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English Baccalaureate

Volume 533: debated on Monday 17 October 2011

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on student choices of the English baccalaureate. (74423)

A survey of nearly 700 schools indicates that the English baccalaureate is having an immediate impact on subject choices. The numbers of students electing to study modern foreign languages, geography, history, physics, chemistry and biology are all up.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that secondary schools report a significant decline in the number of students opting to study religious studies? The reason given is that it is not included in the E-bac. This year, will he at least give thought to whether, in the humanities, there could be a choice of two out of three subjects—geography, history and religious studies? If religious studies is not included in the E-bac, it will be increasingly marginalised.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He is a very effective spokesman for the Church of England, and indeed for the place of faith in the nation’s life. However, the data suggest that the number of people taking religious studies at GCSE is rising. It was up 17.6% to 222,000 in the last set of figures that we have, overtaking history and geography.

Will the Secretary of State say whether he, his officials or his advisers are using private e-mail accounts in assessing the impact of the baccalaureate? Does he accept the Information Commissioner’s view that private e-mail accounts that are used to talk about Government policy could be the subject of freedom of information requests?

I admire the elegance with which the hon. Gentleman manages to insinuate into his question a matter that is dramatically different from issues relating to the English baccalaureate. All Government business in the Department for Education is at all times conducted with extreme propriety.

In consideration of the impact of the English baccalaureate, will the Secretary of State discuss with Ofsted how it should evaluate schools’ performance to ensure that work on vocational and other subjects is taken into account?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The English baccalaureate is a powerful nudge to encourage take-up in the sorts of subjects that lead students to be able to progress to good universities and great jobs, but it is important that Ofsted applies a nuanced measurement when it judges how schools are performing, and schools that do superbly in vocational, technical, cultural and other areas should expect Ofsted to applaud them as well.

The Secretary of State will have seen that on Thursday the Skills Commission launched a report on the training of technicians. We desperately need more technicians, and there is great fear that the changes in the curriculum will squeeze out design and technology, which is, for many students, often the bridge to science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

That is a very fair point, and design and technology has many powerful champions, including the hon. Gentleman, but I would emphasise that the single most important thing that we can do if we are to ensure a generation of not just technicians but manufacturing leaders in future is make sure that we perform better in mathematics and that there are more students studying physics and chemistry. They are the key to success, and one of the reasons why the English baccalaureate has been so successful is that it has encouraged students to study those essential subjects.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there have always been core subjects and option subjects, and that the value of the E-bac is in signalling the most widely valued core subjects without precluding option subjects? That advice is of most value to the most disadvantaged in our society.

That is a typically acute point from my hon. Friend. The subjects in the E-bac bear a close resemblance to the sorts of subjects in an Arnoldian vision of liberal education but, more than that, they are the subjects that modern universities and 21st-century employers increasingly demand. One of the problems that we have had in the past is that too few students from poorer areas have been able to access and benefit from great subject-teaching in those disciplines.

The first university technical college in the country, the JCB academy, achieved 0% this year in the Secretary of State’s misleadingly titled English baccalaureate. I presume from what he has just said that he regards that as a failure, or are the rumours true and is he just distancing himself now from his Schools Minister’s pet policy?

I was asked last week by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) about the JCB academy, and by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), about the JCB academy, so let me repeat once again for the slower learners at the back of the class: I applaud the amazing achievements of the JCB academy. The English baccalaureate is just one measure of excellence and there are many others. As I underlined last week, the success of the university technical college—a school whose success was made possible by a Conservative party donor and whose success is burnished by Conservative party policies—is a success that I am happy to trumpet from any platform.