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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 3:51 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, I want to confine my remarks to the area of education, of which the Queen’s Speech says basically, “Motherhood and apple pie”. Could anyone have cause to disagree with the statement that all young people will,

“have access to an excellent education, unlocking their full potential and preparing them for the world of work”?

Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on the actual Bills that the Government will bring forward to make that happen. I hope that it will not be a further narrowing of the curriculum—we have seen how that stifles creative talent—and that it is not the further expansion of unaccountable free schools, when many parts of the country are urgently in need of building new schools to provide for much needed school places. Can we hope that the important Augar report on 16 to 18 year-olds will be translated into a Bill? After all, it was very close to the heart of the former Prime Minister. Can we also hope that the Government will bring forward changes to the EBacc?

By narrowing the curriculum, we have seen creative subjects decline in the state system year on year while flourishing in the independent and private schools sector. This year, we have seen GCSE entries decrease even further in design and technology, drama, media/TV studies and music at a time when the creative industries have become hugely important to our economy. Employers are consistently clear that the biggest drivers of success for young people are attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm, and creativity. As the Edge Foundation says, young people need,

“a truly broad and balanced curriculum, linked directly to the real world and focused explicitly on developing the wide range of skills required to succeed in the twenty-first century”.

It has always fascinated me how Governments of the day and so-called spin doctors manipulate certain situations to persuade the media to follow a particular news agenda. Do your Lordships remember when Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Education, told us repeatedly how badly as a country we were performing in the international league tables in maths, English and science? They are called the PISA tables—the Programme for International Student Assessment. Mr Gove used the PISA tables constantly to show how badly we were performing against our overseas competitors. Finland and Singapore were heralded as shining examples. Our failure in the PISA tables became the raison d’être for Mr Gove’s cataclysmic changes in education policy. So what about looking at the PISA tables, 10 years on, to see how we are performing? Singapore still heads the tables in maths, science and reading, and Finland is still among the top European countries. In fact, 14 European countries outperform us in maths and 13 in reading. Over that 10-year period, the UK saw schools drop in all those subjects. Need I say more? I do not think we will hear much from the Government about the PISA tables any more.

Never mind our failure in the international tables, figures released by the Department for Education reveal that, this summer, 35.6% of pupils did not get grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths, while half—57%—failed to get a grade 5, which is considered a strong pass. That 35.6% of pupils did not achieve a grade 4 might not mean anything to noble Lords, but it means that 190,000 young people were judged to have fallen short after 12 years of teaching. At the other end of the education system, the Department for Education also revealed figures that show that over a quarter—28.2%—of children are already falling behind in their education by the age of five.

Time is always tight in these debates, and I want to quickly mention two other issues that are close to my heart. Children in care and children who have struggled with schools and schooling are often placed in what is called alternative provision. These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and they need all the support and protection that we can possibly give them. Yet a large number of these pupils are put in unregistered schools which, because they are unregistered, are not subject to inspection and scrutiny. In many of them, the most unacceptable educational practices take place, including for example a lack of proper child protection procedures. Why are we allowing this to happen? Why, for example, are local authorities placing as many as 2,600 pupils in these unregistered schools and paying for them to go there? Why is the Department for Education unable to say how many unregistered providers there are? And why do the Government not listen when their own chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, warns that inspectors and the Department for Education do not currently have the powers to shut down unregistered schools, even when they are breaking the law? Does the Minister agree that we should give them those powers?

Another area that I have been concerned about for a few years is essay mills and contract cheating. This is when students pay for their essay or dissertation to be written by someone else. It is a flourishing, multi-million-pound industry that preys on the vulnerability of students. The problem is growing year by year and affecting the academic integrity of our higher education system. When I put down an amendment during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, I was assured by the then Minister, Jo Johnson, that the Government would try to deal with this problem by working with universities and the National Union of Students, and that if they failed, they would consider bringing in legislation. They have failed. The problem is getting bigger and bigger every year, with some 50,000 students using essay mills and contract cheating. More than 40 university vice-chancellors have written to the Education Secretary asking for essay mills to be banned. Will the Minister now give an assurance that these actions will be taken?

We all want all our children and young people to have the best possible education, and none should be left behind. When bringing forward legislation, I hope the Government will consider the important points that all your Lordships make in this debate.