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Baroness Morgan of Huyton: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for introducing this timely debate. Like many noble Lords, my continuing passion is education, both as a parent and as a former teacher. As a Member of this House, I feel that there is nothing more important for us to spend time on discussing. When we think about the future prosperity of the country, there can be no greater concern than the skill base of our workforce and increasing opportunities for the most disadvantaged communities in the United Kingdom. Today, I want to talk specifically about this latter point: meeting the needs of children in our poorest communities.

The facts relating to educational attainment and disadvantage are well known. I have pulled out a few to demonstrate the scale of the problem and the desperate need to keep tackling it. In 2004, only 26 per cent of pupils with free school meals achieved five good GCSEs, and for boys it was only 22 per cent. Meanwhile, pupils from the most affluent areas have a 70 per cent chance of achieving five good GCSEs, against only 30 per cent from our more disadvantaged communities. Not only do pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve worse test results at each key
 
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stage, but their progress through each level from the age of five onwards is poorer. A whole range of similar statistics is well known to all noble Lords taking part in this debate.

Perhaps one of the most depressing facts is that social mobility is not really increasing, as demonstrated in the recent Sutton Trust report. The massive expansion of higher education has not been distributed fairly across income groups in spite of the fact that the staying-on rate in schools has narrowed considerably over the past 15 years. So, many more disadvantaged kids are now staying in school right through to the age of 18, but while the top one-fifth of income groups have seen graduation rise by 26 per cent, in the poorest income groups it has increased by only 3 per cent. That is why the change made by the Government to tuition fees was absolutely vital. It was a brave decision and the right one to take. It is also extremely helpful that the Opposition have now moved to that position as well.

Fixed views and fatalism must not stop us being prepared to tackle the massive inequalities that still exist in education provision results. The majority of schools in this country are strong, successful and improving, but I want to talk about the areas where that is not yet the case. I should declare an interest. I advise a charity which is sponsoring city academies in very disadvantaged areas in Britain, largely in London. But my argument today is not for or against city academies or, indeed, for any particular type of school. What I want to urge is that we raise our sights collectively, along with our aspirations for these children.

For too long, education and social thinking were dominated by an explanation of why disadvantaged children were failing at school. We were full of sympathy and the case was well argued, but there was no route upwards for these children. I remember this personally. When taking higher education degrees and as a teacher I would argue passionately about the reasons why children were failing. I was full of empathy and sympathy, particularly for those suffering from multi-deprivation who were failing the most. I do not suggest that class and background do not matter—of course they do—but disadvantage must not be an excuse for failure. The first and most vital step is for all of us to raise our sights and set high expectations for these children.

The results of doing this are evident. Around the UK schools are achieving well ahead of other institutions in the same cohort and serving the same communities. Why is that? It is largely because of excellent leadership, a point made by many other noble Lords in the debate. The head and senior management develop great teaching practices, strong pastoral care, interesting curricula and extra-curricular activities. They bring in support from parents and the community. But, above all, these schools succeed when everyone connected to the school community knows clearly that each child can achieve and that they will be helped to achieve to their fullest potential. Everything is focused on raising achievement.
 
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Last November, I visited a series of urban schools in New York. I visited a particularly fascinating school in the Bronx. It was utterly inspiring. The area it served was without any redeeming features: large expanses of high-rise, dense and poor housing with absolutely no green space, not even play areas. The pupils were largely African and Hispanic and the school building was frankly grim, much worse than anything I have seen in our urban areas. The building accommodated four different schools, one on each floor. The one I visited, located on the fourth floor, had security guards at the door. It is one of a new type of school in New York: very small schools. The innovative idea is to create a primary-style of education for secondary school pupils. Every teacher knows every pupil and there is a much stronger sense of community. The size of the school, as is the case with similar ones, is 300 pupils, and the results are quite remarkable.

Children enter the school at least two grades behind and with every type of social problem we could imagine. They leave ahead of their grade. The staff members were quite remarkable. They showed huge commitment and shared a strong, overriding belief that no one else should be blamed for the failure of these children. Their job was to help the pupils to succeed. Aspiration and ambition were made evident everywhere. To the British eye it was rather crude, but it had a remarkable effect on the children. Every classroom door was labelled with the year that the students would or should graduate. Teaching took place around the names of colleges. Students were reminded at every hour of the day of where they should set their sights for the future. These children literally used to stand a much higher chance of going to prison than to college. They would graduate to prison. But their whole outlook has been changed.

