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Lord Dearing: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for initiating this debate. For once in my life, instead of concentrating on what I wanted to say, I have been listening to the noble Baroness and all the other speakers with respect and have learnt a lot. I am sure that the Minister has been listening equally carefully.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the October White Paper. As I read and re-read it, it seemed to be written by people with commitment, passion and vision. I have never doubted any government's commitment to education. I have been particularly impressed that, since 1997, we have got an extra 40,000 teachers and the number of teaching assistants has doubled to 200,000. Putting people into schools is very impressive, much more so for me than the commitment to redo over the next 15 years all our secondary schools and half the primary schools. That is also impressive, but the point has been made that it is the people who make a school and make education, and that is where resources mainly must go.
 
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I have been impressed by the Government's decision to make available £335 million by 2007–08 for teaching in small groups in secondary schools and particularly for catch-up classes in the first year for those who are behind. However, while there has been a commitment and resources have increasingly been made available, I see in the White Paper the concern and the admission that the difference between those born to succeed in education and those who start at a disadvantage has not been made good. As the White Paper says at section 1.24, the attainment gap for pupils has not narrowed. That is tragic. It is a scandal that, in spite of all our effort and commitment, those born to have least in life through education are the ones least likely to succeed. The figures are quoted: around 25 per cent of our kids leave primary school without the basic kit in literacy and numeracy to take advantage of their secondary education—what a disaster—and 85 per cent of those will end up without the magic five A to C grade GCSEs.

Then you look at the figures for some sections of our community: working-class white boys, children whose parents are from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and black Caribbean boys, of whom only 17 per cent get five decent GCSEs. We must be concerned about that. I warmed to the White Paper because it shows concern about those people and a commitment to do something about it.

I looked carefully through the proposals because I have one hobby horse: before a government introduce a policy, they should validate it, and the best way to do that is to pilot it. I counted that they have piloted, or are piloting, seven of their specific proposals relevant to improving performance.

Although I find the proposals to deal with structure bold and the kind of thinking that we need to break the mould, I did not find evidence that they had been validated and tested. Those proposals include, for example, a new role for local authorities, which are to be commissioners, referees and parents' champions rather than providers. It would comfort me if, before moving further on those proposals, the Government found some likeminded local authorities willing to pilot and test them against pre-stated criteria to see whether they deliver the goods. We have a code of good practice for admissions; I want a code of good practice for governments on validating change before making it. We are talking about the future of kids where for decades we have not solved their problems. Before making changes we must ensure that they will work for those kids.

I have a personal belief, shared, I think, by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that great teachers will do the trick but they need freedoms. I notice that on trust schools, which I am glad to see are being piloted, there is a proposal that, with the Secretary of State's consent, they may get extra-curricular freedoms. That is good because I am not sure that lads and lasses whose parents have perhaps come from a village in Pakistan or Bangladesh will be inspired by learning about how the Romans came and then the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans. However, they
 
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might be inspired by looking at the history of the Olympic movement, since it is coming to this country, and its standards and aspirations, which they can see as part of their lives. If there is the prospect, on application to the Secretary of State, of extra-curricular freedoms for trust schools, why not for all schools where they are needed and will help teachers to deliver?

I particularly welcome the improvement partner—I have forgotten the exact term but every school is to have one. They are needed most in the schools with the greatest problems. If I could, I would give every one of them a Marie Stubbs. I do not whether all noble Lords know Dame Marie Stubbs; she is a very remarkable person who turns schools round. We need people like her.

The Government rightly talk of their determination to deal with underperformance by schools. The Audit Commission, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred, makes the case that we cannot allow children to be disadvantaged by bad schools. I have said it before and I will say it again to the noble Baroness: I am with you. However, I am not so keen on deciding that closure is the best answer. I do not think that the Government are saying that either but I have had experience of closing an underperforming school and going through what is involved in re-opening. It absorbed so much of the senior staff's energy and the governing body was overwhelmed by it. Meanwhile, the school was plodding on, almost waiting. The best approach would be to put in the back-up resources an, if need be, change the head teacher and senior staff to turn the place round. That is where the action takes place, rather than through procedures. I am concerned that areas of deprivation should continue to have their school as a centre of regeneration and renewal for the community rather than it being shut down, with the risk of that community going on the bus—on pre-paid fares—to a school in a middle class area. I want them to have a good education, but it is much better to create community commitment to the school and education.

The right reverend Prelate referred to the Church's attitude. He picked in particular the possibility of inter-faith or joint-faith schools. I welcome that, and perhaps trust that schools are a way forward for developing that possibility. That would make them not faith schools but schools where people of faith come together, including at the heart of the governing body. That is something new for the Churches and faith groups to develop.

I have spoken about the curriculum, teachers and new buildings. On admissions, I like the boldness of the Government's thinking on local authorities but am not clear how it is going to work, particularly with admissions. I worry that the middle classes will work the system rather than parents who have themselves failed in education. I know the Government have in mind that parents should have support from the local authorities; I have one suggestion that may help them, in the context of the school profile, which is part of the innovation. I was engaged in writing a report for the government back in 1993, in which I advocated the
 
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argument that schools were there to add value, and that the best measure of performance was value added. It would be helpful to the parents of kids who do not look like doing well if their school profiles could declare for, say, children who had not achieved level 1 in key stage 1, how they had improved in performance by the end of key stage 2, and similarly, for a secondary school, for those who have come in with, say, level 2 or less in English and maths, how they had done by the end of key stage 3. Parents could then look not at who is top of the GCSE league, but at which schools are good at caring for and helping kids like theirs.

