My Lords, I am very glad to introduce and set the scene for this debate on the report of the Times Education Commission, which was published in June, attracting a good deal of praise, not least from former Secretaries of State for Education of both main political parties. That was an indication of the widespread consensus in its favour that the report evoked. I should mention at the outset that in the last few days the Royal Society has sent me its endorsement of the report’s key findings. That august body stresses that Britain needs an education system that acknowledges
“the value of academic study, technical training and career pathways.”
The commission had 22 very distinguished members, including four who sit in your Lordships’ House, and it is good to see one of them, the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, in his place today. It was chaired by the well-known Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester, noted for her acute assessments of political life. Her deputy chairman was Sir Anthony Seldon, a prolific historian who has long been prominent in the world of education. Their colleagues were all leading figures in the fields of business, science, the arts, politics and of course education itself. They worked intensively for over a year. They have produced a unanimous report—no mean feat in an area of policy where controversy thrives.
In the report, the commission makes 45 recommendations, all designed to equip our country with an education system fit for the 21st century. No one who reads the report can fail to be struck by the success with which the commission has carried out its work. Its conclusions and recommendations deserve the most careful consideration by the Government, the political parties and the country at large, particularly by the people with the closest interest in the proposals: families, teachers, employers and, of course, students—the working population of tomorrow.
The report charts a clear course of action, not for the replacement of the existing education system but for its evolution to secure the improvements that, in the commission’s view, are needed if Britain is to thrive in this century. Economic policy alone, even when successfully constructed, can never ensure a nation’s prosperity. Conservatives in particular should recall the words of Disraeli:
“Upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends.”—[Official Report, Commons, 15/6/1874; col. 1618.]
In my experience, it is always a good idea to quote Disraeli in the presence of my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking; he is temporarily absent from his place, but I know that my noble friend Lord Willetts has a considerable interest in Disraeli as well. Disraeli’s simple truth can be easily obscured by the many other issues that clamour for attention day by day in political debate.
A little belatedly, I must declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association. Its members, nearly 600 strong, are small in size, diverse in character and successful in performance—not just academically but in wider terms, such as involvement in their local communities, to which the commission’s report rightly attaches great importance. They are totally ignored by the national media, which skews the perception of the independent sector as a whole as if it consisted only of big, expensive institutions. This large group of small schools forms part of a wider organisation, the Independent Schools Council, which has some 1,300 members that it accredits and represents.
The report treats independent schools with the same critical rigour that it brings to bear on other elements of the education system. It calls for
“much greater collaboration between state and independent schools” and states:
“Many more private schools should join multi-academy trusts, sharing assets and expertise across the group”.
There is indeed no better way of drawing the two education sectors more closely together, wherever feasible. But there is great merit too in partnership schemes between schools in the two sectors, through which teachers and pupils work together as colleagues to their mutual benefit. Today, such partnership schemes are flourishing in their thousands across the country.
The inclusion in the report of wise comment about independent schools, a small component of the system as a whole, is an indication of the report’s comprehensive character. In this respect it is, I think, unprecedented. There have been reports and government papers galore on schools, universities and other individual parts of the system. Here we are given the carefully considered recommendations of a panel of experts on the system as a whole, from early years through to lifelong learning. It is the range of this report that gives it such significance and stature.
The commission has devised a bold 12-point plan, which would carry its recommendations into effect. At the very centre stands its proposal for a British baccalaureate. It would offer broader academic and vocational qualifications at the age of 18, with parity of funding for pupils in both routes, so students would be able to gain high-quality qualifications in a wider range of subjects and disciplines, as in other advanced countries. Time and again, across the House we have called for an end to the decline of sport, drama, music and other creative subjects in our schools. The commission’s plan would bring them back to the heart of education where they belong.
A YouGov poll carried out for the commission found that 72% of parents were in favour of
“all schools receiving extra government funding to provide additional extracurricular activities like sport, drama, music, debating or dance.”
For me, and for many others across the House, music has a particular importance. Its neglect over recent years would, I know, have once again stirred impassioned comment from my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the Royal College of Music, if ill health had not prevented him taking part in this debate.
It is an area in which the gap between independent and state schools tends to be particularly wide. Many independent schools are trying to help close it by working in partnership with their state sector colleagues. But it is the kind of approach that the commission’s plan embodies that could help bring the glories of music to our young people throughout the country. Above all, the commission’s plan makes provision for both knowledge and skills. Are both not required in our fast-changing economy?
I will not go through the plan point by point; noble Lords will have studied it and formed views about it. This debate provides an opportunity to consider them. But what should happen after our debate? The Government should, of course, give the report careful consideration as they continue to review their Schools Bill, a measure strongly criticised across this House on a number of specific grounds, and more widely for its lack of ambition and vision.
But we need to look beyond this particular Government. If a report like this had appeared when I was in the Conservative Research Department years ago, I would have said at once, “This is manifesto territory”. It used always to be the case that policy groups, serviced by the Conservative Research Department and drawing on the work of outside experts, were set up to prepare the ground for election manifestos. This has not happened in recent years in the Conservative Party. I suggest that now is the time to revive the practice, with a Conservative education policy group, stimulated by this report, leading the way. Who better to chair such a group than my noble friend Lord Willetts, an authority on education and on conservatism, whose features and character so badly need restating today?
The quality of government suffers if party election manifestos are not based on detailed, serious policy work conducted within the parties themselves. We have seen some of the ill effects of the absence of such work in certain policies of the Conservative Party over recent years. It simply will not do for a Conservative election manifesto to be cobbled together by one or two people at the last moment, with contents that take the party as a whole almost entirely by surprise. Should not renewed policy work within parties seek as much consensus as possible between them? Do we really want education to be a fierce party-political battleground? Is that in the national interest?
When I referred to the report of the Times Education Commission in the House in June, my noble friend Lord Cormack, who unfortunately cannot be in his place, quoted those well-known words from the Book of Proverbs:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
The report of the Times Education Commission sets out both a vision and the means of achieving it. In the words of the report,
“Education should combine skills and knowledge; character and qualifications; oracy and literacy; emotional as well as intellectual understanding.”
Is this not the kind of system that a successful Britain needs? I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lexden. I applaud him for securing the debate and for his introduction. I declare my education interests in the register, particularly my interest as a co-owner of Suklaa, which has a number of education clients. I am also a board member of Century Tech and an adviser to Nord Anglia Education, and I chair the E-ACT multi-academy trust, among other things.
In my view, there can never be a more important time for us to thoroughly re-examine education and what we are doing with our school system in particular. This is a time when the brittleness of our resilience is being tested—the resilience of the planet, the economy and our political system. A lot of change is going on, and it would be easy to find ourselves with an absence of hope. There is one public service that is about the future: education. When we talk about a national education service in our policy conversations, in many ways our vision is for a national hope service.
I hugely applaud the Times for making the decision to resource and commission this really thorough and excellent piece of work. I pay tribute to the four Members of your Lordships’ House who served on that commission. I look forward to the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Rees, and it is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, in his place listening to the debate. I was also pleased to see that the chair of the Select Committee, Robert Halfon from the other place, was part of this commission.
We should take this really seriously, in part because the commission makes the case for change in education compelling. This country’s school system is high-stakes, with a high level testing and accountability. According to the commission’s report, we have the highest amount of testing of children anywhere in the developed world. We have great professionals working in our schools and, by and large, we have really good schools. We have a system that, in many cases and in many ways, is working really well for the purpose for which it was designed.
Unfortunately, I disagree with that purpose in the current context, because it appears that the system was designed to filter children. It was built during an age of an industrial economy, where swathes of people could leave education without much in the way of qualifications or skills but could still get reasonably rewarding work in factories or by marrying people working in factories. Because we largely now have norm-referenced examinations in our public examination system—we are talking about Ofqual tightening up the grade boundaries again next summer—large numbers of children will fail; that is how the system is designed. Of course, those children most likely to fail in such a system are those born to disadvantage. That is not fair.
I believe in education as something that lifts people up and releases the talents of all children. Having a school system in this country that is obsessed with the academic while neglecting the social, emotional and physical literacy of our children does not serve our nation well. Those who get left behind by the system become a burden on us as taxpayers, because we do not have an economy that is designed to pick up the slack in a modern labour market where people without higher levels of education will struggle to prosper and to get work.
We have some peculiarities in our system: it is remarkably broad within the academic context up to the age of 16, and then it narrows massively between the ages of 16 and 19 with A-levels, for those who pursue that route. This is because, in the end, it is a filtering system for universities. It serves that system pretty well, but it does not serve the rest. We retain a snobbery about the vocational route. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is in his place and, as ever, look forward with great enthusiasm to his contribution. The work he has done on university technical colleges as institutions for 14 to 19 year-olds and trying to break down that snobbishness about the vocational route is to be applauded. Not everyone has been successful in this regard but plenty have, and he has been hampered in his efforts by a system that is not really designed to work with enrolment at 14. This means that he has a disproportionate number of young people coming to UTCs who have not enjoyed success in education, and his institutions then have to deal with them.
I hear complaints every week from employers that our education system is not producing an output that they need. They have to train too many people as they join the workforce in quite basic things, because we are bringing up children with an ingrained fear of failure. If you are in the current work situation, where we need creative, collaborative and problem-solving workers, you have to learn to fail successfully by learning from those failures in order to progress—yet we do not nurture that culture. I hear the same from young people and from parents: that they are impatient to see our education system significantly change.
At its harshest we have those with special educational needs and disabilities on education, health and care plans. We have 4% of our pupil population on EHCPs and, statistically, only 4% of those on an EHCP will get a job. What a waste of talent in our school system that we indulge. I can also talk about the mental health crisis. Within E-ACT, we are responsible for educating 18,000 children. Statistically, 3,000 of those are likely to self-harm during their school career. We have profound problems that we should be talking about, and this commission report and this debate from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is our opportunity.
What of the prescription from the commission? We have been waiting for the British baccalaureate for a long time. One of the biggest regrets of those of us who were involved in education during the Blair/Brown years was our failure to adopt the Tomlinson proposals around a post-16 baccalaureate. That was a profound mistake. It is notable that, among the people who have endorsed the commission’s findings are former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major. I also noted that, during the recent Conservative leadership contest, the losing candidate, Rishi Sunak, also advocated something similar to a British baccalaureate. I would hope that, as parties think about this proposal for a much broader post-16 offer that mirrors those of successful economies around the world, they will also want to see things like maths continuing all the way through until 18; again, that is something that we see around the world.
I hugely applaud the commission advocating a significant rebalancing of funding towards the early years. I also applaud what it says around a strategic embedded use of technology, particularly at a time of teacher shortage. It is really important to magnify the impact of great teachers using technology. I applaud very much the sense that our higher education institutions should partner more with further education institutions, so that they can extend their reach into parts that, geographically, they struggle to get to. The notion of electives around access to the creative subjects and to citizenship activity is to be commended. A national well-being survey on an annual basis is of course also to be welcomed.
In many ways, the prescriptions, or the 12-point plan, that the commission report produces—most of which is hard to argue with—should be the stimulant for the debate. The final point in that 12-point plan is a 15-year strategy for education. In a political setting, it is quite unpopular to talk about taking education out of politics; there will be certain things that will just always need to be there, such as funding. The biggest issue facing us at the moment as a multi-academy trust is how on earth we are going to keep the doors open and stay financially solvent if the inflationary pressures coming through the system are not met by some kind of funding for education. Funding will always be a political issue; whether we are successfully recruiting enough teachers of a high enough quality will always be a political issue. But I applaud the notion that, across parties—perhaps this Chamber is a great place to start—we could develop some longer-term consensus on what sort of education we want. Ultimately, I want a system in which every child can thrive, with a diverse curriculum offer and diversity of provision that maximises the opportunity of technology to be able to link institutions and to link learners across the country and the world. It should be a system where every child feels safe and loved and where every child learns to care for themselves, for others and for their natural environment—both for the present and for their future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for enabling us to have this debate and the Times Education Commission for its very thoughtful analysis and its clear conclusions and recommendations. Some of those recommendations are similar to those reached by other recent reports, some are new and some require further discussion, but all of them share a concern to improve educational outcomes for all our young people.
