|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I am certain that if there were proper debate around, for instance, the excellent proposals put forward by Mr Michael Gove on Swedish-style free schools and his welcome remarks expressed as recently as Saturday last about creating a new-look curriculum based on consultation with some of the finest minds in the country and especially his ideas about the teaching of history, modern languages and science, we would doubtless find much common ground. The Royal Society of Chemistry has described the science syllabus as "catastrophic". Surely we should take note and do something about it.
Too many of our schools are far too big. Children disappear into anonymous situations where their childhood is crushed and their potential remains unfulfilled. How much better it would be if our primary schools emulated the preparatory schools of the independent sector and the age of transfer was 13 rather than 11. This would not only allow the immediate reduction in size of too many vast schools but would preserve the innocence of children, allowing them to mature at a better pace. The years 11 to 13 are two of the most productive and fertile years for learning but too frequently youngsters transferring at 11 lose their way in an environment that can become unfriendly and hostile.
For reasons I will detail in a moment, I hope this Bill will be shelved and that we will wait for something that will free schools, respect parents and honour the professionalism of teachers. Before doing so, let me echo a specific concern about the proposals to release sensitive information about young people in the family court, a point raised by my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland. Sue Berelowitz, deputy Children's commissioner for England, was right to say:
Let me turn to the main burden of my remarks, the effect of this new legislation on schools. First, I want to register, as others have done, the strongest possible objection to Clause 26, which seeks to change the way that parents who educate their children at home are to be regulated. The estimated cost of the implementation of this is about £20 million, about £1,000 per home-educated child. This money could be far better spent in other areas of education than in another layer of inspection. Twenty-two per cent of children nationally enjoy private maths tuition, 43 per cent in London. Are they to be legislated for next? Do we not need to ask why parents feel the need to use private tutors or home-educate, or why more than half a million parents opt for the independent sector, or why Cabinet Ministers and political leaders are among the millions who rightly choose faith schools? We should celebrate the diversity of this position and learn from it, not seek to crush it.
Having looked at the arguments, it is hard for me not to conclude that the Badman review on which the relevant clauses in the Bill are based was poorly conducted. Fair and reasonable legislation cannot emerge from a flawed evidential review. There are already laws in place to protect a child where there is a suspicion that children are at risk of harm or that insufficient education is taking place. The Bill's proposals are opposed by the majority of home educators. Of the respondents to the proposal, 4,497 out of 4,833-that is 93 per cent-thought that the proposals did not strike the right balance; 3,281 respondents out of 3,776-that is 87 per cent-disagreed with the proposals for registration and monitoring. Given the Secretary of State's own criterion of giving power to parents, home-educating parents would judge the Bill to be a failure.
Concerns have also been expressed by parents about the scope of the Government's proposals for PSHE. This is my second major concern about the Bill. I agree with my noble friend Lady Howarth, to whom I am grateful for the curtain raiser in her remarks a little earlier, that young people need to have an understanding of sex in relationships, but many parents are anxious that their children should not lose their innocence too young and that teaching about sexual relationships should not seek to eliminate the role and the wishes of parents-a point made by the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Bradford. Loving, long-term relationships, particularly the blessing of a durable marriage and the gift of children, should not be seen as a redundant concept.
At the moment, sex education is taught in a way that provides scope for considerable parental influence on two bases. The first basis is that the curriculum is devolved to schools and determined on a school-by-school basis by governors in consultation with parents. This arrangement means that this particularly delicate subject is taught in line with the ethos of the school that is chosen by parents and that there is scope for parental involvement in determining the curriculum to a degree that would not be possible were it in the national curriculum. Secondly, if parents find themselves in a minority and unable to shape the curriculum as they wish, with the result that the child is to be taught in a way to which they object, they can currently exercise their right to withdraw their child from sex education lessons.
