Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:31 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 11:31 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, many of us will have noted the 2017 report of the Social Mobility Commission published last week, with its sobering analysis of Britain’s alienated and socially marginal communities. It documents the widening gap in educational attainment between London and the English regions, with the worst “cold spots” for social mobility now in former industrial towns and coastal communities. It is striking that the map of low attainment, and of high levels of young people not in employment, education or training, matches so closely with those areas which voted heavily to leave the European Union 18 months ago. These areas, the report concludes,

“feel left behind, because they are. Whole communities feel that the benefits of globalisation have passed them by, because they have”.

We have become a more socially divided country, not so much along ethnic grounds as between the more successful and better educated cities and suburbs and the unskilled white working class. Worse, sections of our media and some of our politicians have written these British citizens off as a feckless underclass sponging off benefits and reluctant to work. Furthermore, part of our country’s dependence on immigration from the rest of Europe has come from employers’ preference for recruiting already trained and motivated workers from abroad as against the harder task of training and motivating poorly educated local people.

Broader and better-quality education will not be enough on its own to bring those depressed and deprived communities back into harmony with the rest of Britain. We need, as the Social Mobility Commission also remarks,

“a more redistributive approach to spreading education, employment and housing prospects across our country”.

We need a reinvigoration of local government and local democracy. We need investment in transport links outside the south-east. We need local industrial regeneration, and we need locally available finance to support the growth of local enterprises, which our banks have been so poor at fostering. It goes without saying that Brexit will do nothing to better their chances and is likely to make their situation worse.

However, education, and training are essential to social as well as economic recovery, and early years education is the most important priority for children from poor and often vulnerable families, often with only one parent and without the support of a wider family group. I am proud that the Liberal Democrats in coalition successfully introduced the pupil premium, which teachers in these areas tell me has made a real difference to the resources they have at their disposal. I regret that the Conservatives managed to cut back on the Sure Start programme, and I am concerned that continuing cuts in local authority grants have led to some places that most need to provide early educational support leaving many vulnerable children without it.

I say to the Labour Party that increasing public spending on the 50% who do not go to university, all the way through from nurseries to apprenticeships and continuing and further education, should be a higher priority than cutting fees for university students. I dissented from my party’s official line on tuition fees for this reason more than 10 years ago, and I hold to the same view today. Any progressive politician should put improving the life chances of the least advantaged first, before answering the pleas of the more confident and more successful.

There are many other measures we should be pressing to encourage children from those communities to learn, to gain life skills and employment skills, and so to grow up feeling that they are included in our national community. Teacher turnover in such areas is too high; we need not only to grant them more respect but to offer them higher pay and perhaps bonuses for extended service. Teach First has shown how to bring bright graduates with enthusiasm into schools; we should extend that, perhaps by writing off student loans at a progressive rate for those who teach in priority areas.

School partnerships are clearly important in encouraging teachers to stay and in lifting performance. Multiacademy trusts are one way to provide such partnerships, but local authorities should also have a wider role in encouraging schools to work together. The independent schools sector should also do more to support school partnerships, partly, but not only, to justify the public benefit obligated by their charitable status. I have seen some excellent independent/state school partnerships in action, but I am conscious that best practice does not extend across much of the independent sector.

Schools do not operate all year round: disadvantaged pupils fall back every summer. Liberal Democrat councillors in north Bradford have been running a summer school for children between primary and secondary school over the past two years, with, so far, excellent results in helping them make the school transition successfully and continuing to grow and learn. We need both non-governmental groups and local authorities to provide more opportunities for disadvantaged children out of school hours and terms to widen their perspectives and raise their aspirations. Middle-class children benefit, after all, from a range of out-of-school activities from an early age; working-class children miss out on that. I was saddened to discover that the visit to the Lake District which the north Bradford summer school included was for some children the first time in their life that they had been outside Bradford.

Low aspiration flows from low expectations of worthwhile jobs to work for, so the transition from school to work is a vital aspect of successful secondary education. Some employers and chambers of commerce now work closely with local schools to provide work experience and the prospect of training, but, again, best practice does not extend far enough across the country. Further education colleges, which should work in partnership with schools and employers, have been, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, and my noble friend Lady Garden have said, financially squeezed and sidelined. We also need to strengthen the idea of continuing, lifelong education for all, which means strengthening the role of FE colleges in providing it. I wish I could believe that the apprenticeship scheme will help in this respect; much of what I have heard suggests that it will fail to provide the most crucial element, which is a path into skilled work for young people.

The Church of England already plays a constructive part in limiting the disintegration of our divided society. I too recall the Faith in the City initiative, which I understood as an appeal to middle-class and rural congregations to care about and support the Church’s work in deprived communities. Church schools have a good record in providing more than just the national syllabus in education and in providing children in schools with a wider sense of community. I thank the diocese of London in particular for the support it gives to the musical education charity which I chaired for 12 years, which takes singing into state schools that have lost their music teachers and takes musical children out of their neighbourhoods to sing and perform with others—to raise their eyes and voices beyond what they thought was possible.

The Church of England, and many other institutions within our civil society, have much to contribute to repairing the weaknesses of our country’s education and so in rebuilding an inclusive society, but the prime responsibility lies with our public institutions, our state and our Treasury to invest in the quality of education needed to rebuild a flourishing and inclusive national community.