Gender Pay Gap

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My noble friend is absolutely right. Last June, DWP published an official measure of the gender pensions gap, which is currently 35% in private pensions. The reforms that we brought in will mean that 3 million women will benefit by more than £550 per year by 2030 and that the gender pensions gap will equalise by the early 2040s—more than 10 years earlier than under previous legislation.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, following the previous supplementary question, I think the Minister was referring to achieving equality in state pensions. The big problem—and what is leading to most of the gender pension gap—is the difference in the caring responsibilities, with most unpaid care undertaken by women. The Minister is correct that the Government have identified the problem; can she give a commitment to come up with a worthwhile solution?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As I have already said, the Government are working on a number of different aspects of this. Obviously, a critical part in relation to maternity leave—and the impact that, as the noble Lord rightly says, one can see on the gender pay gap —is our huge commitment to expanding the childcare offer, so that no women will be unable to return to work for lack of childcare support.

Schools: Financial Education

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Wednesday 31st January 2024

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sater, for introducing this important debate. I agree with most of what has been said. Clearly, more must be done and the schools have an important role.

At the risk of being a bit of a grouch, I will say that we must recognise the limitations of financial education. It is important that most of our most important financial decisions, the most complex and difficult, tend to be long-term, such as deciding what pension you will have, what sort of mortgage or what to do with an inheritance, should you receive one. These decisions will be taken long after those involved have left school. Of course, good education involves practice, but you cannot practice taking a pension. The nature of what you teach in financial education should be focused on familiarity rather than the actual decisions that are taken in particular circumstances.

I will just add that I sometimes think that legislators cheerfully place difficult financial decisions on people—freedom of choice in pensions is the one I have in mind, but I am sure there are other examples—because they think people will be financially educated. A policy that requires everyone to be financially educated is a bad policy.

Schools: Financial Literacy

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 20th April 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My noble friend makes a very important point. Risks relating to gambling are part of the RSHE curriculum and there are two main aspects of this. One is supporting pupils to manage risk and make informed decisions in relation to their mental well-being and their behaviour online. The second area relates to internet safety and harms and addresses exactly my noble friend’s point: pupils are taught about the risks relating to online gambling, including how advertising and information is targeted at them, the risks of accumulating debt and how to be a discerning consumer of information online.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I am glad that the Minister stressed the importance of mathematics in this context. Will she take the opportunity to inform the Prime Minister that it is facile to suggest improving maths in our schoolchildren without paying mathematics teachers enough money to encourage them to join and stay in the teaching workforce?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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I have to say that I do not really have any intention of saying to the Prime Minister that his plans are facile. More importantly, I point the noble Lord to the pickup in recruitment of maths teachers following our interventions over the last three years.

Higher Education: Financial Pressures

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 30th March 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, central to this debate is the failure to invest enough in our higher education system. Consequently, we have to restrict the number of domestic students relative to the number of those from abroad, because universities lose money on domestic students. In other words, UK universities are supporting the nation’s science and further education ambitions through the income that they receive from international fees. This is inherently an unpredictable and risky platform on which to provide a higher education system.

There are more particular problems. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, referred to the uncertainties surrounding the Turing scheme. This particularly affects students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are particularly vulnerable to this uncertainty. Universities face myriad funding pressures in pursuing their mission and sustaining academic excellence, but having fees frozen at £9,250—which, as my noble friend has already explained, in real terms is now equivalent to only £6,500—means that they simply do not have the money to cover the cost of courses, in particular the cost of STEM subjects. The fact that student fees have been stuck at this level for some years, for the reasons that we understand, coupled with inflation, mission creep—additional responsibilities being placed on institutions—the pressure from industrial action, and so on, means that universities are experiencing a damaging squeeze on their finances. Coupled with the cost of living crisis, the lack of resources means that that there is inevitable damage to the important objectives of increasing social mobility and local community engagement. This is despite universities’ regulatory requirements to spend part of their tuition fee income on widening participation.

There is a growing risk to social mobility if, for pragmatic reasons, universities have to make hard decisions to recruit fewer domestic students relative to international students or have to spread their limited bursary and hardship funds over a thinner entry. The ability of universities to collaborate with local government and third-sector partners is also being strained, in large part by the budgetary pressures on would-be partners, particularly in deprived communities with lower social resilience capacity, during this cost of living crisis.

