My Lords, it is a pleasure to speak from these Benches at the end of this first day of debate on the gracious Speech. As my noble friends have said, including my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness yesterday, we regret that many of the measures included in the gracious Speech demonstrate a real lack of ambition and drive for this country.
With regard to my own area of education, the Liberal Democrats are clear that we should be investing in our young people and giving teachers the resources and support they need to deliver real improvements for pupils. We propose a new education charter that will have at its heart consensus to provide every pupil with a qualified teacher, to have a balanced national curriculum for all children to ensure that sport, music and the arts are not marginalised, to change the culture from excessive testing and inspections to more teaching and less testing, good-quality careers education, and a royal college of teaching to ensure that standards and support are maintained.
The Queen’s Speech talked about excellence in education, which is a sentiment that we could all subscribe to, but how can you have excellence when some of the fundamentals in our education service now face a real crisis? The supply of teachers in specialist subjects is near to breaking point—try getting a physics or chemistry teacher—and there are schools that have advertised for head teachers and nobody has applied. That is not excellence; it is downright poor planning of teacher supply.
The shortage of school places in parts of the UK is a national disgrace. How difficult is it to know the birth rate requirements and plan with local authorities to provide the places needed? We seem so obsessed with hitting our promised free school targets that we desperately try playing catch-up by adding on to existing schools and making them bigger and bigger. Is a school of 2,000 places the most conducive environment for pupils to be educated in? The admission procedures are fast becoming a nightmare for parents, who are increasingly not getting their first, second or even third choice of school, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, rightly said, we need an admissions procedure that is uniform and has been simplified.
The second crisis that we face is over school finance. The Government promised that there would be no cuts to school budgets, but a stand-still budget takes no account of the rising on-costs that have to be absorbed by the school budget. Employer on-costs in the past three years have risen by 69.4% and there has been no extra finance, so those costs have had to be absorbed into the school budget. The cost of brought-in services has gone up and up, and again the costs have had to be absorbed by the school budget. What we have seen in the health service, with hospital trusts piling up huge deficits, is likely to be a foretaste of what will happen in our schools. There is little wonder that head teachers in the Prime Minister’s constituency sought a meeting to highlight the financial difficulties that they were facing, with head teachers even talking about schools facing bankruptcy. Is now a good time to bring forward a so-called national fair funding regime in England? Yes, there will be winners, but there will also be losers and that can only compound school budget difficulties.
The party of parents and family values is increasingly ignoring the views of parents—whether it be on compulsory academisation, schools not having a governing body or the primary testing regime—and parents are increasingly voicing their opinions. A parent in the Isle of Wight even went to court on the principle of having a family holiday in school term time. Of course, it is important that children attend school, and days missed from school can affect a child’s education. But some parents have no choice over when they receive their holiday entitlement. Indeed, some factories close down for a holiday period during school time. Parents wanting to have that all-important family holiday together are faced with the agonising choice of holidaying together as a family or facing the approbation of the LA and a possible fine. Come on: let us use some common sense and, rather than penalise parents, give the responsibility back to head teachers and governors to agree in certain circumstances leave of absence from school. Would it not be a good idea if the Government tackled the outrageous practice carried out by the holiday industry in massively increasing costs during school holiday times to the detriment of families, hitting those in the lowest income groups the hardest?
The Education Act 1944 enshrined the need for every child to be given full-time schooling and for every school to be legally approved to provide that schooling. Now, 72 years later, Ofsted has found and reported on 100 unregistered schools, but the scandal of children being taught in unlicensed schools is only the tip of the iceberg. We have no central figures on how many children are missing from our schools and no central figures to show how many children are being educated at home. Let us show the same zeal that we have for pupil school attendance to keep an accurate and up-to-date record of those children who go missing from the school system. After all, births are recorded and pupils entering school are given a UPN—a unique pupil number—so why are we allowing pupils to go missing from the school system?
In all our education and social policies, the safety, well-being and protection of the child should be at the heart of all we do. In 2004, a report was published called Twenty-nine Child Homicides by Women’s Aid. It detailed 29 children who had been killed by abusive fathers. The killings happened between 1994 and 2004 and were committed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances relating to child contact. Its findings prompted a review of judicial practice and the inception of a new practice direction which prioritised the safety of children and non-abusive parents in child contact decisions in the family courts. If we now move the tape forward, the very same group has produced a further report which uncovers the details of a further 19 children in 12 families killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances relating to child contact. In addition, two children were seriously harmed and three women were killed. All the perpetrators were men and fathers to the children they killed. A study of 203 child contact orders found that only one order prohibited any contact by the father who had been committing domestic violence, and only 3% of contact orders were for supervised visiting. We cannot continue to put the lives of innocent children at risk. In all cases of alleged domestic abuse, there must be robust and effective assessments by experts of the implications for the child and of the non-abusive parent’s safety and well-being. It is only by doing this that what are now unavoidable deaths will be prevented in the future.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, from these Benches we do wish that the content of the gracious Speech was more ambitious. For so many reasons which we are all well aware of, the next few months will be pivotal to the future of this country. We have heard lots of talk about the referendum. I am reminded that in my own city of Liverpool, it was Objective 1 European funding which turned around the fortunes of the city and city region, and of course being the European Capital of Culture changed perceptions of Liverpool once and for all. The Government can expect a long ride ahead during this legislative Session, but rest assured that we will always scrutinise in a constructive and challenging manner with neither fear nor favour.