Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 17th May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour 5:50 pm, 17th May 2022

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the part of the Queen’s Speech debate that addresses public services. Quite frankly, it is probably the most important area because, without success here, none of the other areas of government and activity within the community can thrive and succeed. This is about giving people skills, and about giving them both support and opportunity; it is also about setting the values against which our society ought to operate. These are key debates.

On higher education, briefly, I may find myself out of step with my own party on the freedom of speech Bill; I shall see. I look forward to seeing the details. I will have to consider whether the Government’s suggestions are the way to solve it, but I take the view that there is a problem to be solved and that it is not acceptable that many academics have found themselves hounded because they have spoken their view. I worry about the context of the other higher education proposals. There is a worrying trend at the moment to say that we have too many young people going to university. That is not true—we want more, not fewer—but yes, we want good standard courses and good routes to employment as well. I read in the proposals a bit of that format of, “Hang on, we’ve gone too far. Quite frankly, too many kids ought not to have gone to university. They used to do apprenticeships; they ought to go and do them again.” That would mean closing down the doors that have taken so long to operate.

As I said, I look forward to thinking about that piece of legislation, but the Schools Bill is what I mainly want to address. Gosh—there is not much there, just as there was not in the White Paper. It is the first schools Bill since 2016. If you said to any teacher or anyone else who knows about education, “Come on, it’s been six years without legislation. What’s on your list?”, it would be things like teacher recruitment and retention, and changes to the curriculum to meet the changing demands of society. Lots of smashing thinking about new forms of assessment is going on among schools, and lots of people have done good work on the new accountability structure. None of that is in this Bill, yet those are the things that need to be addressed. The reason it matters, as I know from my own experience, is that when a Bill is being implemented, the whole energy and resource of the Department for Education and its Ministers is about implementing the Bill. Other things get swept off the agenda—and that measure goes down to the schools. We already have teachers beginning to worry about whether they will have to become an academy this year, next year or in 2030. That is not a good message to give.

What is the Bill about? What is there? Quite simply, it is the same as the 2016 Bill. It has the same measures trying to do the same things. The difference is that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, wanted to do it by 2022 while this Government now want to do it by 2030. Let us be clear about this. The Bill is about trying to remedy the effects of the 2010 Bill created by the coalition when it came into power. The result of that has been terrible fragmentation of the school system, underperforming academies with no measures to deal with it, and lack of accountability of the academies through the funding agreements.

Every single one of those problems was predictable; go back through the debates in 2010. It is clear that both the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have to take responsibility for this. They were predictable consequences of a policy that deliberately went out to favour only academies but did not have the courage to make all schools academies, so it settled on 10 years of incentivising. A bit—in fact, a lot—of me wishes that the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, had gone through. I am going to look carefully at this new Bill because the way things are now with this fragmented system is not good; it is not helpful position for us to have been put in. However, I make my position clear: I have never been against academies. How can you be against a good school just because it is an academy, or because it is a local authority school or a church school? It is not about the structure or the governance. It is about the quality of teaching, the leadership and all that—none of which is in this Bill.

I cannot find one thing in the Queen’s Speech that will help raise the quality of teaching and the standard of school leadership. The energy of the department will all be away from that and all about implementing something, and we have eight years of uncertainty before we actually reach the objectives. I would very much like the Minister to explain why 2030 has been chosen. The only other vehicle on the road at the moment as regards schools is the catch-up programme; I do not have time to talk about that. However, if this empty Bill and a fairly discredited catch-up programme are how we are trying to take forward our joint wish to raise standards and do well for the children, then I am worried. I very much look forward to the debate.