Turning to research and innovation, there are intense funding challenges on universities in sustaining their infrastructure and talent pools. The challenge that we face is that virtually all forms of research run as a loss-making activity that must be supported by teaching and, in turn, as has been explained by myself and other speakers, that is dependent on overseas students. Having an internationalised learning community brings immense cultural and academic benefits to campuses, but there are systematic risks of universities becoming overly dependent on particular countries’ markets at a time of rising geopolitical tension and geostrategic competition. The risks are clear. For example, if relations with China were to deteriorate, we would be in a very challenging position. Does the department have a plan to cope with this situation if we hit such problems?

Sir Paul Nurse’s recent review recommended increases in the full economic cost recovery provided by competitively allocated research grants and an uplift in the block grant QR funding. He also highlighted underlying issues with the precarity of early career research pathways that are in large part a corollary of short-termism in the way public funding works, leading to pressure and stress on those involved.

As the Financial Times has reported, universities are having difficulties in the initial phase of the Turing scheme, with shortfalls in expected annual allocations and delayed payments, in some cases leading to places not being taken up. The inability of universities to provide certainty about funding to students only compounds the problems for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, undermining their willingness and ability to pursue opportunities.

Finally, it is vital to a world-class UK research and innovation endeavour that the UK enjoys broad access to Horizon Europe. The real prize here is not access to the funding pool, but the huge, collaborative multiplier benefits of working with leading scientists and researchers across Europe and leading on multi-country researcher consortium bids. As the House will be aware, British universities have already experienced challenges in recruiting world-class researchers because of the enduring climate of uncertainty over participation. It is not just Horizon that has given problems; the sudden withdrawal from collaborative research funded by the Official Development Assistance programme two years ago also hit the UK’s reputation. As has been pointed out recently in the Times Higher Education supplement, much of the damage, coupled with the broader effects of Brexit, has already been done and will be hard to recover from. Nevertheless, a return to Horizon in a timely and efficient manner is vital to the UK’s ability to attract and retain leading British and global research talent and investment.

Education (Non-religious Philosophical Convictions) Bill [HL]

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I join other noble Members in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for introducing the Bill and giving us the opportunity to debate an important subject. I put my name down to speak simply to express my strong support for the Bill, which comes, in part, from guilt: when I was a leading member of the largest education authority for a number of years, we never confronted this issue, even though I had the same views at that time as I have now. We did that because it was seen as being too difficult to deal with. I am sorry for that; we should have raised the issue, and maybe if we had, action along the lines of the Bill might have been taken earlier. I strongly support the Bill and the arguments that have already been made by more able speakers than me; I associate myself totally with them.

In a sense—a point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—the Bill is not necessary because the argument has already been won, both in principle and in practice: religion is already taught in many schools in the way that is suggested in the Bill. That is the point. It is really bad to have a practice in our schools that is out of line with the legislation; let us bring them into line, through the Bill, as is happening in many schools.

The key to this is that views have been changing since the current structure was created. The suggestion is that religious traditions in Great Britain are, in the main, Christian, and we have the advantage of the latest figures from the national census: in London, 41% are Christian, 25% have other religions, and 34% have no religion. Those figures come from answering a census question. We know that, in truth, people say that they are Christian out of habit rather than that being what they actually believe. In my own London Borough of Lambeth, 38% of people have no religion. That is reflected, in practice, by what is happening in schools. Let us bring the law in line with what everyone thinks should be happening.

I have one additional thought. The opposite of religion is no religion, and that is the basis upon which it should be taught as part of the worldview curriculum. I strongly believe that religion should be taught in our schools but it must be taught in context, including the context of not having religious views. There is a difference between humanism and non-religion; they are not coterminous. The ability not to have any religious or humanist views is an option. We need the curriculum to reflect the ability to have philosophical views without the folklore.

Vulnerable Teenagers

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Thursday 26th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I join with previous speakers in expressing my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top for initiating this timely debate on an important subject, and also, serendipitously, securing time for us to develop our arguments adequately. Too often we have three-minute speeches; the 12-minute speeches that we have had so far have illustrated the importance of giving people time to talk and develop their ideas.

Now, there is no doubt, given the strength of the report, that the Government need to respond positively to its recommendations. I look forward to the response from the Minister, and I hope that we are not too disappointed. I support strongly the approach of the commission, and its specific recommendations. There is one point that I think could be developed, which I will come to in a moment, but I trust that that is not in any way taken to suggest a lack of support for the measures it proposes. Other speakers have highlighted particular issues; the background to many of the problems we face is poverty, and I am glad to see the report’s recommendation 4:

“Help young people and their families out of poverty”—


as was stressed by the right reverend Prelate.

