Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:56 pm on 8th December 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 2:56 pm, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I thank the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury for convening today’s debate. I am glad to support this Motion on behalf of the Government. Education is fundamental to creating a flourishing society. A good education system is one that opens up real opportunities to children and young people, regardless of their background. The noble Lord, Lord Sacks, put it better: to defend a civilisation, one needs a good education system. I also agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, that it must also help to defend against the atomisation of society.

This Government have made it a priority to increase access to opportunity at every step on the path through education. By 2020 we will be spending a record £6 billion a year on childcare and early education. There are now 1.9 million more children being taught in good or outstanding schools than there were in 2010. The Sutton Trust tells us that raising the UK’s levels of social mobility to those of our European peers would boost GDP by as much as £39 billion a year. There are simple financial reasons to achieve it, but building a civilised society includes reaching out to the weakest.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester rightly raised the importance of the early years. We want to put an end to children from less advantaged backgrounds already falling behind on language and literacy before they have even started school. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, also raised the early years. We are committed to closing the gap through early intervention, starting with high-quality learning from the age of two. To achieve this, we have introduced 15 hours a week of free childcare for two year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Government will be spending £6 billion a year, as I said earlier, on early years education by 2020.

Good early language is the foundation stone of social mobility, which is why the Secretary of State and my department are fully committed to tackling the word gap. We have already announced key actions, such as opening up the £140 million strategic school improvement fund and a £12 million network of English hubs, targeting initiatives at areas of weak early language and literacy. In schools, we will focus on great teaching in order to transform outcomes for disadvantaged pupils. We are supporting teacher training, recruitment and retention, particularly in challenging areas, to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education. This includes investing a further £75 million from the teaching and leadership innovation fund to provide professional development for those working in such areas.

The most reverend Primate spoke passionately about the importance of further education, as did my noble friend Lord Lingfield and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. For young people over the age of 16 we will ensure that our education system offers a gold standard for all, not just the half who go on to A-levels and university. We will pursue excellence in further education, as we have in our schools, and introduce T-levels—technical qualifications that will be every bit as rigorous and respected as academic A-levels. On resourcing further education, the T-level programme will involve an investment of £500 million a year by the time it is rolled out.

As part of our efforts to revive technical education in this country, we are driving up the quality of apprenticeships by working with employers to set clear standards and by supporting the development of degree apprenticeships, particularly by targeting STEM subjects. There was a drop in apprenticeship starts in the quarter following the introduction of the levy but it was significantly offset by an increase in starts of 47% for the quarter prior to its introduction. In addition, more than 90% of those who complete apprenticeships go into further training or employment. We know that the last year has been a huge period of change for employers, but it is right that they take their time to plan and maximise the opportunities the apprenticeship levy can being.

All this requires a genuine partnership with employers of all sizes. To this end, we held a skills summit on 1 December to bring businesses together on a statement of action to boost productivity by bolstering local skills. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, our commitment to further education is underlined by our plans to invest around £7 billion in the FE sector during this academic year.

As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, gaps in access to careers advice and progression are another barrier to a truly flourishing society. Too often, social networks and access to advice on how to get ahead are concentrated among those from more advantaged backgrounds. To eliminate these barriers, the Government have this week published an ambitious careers strategy. Among its priorities are plans to ensure that every young person has seven interactions with employers during their schooling. The strategy also sets out stretching benchmarks for what must constitute high-quality careers advice in schools.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lords, Lord Puttnam, Lord Griffiths and Lord Watson, asked about the Government’s commitment to lifelong learning. As an aside, when I took on this job I was not told about coming in here today to try to wrap up on 40 speakers. It has been a very fast learning curve for me. But I am happy to report that we have announced a national retraining scheme in this year’s Autumn Budget—an ambitious, far-reaching programme to drive adult learning and retraining. It will be driven by a key partnership between businesses, workers and government which will set the strategic direction of the scheme and oversee its implementation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, addressed the specific issue of STEM skills and careers. This is an important question since mathematical and quantitative skills will be increasingly required in the future, not just for traditional STEM routes but for a wide range of future careers. We are working with the Government Equalities Office to take positive steps towards eradicating gender norms in the classroom that lead to girls narrowing their career choices. Indeed, the number of girls taking STEM A-levels has increased by 17% since 2010 in England.

