Archbishop leads Lords debate on the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society.

On 8th December 2017 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, led a debate in the House of Lords, ‘That the House takes note of the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society.’ The Archbishops’ opening and closing speeches are below in full:

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the usual channels for making time once again for me to lead a debate in your Lordships’ House. It is now something of a tradition for an Archbishop’s debate to be held in early December. Though a little later and less well established than the John Lewis advert, the appearance of an Archbishop on the order paper is a sure sign that Christmas is just around the comer.

Last year, I led a debate on shared national values, which featured some extremely impressive and thoughtful speeches. I am sure that today’s debate will be equally impressive, and I am grateful to so many of your Lordships for making time to attend. I look forward to your contributions, and it will be an especial pleasure to hear the first speech from the noble, reincarnated and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres. I am also delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, will be speaking today. He has told me—and obviously we all understand—that he will have to leave before the wind-up to get home in time for the Sabbath. But it is very good that he has come here at all.

There is a link between today’s debate on education and the previous one on shared values. What I hope to give today is an outline of the sort of values that we suggest, from these Benches especially, should underpin our education system, and the structures that might support them, so that we might create a society where individual and mutual flourishing become the norm.

As in so many areas of our public life—if noble Lords will excuse a little bit of trumpet-blowing—it was the churches that pioneered the idea of a universal system of education, free for all. In 1811, Joshua Watson founded the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales. Fortunately, our titles are shorter nowadays. The then Bishop of Oxford described Joshua Watson as “the best layman in England”—a title long overdue for revival: applications please in sealed envelopes to Lambeth Palace. What was started by Watson and others in 1811 lives on today as the National Society. I declare an interest as its co-president. My right reverend friend and colleague the Bishop of Ely, who I look forward to hearing speak later, chairs its council.

Watson set a values framework that was as important to the principles of free universal education as was the imperative, also in his ideas, to improve productivity and fight embedded squalor. By 1870, there were too many children and schools for the churches to cope with alone, and the first of the great Education Acts brought the schools under state control, although still with a very strong religious participation from different Christian churches and Jewish groups. Today, the Church of England alone educates over 1 million pupils each year in England, with 26% of all primary schools and 6% of all secondary schools.

Joshua Watson and his friends conceived their plans at a time of great national crisis and upheaval. The Luddite movement, which also began in 1811, was a response to fear of redundancy because of growing technological advances. Two centuries later, the advances that threaten long-established patterns of work are different—but they are still there, in what we are now calling the fourth industrial revolution. As the World Economic Forum describes it, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century is today accompanied by emerging technological breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing. How our schools and our further and higher education institutions can equip us for this seismic shift, and how our systems of social security and support can enable us to keep our society cohesive and healthy, are among the greatest challenges facing this generation, and the generation to come. And, of course, there is Brexit, with unforeseeable changes, challenges and opportunities.

We need an educational system that can bear the weight of the changes that are coming. We must be sure that, while we might find some inspiration in our past, we do not waste our time rummaging there for the solutions of tomorrow. We must also challenge anew the pockets of deprivation and underachievement that still exist across so many of our communities; and we must face the poverty of aspiration that so often comes with it and which forms such a barrier to human flourishing in every form.

At its most basic, for the past two centuries the Church of England has looked to promote an education that allows children, young people and adults to live out Jesus’s promise of life in all its fullness. That means enabling every person not only to grow in wisdom and to learn skills but to develop character and the spiritual, intellectual and emotional resources needed to live a good life, as an individual but also in a community.

In listening to a debate recently in your Lordships’ House about our science and innovation strategy, I was struck by an observation made from the Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord Prior, who, echoing other speakers in that really extraordinarily good debate, said that,

“the cultural divide that we have had between academic and technical education has been a disaster for this country since 1944 and probably earlier”.—[Official Report, 23/10/17; col. 830.]

The truth is that the myths of a golden age or a disastrous misstep are both wide of the mark. The noble Lord went on to describe how our universities are some of the best in the world for academic achievement, but where we excel in research we often fail in development. The commitment to raise the UK’s spend on research and development from 1.7% of GDP to the OECD average of 2.4% is admirable and necessary—but, as the noble Lord pointed out, Germany already spends 3% and is aiming to spend 3.5%. This is an area in which we cannot fall further behind, but in which progress can happen only through the effective work of our education.

