WE are in the grip of a social crisis. Half or more of the country have been left behind, while the rest of Britain went to university, modernised and globalised. This is not just about individuals and families, but communities, even whole towns and cities.
The ultra-respectable Financial Times last month carried a heart-rending article by Sarah O’Connor, who had immersed herself in Blackpool and reported on what GPs there called SLS or “s*** life syndrome” — deep poverty, pervasive drugs, obesity, anti-depressants and mental illness, in a large, isolated town exhibiting alarming signs of disintegration, including the largest encampment in Britain of children expelled from school.
It is euphemistically called a pupil referral unit. Even more euphemistically, it is run by an organisation called Educational Diversity, but it is basically a dumping ground for 330 children whom schools want nothing to do with. That is 330 who have been expelled from schools in one Northern town and sent to what is in many respects a giant training camp for the criminal justice system, in addition to hundreds excluded from school day by day for lower-level misbehaviour, who simply roam the streets.
Politicians who have had the misfortune to attend party conferences know why we stopped going to Blackpool. But for Blackpool today read also Hull, Grimsby, large parts of the North and the Midlands, and large towns in the South, including Hastings, Dover and Folkestone. Poor education is at the heart of this social crisis.
Schools, secondary schools in particular, are too often bleak and low-performing in virtually all the communities I just mentioned. There are not nearly enough good teachers. Apprenticeship numbers, incredibly, are declining, despite the apprenticeship levy. The private schools are separating themselves ever more from mainstream society.
Only last week, Westminster School, a wholly owned charitable subsidiary of the Church of England, which occupies fabulous charitable premises adjoining Westminster Abbey, announced that it was setting up six elite schools in China. Its social outreach should be to the poor of Bradford, not the super-rich of Beijing. And our universities are racked by controversy over sky-high student fees and debts, run by vice-chancellors who have become latter-day prince bishops, paid up to £500,000 a year and likening themselves to Maradona and Richard Branson.
I will get straight to the six things that I believe now need to happen as a matter of urgency. First, the Prime Minister should appoint a Minister for good schools, based in Blackpool or Grimsby, with direct responsibility and funding for school improvement in areas of very low educational standards. The Government’s policy at the moment is basically waffle: they have published a list of 12 so-called opportunity areas, which include Blackpool. However, there are only 12 across the entire country.
Secondly, we have to tackle the cancer of school expulsions, which is such an important cause of young lives going completely off the rails. This is a difficult issue but, after much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the right course is to forbid schools from expelling pupils or even temporarily excluding them unless they have broken the law.
Thirdly, bold action is required on apprenticeships. Within a short period, the Government should require every large public service organisation, including the Civil Service, the NHS and local authorities, to recruit among their new trainees at least as many apprentices as graduates.
Fourthly, the easiest and most effective intervention is to tax private school fees.
Fifthly, on tuition fees, the right thing to do is to cancel the trebling of these fees that took place in 2010 and reduce them to about £3,000, reduce the extortionate interest rate the Government is now charging on debt and cancel the absurd controls on overseas student numbers.
Sixthly, on the scandal of vice-chancellor and senior university pay, it is clear that self-regulation is no longer working. I cannot think of anyone better suited to conduct such an inquiry than the Archbishop of Canterbuy. He is paid only £80,000 and he runs an organisation much like a university. Like many vice-chancellors, he lives in a palace, and since the Almighty seems to be the only higher power recognised by the vice-chancellors, he is in a good position to sort that one, too.
Among the bishops of my youth, my hero was David Sheppard, the former Bishop of Liverpool. The Faith in the City report was a great influence on me and my generation. Back in the 1980s, social disintegration was advancing upon us and it is doing so again today. We cannot walk by on the other side.
Andrew Adonis is a peer and former Cabinet Minister