The Bill seeks to take away powers from schools and parents by placing sex education and relationship education-SRE-on to the national curriculum and removing the parental right to withdraw children for the last year at school. How does that sit alongside the rights of parents-a point which the Minister restated today? This trend towards centralisation is confirmed very eloquently by a timely legal opinion from the eminent employment and human rights QC, John Bowers. It states:
"In essence at present the SRE policy and resulting curriculum is not determined centrally by the National Curriculum but on a school by school basis by parents and governors. The Bill therefore
8 Mar 2010 : Column 94
This erosion of the rights of parents should be resisted. First, government rhetoric, certainly during the era of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has quite properly gone very much in the direction of devolving more powers to schools and enhancing parental choice. In the midst of this enlightened trend, the centralising clauses are entirely inappropriate. Secondly, research demonstrates very clearly that SRE works best when parents are more involved. If we are to respond effectively to the evidence base, we should increase not decrease the role of parents in SRE. Decreasing the scope for parental influence is precisely what the Bill would do.
The proposed changes to the right of parents to withdraw their children from such lessons are entirely contrary to the spirit of Protocol 2 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which states that,
Many parents are particularly outraged at this proposal, and at the other main innovation in the Bill, that henceforth primary schools must teach SRE to children from the age of five. This is causing considerable public hostility. Sixty-eight per cent of respondents to the Government's own consultation said that they did not want SRE to be placed on the national curriculum, and 79 per cent of respondents said that they did not want the parental right to withdraw a child to be interfered with. Simply ignoring the views of parents on such a sensitive matter smacks of arrogance and the worst kind of nanny state.
The proposed changes will also put governors and teachers with conscientious objections in an invidious position. Counsel's opinion, which I cited earlier, is that the new impositions may lead to applications, by pressure groups as well as by parents, for judicial review to enforce the relevant duties. It would be unfortunate if the Bill led to an increase in such litigation, thus diverting vital resources away from front-line teaching. We owe a considerable debt of gratitude to the voluntary endeavour of school governors, and we should trust them and not dictate to them.
There is an additional consideration for schools of a religious character. Many parents opt to send their children to a faith school precisely because of the values which it espouses and the ethos which it strives to create. Recent remarks by the Schools Secretary risk undermining the character of those schools and have caused consternation and indignation. Last week, I tabled a Written Question to the Government, indicating my intention to raise this point. It was reported in the media that:
The Minister herself said something similar today at the Dispatch Box. I cannot begin to tell the Minister how much anxiety this has engendered, and not just among Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Anglicans, who as a matter of conscience believe abortion to be the taking of an innocent life.
This is not a trivial matter, and I hope that the Government realise the implications. The Government need to understand that such a fundamental attack on the character and ethos of faith schools will create a crisis of conscience for parents and teachers alike. After their inept handling of the adoption agencies issue, the Government should understand the enormity of this question which they have opened.
As someone who left a political party when it said that abortion had to be a party policy rather than a matter of conscience, I can say with some feeling that Catholics and many others will not meekly accept that their children should routinely be taught how to procure abortions. That is promotion, not information, and the Government really do need to clarify the difference between the two. This is a wholly unacceptable assault on the rights of conscience, beliefs, the integrity of religious foundations, and the integrity of families.
I hope the Minister will assure the House that teachers, as professionally skilled practitioners, will have the discretion and flexibility to teach SRE in ways that are consonant with their identification of the needs and the maturity of their pupils, and that this will be reflected in their ability to choose appropriate materials and strategies, subject to the school's SRE policy as determined by the school's governing body. I hope that the Government will assure us that the level of prescription in the programmes of study for PSHE education, particularly SRE, will not compromise the values of schools with a religious character or require them to promote activities or behaviour that undermine their religious values. I also ask the Government to give similar reassurances on matters of guidance or regulation that they may issue from time to time on PSHE education, and SRE in particular.