We have neglected the value of further education within our overall educational landscape for far too long, over numerous Governments and at least since the 1944 Education Act. That neglect is a legacy of the class system, especially in England. The children of privilege are continuing to inherit privilege and this is true not only in our educational institutions but the whole country. It is also true globally, by the way, as seen in the USA and China. Unless we embark on cultural change, involving partnerships in education between businesses, local and national government and the entirety of our education services, I see little prospect of remedying this wrong. Human flourishing, and an opportunity for fullness of life for all those in education, requires flexible and imaginative training that is based on aptitude.

Our trend towards a more inclusive approach to those with disabilities or special educational needs is witness to the way that comprehensive education has improved, and is a welcome step towards an education that seeks the fullest and most abundant possible life for each human being, regardless of their ability—one which draws the best out of every person and leads them out into life. But the academic selective approach to education, which prioritises separation as a necessary precondition for the nurture of excellence, makes a statement about the purpose of education that is contrary to the notion of the common good. At its best, education must be a process of shaping human beings to reach out for and enjoy abundant life, and to do so in such strong communities of widely varying ability but distinctive approaches to each student that they and all around them flourish. An approach that neglects those of lesser ability or, because of a misguided notion of “levelling out” does not give the fullest opportunity to those of highest ability, or does not enable all to develop a sense of community and mutuality, of love in action and of the fullness and abundance of life, will ultimately fail.

One area that I am most concerned about, which we on these Benches see most clearly through our parish system across the whole of England, and which was highlighted in Dame Louise Casey’s review into opportunity and social integration in December 2016, is how the handing down of poverty and deprivation between generations presents a barrier to achieving social cohesion as well as social justice. Of those receiving free school meals, only 32% of girls and 28% of boys in the white British category achieve five A* to C grades at GCSE. That is third from bottom out of 18, above the Traveller and Gypsy/Roma communities. One might conclude from this that white British children brought up in economic poverty stand a high chance of being among the least well-equipped to integrate into a rapidly changing world where skills in science, technology, numeracy, literacy and IT will be essential. Not enough has been done to break down entrenched disadvantages or to improve integration and cohesion. The Church of England with its wide—and widening—schools network can and must do more to address this problem. This is the Joshua Watson challenge of our generation.

The aim of the founders of the National Society was to be universalist, unapologetically Christian in the nature of their vocation and service and committed to the relief of disadvantage and deprivation wherever it was found. Ours must be the same. Two hundred years on, the role of the Church of England in education can be to encourage and support excellence and to provide a values-based education for all, with a laser-like focus on the poorest and most deprived. That means a renewed vision that focuses as much on deprivation of spirit and poverty of aspiration as did our forebears on material poverty and inequality.

What follows from that is a clear move towards schools that not only deliver academic excellence but have the boldness and vision to do so outside the boundaries of a selective system. The Church of England’s educational offer to our nation is church schools that are, in its own words, “deeply Christian”, nurturing the whole child—spiritually, emotionally, mentally as well as academically—yet welcoming the whole community. I pay tribute to the immense hard work of heads, teachers, leadership teams, governors and parents associations who make so many church and other schools the successes that they are. With the strong Christian commitment of heads and leadership teams, the ethos and values of Church of England schools, which make them so appealing to families of all faiths and none, will be guarded and will continue.

A major obstacle, though, to our education system is a lack of clear internal and commonly held values. We live in a country where an overarching story which is the framework for explaining life has more or less disappeared. We have a world of unguided and competing narratives, where the only common factor is the inviolability of personal choice. This means that, for schools that are not of a religious character, confidence in any personal sense of ultimate values has diminished. Utilitarianism rules, and skills move from being talents held for the common good, which we are entrusted with as benefits for all, to being personal possessions for our own advantage. We see this already in our universities, in the economic sword of Damocles that dangles over the heads of so many students who have vast financial investments at stake in their degree qualification.

