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House of Commons Hansard
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Schools (Opportunity to Study for Qualifications)
24 March 2015
Volume 594

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to ensure that pupils in secondary education are guaranteed the opportunity to study for qualifications including triple science GCSEs and all English Baccalaureate GCSE subjects; and for connected purposes.

The past five years have witnessed a transformation in the uptake of rigorous subjects at GCSE. It cannot be denied that the introduction of the English baccalaureate as a measure of performance has seen the percentage of pupils studying for English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and either history or geography rise from 22% in 2009-10 to 36% in 2013-14—and it is expected to rise above 40% this academic year.

This is welcome news, for we know that in an increasingly competitive and outward-facing global world, qualifications matter. Even at 14, the choices that a pupil makes in choosing their GCSE options will have a critical impact on their future. Universities now take GCSE results and the subjects studied into close account, while the choice of certain GCSEs can have a limiting effect on a pupil’s ability to study certain subjects at A-level, which in turn can prevent access to the study of these subjects at university. Options at 14 are, in fact, a seismic moment in a pupil’s education, one on which their entire academic future and career may depend.

Given how important the choice of GCSEs has become, and given the weight that is placed on them, one would expect that all pupils, regardless of where they were born, would—in today’s world—be given equal opportunities to study for qualifications that would decide their own future career paths. If pupils’ options are to be meaningful, they must also be given an equal and fair choice of subjects that is open to all. It is unacceptable that the subject choices and, as a result, the aspirations of many pupils are still being capped by a lack of subject provision in the schools that they attend. For many pupils, GCSE choices are little more than a modern-day Hobson’s choice: they are forced either to study certain subjects that their schools have deemed appropriate, or to study nothing at all.

That is particularly true of the uptake of sciences at GCSE. For too long, a great educational divide existed between schools that offered only what was then called double science, and schools that gave their pupils a chance to study the three separate sciences—biology, chemistry and physics. For too long, that chance was mostly the preserve of pupils who were educated in the private or selective sectors, while those attending comprehensive schools were forced to accept second best. Over the past 10 years, rapid progress has been made in the raising of aspirations in every school. In 2004, fewer than 40% of secondary schools offered the three separate sciences, or triple science, at GCSE, whereas recently 87.5% of schools entered pupils for triple science. In 2010, the figure was 78.2%.

Important work has been undertaken through schemes such as the triple science support programme, managed by myScience, which has helped 1,385 schools to increase provision of the three sciences. Following the creation of a national network of science learning centres which prepare teachers and technicians to meet the challenge of providing the delivery of triple science, the number of pupils in state-funded schools taking triple science has increased by more than 45,500 since 2010. Across the country, there have been individual success stories of schools that have transformed their science provision. John Smeaton Academy, for instance, initially only allowed its pupils to study science through a BTEC course, but some are now studying three separate sciences.

Last month, however, the publication of the Open Public Services Network’s “Lack of Options” report underlined the challenge that we still face in aiming to ensure that all pupils, regardless of where they live or what school they attend, are given equal opportunities to study for the qualifications that may secure their future. The report found that in just 41 of 149 local authorities did every school give pupils a chance to study the three separate sciences. The variation was stark: in Sutton, 46% of pupils had chosen to enter triple science GCSE, compared with just 14% in Hull and a pitiful 11% in Knowsley, where, worryingly, only 51% of pupils took any kind of science GCSE

Although the report’s conclusions suggested that there was a strong correlation between areas of deprivation and the provision of triple science GCSE, it is important to note that a pupil’s own economic family background did not necessarily act as a barrier to attainment. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the proportion of pupils who were eligible for free school meals was similar to that in Knowsley—47%, compared with 51%—but 37% of pupils were entered for triple science, compared with 11% in Knowsley. The real difference between those two authorities, however, involved the provision of triple science GCSE in schools. In 43% of schools in Knowsley, not a single pupil was entered for triple science GCSE, whereas every school in Hammersmith and Fulham offered the three separate sciences.