To conclude, while I am deeply opposed to the legislation before us, I do not wish to give the impression that I am complacent about the problems that it seeks to address. Our teenage pregnancy rate and levels of abortion among young people are some of the highest in the world, but in looking at the problem we fail to see the elephant in the room. Clauses 10 to 14 are some of the most unenlightened clauses that I have ever encountered in my 30 years in Parliament. They marginalise parents and make life impossible for governors, faith schools and teachers. If the Bill reaches Committee and Report, I intend to lay amendments that challenge many of its aspects. I hope, for the reasons that I have given and because of my other objections to the Bill, that this legislation never reaches the statute book.
The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for her introduction. I apologise for not being able to be present for the first couple of minutes; I was not quick enough to reach the Chamber. I also thank the Government for their significant investment in teaching over several years, and I welcome
8 Mar 2010 : Column 96
I am very grateful for the work that Moira Gibb and the Social Work Taskforce have done for social workers, but I have one slight comment to make, which I hope will be borne in mind for the future. I know that it has been a priority for the Government to address the needs of the workforce, but my sense has been that too many other priorities have sometimes occluded the need to focus on teachers, social workers, health visitors, staff in residential childcare and in other related professions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Verma, spoke of the Conservative commitment to raising the bar in respect of teacher recruitment into courses. I very warmly welcome that. Speaking with two deputy heads of primary schools last week, I found it was exactly what they desired. Another primary school head teacher recently told me that she regretted that, in her own and her staff's limited experience, the quality of candidates in the past five years or so seemed to be declining in terms of numeracy and literacy. So I do welcome what the noble Baroness proposes.
I should like to speak about personal, social, health and economic education within the Bill. As we might not have a Committee stage, I shall try to go into a little depth on it, emphasising three main points. One is the need to prioritise the training of PSHE teachers, because there are so many competing interests in teacher training. Making this a statutory responsibility will help to do that. Secondly, it will reduce the levels of teenage pregnancy. Flowing from that, there is a particular concern that I know many of your Lordships have: the number of black class white boys growing up without fathers in difficult circumstances. I hope that this introduction of better sex and relationship education early in children's lives will help them to make better choices of partners. This will result in more children experiencing the presence of their fathers in their up-bringing.
The quality of the training of teachers has shrunk over many years. When the Minister's parents trained as teachers, they may have had three or four years' training for a Bachelor of Education degree in teaching. But that has gradually declined, and a one-year post-graduate certificate in education has become much more important. There has long been a concern that one year is not enough time to equip teachers with what they need when they enter the school gate. I remember Professor Sir Michael Rutter referring to this when he spoke about child development some time ago at the British Psychological Society.
More recently, for the best possible reasons, more teachers are being trained on the job, so they are not necessarily having access even to the education that is provided in colleges. So we have more teachers who might be better at their specialist subject which is very welcome, but they are not getting the pedagogical understanding that they need to teach well in all subject areas.
I will develop that a little further. I spoke to a teacher who trained in Hungary, who spent several months observing one child, making careful notes of that child's development, and speaking about what she observed with her tutor and her peers. I am not aware of that happening in this country. In Finland, where they have the highest performance in the PISA tables, I understand that the teachers have a five-year qualification. Roughly the last two years are spent either in a range of placements in various schools, so they have a wide experience of what schools are doing, or in pedagogical development and understanding the philosophy of education and child development.
I do feel it is important to prioritise PSHE within this very confined space that teachers have to learn in during their initial training. It is crucial to have good quality PSHE. Teachers must be equipped to teach this difficult subject to children. I am also wondering where the Master's qualification in teaching is now going. I should be grateful for any information that could be provided about the future of this proposal, which is very welcome in principle, that teaching should be a Master's qualification.
