Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:54 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:54, 17 May 2022

My Lords, one of the great things about coming this far down a long list of very distinguished speakers is that other people have done all the hard work. The only thing is that it has put considerable pressure on my editing skills—but we shall see.

I declare my interests as a member of the Middlesex Learning Trust and as a trustee of the Artis Foundation. I want to remind the House that the gracious Speech says:

“Reforms to education will help every child fulfil their potential wherever they live, raising standards and improving the quality of schools and higher education.”

It is pretty hard to argue with that as an aspiration, but what would it take for it to be fulfilled? Well, it might take a well-trained, well-motivated, well-rewarded and well-respected workforce. Do we have that? Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that we do not, and the recruitment and retention problems bear this out.

We might need students who are well supported outside the classroom, as well as in it, especially those with special needs or mental health issues, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or all of the above. Do we have that? No, not nearly enough, despite upcoming new provisions for special educational needs and disabilities.

We might need a well-balanced, broadly based and flexible curriculum. I shall come back to that. We would need well-equipped, environmentally sound buildings and facilities, and I refer your Lordships to the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on that subject. I do not need to add to them.

We would also need funding, both revenue and capital, sufficient to make these things possible. Do we have that? Well, numbers of people speaking in this debate have made it pretty clear that we do not, and that there is no such uplift in funding realistically in prospect. By the way, let us not forget the scandalously short shrift given last year to the Government’s own adviser, Sir Kevan Collins.

Does the Schools Bill focus on these issues? It does not, as my noble friends Lady Morgan and Lady Morris said so eloquently—and I genuinely have nothing to add to what they said about academies, so I will not say any more on that. On the curriculum, last year I had the privilege of serving on your Lordships’ Youth Unemployment Committee, which heard substantial evidence, a lot of it from employers and young people themselves, indicating, as the report says, that

“while the national curriculum plays an important role in guaranteeing minimum common provision and rigorous standards, it is too narrowly focused to ensure that it prepares all young people for the modern labour market … in particular for the creative, green and digital sectors.”

I, like many noble Lords, am particularly concerned about the drop in take-up of creative subjects, with music for example being dramatically down at both GCSE and A-level, despite growing evidence of the value to overall learning of engagement with these subjects, both within the curriculum and outside it. Does the Bill do anything to address that? No, it does not.

The Bill also brings in new provisions about teacher misconduct. Why is this necessary? I accept of course that teachers must be held, and hold themselves, to the highest possible standards, but what evidence is there that current arrangements are inadequate or that there is a newly significant problem about teacher behaviour? To choose this moment to focus on the small number of teachers whose conduct is unsatisfactory strikes me as frankly tin-eared when so much else is unaddressed.

Teachers and school leaders are under enormous pressure following the pandemic and most are working with extraordinary commitment to mitigate the effects on students of two years of disruption, including a massive increase in mental health issues. Now, more than ever, we should be reminding those in our education workforce how much they are valued, and offering them every possible support, not telling them off. That is what certain members of this Government—and I completely exempt the two noble Baronesses who are in charge of this debate, for whom I have great personal respect and affection—do best: tell people off. Not just in education but across most areas of public service, the tone from government is too often ungenerous and censorious. Civil servants have been told off, as have doctors, the police and universities, and, in my experience, you do not get the best out of people that way.