Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:46 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative 11:46 am, 8th December 2017

We are all very grateful to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for initiating this debate. I add my personal vote of thanks to him for what the Anglican Church has done for me. We were evacuated during the war to Southport, where I went to a Church of England primary school, Holy Trinity, next to Holy Trinity church at the end of Lord Street. It was a wonderful education. It was a red brick Victorian school with a red brick yard and a large red brick wall all around it with concrete on the top and glass stuck in it to stop people coming over—that was our security. The more challenging students, on Friday afternoon, would climb up and chip the bits of glass away. That was not why I liked it; it gave me a very good, basic education—learning tables by heart, learning poetry by heart and tests every term. They say that tests are oppressive; I had tests every term at this Church of England primary school and it was really the basis of my education, so I thank the most reverend Primate very much for that.

When it comes to education, I am no longer in favour of single-faith schools. The Labour Government and the coalition Government provided those and I think it was a big mistake. Children of all creeds, races and nations should work beside each other, play beside each other, eat beside each other and go home on the coach beside each other. However, I shall not speak any more about religious schools. The education system of our country is on the cusp and will be changed fundamentally by the digital revolution to which the most reverend Primate referred. It will reduce, first, unskilled jobs on a massive and unprecedented scale. The only thing that has maintained the English education system since 1870 has been the large reservoir of unskilled jobs at the bottom, which the 30% of the students who do not do well at school always filled—the drivers’ jobs, the messengers’ jobs and the warehouse jobs. You know that when you buy anything from Amazon today the only time a hand has touched it is when someone knocks on your door. Mercedes is now perfecting the driverless lorry, which will decimate the 3 million truck drivers in America and the 8 million people who run stopovers and sandwich bars. It will happen in this country on a massive scale.

It affects not only unskilled jobs: middle management will be decimated by it. When RBS says it is to close 279 banks, it is not bank clerks who will lose their jobs; it is all middle managers—people who have taken humanities degrees and have a job in a big company, expecting to live the rest of their lives very comfortably. Artificial intelligence and big data will largely destroy those jobs.

I come to the conclusion that we need a fundamental change to increase the technical education of our country. I know that the most reverend Primate is very keen on this, but we are not doing it on a big enough scale. As the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said, EBacc and Progress 8 are squeezing all technical education out of schools for those below the age of 16. We are the only large country following this policy. The numbers taking the design and technology GCSE, which I introduced in the 1980s, have fallen for the last seven years. That means that fewer and fewer people at 16 have any experience of technical education. By the age of 18, 70% of German students will have had some technical education; in Britain, only 30% will.

Something has to be done about this, which is why, for the last seven years, I have promoted university technical colleges. These are 14-to-18 colleges where we operate from 9 am or 9.30 am to 5 pm every day. I tell the youngsters when they join that this is the beginning of their working life and for two days a week they will be making and designing things with their hands. The great virtue of these colleges—we have 49 of them but should have many more—is that we have the best employment rate of any schools in the country. We have 13,000 students at the moment and will probably have 20,000 by the beginning of next year. Last July, we had 2,000 leavers of whom only 26 were NEETs. Only 26 needed jobseeker’s allowance; that is an unemployment rate of 1%. The unemployment rate for 18 year-olds—a government figure the Government do not talk much about—is 12.2%. Our 1% is a clear demonstration of how successful these colleges are. I am very glad that the new Minister, my noble friend Lord Agnew, knows a great deal about schools and appreciates how important these colleges are. He wants the ones we have to do well and get better. The economy of our country needs many more UTCs. In 1945, we had 300 technical schools, all killed by snobbery. That was a massive mistake. We have to reinvent a large number of technical schools in our country.

I want to say something about computing. As several speakers have said, computing will fundamentally change education—there is no doubt about that. The Government moved one small step forward by saying last year that primary schools should teach coding. I warmly welcomed that. The most successful digital country in Europe is Estonia, whose biggest export is computer scientists. The former President of Estonia has now been employed by the European Commission to determine the digital policy for Europe. I think Estonia has taught coding in its schools for two decades. That whole country is a digitalised advanced economy, and that starts in its primary schools.

Some people ask, “Is it too early to start teaching computing in primary schools?”. After Christmas, I am meeting the headmaster of a school in Telford who has got his students aged 11—in an ordinary primary school, in an area that has 66% disadvantaged pupils—to get through GCSE computing level 2. If he can do that, any primary school should do it. Once I have met him, the Government should find out exactly how he has done it and make sure it can be spread throughout the primary areas. Primary schools should also have 3D printers; those who have seen them realise how important they are for inventiveness and creativity.

In secondary education, the Government are not really doing enough to expand computer studies in schools. Last July 60,000 students took GCSE computing at 16, which sounds a lot, but that compares with the 300,000 who took a foreign language. The Government say that a foreign language should be compulsory at 16 but I do not believe that is necessary. It should be voluntary, but a computer language should be compulsory. It is more important for youngsters today to understand a computer language than to pick up smatterings of a foreign language. That is one change that should be made.

The Government are moving, but at too slow a pace, and this has to be taken in hand. Without it, I am quite sure that youth unemployment at 18, which went up this year by 0.5 percentage points to 12.2%, will increase in the years to come. Brexit will make it even more difficult for us to do this. We have an enormous skills gap: we are 750,000 digital technicians short and 45,000 STEM graduates a year short. This requires fundamental change and a whole new vigour in increasing technical education.