To mention another, more specific issue, I very much agreed with the contribution of my noble friend Lady Blower on school exclusions. I support the recommendation in the report for the Government to promote a new era of inclusive education, ending the culture of exclusion and helping all children to succeed in their education. I hope therefore that we get a positive response from the Government to the call for a new era of inclusive education. It has to be acknowledged that it comes with a cost: it is not cost-free, it is not a change of attitudes, it is actually putting the resources in to enable schools to deal with all their children.

The main issue I want to address is the mental health of children, of young children in particular. The report is subtitled:

“A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation, and harm”,


so, reasonably, it focuses explicitly and implicitly on teenagers and what happens in secondary schools. But the simple point I wish to make is that it is so much better for the individual children concerned, the education system and society in general to help children who are at risk of problems with their mental health in primary schools. It is an unfortunate truth that too often it is too late or, at best, much harder to resolve problems by the time children have become teenagers. The report points out:

“The transition to secondary school can often escalate difficulties and be a trigger to greater risks”,


but this acknowledges that the problems are already there. They should be addressed at that age and not left to escalate.

The report’s findings demonstrate the need for a collaborative approach to children’s mental health services between schools, health services, local authorities and the police. In addition to this interorganisational approach for at-risk children, we need legislation to make access to early intervention for children and young people a statutory requirement. By providing early intervention and support when young children show signs of mental distress, or children are at risk, we can not only help break the cycles of exploitation and suffering for individuals but reduce the overall impact—indeed, the cost—to the economy.

I am sure I do not need to spend much time making the case for more action on improving mental health. More than £2 billion is spent annually on social care for people with mental health problems, with the wider cost being estimated at over £118 billion across the UK through lost productivity and informal care costs. As the report explains, mental health problems also add considerably to the workloads of our education, criminal and justice systems.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand that half of lifetime mental health problems start before the age of 14. It is therefore unfortunate that spending by local authorities on early intervention services for children and young people was cut by half between 2010 and 2020, when it is a growing problem. The Good Childhood Report 2022 shows that

“children’s happiness continues to decline. Young people are on average less happy with their life … than ten years ago.”

That is from the Children’s Society. NHS figures show that more than 700,000 children and young people were in contact with mental health services in the 2021-22 financial year, compared with a little over half of that only four years ago. The number of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—has more than doubled since 2019, with resulting long waiting lists and, unfortunately, one in five referrals being turned away with no signposting to alternative sources of support.

The outcome of all this is that seven out of 10 children who experience mental health problems do not receive appropriate help early enough. Alarmingly, we are told that there is an average 10-year delay between young people first experiencing their symptoms and receiving the help they need.

It is unfortunate that the Government do not appear to understand the scale of the crisis. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was asked recently about plans to bring forward legislative proposals on early intervention measures to help safeguard the mental health and well-being of young people. The response was that there are no plans to do so.

There must be concern that currently there are no statutory measures in place to guarantee essential early intervention for children and young people who are developing mental health problems. The forthcoming mental health Bill will be an opportunity to change this, but so far the draft Bill focuses almost exclusively on crisis intervention.

Rather than developing strategies for early intervention, we have gone backwards over the past decade. Expenditure on late intervention increased over the 10 years from 2010 to 2020, from £5.7 billion to £8 billion. But how much of that increase was because expenditure on early intervention more than halved, from £3.8 billion to only £1.8 billion?

A 2014 report by the LSE and Rethink Mental Illness found that early intervention could equal a net saving of almost £8,000 per person over four years. Over a 10-year period, £15 in costs could be saved for every £1 invested in early intervention. There is therefore overwhelming evidence that early intervention is effective for society and for the individual and produces the greatest impact, leading to happier, more productive and more fulfilled lives. When we come to teenagers, the subject of this report, early intervention means when they are of primary school age.

It is so distressing how often we hear now of extremely dangerous and harmful behaviours exhibited by teenagers as young as 13 or 14, who mere months before were children and who had perhaps already been moved out of mainstream education and were already known to local police. The report describes excellently how the younger children in these communities are

“starting to follow the group around and mimic their behaviour.”

