450,000 members —welcomes the Bill and the amendment.

The climate emergency is of course the existential threat to the future of all our children and young people. It is certainly the case that educators have a role to play in helping children address the threat by enabling them, as was said at Second Reading, to understand the climate emergency and ecological issues, and to think critically about how they can play their part as we seek a more sustainable way of life.

To demonstrate enthusiasm for teaching about the climate emergency and sustainability, the National Education Union worked with other organisations, including Teach the Future, to promote Climate Learning Month, which overlaps October and November, ahead of COP 26. Despite the high-quality resources produced, not all schools, and therefore not all children and young people, accessed them.

The Bill, particularly with the amendment, would ensure that all those educated in maintained schools would have access to this important area of learning. Alas, those educated in academies and free schools are not required to follow the national curriculum. However, Robin Walker, the Schools Minister, speaking on this in another place, said that

“I want us to do more to educate our children about the costs of environmental degradation and what we are doing to solve that, both now and in the future. Not only do our children deserve to inherit a healthy world, but they also need to be educated so that they are … prepared to live in a world affected by climate change, so that they may live sustainably and continue to fight the effects of climate change.”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/21; col. 146WH.]

I therefore hope that Her Majesty’s Government will not only support the Bill but press upon all schools the benefit of this aspect of learning. Of course, I hope that the Government will will the means to ensure that educators are themselves properly educated and trained to ensure high-quality teaching on this important issue.

Finally, it is the case that climate and sustainability issues are covered in the current curriculum—as has been said, they are covered in science and geography—but the magnitude of the climate emergency requires the holistic approach to content and skills development outlined in my noble friend Lord Knight’s Bill. The brevity of this speech should not be taken to imply anything less than my wholehearted support for the Bill and this amendment.

It seems almost superfluous to get up to support this Private Member’s Bill because it is so self-evident that it is excellent. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, on the progress it has made. Quite simply, you can care for something only when you understand it. That is true about caring for ourselves, for each other and for the natural environment. It is especially true for what can feel like an abstract concept: caring for future generations. The Bill will help tackle not only the environmental and ecological crises but the humanitarian and mental health crises.

Our Green MP, Caroline Lucas, has done great work promoting a nature GCSE and my noble friend Lady Bennett has called for a right to nature for children. Together with this Bill and the future generations Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, we begin to see a framework for the cultural and educational shift needed to underpin an ecologically minded society that no longer destroys our living world.

It would be very wrong for your Lordships not to pay recognition to the very many young people demanding action on the ecological and climate emergencies. As well as teaching them, we must learn from them and support them to use all that energy and enthusiasm to make lasting change, because it is their future that we are discussing. They will live to be the judges of our collective action or inaction.

My Lords, this is one of those debates where we are all violently agreeing with each other and with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. I wish the Government were always as responsive to his committee’s forensic examination of the problems of delegated legislation as my noble friend Lord Knight has been this afternoon.

I do not think there is any concern at all on the substance of my noble friend’s Bill and the amendment, but I looked at the Bill because I have a Private Member’s Bill coming up on a related matter in the new year on votes at 16 and reducing the voting age. Alongside that, which I see as a critical element of lowering the voting age, is significantly enhancing citizenship education in schools. My view is that part of the reason why we have such a massive crisis of youth engagement in politics, including on the issues my noble friend refers to in the Bill, is because we do not take citizenship sufficiently seriously in schools. We do not have automatic registration of young people at 18, or polling stations in every school, educational institution and university, as we should have.

I looked at the Bill to see how it would interact with enhanced requirements in respect of citizenship education in schools. My noble friend and I go back a long way on this, because we were fellow Ministers in the education department under the Government who introduced citizenship education under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Blunkett. There is a clear anomaly in the Bill in how it will amend education law. Because of my noble friend’s zeal in promoting citizenship education in respect of the natural environment, which I strongly support, the natural environment and sustainability, if the Bill is passed, become singled out in statute for special mention—indeed, unique mention—in respect of citizenship education, but none of the other aspects of citizenship education is then mentioned in statute at all, when they are surely just as important as citizenship education in respect of sustainability. Indeed, they are integrally linked—unless young people learn at school to be active citizens and to use the democratic process fully to advance the causes in which they believe and on which their generation depends, they will not embrace the cause of the environment as part of that.

