My Lords, I join in thanking the most reverend Primate for introducing this debate and for his insightful words. Education is not only essential in building a flourishing and skilled society but for maintaining it. Increasingly, there is an economic and social imperative for lifelong learning. Education has a seminal role to play in ensuring that children and young people acquire the skills for life and work. It should engender a love of learning, a sense of excitement and self-worth in young people as they explore and develop.
Children’s education starts in the home. We have all seen the joy on the face of a young child who takes its first step, catches its first ball or recites its first nursery rhyme. That is the sort of satisfaction which education should continue to generate, building confidence and aspiration. Sadly, our education system is not always the happy and productive experience it could and should be.
I pay tribute to the Church of England, which plays a key part in education at all levels but a particularly valuable part at primary level, where C of E schools tend to be sought after by those of all faiths and none, as the most reverend Primate has set out. They have an ethos of care and encouragement, which makes for a good start for little people and certainly plays its part in helping to fight embedded squalor.
When formal schooling starts, the Government should ensure that this love of learning continues. Too often, curiosity and enthusiasm are trumped by testing and assessment, with children measured not against where their talents and interests lie but against academic yardsticks, which for many prove difficult and a source of failure. I have asked Ministers before—without getting a satisfactory answer—what importance the Government give to love of learning and fun in the curriculum. What credit are teachers given for stimulating ideas and aspiration in the young, particularly in those who prefer doing and making to thinking and studying?
Constant assessment and measuring play havoc with building skills and knowledge, and can generate feelings of failure even in the very young. If education becomes associated with hopelessness, it becomes increasingly challenging to build up self-respect and aspiration. I taught in numerous secondary schools in England and Germany during a peripatetic life as an RAF wife. I remember only too well the challenges of capturing imagination and encouraging even the slowest and the worst behaved. Teaching can be very satisfying but, my goodness me, it is hard work.
Enthusiasm for learning can be generated in the most unlikely pupil if they can see a purpose in a practical pathway and grow in self-respect with the confidence that they too can be achievers. Dare I ask the Minister to impress on his colleagues the immense value of good careers information at the earliest stage in education? If young people are intrigued by cars, cooking, care or computers, they will see a purpose in learning. Engagement in a practical subject can lead to grasping its academic counterpart. Calculating measurements for building or cooking can clarify the purpose of maths when maths lessons have previously been impenetrable.
Schools can, and do, aim to encourage learning of all sorts but are often held back by oft-changing Ministers and policies—the remorseless “churn of government”. It is pernicious that incoming Secretaries of State seem to feel it imperative to enforce their own new bright ideas, regardless of the impact and unproductive workload on teachers. Can the Minister persuade his education colleagues to hold fire, to consult and to undertake cost and benefit analyses before introducing changes which all too often are politically driven and have little to do with improving the life chances of young people?
I worked for City & Guilds for 20 years. I have asked before and ask again: what steps are the Government taking to incentivise schools to promote apprenticeships and other work-based skills by celebrating pupils who achieve in those areas? League tables and financial incentives lead schools to channel students into GCSEs, A-levels and university, even when their talents, skills and motivation are practical and work based. We face acute skills shortages. We need people with those practical skills.
I recall years ago writing a pretentious A-level essay on Adam Smith’s comment that every man is a student all his life and longer too. This of course was well before political correctness, when “man” was deemed to embrace “woman”—I think that that is how the Romans put it. Education should be lifelong. Adult education and our wonderful and hard-pressed further education colleges have such an important part to play.
The overall number of students from lower participation areas entering higher education in England has fallen by 15% since 2011-12. While figures for full-time students have risen by 7%, there has been a simultaneous 47% fall in part-time students from those same areas. Therefore, overall, fewer people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now going to university.
The adult skills budget has been reduced. Gone are many of those life-enhancing evening classes which could broaden minds, enrich lives and promote aspiration in a wide variety of ways, leading to the flourishing and skilled society we are addressing. It is well proven that learning as an adult brings benefits such as better health and well-being, greater social engagement, increased confidence and better employability, as well as benefits to family and community life. Further education colleges are essential to this progress, with valuable contributions too from great institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck. The services which they provide enable adults to fulfil their potential and to contribute to the economy. However, all of them are concerned about funding, qualified teachers and certainty about the future to enable them to plan their work to full benefit. Part-time learners have been heavily hit in changes to funding, and colleges have struggled to keep up staffing numbers, along with the wide range of courses they are expected to provide.
I hope that the Government will listen to all those who work to enhance learning, and that they will provide more generous and more reliable funding to ensure the fulfilment of individual potential and the prosperity of the country. I look forward to hearing the other speakers and, again, thank the most reverend Primate for giving us the opportunity of this debate.