In Holland particularly, good quality sex and relationship education appears to have brought down teenage pregnancy rates and kept them down. In the United States, it has taken some time for there to be some demonstrable impact, but a 2008 article by Mueller et al says:
"Our analyses suggest that sex education before first sex helps protect youth from risky sexual behaviors. For population groups that are often considered the most disadvantaged (i.e. urban, African American females), sex education seems to be the most beneficial. Researchers have recently documented the contribution of delayed sexual initiation and improved contraceptive use to the decreased teen pregnancy rate ... findings from our analysis suggest that sex education received before first sex by youth in formal settings may contribute to this positive outcome. Sex education should continue to be implemented in schools, community centers and churches and, to be most effective, should occur before youth engage in sexual intercourse for the first time. Sex education provides youth with the knowledge and skills to make healthy and informed decisions about sex, and this study indicates that sex education is making a difference in the sexual behaviors of American youth".
The UK still has the highest level of teenage pregnancy among its neighbours. There has been a welcome reversal in the upward trend, but we are still performing poorly. We should remember what that means. It means that girls and young women are not completing their education, are often not entering employment, are dependent on the state and do not pay taxes. Those are just the most obvious implications of the high teenage pregnancy rate, but of course the children often suffer as well.
I apologise for taking so long at this time of night. My third point is that I hope that this policy will enable more fathers to keep in touch with their children. If children receive sex and relationship education early so that they learn how to make better choices in their life partners, to think about their emotions and are able to speak about their decisions openly in school with their classmates and teacher, I hope that they will begin to form more committed relationships. As a result more children would have the pleasure of knowing their fathers. Many noble Lords will know of black and white working class men who do not have the
8 Mar 2010 : Column 98
To conclude, I hope that your Lordships will feel able to befriend this part of the Bill, although I know that it may not have a Committee stage. It could make a significant contribution to breaking the cycle of deprivation that we are so familiar with. It will ensure that teachers are better equipped to teach sex and relationships education. It will reduce the rate of teenage pregnancy and will have beneficial outcomes for children, including more boys having ongoing contact with their fathers.
Lord Soley: Perhaps I may begin by welcoming the Government's position on doing something for which I have been arguing for some years: to try to customise and personalise the delivery of public services. Whatever one's views politically, it is an interesting part of the argument that we feel we need to make the public services that people generally want more responsive to individual needs. Whether that is about opening the school down the road-a right the Conservatives want to give and which addresses the issue, although I am not convinced it is a good idea-or the sort of thing set out in this Bill-it is an idea which has been waiting to happen for some time. It is about trying to deliver more effectively the small group and one-to-one teaching needed for some children on some occasions during their educational process. Certainly it is something that I would have welcomed. The idea of personalising services and making sure they address the needs of the child at different stages of his or her development is an important step forward. Although some people may scoff, if we do not start somewhere, we will not catch up with other countries such as Finland, which have been very successful with this. I commend the Government on the proposal.
My main purpose for intervening tonight is on the issue of home education. I put an entry on Lords of the Blog, not at the time expecting it to attract too much attention, saying that, like everyone else, I think that home education requires a great deal of commitment. Although I have nothing against it, it needs to be regulated, and I knew then that the regulatory system in Great Britain is significantly less rigorous than almost any other country in Europe. Even with the proposals in the legislation, it will still be less rigorous than most. Indeed, some countries such as Germany do not even allow home education to take place. There is a broad range of treatment across different countries.
I was interested to see that the piece received a massive response. A post on the blog normally attracts 500 or 600 visits a day. This one attracted thousands, and it went on for a couple of days. You cannot tell what conclusions people are drawing. A person who selects a particular entry on a blog is a bit like someone who picks up a newspaper. They may or may not read it and they will agree or disagree with what they are reading. We cannot know. What we do know is that
8 Mar 2010 : Column 99
We need regulation. My line on the blog was, essentially, that home education is fine; that the majority of parents do it very well; and that it is an enormous commitment in time and resources by those parents. However, we cannot ignore the fact that not everyone does it well or for good reasons. On my first post about this I simply said that there are obvious examples. The first and most obvious one is whether the child is getting the educational standard they need to be able to cope with modern life-basic reading, writing, arithmetic and so on. I then said there was another small, but nevertheless, important problem: was the child taken out of school in order to avoid the attention of the authorities? That means, of course, was the child subject to abuse?
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|