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Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, may I just—

Lord Grocott: No.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I think that it would be helpful.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, everyone tries to be helpful here but we have run out of time on Questions.
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Lord Grocott: My Lords, I have a short Business Statement. With the leave of the House, a Statement on safeguarding children will be repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. The Statement will be repeated immediately after the first debate in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold.

Work and Families Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Business of the House: Debates Today

11.36 am

Lord Grocott: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble friend the Leader of the House on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate in the name of the Baroness Shephard of Northwold set down for today shall be limited to three hours and the debate in the name of the Earl Attlee set down for today shall be limited to two hours.—(Lord Grocott.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


11.37 am

Baroness Shephard of Northwold rose to call attention to education in schools; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am delighted to have the chance to move this Motion today on what is certainly a momentous day for education, as will be fully appreciated by the Minister. I am equally delighted that the debate has attracted a wide and distinguished range of speakers from your Lordships' House.

Many education issues are today claiming our attention. Tempting as it would be to address all of them in my 15 minutes, I intend to focus my remarks—in the tradition of this House—for the most part on the long view. That may be a relief to the Minister.

Education is quite simply one of the most important issues there can be for any government, for any society and for any individual. While all threads of the education tapestry are important, it is education in schools which touches the lives of every child in the nation. It is also, since everyone has been through the system, an issue on which there are at any time, in my experience, 40 million experts in our nation willing to opine—a matter which the Minister will have quickly learnt on his appointment, as will all other former education Ministers and Secretaries of State in this House.

What is the purpose of a school? A reasonable working definition might be that it is, "to teach children to learn to achieve their highest potential". If
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that is the purpose, how can any government through their education policy get the maximum number of schools to achieve the standards of the best? What are the tools available to a government? They might be defined as follows. First, there is the issue of resources. Funding—what is spent—is always high on the agenda. While money is obviously important, it is clear that the way money is spent is as important as the amount. Secondly, there is the question of structure and, in particular, the development of choices for parents between different kinds of school. Structure has featured prominently in educational debate since the 1944 Act. There are of course other tools, like curriculum, exam structure and organisational issues, but I intend to limit my remarks to a discussion about the first two.

As a former schools inspector and education administrator, I have always felt that what actually goes on in the classroom, the quality of leadership and teaching in a school, and above all the calibre of the head are what most influence the quality of a school. These things are certainly what matter most to parents and are most easily judged by them. Thus, one way of appraising education policy might be to examine how the policy set by government helps or hinders the leadership exercised by a good head to make every classroom a place where children are taught to learn to achieve their highest potential.

Governments tend to make extravagant claims for the success of their policies, this Government as much as most—possibly in some areas more than most. The Government have not been inactive. In the past eight years we have seen four Secretaries of State, four White Papers, five Green Papers, nine Acts of Parliament and two strategy documents. The result of all this activity, as successive Ofsted and Select Committee reports have found, has been mixed. Despite extremely substantial sums of money being spent on school improvement, there has not been an entirely commensurate improvement in school performance, as the Select Committee pointed out in its report of a year ago. There are consistent, constant and continuing rumbles of concern from universities and from employers about the attainment of those who seek to join their ranks.

Only now we learn that the league tables—they were published today—show a rather disappointing lack of progress in standards attained, although there seems to be a bit of a muddle about the statistics. The Minister might want to explain this to the House later. In particular, why do English and maths results seem to have been removed from the lists and, if they are included, why does the five GCSE pass rate appear to be 12 points lower than it is otherwise reported? It may be a confusion and the Minister will want to set concerns to rest, I am sure.

There have been successes in education under this Government. Some of them have developed from our initiatives, which is of course as it should be, because all educational planning should not be done on a four-year basis. This is a terrific bind, for governments, for LEAs and obviously for schools, colleges and universities. We welcome those developments that are
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built on our innovations: the literacy and numeracy initiatives; a strong inspection service, with published reports; the publication of exam and test results in schools; the increased numbers of specialist schools, which seem to have been a great success; training and qualification for heads, which I was particularly concerned with when I was Secretary of State; and the adoption of the city technology college principle in academies.

We welcome all those and other improvements in the system. As regards funding, it is undeniable that more money has been spent by this Government than by their predecessor. Improved capital investment in buildings and IT is obviously universally welcome, as are the increases in the number of teachers. What about the money spent on all the new initiatives? Has it all been spent to good effect? Has that money made it easier for heads to run better schools? Or has such a profusion of initiatives tended to confuse teachers and muddle the system?