Teaching was intensive and unforgiving of failure. Discipline was stunning, although caring and supportive. Perhaps what was most remarkable about this school was that every child participated in the school orchestra. It was the most superb orchestra I have ever heard and provided an opportunity to come together at the end of every school day. It also provided an activity because the play areas and gym facilities were nothing like those in our schools, even in our poorest ones. The school orchestra was used as a form of physical activity. The music was loud, with lots of bangs and getting up and down. As a by-product, maths attainment was also two grades ahead because of the strong link between music and maths.

These children saw clearly that education was the only way out of the cycle of deprivation in which they and their families live, but they were also inspired by the ethos of the school and by the strong sense of support and love that was prevalent. That was the clear message I took from that school, as I have from strong schools in the UK. From day one, you have to set clear aspirations, create an environment where everyone focuses on the same ambitions, and where failure is quite simply not accepted. To do this, above all else we must invest in our head teachers and, indeed, in the whole teaching profession. I know that
 
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my noble friend Lord Puttnam has played a significant part in raising the profile, recruitment and standing of teaching and I warmly applaud him for that. The most vital task in the period ahead is to recruit, train, support and reward outstanding head teachers for our most difficult urban schools.

Teaching in and leading schools in deprived communities is very challenging but, of course, hugely rewarding. Those who choose to work in these urban schools need and should expect strong support. Instead of that, they are often subjected to a barrage of media criticism. Even today when the tables are published in the papers, we see that the results for some of these schools are still poor, but progress is being made in most of them. I am afraid that the media response is not to applaud that progress, but just to criticise in a blanket way. That is totally deflating for those who have to keep going day after day in such schools.

I hope very much that we in this House will give the level of political support that head teachers need and should expect from society as a whole. It is easy to criticise; it is much harder to provide sustained leadership for a school community. Great progress has been made in our education system over recent years, but we cannot take our collective foot off the pedal.

12.38 pm

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for providing the opportunity to hold forth on education again. I am absolutely delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Huyton. A dozen years ago I remember making speeches like that—perhaps not as good, but similar—from those Benches and getting an extremely hostile reception from these Benches. It is wonderful that things have moved on and we are now looking at a common set of ambitions, goals and assumptions. That makes progress much more possible because it gives the Government confidence that if they do things right, they will not immediately find their policies reversed by the next government. That is all to the good of pupils.

I also enjoyed the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Drefelin. As a physicist myself, I think that it is nice when someone champions science, although I am worried about her references to "rocket science" and "bang goes the national curriculum". She and the pupils could be in trouble with the Terrorism Bill.

The difficulty of science comes down, particularly, to the GCSE curriculum, which is incredibly boring. The way pupils achieve a good grade at GCSE science these days is to have a little pack of cards with facts on them; they memorise them and they get an A grade. It is absolutely simple, and it is boring. The science you are taught is science nobody needs to know; it has no relevance to life outside and the lives people lead. It is unsurprising that that theme has been echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the right reverend Prelate. There is a real problem, a real disconnect between what children are taught for GCSE and what they really need and want to learn.
 
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The curriculum has been designed on an almost Platonic basis as "this ought to be what people learn". It does not address the fact that for every child who takes a GCSE and continues to follow that subject afterwards, there are five who do not. The curriculum entirely addresses the needs of those who are going on; it therefore leaves 80 per cent of pupils out in the cold. To my mind, a lot of the problems of discipline and disaffection flow from the flaws in the curriculum. An interesting illustration of that is that there is a school in England with a very high level of special needs, where last year, at least, 40 per cent of pupils got five A to C grades, but where there are no written school rules and no disciplinary problems. That is because the curriculum is absolutely centred on what the kids want to learn and is very heavily practical. That school is Brymore, in Bridgewater, if anybody wants to look it up.

It illustrates that if children are learning what they want to learn, however disadvantaged and educationally challenged they are, they will behave. I have total sympathy with those faced with the GCSE, who say, "I do not want to know this." That is the way I feel about maths GCSE, which I have recently taken my kids through, when I look back on it. I have never used it. I have been a scientist, an accountant and a merchant banker, and very little of it was maths that I have used in life. So I think there is a lot to be done on that and I very much hope that at some stage the Government will turn their attention to it.

What I want to talk about today is selection. In this country we have an almost entirely selective school system. Some of it is a little bit academic, but most of it is social. Some of it is directly social—largely in religious schools—but the great majority is geographically selective. As the Sutton Trust has demonstrated, the middle class has captured every form of selection going. Of course they have; they are bright, they are active and they care about their children's education. Of course they go all-out to get the best possible education for their children. We have allowed the system to be such that the middle class has effectively been able to exclude from the best schools in the country the disadvantaged 20 per cent, not because that is their objective, but because we have not produced a system that works any other way.

