Bishop of St Albans makes maiden speech in eduation debate

On 5th December 2013, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, Lord Bishop of St Albans, made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, during Baroness Morgan of Huyton’s take note debate on the contribution of high-quality education to economic growth.

14.03 Bishop of St AlbansThe Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, as a bishop I find myself standing up regularly in unfamiliar buildings, usually with long and distinguished histories, holding forth to people whom I barely know. I do this every Sunday when I visit one or two of the more than 400 churches in my diocese. Rising to speak in this House evokes a certain level of apprehension. On the day of my introduction I managed to break rule one by standing up at the point when the Lord Speaker had risen to her feet. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, said to me afterwards that he could see that I was starting out as I intended to continue: causing havoc. In the coming years, I trust that I will not create a great deal of havoc, but will perhaps make a modest contribution to the deliberations of this House.

I am conscious that my predecessor but three, Archbishop Robert Runcie, made a very significant contribution here. I recall also that his predecessor as Bishop of St Albans, who was bishop for just over 24 years, reportedly spoke only once in the time that he spent in this House, and that was to argue for the welfare of pit ponies in the coal mines—not a subject that evokes a great deal of passion in the highways and byways of Hertfordshire today. My arrival has been greatly helped by the generous welcome of Members of the House, and the unfailing courtesy and support of the staff, for which I would like to record my sincere thanks.

I was brought up in the countryside. As a young man my father was a farmer, and I look forward particularly to engaging with issues of land, countryside and rural affairs. I have also lived in two multicultural communities in the Midlands, one of which was Walsall, from where Morgan, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, came, and I hope to draw on something of my experience of multicultural and multifaith communities.

I am glad to make my maiden speech in this debate on the contribution of high-quality education to economic growth. I live next to one of the oldest schools in the country. This is St Albans School, founded before the Norman Conquest by Abbot Ulsinus in the year 948. Over the years, it has produced many notable alumni, including the only British-born pope, Nicholas Breakspear, otherwise known as Adrian IV, Professor Stephen Hawking and several Members of this House. The diocese that I have the privilege to lead covers the counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, Luton and parts of Barnet. As well as many independent schools with a Christian foundation, we have 135 church schools serving their local communities. None of the church schools in my diocese is deemed “unsatisfactory”; 18% are graded “satisfactory” and the remaining 82% are either “good” or “outstanding”. I want to pay tribute to the work of head teachers, governors, teachers, parents and school staff who work so hard to produce schools of such excellence.

Detractors of church schools sometimes claim that our excellent academic results are because we have creamed off the best pupils. The facts do not support that assertion. Our schools are spread across a wide range of neighbourhoods, and we are proud to have schools in some of the most difficult and challenging communities. The national data produced in the Department for Education’s 2013 school census show that 15% of pupils at Church of England secondary schools are eligible for free school meals, which is the same as the average for non-Church of England schools. The same census reveals that we serve almost exactly the same proportion of black and minority ethnic pupils as non-Church of England secondary schools do.

I will share one story, which I hope will illustrate our concern and our commitment well, and which takes us to the very heart of today’s debate on education and the economy. Northfields Upper School in Dunstable, later Northfields Technology College, went into special measures in 2006 and there was a change of leadership to give it a fresh start. Sadly, it was decided that the school should close, but on 1 September 2009 it reopened as All Saints Academy, sponsored by the diocese of St Albans in partnership with the University of Bedfordshire. Today it specialises in science and business and is housed in brand new buildings.

The improvement in academic standards was not immediate, but has been steady and impressive since 2009. Over the past four years, attendance has increased from 87% to 93% this year. The percentage of pupils achieving five A* to C grades, including English and maths, has risen from 23% in 2009 to 40% this year. Our partnership with the University of Bedfordshire has generated a tangible rise in the aspirations of its pupils, with increasing numbers of students considering the possibility of going on to higher education. I am glad to acknowledge publicly the huge contribution made by the head, Tom Waterworth, and his team to achieve such a change in four years. That is a success story of which we are rightly proud.

It is too early, however, to know exactly what difference that dramatic improvement in exam results will make to economic growth in Dunstable. Certainly, everyone loses out if we cannot translate academic success into productive outcomes. Andreas Schleicher, already quoted by several noble Lords in this debate, makes the depressing assertion in his comments on that international survey that young English adults aged between 16 and 24 are some of the lowest-ranking in literacy and numeracy in the industrialised world. He concludes that deficiencies in our school system over a lifetime will lead to an unbelievable £4.5 trillion loss in economic output. In bald economic terms, that is the equivalent of living in a permanent recession.

Having said all that, I will pause and ask what we mean by the phrase “high-quality education”. Not one of us can dissent from that, but what does it mean in practice? What is its personal, social—and, dare I ask, spiritual—content as opposed to its crude cash value? I ask that because although we need to ensure that our pupils achieve academic success, education must surely be much more than that. In classical Greek culture the concept of paideia constituted a holistic understanding of education for body, mind and soul. That vision was picked up and developed by Cardinal Newman in his seminal work The Idea of a University, published in 1852. In today’s world, where so much stress is placed on individuality and the need for every person to realise their inner self, education plays a vital role in developing a sense of social responsibility and the need to contribute to civil society and the common good. If education is to be truly “high-quality”, surely it will also produce people with a rich emotional hinterland, whose souls have been expanded as they have explored the arts, music and literature.

I am also concerned, as we think about education, about the young people whose mental or physical health problems mean that they struggle in mainstream education. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for highlighting that area a moment ago. It is good to have high standards, and in our diocese we are proud of several leading academic institutions such as the Universities of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cranfield and the Royal Veterinary College in Potters Bar. Our attention is instinctively drawn to those, but finally, I will mention one small project in the University of Hertfordshire.

In partnership with HCS Careers and GB Sports Coaches, the university has organised, for the sixth year running, a two-day event for 14 to 19 year-old students from special needs schools. The purpose of that unsung annual event, which sadly never achieves headlines, is to enable those young people to meet people who work in business and industry to help them develop appropriate skills and grapple with issues of employability. With the right support, many of them are also able to contribute to economic growth.

I hope that we will ensure that every part of our education system is given help and support so that all our young people, whatever their academic ability, are equipped to make their contribution to the flourishing and thriving of our nation.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, it is an honour for me to follow the eloquent maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. I hoped that he might speak about the schools in his diocese. I noted that in St Albans are Abbey Primary School, St Michael’s Primary School and the Townsend School. I was pleased that he chose to speak about the schools in his diocese. I am sure that this experience will be helpful in many future debates on education in your Lordships’ House. I welcome him warmly to the House. Contributions from the Bishops’ Benches are always listened to with great interest. I hope that we may hear from the right reverend Prelate on many future occasions…

Lord Nash: I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Sherbourne on their maiden speeches. Both spoke passionately, incisively and eloquently, and I am sure that we are all looking forward to hearing them speak on many more occasions. I also thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions…


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