Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:16 pm on 17 May 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Blower Baroness Blower Labour 7:16, 17 May 2022

My Lords, the Queen’s Speech was described as thin on education and so has proved the Schools Bill, as my noble friend Lady Wilcox said. At a time when there is so much to do in and for our education service, a more wide-ranging Bill would have been appropriate.

Both the Queen’s Speech and the Bill have ducked significant issues. Clearly, insufficient has been done to date to address Covid recovery. Like much else in education, this is about funding. As proposed, the national funding formula is both an attack on local democracy and a failure to provide adequate resources. Funding is a significant problem for a huge majority of schools, with the National Audit Office reporting that money will be redirected away from schools serving the poorest pupils.

Primary class sizes are now the highest they have been this century, and secondary class sizes the highest since records began. Much of our school estate—our school buildings—is in a terrible state, frankly. Investment is urgently needed to make these buildings fit to provide education for our children and young people. Good, qualified teachers, supported by teaching assistants and the whole school workforce at school level, are of course the biggest factor in ensuring success for all our young people. But, alas, teachers are leaving the profession in very high numbers and recruitment to teaching is missing its targets—not to mention the contested market review of initial teacher training and education, with so many high-quality institutions no longer in this field, as reported yesterday.

Throughout the pandemic, Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box and praised teachers for their work. That was very welcome, but fine words butter no parsnips, and what we see in schools is that around a quarter of new teachers leave the profession within three years. The loss of experienced teachers is a problem too, with barely 60% remaining in the profession 10 years in. OECD research clearly suggests that a mix of experience levels is a prerequisite for good outcomes for students, especially in areas of high poverty, but all too many schools are starved on a turnover of early-career teachers who leave within five years—and not, I am afraid to say, to go to other schools.

Many teachers who leave cite workload as an issue. Where is the Government’s response to this? If the answer is the Oak National Academy, I really believe the Government need to think again. Of course teachers value good, high-quality resources, but teaching is a creative profession, one in which teachers should have autonomy, agency and the ability to collaborate with colleagues in relation to curriculum design and pedagogy—it is not a place for pre-packaged lessons to deliver a curriculum wholly centrally determined. When teachers cite workload, they generally mean Ofsted-driven activities arising from performance measures that, as professionals in classrooms, they consider unnecessary and often unrealistic. We should bear in mind that the number of hours worked by teachers in England is significantly above the OECD average of 41 hours per week.

As to academisation, the Government’s ideological position of academising all schools by 2030—or at least having them on the route to academisation—has not met with enthusiasm or approval from within the profession. This is unsurprising when research by both the National Education Union and Birmingham University contradicts in stark terms the claims made by government of the alleged benefits of multi-academy trusts. I genuinely look forward to a detailed discussion with the Minister on this, as it is clearly a contested area.

The ostensible reason offered some 12 years ago for the emergency legislation on academy status was the independence and autonomy that such schools would enjoy. While that may be debatable, what is true is that such independence will be significantly eroded by the 20 areas in the Schools Bill in which the Secretary of State may set standards by regulation, with one such area being salaries and pensions. If such regulation were to be drawn up following sectoral collective bargaining, I am sure that would be welcome—but I am sure that the Minister will tell me that that is not what is intended.

The Schools Bill is not what is needed in the face of the challenges facing our schools and children, including underfunding and the Covid pandemic, so I really hope that during the passage of the Bill we can make some significant improvements.