It is more important than ever that we have a workforce delivering professional psychological support to these groups earlier, when they are children. They should get the care they need when they first exhibit risky behaviour or first start mimicking older children in their communities who are behaving dangerously.

To conclude, I hope that we can continue to push for expert mental health support before the teenage years to be taken seriously as a preventive measure, instead of allowing issues to escalate and entrench, casting long shadows from childhood into young adulthood.

School Meals: Funding

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Tuesday 13th December 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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As I said in answer to an earlier question, the percentage of children receiving free school meals is at an all-time high. If one takes benefit-related free school meals and universal infant free school meals, over one-third of all pupils in this country—37.5% of pupils in state-funded schools—receive free school meals. The Government keep this policy under review at all times, but there are no current plans to extend free school meals to all those receiving universal credit.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, to pursue the point on the advantages to children’s education of being well fed, this has been known for many years. Does that not lead inexorably to the conclusion that all children require a decent education, so we need to ensure that all children are well fed? It is not just about poverty relief; it is not just about nutritional standards; it is about ensuring that all children get a decent education.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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This Government are absolutely committed to all children getting a decent education—but, as I said in response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Storey, we believe that parents also understand that very well.

School (Reform of Pupil Selection) Bill [HL]

Lord Davies of Brixton Excerpts
Friday 2nd December 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support this important and timely Bill. I thank my noble friend Lady Blower greatly for introducing it. It has not actually been much of a debate so far; the speeches have been remarkably one-sided. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply, but that one-sidedness reflects the situation we are in.

This debate is timely. This week saw the launch of an active campaign on the issue, Time’s Up for the Test. It is important, in the sense that it raises the profile of this issue. Those involved in education will be conscious that there has come a time when this issue will need to be confronted; it cannot be tucked under the carpet any more. The mission statement of Time’s Up for the Test says:

“We want the remnants of the discredited secondary school system which dates back to the 1940s to be swept away. Nowhere in England should young children be divided on the basis of some ill-conceived perception of intelligence. The 11+ should be abolished and every child should have the right to attend a comprehensive school.”


I could not put it any better myself, so I am happy to quote what it says. We are talking about comprehensive education. The basis is that all children benefit from a fully comprehensive education; that is education in its wider sense—not just exams but how you learn to live in society.

Earlier in the week, the Prime Minister, in answering a question, referred to parental aspiration. All parents have aspirations for their children; it is only a subset who have the money to support those aspirations. If you really want to aspire then comprehensive education is best for all.

It is important not to underestimate the significance of selective education. There are still 11 local authorities that the Department for Education designates as being highly selective—that is where more than 25% of pupils attend grammar schools. The Department for Education’s own figures show that schools in highly selective areas have the lowest attainment, statistically below the national average. There is no evidence that the high-attaining children gain any advantage but clear evidence that those who find it more difficult to attain a high standard of education do worse. It is one-sided.

We have had some figures and I shall cite some more, from the Comprehensive Future website. Noble Lords can look them up and do their own due diligence. I think they are compelling. One that has already been mentioned but should always be referred to concerns free school meals. They are underrepresented in grammar schools, with just 5% of grammar school pupils taking free school meals, while the average in non-selective schools in selective areas is 23%; that is 5% against 23%. Where is the equity in that? The pupil premium is an alternative measure of disadvantage. It is based on eligibility for free school meals at any point in a pupil’s school life. Grammar schools’ intake is made up of around 8.3% of pupils entitled to the pupil premium compared to a national average of 27.6% for disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools; that is 8% against 27%.

All this goes back to the total failure of the test, as has been mentioned. The test is a test of social selection. It is not a test of innate educational ability. For example, those born in September or October have an inherent advantage over those born in July or August. What justice is there in that? It also benefits those with parents who can afford the all-pervading tutoring that is now available. The figures are compelling. I conclude by emphasising that the superior results, to the extent that there are superior results, in grammar schools reflect the ability of the intake and not the success or otherwise of grammar schools’ ability to educate children.

Times Education Commission Report

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Thursday 13th October 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

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Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for promoting this debate and the Times group for promoting the commission. It has drawn on an impressive array of talent, experience and knowledge and, as has been mentioned, the tone of the report is one in which we can all seek value. The commission’s proposal for a national conversation and a long-term strategy for education is very welcome, so long as those who work in schools and colleges have a central role in the process.

