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GCSE and A-Level

Volume 573: debated on Monday 6 January 2014

5. What progress he has made on encouraging the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE and A-level. (901742)

Since this Government took office, we have seen the number of students taking EBacc subjects, core academic subjects, rise by 60%. We are also seeing record numbers of students taking maths and science at A-level, which is good news because those are the subjects that universities and employers want to see students study.

I want to raise with the Minister the issue of academic subjects, and languages in particular. I am glad to hear that the introduction of the EBacc has reversed the decline, but what is she doing to ensure continued success?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s concerns. Under the previous Government, we saw a drop in compulsory languages in 2004 and a decline in the numbers of students taking languages. Over the past year, we have seen a 14% rise in the number of students taking languages at GCSE, and we expect that to feed through to A-level. From this September, we are introducing compulsory languages from the age of seven, so that all our children get the experience of learning languages and are able to build up a level of fluency that will help them in their future careers.

Does the hon. Lady agree that where it is right for a young person to pursue academic subjects it is good that they do so, but many young people in our schools are never given a full choice and the option to do more practical subjects? Is that not part of the reason why the excellent report “One System, Many Pathways” by the Skills Commission, which I co-chair, should be looked at closely by her Department?

I think it is good for students to be doing both academic and practical subjects. In countries such as Germany and Poland, which have improved their programme for international student assessment— PISA—scores, all students do a core of academic subjects, including languages, sciences, history and geography, until they are 16. It is an important principle that students need to do both, because that is what will help them to get good jobs when they leave school.

Given that the new primary maths curriculum no longer includes the chunking method in division calculations, will the Minister confirm that the revised key stage 2 assessments in maths will give credit for a pupil’s working only when the traditional long or short division methods are used, and not when the discredited chunking method is used?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he did on the maths curriculum, which is now a world-leading one. Some of our teachers recently went to Shanghai to see how maths is taught there, and they found that Shanghai is three years ahead of England in this regard. One thing they noticed was that the chunking method is not used in Shanghai—long division is used instead. When those teachers brought that back to England, pupils said, “This method is great. Why aren’t we doing this? This long division is much easier than the confusing strategies we have been taught.” So I can say that when we introduce the standard assessment tests with the new national curriculum, chunking will not be rewarded in method marks—long division will.

On the take-up of academic subjects at GCSE and A-level, does the Minister accept that we should all be careful about making a direct link between educational underachievement in our coastal towns and part of East Anglia, and recent high levels of eastern European migration, because there were educational challenges in those areas long before eastern Europeans showed up and children of immigrant descent can be some of the most aspirational in our schools system?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I certainly notice in schools in my Norfolk constituency that emigrants from Poland have helped to improve results in some subjects, and I completely disagree with her leader, the shadow Secretary of State, in respect of making implications about the impact of migrants on academic performance.