Education and Inspections Bill (Second Reading)


Wednesday 21 June 2006

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, Thomas Gradgrind famously opens Hard Times by stating his education philosophy:
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them”.

Happily, in these times, I doubt whether anyone in your Lordships’ House would want to see education reduced to the Gradgrind of dehumanised learning by rote. I personally welcome the emphasis that the Bill places on the fulfilment of individual potential and the encouragement of independence and diversity. We do, however, need to be aware that many educationalists and parents believe that in recent years we have been tilting too far towards an over-centralised rigid regime of testing, continuous examination and targeting, as though nothing else will be of any service to our children. Important though it is to put basic levels of attainment in place, there must be scope for a broader view of learning and a more diverse system of education than the one we have today.

One of the reasons why I largely support the Bill is that I think it tilts us back in the right direction. It is a genuine attempt to give greater independence to all schools and, in the Government’s own words, to,

“ensure that every child in every school in every community gets the education they need to enable them to fulfil their potential”.

That is surely the right objective; although, like others, I would like to enter some caveats. I agree with my noble friend Lord Skidelsky, for instance, about the admissions code. I particularly agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said in opening for the Official Opposition when she quoted those words about “deadening uniformity” and the importance of opposing that.

With those caveats, I nevertheless recognise that a new consensus seems to be emerging to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and others have referred during the debate. I think that we should all welcome that. Many of us were beneficiaries of the Education Act 1944, which the then Government promoted on a bipartisan basis. The enlightened Conservative R A Butler was Secretary of State and his Private Parliamentary Secretary was James Chuter Ede, a member of the Labour Party. Their Bill paved the way for the first-ever higher education opportunities for many British families. Like others who have spoken in the debate, I was one of them. For the first time every child in Britain was guaranteed the right to free state education; the leaving age was raised to 15 and the grammar school system entrenched. It was an Act that had its opponents, of course, but bipartisan support saw it on to the statute book and it stood the test of time. Though rather more timid, I hope this Bill will also stand the test of time. Although it has its opponents, I believe it represents a welcome new consensus, especially between the two Front Benches.

Some of the Bill’s opponents have wrongly claimed that trust schools and admissions policies will damage social cohesion. I fundamentally believe that the reverse is true. We should not be afraid of greater independence for schools. This is a far more imaginative approach to social cohesion than the old ideological approach to education which surfaced occasionally during the debates on the Bill in another place. It is a debate, though, that leaves most parents cold. Across the different sectors and experiences there is a universal desire by parents to obtain the best opportunity for their children, to give them the chance to fulfil their individual potential. Those same parents are completely uninterested in the old disruptive and debilitating ideological battles that have disfigured the education debate and that some seem keen to reignite. Parents are far more interested in issues such as bullying, discipline, truancy and low educational expectation and achievement than in ideological attacks on particular kinds of schools, be they faith schools, grammar schools, comprehensive schools or academies. Parents are largely unimpressed by the argument that selection based on the ability to buy a house in a given catchment area guaranteeing access to a high-achieving comprehensive is somehow morally superior to academic selection or to the decision of parents to opt for the independent sector.

Surely what is important is an acceptance that every child is different and that we target their individual needs and help them to fulfil their potential. We became obsessed with the word equality when the real challenge is equality of opportunity and a celebration of different aptitudes and different abilities. Our priority should be to encourage the various arms of education to reach out to one another and simply to build on best practice. Independent schools, for example, make good use of bursars to run the finance of schools. Bursars and administrators could play a much more central part in assisting the work of all schools and free-up teachers to teach. Teachers constantly complain about the additional burdens of accounting, bureaucracy and form filling that takes them out of the classroom. Head teachers in particular need to be freed up so that they can spend more time leading their schools and being present in the classroom.