This has not been a party-political debate, but it is worth pointing out that—the Minister may wish to respond to this—for anyone reading the report, it is clear that it is another indicator of the gap between what the Government are doing and what we all agree needs to be done. The Minister will perhaps tell us what positive steps will be taken to move towards the general agreement about what can be achieved. I have to admit that I am not absolutely sure what the gap is between the recommendations in the report and what the Labour Party will do when it comes to power, but that is perhaps a separate issue.

I wish to highlight a few issues from the report. I think we are all agreed, everyone is clear, that investing in early years is the most important thing we can do. The report recommends

“A significant boost to early years funding targeted at the most vulnerable and a unique pupil number from birth, to level the playing field before children get to school.”


Everyone is agreed; everyone knows that; we just have to start moving towards it.

An expanded Ofsted—a replacement, if we want to use that word—is also to be welcomed: a fundamental reassessment of its role, so that it is there not to promote league tables but to provide practical assistance for schools in delivering their service. There is general agreement, again, on rethinking our exams system. I sometimes feel we are a bit imprisoned by the use of the word “baccalaureate”, because it means different things to different people, but I think the report is clear about what it has in mind in this area. The emphasis in the report on promoting creativity is also very much to be welcomed, although I have to say I sometimes worry about the implied division between creative subjects and other subjects, because if all subjects are not being creative, then they are being done wrong. These are bold and large-scale measures that will be supported by all educators, and we welcome the recognition that they are part of the solution.

As has been mentioned, the report was unanimous among a disparate group. Well, one of the ways of achieving unanimity on this sort of commission is by leaving subjects out, and there are two issues that I think should have played a bigger role in the work of the commission. The first is the damage that is done to children’s education by rising levels of poverty. We are aware that the children of poor families do poorly at school. Part of that problem can be addressed by what is being done in the school, and that is addressed in the report, but of course there is a previous question about why they are poor in the first place. What needs to be done to reduce poverty in families?

The second issue that has not had enough attention in the report is the deeply flawed system of primary assessment. The commission rightly says that the current assessment system

“has become a dead hand on education that is sucking the energy out of schools, stifling teachers and condemning too many young people to the scrap heap.”

It analysed the problem; I do not think it has done quite enough to set out how it can be addressed. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister would say something in her reply.

The main issue I wish to raise is the issue of girls and maths, physics and engineering. Someone said:

“From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy. They don't want to do it ... There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do.”


So said Katharine Birbalsingh, chair of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission and a secondary school head teacher, to the Commons Science and Technology Committee. Comments like this are extremely disappointing. There are multiple reasons why girls do not choose to study physics at A level, or for a degree, and not wanting to do maths is not one of them. It is worth exploring in some detail why the progress that has been achieved in getting girls to do maths has not been reflected in getting girls to do physics. The evidence shows that the expectations placed on pupils by society play a large role in which students go on to take physics at higher levels. A popular example is the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, which had four male physics and engineering students leading. Only in subsequent episodes were young women introduced.

The ASPIRES project found that, from age 10 to 18, boys were significantly more likely than girls to say that their teacher expected them to do well in science, and to feel that their teacher was interested in whether they understood science. The research found that girls often did not feel “clever enough” to do physics, even though girls achieve similar grades to boys in mathematics and physics. The stereotype is that boys are naturally better at physics than girls, and this messaging is still being passed on, both intentionally and unintentionally, to our young people in school, in their home lives and through the media. This is not just me saying this; the Institute of Physics has done the research, and its Limit Less report found that girls are often told that physics is more suited to boys.

Young people are put off studying physics from age 16 by misconceptions about what physics is. Girls are told that physics is too difficult, not creative or boring, but the report also shows that young people are denied the opportunity to study physics because of the prejudice I have emphasised. Another report from the Institute of Physics shows that in single-sex schools, a greater proportion of girls took physics than in co-educational schools across both the state and private school system. In environments where gendered messaging is lessened, the participation rate of girls increases. So, we need to increase awareness among children at school of gendered stereotyping in subject choice and equip them with the tools to be resilient to this. We also need to provide training to support teachers’ awareness of the damage caused by gender stereotypes, and to provide them with resources and tools to combat them.

I am not totally pessimistic about the prospects for advance in this area. In my own profession, the actuarial profession, the position of women has been immensely improved over the last 20 years, with new actuaries coming through virtually in equal proportions, and many women now taking leading roles in the profession. So, we can achieve change in this sort of area.

