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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 3:21 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Addington is quite right—there is a great deal left to do as regards doing well by children with special needs. However, I think he will agree that things are a great deal better than they used to be. When I look at what has happened over the last 30 years I am very pleased by what my noble friend Lord Baker, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and many other Education Ministers have done to improve education in this country. It has been a most encouraging time.

I remember that when I first came to this House it was not uncommon to hear noble Lords on both sides of the House say things such as, “What do you expect from kids like them?”. Now we know that we expect the best, and we are learning to do the best—and that is a wonderful process to have watched. It has been a process of two steps forward, one step back, but that is inevitable—it is just human. I get cross with people who pick out individual free schools and say that they have failed. Of course they have. How can you do something like starting a school and succeed every time? No one ever has, in business or in anything else, but the process itself has been an enormous step forward.

This Government will stand alongside their companions in those 30 years as having done their bit for educational progress. I join my noble friend Lady Perry in praising what we have done to examinations. They needed tightening up; we needed to get back to some sense of the importance of breadth. The EBacc is about learning about being a human being, about the importance of the humanities and the narrative of history, understanding something of our place in the world; about having an interest—if you can handle it; I have always found that extremely difficult—in a foreign language. My wife spent 17 years teaching in prisons. To be without those things—without any cultural hinterland or any sense of who you are or where you belong—is enormously disabling, and it is part of the function of schools to give children the opportunity to embrace that.

It is also important to deal with the basics—the previous Government did great things in focusing on reading and writing, and I am very glad that we have continued that. We have extended that into the area of digital skills, at last, and I look forward to that being something we do much more of. The world is becoming digital; digital capabilities will be something that all our children need.

We are not neglecting the hands-on side, either. The Design and Technology GCSE has been given to the engineers to redesign. We will get something real rather than kids making bookends for houses with no books. We will have something there, over the next five years, which turns people on to the idea that their hands are still part of their intelligence, and that there are real capabilities to be encouraged there.

We have also stuck fast with the important fringes such as home education. I count the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, as someone who laid down the rules on that some time ago: that education in this country is about parents, that parents drive it and the state facilitates, and that if people choose to educate their own children, they are exercising their own responsibilities, not doing something that is out of order. It is enormously important to hold on to the principle that it is about the parent and not the state, and we have done that.

We have made it fashionable for schools again to focus on good behaviour. So many problems have been caused by low-level disruption in schools. It more or less became tolerated, but is no longer tolerated. I am proud that we have been part of making that the case. We have carried on with academies: the great project begun by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and continued by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Yes; we now have some challenges to face, given where we have got to, but it still has been a source of great strength.

On university technical colleges, other than all the possibilities that they open up for students whom we have neglected for generations, the idea that pupils and parents decide that this is the education they want is my answer to those of my noble friends who still want grammar schools. No; why should schools choose children? It should be about parents and pupils choosing schools, and anything that goes the other way round just looks back to a failed system.

Where next? There is a great deal for an incoming Government to do. As I and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said with regard to academies, we need some focus on governance. We have to look at how we will handle the interface between government and all that freedom and independence, and we have to steel ourselves to understand as a Government how to do that without destroying what we have achieved. It will be a period of collaboration. That is now showing through in a lot of attitudes, between schools working with each other and between schools and employers and universities.

We are a little behind Scotland on this, where those relationships are much better established, but I have now been working hard in this area for a year and a half and have several projects running. One of them is called Learning through Experience, the objective of which is to give every child studying A-levels the chance to work on a real project that is directly linked both to their A-level and to a business or university as part of their education. The enthusiasm for that is enormous. It is there in the exam boards, among the head teachers, and in industry. However, it requires government—and this is government’s role in collaboration in general—to enable it.

We are hearing the old call for parity of esteem, and it is happening. There are two reasons for that. The first is apprenticeships—again, I credit the previous Government for all the work they did on that, and we have reinforced it. However, the fact that they have continued and have been well looked after is raising the esteem of parents and others for the vocational route. Fees for university are having that effect, too. Parents are seeing real advantages in their children being educated without incurring debt, and that is fundamentally changing people’s attitudes. What we have to do now is make the qualifications framework fit for purpose. I very much hope that the next Government will take up and focus on what my noble friend Lord Baker and others are doing.

Teacher esteem is really important. We have already done a lot, by encouraging Teach First and supporting the likes of the Teacher Development Trust—and I hope we will see the emergence of a college of teachers. We are nearly there. It will be a difficult thing to get right, but let us have a go. Last of all, we should gather evidence on what works. There is a wonderful grass-roots movement called researchED, which is getting teachers to do real research on real problems in schools. That is what we have done in the Education Endowment Foundation, and we have a real hope of defeating decades of educational homeopathy.