I was privileged to chair the Select Committee on Youth Unemployment last year. We reported in November, almost a year ago. I just say in passing that we still await the allocation of time to debate that report on the Floor of this Chamber. I am not sure why it takes quite so long for Select Committee reports to be discussed, for ours is not the only one in this position.
I spent most of my professional career with the Open University, so I was pleased to read in the commission’s report its commitment to lifelong learning. As the report says:
“The idea that education is something that stops at 18 or 21 is increasingly at odds with the reality of a rapidly changing world.”
However, I ask the Minister if the Government can say anything more about the lifelong loan entitlement: it would be very helpful to know. I understand that it was confirmed last week at the Conservative Party conference that it remains government policy to launch it in 2025, but it is now many months since the skills Act passed this House, so it remains to be seen how much of an impetus to lifelong learning it will be.
In the context of lifelong learning, the commission’s call for the creation of new university campuses in higher education cold spots seems a very promising proposal, but of course flexible higher education will be crucial to delivering this, given the geographical scale across the country of 50 or so such centres. That is because flexible higher education tends to have a higher entry rate into higher education cold spots outside large cities, because there is inevitably limited face-to-face provision there. The option of supported distance learning is also very time effective and cost effective for students in remoter rural areas.
One of the objectives of our Select Committee on Youth Unemployment was to consider the impact of the Covid pandemic on young people, so it is very useful to see the publication just this morning of a landmark study involving longitudinal analysis undertaken by the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities, the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies and the Sutton Trust. It is, I understand, the largest study of its kind into the impacts of the pandemic on young people’s life chances. The report says that the majority of students say that their academic progress has suffered and that their future plans have changed due to the pandemic. Eighty per cent of young people say that their academic progress has suffered as a result of the pandemic. Importantly, state school pupils are more than twice as likely to feel that they have fallen behind their classmates than independent school pupils. Nearly half—45% of all pupils—do not believe they have been able to catch up with lost learning; almost half of young people have accessed no catch-up education; and a large majority have not accessed tutoring.
There are many other pieces of evidence in the report that merit further study, but I want to repeat the conclusions reached by Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, who said today:
“These findings show that far more needs to be done for young people. While all young people have been affected by the pandemic, there is clear evidence that students from less well-off households have been impacted most. Funding provided so far for catch-up has been a drop in the ocean. It’s less than a third of what is required and it’s at a level three times lower per person than in the US. The government’s education recovery plan must be much more ambitious, or we will blight the life chances of a whole generation.”
That is clearly a very important point.
The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, made mention of the Royal Society response to the Times Education Commission, and I agree with him that its conclusions are very important. The Royal Society talked of a narrowing path to success in the 16 to 19 curriculum breadth and employment outcomes, and the importance of reviewing the school education system, including exploring how a broader education up to age 18 should be undertaken to provide the skills to drive sustainable growth founded on increased productivity. The Youth Unemployment Select Committee reached similar conclusions:
“The Government must recalibrate the compulsory components of the national curriculum, taking into account its capacity to equip young people with essential knowledge and the technical, cultural, creative and professional skills the economy demands. Skills development and the tackling of skills shortages should be central to curriculum development … This would not involve removing key subjects, but rather refocusing on those that are essential to a good education, increasing school autonomy and facilitating the development of a broad range of skills.”
These are clearly very important issues.
The Royal Society talked of the need for a mathematical futures programme, since it has been estimated that at least one in four economically active adults is functionally innumerate. The Royal Society also says that there should be an acceleration in science teaching to give young people the world-leading science education that they deserve. In my view, these are crucial proposals if the Government’s growth agenda is to be fulfilled.
On investment in people, I draw your Lordships’ attention to a report published in July by the Prince’s Trust and the Learning and Work Institute, supported by HSBC UK, entitled The Power of Potential. The report finds that
“there are almost half a million NEET young people”— that is, not in education, employment or training—
“who are able to and want to work”, and with the right support, could help to fill the record number of vacancies we have. Many young people with mental and physical health problems and caring responsibilities are keen to find work despite these challenges. Of those NEET young people polled, more than eight in 10 said that they had employment or career aspirations within the next three to five years. The question, as our Select Committee addressed, is what will change to ensure that we do not waste the talent of so many of our young people. Nearly 10% are NEET. That figure is far too high, and it is for the Government now to move ahead, given all the evidence they have.
Some of the conclusions of the commission are very important, and some are similar to our work on youth unemployment. On the question of an electives premium for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport, we had similar conclusions in relation to digital skills, design and technology, and creative skills, which are extremely important given the apparent decline in provision in our schools in recent years.
The commission also proposed setting up a new cadre of elite technical and vocational sixth forms with close links to industry, to be known as career academies. I find this a most interesting proposal, which would require further discussion, but I think we need to consider what it means in the context of current provision—I am thinking of university technical colleges and the T-level curriculum. The commission also recommends providing a laptop or tablet for every child, which our committee concurred with.
The commission says that there should be a counsellor in every school and an annual well-being survey of pupils. I concur with that and would add careers advice to it, specifically how important it is, particularly for those students leaving school, to continue to have one-to-one advisory support for what they are doing to develop their careers.
The commission wants to reform Ofsted so that it works collaboratively with schools. I agree, and our committee said that:
“The Government must also recalibrate progress indicators so that schools wishing to focus on practical, technical, cultural, business- and work-related skills alongside core subjects are able to do so without being downgraded on Government performance measures.”
Research from UCAS has found that two in five students believed that more information and advice would have led them to make better choices. It also found that one in three applicants first start thinking about higher education at primary school, but that disadvantaged students were more likely to consider HE at a later stage than their peers, which we know can limit choices. Additionally, it says that, despite the Baker clause, it found that one in three students reported not receiving any information about apprenticeships from their school. UCAS has made significant financial investment to ensure that its services for would-be apprentices are as strong as they are for potential undergraduates. It says its ambition is to act as a digital Baker clause to ensure that everyone, regardless of background or location, gets independent, high-quality advice on all the choices available to them. I commend all of that.
This debate is about the Times Education Commission report entitled Bringing Out the Best. The Select Committee on youth unemployment that I chaired was called Skills for Every Young Person. With skills, we will bring out the best in all our young people.
My Lords, first I would like to thank my noble friend Lord Lexden and congratulate him on creating the opportunity to debate the curriculum and assessment in our schools. In his work for the Tory party over many years, he has always taken a great interest in what we say about education in our manifestos—and there is a great job to be done on that in our next manifesto.
We do not often speak about education here in the Lords. This happens to be the first three-hour debate to discuss the curriculum and assessment since 2010, and yet we have in our House a great number of people who know a great deal about education at all stages—primary, secondary and universities. We really ought to find more opportunities to debate education.
The Boris Johnson Government was not a listening Government—they just went ahead. We do not know yet whether the new Government under Liz Truss are listening or not. The one thing we do know about her Government is that they have one overwhelming object, which is economic growth. She hopes that this can be achieved simply by cutting taxes and changing supply matters. She will soon find out that they might be helpful but they are not of themselves assurances of economic growth. In the week that she said this, she also announced that the number of job vacancies in our country was 1.3 million. That is a skills gap of 1.3 million people who cannot be employed by industries that are expected to grow—the skills gap is there. I tried to find a speech in the last 12 years from any Secretary of State or any Education Minister about how they proposed to fill the skills gap. I could not find one. In fact, in 2016, the body that measured the skills gap was abolished. We now have an enormous skills gap.
Why do we have that? The reason is that Michael Gove, who did know a great deal about education, imposed his own idea of a curriculum on our system, namely eight academic subjects. He was implementing the theory of an American educationalist called Hirsch who said that if you give the most disadvantaged children access to academic subjects, it will transform their lives. We have been the testbed for that theory for 12 years and it has totally failed. The number of disadvantaged children today is exactly the same as it was in 2010. That is the indictment of Conservative education policy for the last 12 years, so we need a new curriculum.
What has happened as a result? Design technology has been virtually eliminated from schools at age 11 to 16. Cultural subjects, which are now very much in demand because of streaming and Netflix, have fallen by 40%, 50% and 60%. We are not going to get much economic growth from this curriculum, if it lasts much longer.
If you want evidence, do not just listen to me. Chapter 3 on the curriculum and chapter 4 on assessment are the best chapters of the report we are talking about. Chapter 3 says that James Dyson, the greatest engineer in the country, commented to the commission that it was an “economic disaster” that design technology has been excluded from the curriculum. I beg the Government to listen to people such as James Dyson. If they do not think that that is convincing enough, they should listen to Kate Bingham, the lady who ran the vaccination procurement programme so successfully. Chapter 3 cites her saying that if she had a magic wand, she would wave it and create significant practical and technical education in all our schools. A growing number of people are saying this.
Since I have been promoting technical colleges, I have had to deal with eight different Secretaries of State. I tried to meet them all, but two were there for such a short time that they did not have any meetings at all. Of the six I met, not one was a real educationalist, apart from Michael Gove. The others had very little knowledge of education apart from their own school experience. Certainly, apart from Gove, they did not produce any original ideas on education in that period. None of them is remembered for introducing anything novel or interesting. For the last 12 years, our education system has been run by the department; the Ministers have had very little influence on it. I hope that might change.
This report is not the only report to be issued recently. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, just spoke. In November, our Select Committee produced the report Skills for Every Young Person. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, was also on the committee. The report has about 100 different suggestions. I am told that the draft response prepared by the last Government was going to accept not one. We recommended that the curriculum should be changed fundamentally and that it should be reduced from eight to five subjects—English, maths, two sciences and data skills—and that every school should then choose which others it wants, with a much wider range of subjects including engineering, business studies and particularly the cultural subjects.
It is extraordinary that cultural subjects such as the performing arts, drama and dance have fallen by 40% or 50% at the very time when Netflix and streaming services are expanding rapidly. We are building new film studios in Britain and will eventually produce more films than Hollywood. I am very glad that eight of the university technical colleges I have been promoting now focus on the entertainment industry. We have one at Elstree, next to the film studio, one at Pinewood, and one in Salford Quays, where the television industry is. They are training youngsters in not only the techniques and machinery but the performing arts themselves. This is the sort of education we need in our country.
If the Times Education Commission report was the third report, the fourth was from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It said that there has been no change in the school disadvantage gap over the last 12 years. Schools are no longer the agents of social mobility. This is perfectly true. You still have that huge number, the forgotten third, who are not benefiting at all from social mobility.
The sixth, which is very interesting, which Labour Party members, I suppose, have read—or some in the Labour Party, because it is by Tony Blair—is called Ending the Big Squeeze on Skills: How to Futureproof Education in England. This is a very well researched and very good report and I hope that the Front Bench of the Labour Party will find a way of debating it in this House. It has some very interesting suggestions.
One idea that goes back to the very first report was from the high mistress of St Paul’s School way back last October. She asked 800 people, mainly teachers, what they wanted. Half were from the public sector, half from the private sector. They all wanted a change in the curriculum. They wanted it to be more creative and more imaginative, developing curiosity, innovation and inventiveness.
The report from Blair says much the same. There should be a commission set up immediately to examine the curriculum and the need for changes to it and to assessment. It is a very commendable report. It is quite substantial.
There is huge volume of opinion now—the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, said exactly the same thing—thinking and talking about education in a very creative way and wanting a change. We have to make the curriculum suited to this age of digital and net zero. We are miles away from it.
Take data skills; these ought to be embedded into the curriculum at all ages. They simply are not. Only about 10% of children take GCSE computing science. The other 90% do not do it. In fact, since the other GCSE was abolished in 2016, computing is now taught 40% less than it was in 2016. This cannot be defended by any government Minister. There are now fewer children in our schools being taught anything about computing and data skills than in 2016, when the rest of the world is roaring ahead. The head of Apple, Tim Cook, has said very clearly that every child should be able to code. Very few people code in our country. But coding clubs are starting in primary schools and they will spread. They want to spread completely over the whole country.