I welcome the interventions from the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Wallace and Lord Bird, on how we work to ensure that no communities in this country are left behind. I echo the comments of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely on the need to tackle entrenched disadvantage, as highlighted in the Casey review. We are tackling regional inequalities. At the forefront of our efforts, we have invested £72 million over three years to establish opportunity areas—intensive programmes of local engagement in 12 of the most disadvantaged parts of the country. I am pleased to say that our opportunity areas programme is working in the areas mentioned by some noble Lords, including Blackpool and Hastings. We will shortly publish further delivery plans for how we will intervene across every phase of the education system in these areas. An ambitious agenda of social mobility across the country will be announced in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, spoke of coastal communities. I have direct experience of these, having taken into my academy trust seven schools in coastal towns ranging from Lowestoft to Cromer. I know how difficult it is and I know about poverty of aspiration. Trying to get children in Cromer to get on a bus to come to Norwich, where one of our free schools has better maths A-level results than Eton or Harrow, is a huge challenge.

A core objective of opportunity areas is to learn more about what works in improving education outcomes, not only in urban areas but in coastal and rural communities. Our approach in these cold spots of social mobility is to work across all phases of the education system and to partner with local organisations, including universities, the voluntary sector and businesses. As part of opportunity areas, I am glad to report to my noble friend Lady Shackleton and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Fall and Lady Neuberger, that we are also investing in character education through an essential life skills programme. This will enable disadvantaged young people to develop the broad base of life skills necessary to get ahead through access to extra-curricular activities. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely said, disadvantages accumulate and our challenge is to try to tackle that.

Our industrial strategy, published last week, sets out a clear path to boost prosperity and productivity by focusing on places and people. This includes national initiatives to tackle the shortage of STEM skills and reforms to technical education that will strengthen local labour markets and attract businesses. I listened with great interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, who talked with enthusiasm about the innovative work being done at the University of Hull, including work on renewable technologies. We have been clear that universities are at the core of our mission to ensure that young people are equipped to flourish in a world shaped by changing technology.

While the challenge to raise standards may be steep, real improvements are possible. For example, we have removed more than 3,000 qualifications from 16 to 19 year performance tables since 2016, many of which were of low quality. On the other hand, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, the number of entries for computer science GCSEs continues to rise faster than for any other subject. In 2013, just 4,000 students took the subject; this has now risen to more than 69,000. To ensure that all students have the skills to succeed, we have made maths GCSE more challenging, with more examination and teaching time and a greater focus on the fundamentals such as calculation, ratio and proportion.

The recent record of London schools also shows that success is achievable. In 1995, disadvantaged pupils in the capital were four percentage points less likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths, than disadvantaged pupils elsewhere in the country. By 2013, they were 19 percentage points more likely to achieve those GCSEs than their peers elsewhere. I pay tribute to the important work that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, did in jump-starting the process.

Change has not come just in London, of course. The Government have raised standards across the country. In 2016, we ranked eighth, up from tenth, among the participating countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—our highest performance since 2001 and significantly above the international median. This has justified our continued focus on phonics, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Finn.

Our academies programme, with which I have been closely involved, has been a central part of driving up standards across the country. In answer to the question posed by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, our ambition is for every school that wants it ultimately to benefit from the autonomy and freedom to innovate that academy status offers and for schools to collaborate through strong multi-academy trusts. I acknowledge the great work of United Learning in going into some of our most disadvantaged areas. I can also reaffirm to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, our commitment to encouraging partnerships between the independent and state sectors, and I was pleased recently to meet the Independent Schools Council, which shares the ambition to increase the number of partnerships. The collaboration between independent schools and the London Academy of Excellence is a good example of what such partnerships can achieve. Some noble Lords may be aware that in the past month the school has been awarded an outstanding judgment by Ofsted.

With the introduction of free schools, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, we have given more choice to parents, and this programme is leading the way on innovation in education. Free schools are among the highest-performing in the country and three in particular—Tauheedul Islam Boys in Blackburn, Reach Academy Feltham and Dixons Trinity in Bradford—beat the national average in key stage 4 figures. As of September, 84% of inspected free schools were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. There are now 390 open across the country.

Since 2010, we have taken around 1,700 schools that were typically failing under local authority control and made them into sponsored academies; and 68% of those sponsored academies that have been inspected are now adjudged good or better, including 59 which are now outstanding. More than 400,000 children in these schools study in institutions that were previously underperforming but are now good or outstanding. The national average of eligibility for free school meals is 13%, but the average in sponsored academies is 21%. We are confronting disadvantage head-on. If I can do anything while I am a Minister, this is my priority.

The most reverend Primate spoke eloquently about the important role that the Church continues to play in education. It is always humbling to reflect that the Church of England is involved in more than 4,500 non-fee-paying schools and, as he said, with more than 1 million pupils. It is also vital to recognise the important contribution made by all faith providers. Church schools’ strong ethos and their underpinning of Christian values play an essential role in building a more tolerant society. The Church of England has been clear that its schools are there to serve the wider community, not only the Anglican community, and they are popular with parents whatever their religious background. Many have admissions arrangements that are open to all regardless of faith.