Poverty of aspiration, which lowers horizons and dims lights that should be burning brightly, still reaches into areas of our education system, and into places where education is most needed to transform young lives. We cannot continue to allow generation after generation of pupils to be let down simply because of the accident of where they were born or what school they attend. In Bristol, my own local area, only 23.3% of pupils were entered for triple science GCSE. A quarter of schools did not even offer the subject at GCSE. Every single school did so in South Gloucestershire, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset. That contrast is simply unacceptable.

As a local MP, like many other Members to whom I have spoken, I have dealt with casework involving this issue. A pupil whose ambition and aspirations were still burning wished to study the three separate sciences at GCSE, with a view to studying medicine at university. She was informed by the school—which called itself a specialist science school—that she would not be able to do so. After her parents visited my surgery, I investigated the case, under the impression that, in 2008, the previous Government’s science and innovation investment framework had entitled all pupils who achieved a level 6 or above at key stage 3 to study triple science at GCSE. When I contacted the science, engineering and design and technology team at the Department for Education, I was informed that that was not the case, and that the promise that had been made back in 2008 was not

“a legal entitlement. It was a commitment made by the last government but was never made statutory”.

The Department further explained that there was no legal entitlement for pupils in any maintained school, including the old specialist schools, to study triple science. It was up to the school and the governing body to decide what science qualifications should be offered.

Regardless of the improvements that have been made throughout the country—and I accept that here have been fantastic improvements—the situation remains the same. Pupils who are trapped in a school that does not offer triple science GCSE will be prevented from studying the subjects that they wish to study, the subjects that could transform their future. Rather than that critical choice being placed in the hands of pupils themselves, allowing them to choose their own destiny, it remains the case that the power to arbitrate over pupils’ lives remains with the schools themselves.

I propose that the law be changed, so that pupils can be given not only the entitlement that was once promised to them, but what I call a “right to learn”. If a school is unable to offer triple science GCSE for whatever legitimate reason—and I fully understand that the provision of laboratories and specialist science staff is critical—it should have a duty to ensure that pupils are given the chance to study for those GCSEs elsewhere. I hope that such a duty would in itself act as a positive enabling force to help to end the “subject deserts” that are afflicting parts of the country, highlighting the fact that the current situation must change. I hope that it would ensure greater collaboration between schools, driving up further the number of pupils taking triple science GCSE. I have chosen science today because it is a particularly pressing example, but an equal case can be made for other EBacc subjects.

I hope that in another decade we shall be able to look back—as I have today—to review the progress that schools have made, and to assess the further progress that they must make if we are to ensure that pupils are given the best start in life in an increasingly competitive world. However, I also hope that by then we shall have relegated to history a world in which pupils’ educational chances, and the subjects that are offered to them, depend on the part of the country in which they were born. The fact that pupils are still being denied an opportunity to study for qualifications that are available to others in state-funded schools is unacceptable, and nothing short of educational discrimination. This simple Bill would ensure that, while the fight to reduce inequality of attainment must continue apace, we can at least end the inequality of access and opportunity to study for qualifications that should be available to all.

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I oppose the Bill because, despite its title, I feel that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has misunderstood the nature of the risk that is posed to students who need to study specific subjects. In blaming schools and teachers, he has ignored the imminent prospect of the withdrawal of certain modern foreign language A-level subjects. Students will have no opportunity to study for A-level qualifications in subjects such as Polish, Punjabi, Bengali and Hebrew, because the A-level examination board—the only board that provides for those subjects—is planning to withdraw the examinations in 2017.

The Government have failed to do anything to prevent the removal of Polish and Punjabi—the two languages which, after English, are most spoken in this country— from the A-level examination syllabus. In 1998, when such a move was last suggested, Members tabled an early-day motion, and succeeded in preventing Edexcel from ending the A-level examination in Polish. At that time, there were 100 students studying Polish A-level; now there are nearly 10 times as many, but the plan is still to abandon the course.