I came across one primary school on the borders of Wales that taught computing from the age of five and six. All the teachers were able to code themselves and they taught the children coding. By 14, they could almost take the GCSE exam. But when they went into the secondary schools in that part of Shropshire and Herefordshire, they would go backwards because the schools were not teaching anything in computing. It can be done. The important thing to appreciate is that those young children should be taught how to use the thing which they all have in their pockets, not just for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter but as a source of huge knowledge and expertise. It can be done. That is the first thing I would say.
In any data curriculum, all students should have access to a computer or a tablet. It is great credit to the Government that they have done a lot of that, but it falls short of all at the moment. They did it very largely because the pandemic required distance learning. Every child, even the most disadvantaged, should have that facility—number one.
This is such a serious issue that next September all children starting at 11 or moving into 16 should be taught computing or data skills. That is a very challenging task—I know that—because there is a teacher shortage. Even now as we are talking, if this Government really wanted to make data skills a major priority, they would be saying to all the teacher training colleges you must start now before Christmas to teach data skills and coding.
It is not just coding. Company after company came to our Select Committee and said, “We want 18 year-olds to have employability skills.” We asked, “What do you mean by employability skills?” They said first, “Data skills are absolutely essential.” Then they said, “We want children who have experience of working in teams.” That does not happen for 11 to 18 year-olds: the only teams are in sport, not education. There is no collaborative problem-solving, which is part of life. They also said that they wanted children to have experience of making things with their hands and designing things on computers, but you cannot design something on a computer until you have been taught CADCAM. CADCAM is not even in the T-level digital curriculum, but it is essential and all children should be able to start learning it.
Coding is not the only thing to learn; one must learn the ability to join IT teams, which most industries now have, which means they must have knowledge of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and virtual reality. These are all happening in industry today but the education system in our country is just not providing them.
In our UTC at City Airport, we have a sixth form using virtual reality—about 100 youngsters, girls as well as boys, sitting with headsets on their heads and designing things with two big screens ahead of them. I think it is the only sixth form in the country doing that; I have not heard of another one. Companies are using virtual reality much more; it will be very important in education, apart from anything else, and it is being used for design purposes in industry. I already mentioned the views of the chief executive of Apple.
It also applies to the green agenda. Our committee was told that there could be 400,000 jobs in 2030 in what is called the green agenda. This concerns not only climate change but electric vehicles, new fossil fuel substitutes—hydrogen and such things—the sustainability of species, and huge changes in agriculture and horticulture. None of that is anywhere that I can find in the school curriculum, with one exception, which I learned from my grandson, who has just started to do his A-levels. He chose geography—rather surprisingly, I thought, because it was thought not to be very important in my time. But geography is now the one area where you can study climate change. He is fanatical on this: at the age of 16, he refused to fly anywhere, which makes for very expensive holidays by railways and so on. Anyway, I learned that from him. Where else is it done?
The green agenda is multidisciplinary. It deals not only with climate change itself but with agriculture, horticulture, hydrogen, and all these other things. We need it built in to the curriculum as soon as possible.
The Government have launched a competition for 15 new schools. They asked for the initial bids in September and will have the full bids by Christmas. Those free schools should be only two types of schools: special schools for children who have special disabilities of one sort or another, of which there is a lack in the country and there should be more; the others should be technical schools. The last thing we want is more ordinary secondary schools.
I am trying to inject into the Government’s thinking a sense of urgency about this, because if we go on with the present curriculum for the next two years we will have virtually no economic growth. It is not helping to fill the skills gap for our country and our industry. There must be changes. We cannot go on as we have—that is a growing feeling in the country.
The schools I have set up over the past 12 years—we now have 45—have 19,000 students and the best destination record of almost any schools in the country. We produce 20% apprenticeships at 18; other schools produce only 6%.
I know that the Whip is waiting for me, but every Minister so far has spoken for less than 14 minutes, so there is a little bargaining to be done, unless he wishes to move that I should be no longer heard. He could always do that if he would like to.
I would also say, if I may, that we also send 55% of our children to universities and 75% of them do STEM subjects. The rest get local jobs, which means that they do not drift away from their towns down to London. We have to take these issues very seriously and bring such influence as we have to bear on the Government to listen to us, to respond and to act.
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for facilitating this debate and to the Times for establishing the commission, which has produced such an impressive report. It is fair to say that the report has been widely welcomed, first as a means of shining a light on the problems currently facing the education system, which the commission damningly found to be “failing on every measure”.
Secondly, the report offers a raft of proposals that would help reshape education in this country and guide it to a place where it can not just adapt to the needs of the 21st century but thrive on the challenges that the rapidly changing demands of the economy require.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, has just said that he felt chapters 3 and 4 of the report were the most important. They certainly contain important recommendations. But, to be frank, almost everything necessary to lay the foundations for the future of education, the future of the economy and, by extension, the future of the country is contained in chapter 2 of the commission’s report, entitled “Social mobility and levelling up”.
I have said to noble Lords before that I dislike the term “social mobility”. It is restrictive because it seems to imply that if just a few people improve their learning and subsequent status, that is progress. To a certain extent, that may well be true, but I prefer the term “social justice”, which casts the net much wider and seeks to make improvements based on raising the standard of living, including education, for everyone in disadvantaged categories.
Chapter 2 concerns early years, with a number of very necessary proposals, not least in the short term bringing the early years pupil premium—currently £302—into line with the primary school rate of £1,345. As with most of the commission’s proposals, this is costed: at £130 million a year it would represent a tiny fraction of the overall DfE budget of around £45 billion.
It is critical that we invest in the early years to avoid costs later in a child’s life. This would have a major impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities. Some young children undoubtedly need more support than others, but to reach them we need high-quality services for all.
The commission’s call for the eight programmes that support childcare being managed by the DfE is certainly laudable, but I believe it is undeliverable. The silo mentality that operates within government departments would never allow that to happen. Too often, the cross-cutting approach on delivery that is essential is lacking, leading to many of the most vulnerable children falling into the gaps between public service provision and in many cases becoming invisible. The complex and disjointed system of services—national and local—often overwhelms the most disadvantaged families, particularly if they have complex needs or a disabled child.
This stems, in part, from significant underfunding, but also results from the failure to use existing resources as effectively as possible. Children and families need services that offer coherent, relevant and familiar support based on local strengths and relationships. There is limited and inconsistent communication and collaboration between different agencies, which means that families often waste time providing them all with the same information. That point was made forcibly by the Public Services Committee of your Lordships’ House in its report of November 2020.
Total public spending on early education is around £5.5 billion, yet costs for families are among the highest in the OECD, according to the Education Policy Institute’s 2020 annual report. Serious concerns have also been raised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how we prioritise that spending. It demonstrated that support for low-income workers fell from 45% of total childcare spending in 2007 to just 17% 10 years later.
The Government should fundamentally overhaul the early years funding model and replace it with a new formula that focuses more effectively on the child. That revised funding settlement should prioritise quality of care and access for the most disadvantaged children, and should aim to tackle educational inequalities, to ensure that children are school-ready.
The pandemic has highlighted many of the failings in the education system but, of course, it did not create them. Disadvantaged pupils are now more than 18 months behind their better-off peers at 16 and 40% of that gap is evident when they first arrive at school.
Rethinking our approach to early years education is therefore vital and urgent. I agree with my noble friend Lord Knight that there is much to commend a British baccalaureate, as proposed by the commission in chapter 4—one that mixes academic and vocational qualifications. The UK is an outlier in requiring students to specialise so much at 16. As the report states pungently:
“No other developed country’s teenagers sit as many high-stakes tests as ours do and the focus on academic attainment has unbalanced the system”.
The commission’s report identifies the problems with the current system and notes the concerns about change. Students currently study a narrower range of subjects at A-level than in 2010, which reduces their resilience to fluctuations in future employment needs.
This is a direct consequence of the Government’s obsession with the English baccalaureate, which narrows students’ choices. The Royal Society supports the proposal to broaden education up to the age of 18 and advocates a wider range of study options that would mean more young people could try more subjects for longer, helping them to develop a broader range of skills. The British baccalaureate would be a customised version of the international baccalaureate, which has almost 2 million students around the world—including around 4,500 in this country already. It would cost around £1 billion a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but would also remove what it says is an historic anomaly in the funding mechanism that dates to the time when the school-leaving age was 16.
The commission identifies low morale in the teaching profession. After 12 years of Conservative Governments, I am sorry to say that we have a demoralised and underpaid workforce, often overpoliced by Ofsted. The noble Lord, Lord Lexden, referred to Disraeli. Without going quite as far back as that in the mists of time, I am reminded of a quote from a Cabinet Minister more than 100 years ago—not a Labour one, as we were still six years away from that, but a name that may be familiar to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrats Benches: HAL Fisher, then a Liberal MP and president of the Board of Education. He is perhaps best known for formulating the Education Act 1918, which made school attendance compulsory up to the age of 14. He was also responsible for another Act in the same year that introduced pension provision for all teachers. He stated:
“Elementary teachers are miserably paid, and a discontented teaching class is a social danger.”
Today we have discontented teachers. Unlike in 1918, the Government prefer Ofsted accountability to winning the hearts and minds of teachers to help in developing the school system.
To return to the curriculum, in Committee stage on the Schools Bill—whatever became of that, I wonder?—an issue on which I spoke was oracy, which facilitates the development of numeracy and literacy skills. More than 60% of primary school teachers say that they lack confidence in their ability to develop the speech and language skills of their pupils. A new hub system, similar to those in existence for maths and English, would build that confidence and, ultimately, standards of speech and language skills development on a national scale. I hope I might make some progress with the Minister on this, even if it does not find favour with her when the Bill returns to your Lordships’ House.
The final chapter of the Times Education Commission’s report speaks highly of the lifelong loan entitlement, introduced in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, but key questions remain on the future of the LLE. Can the Minister provide more detail on how it will support adult learners in particular to follow more flexible ways to upskill and reskill? Will it, as suggested in the report and advocated by the Labour Party, include maintenance provision? Will that be available to all learners, regardless of study mode? I raise that point as those studying through part-time distance learning are currently not able to access maintenance support in England.
Another issue on which the Minister might be able to update noble Lords is the minimum eligibility requirements for access to university. That was a policy position advocated two or three Secretaries of State back—although that time covers a mere four months, I think. Can she say whether it will be taken forward by the current Secretary of State? Nothing has been heard since the DfE consultation on higher education reform, which closed in May, and an update is certainly overdue. Can the Minister confirm that the exemption for part-time provision, as proposed in the consultation, will remain if the policy is enacted?
The Open University was founded on the principle of full inclusion and open entry and has been supported by every UK Government since. However, in general these are problematic times for higher education. The Government—at least, the previous one, as we have yet to hear where the latest version stands on these issues—seemed to think that too many young people go on to higher education, and they too often sought confrontation with universities on issues such as the value, in the narrowest sense, of certain types of degrees to society.
We await the Government’s response to the consultation on the reintroduction of student number caps and minimum eligibility requirements, both of which, if introduced, would disproportionately affect those from disadvantaged backgrounds. From the policymaker perspective, widening access and driving forward social justice must be at the heart of what we try to achieve with education reform.
At one point, the Times Education Commission report states that the focus of higher education policy in Britain
“can be more about who is excluded than who is included.”
No Government should allow such an approach, and I pay tribute to the work of the National Education Opportunities Network, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It co-ordinates the widening of access to higher education and its success can be measured by the fact that, in 2021-22, almost 80% of entrants to higher education from low-participation neighbourhoods went to NEON-member higher education providers. More encouragement is needed from other providers to encourage young people to be ambitious and not conclude that certain types of study, or certain institutions, are “not for me”.
I do not agree with all the recommendations in the commission’s report—for instance, on the creation of “career academies” and the establishment of satellite university campuses in cold-spot communities. The aims of both are already delivered by further education colleges, which already have an established reach into their communities to promote lifelong learning. Developments along that route would be more profitable and avoid reinventing the wheel. However, the commission deserves much credit for its work, and I hope that the Government will do more than “take note” of the recommendations, which very largely map out a positive route to funding education at all levels to prepare the skills needed for the workforce of the future, while delivering greater social justice.
