5 Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale debates involving the Department for Education

Vulnerable Teenagers

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Thursday 26th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
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My Lords, as a young teacher in Tullibody, in Clackmannanshire, in the 1980s, I had a bit of a reputation for being tough in the classroom, only because I wanted to make sure that the kids from the deprived communities locally had the same chances as the kids at the perceived to be much better school down the road. One of my big things was to make sure that the kids would do their homework; I would pursue them relentlessly to make sure that they brought it in on time.

One year, there were two girls in a class who consistently did not manage to meet the homework target. One day in the class, when I was being particularly heavy with them about this failure, they broke down into tears, and I asked them to wait behind afterwards in the classroom. It became clear in the discussion I had with them that the reason they could not do their homework was not that they did not want to do it, and not that they were not enjoying the subject or did not want to make things better for themselves, but that the children’s home they lived in in the local town was absolutely chaotic. Not only was there no table or place for them to do their homework or study at night but the noise and chaos in the environment meant that, even if there had been a table, it would not have been possible. I resolved that day to work to try to change that situation in any elected or public position that I held.

I partly kept that going, when, at the same time, in Stirling, as a local councillor, I came across a group of young break-dancers. There had been complaints from the local community in St Ninians that the local boys were causing so much trouble and noise that it was really disruptive to the community and the police or somebody had to do something about it. It became obvious in talking to the community, and then to the boys, that the core of this was about an area where the boys would start break-dancing, which would then break out into trouble in the local area.

They wanted to dance. At the council we hired a guy called Royston Maldoom who was a community contemporary dance consultant. He set up a group called Stirling Youth Dance. Some of these boys went on to practice professionally; one of them trained at the Ballet Rambert in Paris. These were boys who just needed an opportunity and a channel through which to seize that opportunity. In one year, in Stirling back in the 1980s, I saw on one side the despair of failure for kids who were looking for hope; and, on the other side, hope for kids who were staring failure in the face. That is one of the reasons why I absolutely welcome and congratulate my noble friend Lady Armstrong on securing this debate this afternoon and congratulate the remarkable Anne Longfield and her team for this outstanding report.

I should declare a number of interests in the register and elsewhere. I am an ambassador for Action for Children, a vice-president of UNICEF UK, a trustee of a mentoring charity, MCR Pathways, I was a member of the same Parliamentary advisory group as my noble friend Lady Armstrong on this report, my own foundation, the McConnell International Foundation, is active in this field and I am a patron of the Diana Award. There are so many great organisations working in this field, and they work not just in one country but across the UK, so although this report refers specifically to England, I want to make my remarks in the context of what I think should become a more united and comprehensive effort across the whole of the UK.

There were issues that were the core of my work as Education Minister and First Minister that I have always felt needed a long-term perspective and consistency to make a difference. One issue was knife crime, and we have debated in this Chamber before the work of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow, which had cross-party support and survived all the political ups and downs in Scotland over the years to be a big success because it was a long-term project. Another was child protection reform. A number of children had died through neglect back around 2000, and child protection changes that were made then, again with cross-party support, were sustained over a long period and have made a real difference in Scotland on that front too.

However, I think that over the years we have failed to do this with looked-after children and vulnerable teenagers. It is partly because all the initiatives, the policies and the funding for looked-after children and vulnerable teenagers are subject to the whim of individual Ministers, and they change and move around, and they go up and down as a result of changes in Governments and leaders. In my view that is the key thing that we have to stop, and I welcome the fact that this report calls for consistency.

The situation facing these teenagers should shame all of us in public life and all of us in the professions that serve them, as I was once. The kids in the care of the state in this country have the worst outcomes. In many cases, they have the worst expectations. They certainly have the worst experiences and, ultimately, they have the worst lives. In the 21st century, the lack of consistent, cross-party focus, policy and priority for these kids has gone on for far too long. Sadly, these kids with chaotic lives face chaotic services and chaotic support. They fall into a spiral of neglect and abuse. There is a lack of support for special needs. They also face condemnation rather than second chances. They damage themselves, they damage our society and they go on to damage their own kids as well. It goes on from generation to generation. Some of them fall into aggression. They perhaps choose the perceived safety of gang to help them survive. Some of them simply fail in education or to find fulfilling work, they fail to find a stable family which they can head in the future and they certainly fail to be happy and, sadly, some of them take their own lives. We should take this seriously.

Anne Longfield is a remarkable individual. Her voice on behalf of these kids is powerful, relentless and consistent, and her commission has done a remarkable job in producing this report. I will briefly highlight three of its recommendations. The first is opening schools —and other buildings, I would add—outside school hours and during school holidays. As chair of the charity Cash for Kids in Scotland, I saw the benefits in turning our funding programme for vulnerable kids in the west of Scotland away from taking place just at Christmas each year to supporting them in school holiday periods and the difference that that made on the streets of Glasgow and other towns and cities in the west of Scotland. Providing for kids outside the school environment is just as important as providing for them inside it.