The ambition we share on both sides of the House is that there should be good schools for all. Everybody should have the chance to go to a good school. Yes, there should be choice; it should be choice between good schools. There are different kinds of schools; parents want different kinds of education; children have different kinds of aptitudes and experiences and opportunities that they want to pursue. There is a great scope for variety, but there ought to be access to good schools for everybody. Despite what my noble friend Lady Shephard said, we can allow a little bit of social engineering, in that none of us really wants schools to be an engine for the ghettoisation of society. We want schools to be part of a cohesive society rather than one that produces a lot of little sub-groups which spend the rest of their lives at war with each other.
 
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Does the present system work or have any hope of working? No, I do not think it has. I do not like the grammar school system in Kent. I find it very destructive of the education of those who do not get into the grammar schools. It is very hard to find a good state education in Kent outside the grammar schools. It just does not seem to work in that way. The middle classes of course run across the border or buy private education, but it makes life extremely difficult for those who start out socially disadvantaged. I do not think the grammar schools, again to look at those in Kent, really flourish as schools. They become complacent, they do not go all-out for challenges like inclusion or broadening the curriculum. A lot of them are quite narrow and relatively uninteresting schools. Looking at them from my point of view as publisher of the Good Schools Guide, we do not include many of them.

I do not think that is the answer and nor do I think that geographically selective schools are the answer. They are very easy for the middle class to navigate, but geographical selection is enormously effective in keeping the disadvantaged out. You can just do it by house price and draw the maps so that they cannot get in. I do not think that any of the current systems of selection work.

I do not think, either, that abolishing selection is an attractive idea. The only proposal I have heard for that is admission by ballot. That has an enormous collection of disadvantages. First, how do you handle the fact that everybody would go for the same schools? There is no reason why the ballot should be evenly spread; you might have schools where 20,000 people apply for 200 places and no applications elsewhere. There is no regulation. As soon as you start to introduce regulation, you are introducing geographical selection again. It is uncertain; parents do not know what is going to happen so it is an unfriendly system from a parental point of view; and it is destructive of community. I do not think that is a road to go down either.

I do think that we can learn a lesson from Adam Smith's book and harness our natural self-interest to be the engine of a system that would work much better for the whole community. We can do that by seeing selection as a means to an end. What selection does is create character in a school. If you have a sufficient number of Catholics in a school, it becomes a Catholic school and it will have the virtues of a Catholic school; it will be the kind of education that has a particular attraction to particular parents and particular children. The same applies to academic selection, certainly as practised by specialist schools. If you want a school that is good at languages you need a sufficient cohort of pupils who are good at and interested in languages, otherwise it is extremely difficult to maintain. There is certainly a home for geographical selection because it allows a school to be part of a community. That, I think is enormously valuable; a school is a very important part of a community and we ought not to lose geographical selection from that point of view.
 
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I find selection a very useful tool in creating a variety of schools and in maintaining character, but it must not be allowed to go too far. I think we have let it go too far; I think we should row back on it. We should say that all selective schools, which effectively means all schools, because there is selection of one kind or another, must admit a proportion of children by ballot. Ballot is the simplest and cleanest system. You might get up to 25 per cent quite happily. I do not think this destroys the character of a school. I do not think Ampleforth is less Catholic because 40 per cent of its pupils are not Catholics. I do not think Eton, in the days when I was there, was a less academic school because it was not particularly selective.

So long as you have a cohort who maintain the ethos of a school and that is a settled ethos, you can accommodate a very substantial proportion of pupils who do not share that particular aptitude or background. I think that would give pupils a real opportunity to move across borders and to access the opportunities now closed to them, whether it is getting into the grammar school, which is next door but closed to them because their 11-plus results were not quite good enough; or getting into that school in the smart suburb when you live in the high-rises next door. A mixed application of selection and ballot would result in opportunities that are just not there and will not be under any system that we are likely to reach under this Government for broadening the social intake of all schools.

As a Conservative, I would move further. I would want to accommodate the right reverend Prelate and allow him to establish his school, not with an LEA's permission but where he saw the opportunity. I do not see why LEAs should act as gatekeepers to stop such an enterprise. I do not see this Government, who, after all, have been with us for quite a long time, taking that step but I hope that I can persuade them to open up our selective system and allow access to the less privileged.

12.50 pm


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