When Ofsted last looked at the teaching of modern foreign languages, it produced a report in January 2011 and pointed out that A-level entries in modern languages increased slightly between 2007 and 2010, from 28,377 to 29,836. Since then there has been a depressing decline. Entries for French are down 3,150 to 9,000, and entries for German are down 1,300 to 3,750. There has been a significant increase in the number of students getting qualifications in the minority modern foreign languages, which are the very languages that will soon be unavailable for examination.

So what did I do? I wrote to the AQA examination board and Ofqual and they responded. I sent a copy to the Secretary of State for Education, who has not responded. AQA said that

“government changes to the exam system and qualifications mean that only new GCSEs and A-levels accredited by the exams regulator, Ofqual, can be offered by awarding bodies”.

In other words, it is pointing to Ofqual. It also talks about the specific subjects I have raised:

“we will be faced with a number of challenges. We know it will become increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient examiners with assessment expertise to set and mark the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.”

I have spoken to a senior examiner in Polish and she assures me there is no difficulty in finding suitably qualified examiners in that subject, yet AQA is determined to abandon it. It points out that only 983 students were entered in the last year, but it has ignored the fact that the Polish community, which is the biggest driver of the number of A-level entrants, is growing hugely. So this short-sighted policy risks the children of the many thousands of Poles who have settled in Britain in the last years not being able to study the language.

Let us have a look at what Ofqual says. It says:

“What is taught in schools up to Key Stage 4 is a matter for Government. After this the offering will be demand led for the exam boards who are free (mostly) to develop qualifications at A level that they wish.”

I want the Minister on the Treasury Bench, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), to make sure they are not mostly “free” to develop the qualifications they wish. Instead he should insist that they develop the qualifications students need, because if we do not study these modern foreign languages, including the languages of the growing markets in south Asia, we will lose important outward-facing opportunities for the British economy.

Ofqual goes on to say:

“We at Ofqual do not…seek to limit the curriculum. We do expect any GCSE, AS or A level to be of comparable demand”.

It is saying that it needs the same number of entrants for each subject, but at the current rate of decline the number of entrants for Polish and French will be very similar very soon, and I imagine that the number of entrants for Polish and German will be almost the same by the time the Polish A-level is abandoned.

The Government must use their power to direct Ofqual. The Ofqual response says that

“we here at Ofqual make no judgements on what subjects ought to be taught as part of key stages of the curriculum”.

Someone needs to take responsibility for making this judgment, because it is clear that there are sufficient examiners. The Polish University Abroad, which is based in London, runs further education courses for BA graduates in teaching Polish as a second language, and it does not expect any shortage of suitably qualified examiners in the near future.

If the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) had focused his Bill on qualifications that students are prevented from being able to obtain by Government inaction, it could have enabled students to qualify in Polish, in Punjabi, in Hebrew, in Bengali—in all the languages that the examination boards are planning to abandon. If we abandon them, we cannot continue to depend on the fact that English is our greatest export as the reason why our companies can succeed so well. We need to recognise that in order to compete in an increasingly globalised world, Britain needs access to all those languages, and if we just look backwards we will not obtain the wealth our country needs or give children the chance to get an A-level in a subject they will succeed in.

The hon. Gentleman compared the approaches to learning in Hammersmith and Knowsley. I believe that one of the reasons why London education authorities are doing well in this regard is that London children bring many languages to their schools—languages they are able to be examined in and succeed in. If somebody has access to another language, they have insights that can strengthen all areas of their learning. We are about to deny an entire cohort of children that opportunity to be examined in modern foreign languages, and I wish the hon. Gentleman’s Bill would sort out that problem, rather than the one he has talked about.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Skidmore, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Henry Smith, Neil Carmichael, Andrew Percy, Mr Dominic Raab, Nigel Adams, Mr Henry Bellingham, Richard Fuller, Christopher Pincher and Mrs Cheryl Gillan present the Bill.

Chris Skidmore accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 194).