The proposal for massive investment in mental health programming is all the more acutely needed after the disaster of the past three years and the way in which children’s needs were ignored, with school closures and a lack of support during the Covid pandemic. That situation was particularly bad in Scotland; it was even worse than it was in England. I would include in the idea of an army of youth practitioners not just professionals and charity workers but volunteer mentors working with these youngsters and helping them through that difficult teenage transition. Teenagers in the most comfortable homes, with the best chances in life and the most resources find that transition difficult, so it is no wonder that teenagers who live these chaotic lives find it particularly difficult. We also need a genuine partnership, with children coming first and education for all.

I urge not just the Government but all the political parties in the UK—in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—to unite and adopt these recommendations and I urge leaders to work together across the UK and inside the individual nations and local regions of these countries and to use what my old boss, our headteacher back in that school in the 1980s, used to call “stickability” for the kids. The key thing he wanted them to have was stickability; he thought that was the thing that would give them a chance. The thing that might give them a real chance is if leaders, politicians and public agencies have stickability, so let us practice what we preach. I think that a 20-year strategy, passing over more than a generation, with consistency, education and parenting at its core would help to provide and support fulfilling lives and a better life for all.

One of the reasons these kids are left behind is that they do not have a voice. Nobody speaks for them; they cannot speak for themselves. They know what they want to say and what they need, but they are not heard. It is vital that we find a way of embedding in the system the changes that are required so that, even without that voice, they are still heard and supported. I suggest that rather than a triple lock on pensions for those of us who are nearing that age—there are many in the Chamber who might already be over that age—why do we not have a triple lock for vulnerable teenagers? Why do we not say that we will make sure that each of them will finish their education, that each of them will have a mentor to help them through those difficult teenage years and that we will not only invest in them as children but invest in that transition from childhood to adulthood, which is difficult for everybody and almost impossible for them?

Education and Society

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Excerpts
Friday 8th December 2017

(6 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
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My Lords, when the most reverend Primate introduced so eloquently our debate this morning, he rightly referred to the role of the Church and lay members of the Church in the development of universal education in England in the 19th century. I am of course particularly proud that in Scotland we were taking these steps in the 17th century, with the first legislation for a school in every parish. That is one of the reasons why in the union of 1707 the relative autonomy of Scottish education was preserved as part of the agreements of the time. Partly for that reason, I have not often spoken about education in this Chamber. Nowadays Scottish education is rightly within the remit of the autonomous Scottish Parliament, but there are some issues in education that cross borders, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to refer to some of them today.

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register which, perhaps understandably, reflects my lifelong passion for and interest in education as well as some of my current interests. The primary schoolteacher I had at the age of seven can remember me saying that I wanted to become a sums teacher. With a few changes in the subject I chose in the decade or so that followed, I became a mathematics teacher, and enjoyed that profession for a decade before becoming employed full-time in politics.

I have always had a passion not only for teaching but also for the profession of teaching, as well as for teachers and their importance in the classroom. Few of us can remember individual pieces of algebra or the detail of individual cultural experiences we have had, but all of us can remember the good teacher and the bad teacher that had an impact on us during our schooldays. No matter what level someone’s education has reached and no matter what course in life they have chosen, there will have been a teacher, good or bad, who had an impact by either inspiring or demoralising them. The role of individual teachers should never be forgotten by education policymakers and Governments. Debates about funding, curriculum and policy will come and go, but ultimately the person who delivers education in the classroom is absolutely central to inspiring every generation.

The second point I want to make is about colleges. There have been a lot of references in the debate to training, vocational education and so on, but I remain astonished by the amount of time we spend debating the situation in our universities in this country, and at the lack of media attention and public debate about the situation in our colleges—in the widest sense of further and non-university higher education. There are debates about university principals’ salaries, fees and grants for university students and access to universities for people from different walks of life, as well as the buildings, the global reach of our universities, the subjects they teach and their nature and purpose—but there are never debates about our colleges, which are fundamental to the young people and lifelong learners who have been mentioned in today’s debate. Colleges are fundamental to the life opportunities of a section of the population who, in many ways, need them much more than people who go to university. It seems to me that such debates never take place; I regret that and I hope we can start to rectify that situation through debates such as today’s.

My third point on UK education is about looked-after children. It is a shame that in all four nations of this country, children who are looked after by the state continue to this day, in the 21st century, to have the worst educational opportunities and outcomes. That should shame us all. We need to continue to look for innovative and imaginative solutions that give those young children in the care of the state, in any sense, opportunities—or at least opportunities as good as those of other children. I refer the Minister and his department to something they may not be aware of because it is in Scotland. A charity in Glasgow called MCR Pathways is doing phenomenal work. It has transformed the outcomes for looked-after children in a number of Glasgow pilot scheme schools. The project is about to be taken to national level and there may be some fantastic lessons to be learned, based on mentoring such looked-after children. The effect of volunteer mentoring in the community is really quite dramatic.

