Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:16 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 1:16 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, when the most reverend Primate introduced so eloquently our debate this morning, he rightly referred to the role of the Church and lay members of the Church in the development of universal education in England in the 19th century. I am of course particularly proud that in Scotland we were taking these steps in the 17th century, with the first legislation for a school in every parish. That is one of the reasons why in the union of 1707 the relative autonomy of Scottish education was preserved as part of the agreements of the time. Partly for that reason, I have not often spoken about education in this Chamber. Nowadays Scottish education is rightly within the remit of the autonomous Scottish Parliament, but there are some issues in education that cross borders, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to refer to some of them today.

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register which, perhaps understandably, reflects my lifelong passion for and interest in education as well as some of my current interests. The primary schoolteacher I had at the age of seven can remember me saying that I wanted to become a sums teacher. With a few changes in the subject I chose in the decade or so that followed, I became a mathematics teacher, and enjoyed that profession for a decade before becoming employed full-time in politics.

I have always had a passion not only for teaching but also for the profession of teaching, as well as for teachers and their importance in the classroom. Few of us can remember individual pieces of algebra or the detail of individual cultural experiences we have had, but all of us can remember the good teacher and the bad teacher that had an impact on us during our schooldays. No matter what level someone’s education has reached and no matter what course in life they have chosen, there will have been a teacher, good or bad, who had an impact by either inspiring or demoralising them. The role of individual teachers should never be forgotten by education policymakers and Governments. Debates about funding, curriculum and policy will come and go, but ultimately the person who delivers education in the classroom is absolutely central to inspiring every generation.

The second point I want to make is about colleges. There have been a lot of references in the debate to training, vocational education and so on, but I remain astonished by the amount of time we spend debating the situation in our universities in this country, and at the lack of media attention and public debate about the situation in our colleges—in the widest sense of further and non-university higher education. There are debates about university principals’ salaries, fees and grants for university students and access to universities for people from different walks of life, as well as the buildings, the global reach of our universities, the subjects they teach and their nature and purpose—but there are never debates about our colleges, which are fundamental to the young people and lifelong learners who have been mentioned in today’s debate. Colleges are fundamental to the life opportunities of a section of the population who, in many ways, need them much more than people who go to university. It seems to me that such debates never take place; I regret that and I hope we can start to rectify that situation through debates such as today’s.

My third point on UK education is about looked-after children. It is a shame that in all four nations of this country, children who are looked after by the state continue to this day, in the 21st century, to have the worst educational opportunities and outcomes. That should shame us all. We need to continue to look for innovative and imaginative solutions that give those young children in the care of the state, in any sense, opportunities—or at least opportunities as good as those of other children. I refer the Minister and his department to something they may not be aware of because it is in Scotland. A charity in Glasgow called MCR Pathways is doing phenomenal work. It has transformed the outcomes for looked-after children in a number of Glasgow pilot scheme schools. The project is about to be taken to national level and there may be some fantastic lessons to be learned, based on mentoring such looked-after children. The effect of volunteer mentoring in the community is really quite dramatic.

My final point goes beyond our borders, because although education is important here, it is even more so elsewhere. There are 263 million girls and boys around the world who are not in school; two-thirds of them live in fragile and conflict-affected states. We must understand that education matters more in those place than any other intervention possibly could. Education transforms lives. It provides the opportunity, confidence and skills to move into work and start businesses. It improves agricultural outputs and the health outcomes of individuals and nations. It helps girls to avoid child marriage and other abuses. It develops responsible citizens who can hold corrupt Governments to account and develop democracies and governance in the capacity of public institutions. Yet in this country we allocate only 7.17% of our overseas development assistance to education. That figure should be much higher. I hope that the Government will, in their ongoing constant reviews of how best to spend their ODA, look again at the amount spent on education. In particular, a decision is due in January on the UK contribution—previously £300 million but up for review—to the Global Partnership for Education: money spent in fragile, conflict-affected and very underdeveloped states. I hope that we will not only sustain that contribution but perhaps increase it in the future.

I am conscious of my time so I will finish with a story from 18 months ago about a very young girl in a refugee camp in Iraq. Her name was Safa. She had endured all kinds of horrors for three years during her journey from Syria to Iraq and life in the refugee camp. She spoke strongly to me about the experience of her and her family. The only time she cried was when I asked about her exam results at school. More than anything else, the one thing that had affected her dignity and hope for the future was her school performance, which had been affected by living in the camp. That is an indication of just how much education matters for those who need it most.

In summation, I hope that the Minister and others will have an opportunity to reflect on the global situation as well as the national one.