My Lords, we must thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for bringing this report to our attention. I did not read in it anything that I had not heard before, or at least heard discussed, but if you are interested in education and happen to have been in the upper Chamber of the British Parliament, you probably would have heard most of these things, so that is not a big surprise. The interesting thing is that they are brought together here as a whole. It is good to see this in the round, even for someone such as me, who tends, when he looks at education, to cast half an eye over the special educational needs provision—and if the Minister could tell us where that review has got to, I would be jolly grateful, but there might be a bit of a list there.
Before I go on, I should declare my interests. I am a dyslexic who is president of the British Dyslexia Association, and I am a user of assistive technology and chairman of a company that provides assistive technology. I looked at this from the position of special educational needs and thought, “How do I pull it all together around this one area, and how does that affect the other bits of the subject?” This is something where, in this Govian model of passing English and maths, as a dyslexic you think, “Oh, there’s a little conflict there from the start, isn’t there?” People do not actually get that we are thinking, “Well, this is what we’ve got to do, but we’re the group who will do it worse than others—but we can do it, because since some dyslexics do pass.” We then discover that systematic synthetic phonics is a system which does not help dyslexics. Even if a few get through, some do not. Bad short-term memory means that we do not learn well things such as equations in mathematics. One or two people say that dyslexics do not have short-term memories, but only one or two. Therefore, you have a series of conflicts built in there.
This means that you have a group who experience failure early in our system. It is not the only reason people struggle in special educational needs. If you go through the neurodiverse groups, both dyspraxia and dyscalculia are much bigger than we originally thought a few years ago, and there is attention deficit disorder and various levels of functioning in the autism spectrum. And guess what, lucky teacher? They overlap.
When the report says that classroom teachers should be better trained to deal with this, they should, but you need more than a few classroom teachers being taught how to do this. You need a systemic approach with awareness of how to spot and how to back up, and that things will occur and become present at different times. Early years is a very important sector, where we tend to look for autism, especially at the lower-functioning end. It does not pick up those at the higher-functioning end, who will just be a little awkward and cranky, with a few social problems.
The same is true of all of this: you need continuing awareness at different times to pick this up. This means you need to invest, back up and make sure that people are ready. You will then have to deal with people who are failing. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, the system may not be that friendly to anyone going through it, but these people are going to be that much more disadvantaged.
I will carry on to some other points. If you invest in things that some of these people might be able to do better, such as sport, music, drama and things that give people a chance to succeed, this group will stand a better chance of succeeding here than they would somewhere else. Regular failure reinforces itself. Failure makes sure that people cannot do things, because they know they are going fail. Think of the damage there: this is not just about failing to get on a course because you have not passed an exam; it is about not being able to integrate with anything.
Going back once again to the Govian model and that initial exam, I have spent a long time on the Back Benches of this Chamber saying that identified dyslexics should be allowed to take apprenticeships, if they can use assistive technology for English, without having to pass an English exam. That was an incredible experience. I forget who it was who said that the system had been run by officials in the department, who could not quite get that somebody could fail or that it was difficult. Ministers did; Ministers agreed with me, then disappeared and came back saying, “This is awfully difficult.” Eventually, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, took on the department and let us win that battle, at least in principle. He deserves eternal credit for that, but life is too short to do it over and again—certainly mine is. I hope that, when the Government look at this and in their replies, they look at ways that mean that people are supported and backed up throughout the systems. They will need backing and even more training-based systems.
What else in this report allows this to happen more easily? The answer is simple: technology. Most ways in which you can support people with educational problems are contained within computers. A few years ago, you had to stick on add-ons to the computer; now, voice recognition and readback is a standard package in just about any computer you can get. Those were the two big things that changed my life about 20 years ago. I hasten to add that they work a lot better now than then, but you still need to be in an environment in which their use is accepted. A classroom has to accept that somebody will produce their work differently. They may need to sit at the back of their class, so that another voice is not on the microphone. If my noble friend Lord Razzall were here, I would tell you in considerable detail what happened when he was sitting behind me and started talking to me when I was making a message in this way; I will leave out the expletives.
We have to learn how to use this and how to structure it, but we have that capacity to make lives a lot easier. Could the noble Baroness, in her reply, give us some idea of the thinking about the use of technology in normal, mainstream classrooms, if we are going to start coding, et cetera? This can help; it is a tool that will touch everyone’s lives.
Nobody has ever challenged me seriously about one idea: no one cares whether the document they are reading was word-processed by somebody talking or somebody tapping a keyboard. If they have, I have not met them. Think about it: it is a written document in front of you. You do not care. You might think that the punctuation or grammar is a little more like spoken than written English, but you can teach that. You can change it. It is that readily available.
Are we going to make sure that these groups outside can actually access the rest of the system, and these basic components, by using the technology? We have to have environments in which people can succeed, and we will make it that much easier if we take this step forward. Teachers have to be trained to spot and encourage people to use this correctly. But it is all there.
The waste in human population that this avoids is massive. The amount of extra time taken by the tiger parent to fight to get their child through will be reduced, such that everybody has an easier life. For the person who does not have the tiger parent who expects them to pass exams, maybe we can get teachers saying, “By the way, you can do it: this is the way.” It would be a major change.
This is not the whole story, but it would make the rest of the story easier for not only those teaching but a large part of the population. If we can integrate this, it means that people can be better employed later on. Knowledge of a subject and the use of technology opens up the world to a whole section of society which was restricted. I hope that we can do this, but what will get in the way—and has got in the way in the past—is an over-adherence to a very seriously academic curriculum, where other levels of success and types of creativity are frowned upon.
I do not know whether the Minister will wholly embrace everything that I have said. When she replies, some idea of what we are doing about the special education needs review would be very helpful—I am sure that not everything I am saying here is alien to the Government, and I hope not, because half of it has been taken from policy documents that they have produced over the years—so we can actually get some idea of where we are going. Because if you can allow people to access and thrive—and it will not just be these groups but people who are just slightly worse at spelling, or take it on later on or do not get the environment at home—you will actually allow people in.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who said at the start of this debate that we have a system now which is designed such that the ideal person is somebody who passes their Oxbridge exam first time and sits down at the age of about 17. There are only a few people who are ever going to do that. So let us make sure we can expand to the rest of them, so that they have reasonable chance of succeeding, and having a meaningful and happy life afterwards. You can always struggle around, and have the brilliant and the lucky get through, but those are not odds that I like.
My Lords, we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for instigating this debate. I was privileged to be one of the Times Commissioners, and the report’s thoroughness and readability are owed especially to two people: Rachel Sylvester and Sir Anthony Seldon. The most moving and disturbing section for me was the evidence of the tragic backwardness of deprived five year-olds entering reception classes. Until this is remedied, equal opportunities really are a sham. There is much wise discussion in the report of the optimum school curriculum and how to use AI to supplement the work of teachers.
Having said that, I will focus my comments on post-16 and university-level education, declaring an interest as a member of Cambridge University. After two years of Covid-induced disruption, we cannot expect full reversion to the old normal, nor should we wish for it. The upheaval should energise reforms to the whole post-18 education sector, which needs more institutional variety and more flexibility in its offerings. There is now more experience of online and remote teaching. We can make a more realistic assessment of the most effective use of contact hours for students. We can also learn from institutions that had already spearheaded that transition pre pandemic; for instance, the fast-expanding Arizona State University.
In more traditional universities, the basic lectures on core topics are given live to audiences of 200-plus. There is no real feedback or discussion during these lectures, although, at least in the better institutions, they are supplemented by smaller classes and tutorial groups. Little would be lost if those big lectures were videoed rather than live. Indeed, they could then be more carefully prepared and achieve higher quality. Moreover, not only could they be watched more than once by the primary student audience; they could be made available globally. There have been successful precedents at MIT and Stanford, and scholars such as Harvard’s Michael Sandel have become international stars.
Universities in the UK should either set up platforms themselves or offer their best material as content for the Open University so that it gets wide dissemination. Whereas the overseas campuses set up by some western universities, mainly in Asia, have been rightly criticised as diluting the brand, the wider viewing of good lectures, even if not part of a course offering online credits, should be reputationally positive for the lecturer’s university in the same way as a widely used textbook authored by a faculty member would be. However, what is needed is that students should be able to choose their preferred balance between online and residential courses and to access distance learning of high quality. We need more facilities for part-time study and lifelong learning, and a blurring of the damaging divide between technical and university education.
Incidentally, purely online courses—the so-called MOOCs—have an ambivalent reputation. As stand-alone courses without complementary contact with a real tutor, they are probably satisfactory only for master’s-level vocational courses intended for motivated mature learners studying part-time, but they can have wider benefits as part of a package that incorporates live tutoring as well.
We need to do more than just incorporate virtual activities into the existing framework, though. The higher and further education system needs much more drastic restructuring. Universities all aspire to rise in the same league table, which gives undue weight to research over teaching. Most of their students are between 18 and 21, undergoing three years of full-time, usually residential, education and studying a curriculum that is too narrow even for the minority who aspire to professional academic careers.
Even worse, the school curriculum is too narrow as well, as we have heard. The long-running campaign for an international baccalaureate-style curriculum for 16 to 18 year-olds deserves to succeed but it needs co-operation from universities, whose entrance requirements now overtly disfavour applicants who straddle science and humanities in their A-levels.
We should abandon the view that the standard three-year full-time degree is the minimum worthwhile goal, or indeed the most appropriate one for many students. The core courses offered by the first two years of university education are often the most valuable, both intellectually and vocationally. Moreover, students who realise that the degree course they have embarked on is not right for them or who have personal hardship should be enabled to leave early with dignity, with a certificate to mark what they have accomplished. They should not be disparaged as wastage. They should make the positive claim, as many Americans would, that “I’ve had two years of college”, while those running universities should not be berated for taking risks in admission and should certainly not be pressured to entice students to stay, least of all by lowering degree standards.
More importantly, everyone should have the opportunity to re-enter higher education, maybe part-time or online, at any stage in their lives. This path could become smoother—indeed, routine—if there were a formalised system of transferable credits across the whole system of further and higher education, as urged in the Augar report. We should strive for a flexible grant or loan system offering entitlement to three years’ support, to be taken à la carte at any stage in life. This would mean, for instance, that those who leave university for any reason after two years are not tainted as wastage, but can get some certificate of credit and an entitlement to return and upgrade later.
Admission to the most demanding and attractive courses is naturally competitive and always will be, but what is not acceptable is that the playing field is still far from level. The killer fact, and the most intractable challenge for the access agenda, is that maybe half of the UK’s young people do not receive the quality of teaching at school that allows them a fair prospect of qualifying for the most competitive university courses. Even those who have been at good schools will be handicapped if, because of the specialisation enforced by A-levels, they unwittingly drop science at 16, for instance, and later realise that they wish to pursue it.
It will be a long slog to ensure that high-quality teaching at school is available across the full geographical and social spectrum, and it may be impossible without a narrowing of the gulf between the resources of the private fee-taking schools and those in the state system. In the meantime, it would send an encouraging signal if the UK universities whose entry bar is dauntingly high, such as Oxbridge, were to reserve a fraction of their places for students who do not come straight from school. They could thereby offer a second chance to those who were disadvantaged at 18 but have caught up by earning two years’ worth of credits at other institutions or online, for instance via the Open University. Such students could then advance to degree level, even on the more challenging courses, in maybe two further years.
Let us hope that the recent crisis catalyses constructive innovations in higher education. This sector is currently one of the UK’s distinctive strengths and crucial to our future, but it must not be sclerotic and unresponsive to changes in needs, lifestyle and opportunities. A rethink is overdue if the UK is to sustain its status in a different world. The Times commission’s report sets the wider context, and it should be welcomed by all those in higher and further education.
