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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative 2:51 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Knight, whom it is a pleasure to follow, ran out of time and was not able to praise the magnificent job that was done by my right honourable friend Michael Gove as Secretary of State. I come here to praise him, as a Scotsman, based on my experience as an Education Minister and as a Health, Social Work, Sport and Arts Minister—I did the work of five men in those days—in Scotland in 1987.

Following the magnificent lead given in England by my noble friend Lord Baker, we passed the Self-Governing Schools etc. (Scotland) Act 1989, which provided for schools to opt out of local authority control and for the first technology academies. The late Lord Forte promised to put up several million pounds for a technology academy in Glasgow, but Strathclyde turned it down because it was worried that it would cream off pupils from its local authority schools. The unions, the Labour Party—and the Liberals—fought tooth and nail against self-governing schools. Eventually, we got two: St Mary’s in Dunblane, which subsequently became the best primary school in Scotland, and a secondary school in Dornoch. On the creation of the Scottish Parliament—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, is not in his place—its very first act was to close these schools down and return them to local authority control.

It is interesting that we have had a little bit of sniping in this debate about the success of Michael Gove’s initiatives, but the Labour Party have little to offer in return. Looking at the history in Scotland, I can say that when I left office as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997, the number of pupils who got five good grades at school-leaving age was 10% higher than in England. Today, that position is completely reversed; Scotland is now 10% behind England. If anybody doubts the success of the reforms which have been carried out in England, and wonders what England would be like if it pursued the kind of policies being advocated by the Benches opposite, they can look north of the border and see the very dismal effect.

Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who is not in her place, I just thought, “I have heard all this before”. The opposition to schools having more freedom comes back to the same old arguments.

“But facts are chiels that winna ding”,

is a good Scots phrase, and the facts, I am afraid, show how successful schools can be if they are given autonomy and freedom. That was way back in 1989, 26 years ago. Think how many generations of children have been denied opportunities and the chance of a great education thanks to the ideological opposition of the Labour Party and the trade unions. I have noticed that, when attacks on our new schools come from the Benches opposite, they talk about “unqualified” teachers. What they mean is teachers who are not union members. They are singing the union song—the same song that was used to campaign against those schools in Scotland.

I am very much looking forward to the speech by my noble friend Lord Harris of Peckham. In the 30 or more years that I have been involved in politics, one of the most inspiring days was when I visited, at the invitation of my noble friend, some schools in London which were part of the Harris academy group. We went to Purley, Bermondsey and Peckham and it was just fantastic to see what was being done there. It was seen not just in terms of the amazing improvement in the academic results, but in the classrooms, where every child was in uniform—they say, “Good morning”, when you go in—and in the silence as they beavered away at their work. It was in the answers to questions: “What is the most important thing this school has done for you?”—“It has given me confidence”; “What do you feel about the school?”—“I feel that this school is committed to me. This school has made me realise I can do things I thought I never could do”. I am not saying that every state school in another form is not the same, but I cannot understand the Harriet Harmans of this world sniping at these schools and making difficulties for them when they are transforming the lives of their constituents.

How does this work? What is the magic? There is no magic. It is the same as in business or any other walk of life. It is about leadership, autonomy, diversity and flexibility. It is about having high expectations of each and every pupil and it is about discipline. I feel some frustration that it has taken so long to make this progress. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, is complaining that we are going too quickly; at this rate we will all be dead before the project is finished. My noble friend Lord Baker, who is 80 now, is going up and down the country setting up these university technology colleges with enormous success. There is no time left for prevarication on this. We need to get on with it.

I am told the election campaign is going to be all about the economy. Well, I am fed up of people banging on about the deficit. There are many aspects of this coalition Government which I do not like very much but there are two great successes. One is Michael Gove’s period in the Department for Education and the other is Iain Duncan Smith’s period in the department for welfare. Both of them have ended up pretty unpopular. Yes, you end up unpopular if you take on vested interests and fight for the interests of the people of this country who share our values and beliefs. At the end of the day, our country and economy will succeed, not because of policies in the Treasury or initiatives by politicians, but because we have a workforce with the skills, attitudes, disciplines and ideas to operate in a global economy. That is what these academies and the schools that have been created by this Government are going to achieve.