Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:07 pm on 26th June 2001.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach Conservative 7:07 pm, 26th June 2001

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on the gracious Speech and in particular to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. It reminds me of a time some years ago when we were both examiners in economics at the LSE and the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, was the director. I agree with a good deal of the observations of the noble Baroness, but I believe that our politics have slightly diverged since then.

I shall confine my relatively brief remarks to the subject of education. In so doing I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, on being made Minister in this field and wish her every success in carrying out her responsibilities.

Opening the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, reminded us that the Government, in introducing another major education Bill in the first year of the new Parliament, were making secondary education a major priority. The objectives set by the Government are very clear: first, to achieve higher standards, by which I take it they want to see pupils doing well in tests, for example GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications; and, secondly, to increase the diversity of schools so that different schools can provide education for the differing needs of individual pupils. The means by which they have chosen to do that are new opportunities for school sponsorship, more options for tackling failing schools and greater freedom for successful heads, deputy heads and governors in the running of their schools. Clearly, in all this there is to be a greater role for the private and voluntary sectors.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that the problems of secondary education cannot be solved without resources, and I believe that that is very clear in relation to teachers' pay. But the fact that the Government come forward with a major education Bill is a recognition that the present system has failed, not simply because it is short of money. One complaint constantly made is that the present system is far too bureaucratic. Local education authorities have become far too involved in detailed decisions relating to individual schools. Inspections are a nightmare and there has been excessive intervention by the Department for Education and Employment. In the Government's Green Paper, which was issued in February, I counted no fewer than 51 new initiatives, many of which involved plans and targets, extending once again the tentacles of government into every school and classroom. The bureaucracy extends not only to management but also to the curriculum and teaching, for which I regret to say this side of the House bears some responsibility.

The present national curriculum restricts far too much the teacher's professional judgment as to what should be taught and how teachers should perform in the classroom. I remember when the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was Secretary of State for Education, the Prime Minister said to me many times, "Brian, you and I don't know how to handle a classroom and what to do there, so we should not be prescriptive in legislation." I am only sorry that the legislation which emerged did not really have that stamped all over it.

The result of the bureaucracy is not simply a waste of money and resources. Far worse, it leads to inadequate standards of performance and low teacher morale. Heads and deputy heads find themselves ticking boxes, filling in forms and carrying out what is frankly clerical work. The over-prescriptiveness of the curriculum means that creativity is stifled in the classroom and the specialist judgment which teachers have learnt in their careers on matters such as the curriculum, exclusion of pupils and AS levels is being constantly undermined.

I welcome an education Bill which says that it will cut bureaucracy, give greater freedom to heads and governors and involve the private and voluntary sectors in the way ahead. It is to the Government's credit that they want to build a system that recognises our voluntary heritage, rather than having a national system in which central and local government have exclusive responsibility for education. They could have chosen that route.

I welcome the Government's reforms, but I have two comments to make. The first, which I hope will be proved wrong, is to express a certain reservation, if not scepticism, about some of the proposals. We shall have deregulation and greater freedom, but in the past four years the Government did not exactly bring an axe to bureaucracy. Over the years, they have curtailed the freedoms of grant-maintained schools, which were set up specifically to give heads, teachers and governing bodies greater freedoms. They have increased the powers of the local education authorities enormously and have strengthened the reach of the former Department for Education and Employment in the sheer number and volume of the circulars that have come from it. Not one of those 51 initiatives in the Green Paper reduced the administrative burdens of teachers. In fact, they added to them.

Already I notice in the press release on the gracious Speech from the new Department for Education and Skills that no fewer than four initiatives are mentioned, although the Government have been in office for only 12 days. The growth in bureaucracy is no accident. It is not as if somehow the Government intended to achieve higher standards, and suddenly an enormous amount of bureaucracy which they had not expected emerged. I believe that it has been at the heart of their policy for the past four years.

The Green Paper, which was published in February, contained a philosophy and a policy which said that school standards could be best raised by the Department for Education and Employment and the local education authorities taking more initiatives, giving greater direction to individual schools and having more responsibilities. The increase in plans, circulars, consultations and inspections was all part of a top down, centralised and interventionist policy to raise standards. The White Paper makes it clear that the Government think that they have achieved that in primary schools. They now tell us in the Green Paper that they will do the same in secondary schools.

