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Europa School

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 10 January 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I am grateful for the Minister’s attendance. He and I have talked about the Europa School at some length on a number of occasions, and he was, of course, responsible for the reply from the Department for Education to a petition that I presented in the Chamber not so long ago. My purpose this evening is first to highlight the importance and the unique history of the approach to languages that is demonstrated at the school, secondly to highlight the approach to providing the European baccalaureate as the final qualification for those leaving it, and thirdly to ask some questions and make some comments arising from the Department’s response to my petition.

The background to all this is, of course, the situation in which we find ourselves as a country in the context of our relationship with the European Union. I am sure we all feel the need to end the current uncertainty as soon as possible, but that is felt nowhere more keenly than at this school, where the educational future of children is at stake.

The Europa School is one of the free schools created as a result of this Government’s initiative. It is in Culham, in my constituency, but it serves a wide area, mostly in Oxfordshire and in the surrounding areas of neighbouring counties. Under the terms of the free school, parents have agreed to the provision of a certain type of education that I will describe in more detail shortly, but let me first say something about the school’s importance and its unique history.

The initial meeting to discuss the establishment of a free school in Culham took place in 2011 with the then schools Minister, my noble Friend Lord Hill. The meeting was sponsored by me and attended by representatives of parents and educationalists who wished to speak in favour of the proposal. The aim was to meet three demands. First, residents of the county had given the clearest possible support for the new school; secondly, its founders wanted to bring a new form of education into the state school system; and thirdly, we all wished to build on a secure and well-established foundation of education in the European Schools curriculum, which leads eventually to the European baccalaureate.

At its core—this is the first of my major points—was a proposal to offer something that had not been offered before in the UK state system, and, indeed, had not previously been offered in the whole of the European School system. The proposers offered a complete, thoroughgoing commitment to full bilingual education from reception class onwards. Pupils would not simply learn the other language, but would learn through that language. They would learn the linguistic rhythm of that language. This was planned to be truly deep language learning, not just the acquisition of a second language overlaid on the first.

The Europa School was set up as a free school because that is what the parents wanted, which is a key component of the free school movement. The parents wanted that particular type of education to continue through the free school. It was a way of approaching subjects in languages. The pupils were taught subjects through all those languages, so they could end up learning history in German or geography in Spanish, and so on. That is a valuable way of teaching. The parents wanted that system to continue in the school, and it is being continued.

During Education questions, I asked the Minister whether he accepted that the school was proving popular with parents of all types, including those from the UK, and that it was a good model of language teaching to follow. He replied that he shared my admiration for the Europa School, and I want to build on that today. I understand that we are anticipating an Ofsted report. I believe that everyone expects the school to have done rather well out of it, and I hope that that expectation is fulfilled. However, this approach needs to be set in the context of Brexit, and the difficulties of negotiating a Brexit that does not see the school become a casualty.

The European School, Culham—not the Europa School—had for some time been destined for closure, as the resourcing for such a school at Culham could not be justified within the European Commission’s budget for European Schools. A closure date of 2017 for the European School had already been announced. A plan was therefore advanced for the new free school to grow year by year as the European School diminished, and for the two schools to share the use of the Culham site on an agreed basis. An important aspect of this is that the free school was oversubscribed by some 30% at its opening in September 2012 and it has remained significantly oversubscribed at every subsequent admissions round since that date.

What promises and commitments has the school made? First, it sought to open multilingual education to all the residents of Oxfordshire. Secondly, it determined that the new school would have an important commitment to sciences and mathematics, particularly when the plans for the secondary school came into play. The school started with two stream languages, German and French, each joined with English, but it has recently added Spanish as a third stream language.

Critically, the freedom offered by the free schools programme to allow free schools to set their own curriculum has been essential. The founders of the Europa School adopted the European Schools’ curriculum, modified by the mandatory elements of the English national curriculum. Thus, by the time of the all-important interview at the Department for Education, there was a distinctive offering to support the bid for pre-opening status. From the deep educational theory came the view that giving a child a second language from their earliest schooling was like giving them a second life—that is, an alternative cultural world in which they could immerse themselves. From the practical world came the view that multilingualism is in no way elitist: what the taxi drivers of many European cities achieve linguistically must be within the reach of schoolchildren, given the right environment and experiences.

