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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:03 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Perry of Southwark Baroness Perry of Southwark Conservative 2:03 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, it is a privilege to introduce this debate on the progress of the Government’s school reforms. I am very grateful to the many noble Lords who put their names down to speak today, and I look forward to their speeches with great interest. In my view, education is both the most important of all the social reforms that the Government have undertaken and the most successful.

Since 1988, the pace of educational legislation has been relentless, and the past few years of this coalition Government have been no exception. Fundamental changes to the curriculum, to examinations and to the structure and control of schools have altered the landscape of education in almost revolutionary ways. Of course, change in education is not an overnight process; it takes time. The results achieved are remarkable, but this is a work in progress. Mistakes will have been made and success is not always guaranteed, but the achievements of these reforms should be a cause for national celebration.

Education is important. It is through education that we ensure that every generation enters society with knowledge and understanding of our laws, customs and the values on which these rest. Teaching right from wrong and developing character are part of what society sets its schools to do, even though the definition of values are slowly shaped and developed by each generation in turn. Never have values been more important. In a world where widely different views coexist of what is right and wrong—for example, in respect of human rights and in the core concept of what is a good society—it is of paramount importance that our young people learn, understand and embrace for themselves the values which, in Winston Churchill’s words are,

“all that we have known and cared for”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 18/6/40; col. 60.]

Schools are also expected to give every capable child the skills and knowledge on which their society is based: how it earns its living and what it needs to survive and go forward. To meet this goal, each young person must be given the tools to survive as individuals and to contribute to the wealth and welfare of the society they will enter. Our young people will leave education to compete not only with their contemporaries in this country, but with their global contemporaries. They need skills to take their generation to economic success in a fiercely competitive race, and society needs every one of them to be properly equipped to contribute to their country’s success in the global race as well as to survive as individuals. It is easy to say that but incredibly difficult to achieve for every young person when their individual background, motivation and experience in the first years of life differ so hugely.

How then have the Government pursued these goals and what progress has there been? Reform of the curriculum, of what is taught and how this is examined, has been fundamental. Successive Governments have espoused the mantra that every child should have access to a broad and balanced curriculum, and some have supported the need for rigour in the teaching of every subject. In 2010, however, despite some energetic work in primary school offerings in literacy and numeracy by the previous Government, the curriculum in most secondary schools was neither broad nor balanced, and rigour was sadly lacking in too many subjects in too many schools. Too few pupils were following the key subjects of English, maths and science at GCSE level, and many were gaining their “five good GCSEs” in subjects which their teachers, chasing the Government’s targets, thought were the softer or easier subjects in which to get good grades. I am not a fan of targets. All too often these were not spread across a broad subject range, but bunched together in the humanities or arts subjects believed by the teachers to be easier than the hard disciplines of maths and science.

The reforms of both curriculum and examinations were designed to tackle this head on, and to reintroduce rigour, breadth and balance into every secondary school. First, the EBacc was introduced, offering a measure of student and school performance in the five key subjects, while the introduction this year of the Progress 8 initiative will give schools the freedom to broaden the range of subjects on which progress is measured.

Rigour within subject offerings is proceeding through the painstaking process of consulting widely with academics and teachers in each subject, to ensure that every young person leaves school with a confident grasp of maths and science, a command of English language and literature, and with the knowledge and understanding of the history of their own country and its place in the history of Europe and the world. Religious education remains compulsory, and the arts—music, dance, art and so on—can be offered with the school’s choice of specialist expertise and interest.

These are the basics of the curriculum, and the examinations reinforce and direct the breadth and balance of each pupil’s experience. The reform of the nature of those examinations is itself reinforcing the rigour of the subject teaching. I have no wish to enter the “dumbing down” arguments of recent years, but I greatly applaud the Government’s examination reforms. These mean an end to the practice of allowing pupils to take examinations in small modules, repeated many times, sometimes over two or three years, until a meaningless C grade is finally achieved. Final, summative examinations at 16 and 18 will now enforce real rigour in both teaching and learning and the results achieved represent a real measure of the young person’s achievement.

Much to my delight, the Government have also tackled the long-standing scandal of vocational education. The review of vocational education in 2011 by Professor Wolf—now the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf of Dulwich—found that no fewer than 350,000 16 to 19 year-olds were studying for qualifications that were of very limited value either to them or to employers. To deal with this, the Government have removed more than

7,000 qualifications from the performance tables, reducing the total on offer. The only qualifications being offered should be those which have real value to young people in obtaining apprenticeships and employment, and, best of all, providing motivation to continued study for those many young people who, though intelligent and personable, have little motivation in a purely academic curriculum.

The welcome introduction of the tech bacc offers talented students the chance to achieve, by assessment in one or more of the technical qualifications, a demanding maths qualification and an extended project, usually in the technical field of their choice. The innovative and highly successful university technical colleges, about which I hope we will hear more today from my noble friend Lord Baker, have made a most welcome contribution to this field of provision. Additionally, in this Parliament, 2 million apprenticeships have been taken up in more than 240,000 workplaces, supporting 170 industries. This, together with the increase and strengthening of apprenticeships to a 12-month minimum, is of inestimable value, both to the prosperity of our nation and to the needs and ambitions of perhaps 50% of our young people.

