My Lords, as my contribution is relatively brief, perhaps I may take half a minute to say how much I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who, alas, is not in his place at the moment, on the importance of early years—the first two years of a child’s life—and the influence that that can have on the whole of the rest of the child’s life. It will also become apparent as I say my little piece that I closely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who, alas, is also not in a place. These things will happen.
The gracious Speech looks forward to further development of the Government’s policy on education. During the past year, major changes have been made to education policy and much more emphasis has rightly been placed on the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy. Perhaps more importantly, a new and much more prescriptive national curriculum has now been introduced and will effectively be mandatory in all maintained schools. However, for all other subjects and for all extra-curricular activities in a school, it will be up to the school, its head and the governing body to decide the school’s priorities.
The Secretary of State, who I greatly admire, is rightly searching for greater rigour in teaching the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy. This makes absolute sense. I can also see that there is a case for a new and compulsory national curriculum but I fear that the Government’s proposals for it may give rise to some unintended and undesirable consequences. My first concern is that there is a real danger that in some schools the compulsory and more demanding new curriculum may crowd out other facets of education. My second is about the possible effect of a more demanding curriculum on the self-esteem and self-confidence of less academically talented children.
On the first point, each school’s resources are finite in terms of both finance and well qualified staff. Each maintained school has the same per capita payment for every pupil on its roll, plus a further payment for every child from a disadvantaged background. This additional payment has, I am happy to say, recently been raised from £400 to £600 a year. However, there is a real danger that schools will decide that they have no option but to spend what it takes to deliver the new national curriculum—and then, if there is not much left, that is just too bad. I am particularly concerned that this may happen in schools with a high proportion of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Inevitably, some of those children—perhaps many—will take far longer to learn the new compulsory national curriculum than children from more supportive families. I very much doubt whether the £600 bonus per child for disadvantaged children will be anything like enough to cover the extra cost of bringing children from a disadvantaged background up to speed on the proposed new academic curriculum, let alone leaving much over for all the other important subjects about which the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke: drama, sport, the PSHE curriculum, citizenship and personal and social skills.
My second concern relates to self-confidence. One of the most important roles of schooling, particularly in a society where so many families are dysfunctional, is to build each child’s sense of self-worth. In a report three years ago, Ofsted looked at two groups of schools that it had rated “outstanding” in spite of being located in very disadvantaged communities. Importantly, Ofsted, which was looking for what was common to all those schools, found that among them a brilliant headmaster was important, as were dedicated staff, but what particularly interested me was that in each of those schools, every child believed that they could succeed. Self-confidence is an essential building block for a child’s success, in school and in life. I fear that the national curriculum may be a disaster for some children, if it means that they have to be set academic hurdles at which they are not able to succeed.