My hon. Friend is making a fascinating speech extolling the virtues of the Europa School in his constituency. I have had correspondence from constituents expressing their admiration for the school and I would like to associate myself with those comments. Does he agree with me on two brief points? First, does not the success of the Europa School show the success of the free schools programme? Secondly, does that success not also illustrate that, while Britain may be withdrawing from the political structures of the European Union, she remains an enthusiastic participant in the culture, friendships and co-operation of Europe?

I agree with both my hon. Friend’s points. The school’s success shows the importance of the free school movement and our commitment to continuing our co-operation in Europe. I thank him for making those points.

I was particularly proud when the Europa School was specifically mentioned here in 2011 when the then Secretary of State for Education announced that the school was to open as a bilingual free school in 2012. That was not the first time that the residents of Oxfordshire had reason to be grateful for the support of the House in determining the educational provision available to their children. The quality of education at Culham through the European Schools programme had long been held in high regard. David Cameron had supported the unique educational offer provided at Culham, seeking to preserve and enhance it.

I should like to praise the system of education offered under the free schools programme. We must not forget that in this case the school was principally set up to deal with parents of mainland European origin in the area. However, the approach to teaching languages has proved immensely successful—so successful that we are now in a situation where British parents are keen for their children to enter the school and be taught in that way. I ask the Minister to acknowledge this and to confirm that he will do all he can to encourage the continuation of this form of education.

Moving on to the question of the European baccalaureate, the Europa School became an accredited European School in 2014. This means that the school has approval to continue offering the European baccalaureate and to teach the European curriculum. This accreditation was confirmed at a more recent inspection in 2018 by the European Commission. No money flows from Brussels to the school as a consequence of that status; it is simply a validation of the quality of teaching and assessment in the school.

What is so valuable about that accreditation and affiliation? The European baccalaureate uniquely obliges all candidates to take written and oral examinations in at least two languages. The examinations do not just test competence in the additional stream language; the students, as I have pointed out, actually study history and geography through those languages, and use the stream languages as the mode of learning and assessment. As a result, students have a linguistic competence in their stream language on leaving similar to the linguistic competence of university undergraduates. At the same time, all students must study mathematics and at least once science subject to an advanced level. That outcome is not delivered by the UK A-level system. This free school also requires a leaving qualification that properly recognises the numerous years of education that are involved in becoming bilingual and studying diverse school subjects in two languages.

As a responsible step in school governance, the principal and governing body of the school have explored whether the international baccalaureate could be adopted as an alternative qualification. However, there are significant limitations: examination and study of subjects through two languages is not mandatory; support for the English and German stream combination is weak; the middle years syllabus differs in significant ways; and, most of all, there is a risk of losing expertise among the teaching staff.

The school wants to be able to continue offering the European curriculum and to offer the European baccalaureate as its qualification for school leavers, and I support it most strongly in that aim. In conversation, the Minister likened the situation to the owners of a copyright. In this case, the copyright is owned by the European Commission, not by the Department for Education. I understand from the Minister that the Department is happy for the school to continue teaching the European baccalaureate, but the problem lies in the attitude of the European Commission. In this situation, I would like to ask the Minister to ensure that the Department for Education can continue to be a friend to this free school, to negotiate strongly on its behalf, and to offer a no-holds-barred assessment of how the school can continue even if the UK is not a member of the EU. I urge the Minister to explore every avenue as a matter separate from Brexit. I hope that this excellent educational establishment may continue its development in the direction that the founders of the free school have planned.

Finally, let me turn to the Department’s response to my petition. I was glad that the Government were successful in securing a provision in the withdrawal agreement that allows for Europa School’s continued accreditation as a European school until the end of August 2021. Beyond the withdrawal agreement, accreditation to deliver the European baccalaureate is available only to schools located in an EU member state. Continuing to deliver the European baccalaureate beyond that depends on a decision by European Union member states and the European Commission, through the European Schools board of governors, to change the rules on accredited schools. What are the Government doing to help the school talk to the European Schools board to try to get an agreement to include the school within its ambit after 2021? The Minister said:

“At present that seems highly unlikely.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 16P.]

