Learning Society

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:56 pm on 25th April 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:56 pm, 25th April 2001

No, my Lords. My speech is time limited, and I do not intend to give way.

The education department throughout those years introduced the national curriculum, devolved schools management and opened up technical education, as well as developing GNVQs and NVQs. There was also the development of the specialist schools in languages, music, drama, sport, as well as in science and technology. More information and better accountability was provided for parents and regular inspection was introduced. The number of people entering university increased from one in eight to one in three, when we left office. The spending on education as a percentage of GDP in the previous Parliament was greater than that spent by the Government throughout this Parliament. Two major Acts for improving special educational needs were introduced during that time, and they have since been built upon by the present Government. I simply know not what, or to whom, the noble Lord was referring when he talked about "beating" education into children.

The need for flexibility and adaptability, greater competitiveness and a highly educated and trained workforce is well understood, but there is considerable scope for addressing the problems that beset our educational system at the local level. Given the importance of serving the needs of all people, there is concern and confusion about the resources matching the aspirations of the special educational needs Bill, which is passing through Parliament at present. I have read the ministerial answers to Written Questions tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. There appears to be a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies and how competing policies will be resolved.

There is a serious teacher crisis. There are far too many temporary supply teachers covering for teacher vacancies. There are far too many children being taught subjects for which their teachers have not been trained. There are even children without school places, who have missed months of education because of the sluggishness of the organisation and development committees system that has taken over from local education authorities the responsibility for decision making in the supply of school places for the number of children in an area. We heard only yesterday that the new A-level and AS-level system requires hundreds of additional exam markers, who are proving difficult to recruit and train. There is far too much bureaucracy throughout the school FE and HE sector, which is dissipating time, energy and precious resources.

There is also a funding crisis. Although additional funding has been announced by the Government, the actual core funding into our schools and colleges is not rising. One reason for this is the unprecedented tranche of money that is held back by the DfEE over which Ministers exercise personal patronage for endless pet schemes that are the subject of numerous press releases on an almost daily basis.

Coherence is another issue. There have been so many changes and so many initiatives that many of the relationships of the new bodies require greater clarity. I have in mind local education authorities, 47 learning and skills councils (which replace the FEFC and training and enterprise councils), a network of local learning partnerships with a co-ordinating function, the University for Industry (providing direct learning through learndirect centres), local information, advice and guidance services, as well as those bodies dealing with individual learning accounts, deferred repayment career development loans, union learning funds, and the Connexions service, to mention but a few. These bodies, and many others, provide a complex and bewildering picture for young people, especially those young and more vulnerable people who require much more assistance to enable them to see their way round the system.

If life-long learning is to be a reality, it must be accessible. It must be free from over-burdensome regulation, particularly for business and commerce; it must also be flexible, as well as free from bureaucracy and intervention. It must meet the educational and training needs and aspirations of its students, both young and old.