My Lords, I add my thanks to the most reverend Primate for introducing this debate. I was not around when the 1902 Balfour Education Act became law given that it was passed more than 100 years ago, but that radical Conservative education Act tried and succeeded in transforming the entire system of education in England and Wales. It ended the divide between board schools and those run by the church, principally the Church of England. A century ago Herbert Fisher, the Liberal MP for Sheffield Hallam, introduced the 1918 Fisher Education Act, which made education compulsory up to the age of 14 as well as making it the responsibility of local education authorities.
In preparing for this debate I reflected on how far we have come over the past 100 years and what compulsory education now means. We have made progress in that many children start school at the age of four and most have the benefit of at least 15 hours of free nursery education. The school leaving age is now 16, but the expectation is that every young person will continue their full-time education until they are 18 and that most will study either at college to go on to university, or be part of an apprenticeship course.
The notion of a broad and balanced curriculum was put into statute when in 1988 the noble Lord, Lord Baker, introduced his Education Reform Act. Now the introduction of the English Baccalaureate and Progress 8 are the Government’s current notion of what is a broad and balanced curriculum. However, many of us do not think that they allow the creative and soft skills to find space in the curriculum.
I want to focus on the fact that increasingly for a large group of children and young people, school means an unregistered and illegal place. These schools are often run in appalling and unsafe accommodation. There is a narrow focus on religious tracts with doctrine driving out the development of inquiring minds. Three years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw—Her Majesty’s chief inspector at the time—wrote two “advice letters” on unregistered schools to the then Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan. He wrote in November 2014, and again in the December, pointing out that unregistered illegal schools were often squalid, staff had not been vetted for child safeguarding, pupils were being taught a narrow curriculum that was failing to prepare them for life in modern Britain, and boys and girls were segregated. He said:
“It is vital, therefore, that when we do identify such illegal activity, the full force of the law is brought to bear on these institutions”.
Unfortunately, the full force of the law is neither full nor forceful enough to bring a successful prosecution.
Perhaps as a result of the chief inspector’s letters, and the concerns of many others, in November 2015 the Department for Education issued a consultation called Out-of-School Education Settings: Call for Evidence. On the Government’s website this morning, I read:
“We are analysing your feedback”,
and the reader is invited to,
“visit this page soon to download the outcome of this public feedback”.
That invitation was put on the website in January 2016 and I understand that this consultation holds the record for the length of time without any feedback. Perhaps two years is stretching the definition of “soon” to breaking point.
One of the reasons, perhaps, for the deafening silence on this consultation is that the threshold for out-of-school settings, including attendance at a centre for more than six hours a week or school holiday settings, would have captured many activities undertaken by churches, including the Church of England. Perhaps the most reverend Primate might reflect on the opposition of the Church of England to any regulation of out-of-school education. Agreeing to the registration and light-touch inspection of out-of-school education settings is surely a small price to pay for ensuring that young people are safe and given an education that will enable them to flourish and develop both skills and understanding.
Let me turn to another matter. Our higher education sector is the envy of the world, and although the commitment and hard work that students invest to obtain their qualifications is wholly laudable, we need to guarantee the integrity and honesty of the qualifications that our students obtain. The vast majority of undergraduates spend at least three years at university, work hard at their studies, work part-time to pay the bills and are finally awarded a degree—of course, all while racking up a huge personal debt. Just think how must they feel when they see other young people, encouraged by ruthless individuals, who have their essays and dissertations written for them, buy fake degrees online and are signed up for a higher education course with no real expectation of completing it, so that the students obtain cash and the institution collects a hefty fee. During the passage of what is now the Higher Education and Research Act, which received Royal Assent in April this year, I was assured by the Government that essay mills and plagiarism were not a significant problem. Perhaps the Minister might like to reflect on that assurance in the light of recent events. What does he believe these activities will do for the reputation and integrity of our higher education system?
In conclusion, I want to go back to basics and talk a little about the early years, where the foundations of a flourishing and skilled society are laid. Yesterday, the OECD published Educational Opportunity for All, a major report that states unequivocally the importance of access to quality early childhood education. It goes on to talk about the “accumulation of disadvantage”, which starts at birth for too many children. Early childhood education in England has been the envy of the world. Every early years settings needs strong leadership by a graduate teacher and staff with the appropriate training and skills, as well as opportunities for excellent continuing professional development. If we are serious about social mobility, our early years settings should not be about childminding but about offering an excellent education to every young child and excellent support to parents. The Government must not allow our early years provision to decline from the magnificent to the mediocre.
It has been a fascinating and remarkable debate with excellent contributions. It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, particularly his views on the pay of those who lead our universities. I was surprised, or perhaps not, that he did not rail against the hundreds of thousands of pounds paid to the chief executives of multi-academy trusts, many of whom receive more pay than vice-chancellors of our universities. Perhaps the noble Lord might like to talk to Jo Johnson and come to some kind of accommodation with him so that the same independent body recommended for vice-chancellors will also look at the leadership of multi-academy trusts.
In today’s speeches the Minister has been provided with an agenda that would transform our education system, were the Government to adopt it. Of course, education in England depends on the high quality of leadership in our schools, colleges and universities, and the dedication and commitment of our teachers. It is the work that they do day in, day out, often in very difficult and challenging circumstances, that changes the lives of our children and young people for good.