The issue of values in education was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. We want all schools to offer a broad education, consisting of a rigorous academic curriculum supported by activities to develop essential life skills such as resilience, teamwork and leadership. I have already mentioned the Essential Life Skills programme as an example of this in practice. The Government firmly believe in the importance of religious education in schools. Good-quality religious education can teach children the knowledge and values of the traditions of Britain and other countries, and foster understanding among different faiths and cultures.

The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, raised Catholic faith schools. The Government are committed to our long-standing partnership with the Catholic Church. Catholic schools’ positive contribution to our education system is exemplary. We are reviewing how best to deliver our programme of faith schools and will be setting out a response to the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation, including in relation to the 50% faith cap, in due course. As we have seen in this debate today, there are differing views on the pros and cons of a faith cap.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, mentioned global education. I had the privilege earlier this year of visiting two refugee camps in Jordan. The thing that kept people’s hope alive in those camps was the education they were being provided with.

I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Fall and Lady Neuberger, for raising the issue of mental health in schools. On 4 December, the Government published a Green Paper on this issue. Backed by £315 million of funding, the ideas outlined in the Green Paper include a number of proposals to help improve the mental health of young people. This will include introducing new mental health support teams to work with schools and the NHS, reducing waiting times for NHS services for those who need specialist help, and encouraging schools to identify a designated senior lead for mental health.

The issue of social media was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, the noble Baroness, Lady Fall, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. We have published new cyberbullying guidance and an online safety toolkit for schools funded by government and developed by the UK Safer Internet Centre. However, I agree about the dangers of social media and the dangerous addictiveness of it, particularly for young people, which is something that people of our age find very hard to understand.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the pressing issue of vice-chancellors’ pay. The Government’s view is that exceptional pay can be justified only by exceptional performance. To that end, we are consulting on behalf of the Office for Students on a new requirement for governing bodies to publish the number of staff paid more than £100,000 a year. On the issue of academy CEOs’ pay, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I have written in the last week to a number of academies where I felt the published pay of chief executives was too high and asked for the governance procedures around those awards. I feel very strongly about this subject and will continue to pursue it.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about the race disparity audit. We remain committed to ensuring that every child or young person, whatever their background, has the opportunity to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them, and to supporting schools to tackle the barriers faced by particular groups of people. I was pleased to note the recent report by the Education Policy Institute that highlighted that pupils in free schools are much more likely to have a first language other than English than pupils in other state-funded schools. They are starting to play an important part in strengthening our society’s integration.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about initial teacher training in special educational needs. I am happy to report that we have developed specialist resources for initial teacher training through the National College for Teaching and Leadership and advanced-level online modules in areas including autism and language needs. This will enhance teachers’ knowledge, understanding and skills in this area. On his related point about apprenticeships and SEND, we are looking to increase the proportion of apprenticeships started by people from unrepresented groups, including those with learning difficulties, by 20% by 2020. We are delivering the recommendations of the Maynard task force to improve access to apprenticeships for people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised the issue of exclusions and expulsions. Good discipline in schools is essential to ensure that all pupils can benefit from the opportunities provided by education. The Government support teachers in using exclusion as a sanction where warranted, but it is equally important that the obligations on schools to ensure that any exclusion is lawful, reasonable and fair are clear and well understood. The Government recently announced an externally led review of exclusions practice and the implications for pupil groups disproportionately represented in the national statistics. It is worth noting, though, that permanent exclusions rose by only 0.01% in the last year, from 0.07% to 0.08%.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, mentioned the challenge of teacher recruitment. We have put in place a range of measures for recruitment and teacher training in 2018-19, and continue to offer generous bursaries in priority subjects.

I am running out of time. I thank noble Lords again for all their contributions today on a subject that is closest to my heart, the education of the next generation in this country. As I have set out, the Government believe that barriers to opportunity must be removed at every level of our education system. The prize of success in this endeavour is not only a fairer future but an education system that ensures that our country brings forth the innovators and social reformers of tomorrow. We are the beneficiaries of centuries of innovation. We are the nation of George Stephenson, Isambard Brunel, Florence Nightingale, Alan Turing, Rosalind Franklin and Tim Berners-Lee. Mass transport, enduring infrastructure, the modern hospital, computing, DNA, the internet—this is Britain flourishing and changing the world in which we live.

We do not yet know who will be the innovators of the 21st century, but we can be sure that some of them are sitting in a classroom as we speak. That is why we must build an education system that will unleash their potential, no matter what their start in life. We know there is more to do and we know the challenge is a generational one, but if we work to raise aspirations, reduce regional inequalities and remove barriers to opportunity, a more skilful and flourishing society is within reach.