Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 7:17 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I hope that the words of the noble Lord, Lord McColl, will not be forgotten; I greatly support him.

I shall speak today about children and young people and education. I will suggest that a strategy for youth is long overdue. Such a strategy would involve uniting elements of young people’s health, education, employment and other services. I am pleased that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is to respond to this debate—somehow, for it is an unenviable task—because I think that he genuinely understands the importance of structures and systems working together.

The gracious Speech last week referred to the Government’s commitment to a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded, to giving every child the best start in life regardless of background, to improving the quality of education and bringing forward plans for a new national curriculum, to helping working parents with childcare, and to encouraging those leaving school to go on to further education or into training.

On further education and training, a recent UNICEF report comparing child well-being across 29 richer countries highlighted that the UK has the lowest further education participation rate in the advanced world—I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK. It is clear that an emphasis on FE and training for young people must be a priority and I hope that it will be. The Children and Families Bill, which will be with this House shortly, covers a vast range of issues concerned with child well-being. I look forward to debating those and sharing perceptions on that Bill across this very knowledgeable House.

Today, I shall touch on issues of curriculum and education. Curriculum and education are of course not the same. Education is about fostering a love of learning and ambition, while the curriculum is a list of topics. I was a teacher myself once; I taught modern foreign languages. I am all for high academic standards, but I would also want to foster curiosity in young people, to encourage personal awareness and skills and to encourage discussion of religion and cultural values. I would want to give opportunities for young people’s sporting and artistic talents. I share the concerns of my noble friend Lady Billingham about the dangerous inroads being made into sport for young people. Having said that, I applaud the Lord’s Taverners’ Chance to Shine initiative, which continues to flourish.

I am also acutely aware that some young people need security and confidence in themselves before they can learn. I was interested to see the Youth Parliament announce earlier this month a campaign to support what it called preparation for life. It is after all made up of people experiencing education. It said that the focus of the proposed change in education is mainly within academic subjects—the curriculum again—at the expense of other skills essential for life. The Youth Parliament asserts that young people need to know about communities, politics, finance, sex and relationships, and cultural diversity and that it is not enough to expect parents to provide this knowledge; it must be taught in schools. I agree with that.

These skills need not be curriculum subjects in their own right, but they must be offered in school policies and the school ethos: in assemblies, in relationships within and outside the school and across subjects in the school. Such skills must be incorporated into certain subjects. They may also be offered by specialists—not necessarily teachers—in the school, as sessions in the timetable. They may include issues such as volunteering, local and national politics, how the police and other services work, and so on. Information must of course be appropriate to the age of the child and must not be one-off. Just one assembly on drugs is certainly not enough, for example. The different phases of growing up demand different content and approaches. It is interesting that the soft skills, as they are called, are also appreciated by the CBI and employers, who want their workface to be able to act in teams and be good communicators—a long way away from a rigid curriculum.

A new report by Ofsted evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of personal, social and health education in primary and secondary schools in England. I want to dwell on that for a few minutes. Ofsted expressed concern that sex and relationships education,

“required improvement in over a third of schools, leaving some children and young people unprepared for the physical and emotional changes they will experience during puberty, and later when they grow up and form adult relationships”.

Ofsted was also concerned that such a lack of sex and relationships education might leave young people,

“vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behaviours and exploitation”.

We cannot forget nowadays the problems as well as the wonders of the internet and its influence on young people. Young people must not be left uninformed and without the confidence and skills to recognise exploitation. Of course, they are also susceptible to alcohol and drug misuse, which was spoken of earlier. Again, they need the knowledge and skills to combat inappropriate risk taking.

The Ofsted report also quotes a significant DfE research report stating that children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school well-being have higher levels of academic achievement. I for one am not at all surprised by that, so I hope that the Government will make it clear that these issues—these soft skills—are important and must be taught in schools. If they are not, children might be deprived of vital information and the skills to protect themselves.

I said at the beginning that I would make a plea for a government strategy on youth that involved young people in its development. That would be a wonderful opportunity to prove that dialogue works. Such a strategy for youth might include issues around guaranteed services for young people—for example, health and education; it might include guarantees of the availability of sport and leisure, including the arts; it might flag up the rights and responsibilities of young people as citizens; and it might encourage engagement in the political process. I maintain that young people are special and that too often they are demonised when we all know of wonderful, kind, positive young people. They should be given a prominent voice in decisions about their own welfare. They clearly can and want to be involved. Perhaps the Government can take a lead in engaging young people in developing such a strategy. Perhaps then education and involvement in the institutions of our society, such as politics, would become more meaningful.