My Lords, I join other Members of this House in thanking my noble friend Lord Lexden for convening this debate on a very important report. I should register my interests as chancellor of the University of Leicester, a visiting professor at King’s College London and a director of Thames Holdings. It is an excellent report and I see that two commissioners who contributed to it are here in the Chamber at the moment, which is fantastic.
Although a lot of the debate has focused on specific policy proposals—I will turn to two of them myself—there are reasons other than those why this report is so strong. First, the tone of the report is entirely constructive throughout. It does not say that the problems are because there are terrible people running schools, that the colleges are useless or that universities are irresponsible. It realises that most of the time, most people in education are absolutely doing their best in difficult circumstances. Its tone is to try to work with them to improve the opportunities of young people.
The report is full of humanity, not least in the individual examples of the circumstances that some people have to overcome to benefit from education. It is right to recognise how difficult some young people’s circumstances are. If we ignore them and say that the only measure of performance for a university, college or school is how well its students do, regardless of their circumstances, the effect is to incentivise a university, college or school to select students from most advantaged backgrounds because they are the ones who will do best on the metric that the Government have focused on. That is why it is right to take account of personal circumstances when we measure and assess the performance of educational institutions, whatever their level.
I also like the fact that the report cites proper evidence from a range of sources, from social science to neuroscience—it is evidence-based. Nowadays, if we are to make the case for any kind of change, it has to be done on that basis.
Finally, as several noble Lords have said, the report embraces technology, which is changing the way education is delivered. We heard some excellent examples of what this means for people with dyslexia. It is not necessarily a scandal if some students are accessing some or all of a course online. We do not immediately have to fall back on a campaign to shame the education provider into reverting to the world as it was pre Covid. Sometimes online learning can be very effective and other technologies can enhance learning. There are great examples of innovative technologies in the report, and I hope the Minister will endorse technology as one of the most powerful tools that we have for improving the quality of education.
The report then has a very long list of policy proposals, and I will focus on two. The first area of policy is the curriculum at all stages. I personally have been persuaded by the advocates of the importance of knowing stuff. What Ed Hirsch has said about cultural literacy and what Daisy Christodoulou has said about the importance of memorising and knowing stuff are very persuasive—but they are absolutely not the whole story. What seems to have gone wrong is that those insights have been implemented in a way that has turned too many of our educational institutions into places producing the most appalling Dickensian rote learning, which kills joy and enjoyment of a subject. It is important that young people at school, college or university have an opportunity to do stuff that interests them in a way that then leads them to dig into it more deeply, and therefore to enrich their learning. The idea of some kind of special funding, at a minimum, for electives, so that there is a wide range of opportunities at school, is a great proposal and should be endorsed.
Beyond that, of course, we turn to the future of A-levels and the proposals for a British baccalaureate for 18 year-olds comprising three major subjects and three minors. We have heard a lot about this already and it is an attempt to tackle one of the biggest single problems of our education system. There are quite a few ex-Ministers across this Chamber, and it is striking how, when looking back on our time in office, most of us would, I think, say that a lesson that we concluded by the end of it—some may have recognised it at the beginning—was just how serious a problem early specialisation is in English education. I went to so many meetings where people were planning elaborate PR campaigns to try to get teenage girls more interested in science, for example, and you would say, “Why do we have to do this? Why are we expecting teenagers to take these massive life-shaping decisions at the age of 14, 15 and 16, when no other educational system does?”. We should not have to market physics to a 15 year-old because otherwise they would give it up and not have the opportunity of a serious STEM career; it is absurd that we have got ourselves into that position. I strongly support the proposals for broadening the curriculum.
The full-blown English baccalaureate is very ambitious, and we all know how wary the DfE will be of proposals on that scale. However, there are pragmatic steps that could be taken towards it. Given that this report already includes the idea of some funding for a kind of electives premium, why not introduce a premium of funding for 16 to 18 year-olds who are doing some kind of further maths qualification—it need not be a full-blown A-level—just to keep up with, and try to develop, their numeracy skills? Similarly, something equivalent could be introduced for essay writing and the use of English. UCAS could then be asked to allocate points for prospective students who present with those qualifications, in addition to full-blown A-levels. There must be some steps we could take now towards that full-blown baccalaureate.
As the Minister was reminding us, I sometimes think that the current system is a kind of hourglass model: students do a wide range of GCSEs, then focus down more and more on three A-levels—often in a connected set of disciplines—and then go to universities which are increasingly offering a very broad range of subjects that can be combined in a single university course. In a way, some of the classic university courses, such as natural sciences, are examples of that. I almost dare to mention PPE in this context, which enables students to do a range of subjects that is significantly wider than many A-level options.
We increasingly hear from Ministers—it has been referred to again in today’s debate—of a vision of a lifelong loan entitlement that is driving an agenda of a modular structure for higher education, in which presumably it will be possible to put together different modules in a much wider and combined higher education programme than is currently possible. Could the people working in the DfE on a modular structure for higher education care to have a word with the custodians of the three A-level doctrine for 16 to 18 year-olds and ask them what the basis is for this classic model to be followed by a modular structure of higher education? It seems very hard to understand how the same department could advocate such contrasting doctrines for two different stages of the educational process. If you were designing such a system, you might actually try to envisage it the other way round, to allow students to specialise more gradually, rather than specialising first and then be provided with a broader range of opportunities.
I very much hope that the Minister will be able to indicate just the glimmer of a hint of an interest in possible steps towards some modest form in which 16 to 18 year-olds would be able to study a wider range of subjects. I am not being too ambitious; I am pitching it as modestly as I can.
The other area of policy I want to touch on is higher education and cold spots. It is covered in the report and has been referred to and proposed in an excellent paper from that fantastic, newly reunited team of Tony Blair and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who have now become very important co-authors of several education papers.
I confess that, when I was at the Conservative Party conference last week, I spoke at a fringe event which was advertised as organised by the Institute for Global Change. If you looked at it with a magnifying glass, you could see that it was in fact the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. A bold step was taken and it came and ran an event at the Tory Party conference; a group of us turned up and this was the kind of issue that we talked about.
The Tony Blair 50% target has done quite a lot of damage to the debate, because there are now too many people who think that the reason why more people go into higher education is because Tony Blair dragooned them to go by setting a target for it. We all know that the 50% target was really a political device—I am sure that all of us on both sides of this House have deployed it in the past—where, for the purpose of delivering a speech, he took a trend and changed it into a target. The reason why we have 50% of young people going to university is not because Tony Blair announced it at a Labour conference one year but because lots of young people want to go to university. There is overwhelming evidence from all advanced western countries that the number of people wanting to go into higher education is rising; it has gone through 50% and is now higher than that. This is a social trend, not a Blairite target.
It is a desirable social trend, and we must base policy on a recognition that the combination of that aspiration, demographic change and increasing opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in higher education means that, over the next few years, we will see even more people wanting to go into higher education. Either that will mean that our existing number of universities just gets bigger and bigger—which may be one way forward; I would not rule it out—or it is an opportunity to create some new higher education institutions in the same way as has happened in the past when higher education participation has grown. They could be—I look across at the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who was sceptical about this—further education colleges delivering more higher education provision, perhaps with the opportunity in the long run of achieving a university title if that is what they wished.
What I find shocking and frustrating is that, at the moment, we do not have any kind of debate across government and public policy about how we would deliver that provision and what the opportunity is for creating new higher education institutions in towns that do not currently have a university or higher education institution. I suspect that, when they look back on us in 10 years’ time, the historians will ask why, when this entirely predictable trend was beginning to surge through the system, there was so little debate about what kind of provision should be developed as an opportunity to meet that surge in demand.
I very much look forward to what the Minister is going to say. I hope that, in her response to the debate, she will engage with the large number of us from all sides of the Chamber who have pleaded for a broader English educational curriculum and a broader range of opportunities for 16 to 18 year-olds, and will accept as a matter of fact that we are in an environment where the number of people going to university will carry on rising. We all have a responsibility to plan for that and, indeed, turn it into an opportunity for better and more diverse provision.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for promoting this debate and the Times group for promoting the commission. It has drawn on an impressive array of talent, experience and knowledge and, as has been mentioned, the tone of the report is one in which we can all seek value. The commission’s proposal for a national conversation and a long-term strategy for education is very welcome, so long as those who work in schools and colleges have a central role in the process.
This has not been a party-political debate, but it is worth pointing out that—the Minister may wish to respond to this—for anyone reading the report, it is clear that it is another indicator of the gap between what the Government are doing and what we all agree needs to be done. The Minister will perhaps tell us what positive steps will be taken to move towards the general agreement about what can be achieved. I have to admit that I am not absolutely sure what the gap is between the recommendations in the report and what the Labour Party will do when it comes to power, but that is perhaps a separate issue.
I wish to highlight a few issues from the report. I think we are all agreed, everyone is clear, that investing in early years is the most important thing we can do. The report recommends
“A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to level the playing field before children get to school.”
Everyone is agreed; everyone knows that; we just have to start moving towards it.
An expanded Ofsted—a replacement, if we want to use that word—is also to be welcomed: a fundamental reassessment of its role, so that it is there not to promote league tables but to provide practical assistance for schools in delivering their service. There is general agreement, again, on rethinking our exams system. I sometimes feel we are a bit imprisoned by the use of the word “baccalaureate”, because it means different things to different people, but I think the report is clear about what it has in mind in this area. The emphasis in the report on promoting creativity is also very much to be welcomed, although I have to say I sometimes worry about the implied division between creative subjects and other subjects, because if all subjects are not being creative, then they are being done wrong. These are bold and large-scale measures that will be supported by all educators, and we welcome the recognition that they are part of the solution.
As has been mentioned, the report was unanimous among a disparate group. Well, one of the ways of achieving unanimity on this sort of commission is by leaving subjects out, and there are two issues that I think should have played a bigger role in the work of the commission. The first is the damage that is done to children’s education by rising levels of poverty. We are aware that the children of poor families do poorly at school. Part of that problem can be addressed by what is being done in the school, and that is addressed in the report, but of course there is a previous question about why they are poor in the first place. What needs to be done to reduce poverty in families?
The second issue that has not had enough attention in the report is the deeply flawed system of primary assessment. The commission rightly says that the current assessment system
“has become a dead hand on education that is sucking the energy out of schools, stifling teachers and condemning too many young people to the scrap heap.”
It analysed the problem; I do not think it has done quite enough to set out how it can be addressed. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister would say something in her reply.
The main issue I wish to raise is the issue of girls and maths, physics and engineering. Someone said:
“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don't want to do it ... There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do.”
So said Katharine Birbalsingh, chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission and a secondary school head teacher, to the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Comments like this are extremely disappointing. There are multiple reasons why girls do not choose to study physics at A level, or for a degree, and not wanting to do maths is not one of them. It is worth exploring in some detail why the progress that has been achieved in getting girls to do maths has not been reflected in getting girls to do physics. The evidence shows that the expectations placed on pupils by society play a large role in which students go on to take physics at higher levels. A popular example is the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, which had four male physics and engineering students leading. Only in subsequent episodes were young women introduced.
The ASPIRES project found that, from age 10 to 18, boys were significantly more likely than girls to say that their teacher expected them to do well in science, and to feel that their teacher was interested in whether they understood science. The research found that girls often did not feel “clever enough” to do physics, even though girls achieve similar grades to boys in mathematics and physics. The stereotype is that boys are naturally better at physics than girls, and this messaging is still being passed on, both intentionally and unintentionally, to our young people in school, in their home lives and through the media. This is not just me saying this; the Institute of Physics has done the research, and its Limit Less report found that girls are often told that physics is more suited to boys.
Young people are put off studying physics from age 16 by misconceptions about what physics is. Girls are told that physics is too difficult, not creative or boring, but the report also shows that young people are denied the opportunity to study physics because of the prejudice I have emphasised. Another report from the Institute of Physics shows that in single-sex schools, a greater proportion of girls took physics than in co-educational schools across both the state and private school system. In environments where gendered messaging is lessened, the participation rate of girls increases. So, we need to increase awareness among children at school of gendered stereotyping in subject choice and equip them with the tools to be resilient to this. We also need to provide training to support teachers’ awareness of the damage caused by gender stereotypes, and to provide them with resources and tools to combat them.
