Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 6:37, 17 May 2022

My Lords, it is a great privilege to participate in this debate on the gracious Speech. As a working-class child growing up in the north of England, I never maximised my grammar school education and have devoted much of the last 35 years to levelling-up efforts on behalf of the younger generation. I have specifically helped the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Outward Bound in their work to fill the gaps that even supposedly good schools far too often leave in their pupils’ skillsets.

Absolutely nothing matters more for the prospects, long-term outlook and opportunities of our nation than the correct, proper, appropriate, no-compromise, world-standard education of our children. However, none of it can be achieved unless we have the appropriate and quality institutional framework in place to ensure the delivery of the highest educational standards across the whole country. That is why I fully welcome the new, full, visionary and ambitious schools White Paper, as it introduces much-needed coherence and offers a clear plan to complete the schools revolution started by Michael Gove back in 2010. The current system is neither fully academised nor fully local authority controlled; it is neither one thing nor the other. Therefore, it is sensible, appropriate and right that every school should join—or at least be in the process of becoming a part of—a family of schools by 2030. We have seen and experienced, through participation and involvement, that such families of schools can work exceptionally well. That enables them to share all the very best practices and the most effective proven experiences and ideas.

The point of it all is to elevate standards, so the Government’s intention to set a target of 90% of primary school-age children reaching the expected levels in literacy and numeracy by 2030 is welcome indeed, as is their ambitious goal to increase the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths. However, let us not underestimate the poverty gap and the long tail of underachievement in this country. It is encouraging that 24 priority areas, many in the north, have been identified in the White Paper for extra support—I thank the Government for that—but the underattainment of children from lower-income backgrounds is widespread and persistent and exists throughout most of the country. Clearly, if all schools can perform at the level of the best, we will achieve our aims and aspirations, but it will undoubtably require major committed resourcing and priority in public expenditure to enable this to happen. We have in the White Paper the design of a world-class system but, for this to become a reality, we will need world-class resourcing too.

One of the great advantages of the academy system is the freedom that it gives trust leaders to make decisions and be accountable for them. However, I am forcefully told by those working in the field that, in recent years, a plethora of regulatory bodies have started to eat away at these freedoms. Academies are accountable to the DfE, the Education Funding Agency, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners, often reporting to them on overlapping areas. Consequently, the Government’s proposal to undertake a regulatory review to simplify the system is to be greatly welcomed, but we also need to streamline regulation and introduce a risk-based approach, targeting regulatory resource where it is needed most. The state does not need to become involved in overregulating high-performing, low-risk academies and trusts. We all know from bitter experience that bureaucracy has an ability to spread itself perhaps rivalled only by Japanese knotweed, and the greatest care is needed to keep it under firm control.

Finally, I want to comment on the proposal to allow good schools, in exceptional circumstances, to request to move between academy trusts. This has the potential, if not handled with great thought and care, to undermine all the gains that successful academy trusts have already made and could achieve in future. The best academy trusts take in failing schools and improve them rapidly by committing resources to and investing heavily in them. Such trusts then leverage these much-improved schools in their turn to develop underperforming new joiners. However, this virtuous circle risks being broken if improved schools can threaten to vote to exit their academy trust if they are asked to devote their own resources to helping newly joined underperforming schools. Any legislative change that might incentivise such an outcome must be avoided at all costs.

I believe that this is a vital caveat but, having made the point, I conclude by reiterating my strong support for the basic principles of the White Paper and urging that the proposed reforms be implemented as speedily and urgently as possible. Our nation’s children deserve no less.