Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:27 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:27 pm, 8th December 2017

The most reverend Primate has been a great champion for economic and social justice. To his credit, he was one of the first people to speak up against loan sharks, and this debate reflects his determination and vision in achieving that social justice through educating the whole person.

The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, and others have said that education is a key element of our social infrastructure. It is not something to be nurtured separately but part of what we are, and if we do not get it right and move with the times then everything else suffers. Are we getting it right? Last week we learned that there has been an enormous growth in the number of graduates in the population, but also that almost half of those who graduated in the last five years are in non-graduate-level jobs. Noble Lords will have heard this morning that the chair of the National Audit Office compares this with the mis-selling by the banks. We also learned that there has been a large fall in those taking up apprenticeships. This may be due to the new system of the apprenticeship levy or the IFA refusing support for low-level schemes, but equally it could mean that employers are rejecting the scheme, as my noble friend Lord Adonis said, which would be a real cause for worry. We have a great productivity mountain to climb.

We also learned that in some parts of the country 16% of the population have no skills or qualifications at all. The national average, at 9%, is far too high. I agree with noble Lords who have said that it is deprivation caused by these imbalances holding our society back.

I put this down to many institutions having to achieve their targets, taking precedence over the needs of society as a whole. Given more staff and time, of course they would make more of complete education, as required under the 2017 Act. The system also encourages the academic development of the more able. Teaching to the test means that handed-down knowledge takes precedence over the forms of teaching that explicitly seek to engage children in the learning process.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke of social media. Good exam marks do not tell us how, in this post-truth age, we can recognise alternatives that we find on social media, fake news or the invented conspiracies on which the University of Salford recently reported. They are all designed to undermine the very notion of knowledge.

The Welsh Assembly decided to act by abolishing performance tables, and yes, they found Welsh schools lagging behind. Does this prove that what gets measured gets done, or that students who have been steered towards easy-to-obtain qualifications get good results? I do not know. We have yet to learn whether dropping the performance tables has better prepared students for real-life situations.

This character development or character education helps to promote well-being, and improved well-being improves the capacity to learn, not only academically but for the social soft skills. The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, other noble Lords and the charity Young Minds make the point that too much emphasis on academic achievement and too little on character education is part of the reason for our poor record on the mental health of young people.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely and my noble friend Lord Puttnam: the purpose is to prepare people for the less tangible economy that we are busily creating, which my noble friend Lord Giddens described, requiring less tangible skills and the ability to reinvent ourselves as things change. That is vital in today’s world of work.

Hopefully, the RSA’s Ideal School Exhibition project will help. It attempts to loosen the league tables’ grip on the tests, targets and tactics system and replace it with a more mission-oriented culture. It is focused on the curriculum, and testing what has been taught, instead of teaching what will be tested, to reward genuine quality rather than coached responses. My noble friend Lord Griffiths made this point. The project will still identify and tackle failure, but will give schools freedom to pursue their own mission.

I agree with the call of the most reverent Primate to teach our values and our ideals as well as how to write a good exam. This will build a flourishing society with all the right skills that he called for in this debate.