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Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for finding time to introduce this debate and for doing it so well.
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For all the reasons given, we are in her debt. It is also the reason that this, if I may say so, motley crew of party politicians, education gurus and specialists and, as in my case, the odd education "anorak", are here enjoying once more the sharing of insights, and hearing and learning. We thank the noble Baroness for that.
I think it is agreed on all sides of the HouseI certainly agreethat there has been progress in our school system. I consider that this progress has occurred over the past 15 years, at least. There has been real progress, particularly in primary schools. Sure Start is currently moving that forward very significantly. There has been progressI pay tribute here to what used to be called the TTAin the recruitment and training of science teachers. That is immensely important for reasons that have been given. There has also been progress in many individual schools which have moved away from the band of what used to be called failing schools. There has definitely been progress. But, of course, there is agreement that there is never enough progress. We are insatiableespecially those of us who are involved in educationand rightly so. Progress is still on the way; it is on the stocks; it is happening, but it has to move further.
I draw your Lordships' attention to the conditions that have led to some of the progress and the platform on which progress has been made over the past at least 15 years. I believe in the development of a national curriculumnot an interfering and over-detailed one, as it may have been in some casesas an entitlement. It gives an entitlement to all school pupils that they ought to have as the basis of a good education. I believe in national testing and in the measurement of attainment so that we can see what is happening in the system. That, again, is part of the basis for progress. I believe in national inspectionI have declared my interest in that many times in this Housepublished reports and a template of inspection that can be understood throughout the nation. I believe also in increased national funding for schools. It does not do this by itself but often it can make the difference to a school that is in difficulty or struggling.
However, we should note that in all these conditions for progress the word "national" occurs. That is good; it was necessary and it had to happen. The school system had to be seen in a broad national context. However, the fact that these stimuli of progress have the word "national" attached to them has consequences. There are positive consequences in that education is now high in the national consciousness, and that is a good thing. There is public debate and it can be informed debate. It is not always informed debate but it can be. The availability of information and the capacity to see what is going on across the nation help inform that debate. It helps debates here, widely in the public arena and in government. There are national measures of what progress ought to include, although those are not the sole measures. This national emphasis provides the possibility of making diagnoses at national level about what is happening in
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the system as well as in individual schools. However, there have been negative consequences. I want to draw attention to those because the tension between the positive and the negative consequences is the proper focus of much of our attention and is the point at which disagreements occur.
The most difficult negative consequence for me is that this emphasis on the national has led to action and planning that are based on a one-size-fits-all mentality and approach. That is the downside of basing things so clearly on national statistics and national reports. That measure has led tothis is also a negative consequencethe danger of detaching education strategy and direction from local context. In some cases, that has been the real effect of it. Contexts are different and areas have different problems. Unfortunately, it has resulted also in the disenchantment of many teachers. They feel that the initiative has been taken from them as regards delivering what they do best, and as regards what was the object of their profession and, indeed, calling. Not long ago I met a fellow pupil from my state primary and my secondary school. According to all that I heard, he was a very good maths teacher in a school in the east of Scotland. I asked him how his job was going. He had been at the game for more than 30 years. He replied, "I still love it". Like the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, he still enjoyed standing in front of a class. However, he added, "But they are on my back. They won't let me get on with teaching. They are for ever having a new initiative, a new set of forms to fill in and a new set of procedures". He knew what teaching was about and he was a good maths teacher, but he is an example of the disenchantment of teachers. In some ways the worst consequence of what I have described is that we have had serial national initiatives ever since. That is a great danger and this addiction that we seem to have is disturbing the profession.
If these negative consequences are the result of good initiativesI believe that they were good initiativeswhat are we to do about them? I have a specific suggestion. I see signs of this in the White Paper, but I will not comment on it in detail. I urge that we move from paying proper attention to the profile of individual schools to requiring a plan from them on how they are to deliver in their community, catchment area and arena the education objectives that we all share. Sorry, this sounds like another national initiative but I will qualify its impact. We should recognise that there would be positive consequences of their being asked to do that. First, it then becomes a responsibility of the schools once again to say, "This is the need that our community and the pupils in this school have". That may be different from the very specific needs of other areas. Indeed, as you travel round the country, you discover that they are different.
Once again the initiative would be given to teachers, head teachers and governors. The responsibility would clearly lie with schools to say, "This is how we see the developments taking place".
I would go further and say that school plans should be a factor in funding, because this in the end is the stimulus that everyone pays attention to. If there is to
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be, and there has been, additional funding for schools across the country, perhaps some of the additional money could be attached to the quality of the plan that the school comes up with and to the difficulties that the school is now clearly perceived to be facing and that are not necessarily shared by other schools. In other words, instead of a percentage per pupil type of formula, an element of the funding formula would be the plan, what it reveals about the school and the confidence of the funderI will come back to that in a momentin the ability of the school to deliver.
A benefit of this is that it would focus the provision of education in that community and catchment area. Many of my noble colleagues have made such reference, but there are areas of deprivation in our land. Of course there are. If you look up the statistics, the areas of deprivation include poor school performance, poor health, poor employment, difficulty in longevity, difficulty with housing and so on. They all go together. They are in the same postcodes.
I am not suggesting that it is the role of schools to solve the problems of the whole community. They cannot do that. That is not their job. They do not have the expertise or the funds. What I am suggesting is that a proper educational question in that school is, granted these circumstances, how to deliver the shared objectives. That is what the plan would focus on.
There are differences, which are not simply a matter of the deprivation indices I referred to. Some schools, as we know well, have many languages to cope with, some only one. That makes a difference to what the educational provision and practise should be. Some have high incidence of turnover, sometimes because of immigration, sometimes because they are on the route of travelling communities. That raises a series of different questions. How do you deliver education to a pupil who might be there every year for a few months, then off again? If your school has that as part of its catchment, your plan should reflect the fact; I also refer to different ethnic and cultural groupsagain reference has been made to themand parenting.
If I have a fault with the White Paper, it is that it sometimes delivers too much confidence in terms of what parents will deliver. As we have said several times in the debate, parents in middle class areas will deliver exceptionally well. If you talk to head teachers in areas of great difficulty, many of them will tell you that their problem is finding a parent. Sometimes there are not any, sometimes there is only one, sometimes there is a changing team, but getting them into the school and interested in their children is a major problem. Such a school should reflect that in its school plan. The good ones do, but they are doing it on the margins; they are not doing it with the help of the community or, possibly, of the funders.
The benefits of such a plan would be in taking these factors into account and in looking at the way the school might deliver. A plan sets national aspirations in a local context. I wholly agree with the sorts of proposals my good friend, the right reverend Prelate
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the Bishop of Oxford, was making about the need for initiatives in the area of faith schools. This would be precisely one way in which this could be carried throughby allowing and supporting funding to follow plans to deal with this. Lastly, although I cannot deal with this now, there is the possibility of syndicate plans, covering more than one school, where areas need the co-operation of several schools if their difficulties are to be met.
In summary, school plans are a way ahead and need to be examined further. Not all are ready, and this is where piloting would be very important. It might well be that we look to pilot examples of how this is to be done and developed. This too would be a way in which the Government could look at the question of how funding might be delivered.
Many will say that the great risk of the proposal is anarchy. The plans have to be evaluated and funding set alongside them. There are only two options: one is the LEAs and the other is what I would refer to as a federal funding council"federal" for obvious reasons, which I cannot spell out now. One or other would have to be chosen. Inspection would be against the plan, and that would be a specific and helpful focus for inspectors. Most importantly, it is a move from "one size fits all" and the search for the holy grail of another serial initiative.
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