This may be a lawyer’s view, but I note the term “at present” in his statement, so I ask him to set out the full position and the likely changes he expects, so as to provide the school with the degree of certainty it requires.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) pointed out, there is something special about free schools, particularly in what they can teach and the way that they can teach it. The Europa School illustrates that above all, which is why I have spent the last few minutes telling Members about it. It is a good example of how free schools work, how they can take the attitudes of parents and make them a reality, and how they can, in this case, through the European baccalaureate, continue to offer something of enormous benefit to children. I would like to see the extent to which we can provide support for the school at this time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to him for his assiduousness in championing the Europa School not just today but over many years. He has acted to secure the best interests of parents, pupils and teachers at the school, particularly in his dealings with Ministers and with the Department for Education.

As I said in response to my hon. Friend’s question in the House on 17 December, I share his admiration for the Europa School and its very high academic standards. As continued accreditation as a European school depends on decisions by the European Schools board of governors, I recognise that the school and its community of pupils, parents and staff are facing a period of considerable change and uncertainty as the UK prepares to leave the EU. I assure the school and my hon. Friend of my ongoing support during this period, and I will work closely with him in making sure that the school receives that support.

The Europa School, as my hon. Friend said, opened as a free school in 2012. Its creation was driven by a group of parents who wished to continue to offer a European Schools-style multilingual education following the decision to close the European school in Culham in 2007. That decision was taken by the then Education Secretary in the last Labour Government as there were no longer sufficient numbers of pupils who were the children of EU officials employed at the Culham centre for fusion energy to justify its continuation as a European school.

As my hon. Friend said, the Europa School is the only accredited European school in the UK, and it teaches the European baccalaureate, which comprises the last two years of secondary education in a European school or at a school accredited by the European Schools board of governors. Pupils follow a combination of language, humanities and scientific subjects, with subjects taught through more than one language.

The Europa School has a thriving community, and it is held in high regard by parents, pupils and the local community. As of 1 January, there are 442 open free schools across the country, and the schools will provide around 250,000 places when at capacity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) said in his intervention, free schools like the Europa School are creating thousands of high-quality school places, as well as bringing innovation to the wider education system and diversity to local provision.

Ofsted’s latest information shows that 85% of all free schools with inspection reports published by the end of November 2018 are rated good or outstanding, and secondary free schools are among some of the highest performing state-funded schools in the country. I congratulate the Europa School on being one of eight European schools to have achieved a 100% pass rate for students who completed the European baccalaureate in 2018, which is a particularly impressive achievement given that 2018 was the first year of pupils at the free school taking the qualification.

Within the primary phase, I am pleased to note that the school has achieved an improvement in its key stage 2 results, with the proportion of pupils achieving the expected standard in reading, writing and maths increasing from 68% in 2017 to 69% in 2018. That places the school above the national average of 64%.

I note that the school had two inspections last term, with an inspection from the European Schools system in early September followed by Ofsted in December. The Ofsted report will be published shortly. The European Schools inspection will inform the European Schools board of governors decision to grant accreditation from 2019 to August 2021.

The defining feature of the European Schools curriculum is, of course, its focus on foreign languages, which this Government strongly support. I very much welcome the Europa School’s success, and boosting language teaching is central to this Government’s ambition. Having a command of foreign languages is more important than ever as we leave the European Union and forge a new relationship with our European friends and global partners. Languages provide an insight into other cultures and can open the door to travel and employment opportunities. Languages can also broaden a pupil’s horizons, helping them to navigate and succeed in new environments.

The Europa School is an accredited European school. Accreditation to deliver the European baccalaureate is available only to schools located in an EU member state, which means that, in addition to the exemption it receives from the Department for Education to deliver this qualification, the school must also receive accreditation from the European Schools board of governors, consisting of all member states of the EU and the European Commission.

