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Speech today on a new paradigm for schools

See video of the speech

My Lords, let me start by reminding your Lordships of my education interests in the register, particularly as one of the chief officers of TES. I thank my noble friend Lady Morris not only for instigating this debate, but for the passion and clarity with which she opened it.

Our schools are struggling, particularly our secondary schools. Four statistics tell the story. We have heard the Institute for Fiscal Studies statistic about an 8% real-terms cut over the last eight years. At TES we have done the calculations as a result of the surge in pupil numbers coming through secondary, and predict that in 2024, this country will be 47,000 secondary school teachers short of what it needs to maintain current pupil-teacher ratios. This week, NHS Digital published statistics which tell us that one in five of 17 to 19 year-old girls in this country self-harm or attempt suicide. An Opinium survey for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth found that 56% of teachers believe that our school system is no longer fit for purpose. I happen to agree. 

What is going on? I commend to your Lordships the BBC2 series “School”, which you can catch up with on iPlayer. It is slightly depressing but insightful. In it we see a head teacher, James Pope, struggling to improve standards at Marlwood secondary school, a rural comprehensive in south Gloucestershire that has been put into special measures by Ofsted, while simultaneously being expected to cut nearly £1 million from his annual budget.

Austerity is biting. Funding reductions mean that schools, as the OECD tells us, are employing younger, cheaper teachers, who are often less resilient. More are now leaving the profession than are joining it; I see from today’s statistical first release that initial teacher training recruitment targets at secondary level were missed again for the sixth consecutive year. What then happens is that reduced local authority support, especially for special educational needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about, creates more problems. Those problems often start with an increase in low-level disruption in the classroom, which grows. Teacher stress then grows and, with that, illness; the Education Support Partnership reports that one-third of teachers in this country have mental health problems. That increases the numbers off sick and the need for more expensive short-term supply teachers and, as a result, behaviour gets worse and learning falls. Teachers start to leave as their workload increases because they are left to do the planning and paperwork that supply teachers do not have to do, and as they struggle, the behaviour management problems grow. 

As teachers leave, the school tries to recruit in the normal way to fill the vacancies, using the usual vacancy service, but finds that the candidates looking for jobs are not there. The school then re-advertises if there is time, or it may have to go to an expensive headhunter. In 2016, PwC reported that the cost of recruiting teachers is rising as recruitment agencies capitalise on the perceived shortage of candidates. Their market share has risen to 25%, at a cost of 65% of school recruitment budgets. If the headhunter fails, the school may ultimately have to get a long-term supply teacher at great cost, and often poor quality. This creates further pressure on budgets, with the promise of free recruitment services delivering a bitter reality, because the candidates are not looking. As a result, the school suffers declining teacher quality, results suffer, the high-stakes accountability system kicks in, followed by parental choice and a collapse in budgets, and the end of the head teacher’s career. This is the spiral of decline, and school and local authority funding cuts are often at the heart of that story. 

We currently see a burning platform of rising pupil rolls coming out of primary into secondary—there will be 500,000 extra secondary school pupils by 2025. There will be fewer secondary teachers; if we are to fill all the maths teacher vacancies with people studying maths at university, we would need to persuade 40% of all maths undergraduates to become teachers, which is impossible. We have a narrowing curriculum, with less subject choice. The 20% cut in sixth-form funding, which my noble friend Lady Morris talked about, is cutting the number of subjects available at sixth form, but I am increasingly worried about this fetishisation of the academic over the applied, because we are training young people to be outperformed by machines. 

If we train young people just to recall knowledge in tests—machines do that better; they are really good at it—computers will take their jobs. We have to remember what it is like for a young person growing up in this country. They are over-tested; they are looking forward to a debt of £50,000 if they choose to go to university, just at a time when employers such as AXA—an insurance company I was talking to someone about today—have done away with graduate recruitment. AXA prefers to source people earlier and train and develop them to meet its individual needs. It is not alone: Apple, Google, Cosco, Starbucks—all these companies, according to Glassdoor, are phasing out graduate-only recruitment because they want more diversity in their workforce. 

The payback on going to university, in exchange for that debt, is starting to diminish. Young people are worried about robots taking the jobs they hope to get if they are successful at university. Their qualifications are starting to be dismissed by employers. No wonder we are facing a mental health crisis among our young people. What most parents want from schools is for their children to achieve according to the cultural norm, to be happy—parents do not want a battle to get them out from under the duvet every morning—and to be able to make a meaningful contribution at the end of the educational journey. That vision for parents is being rapidly eroded by a school system that is not fit for purpose. We have a funding crisis but, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, there is also a lack of hope about that on the horizon. But this is an opportunity for us to build consensus for change in our school system, and for a new paradigm for education. We could even call it a national education service.