However, if we need to tilt away from Gradgrind practices that have overburdened teachers and sapped morale we also need to give further thought to one particular group of pupils in our schools—the 30 per cent of pupils who leave education at 16 with few or no useful qualifications. These are not just pupils with special educational needs, for whom some support is available in schools, but a far greater number of ordinary young people who have simply found education difficult. If you were to meet these people later in their lives you would not immediately think of them as having low ability. They may be loving parents, excellent mechanics, first-rate shop assistants, skilful lorry drivers and a host of other careers that are of vital importance to our economic and social life. They do, on the other hand, make up 80 per cent of the prison population and form a large part of the disaffected youth whom so many townspeople fear on their streets at night.

These people have very little voice, although I was delighted to see that their case is now being put eloquently on the website of the Education Policy Network. But these young people do not write in the newspapers or speak in parliamentary debates. Theirs is not a voice heard in the television news, nor do they plan the content of courses at schools and colleges, a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. In schools, many of these young people feel disaffected. Although many of them would find it difficult to articulate their frustrations, clearly they feel a strong sense of injustice at being forced to attend classes that they are almost bound to fail. They develop avoidance tactics: arriving late, ignoring instructions, failing to bring a pen, losing their book, needing a drink or the toilet during a lesson. Teachers report that attendance by pupils in top sets is far higher than for bottom sets.

In addition, low-achieving pupils adopt a set of achievable objectives at which they can succeed—wearing incorrect uniform, cheekiness, idleness, disruption, use of telephone or iPod, and so on. As a consequence the vast majority of discipline handed out by teachers in school is to pupils who find a subject difficult. That has several knock-on effects. Most of the stress that teachers report is primarily caused not by the pressure of the job itself but by the stress caused by constant confrontation with disaffected pupils. The problem of teacher shortages is worst in secondary maths not because there is a shortage of maths teachers per se but because not enough qualified people are prepared to sustain a career that is so stressful.

Society at large tends to blame the teachers, and Governments have repeatedly tried new initiatives to improve maths teaching. However, research at King’s College, London over 30 years has revealed the source of the problem. The higher levels of all subjects, but especially maths and science, require a type of abstract thinking that more than half of 16 year-olds do not have. Continuing to teach a topic when pupils lack the thinking skills is totally pointless. Research that followed a group of lower-ability maths pupils in their first year at secondary until they left school at 16 found that their maths ability steadily declined despite maths lessons every week. They were less able five yeas later.

If noble Lords had to sit week after week in debates that they did not understand and on topics which they thought were totally irrelevant to their lives, I wonder how long it would be before we started to develop the very same types of behaviour that we decry in non-academic young people. At Committee stage or on Report, I hope that the Government will address this issue and seek to amend Part 5 of the Bill. This is a rare opportunity to give an entitlement to all young people that at the fourth key stage, years 10 and 11, the last two years of compulsory education, they will all have the opportunity to follow courses at which they are likely to succeed.

If the Bill were to reflect that challenge, it would obviously benefit the non-academic pupil, but there are benefits at the top end too. For some years now, universities have been grumbling that GCE and GCSE courses have been so dumbed down that the A-level results are now no longer a useful guide to student abilities. I particularly agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said earlier today about the introduction of the international baccalaureate. When before could you get so many benefits—less disruption, more teachers, more skills and higher academic standards—into one initiative in one Act of Parliament? I hope that the Minister will consider that question further.

The most important areas in which non-academic pupils deserve a better course are literacy and numeracy. Employers often complain that these skills are poor among school leavers, so there will be benefits not only for the pupils but for the country too.

The 2006 Education and Inspections Bill may not be as far-reaching as the 1944 reforms but, these quibbles to one side, the Government and this Minister in particular should be congratulated on seeking to raise educational standards, on increasing educational resources, on promoting diversity, and affirming what is good and what works with a cautious desire to do more of the same. Educationalists sometimes quote a Chinese proverb:

“If you are thinking one year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people”.

Our united objective in this House should surely be to think and plan with that objective and time frame in mind.