Because this is of some importance to how our education law develops, I want to get a bit technical for a moment or two if my noble friend will forgive me. I want all this on the record because we may need to come back to it in due course. My noble friend’s Bill essentially amends Sections 80, 84 and 85 of the Education Act 2002. Perhaps I may go through the changes that it makes to each of those sections in turn. To Section 80, which covers the fundamental requirements of the national curriculum and teaching in schools, my noble friend proposes to add a new subsection (1)(f) —I should say, as amended by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, if it goes through—requiring

“provision for sustainable citizenship education for all registered pupils who are provided with secondary education”.

That section, Section 80, makes no reference to citizenship education in any respect other than sustainability and the environment. There is no reference to any requirement to teach citizenship in schools. This relates directly to the point made by my noble friend Lady Blower—I am sorry, this is educationalists speaking here—because Section 80 of the 2002 Act is the fundamental requirement apart from the national curriculum, which, as my noble friend said, does not apply to all schools. Under Section 80 as amended by this Bill, it would be a statutory requirement in all schools to teach about citizenship relating to sustainability but not citizenship relating to any other issue, including the voting process, the operation of your Lordships’ House and how one becomes involved in political parties—all of which are about to become significantly more important because another piece of legislation going through Parliament at the moment will require voter ID and therefore much greater activity on the part of young people to become voters in the first place.

Section 80 becomes very curious under this Bill. It introduces a statutory requirement which relates to certain items, of which the only one in respect of citizenship is sustainable citizenship education. Sections 84 and 85 stipulate the subjects that must be covered in the national curriculum. I add again that that applies only to some state schools; it does not apply to all state schools at the moment. The requirements in those sections in respect of sustainable citizenship and the natural world, as amended by this Bill, become very detailed. My noble friend’s amendment to Section 84, which relates to the key stage 3 curriculum, provides that

“‘citizenship’ includes programmes of study that encourage learning to protect and restore the natural environment for present and future generations, including but not limited to climate change considerations”.

I support all that. However, there are no words in that section relating to any other aspect of citizenship. The only other reference to citizenship is the word “citizenship”, in relation to the third key stage, where it lists the subjects that must be taught, one of them being citizenship. So we will have in statute an elaborate requirement in respect of the teaching of citizenship for the natural environment, but no requirement in respect of the teaching of citizenship elsewhere.

Exactly the same happens in Section 85, which relates to key stage four, the period leading up to GCSE. My noble friend’s Bill introduces a new subsection (11), which says that citizenship in key stage four must include

“programmes of study that encourage learning to protect and restore the natural environment for present and future generations, including but not limited to climate change considerations.”

Again, there is no requirement to teach any other aspect of citizenship.

The obvious response to this is twofold. First, we should have similar requirements elsewhere. Indeed, I would willingly participate in an exercise that drafted the citizenship requirements for the wider citizenship curriculum, which I think are every bit as important as the requirement here. Secondly, in respect of schools that follow the national curriculum, it does have citizenship as a subject. However, the status of citizenship under the national curriculum is very precarious. Noble Lords who remember the 2013 national curriculum review will know that whether citizenship was going to be removed was a big issue. It is all done under delegated legislation such as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra. By order, the Government can remove it. They have to have a thing called citizenship, but they can remove almost all of the programmes of study.

Indeed, not only was there a big debate about, in effect, removing citizenship entirely in 2013, but the Government substantially stripped it out of the curriculum in practice. They did three things: they stopped providing support for the recruitment of citizenship teachers; they ended the half-GCSE in citizenship, which had been a requirement of key stage four; and the then Secretary of State, Mr Michael Gove, who claims in other respects to be a great promoter of participatory democracy, taking back control and so on, said that he thought it was a very secondary subject and should not be given the importance of what he regarded as the core subjects in the curriculum. Indeed, the other curriculum reforms that the Government made prioritised a set of academic subjects above all others.

The point I am making, which I think is of some significance to education law and the future of the curriculum, is that we need to have a holistic view of citizenship education which absolutely embraces the environment, climate change and the natural world. But we must also give equal treatment and importance to citizenship education in respect of democracy and the participation of young people in the public life of this country. There is an epidemic of inactivity when it comes to young people and our democratic processes. We have very low levels of voting; the level for 18 to 24 year-olds is half that for the over-60s. The evidence is that people’s propensity to vote in their first election after they turn 18 determines more than anything else whether they vote in elections thereafter. We have tiny numbers who belong to political parties and we have very low levels of engagement.