The challenge is the weak, secular and functional narrative that successive Governments have sought to insert in the place of our historic Christian-based understanding, whether explicitly or implicitly. Functionalism or utilitarianism offers neither a meaningful alternative to those who are threatened by pedlars of extremism nor a confident framework within which to educate those of different cultures and beliefs. It is no great surprise to those of us familiar with church schools—I should say that all five of our children went to state schools, both church and non-church—that their strong values-based approach remains so attractive, especially to communities of other faiths. Over the last 60 years, in many Church of England schools in areas of high immigration, although in some cases almost all the children are of a non-Christian faith, the narrative of the school has remained Christian while respecting religious diversity, including no faith at all.

Schools, FE and HE institutions are important intermediate institutions positioned between individuals and the state, which exist to bring fullness of life and to be nurseries of community living. As well as to inspire, they need to develop stories of the common good and of community, not merely of tolerance. This is achievable so long as our education system remains diverse in provision but accountable and well funded, enabling different streams and approaches within its overall ecosystem. Lifelong learning and training and developing the prestige of technical education are vital for giving us the flexibility and capacity necessary for the fourth industrial revolution.

The Church of England has recently set up the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership to begin to tackle the need for deeper and more effective training in issues of values and practices, as well as in the hard skills of leading schools and nurturing new leadership talent. Education must combine the provision of skills with the creation of values and practices that enable those values to be developed and to become virtues. Where that happens, “life in all its fullness” becomes accessible to all young people. It is not a magic wand to solve all society’s problems but it is an essential building block for achieving an education system that can help to build a more prosperous and cohesive society. I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Hansard link to this speech. The page also has transcripts of the contributions of the 40 other speakers in the debate.

Text of closing speech:

My Lords, the time has passed and we have had such comprehensive summings up from the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Agnew, that I shall seek to be very brief, picking up one or two key themes and responding to some questions. However, I want to say how pleased I am to join an earlier comment about the choice of Coventry as the City of Culture, having lived there for 15 years.


I should also like to defend myself against the misuse of technology, which I was rightly rebuked for by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. I was actually looking up the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, on the Greek of the first chapter of Hebrews which, unlike him, I cannot remember. I plead guilty. Just to correct one thing that needs to be put on record, a group of bishops may be called many things but, contrary to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, never virtuous—at least, I have never heard that.

I add my thanks to those of the two Front-Bench spokesmen, when they commented on the quality of the debate, to all who have contributed so thoughtfully and widely. The thing that struck me most is that the overall theme is the complexity of the educational ecosystem. Therefore, we must be careful not to seek to be too tidy. This was picked up by several noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Gadhia, Lord Parekh, Lord Puttnam and Lord Rees. We need adaptability and imagination, as the need for education will vary from one place to another and from one type of child to another. We should not bet everything on one horse. We need to reimagine what the educational system should look like but, to pick up another common theme, it must reinforce the mental, emotional and spiritual health of all, especially in the early years, and be effective and light on bureaucracy, particularly with special needs and those of high ability.

One thing not mentioned in the summing-up speeches was a powerful series of comments on the status and role of teachers in our society and the need to improve it significantly. It is difficult, it is a cultural change, but it needs to happen if recruitment is to be as the Minister sought to encourage. Another comment that struck me in general terms through much of the debate was summed up by one of two Sanskrit quotes—it cannot be every day that that happens, and one feels a sense of sympathy for those recording the debate—from the noble Lord, Lord Parekh: that aspirational education liberates you. If we want nothing else, it is that people should be liberated for a future that enables them to be all that they can be.

Many of the other points that I would have wanted to make have been picked up in the summing up, and I will not take the House’s time at this late hour to repeat them. One that was not taken as fully as it merits was apprenticeships. From my experience as Bishop of Durham, I think that one question about apprenticeships is a slight tendency towards a dependency culture by employers. We were constantly being told in our schools—and I hear it still in church schools—that they want people who are “work ready” when they come to be employed. I always challenge them, as I would challenge this House, by asking who here was work ready on their first day of employment? It is the duty of employers to invest in their employees to take them from the first day of their employment to the last, long or short, and build up their skills.

We also have not heard picked up the global issue of education, which I thought was a powerful point, and one that is often seen in the activities of DfID, with notable success, particularly in areas of conflict and post-conflict, with which I am deeply familiar.

That brings me to some of the questions. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised the challenge of a commission on the pay of vice-chancellors, with some amusing comments on which I shall reflect as I go back to my palace. I am sure that I could see his tongue firmly in his cheek, although what he suggests would help me to fill the empty hours of my week.