The specific problem with girls not taking physics is the knock-on effect that they do not take engineering at university because, in practice, most universities require you to have a physics A-level before you can do engineering. So, if you have not done physics, you do not get in to do engineering. This is the central problem that needs to be addressed.

I have only one other issue to raise in passing: school meals are also not mentioned in the report. What is clear is that school meals are important to education. It is not just about poverty relief or helping poor families; it is about improving children’s education. We found that out 30 years ago, when my colleague, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and I fought to provide free meals in our schools. The advantages were clear and absolute, but because we were an education authority, we could do it only for educational reasons. We got a very powerful legal opinion from a future Lord Chancellor and a future Prime Minister, who provided us with clear and powerful advice to that effect. That advice still stands: providing free meals in schools to some extent—I would provide them for all—has a powerful educational effect. There is nothing in the report about that at all, which is a shame.

Schools Bill [HL]

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Portrait Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab)
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My Lords, I have two amendments in this group and support my noble friends Lady Chapman and Lady Morris in their Amendments 171H and 171U. I have seen at first hand the huge value of the Birmingham Education Partnership, which my noble friend Lady Morris has led, and the impact that it has had on schools. On this issue of who in education can talk to some of the other sectors, the Minister will know that my principal interest is in health. I have mentioned a couple of times, particularly in relation to mental health, the need for the education sector to have a strong voice around the table of the new integrated care partnerships and integrated care boards that the health service has now established. I do not know who in education in Birmingham will do that, unless we have my noble friend, and have the Government recognising that it has a very valuable role to play. I hope that the Minister will consider this between now and Report, whenever that is—perhaps she will say when Report will be, though I am not hopeful of that.

Turning to my Amendments 171T and 171W, earlier in Committee we had a lot of debate about academisation and the role of parents in schools. Many noble Lords referred to what I can only describe as the chaotic nature of the admissions system to secondary schools, particularly when it comes to academies, where parents are faced with multiple application forms and details of schools. This is bewildering to them and not in the best interests of children. My amendments are an opportunity to strengthen the rights of parents and to increase the public accountability of schools by setting out straightforward, practical changes, to simplify the confusing system of redress that is currently faced by parents and carers if they raise concerns about their child’s education. I am very grateful to my noble friends Lord Davies and Lady Blower for their support, and to my noble friend Lady Chapman for what she said in her introductory remarks, particularly in relation to the admissions system.

The changes that I am proposing can be delivered easily and at low cost, through the logical extensions to the existing remit of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. My noble friend Lady Morris has said that the principle is important and that who does it is a secondary consideration. I accept that, but the Local Government Ombudsman has an important role to play, having had a tried and tested mechanism to remedy public complaints and to improve local services for nearly 50 years. The ombudsman’s remit already includes many education and school-related matters.

My Amendment 171T would enable parents to seek an independent investigation into complaints about admissions to academies if they think that their child has been wrongly denied access to their preferred choice of school. Prior to the introduction of academies, parents had the right to bring complaints about defects in school admissions processes to the local ombudsman. Over many years, this has been a robust system. Indeed, the ombudsman published one of its regular reports just last week, highlighting shortcomings in the admissions process at a popular and oversubscribed school in Surrey. Its intervention resulted in a fresh appeal for the pupil involved and an undertaking from the school to review and improve its system for others in future. It is a practical, transparent and proportionate system that has been proven to work well for parents, pupils, and schools.

However, since the introduction of academies—and we are on a pathway to full academisation by 2030—the complaints process for school admissions has become increasingly disjointed. Although complaints about admissions to maintained and voluntary-aided schools continue to be investigated by the ombudsman, complaints about academy admissions must be addressed to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, a body which does not have the same powers, purpose or independence as the ombudsman. This means that, in practice, parents with concerns about one of their most important decisions regarding their child’s education are potentially faced with navigating two entirely different complaints systems through two entirely different bodies. This amendment will remove this needless complexity by bringing academy and free-school admissions within the single scope of the ombudsman, and we can restore the previous one-stop arrangements for parents and carers.

Amendment 171W proposes an equally practical but perhaps an even more important extension to the rights of parents and pupils: the right to complain about what goes on within the school itself. It is remarkable that schools are one of the only public services in this country for which there is no completely independent right of complaint and redress. People have a statutory right of access to an independent investigation into complaints about their local council, the police, the Armed Forces, the health service, universities, and central government departments, but not about schools.

