Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 10:30 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to speak at this moment in this debate and to thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for creating the possibility for all of us to look at this important sector and aspect of our national life. His was a tour d’horizon; the rest of us must content ourselves with cameo contributions and will do our best here and there. But I am sure that together we will take a multifaceted look at this vital subject.

I add my expression of delight at the presence in the Chamber of a noble friend, although he sits on other Benches—the second coming of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, to this House—and I look forward so much to his speech later on. We have collaborated for 20 years in London.

Here we are, discussing this vital subject of education, which is at the heart of all other activities that we envisage and seek to build. I have been a school governor for over 35 years, at schools in the independent as well as in the maintained sector, in rural, suburban and inner-city settings—where these days I tend to specialise. I was a member of the board of what became the University of Roehampton, and I am currently chair of trustees of the Central Foundation Schools of London, so I have that vantage-point from which to speak today. We have two remarkable schools: one for boys, in the Borough of Islington, and the other for girls, in Tower Hamlets.

Through the decades of my involvement in education I have read countless papers, books and articles, and, distilled, they come to the same conclusion that was offered in the paper prepared for us in the Library to brief us for this occasion, with an incontestable definition. Any education worthy of the name,

“embraces the spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and social development of children and young people”.

I would add adults to that, since education is a lifelong affair. The catholic spirit of this definition is surely self-evident. We could all ascribe to it without any hesitation and, therefore, we could wonder at the need to have a debate of this kind at all, since we have such a common platform to stand on. And yet it is more complicated.

I have just received a letter from Professor Edward Gregson, a leading British composer. He complains about the narrowly defined curriculum of the English baccalaureate, which concentrates on core subjects in a way that makes it virtually impossible for schools, concentrating on league tables, to give their proper attention to the creative arts and the spiritual subjects, to say nothing of personal, health and other related topics. He asks whether pressure cannot be put on those who make decisions to take a more flexible view of the way in which our curriculum could not only include but be forced open to include, or could actually welcome, as an essential part of education these creative and spiritual subjects. It is not only he who has written to me in this way.

Schools, at the same time as having to do with the curriculum, are also dealing with the restriction of constraints on their budgets. They have to absorb extra costs, and the schools with which I am involved faced the need either to increase productivity, as it were, or to cut what is delivered—15% from their budgets over the next three years for our girls school, which is two teachers a year for the next three years. So we may well agree without any hesitation on the definition, but the practicalities on the ground work against our being able to make that real for our children.

In the briefing paper, a frequently recurring word is “character”. For a Methodist to do a bit of Bible study with the Bishops is a glorious temptation not to be avoided. The word “character”, a Greek word, appears just once in the New Testament. Of course they all know—I can see it on their faces—where it appears: it is in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Of course—it takes a lay person to say “of course”—character in the New Testament sense is an attempt to describe the divinity of Christ. No, I do not bring before you a lesson on Christology. In an attempt to show that Christ was imbued with everything that God was, he is “stamped” with the character of God, “impressed” by all that God is, and therefore his personality exudes everything that can be said about God.

I realise that, for some, that particular part of my presentation will not resonate, but I draw from it the need in our educational system to stamp all those under education with everything that is good—the values to which the most reverend Primate alluded. In that way they can be not just the recipients—empty vessels, receiving knowledge, information, cognitive facts and skills, in those objective senses—but be brought to life to become the people they were meant to be and to have brought from them what is intrinsic to them. Character in that sense seems eminently worth while aspiring to. Here ends the lesson.

However, the real world in which—I beg your Lordships’ pardon; I have noticed the clock and I will finish—our two schools that I mentioned operate is, for the boys, knife crime, drugs and violence on the streets. Eleven of our children have been in court, having witnessed crimes on the streets, and one boy has been found guilty of murder. The school has to incorporate those dimensions into its very being. For the girls’ school, 85% of our girls are Muslims—they wear the hijab to school—and the Prevent programme has to be applied with imagination and flair, not simply in an espionage-like kind of way.

Therefore, I want the Government please to reassure us that PSHE, for example, which could accommodate a lot of what is missing from our educational system, could be made a mandatory part of the curriculum; that we look again at the Prevent programme to humanise it a little; and that we look to enrich the EBacc curriculum so that, flourishing alongside the core subjects, can be the creative, innovative and spiritual dimensions of education, as mentioned in that original definition that I quoted.