My Lords, what a fascinating and moving debate this has turned out to be, with so many interesting and great speeches, including that of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.
In my contribution, I will to focus on the academy movement. At the turn of the century, I became chairman of the United Church Schools Trust, a group of independent schools which then numbered about 12. When the then Prime Minister Tony Blair announced his intention to create the academy programme under the leadership of Andrew Adonis—now the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—the United Church Schools Trust was among the first to engage with the programme. Sir Ewan Harper, then CEO, asked of our trustees: “What would our forebears do it if they were alive today?”.
Formed in 1883, the United Church Schools Trust was created to provide excellent education for girls. In 1999, the trustees decided that a social conscience demanded that we, too, should engage with the programme, and we raised something like £20 million to show our commitment. Now known as United Learning, our group is one of the most successful multi-academy trusts, with more than 60 academies. Now led by Jon Coles, formerly of the Department for Education, United Learning has taken on failing schools in the most deprived areas of the country, providing them with the support, expertise and assistance to transform them into thriving, popular schools where pupils make excellent progress. Successful sixth forms in a significant number of our schools are providing students with life-changing opportunities to go to university. Many of those students are the first in their families to do so, and a goodly number of our academies this year have seen students securing places at Russell Group universities including Oxford and Cambridge.
Perhaps one of the most striking features of United Learning is that our response to the academy programme arose from independent education. We now have schools such as Guildford High School for Girls, Surbiton High School and Caterham School working with our academies to raise standards. One of the most exciting links is that of Marlborough College working closely with Swindon Academy. I am aware that other links exist, but I wonder whether the Department for Education is doing as much as it should to encourage such partnerships as part of the social duty of independent education. In this, I echo the view of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
Although many good things are happening in education, the pressure on state schools—I suppose on all schools—is raising sharp questions about educational policy and resources. The first is whether the academy programme, created by the Labour Government and taken up with great enthusiasm by the Conservative Party, is still the ultimate goal of the Government. The White Paper of March 2016 suggests that it is, but with the Prime Minister’s desire for increasing the number of grammar schools—although that has possibly been kicked into the long grass—there remains a question about the Government’s long-term plans and commitment. Are the Government in favour of full academisation or not?
A second and crucial issue is that of teacher shortage. The most reverend Primate’s Motion focuses on the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society. However, the latest figures for recruitment into teacher training show targets being missed in almost every subject, in many cases by a long way. It is worse in some subjects, especially maths and physical sciences. Whenever there is a shortage, it is always the schools in the poorest areas that are most affected, so it tends to widen disparities between schools and affect social cohesion. Of course, it is not impossible for heads to recruit teachers, but some schools find it difficult to get specialists in all subjects. The important point about teacher supply is that education is a people business, and schools need the right skilled people teaching every class. Given that initial teacher training targets have been missed again, what is the Government’s strategy to address the problem?
Finally, a flourishing and skilled society needs far more than young people passing academic tests—something that has been emphasised again and again. Education must be grounded in strong values and character building, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, reminded us, in which the partnership between families, schools and local communities is a covenant—yes, that is a strong word—based on the fundamental importance of the child.