We could cut testing. It is estimated that in this country we spend around £2 billion per year on testing in our schools. Let us just say we halve that: £1 billion could go a long way in helping with some of these problems. We should trust teachers more to shape a curriculum that engages young people and uses testing for formative rather than summative purposes as assessment for learning. More applied learning could be inserted on top of a foundation of knowledge and core skills in the curriculum. A more diverse 14 to 19 curriculum could be created, perhaps by abolishing GCSEs at 16 and ending the national curriculum at 14 to free up the years from 14 to 19 for a much more engaging curriculum experience. We should welcome back teachers in creative and applied subjects, so that they can properly develop the whole child; we should reconnect teachers with their vocation, so that they stay in and, at the same time, equip learners to find their vocation in time. 

All this should be underpinned by proper resources, focused on learning and child development, not on testing and accountability. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I look forward also to hearing from the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, and I salute her for having made sure that he Minister is not quite so lonely on his Bench.

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Recharging Rural

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Photo by Rezky Rahmatullah on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago I was sat in the Home Room in the House of Lords having a conversation over dinner about the “digital village”.  

It is a classic wood-panelled room with a long wooden table set for dinner with white table linen, House of Lords crockery and plenty of wine glasses. There were around twenty of us there, including our hosts from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, Lord Don Curry, DEFRA minister Lord John Gardiner, Helen Milner from the Good Things Foundation and representatives from BT and Facebook amongst others.

Such evenings are either a perk of the job or an occupational hazard – depending on how the conversation goes!

There was a slight misunderstanding around the table.  The minister wanted to talk about rural broadband, and the important issue of getting bandwidth to the last settlement.  However most of us wanted a wider discussion about the potential of digital to empower rural communities.

The discussion was informed by a great report that the Fund has commissioned from Professor Sarah Skerratt.  The title “Recharging Rural” echoes the recommendations of making rural communities more sustainable.  The problems are familiar: an aging population with fewer and fewer village amenities.  The conclusions can be summarised around better digital connectivity, better transport infrastructure and more diversity of employment.  

Since then I have been reflecting on what more policy makers could do in using digital to redefine what is possible in peripheral areas.

Anything that is done has to tackle inclusion.  There are still areas and residents with very poor connectivity, and still 11 million people in the UK without the skills and confidence to be active online.  I have also written elsewhere about problems around the readability of the web.  The efforts from government to reduce this exclusion need to continue apace.

Scarcely populated areas struggle to sustain services because, by definition, they can not offer the economies of scale that urban areas can.  But we can now aggregate dispersed populations to create viable rural services using digital.

The rise of Babylon to supplement NHS GP services has been controversial.  Whilst there is every reason to be suspicious of this private sector entrant into NHS primary care, and accompanying worries about personal data security, the core service is certainly interesting.  The notion that NHS GPs in rural areas could offer a similar service is compelling.

Their service has an app interface that allows the patient to talk to an artificial intelligent bot about symptoms which then triages the individual and can connect over video to a human GP 24:7.  The GP can then prescribe, and presumably get a prescription delivered.  If the choice is that, or phoning a triage nurse and either being directed into a hospital some distance away or being given a GP appointment the next day, which would we choose?

Similarly I am no fan of the corporate practices of Uber, but I also recognise a great service.  Could their platform technology be re-purposed to better organise volunteer hospital transport, or Uber Pool technology to create new forms of rural transport?

I now have oversight of Tes Institute, a digital teacher training business.  We have been able to train teachers in a way that was previously inconceivable in far flung places like St Helena and the Isles of Scilly, because we blend a social learning experience online with peripatetic tutors.  

There is no doubt that public service delivery can be transformed with digital innovation to the great advantage of rural areas.  This can significantly help the existing rural population.  But can it make communities more sustainable by shifting their demography?

That is a harder problem to crack.  It is not as simple as installing high bandwidth connections and selling great quality of life and good schools to aspirant entrepreneurs.  Whilst this could go a long way it needs more to trigger a behavioural shift.

I have been interested for some time in shifting thinking away from a sense that urbanisation is inevitable in a post-industrial economy.  The pressures on our great cities are now almost overwhelming as house prices, air pollution and congestion make them harder to sustain.  So why not follow Dave Coplin’s vision from this 2013 RSA talk around flexible working?

If government mandated two or three day a week season tickets on our trains, knowledge workers could come to cities for some of the time and get the benefit of clustering and creative exchange.  But if rural market towns also had flexible working facilities like WeWork (the largest real estate tenant in London, New York and Washington DC), then those people can then work and start businesses in rural communities.  They then support local retail and daytime economy, and get the quality of life of the school drop off and pick up.

All of this points to the opportunity of digital in making rural Britain more diverse and therefore sustainable.  It needs vision and a magpie mentality to steal the best of digital enterprise and bring it to serve the public interest.

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