My final point goes beyond our borders, because although education is important here, it is even more so elsewhere. There are 263 million girls and boys around the world who are not in school; two-thirds of them live in fragile and conflict-affected states. We must understand that education matters more in those place than any other intervention possibly could. Education transforms lives. It provides the opportunity, confidence and skills to move into work and start businesses. It improves agricultural outputs and the health outcomes of individuals and nations. It helps girls to avoid child marriage and other abuses. It develops responsible citizens who can hold corrupt Governments to account and develop democracies and governance in the capacity of public institutions. Yet in this country we allocate only 7.17% of our overseas development assistance to education. That figure should be much higher. I hope that the Government will, in their ongoing constant reviews of how best to spend their ODA, look again at the amount spent on education. In particular, a decision is due in January on the UK contribution—previously £300 million but up for review—to the Global Partnership for Education: money spent in fragile, conflict-affected and very underdeveloped states. I hope that we will not only sustain that contribution but perhaps increase it in the future.

I am conscious of my time so I will finish with a story from 18 months ago about a very young girl in a refugee camp in Iraq. Her name was Safa. She had endured all kinds of horrors for three years during her journey from Syria to Iraq and life in the refugee camp. She spoke strongly to me about the experience of her and her family. The only time she cried was when I asked about her exam results at school. More than anything else, the one thing that had affected her dignity and hope for the future was her school performance, which had been affected by living in the camp. That is an indication of just how much education matters for those who need it most.

In summation, I hope that the Minister and others will have an opportunity to reflect on the global situation as well as the national one.

Schools: Arts Subjects

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Excerpts
Wednesday 12th February 2014

(10 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Nash Portrait Lord Nash
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Music is very important for young people at primary school and there are some very good charities operating in this area, such as London Music Masters. I was inspired to see a KIPP school in Harlem in New York, where every pupil is in the orchestra. That is certainly something that all primary schools should focus on.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Lab)
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My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Sistema project in the Raploch, in Stirling, Scotland, established by Richard Holloway following the success in Venezuela? Would he or one of the other Ministers be willing to visit that project and see the incredible impact that it has had on children in one of the most deprived community schemes in Britain, who are all now training to learn an instrument and playing in the most incredible concerts—entertaining not just locals but nationally through television as well?

Lord Nash Portrait Lord Nash
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I am not aware of the scheme in Stirling to which the noble Lord refers but I would be delighted to visit it.

Faith Schools: Imported Hate Material

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Wednesday 18th May 2011

(13 years, 1 month ago)

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Lord Hill of Oareford Portrait Lord Hill of Oareford
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My Lords, lots of points were wrapped up in that question. This is a complex area. I agree with the noble Baroness’s two underlying points, the first being about the need to make sure that inspection is rigorous and that inspectors are trained to know what to look for. Part of the problem is, as the noble Baroness says, knowing what to look for. In spite of the best regulatory frameworks, that will remain a problem but we are addressing it. I agree that the point about supplementary schools and physical chastisement needs to be looked at. A report was published last year by Sir Roger Singleton. He discussed its findings with my ministerial colleagues—particularly the point about physical chastisement. They are reflecting on that and working out the practical implications of his recommendations.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale
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My Lords, recent incidents of religious hatred in Scotland have been a wake-up call for the Scottish Government, and it is to be hoped that they will reintroduce some of the measures that they abandoned in 2007 to tackle sectarianism across the west of Scotland and beyond. I recognise that religious bigotry and sectarianism do not respect devolved and reserved areas in our constitution but will the UK Government, with the Minister speaking on their behalf, support in any way that they can the national efforts being made in Scotland to send sectarianism into the dustbin of history?

Lord Hill of Oareford Portrait Lord Hill of Oareford
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My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely good point. Unfortunately, hatred and bigotry come in many shapes and sizes and we must all be very wary about thinking that they come in only one. We take this matter seriously and are looking at what further measures may need to be taken. I should be very happy to learn from whatever practice there may be in Scotland to make sure that, between us, we do everything that we can.

Children: Adoption

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Thursday 9th December 2010

(13 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord Hill of Oareford Portrait Lord Hill of Oareford
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My Lords, I will look into who is on the advisory group. I am afraid that I cannot remember the membership. I will also be sure to relay my noble friend’s important point back to the responsible Minister.

Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Portrait Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale
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My Lords, is the Minister aware of the adoption legislation passed in the Scottish Parliament in January 2007, which contained many new measures designed to speed up the adoption process in the interests of children? Will the Government ensure that there is good co-ordination between the different jurisdictions in the United Kingdom to ensure that no bureaucratic obstacles are put in the way of adoption as a result of the devolution of adoption legislation in Scotland, Northern Ireland or elsewhere?

Lord Hill of Oareford Portrait Lord Hill of Oareford
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for that point, which is well made. It seems to me that one of the issues we have with adoption generally is the great disparity in England between different local authority areas. We know that some local authorities are able to place 100 per cent of children within 12 months. Another local authority that I am aware of can place 38 per cent within that period. There are huge differences, and I think that extending the principle on a broader level, which the noble Lord argues for, is certainly worth reflecting on.