I welcome the Bill. It is greatly improved by the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, but we need to set it in the context of the wider requirement significantly to enhance citizenship education in our schools. On that front, I am afraid that, because of inactivity on the part of the Government, we are moving backwards rather than forwards.

My Lords, I fully support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, as it would strengthen my noble friend Lord Knight’s Bill. Since this excellent and necessary Bill had its Second Reading in July, we have had the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, a city that I was privileged to represent in two legislatures. If the campaign to combat climate change and build a sustainable environment has moved forward as a result of COP 26, it has done so only to a very limited extent. The agreement was ultimately disappointing, with loopholes that can be exploited and the appalling 11th-hour attempt by China and India to sabotage the entire event.

Every time I speak in one of these debates, when my noble friend Lord Adonis also speaks, I am reminded that, no matter however much I think I know about education legislation, or certainly recent legislation, I still have much to learn. In his speech, my noble friend recalled, perhaps with some nostalgia, the time that he spent in government together with my noble friend Lord Knight, when our noble friend Lord Blunkett was the Education Minister. Noble Lords may recall that, at Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Blunkett talked about the time when he introduced the order to include the teaching of citizenship. He made the point that,

“while it has been extremely successful in some schools, it has hardly been taught in others”.—[Official Report, 16/7/2021; col. 2129.]

That is the nub of the problem that the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, deals with, because it would prevent it being taught in the curriculum as an option that schools can opt in to or out of.

The fact that COP 26 has taken place since we last considered this Bill has heightened the arguments for including sustainable education within the national curriculum. The role of young people, if it was in doubt, was thrown sharply into focus at some events around COP 26, which were inspirational to many. I certainly found it inspirational to watch the Fridays for the Future protest in Glasgow on 5 November, which gathered thousands of young people, many of them schoolchildren. Many Scottish local authorities had made it clear that, providing that parents informed schools of their children’s absence, no action would be taken against them for being on the protest. I have to say, it is hard to imagine such an enlightened approach being taken by DfE Ministers, but that in a microcosm highlights the widely different attitude to ensuring that children are fully absorbed in the detail of the need for action to combat climate change between the different parts of Britain. That was highlighted at Second Reading in reference to the situation in Wales and Scotland.

In July, officials from the DfE gave evidence to the Environment and Climate Change Committee of your Lordships’ House, suggesting that the Government would be establishing England as a trailblazer on climate education. This Government seem to enjoy blazing trails, especially in the DfE. At the moment we have, inter alia, trailblazers on T-levels and trailblazers on the new local skills improvement plans. Can the Minister say what her department has done since July to take forward that trailblazing pledge? They have dropped the ball in terms of this Bill, which would have been a perfect means of helping to meet their pledge.

We know, as I have said, that the lead in enshrining sustainability in the curriculum has been taken by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It is of course instructive that neither of those legislatures is under Conservative control because, if that were the case, children in those countries would be denied the right to learn meaningfully about sustainable citizenship in the way that their English counterparts currently do. However, my noble friend’s Bill offers a way forward that will essentially mean that there is a common approach across Britain, and it is much to be regretted that, as I suspect, the Minister in her reply will repeat the line taken by her predecessor in July—although, of course, I shall be happy to be proved wrong in that assertion.

At Second Reading, most noble Lords acknowledged that England must do better on climate and sustainability education. COP 26 has reinforced the fact that young people, including school students, are fully committed to bringing about a more sustainable future for their own and their children’s generations. So will the Minister offer them hope that teaching in our schools will more meaningfully support that aim and will be guaranteed in doing so by regulations through this amendment?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for highlighting the importance of parliamentary scrutiny. The Government agree that guidance should not be used as a means to circumvent scrutiny and should be used only where it is proportionate to do so. As my noble friend understands—probably better than anyone else in this Committee—the purpose of guidance is to aid policy implementation by supplementing legal rules. If a policy is to create rules that must be followed, the Government accept that this should be achieved using regulations subject to parliamentary scrutiny, not guidance.

I will quote from my noble friend Lady Berridge’s response in April to my noble friend Lord Blencathra on the same point, talking about the standard legal wording of having regard to the guidance. She said:

“The crux of this phrasing is that schools must have a good reason if they wish to depart from this guidance and they cannot choose to ignore it.”—[Official Report, 16/4/21; col. 1619.]

