My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate for introducing this debate today. Having listened to all the contributions, I think what a wonderful variety we are going to have. I would like to reflect on three things: first, the role of education, with particular reference to agriculture; secondly, as many others have, on apprenticeships; and, thirdly, on enabling those with learning difficulties to achieve their potential.
Having left school at 16 to study a one-year general farming course at Moulton, Northamptonshire, I am only too keenly aware of the enormous changes that have taken place within the farming industry. Yes, unskilled labour is still needed, but the many changes that we have seen have been caused by the expansion of modern machinery, scientific research, technology, engineering, improvements in digital equipment, robotics and, indeed, the development of drones. Those advances reflect the skills of the workforce and the dedication of teachers in schools and colleges. Teachers have the ability to inspire and challenge pupils, and this debate reinforces that point. I only wish that more teachers would encourage students to consider agriculture as a worthwhile career.
The work done at Harper Adams University, formerly an agricultural college, this last year is a very good example of what I am talking about. It has resulted in the university, only this week, being awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education, recognising their Hands Free Hectare initiative. The university, working alongside Yorkshire-based Precision Decisions, grew a crop of barley using robotics and drones, no manpower being in the field at any time through the various operations. Today, GPS systems and drones can pinpoint the amount of dressing needed in certain parts of the field, and even on individual plants.
Secondly, I congratulate the Government on their commitment to apprenticeship schemes but, like others, I am concerned about falling numbers. These schemes enable students to gain skills while working. The businesses that I have visited value their apprentices, speaking of their commitment to gaining skills, thus bringing benefits to the company and to the individuals concerned. I welcome the recent announcement in the Budget of the national retraining scheme, which helps older people to gain new skills necessary for their advancement, and for the provision of some £384 million to increase the number of fully qualified computer science teachers. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Baker is not in his place at the moment, because I think that he would be very pleased at that announcement. They will be working with a new national centre for computing, which is particularly good news. As I said, my only concern is the reported decline in the numbers taking up apprenticeships, and I hope that the Minister will give an explanation and can give some reassurance to us today.
It is surely right that those with learning challenges should have the opportunity to achieve as well. They may not become high flyers but with care, encouragement and skill, they can occupy important jobs in future years. I know that some special schools are coming under increasing threat of closure. Indeed, in Leicestershire, my home county, Maplewell Hall School, which I understand was recently reported as outstanding, may have its residential element closed. Has there been any recent national analysis or review?
In the time that I have had, it has not been possible to include something that is very dear to me, or talk about it at great length—the importance of values, spoken about by others. However, I hope that all those involved in teaching and training will stress the worth of lifelong learning. I would also add the importance of co-operation and honesty in whatever one is doing. Our present system is based on Christian beliefs of shared values, and I believe that it is as deeply important today as it was when it started. Indeed, other noble Lords have spoken about the importance of the support of loving and supportive families. But that is not so for everybody. I remember when my husband was a governor of a local primary that one of the children was referred to the headmaster and he, as chairman of the governors, sat in. He was trying to encourage the mother to help with reading out of hours in their own home, to which she turned round and said, “That’s not my business; it’s your business to teach my child”.
I think that in some ways we have gone a long way away from having the support which was there originally, and I hope that this debate will encourage everybody to realise that it is not just about education and learning but about how the values and the way in which we deal with each other and help each other along the line will bring greater benefits to society as a whole.