I am not totally pessimistic about the prospects for advance in this area. In my own profession, the actuarial profession, the position of women has been immensely improved over the last 20 years, with new actuaries coming through virtually in equal proportions, and many women now taking leading roles in the profession. So, we can achieve change in this sort of area.
The specific problem with girls not taking physics is the knock-on effect that they do not take engineering at university because, in practice, most universities require you to have a physics A-level before you can do engineering. So, if you have not done physics, you do not get in to do engineering. This is the central problem that needs to be addressed.
I have only one other issue to raise in passing: school meals are also not mentioned in the report. What is clear is that school meals are important to education. It is not just about poverty relief or helping poor families; it is about improving children’s education. We found that out 30 years ago, when my colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and I fought to provide free meals in our schools. The advantages were clear and absolute, but because we were an education authority, we could do it only for educational reasons. We got a very powerful legal opinion from a future Lord Chancellor and a future Prime Minister, who provided us with clear and powerful advice to that effect. That advice still stands: providing free meals in schools to some extent—I would provide them for all—has a powerful educational effect. There is nothing in the report about that at all, which is a shame.
My Lords, it is an unexpected pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, as I have been promoted one place up the batting order. Much of what I want to say has already been powerfully covered by other noble Lords, but I am afraid not yet by me. I will try not to be unnecessarily repetitive.
Education is a fundamental building block of our national infrastructure. To support and enhance our productivity, competitiveness and growth, we need people with the right skills, knowledge and aspirations to drive our economy and nurture our society. Only education can meet those needs, so it is disappointing that, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, education so often seems to take something of a back seat in relation to other policy areas, despite being so crucial to all of them.
“to examine Britain’s whole education system and consider its future in the light of the Covid-19 crisis, declining social mobility, new technology and the changing nature of work”, is therefore greatly to be applauded, as is the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, in obtaining this debate. The report contains numerous ideas and recommendations which deserve serious consideration. I welcome its focus on the content of education—what the curriculum needs to deliver and how it should be assessed—more than on its structure and funding. I will focus on just a few of the commission’s specific recommendations which seem to me to be particularly important.
I will first consider the idea of a curriculum built around a new British baccalaureate, modelled on the highly regarded international baccalaureate. The commission suggests that this could encompass both a diploma programme with a greater emphasis on academic subjects and a career-related programme with a stronger vocational and technical focus, combining learning with work experience. Students could mix and match elements of both programmes and all of them would undertake an extended project and some community service. Importantly, digital skills would be embedded throughout their learning and all pupils should have access to a laptop or tablet.
This approach, which the commission states would be designed to be
“at least as demanding as A-levels”, would offer major advantages. It should give extra impetus to the long-overdue elimination of the gap in parity of esteem between academic and vocational education—between knowledge and skills, if you like—by ensuring that all students have the option to pursue elements of both according to their own interests and talents.
I strongly welcome the suggestion that
“All secondary pupils should have the chance of work experience”— but would leave out “the chance of”. All students, including primary students, should have work experience, full stop. It must be of high quality, with the quantity specified by the Baker clause seen as an absolute minimum.
My own former small training business used to run what we called “alternative work experience” programmes for groups of London students for whom their schools had been unable to find suitable work experience placements at the end of the summer term—often students whom they regarded as least likely to do well, or at risk of becoming NEET. One of the most rewarding aspects of these programmes was seeing how the aspirations, interests and enthusiasms of the students often blossomed when they were introduced to a range of very varied working environments of which they had previously had little or no conception: from office jobs in business and accountancy, to hotels and restaurants, car showrooms, city farms, construction sites, leisure attractions, fire stations, film and TV studios, tourism companies—I could go on. For many of them this was a truly eye-opening experience, and another of the rewards for us was seeing the astonished reactions of some of the teachers when they returned to their schools and gave enthusiastic presentations about what they had seen and done during the programme, what they had learned, and how it had affected their career aspirations. How can young people be expected to make sensible career choices if they have had no experience at all of the range of different routes and working environments available to them?
Another important recommendation of the commission is that
“Sport, music, drama, art, debating and dance should be an integral part of the timetable for all children, not an optional ‘extracurricular’ add on”.
This could go a long way to reversing the crowding out of education in music and other creative subjects by the EBacc, which has resulted in an alarming decline in GCSE and A-level take-up in these subjects, and an ever-widening gap between fee-paying schools, which recognise their value and importance, and many state schools, which lack the funding, resources and incentives, if not the will, to give them their proper place in the curriculum.
The “electives premium” for secondary schools proposed by the commission is an imaginative approach to tackling this and I hope the Minister will indicate how the Government might respond to it—perhaps the idea would lend itself to a pilot scheme to assess its benefits. This is also an area where greater collaboration between state and independent schools, as called for by the commission, could play an important part. Perhaps I should declare my interest as chair of a charity promoting classical music teaching in schools.
The final recommendation of the commission’s 12-point plan for education is that there should be:
“A 15-year strategy for education, drawn up in consultation with business leaders, scientists, local mayors, civic leaders and cultural figures, putting education above short-term party politics and bringing out the best in our schools, colleges and universities”
—amen to that. Adapting and enhancing our education system so that it better meets the needs of the world we now find ourselves in, the needs of our young people—not forgetting us older people—and the needs of the nation and the Government in pursuit of prosperity, well-being and growth will never be a short-term challenge, or straightforward politically. It needs time and commitment, beyond the span of a single Government, with a clear idea of where we want to go and how we plan to get there. It needs widespread consensus, buy-in and support across parties, business sectors and regions. It needs to complement and reinforce other strategic goals and policy priorities, notably in relation to meeting recognised skills needs and our net-zero commitments in the green agenda.
The commission has performed a valuable service in proposing ideas that could feature in such a strategy. So I find it disappointing that the Government’s response—and even the response of the Minister, who we know is so strongly committed to ambitious educational reform—has been so dismissive of ideas such as a British baccalaureate, and has said that they have no plans to respond to the commission’s report.
There are a number of questions that I hope the Minister will address in her response to this debate. First, will she look again at the case for some sort of government response to, or at least commentary on, the report? It seeks to generate a debate on a wide range of fundamental issues concerning the future of education policy, and the Government surely need to encourage and contribute to that debate.
Secondly, are there specific elements of the commission’s 12-point plan which the Government might consider implementing or at least exploring further, such as the electives premium? Will the Minister look at how the commission’s findings might be relevant to proposals in the current Schools Bill, with a view to amending the Bill to address them, or even replacing it with a more ambitious Bill tackling issues concerning curriculum and assessment in addition to structure, along the lines proposed by the commission? More broadly, how will the Government seek to ensure that the central importance of education to our national infrastructure and well-being is better reflected across the policy spectrum?
My hope is that the Minister’s answers to this debate will make it clear that this excellent piece of work by the Times Education Commission will not become just another ambitious, comprehensive, broadly based, well-researched exercise destined to languish on numerous bookshelves as a sad reminder of what might be achieved if the challenges facing education were given the priority and emphasis they deserve. It would redound to the Government’s credit if, instead, they seized the opportunity to use this report as a basis for starting a genuine national debate on a longer-term, sustainable approach to meeting our future educational needs, ideally with a 15-year strategy at its heart.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak very briefly in the gap and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lexden on convening this excellent discussion. It is an honour to follow the excellent contributions from Members of this House.
I was particularly struck by my noble friend Lord Lexden’s comments about the need for rigorous manifesto processes and the Times Education Commission being an example of a rigorous process likely to result in good policy in due course. I was privileged to serve alongside the noble Lord, Lord Rees, on the commission and have had a little experience of writing manifestos for the Conservative Party. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that the more manifestos road test their recommendations with the widest possible groups—the more they consult and the more they engage—the likelier they are to result in deliverable programmes of government. Sadly, the manifesto that I was involved in most closely, in 2015, resulted in the first majority Conservative Government in 25 years but, as a programme for government, lasted less time than I spent helping to write it due to the change in government following the referendum of that year. Good process does not necessarily get you all the way you want to go in the end.
I also want to take advantage of my time to commend the Times and, in particular, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, mentioned, the outgoing editor, John Witherow; the person who held the pen on this whole project, Rachel Sylvester; and Sir Anthony Seldon for coming up with the idea in the first place. It is worth noting that, as John Witherow retires, after many years at the head of the Times and before that the Sunday Times, he has been a great force for good in British journalism and across the UK media landscape. He has always been a great pragmatic, calm figure. He is someone of great distinction and we owe him a lot for all the good work he has done at the Times and, before that, the Sunday Times over the years.
The commission approached its work very much in an ecumenical spirit. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Willetts for noting the constructive tone of the report. There were very few arguments between commissioners, notwithstanding the very diverse range of backgrounds and political viewpoints from which they all came. There were very few points of disagreement. Very seldom did it get heated. There was a genuine commitment to trying to work in the greater interests of the country, setting aside party-political disagreements and avoiding point-scoring wherever possible. Rachel Sylvester helped brilliantly in that regard by not really giving us much of an opportunity to comment on the draft once she had written it. It went to print very rapidly before any of us, experts in the art of write-rounds, could stick our oar in. Well done, Rachel, in that respect.
On the substantive points that Members have made, it speaks to an issue of capability in our government system at the moment that we need an exercise such as the Times Education Commission to help us lift our eyes to the horizon and think about the big challenges that our education system faces. Why did it require this? The reality, as we all know, is that Governments of all types—it is not just true right now, although we are in a particularly turbulent time—fail to think for the long term and tend to be consumed by one crisis after another. Ministers have also struggled to think strategically and about systems as a whole. There is an opportunity to take the Times Education Commission’s last recommendation, which is for a 15-year strategy, and to think of the mechanism by which we can best put that in place. I suggest, in my dying seconds, that we could consider a recommendation for a royal commission to create that first 15-year strategy. We have not had a royal commission on education for many years and I think one is long overdue.
My Lords, I sometimes wish I had the confidence and ability just to push aside my prepared words and respond to some of the comments that have been made. For example, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, rightly talks about the continuing growth in university places, but he knows that that is driven by financial reasons in the main. There are more and more overseas students and universities—in London, for example—are setting up campuses that do not even have a library but pile the students in to get the money. They do not even give disadvantaged students access to IT or a laptop.
We heard a number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Baker, plead with the Government to see sense, but the sad thing is that Governments do not do that. They set out their stall and live or die by it. They might change at the margin and they might firefight, but change comes about when new Governments come into power having listened to the points made over time.
The Times Education Commission report, Bringing Out the Best, is not driven by dogma or idealism. It is not driven by short-term fixes or popular political slogans. It looks at education from preschool to post school and from academic to vocational education; it looks at the needs of all our children. The report brings a well consulted, researched and coherent plan for ambitious education reform. Its conclusions are realistic and achievable, and the financial implications credible and well thought through.
Your Lordships have raised a number of common themes time after time, and I shall add my thoughts to the wise words of my fellow Members, but I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for securing this debate. He is a tireless champion of the independent sector and independent schools. He may remember that a few months ago, I congratulated him on an intervention he made on behalf of the independent sector but, at the same time, I wished for his wisdom for the maintained sector. In securing this debate, he has given that—and in spades.
As the report shows, Covid has had a devastating effect on our children and young people, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who have suffered most. The learning gap has not just widened but become a huge chasm, and the report graphically spells out this and the actions we need to take.
The report also sees it as an opportunity to bring about fundamental change. Tony Blair famously said that it is about “Education, education, education”. I would add that it is about “Teachers, teachers, teachers”. Michael Gove, during his tenure as Secretary of State for Education, always used Finland as an exemplar. What he did not say was that Finnish teachers must have a master’s degree. Finnish teachers are well trained, with continuous professional development. I want the same for our teaching profession: to be the best in the world, with teachers well supported, highly trained, well respected and, of course, well paid.
