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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:59 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 3:59 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, for securing the debate today and for giving us this excellent opportunity to take stock of the coalition’s education legacy.

This debate is considerably enhanced by yesterday’s publication of the Education Select Committee’s report, Academies and Free Schools. Like my noble friends Lady Massey, Lord Knight and Lord Whitty, I recommend it as essential reading. After months of witnesses and evidence, the committee found that a successful process of school improvement was already in place in 2010. Indeed, there is no robust evidence that the coalition’s academy programme has been a positive force for change, raised standards overall or specifically helped disadvantaged children. It concludes that,

“the Government should stop exaggerating the success of academies”.

In that regard, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Nash, cannot be with us this afternoon. I rather think that he might be one of the culprits the committee had in its sights. We agree with the committee that it is essential that school improvement policies are evidence-based.

This is why I have made a point, since I was appointed, of going out and about, visiting as many schools as I can. I have been keen to observe, to listen and to learn. I have even shared a couple of visits with the noble Lord, Lord Nash, one to his academy and another to a maintained school in Tower Hamlets. Both schools were impressive and both demonstrated an enormous degree of energy and determination to build on best practice. This is my point: you do not need to be an academy, free school or any specific category of school to deliver outstanding teaching. The best schools are doing it all the time and our job should be to encourage and nurture that process, not to put up barriers. In fact, the Government’s relentless focus on structural change has arguably been a diversion from a focus on the fundamentals of good teaching and the drive to improve school standards.

Meanwhile, today’s statement on Birmingham schools reminds us that the aggressive fragmentation of the school system can have serious consequences. Peter Clarke’s highly critical report found that there were no,

“suitable systems for holding the new academies accountable for financial and management issues”,

and he concluded that the Government’s accountability policy amounted to “benign neglect”. In response, the Government have been forced to bring in an array of characters to try to turn the situation round. It is still not clear who is in charge—a classic example of a failure of governance. This is why our devolved directors of school standards would be crucial to deliver a new level of oversight, support and challenge to schools.

Meanwhile, we have to take account of the cost of this massive school reorganisation. The department has come under constant criticism from the National Audit Office for its poor use of public money. The NAO’s latest adverse opinion indicates that it does not trust the accuracy of the department’s figures and is unable to tell whether it is providing value for money. All this is on top of recent evidence that individual academies are hoarding large sums of money, with cash balances of nearly £2.5 billion, rather than spending it on teaching and learning. We then have the increasing number of free school failures, diverting funds from much needed educational priorities elsewhere. My honourable friend Steve Reed, MP for Croydon North, only last week highlighted the waste of £82,000 on a free school in Croydon that will never open—all this at a time when Croydon has the biggest shortfall of school places in the country. Time and again we are seeing money diverted from children in areas with a shortage of school places to pursue pet projects where there are already enough places.

A similar argument could be made about the Government’s constant meddling in curriculum content. Of course, we have to get the fundamentals right and we recognise that literacy and numeracy are fundamental to children’s life chances. However, the focus on the measurement of a narrow range of academic subjects seems increasingly outdated when judged against the needs of employers in the 21st century. Indeed, it neglects issues such as well-being and the personal effectiveness issues that were highlighted by my noble friends.

We have all been concerned about the squeeze put on creative subjects. It was epitomised by the Secretary of State’s throwaway comment that studying arts subjects would lead to dead-end jobs. This is why we would put the study of creative subjects back at the centre of the curriculum. We would insist that no school should be assessed as outstanding by Ofsted unless it was delivering a broad and balanced curriculum that included arts, sport and the creative subjects. Beyond that, we need to free schools from the burden of relentless interference in the curriculum by politicians and give them greater freedom to excel.

In contrast to this Government, we believe that refocusing the drive for educational improvement across the sector should be about the quality of teaching. Much of our task is made easier because we now have one of the best generations of teachers and head teachers that this country has seen. These are the people who are innovating and experimenting, swapping best practice, learning from each other and pushing themselves and their pupils to stretch out and deliver more. Anyone who has sat in a class being taught by Teach First graduates knows the impact that their sheer enthusiasm and passion for a subject can have on their pupils. We believe our task is to harness that energy and elevate all teachers to be the professionals that they aspire to be. Fundamental to this goal is the requirement for every teacher to have qualified teacher status or be working towards it. Not only is this an important principle; it is one that has the overwhelming support of parents. However, this is just the beginning. As with all other professionals, we would expect teachers to maintain a programme of continuous professional development.

In addition, we should harness the opportunities that new technology can deliver. There is an online revolution going on and, sadly, as politicians, we are behind the curve. Social media now mean that teachers can feed their curiosity about new teaching techniques and share great ideas. The TES Connect website—an initiative to which my noble friend referred—has more than 800,000 free teaching resources, as well as interactive debates and blogs. These new teaching aids are just the beginning. Emerging technologies are transforming the way we teach. Interactive textbooks, individual learning and cross-school or cross-continent discussions and debates can give children exciting new opportunities to learn. These are the sorts of tools that will help the next generation of teachers drive up standards further. We should embrace and invest in them.

Finally, if there is one area that epitomises the different approach of our party compared to that of the coalition Government, it is the issue of vocational education. I very much support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. Unlike this Government, we believe that young people should have an alternative route into employment that is not hidebound by a narrow academic focus. This would be welcomed by employers as well as by a vast cohort of young people who are disillusioned with the current system. We already know that we need an additional 750,000 skilled digital workers by 2017 and a minimum of 750,000 technical-level workers in the STEM sector by 2020. This is why we will develop a gold-standard technical baccalaureate for 16 to 19 year-olds, as well as creating scores of new specialist colleges for high-level technical and digital training. We will make a particular point of encouraging girls to see the benefit of careers in these sectors.

We have had a good debate and a real opportunity to scrutinise the coalition Government’s legacy. Of course, there have been success stories and we have heard some of them. However, the down side is an obsession with structural reform, an unhealthy meddling in curriculum content, a lack of proper oversight and poor value for money. By contrast, we believe that continual school improvement is best achieved by embracing all the good evidence that exists, a drive to build on the professionalism of teachers and encouraging best practice and collaboration. Yes, we should expect high standards but we should give those teachers the freedom to excel. We know that this approach will be widely welcomed by parents, the teaching profession and local communities. We look forward to having the opportunity to put these principles into practice after May.