Does the Government's emphasis on greater freedom mean that they have experienced some major conversion--a kind of Damascene event--to a wholly new approach to education that is much freer, less interventionist, less bureaucratic and less controlled? Or does the new rhetoric of freedom and deregulation apply only to a small number of what are obviously successful schools, while the rest of the secondary system is subject to as many directives and interventions as in the past? I sincerely hope that it is the former, but I fear it is the latter. I fear that the Prime Minister has said to himself, I have to have set targets and be seen to have clearly met them in four years' time before I can go back to the electorate". The experience of the past four years suggests that the only way in which to do that is to have a dirigiste system. I am prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, and hope that a generous interpretation is the right one, but I have my concerns.

The most difficult fact for the Government to accept is that greater freedom for schools, heads, deputy heads, leaders of years, and so on, means less power for LEAs and the Department for Education and Skills. We cannot reduce bureaucracy in our education system and give greater freedom to schools without simultaneously reducing the powers of government--local and central--to plan, consult, examine and inspect. That is a zero-sum game. More power to schools means less power to the Government. If the Government are serious in wanting to give greater freedom to schools, why not embark on the route of giving heads and governors the freedom to employ staff? Why not give them the freedom to set teachers' salaries? Why not give them the freedom to manage their own budgets? Why not give them the freedom to draw up their own admissions policy and implement it? Why not give them the freedom to set their own daily, weekly and term timetables? Why not give them the freedom to set their own standards of discipline, with the ultimate sanction of expelling students? If the Government were to seize the opportunity and the rhetoric of freeing schools became a reality, I believe that teachers, who are a major concern for any government involved in education reform, would not be dismayed by yet another education Bill. They would welcome such a Bill because it would lighten their load and allow them to devote more time to the profession that they thought they were going into when they became teachers.

My other comment is to welcome the Government's proposals to increase the diversity of schools, thereby extending choice for parents and pupils. I am not as depressed as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about the issue of diversity. Ever since the experiment with CTCs, which is now 15 or 16 years old, plus what we have seen in America in various magnet schools, charter schools, and so on, I think that there is much evidence to say that diversity produces a certain culture and ethos in a school, which produces better results. The private sector can play an important role in providing support services for education, which would in no way undermine the nature of secondary schools. However, I need to be convinced that a private company, especially one which was quoted on the Stock Exchange and running publicly funded schools for a profit, would be a desirable innovation. Would there be too great a temptation just to teach for results, so that schools became a little like A-level crammers? What kind of ethos would schools like that have? What kind of communities would schools which might have their equity quoted on the Stock Exchange create in which the character of children was to be developed? What financial pressures might such a school suffer if government funding failed to keep pace with the costs of employing staff, such as is happening at present in private nursing homes, where, as a result, the stock of nursing homes is falling? Then, if that were the case, how would schools run for profit by companies respond to their profits being squeezed?

I need no convincing of the importance that private sector companies play in the market economy, but we need to be careful before proceeding down this route when it comes to the education of our children. That is why the voluntary sector has a critically important part to play. In that connection, I should like to echo the words of the two right reverend Prelates who spoke in support of the work of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, in producing a report for the Archbishop's Council. It is an outstanding piece of work. The noble Lord's proposal that the Church of England should consider increasing the number of secondary places by the equivalent of 100 schools over the next seven or eight years responds to the demand that is there. But there is more to it than that.

Part of the reason why parents of all faiths and of no faith like sending their children to such schools is the emphasis they place on educational attainment. They want their children to do well. They want them to succeed academically and vocationally. More than that, such schools--I speak from the experience of all of my children having gone to the parish Church of England primary school--place great emphasis on the development of the whole person, including providing, which is very prudent in this day and age, a reasoned basis for values and moral standards. Most Anglican schools aim to be inclusive in their admissions policy. In his outstanding speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford gave many wonderful examples of how the Anglican ethos of education is different from the Catholic or evangelical ethos. It is inclusive and not exclusive. The right reverend Prelate described how the schools are reaching out to the Muslim community and are attempting to create a community of reconciliation. I ask myself whether the Archbishop's Council and the Synod of the Church of England have enough courage--as we have heard, nothing comes free, and the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, do not come free either--to take up the noble Lord's proposals. Let us hope that they do.

At the end of the day, we may spend a great deal of time debating the structures of secondary education. Structures matter and the debate is important. But of even greater importance ultimately is the need to attract teachers who see their profession--namely, the development and instruction of children--as a vocation which is respected by society. It is for this reason that the Government must be supported and encouraged in their steps to increase diversity and give greater freedom to schools. Apart from anything else, that is a wonderful way of reaching out to the teaching profession, telling it how much we value what it is doing and attracting teachers today to educate our grandchildren tomorrow.