The Committee will be aware that a vast range of statutory guidance is issued each year, including in the education sector. It is important that this guidance can be updated rapidly to keep pace with events and is fully accurate and responsive to feedback from the sector. I hope that responds in part to the invitation from the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, to present a good reason for using guidance.

The need for this makes it disproportionate for the majority of statutory guidance to be subject to parliamentary procedure, although in exceptional circumstances it might be appropriate. There is nothing to prevent Parliament scrutinising guidance at any time, and Members of both Houses have various avenues available to them to apply for debates and ask questions. As I know the noble Lord, Lord Watson, remembers, last month this House debated the 2021 School Admissions Code following my noble friend Lord Lucas tabling a take-note Motion to do so.

I turn to the substance of the Bill and the points raised in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. I thank him for the warm welcome he gave to the Secretary of State’s announcements just ahead of COP 26. As the noble Lord set out, the Secretary of State announced a draft sustainability and climate change strategy at COP 26. This is a whole-systems approach that sets out our commitment to increase training and support for schoolteachers—a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, raised—including a primary science model curriculum that will have a focus on nature, science CPD, free access to high-quality resources and sharing best practice.

The strategy also includes key initiatives such as the climate leaders award and our virtual national education park. To the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, I hope this will give young people understanding, real hands-on experiences and a chance to develop the skills that will allow them to be active voices in this debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked whether there was any more—I apologise for not noting the word—nudge, enthusiasm or momentum in this. There is a lot of momentum. The noble Lord will know from the schools he is connected to, and I certainly see on almost every visit I make, that children are very exercised about these issues and are proactively raising them. I have touched on the department’s work, but the other critical thing that we cannot underestimate is the pull from employers for the skills that will be required for the sustainable economy of the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, rightly raised important issues of citizenship education. I will not attempt to address all his technical points, as I am with the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on his superior knowledge of education legislation. But we expect schools to use their expertise and understanding of their pupil cohort to develop the right approach towards citizenship education for their particular school. Active citizenship, which I know the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, supports, is at the heart of the programme. At key stage 4 in particular, pupils should be taught about parliamentary democracy and key elements of the constitution. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in this short debate. I must admit I felt a bit guilty, in that the Bill was due to go through on the nod a week last Monday and, when I put down the amendment, I knew it would kick it back to a Friday. I was worried then that the Bill would fall altogether, but I am grateful for this chance to have a discussion today. Although it has ranged slightly wider than I had anticipated, there is no harm in that. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, for his support and all noble Lords who mentioned COP 26. When I put on my face mask today, which I acquired when I was in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea that COP 26 would be so relevant to today’s debate.

I also thank the noble Lord and the Minister for mentioning the Department for Education’s attitude to guidance. I am grateful for some of the things that she said, but some things the department had been doing before her time, in the way it issued guidance and the attitude it took to laying it before Parliament, were contrary to what she informed of us today. I am referring to the school uniform guidance. I moved an amendment saying that it should be laid before the House as a negative procedure, as regulations. The answer from the department—I paraphrase slightly and I hope I am not exaggerating for effect too much—was, “No, we are not going to bother you with that. We issue thousands of pages of guidance each year, and we have always got away with not laying it before Parliament; why would we create a precedent now of troubling your little heads in Parliament with this guidance?” The second excuse was “A lot of our guidance changes very regularly and we cannot trouble Parliament with it”. The school uniform guidance is unlikely to change regularly and it is unlikely that this guidance will change regularly. The same argument applies: it should be laid before Parliament in the negative procedure. Even if it does change regularly, the department has to write the guidance. There is no problem in laying that guidance as a regulation through the negative procedure. Hardly anyone would object to it 99.9% of the time.

Going slightly off piste, like the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, the final thing I have to say is that my amendment to this Bill was small and I am grateful that everyone agrees with it. Next Tuesday, the House will be looking at the Health and Care Bill. In my three years as chair of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—my committee has not looked at it officially yet—I have never seen a Bill with such appalling delegations of power. There are about 150 delegations. It is a skeletal Bill, with no guts or detail to it. There is disguised legislation, where regulations are called guidance, protocols or directions—anything to avoid them coming before Parliament. I hope noble Lords participating in that Bill, irrespective of its other merits, look at all the delegated powers in it and give them proper consideration. In thanking noble Lords for their contributions, I am delighted that my amendment finds favour with the Committee.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with an amendment.

House adjourned at 2.25 pm.