Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:31 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Finn Baroness Finn Conservative 1:31 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate for bringing forward this important debate. I was struck particularly by one word in the debate title today: “flourishing”. This is about more than acquiring a skillset, more than about gaining knowledge of the world; it is about unlocking human potential. This is the benchmark that we must set ourselves when talking about education, rooting us firmly in the capability of the individual. For Aristotle, a key proponent of the philosophy of human flourishing, it is the key to happiness itself.

If our education system does not allow individuals to flourish then it is failing, and over the years it has indeed fallen short. When the coalition Government were formed in 2010, the poorest students attended overwhelmingly the poorest schools. Let us take a moment to process what that means. It means that money and wealth were primary contributors to helping students flourish through education. Those without would not and could not reach their potential. Not only did this entrench inequality but it meant that we as a country could not reach our potential either.

This is a personal crusade for me, because I was one of the lucky ones. At a time when too few Welsh students applied to top universities, my comprehensive school in Swansea was an outlier, regularly getting 10 to 15 pupils a year into Oxbridge. These results were down to some outstanding teachers who believed that their pupils, we, were as good as anyone else. They raised our level of aspiration and taught us to value education as a means of opening up opportunities and freedoms. I was lucky. But we must look beyond the agency of a few great teachers at one individual school and work out how to institutionalise this philosophy.

One advantage we have is unprecedented access to data and technology. It means that we can assess pedagogy, teaching approaches and educational technology rigorously and on a global scale. We do not have to compare teaching ideologies and philosophies and pick one by setting them against our political creed. We can simply look at what works.

Let us take phonics as an example of following the evidence instead of the ideology. My right honourable friend Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for Education, mandated its use in the teaching of reading to combat the widening gap between the highest and lower achievers. At the time, he had to fight off staunch opposition from professors of education and teaching unions, but he pressed on, confident in the evidence base and encouraged by the thousands of teachers who had supported this method of teaching children to read. The emerging evidence is that phonics is particularly effective at helping the least able, and we should give heartfelt thanks to the teachers who have embraced this new way of teaching. What better example of capturing this notion of education’s contribution to flourishing in our society, helping everyone—not just the wealthy and the smartest—to reach their potential? We also need to be clear that this is not about equality for equality’s sake. My teachers in Swansea did not enable me and my colleagues to get into Oxbridge by persuading colleges to lower their standards but, rather, by getting us to raise ours. It is the role of education to enable us to flourish to our own, individual potential.

My passion for the empowerment that only education can bring is reinforced by my family history. My father’s family defected from communist Czechoslovakia, arriving in the liberal West with absolutely nothing. Once there, he won a scholarship to Princeton University and later became a professor at IMD, the international Swiss business school. He was a true beneficiary of education’s role in helping us to flourish, but we should reflect on the world he escaped. Communism does not recognize individuals and the talents and potential they may have: this is all subsumed into the state and its projection of power. Individual freedom is extinguished, with brutal and tragic consequences. We should use the centenary of the Russian Revolution not to romanticise, as some incomprehensibly still do, but to remind ourselves of the importance of liberty, human potential and flourishing, and in particular, returning to the topic of today’s debate, the role that our education system can play in bringing it about.