The main point for the Minister is yes, be bold, but test the ground first. You have the futures of our kids in your hands.

1.02 pm

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, has secured this debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, I am enjoying the many excellent speeches—I am sure with more to come. It is a great pleasure to talk about schools; it is one of my favourite topics. Indeed, were I not standing here today there is no place I would rather be than in front of a class of young people in a school somewhere. For about 20 years I taught French and health education—a strange combination—mainly in inner London comprehensive schools, where I was a senior teacher and then an advisor. Today I will raise a few initial points, then move on to describe some conversations I have had recently with head teachers and classroom teachers about how they see the state of our schools.

This Government have done more than any other to improve the lot of children. The seminal document Every Child Matters, setting out the five outcomes desirable for children, is aspirational and inspirational. The Children Act should result in better support for families and children who have the problems of deprivation described so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. The youth Green Paper sets out positive directions, as does the 10-year strategy for learning. There are many other reports I could mention. The drive is to not only to protect children but to enable them to gain self-esteem and self-confidence—surely the heart of any success, be it academic or social. There has been a commitment to raise children and families out of poverty, and improve their lives; Sure Start has sought to enable parents in difficult circumstances to be able to deal more positively with their children, and its impact is still to be seen.

I was at school a long way from Eton and not far from where the noble Baroness on the Opposition Bench was at school. It was in a largely working-class area. I went to the local grammar school where the top stream out of three went on to higher education if they were lucky. Many were not lucky, largely due to a lack of aspiration for them from school and parents, and their own perception of their ability and worth. This experience made me into a teacher, with the sure knowledge that things could be done better. They are
 
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being done better. I do not want just to focus on academic performance—education is far more than academic performance. We must focus on making every school a good school, open to all children in a community. Many people have spoken about the importance of community.

We all know what makes a good school; that was referred to by my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton. It is about strong leadership, a vision for the school, clear goals, good and dedicated teachers supported by good management, a programme of personal, social and health education as well as a range of formal subjects, and the encouragement of aspiration, motivation and self-discipline, with parental involvement and support where possible. External support from an LEA or from expert advice is also valuable. The Audit Office report on improving poorly performing schools, mentioned by several noble Lords, recognises much of this. The report attracted headlines described by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, such as,

Behind the headlines, the report also states that the number of poorly performing schools is reducing, GCSE and equivalent performance in England has improved, and more primary schools are achieving basic numeracy and literacy skills.

I suspect that many pupils fail in schools because they are being failed long before they get to school. Schools have a difficult job in trying to make up for that deficit. Some of the pupils who enter the primary school where I am a governor do not know what a book is, let alone how to turn a page. Some are aggressive toward staff and other children, and have poor social skills. My school is a difficult one, with high levels of poverty and deprivation, and 60 different languages, set in a housing estate in Wandsworth. Yet, the school has those good qualities I described earlier, with a focus on social development. Many children are helped to achieve their potential. Whether this continues into their secondary school, I do not know. We certainly have to look at what happens in the crucial transfer from primary to secondary school.

My school is a strong part of the community. Assistants come from within the community, as do many of the teachers. The school has never been vandalised, despite its setting. Every community should have a good school, and every school should involve the community. It is known from research that being part of a community decreases the likelihood in young people of risk-taking and anti-social behaviour.

I want to say a word on the controversial White Paper for schools: some of it is good, and some of it I have serious concerns about. The White Paper is for the future, whatever that means, and I am talking about now. Let me share with your Lordships some of the things that teachers and head teachers have told me. Of course they have criticisms, but they largely feel that education in schools has improved over the past 10 years. They speak of steady improvement in the professionalism and accountability of the education service. They speak of the consolidation of the
 
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national curriculum, a curriculum of entitlement for all pupils, and a curriculum for the foundation stage of schooling. They speak of the establishment of understood national levels of pupil attainment at the end of each key stage, and the obligation to report on attainment and record pupil progress. They speak of the establishment of SEN legislation and provision beyond mainstream funding. They refer also to the improvement of the careers service with the establishment of Connexions and to the recognition that, with funding, additional support can bring about improved pupil outcomes, for example, through Sure Start, after and before school clubs, holiday activity programmes and out of school activities. They refer also to the provision of an extended curriculum to complement the basic curriculum and to personal, social and health education and citizenship, which I was delighted to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford discuss, although I wish that citizenship and personal, social and health education were part of the statutory curriculum. They refer to the national healthy school standard award, which in my school has involved the community—parents, grandparents, local industry, the police and so on.

Those people refer to improved pay and conditions for teachers and to the establishment of teaching assistants who can deal with small groups in classrooms. They refer to improvements to initial teacher training and the acceptance by the profession of improvement through inspection, reporting and action planning. They refer to the primary strategy, Excellence and Enjoyment, which improves on the literacy and numeracy strategy by making it more creative. They refer to the use of information technology and to the recognition that continuing professional development and attention to the school leadership role for heads, deputies and senior staff is important. I could go on.

Much good practice has developed. A friend of mine, who was the head teacher of a local community school, instituted an access class for pupils arriving from primary schools who have weak skills in literacy and numeracy. The mornings for that group of pupils were taken up with basic skill learning with primary school teachers in the classroom. They were more than catch-up classes. My friend reported that the impact on achievement and the cutting of potential behaviour problems were enormous. My question for the Minister is: how is good practice such as this shared between schools? Is there a formal procedure? Are there informal procedures? If there are no procedures, could we have some?

Again, I am grateful for this debate. We are all keen to improve performance in schools. How we do that will be discussed in more detail in the coming months, but it is certain that a good experience in school contributes to a motivated and a civilised society.

1.12 pm


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