Teachers should be given greater mental health resources to prevent burnout and the shocking resulting plummet in teacher retention. As the report says:
“The status of the teaching profession in this country should be raised and the job made more intellectually engaging.”
I also very much support career paths for teaching assistants, who are the unrecognised gems in our schools. I have doubts about more routes to a teaching degree. Training a teacher cannot be a quick fix; it needs time, resources and good practice. It is alarming that, in the rush to plug teacher shortages, we look at training them very quickly. Primary teachers, for example, need to be taught child development. The notion that they should go into primary school not knowing about child development is unbelievable. Teachers need to learn how to identify educational needs.
Good schools, of course, are invariably led by good and outstanding leaders. The highest quality of school leadership is vital. So I say yes to a national leadership programme. Teachers need to be free from unnecessary red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy so that they can get on with the job of teaching.
Yes, of course we need school inspections, but we do not need a name and shame regime. We do not need to beat up our schools and our school teachers. Let us ban the need for schools to fly banners from their gates proclaiming they are a good school. There are still 360 areas in England where every primary is rated either inadequate or requiring improvement, with the majority in the most deprived parts of the country. All schools should be good or outstanding and we achieve that by Ofsted identifying problems, with more nuanced inspections, looking into pupil skills, social skills and emotional development; and then, away from the glare of public condemnation, working with those schools to improve.
I taught all my teaching career in one local authority. Every year, that local authority has the worst educational results in the country. From its inception in 1970 or whenever it was until now, it has had the worst results of any school in the country. What have successive Governments done about that? They have allowed the local authority to close all the secondary schools and open secondary learning centres, which got poorer results than the schools that were closed down, which had budget deficits and where over two-thirds of head teachers left within two years. What did the Government do about that? Absolutely nothing.
So to the curriculum. Our school curriculum is rigid and inflexible. As the report says, most schools are constrained by an outdated rubric composed by Whitehall that has no room for regional variation and takes little account of employers’ needs. Our curriculum is hidebound by rote learning. Younger children learn by play and discovery and, as they get older, we have to give them opportunities to ignite their passions, interests and strengths. We need to make a curriculum fit for purpose to reflect the 21st-century UK. It is Black History Month, yet it is a disgrace that the curriculum of most schools does not reflect the multicultural community that our society has become.
The damage that the EBacc has done to creative subjects is there for all to see and the intransigence of Governments, against all the evidence, beggars belief. Further, it is nonsensical to limit creative subjects. The creative industry generated £119 billion for the economy in 2019. The report rightly says that sport, music, drama, debating and dance should be an integral part of the timetable for all children, not an extracurricular add-on, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, knows only too well. The independent schools know and do this well. Employers are looking for diligent, adaptable, innovatory thinkers in their organisations. A more well-rounded curriculum is needed for this, which implies greater emphasis on creative education, extracurricular options and a diversifying curriculum.
I turn to assessment. It should—must—be a continuous process, not an outdated requirement to turn up to an exam hall in the summer months and sit an exam for two and a half to three hours; that takes no account of summer-born children, by the way. What happens if a poor girl has started her period? What happens if there has been some tragedy in the family? The effect that has on that pupil’s ability to do well in their exam is hindered. So I say yes to continuous assessment.
I would scrap the EBacc completely. I welcome the report’s proposals for a slimmed-down set of exams in five core subjects. I very much welcome and like the idea of a British baccalaureate at 18, with academic and vocational subjects under the same umbrella. I must say, I have never been quite sure about the term “vocational”. I do not think that parents understand it. They think it is some sort of namby-pamby thing—that it is not really a qualification at school. We need to find another term instead.
On levelling up, of course the eight measures that support childcare should be overseen by the same department and brought together by one. Yet the recent Schools Bill focused too much emphasis on governance, not content or approach reform in the wake of existing inequalities. Levelling up requires an acute emphasis on addressing the barriers, insufficiencies and struggles addressed in the report, homing in on the ways in which we can tangibly close the gap of disadvantage and leave no child behind for success.
Levelling up must also prioritise the individual and multifaceted needs of pupils with learning and physical disabilities, ensuring that we do not consider only those who fit in the narrow box of success that the system is currently built upon. There is an existing gap between the needs of the economy and how we are preparing future generations. Information and digital skills, practical skills, qualifications, study habits, emotional intelligence and creativity are all needed for success. We must better connect the skills we are teaching children with both industry needs and the passions of children to maximise the potential for success. There is no one post-secondary route that fits all. The system must not only better reflect this but better inquire into how we can better support each pathway option for young people.
The OECD’s director for skills mentions this:
“Your education today is your economy tomorrow.”
Employers are looking for diligent, adaptable, innovatory thinkers in their organisations. Levelling up will not take one action. I agree that long-term planning and consultation with a wide variety of educational experts is needed to drive forward-thinking policies. I commend the Times Commission on showing the kinds of deliverables that can come with this kind of cross-sector collaboration. The report alludes to this Government’s lack of prioritisation for education funding, resulting in children paying a high price for the pandemic. Reform has stalled. The report should be the wake-up call to ignite tangible change that goes beyond short-attention-span policies.
Bringing Out the Best has a 12-point plan, as we have heard. I note that there was a young persons’ panel made up of primary school children, secondary school children and post-16s. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to hear what they had to say. Among the proposals were laptops and tablets, of course, but many poor families cannot afford wi-fi. Why are we not providing wi-fi for those families?
I love the idea of an “army of undergraduate tutors”. Children relate to young people. We could be innovative and, dare I say it, link that to their loan. Well-being should be at the heart of schools. There should be a school counsellor, not just for children but for staff. I also love the idea of an “electives premium” for the arts, sport, volunteering and outdoor pursuits. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Summer Camps Trust.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, is absolutely right that we need in every school a careers adviser who can give face-to-face interviews with pupils.
I want to say how important it is that we develop oracy in our schools. In independent schools, there is a high premium on children debating and being able to speak. We do not do that in the maintained and academy sectors as well as we should, so, when young people go for jobs, they struggle to verbalise how they feel. Oracy should be part of our education system.
The subtitle of this report is
“How to transform education and unleash the potential of every child”.
I hope that the Minister will do all in her power to see that this report informs the thinking and actions of our Government.
My Lords, it is a real pleasure to take part in this debate. I do not know about A-level physics, but getting women to take part in education debates on a Thursday afternoon might need a little work as well.
It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Storey, although I am not quite as miserable about the whole situation as his speech implied that he is. I am sure that he has some moments of optimism and celebration about what is happening in our schools too. I particularly echo his support for teachers. I do not know whether this is compulsory, but I declare that my son has just started a four-year course learning to be a primary school teacher at Nottingham Trent University. I could not be prouder of him. However, my friends who are primary schoolteachers were not exactly encouraging and tried to talk him out of it, which says something a little concerning about teachers who have been in the profession for some time.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, particularly on his introductory speech and on securing what has been a very good debate. I will leave his comments on the internal workings of the Conservative Party to the Minister. I am sure that she has noted the remarks on that subject from the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, which I enjoyed.
Many noble Lords bring professional and personal experience to this Chamber, and that expertise has been most valuable in our considerations this afternoon. However, a thread of frustration ran through the debate. It was not directed at this Minister, but clearly we all want the Government to do much better in education than most contributors agree that they have in recent years. It is a mark of the quality of the debate that no one has claimed to have all the answers to the challenges faced by our children and young people in 2022, except perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who had rather a lot of the answers. He tested the patience of his Whip but he had something to say. His contribution was well worth listening to.
However, no one will have all the answers until we properly understand the challenges and the problems. That is where the Times report is so valuable. If we are to have a 15-year strategy or anything like that, we must have a shared understanding of the reality as it is today—not how it was when we were at school, how we imagine it might be now or what we pick up from our children, but how it is and what the evidence and experience of people currently in the education system tells us. That is where the report is so helpful.
Of course, what is also needed is a Government with a laser-like focus on this topic, and we do not have that right now. Two politicians have been raised rather a lot: Tony Blair and Michael Gove. Much as I fundamentally disagreed with Michael Gove on many of the things that he did—the one that stands out was the rebanding of the grades in GCSE English one year, which was dreadful—we had a sense that somebody was in charge and that there was a direction of travel at that time. We have missed that since then. I did not like the direction of travel but at least there was one.
This commission has highlighted some of the worst shortcomings of the UK’s education system in recent years. It tells us what many of us already know: that our system is not preparing children adequately for life, never mind employment. Some 22% of adults lack the digital skills to take part in the modern world, and 75% of employers say that they have had to give staff extra training in basic skills. Employers should, of course, invest in their workforce and constantly improve their employees’ skills, but they should also be able to recruit staff with solid basic skills.
As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, reminded us, this is an issue of global competitiveness. I should tell him that I make a point of reading many of the reports from the Tony Blair Institute, not just those on education and skills; I think I was probably a Blairite before it became fashionable in my party again. As the noble Lord, Tony Blair and many others have often observed, a failure to address these challenges and to invest in the skills needed—in engineering, pharmaceuticals or design, for example—will leave the UK unable to lead the industries of today, never mind tomorrow.
I remember being in Sedgefield Labour club around 1998 listening to Tony talking about China. He said that China was not about poor people on bicycles anymore; it was a country that was investing heavily in its workforce and it would be globally competitive as a consequence. He was trying to argue that we should be doing the same. That we have not managed to do that sufficiently is harming our position internationally. It is leaving our country, and our young people in particular, trailing behind other nations.
My noble friend Lord Knight was right to remind us that our education system is a place of hope. We must never forget that: it is an investment in our collective, as well as individual, futures. I always feel more positive and optimistic after listening to my noble friend, because of his day-to-day involvement in schools. The innovation he leads gives some cause for optimism.
Pleasingly, the report seems to have received a warm reception from practitioners and experts, and across party lines in this House. This has not been a party-political debate and it has been all the better for it. I hope we will better understand what the Government make of the report after the Minister closes this debate, but I wonder whether she can tell us whether the Government will publish a formal response. I know the Government do not publish formal responses to every report published by every random think tank, but this report is rather special and it might be worthy of something more substantial from the Government than we have had so far. It is an important piece of work and it would help to know the Government’s view on it. Maybe what we get from the Minister this afternoon will be enough, but it would be good to have something of substance.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Watson on his well-informed comments on early years, and on the emphasis he placed on chapter 2 of the report. We have heard a jumble of comments from the Government about how early years and play-based education are regulated and funded. One product of the rapid turnover of Secretaries of State and Ministers is that we hear random musings from the Government and we do not know how to treat them. It is the opposite of good, clear leadership. I am sure the Minister knows that parents and providers of early years need clarity and certainty to plan. I hope we will get some detail from the Minister shortly, if not necessarily today.
The Minister is familiar with concerns about the impact on the cost per place from direct childcare payments. That is one of the ideas of which the Prime Minister is quite fond. Of course we all want a simplified system, but undermining providers and risking a reduction in places or an escalation in costs, pricing many parents out of childcare altogether, is not the answer. Could she assure us that she understands these concerns and let us know what the current thinking is? Could the Minister also give us an idea of when we might have a fuller Statement on the Government’s childcare reforms, so that we can have an informed debate on the issue?
Talking of informed debate, many noble Lords present spent days working to improve the Schools Bill in Committee, before the Summer Recess. What is the Minister able to say on that topic today? To be fair, the Minister at the time was very understanding of our concerns, and set up a process to examine some of the problems that we identified with the Bill. There were some measures that were broadly welcomed—those around home education, for example—so we would like to know what the current thinking is. We do understand that a new Secretary of State will perhaps want to reconsider the approach; that is only to be expected. If that is what is happening, it would be reassuring to know, as well as an idea of how long that might take.
Some of the proposals in the commission sit well with existing Labour Party policies, such as in-school counsellors to support well-being, a focus on career development for teachers and a collaborative approach from Ofsted. Others are really exciting propositions that we would love to explore further, such as ideas to address higher education cold spots, and the work to improve participation in music, drama and sport. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, made some excellent points about flexible higher education, and his comments chime well with the commission’s recommendations. I hope that we can explore them a little further.
