My Lords, I declare my interests as chair of the National Society and co-chair of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households.
A key question for evaluating the legislative agenda laid out in the gracious Speech is: are we, as a nation, prioritising the holistic well-being of all our children? I welcome the forthcoming Schools Bill. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s approach in constructively working with us to enable churches to have confidence in moving towards a system where all schools can be in a strong academy trust, maintaining their own ethos. The whole system must provide an education not solely pursuing the ends of maths and literacy but enabling children to be the best people they can be and to contribute to transforming the schools in which we live.
Small, rural schools pose a particular challenge. The Church of England provides around 65% of rural primary schools in England. The key to their flourishing is not simply the means for academic achievement; it also requires investment in rural economies so the whole community flourishes. I echo the emphases made to that effect in an earlier day of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. For us, strong trusts are those where the vision, character and ethos promote an education that is, as our national Vision for Education explains,
“Deeply Christian, Serving the Common Good”,
where the vision for every child is that they have
“life in all its fullness”,
which is rooted in wisdom and not simply knowledge.
There are currently 1,250 Church of England academies, but moving to a system where all 4,700 schools are in strong trusts will require significant structural capacity and proper investment in teachers and leaders. Sustaining a culture of teacher excellence is transformative for pupils’ outcomes from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, so I hope that the Minister’s department will be sufficiently resourced for this through a budget which shows commitment to children’s holistic well-being through education.
Speaking of children’s well-being leads me to note the lack of action in the gracious Speech to alleviate the cost of living crisis. Those worst affected are families with children. In the north-east, almost half of families with children under five are in poverty. This is unconscionable. There are also significant concerns about inflation. The complexity in finding solutions requires openness to different routes on all sides to what is, I hope, a shared goal. It is vital that the voices of those who are the most vulnerable are heard and heeded.
My opposition to the two-child limit remains. I am disappointed that the Government have disregarded the overwhelming evidence documenting families being pushed into poverty. Sadly, often direct questions asked in this House regarding its justification have not been answered. It is crucial that we have an opportunity to focus on this, and for that reason I have tabled a Private Member’s Bill to abolish the two-child limit.
Every child is of great value and, as education is prioritised, we must recognise children as whole people whose welfare needs are inextricably linked to their education. I add my voice to the many who have raised their concerns about the progression of the managed migration to universal credit plan and the many unanswered questions regarding the uncompleted pilot, support for claimants and the consequences of failing to navigate the process. Concerns continue about the impact of the five-week wait, up-front childcare costs and accessibility issues. Concerns continue too about the treatment of some child refugees and asylum seekers.
Our children’s flourishing cannot be achieved in a one-dimensional way or only for some. We must ensure that children in larger families, in poverty, in families with no recourse to public funds, victims of trafficking and refugees can flourish at home, at school, in their neighbourhoods and online. I will engage with legislation this year with children’s holistic well-being in mind.