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Religious Education

Volume 523: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

Religious education did not count towards the humanities element of the English baccalaureate in the 2010 performance tables, because it is already a compulsory subject. One intention of the English baccalaureate is to encourage wider take-up of geography and history in addition to, rather than instead of, compulsory RE.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but does he think that the exclusion of religious education from the English baccalaureate might dramatically reduce the number of students studying the RE full course at GCSE and have a knock-on and detrimental effect on the number of candidates for religious education teacher training?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making her point. We all recognise that high-quality religious education is a characteristic of the very best schools—faith schools and non-faith schools. However, the decision to include geography and history in the humanities section of the English baccalaureate will mean that those subjects, which have seen a decline in the number of students pursuing them, will at last see an increase, alongside modern foreign languages. As the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) pointed out, the English baccalaureate is intended to be a suite of core academic qualifications, which every child can be expected to follow alongside other qualifications, whether vocational, RE or others.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what research or evidence he has based his selection of subjects in the new English baccalaureate?

Yes. The research and evidence that I undertook was to look at what the highest performing education jurisdictions do. When the OECD published its table on how our country had been doing in education over the past 10 years, I was struck to see that under Labour’s stewardship we had slipped in the international league tables for English, for mathematics and for science. I was also struck by the fact that the numbers of students studying modern foreign languages, history and geography were declining. I was particularly struck by the fact that only last week the Russell group said that these are the subjects which the best universities expect of students if they are to go on and prosper and achieve the level of social mobility that sadly eluded us when the right hon. Gentleman was in government.

The Secretary of State mentions the OECD, so let me quote from last year’s PISA—programme for international student assessment—report, which says:

“Most successful school systems grant greater autonomy to individual schools to design curricula and assessment policies”.

That is in direct contradiction to what he has just said. I support the right of every child to take these five GCSEs, but it is a narrow selection, and not right for everybody, and the way in which he has introduced it is restricting student choice right now. Many feel that it is not a fair way to judge all children and all schools, suggesting that some are second best. So is he really saying to young people and employers today that dead languages are more important than business studies, engineering, information and communications technology, music and RE? Will he not listen to the call from the Chair of the Select Committee, made just a few moments ago, to allow a broader and more flexible English baccalaureate?

Order. I am sorry, but these questions are becoming excessively long. I hope that we can have a pithy response, and I am sure we will, from the Secretary of State.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has the brass neck to quote the PISA figures when they show that on his watch the standard of education which was offered to young people in this country declined relative to our international competitors. Literacy, down; numeracy, down; science, down: fail, fail, fail. I am surprised that he has the brass neck to stand here and to say that working-class children should not study modern foreign languages, should not study science, should not study history and should not study geography. If it is good enough for the likes of him, why should it not be good enough for working-class children elsewhere? Why is he pulling up the drawbridge on social mobility? Why is he saying that they are only fit to be hewers of wood and drawers of water rather than university graduates like you and me, Mr Speaker? Rank hypocrisy!

While I entirely accept the Secretary of State’s point that RE is compulsory, it is not obligatory to sit the GCSE. Does he agree that the very many faith schools where RE is compulsory are thereby penalised in the calculation of their English baccalaureate achievement?

I appreciate the care with which my hon. Friend puts his question. I also appreciate the fact that he has been a very strong advocate for faith schools in his own constituency, including St Mary’s, whose cause he has championed with particular eloquence. Many schools will want to offer RE as a GCSE, and indeed we would encourage them to do so, but the core element of the English baccalaureate relates to five subjects which we believe are the essential academic knowledge that students should be able to master. The news from the Russell group of universities last week that the subjects that we have chosen for the English baccalaureate are the subjects that they expect students to have if they are to go on to leading universities ensures that there is an appropriate match between schools and universities in advancing social mobility rather than seeing it decline, as happened over the past 13 years.