Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:54 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I join everyone else by thanking the most reverend Primate for securing this debate and for introducing it in a way which was stimulating and challenging. He set a very high bar for the rest of us.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Baker, my own early education was in a Church of England village primary school. Although I am of no settled faith now, I acknowledge the huge debt that I owe to my early introduction to the Bible—the King James version, Old and New Testaments—and to the liturgy of the English Church as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. I am still strongly attached to them both, albeit by what one might call more aesthetic than theological ties. From them, I got most of what I needed to gain access to the huge treasury of art, music, drama and literature produced as part of, or in response to, 2,000 years of Christian belief and practice—and out of that, I got a wonderful career so I have much to be grateful for, unbeliever though I be.

I want to raise one matter, which many other noble Lords have touched on, about the relationship between education and democracy. We live in dangerous times: democracy is threatened everywhere, sometimes physically but, more seriously, intellectually and emotionally. If we believe along with Churchill, as I do, that democracy is not perfect or all-wise but that it is none the less preferable to all other forms of government that have been tried, then we must defend it and our first line of defence is the education of our children. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, I believe our definition of education as expressed through what we expect our schools to provide has become far too narrow, focused far too much on examinations and therefore on formulaic teaching to the test. I mean no disrespect to teachers when I say that—I had better not, because my family is full of them. Education has become far too concerned with asserting the need for a direct connection between educational inputs and jobs.

Education, as the most reverend Primate and others have said, is not just about knowing stuff. It is also about thinking and feeling stuff. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, so eloquently put it, it is about emotional literacy, which is about understanding how others think and feel. It is about learning to deal with complexity, ambiguity, contradiction and the frequent absence of right answers. Now all our young people also have to deal with a daily avalanche of unmediated information—the most reverend Primate referred to unguided and competing values and narratives—which comes at them via the internet. In other words, education is about the exercise of judgment, critical thinking and empathy. These are all vital to exercising our democratic rights as citizens responsibly, as well as—and not instead of—knowing our times tables, how to create an algorithm and how to spell “algorithm”.

The responsibility for ensuring this breadth cannot just lie with schools; they need support. Here comes the stuck record bit in relation to other interventions I have made in your Lordships’ House. The study of the arts provides matchless opportunities to develop these capabilities. The dramatisation of human dilemmas and aspirations helps us to understand them. Shakespeare is a great way to start learning about human beings: metaphor, allegory and characterisation in fiction help us to grasp the wide differences between people and to tolerate those differences. Participating in music, particularly by singing in choirs as I do, teaches us that there is, as they say, no I in team.

The UK has many wonderful cultural organisations large and small, national, regional and local. Most are already contributing widely to the education of the next generation of citizens through their core work and through a variety of imaginative collaborations with schools and communities, especially in disadvantaged areas. I refer in passing to my connection to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It has done excellent work recently in Blackpool, which was mentioned as one of those most deprived areas.

I would also like to mention the excellent work of the Chickenshed theatre in north London where my nine year-old granddaughter is currently appearing in its extremely professional—I mean professional in the very best sense—Christmas show in which she is appearing on stage with children in wheelchairs, children who have learning disabilities and children who have Down’s syndrome and with every other kind of human being you can think of, old and young. What is she learning from that? She is learning a great deal.

Schools are able to participate in partnerships that these organisations offer them, and they value them enormously. Evidence shows that they have a beneficial effect on all aspects of learning, but school leaders are often confused by mixed messages from government about the value of cultural education and they struggle more and more with budgetary constraints, as do the arts organisations themselves. We are missing a trick here, and in doing so we are contributing to the weakening of our democratic values. Please will the Government take the lessons of this debate seriously?