I know that the noble Lord will have found last week's National Audit Office report sober reading, because I am sure that he shares my view that the role of the head is crucial in underpinning the quality of the school system. The report pointed out that more than a quarter of primary schools and a fifth of secondary schools are currently without a permanent head. It adds:

that is a significant point—

Worryingly but unsurprisingly, the report points out that the problem is worst in precisely those areas that are most in need of good schools. The report says that what teachers most want is a better quality of initial and ongoing training and better support; salary increases were regarded as less important.

It is undeniable that more money has been spent by this Government on education, but the fractured nature of government spending on education and the sheer number of initiatives has begun to damage the confidence of the teaching profession, and it strikes at accountability. Many of the initiatives are entirely worthy in themselves; there is no question about that. But their proliferation, together with the very important addition of revised priorities arising from Every Child Matters, is a step change—although no one ever seems to talk about it—that means overload for heads, which damages morale. Anyone who was required to respond to an endless stream of directives, changes in emphasis and frequently hostile press coverage would become not only confused—heads' professionalism can be diverted from the main task—but diluted and possibly damaged. No amount of extra spending can compensate. I hope this is not the situation that we now face. I know that the noble Lord will be very conscious of it.
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Structure is another identified policy tool for government. Since the 1944 Act that proposed a tripartite system of secondary school organisation, debate has ranged around whether the structure of education in the school sector can improve school performance. This being Britain, quite a lot of time and energy since 1944 has also been spent debating the sociological benefits of altering school structure. To my mind, the role of education in helping to achieve equality of opportunity is through the development of excellent schools with first-class leadership and excellent teaching. In other words, education should be about education and not about social engineering.

Structure can, of course, help to raise standards. But despite the priority my party has afforded to structure in the past and the attention now being given to it by the Government, I remain of the view that what goes on in the classroom is of foremost importance, and that is why we on this side would welcome increased emphasis on banding, setting and streaming. Some structure arrangements can help schools to give of their best. Therefore, we agree with some of the White Paper's proposals, and we will be keen to support the Government in their forthcoming battle with their own supporters on, for example, the issue of greater independence and freedom for schools to develop their own ethos. That principle was behind our introduction of local financial management for schools in 1986 and our establishment of grant-maintained schools. We obviously support the White Paper's proposal to increase the number of specialist schools, which we introduced. Anyone who suggests that selection for modern language colleges can be done purely on aptitude and not on ability is playing with words. Nor, as the Times recently asserted, are modern languages a non-academic subject; I speak as a linguist. The Government really must not fight shy of admitting that selection by ability already exists across the system. On the Opposition Benches, we think that schools should be allowed to accept up to 10 per cent of their pupils in whatever specialism by aptitude or ability.

We support the Prime Minister's proposal, in his foreword to the White Paper, that there should be increased diversity and choice for parents in the school system. However, for those conscious of circumstances in rural areas—of which there was little mention in the White Paper—it is obvious that choice is limited by parental occupation and transport opportunities. I am sorry to say that the six-mile rule change for transport eligibility implies that all rural areas are Surrey. They are not. What parents in rural areas—and indeed everywhere else—want is that their local school should be excellent; it is that simple.

The White Paper itself is something of a conundrum to us on these Benches. The question is really: do the Government intend to do what the Prime Minister says in his foreword to it? I have a number of questions for the Minister. The ability of schools to make their own admission arrangements is crucial to the Prime
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Minister's vision. Yet the Secretary of State, in her address to the north of England education conference, said that:

How would that give increased autonomy to heads or parents? According to Section 9 of the White Paper, local authorities would become commissioners of education, not its providers. What does that mean, especially for the accountability of people elected in their own right to be accountable for education at local level?

Will trust schools get their funding direct? Apparently not, since the White Paper states that they will be funded in the exact same way as other schools. Does that mean via the LEA, and if so, how many private sponsors will be attracted to the enterprise? So what price this statement from the Prime Minister:

Did the Prime Minister tell the Treasury about that?

If the Government choose to grasp the opportunity presented by their own White Paper—if it is indeed a pivotal moment for education, as government Ministers have said—they will certainly have support from these Benches, because the White Paper proposals can make a difference. We are ready to support the principles that I have listed. Are the Government ready? I beg to move for Papers.

11.52 am

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