Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 4:03 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I suspect that we all knew that it would be an honour and a privilege to hear the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, but I would like to say that, at least in my case, it has also been a pleasure. The creative arts will indeed find a noble spokesperson for their cause and the voice of culture will be heard in a focused way because of his presence among us. His achievements in the world of music are truly prodigious: orchestral and chamber music; music for woodwind and strings; music for guitar and keyboard; and music for oratorio, ballet and film. You name it, and he seems to have done it. We salute him for his achievements, but we delight ourselves in the wisdom of those who bring him into our company so that we may benefit from them.

By happy coincidence, I am reading and reviewing at the moment a book about the poet RS Thomas. During the time he lived at Manafon, which is not far from Knighton, he wrote his first collection of poetry. The key poem in the volume is called, Out of the Hills. Since the noble Lord said that hill farming was one of his preoccupations, perhaps the same hills produced music in his case and poetry in the case of Thomas. I cannot forbear to read three lines of Out ofthe Hills; I know that noble Lords will tolerate this.

“Dreams clustering thick on his sallow skull”—

I had rather hoped that there would be a few more curls on the noble Lord’s head than there proved to be.

“Dreams clustering thick on his sallow skull,

Dark as curls, he comes, ambling with his cattle

From the starved pastures. He has shaken from off his shoulders

The weight of the sky, and the lash of the wind’s sharpness

Is healing already under the medicinal sun”.

I would love to quote the whole poem but I suspect that patience will run out. It is a joy, when we are preoccupied with finance, matters to do with the economy, politics and all the rest of it, that we shall have this other side of our being well represented by the presence of the noble Lord.

I suspect that his godfather would provide a mutual friend whom unwittingly we both might claim: a man called Osian Ellis, a professor of harp at the Royal Academy and a good friend of mine, now retired to the Llyn peninsula in north Wales. I remember talking to him about the art of harp playing and asking what pleasure he took from the fact that he had formed so many harpists in the course of his career and saved the art of harp playing for posterity. He said, “Ah, great pleasure. They are breathtakingly brilliant, but I have learnt to make the distinction between those who find the notes and those who find the music”. I suspect that in the case of the noble Lord we will hear both the notes played with great skill and the music beguiling us perhaps into wiser decisions than we would otherwise have made.

I can find a very easy jumping-off point from the preoccupations of the noble Lord to the subject on which I wish to entertain your Lordships for just a few minutes, which is education. I would hate to be the Cinderella in the discussions that we are going to have for the rest of the day. Education, education, education: the mantra is well known to all of us. In the gracious Speech to which we are replying, the first item states that,

“my government’s legislative programme will continue to focus on building a stronger economy so that the United Kingdom can compete and succeed in the world”.

I suggest that education, if it were properly viewed as an investment instead of a drain on our resources, would indeed be part of what builds a stronger economy. I would like to see education viewed in that way, rather than as something that costs a lot of money and has to be trimmed and cut back with greater and greater fierceness.

In the first couple of years of the present Administration a couple of Bills were railroaded through Parliament that gave impetus to the already existent and established academies. I have nothing against academies and I am strongly in favour of choice. My disaffection with the impetus to have more academies lies in the fact that it is sometimes at the expense of choice. Not all schools want to become academies. Why should they not choose not to become academies if in their view that is in their best interests? I am the chairperson of the Central Foundation schools of London. Neither of them is an academy and I promise noble Lords that both schools welcome their association with local authority wisdom. As more and more responsibility gets passed to governors, they find that they need the wisdom, experience and skill that they can call upon in the governance they are expected to provide.

The two schools in question are simply brilliant. When the national average last year for GCSE A* to C lay at 58%, these two inner-city schools provided 66% and 67% pass rates, without any of the so-called advantages of being academies. Yet they are in the poorest parts of the inner city of London. In Islington and Tower Hamlets we have two schools where over

70% of the pupils are on free school meals and where there are dozens and dozens of ethnic backgrounds—in the case of the boys’ school, not a single one constituting more than 25% of the population of the school, while in the girls’ school 80% are from Bangladeshi families and are all Muslims. We have this mixture of types, we are in the inner city, we are happy not to be academies and we are achieving extraordinarily well. Sometimes I think that we should salute those schools that do that.

Mossbourne academy is always held up as the example that we must all aim at reaching. We are told that it,

“is a model for 21st century education, pioneering opportunity, social mobility and the reinvention of the inner-city comprehensive”.

I promise your Lordships that the inner-city comprehensive is being reinvented furiously and wonderfully in the schools where I work without them having academy status at all.

So let there be choice. It is just sad that the market place is dominating the way in which schools are proliferating in the inner city. At 500 metres from the boys’ school, where we have just seen the doubling of the sixth form and with good results to match, a free school has been started where one is not needed. Islington has an over-provision of places at sixth-form level for its pupils, yet here we have a free school—to meet what demand? The school has also filched the head of the sixth-form consortium in Islington to be the head of the new free school. This is simply mad.

We must encourage the development of education without the red tape and control from the centre which, despite the rhetoric, suggesting a laying off of schools from that point of view, is actually increasing the amount of paperwork that head teachers have to cope with. We must go on asking ourselves whether we have got it right. Indeed, in the realm of education, where “further measures” are threatened in the Queen’s Speech—I dread those words, “further measures”—we simply have to recognise that sometimes we get the notes but that we do not always get the music.