Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:55 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 10:55 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, anyone with their wits about them realises that we are in the grip of a social crisis. Half or more of the country have been left behind, while the rest of Britain went to university, modernised and globalised.

This is not just about individuals and families, but communities, even whole towns and cities. The ultra-respectable Financial Times last month carried a heart-rending article by Sarah O’Connor, who had immersed herself in Blackpool and reported on what GPs there called SLS or “shit life syndrome”—deep poverty, pervasive drugs, obesity, anti-depressants and mental illness, in a large, isolated town exhibiting alarming signs of disintegration, including the largest encampment in Britain of children expelled from school. It is euphemistically called a pupil referral unit. Even more euphemistically, it is run by an organisation called Educational Diversity, but it is basically a dumping ground for 330 children whom schools want nothing to do with. That is 330 who have been expelled from schools in one northern town and sent to what is in many respects a giant training camp for the criminal justice system, in addition to hundreds excluded from school day by day for lower-level misbehaviour, who simply roam the streets.

Those noble Lords who have had the misfortune to attend party conferences know why we stopped going to Blackpool. But for Blackpool today read also Hull, Grimsby, large parts of the north and the Midlands, and large towns in the south, including Hastings, Dover and Folkestone. Poor education is at the heart of this social crisis. Schools, secondary schools in particular, are too often bleak and low-performing in virtually all the communities I just mentioned. There are not nearly enough good teachers. Apprenticeship numbers, incredibly, are declining, despite the apprenticeship levy. The private schools are separating themselves ever more from mainstream society. Only yesterday, Westminster School, a wholly owned charitable subsidiary of the Church of England, which occupies fabulous charitable premises adjoining Westminster Abbey, announced that it was setting up six elite schools in China. Its social outreach should be to the poor of Bradford, not the super-rich of Beijing. And our universities are racked by controversy over sky-high student fees and debts, run by vice-chancellors who have become latter-day prince bishops, paid up to £500,000 a year and likening themselves to Maradona and Richard Branson.

I do not have time to offer more analysis, so I will get straight to the six things that I believe now need to happen as a matter of urgency. First, the Prime Minister should appoint a Minister for good schools, based in Blackpool or Grimsby, with direct responsibility and funding for school improvement in areas of very low educational standards. The Government’s policy at the moment is basically waffle: they have published a list of 12 so-called opportunity areas, which include Blackpool. However, there are only 12 across the entire country, nothing much is happening on the ground and, even for these 12, the department’s website cannot do much better than say that they receive,

“prioritised access to a … support package”.

A decade ago when I was Minister for schools, I was also the Minister specifically responsible for London schools. With the inspirational Tim Brighouse, I led a team to radically improve schools in the capital, including extensive funding and planning powers. I reproach myself for not persuading Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to adopt the same intensive place-based approach to other parts of the country where school standards were and remain deplorable. This now needs to be done. I sense that the Minister is a man of action and I am sure that he would be highly effective at mobilising the considerable resources of Her Majesty’s Government from Blackpool or Grimsby.

Secondly, we have to tackle the cancer of school expulsions, which is such an important cause of young lives going completely off the rails. This is a difficult issue but, after much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the right course is to forbid schools from expelling pupils or even temporarily excluding them unless they have broken the law. Instead, schools should be required to make appropriate on-site provision for disruptive pupils, even if, for good reasons, that cannot always be in mainstream classrooms, and they should be given extra funding to do so.

Thirdly, bold action is required on apprenticeships. Within a short period, the Government should require every large public service organisation, including the Civil Service, the NHS and local authorities, to recruit among their new trainees at least as many apprentices as graduates, while across the public and private sectors, the new apprenticeship levy should be tied contractually by the state to the provision of a minimum number and quality of apprenticeships each year. I suggest to the Prime Minister that the Government immediately grant this contracting power to Andy Street, the highly capable Mayor of the West Midlands and former managing director of John Lewis, and ask him to report within a year on a system for deploying the projected £3 billion income from the apprenticeship levy to transform apprenticeship numbers and quality nationwide.

Fourthly, after decades of Government after Government urging private schools to behave like the charities they legally are, but seeing nothing happen beyond tinkering at the edges, we need bold action here too. In my judgment, the easiest and most effective intervention is to tax private school fees. An educational opportunity tax of 25% on private school fees would raise around £2.5 billion, which could be used to boost teacher pay in hard-to-recruit areas; fund one-to-one or small-group tuition for children in danger of not getting English and maths GCSEs, the absolutely indispensable passports to skilled work and further learning; and fund free music and sports tuition across state schools, offering the wider curriculum that private school parents and children take for granted.

Fifthly, on tuition fees, the right thing to do is to cancel the trebling of these fees that took place in 2010 and reduce them to around £3,000, reduce the extortionate interest rate the Government are now charging on debt, and cancel the absurd controls on overseas student numbers, which hold universities back from competing internationally.

Sixthly, on the scandal of vice-chancellor and senior university pay, it is clear that self-regulation is no longer working and that the state’s own regulators, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Students, are toothless because they too are dominated by the very vice-chancellors they should be regulating. The best course is an independent inquiry to recommend limits on top pay in universities and governance reforms to ensure better controls. I cannot think of anyone better suited to conduct such an inquiry than the most reverend Primate himself. He is paid only £80,000 and he runs an organisation much like a university. Like many vice-chancellors, he lives in a palace, and since the Almighty seems to be the only higher power recognised by the vice-chancellors, he is in a good position to sort that one, too.

Among the bishops of my youth, my hero was David Sheppard, the former Bishop of Liverpool. The Faith in the City report was a great influence on me and my generation. Back in the 1980s, social disintegration was advancing upon us and it is doing so again today. We cannot walk by on the other side.