There is an in-house schools investigation service that operates within the Minister’s department, and which looks at complaints about local authority-maintained schools. There is also a separate academy complaints service run by the ESFA. However, these services are limited in their scope. They are mainly responsible for checking whether schools have followed the required complaints procedure. They do not carry out a fresh investigation into the substance of the issue that was complained about. They do not come to an independent view on whether there has been fault, and they cannot provide a remedy for parents or pupils.

I am not critical of the staff who carry out the current arrangements. However, those arrangements fall a long way short of the rights and redress available in most comparable sectors. My amendment would provide a comprehensive and genuinely independent schools complaints service simply by extending the functions of the ombudsman. It is important to note that this is not a novel or untried proposition. This is a role that the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman already performs with great success. It is a duty that was previously piloted by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman in England under the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. Unfortunately, the 2010 election intervened, and the function was not implemented, but it was thoroughly tested at that time in schools across 14 local authority areas.

There is support from the Commons Education Committee for an extension to the ombudsman’s remit so that it might look more effectively at the support given in schools to children with special educational needs. If that is right, and if the committee is right, if it makes sense to extend that to SEND children, then surely it makes sense to extend it to all children in all schools, whatever category. I very much hope that the Minister can consider this.

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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My Lords, I support these amendments, particularly Amendments 171T and 171W, to which I have added my name. The case has been set out extremely clearly by my noble friend Lord Hunt, but it is worth emphasising the logic of the proposed change.

To a parent faced with one of the most difficult decisions in relation to their child—choosing a secondary school—it is incumbent on us to make that process as simple and as clear as possible. Unfortunately, because of how the system has developed, that is currently not the case. We have the extraordinary circumstances that in some local authorities the appeals system for academies is run jointly with the local authority. A parent may have applied to a maintained school and to an academy and been dissatisfied with the result but then discover that there is one system of appeal for the maintained school and another system of appeal for the academy, which cannot make sense.

It is reasonable to propose that the ombudsman has considerable experience in the tried and tested process of reviewing problems with school choice. My noble friend said that who should do the job is not an issue of principle, but the ombudsman is there and has been doing this work. It would be wrong to make the system of appealing against school decisions out of line with the generality. If people have a complaint, they should know where to go and should not have the barrier of figuring out which is the appropriate appeal body. There is considerable justification for allocating it to the ombudsman but, if another proposal were to come forward from the Government, we would have to consider it seriously.

The point has been made that the ombudsman currently cannot make judgments on issues within the school gates: it can if it is a local authority issue but, if it is within the school gates, it has no right to pursue an issue on behalf of concerned parents. Again, this cannot make sense. This is a public service. We need a proper system of review by an independent body.

I spent a bit of time trying to discover the argument behind dropping the provision in the 2009 Act, which provided for the ombudsman. Could the Minister enlighten us and explain why it was taken out in the Education Act 2011? It appeared to be a case of the Minister wanting not to lose power to an ombudsman. On balance, I think that the Committee would prefer the ombudsman to make this sort of decision as opposed to it being a matter for the Minister. I am sure that parents would prefer to have an independent expert body looking at the issue, whether the ombudsman or some other body.

I strongly support the amendments and hope that the Minister can give a helpful response.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, I will make a brief intervention. I agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Davies, said about the ombudsman. A process is being proposed; if you extend the ombudsman’s remit, you have the advantage of a process that is understandable to those who might wish to make a complaint. I very much hope that the Minister might be willing to look at how an amendment could be phrased, perhaps by the Government or by all-party agreement, on Report. That might bring us to a solution on how those who want to make a complaint can be assisted because, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, just said, it would be better if this were done by someone who is perceived to be independent than by the Minister.

The other half of the group relates to partnership boards. Noble Lords explained why there are two amendments, Amendments 171H and 171U. When I read the amendments, I much preferred the one from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, partly because it is quicker: it would force the Government to do something practical very quickly, which is to produce the guidance. The truth is that the two amendments could be brought together. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, said, we should have a culture of partnership rather than competition and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, we need a one-stop shop to fill the gap between the groups of schools. All that seems eminently logical and would therefore have my support.

Previously in Committee, I talked about partnerships between schools and FE. Of course, there is the potential for greater partnership working with the independent sector as well. How all that is brought together seems to be of fundamental importance. The whole concept of working education partnership boards is very important to a local area. Again, I hope that the Minister will be agreeable to finding ways in which this could all be brought together through all-party agreement to ensure that there is this local focus created by education partnership boards.