The commission has been creative, curious, and open-minded. That is the approach that I think we want to see from our Government too. I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, though, and the National Education Union, when they say that this report is sadly another indicator of the gulf between the Government’s policies and the needs of our education system today. That is how, I am afraid, it does feel to parents and teachers who are dealing with the day-to-day reality of underfunding and lack of leadership. Despite wanting to centralise everything all the time, there is a lack of central leadership from the Government and of clarity of direction. And now we have the threat of strikes from an exhausted, overworked and undervalued workforce, which will not make things any easier at all.
Things have not been going well in recent years; I think that is fair to say. Difficult though it may be, Education Ministers are going to have put aside the broader chaos—if I can put it that way—engulfing this Government and focus relentlessly on the needs of our youngest citizens. I will finish by repeating the noble Lord, Lord Rees, when he said that the upheaval of Covid should energise us. I hope—perhaps more than expect, in the current political context—that that is what is about to happen.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Lexden for securing this important debate, all Members of your Lordships’ House who were involved in the Times Education Commission and the wider membership of the commission, and all of your Lordships for the insight and ideas in the debate today. My noble friend set a challenge in terms of vision and ambition, which I welcome warmly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, talked about a gulf between government policy and the ambition in the commission’s report. As she says—I will probably misquote her—I hope, but am not confident, that I will reassure her that the gulf is not quite as she fears. Over the last 12 years, this Government have committed to supporting all children and young people to realise their potential. The Times Education Commission suggests that change is needed, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out how the Government are certainly delivering on many of the elements of change that are highlighted in this report.
My noble friend Lord Baker was extremely critical of our current education system, but I remind the House that it has made a huge amount of progress over the last 10 years, particularly when compared internationally. England has received the highest ever score in both the most recent international reading literacy study and the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. I hope noble Lords will acknowledge that, because many of the comments in your Lordships’ House might have suggested otherwise. Furthermore, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment showed that 15 year-olds in England performed above the OECD averages for all reading, maths and science subjects, which all your Lordships have stressed the importance of.
In the decade before the pandemic, we drove improvements across the board. Some 87% of schools are now rated as good or outstanding, which is up from 68% in 2010. We are not quite at the ambition of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, of no schools either being inadequate or requiring improvement, but I reassure him that the chart on the wall in my office is of those schools and we monitor it every month to make sure that the number is coming down.
Pre-pandemic results show that, in 2019, 65% of key stage 2 pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths, which was a seven percentage-point increase in reading and a nine percentage-point increase in maths since 2016. Of course, as noble Lords have rightly pointed out and as the Government, our children, our teachers and our schools are all too aware, the pandemic has set us back, but the latest post-pandemic results for 2022 show that 59% of key stage 2 pupils met the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths.
As noble Lords know, to address that, we have announced almost £5 billion for an ambitious multi-year educational recovery plan, and earlier this year we published the schools White Paper, in which we set out our bold vision for education to 2030, which is built on four pillars: higher standards, system reform, greater recognition of teachers, and targeted support for students as the foundation of education recovery and social mobility or, as, the noble Lord, Lord Watson prefers to describe it, social justice—let us have both. I will discuss each of those pillars in turn and how they address the commission’s recommendations.
As many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lexden and the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, have commented, the commission recommends the creation of a new British baccalaureate. As I told this House in June, the Government have transformed the quality of academic and technical qualifications over the past decade. We have reformed GCSEs and A-levels to ensure that they are in line with the world’s highest-performing education systems and to support all young people to achieve their potential. We have introduced T-levels with 45 days’ work experience, which I hope pleases all noble Lords; in particular, that was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. There are other reforms in train, but we currently have no plans to introduce a British baccalaureate.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Willetts and the noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Rees, asked about the narrowing of the curriculum. We are aware that there are trade-offs between the depth of the curriculum and its breadth, as all your Lordships understand. We are very clear that young people should be able to access a broad and balanced knowledge-rich curriculum up to the age of 16. We want pupils to leave school prepared in the widest sense for adult life. The acquisition of knowledge is the basic building block of education to which all pupils should have fair access, and a knowledge-based curriculum can stimulate critical thinking and inquiry skills that can be taught only in the context of solid subject content.
I will absolutely take back to the department the very thoughtful contributions from your Lordships about where they see the potential to broaden or reinforce the curriculum as it stands today. But as I was listening to your Lordships, I thought that we are moving from a world with a choice between breadth and depth to one where, as we have heard, not just in this country but all across the world, the skills required in employment are evolving over time. We have a sort of three-way pull of breadth, depth and flexibility/longevity. I will come on to talk about the lifelong loan entitlement but I know that your Lordships support it as an important way forward to achieving that longevity and flexibility of education.
We will introduce the lifelong loan entitlement from 2025 and people will be able to train, retrain and upskill by undertaking modules or full courses at higher technical and degree levels, regardless of whether these are provided in colleges or universities. I hope that goes some way to addressing the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Rees of Ludlow.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked for an update on the LLE consultation. As he knows, it closed on
To enable system reform, we have delivered the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade and continue to deliver year on year, real-terms per-pupil increases to funding. We share the commission’s enthusiasm for the potential for technology to improve learner outcomes and reduce workload for teachers, which is why we are building on our huge investment, made during the pandemic, of nearly 2 million laptops and tablets. We are making sure that every school can access a high-speed broadband connection by 2025 and investing up to £150 million to improve school wi-fi in priority areas, which will support schools to meet our new standards for technology.
The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Davies of Brixton, raised the recommendation in the commission’s report regarding Ofsted: it proposed that Ofsted should focus on sustained improvement. We believe that Ofsted’s education inspection framework, which took effect in 2019, does exactly that. It encourages leaders and teachers to focus on the intent, implementation and impact of their curriculum. As I mentioned, the proportion of schools rated good or outstanding has improved substantially, from 68% in 2010 to 87% in 2021.
The commission also called for improvements in the status of teaching, which the noble Lord, Lord Storey, supported. As part of the schools White Paper, we announced £30,000 as the starting salary to attract the very best teachers, with additional incentives to work in the schools with most need. I think the noble Lord spent his teaching career in Liverpool; I am on the 7.07 am train to Liverpool tomorrow to see some of the work going on there. I really would like to set the record straight about what the Government are doing. We are bringing in some of the best multi-academy trusts so that their expertise is brought to areas which, as the noble Lord knows, have failed children for too long.
Returning to the teaching profession, we will provide better professional development for teachers, with 500,000 training and development opportunities, such as the early careers framework and the refreshed national professional qualifications, so that all teachers and school leaders can access world-class professional development at every stage of their career.
We believe that our Green Paper, published in March, closely mirrors the report’s recommendations for greater support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. The reforms in the Green Paper focus on earlier identification and support for teachers, as well as on making sure that children are supported to manage their needs early and, in relation to alternative provision, that we reduce preventable exclusions as much as possible. We are also providing more training in areas fundamental to high-quality teaching, such as behaviour management, adaptive teaching and curriculum design, which will help teachers support all pupils to succeed.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked me for an update on next steps on the SEND Green Paper. We will publish our response to the consultation via our improvement plan by the end of this year. The noble Lord also asked about accessibility to technology for students with special educational needs, particularly dyslexia. I think the noble Lord is aware of our pilot for assistive technology training, which took place in 74 schools between January and March 2022. We are extending that training to increase staff confidence when using assistive technology.
The commission calls for an “electives premium” and recommends that well-being is put at the heart of education—the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, raised this in particular. To support cultural enrichment, the Government published the national plan for music education in June and will publish a cultural education plan in 2023. This will include our support for young people who pursue careers in our creative and cultural industries. We continue to build on our high-quality citizenship education by supporting the national youth guarantee, promoting volunteering and expanding access to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and cadet schemes. On that note, I echo my noble friend Lord Lexden’s call for greater collaboration between independent schools and maintained schools. In my capacity as Minister in that area, I support that but would be glad of more advice from my noble friend on how we can progress it further.
The commission calls for undergraduate tutors to help pupils who fall behind in their learning. We are addressing this issue through our National Tutoring Programme, which allows schools to decide how to provide this support and has already delivered over 1 million tutoring courses since November 2020. We believe that this is set to rise to 6 million by 2024.
We agree that physical and mental well-being is a key enabler for children to benefit from their time in school. That is why we are building on the additional £79 million invested in specialist mental health support for children and young people during the pandemic by accelerating the introduction of mental health support teams that provide extra capacity for early support and advising school staff.
On early years support, the noble Lords, Lord Davies of Brixton and Lord Rees of Ludlow, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, emphasised the importance of giving our children the best start in life. To do that, we have invested over £3.5 billion in each of the last three years in our early education entitlements for children aged two to four. In October 2021, we announced additional funding of £160 million in 2022-23, £180 million the following year and £170 million in 2024-25. This is for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers and reflects changes in the number of eligible children anticipated at the time of the spending review.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, asked if I would acknowledge that, in any reformed childcare, we need to consider that we do not end up excluding providers and creating even more pressure in the market. Of course she makes a very good point, which will be considered. She also asked about progress on the Schools Bill. The legislative agenda is under review, and I will update the House in due course.
I think that the House acknowledges that we have introduced ambitious, long-term structural reforms to give people the skills they need to get good jobs and to boost productivity across the country. They will put employers at the heart of skills training and education; reform incentives for providers to deliver high-quality provision; and enable learners to take up skills training and education over their lifetimes. Those might be three clauses in one sentence, but I know that your Lordships know that there is an enormous challenge—and opportunity—in delivering that. All this is underpinned by a £3.8 billion investment in further education and skills across this Parliament.
The noble Lords, Lord Knight and Lord Rees, and my noble friend Lord Willetts all talked about the potential for technology to contribute to our education system. We absolutely agree with that; I share their enthusiasm on this point. On
We also share the report’s ambition to establish elite technical and vocational provision with close links to industry. In response to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, I say that this is why we are establishing a network of 21 institutes of technology across England for post-16 learners. These are prestigious, employer-led institutions that will bring together technical, vocational and industry partners to deliver higher-level technical skills, particularly in STEM-based sectors, including digital, advanced manufacturing, engineering and construction.
I am out of time, so I will cover in a letter the points I have not managed to cover here. I will look back over this debate in Hansard to ensure that I have really acknowledged all noble Lords’ contributions. Like the authors of the Times Education Commission, all of us here are committed to delivering an education system that gives everyone opportunities to thrive and realise their potential, no matter where they live across the country. It may be above my pay grade to be able to organise a royal commission—as my noble friend suggested—but we remain open to discussion, ideas and challenges for improvement. However, as a Government, we also need to focus to deliver the potential of the major changes we are making, particularly to skills and lifelong learning.
My Lords, it is the custom for those who introduce these Thursday afternoon debates to conclude by thanking all those who have taken part. I perform this traditional duty with the greatest possible sincerity this afternoon. I was particularly grateful for the kind comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, because I remember the last time that we found ourselves in debate, during which I spoke rather intemperately about her comments on independent schools. I have been seeking to smile benignly across the Chamber throughout this afternoon.
It is extraordinary to think that so long—12 years—has gone by since we last had a full and wide-ranging education debate in this House, as my noble friend Lord Baker, the Disraeli de nos jours, reminded us. We are united across this House—this is the great point—in recognising the enduring importance of the Times Education Commission’s report. My noble friend Lord Johnson, a member of the commission—thank goodness it was not his brother—spoke of the great commitment that the newspaper has made.
It is right that we end by giving proper, full recognition to that and to Rachel Sylvester, who guided the whole operation, with my long-standing friend, Anthony Seldon, alongside her. Above all, we recognise that the retiring editor, John Witherow, played such an important part in this great project. The best way in which we can continue to recognise the importance of the report is by keeping these hugely important recommendations in our mind, all gathered together, as noble Lords have said so clearly and effectively.
It was marvellous to have so many young people up in the Gallery while we were engaged in our discussion. It was rather tempting to go up and ask them what they made of what we had to say. It really has been a splendid debate, for which I am extremely grateful. With that, I beg to move.