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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:18 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 2:18 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, as one member of the education establishment to another, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, on giving us the opportunity to debate the concept of progress and reform in schools. She is a very brave woman to do so, because both are clearly contentious and take time, as she said. I simply call into question some of the means of reform, but I prefer to look on this debate as a time for reflection on what we mean by good education and what we want for our children. The ways of going about that may be different, and I certainly have concerns about some reforms, as, indeed, does the new report from the House of Commons Education Committee, which shows some inconclusive results.

I could have focused on various aspects of reform in education that I find disappointing. I will name some: league tables, which this morning were called a mess; planning for primary school places; the upside-downness of education—surely it would be more worth while to pump money into the early years; problems with admissions policies; the focus on testing and examination results; the neglect of careers advice; and the negative impact of some reforms on teacher morale. There are a lot. But I am not going to make that speech.

Instead, I will focus on some principles on which, in my view, educational reform should be based. The noble Baroness, Lady Perry, and I agree on much of this; it is how we measure it and carry it out. First, as she says, there must be a focus on the well-being of children—all children. That means liaison between schools and other local services and with communities. Teaching should be exciting and inspiring, not as what one teacher described recently as, “In years 10 and 11, we focus on redoing old exam papers to try to improve grades”. That is very sad. It is not teaching; it is not learning. Teaching and learning are about curiosity for life—a broad education covering artistic, academic, sporting, spiritual and moral aspects.

Governments have always dodged making social education—I do not call it PSHE—a central platform of intervention and therefore compulsory. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, that it is not just a subject. It should be an overriding concept, visible and understood. It should include pupils learning about themselves and others, and about emotional and health concerns. More than anything else, pupils should be given the confidence to be learners.

Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, said in a speech last year that education should be “life transforming” with a system that,

“breaks down barriers and narrows inequalities”.

That is all very well and I agree. But she rather smeared that vision with remarks about subjects being unequal in the curriculum. As my noble friend Lady McIntosh said in a debate three weeks ago, Nicky Morgan seems to have gone back to redefining two cultures in society—science and arts—with science, technology, engineering and maths keeping options open and unlocking doors, and the arts wafting away somewhere in the distance. That is not a principle for education. Children and adults do not come in bits and this is quite a dangerous concept. The CBI has said that what industry wants are young people who are “rounded and grounded”.

I know it is dangerous to list the purposes of education but the Government speak of one purpose from time to time—social mobility. If that is so important, we are not doing very well at it. As was pointed out in our debate on early intervention, the OECD and the Office for National Statistics say that we have low levels of intergenerational earnings mobility. In fact, we have the worst performance, way behind the Nordic countries, Canada and Australia.

I do not think that we can, or should, base education on specific targets. That is short-term and will not produce individuals who gain well rounded skills. It is well known that schools that focus on developing the whole child produce better academic performance. Yet teachers talk of bureaucracy, mechanics and the lack of time being a problem. They also talk about the collapse in some areas of subjects such as music and drama, which inspire not only creativity but self-discipline, self-confidence and working in teams.

Yesterday, the Minister did not have a great deal of time to respond to my Question about free schools and faith schools. I have enormous concern about this government reform. Not only do I worry about unqualified teachers, I worry about school ethos. I worry about standards. Some Ofsted reports have been damning. I worry about the consequences to society of there being more of these schools. Quite simply, they are divisive. Four out of five Sikh schools have no white British pupils; eight out of 15 Muslim schools have no white British pupils. A colleague of mine from Northern Ireland often says, “Have we learnt nothing?”. Yet the number of such schools is allowed to increase, while the Government want to teach more about British values.

The report on academies and free schools published yesterday by the House of Commons Education Select Committee is thorough and well evidenced. It points out that some research has found no benefit being brought about by having more autonomy in the education system, with competition as the driver. The OECD concluded that collaboration is the key to successful systems. These findings are in a section in that report called, “Raising standards across the local area”. The NFER research found that:

“Pupil progress in sponsored academies compared to similar non-academies is not significantly different over time”.

To return to my point about free schools, schools that have been damned by Ofsted have often been open for longer than a year. What damage has been done to the children in those schools in that time? Millions of pounds have been spent on reform—I do not know how many; perhaps the Minister does—for results that seem inconclusive and can be dangerous. We now have a system that is disjointed between educational parts and from communities. I have to ask the Minister: has it been worth it? Would the vast sums of money, if we are talking about real education, not have been better spent on improving existing schools? By all means, insist on strong leadership in schools—that is key—but I cannot accept that the wholesale destruction of a system and the creation of uncertain alternatives can be justified.