Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:45 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I too congratulate the most reverend Primate on leading and introducing so eloquently this debate on a subject of great importance. I welcome the fact that so many noble Lords have recognised that by participating. The most reverend Primate mentioned Joshua Watson in his opening remarks. I am tempted to wonder whether he is a forebear of mine. The most reverend Primate told us that he is the man who founded the National Society in 1811. He also told us that the Luddites were founded that year. I rather suspect my forebears might have been more involved there, but I do not know.

The most reverend Primate spoke of the importance of educating the whole person—a concept reflected in the Church of England’s vision for education. That vision reflects the importance of preparing children for all aspects of life by investing in their general well-being. As many noble Lords have said, not enough has been done to promote well-being from an early age, which will make it difficult for young people to become resilient, with improved academic attainment leading to the skills needed by employers and the economy at large, while enabling young people to make a positive contribution to society. Today’s young people will need to be prepared to have several careers, because they face a much longer and more varied working life than their parents and grandparents.

Earlier this year, the Church of England set out its vision for an education system in which “no passports are required” and where, at Church schools,

“the doors are wide open to the communities they serve”— in other words, as I read it, integration, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and my noble friend Lord Judd. Such a vision is certainly one to which we on these Benches subscribe. It is encouraging to note that the Church has also stated its intention to open only inclusive schools in future. It would be most welcome if other Churches and religious bodies responsible for running state schools were to do the same. For that reason, I am afraid I cannot agree with my noble friend Lord Murphy on the faith schools cap. Labour’s policy is that the cap has been in place since only 2011 and it has not yet had sufficient time to facilitate greater integration, which is its raison d’être.

Last month the Education Policy Institute published a report entitled Educating for our Economic Future, which urged the Government to put the future economy first as they reform the schools and post-16 education landscape. The report concluded that without substantial increases in productivity, wages and housing supply there will be serious risks to social mobility for the young. Opportunities will be created for those able to adjust their career paths and take advantage of high-skilled jobs, but there are risks that many will be trapped in low-level jobs with low pay and minimal employment rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, also drew attention to computer education, including coding. Around half of adults in England have either basic or no ICT skills. That is higher than the OECD average. Younger people fare better but, as the EPI report warns, proficiency with social media should not be mistaken for digital literacy and work-based digital skills.

The Government should develop a fresh and comprehensive strategy for lifelong learning, from early years, through school to further and higher education. If that sounds rather similar to the cradle-to-grave national education service advocated by Labour, then of course that is purely coincidental. Lifelong learning is about not just employability, but quality of life. In addition to increasing employment opportunities and reducing inequality, recent research by the Government Office for Science, no less, noted that lifelong learning has wider social and health benefits. These include improved mental and physical health, increased social cohesion and integration, greater community involvement and improved democratic participation, all components of a flourishing society.

In allowing learning and earning, part-time higher education is a catalyst for widening employability, but, during the past decade, nearly 400,000 part-time adult students have been lost from higher education, and the threefold increase in tuition fees over that period is a major contributory factor. Where have those people gone? And what skills and career opportunities have they foregone?

A prosperous learning and earning higher education sector is needed more than ever, not only because it increases productivity and regional skills but because it promotes social mobility. The Government should facilitate an accessible and affordable system for adults that encourages such lifelong learning and tackles shortages in the basic skills that our economy will need in the future.

As my noble friend Lord McConnell and the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, said, the further education sector is very much the poor relation of higher education. During the past decade, further education colleges have been hit harder in terms of funding than any other sector of education. That issue must be confronted by the Department for Education if colleges are fully to play their part in the expansion of apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships have a vital role at the heart of the response to skills shortages, not least for small firms. The apprenticeship levy and the expansion of the Institute for Apprenticeships to encompass technical education are both positive moves, but there is a danger that, with the Government seemingly obsessed with a target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, quantity will triumph over quality, with not enough apprenticeships above level 2. There are worrying signs, including last week’s announcement—as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Haskel—that there has been a 59% drop in the number of apprenticeships in the last three months of the academic year compared with the same time a year ago. My noble friend Lord Adonis offered a thought-provoking, indeed provocative, six-point plan to deal with some of these issues. He included in that the role of the public sector in supporting apprenticeships, which is certainly worth considering.

If success is to be achieved in the development of relevant skills and the future shape of our economy, it must have social mobility at its heart. A major component of encouraging young people is to offer them varied and appropriate careers advice at school. I very much welcomed the announcement by the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, in last week’s debate on lifelong learning that the Government are to publish a careers strategy early next year with an emphasis on social mobility. Good careers guidance is important for social mobility, as it helps open pupils’ minds to opportunities they may not previously have considered. I believe that no school should be able to earn an “outstanding” grade from Ofsted if the careers advice offered to its pupils is not in itself outstanding. That might concentrate the minds of some head teachers for whom, too often, the overwhelming concern is to channel as many of their pupils as possible to university. Poor careers advice and lack of work experience mean that, even with the same GCSE results, one-third more of poorer children drop out of post-16 education than their better-off classmates. That is not a statistic that any Government should regard as tolerable.

It is widely recognised that the key factor in increasing social mobility is investment in early years provision—referred to by various noble Lords and just a few moments ago by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. That must have an emphasis on learning through play rather than just childcare, as advocated forcefully by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger. The early years of a child’s life have a lasting impact, but there are stark social class differences in how ready children are when they begin school. For a Government genuinely concerned about promoting social mobility, that is where the priority would lie. It is why Sure Start centres were launched by Labour in government two decades ago with a particular remit to provide early help to infants from disadvantaged backgrounds before they started school. They were hugely successful, but a succession of government cuts, direct or indirect, since 2010 has seen many closures of Sure Start centres—a fact referred to by the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Closures of Sure Start centres continue at the rate of one per week.

It seems that the Government are not willing to commit the necessary resources to early years funding, so disadvantaged children continue to fall behind, losing ground to their contemporaries from better-off families which may never be recovered.

Last year the Government closed the Child Poverty Unit, a body that involved cross-departmental initiatives—precisely what is necessary to bring about the joined-up government necessary to make an impact on reducing child poverty. Small wonder that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported this week that almost 400,000 more children were living in poverty last year compared with 2012-13. No wonder, either, that the outgoing chair of the Social Mobility Commission, which had the words “and Child Poverty” removed from its title by the Government last year, gave as one of his reasons for leaving his post that the Government no longer prioritise tackling child poverty. This week the former integration tsar, Louise Casey, referred to by the most reverend Primate, accused the Prime Minister of having done “absolutely nothing” about community cohesion a year after she presented the review that the Government had asked her to undertake. These are not the actions of a Government seriously interested in promoting social mobility.

This debate, of course, does not take place in a vacuum. I suspect that the Minister will tell us that, despite the fears expressed by many noble Lords, in fact there is little cause for concern because of the action that the Government are taking or will shortly initiate. In fact, the Government have but a single major item on their agenda at present, and that will continue until at least 2019. It is quite unacceptable that the shape of our future, post the European Union, is being allowed to suffocate initiatives that this Government should be pursuing with vigour. This debate has highlighted the issues that are essential if the skills that the workforce of the future will require are to be developed. The Government must refocus on this vital area of policy. If they do not, then the next one certainly will.