My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, on his witty, excellent and informative speech. I very much agree with his comments about the importance of regional arts organisations, not just as a seed bed for national organisations but for success and outstanding contributions in their own right.
Almost a century ago, Lloyd George’s coalition Government of 1918 had the foresight to legislate for the establishment of nursery schools. Fast forward to the present, and this Government are making one of the biggest measures ever introduced to help parents with childcare costs, providing almost £1 billion in extra support for families. Today, we are about to witness this coalition Government bring about significant changes in early-years education, as outlined in the consultative document, More Great Childcare. These policies will make significant improvements to enhance the quality of childcare and early-years provision. But of course, as is always the case when a report is published for consultation, we all home in on one aspect of that report—in this case, the staff-to-child ratios. In the clamour to be heard, other important proposals in the document seem to be lost. Indeed, we reached the absurd situation where it was even suggested that opposition to enlarged ratios was in fact about leadership battles and not about sound educational and early-years development. I believe that I heard the phrase “showing a bit of leg” had been used.
The childcare report has picked up on many of the recommendations in Professor Nutbrown’s excellent independent review, Foundations for Quality, published last summer. Almost a year later, the Government are responding to that report. Raising the status and quality of early-years provision is one of the most important educational developments we can undertake.
I personally have never been comfortable with the term “childminder”. Childcare is not about minding children, it is about providing qualified people to deliver opportunities for young people to explore, play and learn. In medieval times, when agricultural workers went out to work in the fields, they were provided with a basket in which to place the baby and a peg from which to hang it. Childcare is not a peg on which to mind a child: rather, it is an opportunity to provide education while parents and guardians are at work.
In this way, the question of ratios should be discussed and considered in a rational manner, with decisions being made on an educational basis. I have learnt that so far the majority of the responses to the consultation from individuals and the main professional organisations say how important it is educationally to preserve the status quo in terms of existing ratio structures. In my view, just as class sizes improve learning, child ratios in early years and childcare improve the quality of that provision. I am not interested in league tables which show what other countries do; I am more interested in what is best for our children. Improving quality education does not come from increasing ratios. In a pre-school or nursery setting, you only have to have one child with special needs or special learning difficulties for the staffing ratios to become very apparent.
The Children and Families Bill will come to your Lordships’ House in the next few weeks. Again, this is a hugely important piece of legislation. Indeed, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deal with a number of important issues. I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill. I particularly praise the former Minister of State for Children and Families, Sarah Teather, who did much of the spadework when she was the responsible Minister. The Bill will have a huge impact on improving the lives of children and families from adoption to flexible working and special educational needs provision.
Turning to mainstream schooling, the public consultation on the draft national curriculum has been completed and we await the outcome of that process. For me, any national curriculum must ensure first and foremost that children and young people are numerate and literate. Yes, children must learn to spell correctly from an early age and, yes, grammar is important. In mathematics, children must know their number bonds and their times tables—yes, even up to the 12 times table. A love of language and literature has to be nurtured. Guess what? Surprise, surprise, a recent study on children’s reading found that early readers are always a level higher in their overall schooling.
I welcome a slimmed-down national curriculum as it means that teachers and schools can respond with their professional expertise and pupils’ interests can be nurtured. We are forever quoting international league tables for literacy and numeracy, but we ought to look also at league tables showing how our pupils develop creatively. Schools should be working to get the best from all pupils: we need to be pupil-driven, not target-driven. The issue with our national curriculum is that everyone wants it slimmed down, but, of course, every subject interest group then wants to fill it up again. We have trumpeted the fact that our academies have the freedom to diverge from the national curriculum, but it is not very “national” if increasing numbers of schools are not required to follow it by law.
My own view is that a national curriculum should be as it says on the label—truly national, and should apply to every school in the country. A slimmed-down curriculum will give schools the time and space to pursue their own priorities. On these Benches, we appreciate that every child deserves an education tailored to their abilities and interests. We need to identify barriers to learning at an early age, then intervene to put those things right.
As a House, we showed our concern for personal, social, health and economic education to be maintained as part of the national curriculum. Indeed, during a very important debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, Members from across the Chamber spoke of its importance for young people on a host of issues. We highlighted how important sex education is as part of PSHE. Members spoke with great knowledge and passion. I am happy that PSHE is to be retained as part of the national curriculum, yet as things stand, PSHE in general, and sex education in particular, do not have to be taught by academies.
The Government have put education at the core of their programme. The pupil premium, which currently stands at £900 per lower-income pupil, has been a game-changer for schools and pupils. As I have said on many occasions, the most important resource in education and schooling is the quality of the teacher. Maybe the time is right to look at a royal college for teachers, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, said when he was talking about the demise of the General Teaching Council. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks.
Teachers should be well trained and highly motivated, regarded and respected. Every pupil has the right to be taught by a qualified teacher. I find it regrettable that, in some of our settings, we allow unqualified teachers responsibility for our children’s education. Sadly, this is an increasing reality.
Every child should receive an excellent education from an excellent teacher. We want to unlock children’s potential and ensure that they can succeed in life. I hope that we go some way in this Session to doing so.