Critics cannot decide whether to deplore the slow pace of subject reform, which is due to the careful consultation which the Government are, quite rightly, undertaking, or to deplore the fact that the Government are leading this process. For my part, although I am proud to be a member of the much maligned education establishment, I have no problem with the Government leading such an exercise, as they did in the 1980s when the national curriculum was introduced under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Baker. What is passed on in education must be the responsibility and will of the whole society into which those young people will take their place. So it is, indeed, politicians and the Governments they lead—who are the representatives of society—who rightly determine the main framework of what is offered, but with expert educational and academic advice supplying the detail of what should be delivered and how.

This, of course, leaves the issue of how the curriculum contributes to the all-important transmission of values and the building of character. I confess to serious concerns about the fashionable belief that PSHE will do this alone. It is, of course, a valuable part of the curriculum if, and only if, it is well taught. In the compass of PSHE, some direct teaching about and discussion of topics such as healthy living, safety, personal relationships and social issues can be achieved. In some schools, the responsibilities of citizenship are also explored within PSHE. Other schools teach this in other subjects and other ways, but the building of character and the transmission of values must be the responsibility of every teacher and every adult in the school. Values are implicit in the way teachers interact with each other, with their pupils and with the parents of those pupils. They are explicit in the school’s rules, the respect for the environment and the way discipline is administered. Most of all, the way in which each pupil is made to feel valued and respected, regardless of race, creed, class or ability, is the most powerful conveyor of the values of the school. With the trust and freedom given to heads and teachers by the Government’s reforms, this will be easier than ever to ensure.

There is one important area where I have to record my concern that reform has not gone far enough. Ofsted has, in part, changed and improved its methods under Sir Michael Wilshaw’s leadership, but it still needs radical change to command the trust of teachers, heads and the public. I hope that change can be brought about to improve the quality and reliability of Ofsted judgments and the quality of its relationships with the profession. It is too important to be left untouched.

I have left until last the reforms of structure which this Government have introduced. Best known is the academies programme, started by the Conservative Government back in the 1990s through city technology colleges, then embraced, brilliantly argued for and developed by the work of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in the previous Government. It has been hugely expanded in the past four years by this Government. I declare an interest as chair of the London Borough of Wandsworth’s commission on academies and free schools, which has, I hope, contributed to that excellent borough’s success in maintaining warm professional relationships with all the academies and free schools created in recent years.

In 2010 just under 200,000 pupils nationally were already being educated in academies and free schools; by now, there are more than 2.5 million who are or have been educated in these schools. More than 4,000 academies have been started since 2010. In total, 60% of secondary schools and 15% of primary schools now enjoy the freedom of academy status. Many of these now work in close partnerships with others in the same sponsor’s chain or with community schools in their neighbourhood. Many are sponsored by independent schools or work in close partnerships with them.

Academies—independent schools which are wholly taxpayer-funded—have total trust in the professional judgment of the heads and teachers who work in them and free them from the bureaucracy of government, both local and national. Most maintain high standards of discipline and rigour in teaching and learning. Most offer rich programmes in the arts and extra-curricular activities and have raised expectations of pupils. Sponsored by a variety of dedicated individuals, such as my noble friend Lord Harris, independent schools, livery companies or neighbouring academies, they offer the opportunity for heads and teachers to exercise untrammelled their professional judgment about how the school should be run in the best interests of its pupils. In exercising this judgment, they are accountable to independent governors, to whom the legislation of the past few years has given huge responsibility. This is a model which is still developing. Many sponsoring chains have established overarching governance across the whole chain—this is undoubtedly one of the potential strengths of the model.

Free schools, an initiative of this Government, have allowed communities, charities and others to sponsor and develop new independent schools with state funding. Some 255 free schools have opened since 2010 and 107 more are approved to open in the future. One of the very earliest opened about 100 yards from my former home, so I was fortunate to watch the enthusiasm and energy of the parents who worked so hard to bring it to fruition. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, another neighbour, who worked tirelessly to see the school opened on time. Bolingbroke Academy has been a huge success, attracting applications in great numbers from across the borough.

When fully open, free schools will offer 200,000 places, of which the vast majority are in areas facing a shortage of school places. Additionally, 50% of these schools are in the 30% most deprived communities of the country, while 70%—in contrast to what is often claimed by their critics—are in the 50% most deprived areas of this country. Although it is early days, Ofsted’s judgment of these schools is a testimony to their value. Some 71% of those inspected are rated good or outstanding, far beyond the very few which have caused concern and which the press have so rejoiced in publicising. These schools have already proved innovative and exciting additions to the national scene. They have also, as it was hoped at the start, driven up standards in their neighbouring schools.

All these developments are greatly to be welcomed. From a system which left far too many of our young people’s talents undiscovered and undeveloped, we have a new system in which the dream of a good school for every child is slowly being realised. No one who cares about the long tale of underachievement which has so bedevilled our educational performance can fail to be supportive of all that is happening. I wish that the teaching unions, whose hearts, I know, are wholly in the right place, would put aside their objections and embrace a change which has had cross-party support for several years. It is the teachers who are delivering the magnificent successes of the recent reforms, and I can do no better than to end with my whole-hearted admiration for that most noble of professions and all that its members daily deliver in our schools. I beg to move.