Selection by faith is a serious question, but I have recently been brought to think afresh about it through challenges from within our own education team. I have always been against selection by faith, and I am very pleased that the majority of our new schools do not have it. But the point was made to me as recently as yesterday that, in areas where there is a concentration of ethnicity, whether white or other, particularly in urban areas, where you have one place with one group and another with another group—and I have lived in places like that—choosing by distance alone can actually be a very severe barrier to integration. Therefore, we need to combine the different pressures in how we think about selection to ensure that our schools are homes and nurseries of integration; that is why I talk of a complex ecosystem. In that way, people leave school—as, by the grace of God, my children did—completely blind to issues of ethnicity, with their best friends being all sorts of people. That will be the experience of many people here, and is to be encouraged. I take the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and others. By the way, as a matter of fact, our last survey suggested that the actual practice is that less than 25% of our secondary schools filled more than 50% of their places on the basis of faith criteria.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised the question of out-of-school settings and unregulated schools. I am aware of that issue; we were highly involved in discussions about it. Our problem with such regulation is not that we are in favour of bad, abusive or ill-maintained schools, in which children are indoctrinated in unhealthy ways; it would be strange if we were. Our problem is with the sheer burden of the bureaucracy. How the rules were put forward a couple of years back—and I had some pretty robust discussions with a number of people, including the previous Prime Minister, on this matter—would have ensured that everything down to really quite small Sunday schools in villages around the country would have to be registered. That is not the proposal of those who are in favour of the idea, but there is a danger that, if you are in favour of regulation, every problem looks as though it needs a rule book. We have to look to solve the problem, which I agree is a genuine one, rather than to set a blanket standard that, without any discrimination, hits every kind of effort to work with young people around this country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, picked up a number of points, on some of which I think I will need to reply to her in writing. I entirely agree with the point about education and worship space in IDP and refugee camps. It is important that the space is there. I was mesmerised in August, in a refugee camp in northern Uganda for South Sudanese refugees, right up on the border, when I saw several trees with numbers on them. When I asked what the numbers were, it was explained to me that they were the numbers for the classrooms set up by a head teacher who was himself a refugee. I asked, “How big was the school?”; the answer was, “750”. Then, “How many in each class?”; they said, “70”. And, “What materials?”; they said, “None”. It bears out the hunger for education but also the need for refugee administration to involve better facilities. The Yazidis are, in a sense, off the main line of debate, but it is certainly something that we have been advocating for and will continue to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Baker, with his enormous experience, brought up, as we would expect, a powerful and extraordinarily insightful comment on the nature of UTCs and of technical education. I think that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Ely answered that to a large degree. We are passionately committed to that, but we are also passionately committed to making sure that schools are not isolated but form communities. That is why we are so enthused by this first experiment with the school that has specialist technical education, humanities education and special educational needs all on one campus, bringing people together and enabling them to learn and profit from each other.

Finally, as my last comment, I re-emphasise what I said in my opening comments, which is the enormous gratitude that we all owe to every school, whether it is a church school, a faith school or none of the above. I know that better than most. My personal experience as a vicar, as a rector at St James Church, in Southam, Warwickshire, was that the local secondary school was a comprehensive. Virtually all our children went to it. I was elected a parent governor and, later, chair of governors. I worked enormously happily and with great benefit to myself with the self-avowedly atheist head of that school—not a church school, not a faith school—for seven years. It is a school to which our children owe so much.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that anything that I have said, or that anyone else has said, this afternoon is a form of dissing non-church schools.

That school had what has also featured in a number of speeches this afternoon: a strong narrative—Aristotle featured so often that I am almost tempted to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Aristotle.

The absence of a strong value-based and moral narrative in a school was mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, who also referred to Aristotle. By the way, his speech emphasised again what a blessing it is to this House to have him back. He said that, without that sense of strong narrative, we are cast adrift on the sea of individualism that leads us absolutely nowhere.

This has been an extraordinary debate, as I expected it to be. It has been a great privilege to have been able to initiate it, and I am hugely grateful to the whole House and to those who have come in on a Friday to serve the House today as they always do so faithfully. I beg to move.

  Motion agreed.


Hansard link to this speech.