The withdrawal agreement with the EU contains a provision that the UK will remain covered by the European schools convention during the implementation period after we leave the EU, but that would not have been enough to allow Europa to retain its accreditation during this period. That is why the UK negotiators sought, and were successful in securing in the withdrawal agreement, the inclusion of the regulations on accredited European schools. That allows for the continued accreditation for Europa to offer the European baccalaureate until the summer of 2021. I am very pleased that we were able to secure that transition period for Europa as part of the separation provisions in the withdrawal agreement. It will allow the school sufficient time to transition to a new curriculum.

The accreditation to 2021 is subject to renewal of accreditation by the European Schools board of governors, which will take place in April 2019, and we expect that to be granted, given the clear intention of the withdrawal agreement and the strong performance of the school. I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Henley that officials in the Department have been working closely with the Europa School to prepare for its future after we leave the EU and it is clearly for Europa and its board of trustees to determine the right curriculum to enable the school to continue after the implementation period ends. The implementation period will allow time for the school to complete this transition.

I am pleased to hear that the school has recently been successful in its candidacy application to be able to teach the international baccalaureate diploma from September 2020. That will allow the school to continue its focus on language teaching, and to operate with an international focus and ethos. All international baccalaureate students learn to express themselves confidently in more than one language, and this qualification will allow the school to retain its advanced language teaching and a unique offer of education to pupils. Once the accreditation process is complete, the Europa School will join 138 other international baccalaureate world schools operating in the UK.

This Government have been clear that we do not want or expect a no-deal scenario. The UK and the EU have agreed the terms of the UK’s smooth and orderly exit from the EU in the form of the withdrawal agreement and a detailed political declaration on the terms of our future relationship. Nevertheless, the Government will continue to do the responsible thing and prepare for all eventualities. I welcome the fact that the Europa School is also taking a responsible approach and preparing for the UK exiting the EU without a deal.

I am pleased to say that, with the Department for Education’s support, the European Schools board of governors agreed at its December meeting to maintain Europa’s accreditation until the end of this academic year, even in the event of a no-deal exit. That will enable the 32 pupils currently in year 13—S7, as it is referred to at the Europa School—to complete their sixth-form studies and take their exams. In addition, the school and DFE officials are working with the European Schools system to secure arrangements for the 47 year 12 pupils, who are due to sit their European baccalaureate exams in summer 2020.

The European Schools system has been clear that its rules require accredited schools to be in an EU member state, and therefore accreditation would not be available beyond 2019, but I am pleased that it is working with Europa and DFE to consider alternatives for the pupils due to sit their baccalaureate in 2020. It has been proposed that Europa could operate in partnership with another European school to deliver the baccalaureate in 2020. I thank the principal of Europa and the director of the European School in Bergen for their work to put the arrangements in place.

While we are optimistic that we will secure the necessary support for this arrangement, it is dependent on further legal consideration by the European Schools system and a vote in the board of governors’ meeting in April. The Department will, of course, continue to make a very strong case for this agreement to be adopted for 2020. I do need to make it clear, though, that the European Schools system views this partnership arrangement as a “one-off’ arrangement for the current year 12 pupils only. It is not considering a similar arrangement for 2021 in a no-deal scenario. Our current understanding is that it will not apply to those pupils currently in year 11. I recognise the difficult position in which that leaves the school and its pupils.

I very much welcome the fact that Lynn Wood, the principal of Europa School UK, and Professor Andrew Parker, the chair of the board of governors, have taken a responsible approach in being open and honest with affected pupils and their families. I understand that Ms Wood and Professor Parker have written to the parents of the 54 pupils currently in year 11 so that they can make appropriate choices about their sixth-form education and ensure that arrangements are in place in the unlikely event that we leave without a deal. I also understand that Europa is investigating whether the school could be exceptionally authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organization to start teaching the international baccalaureate as early as September, as an emergency measure, should the need arise.

I assure the Europa School UK community that the Department is committed to supporting the school and its pupils and will work closely with the school as the future position becomes clear. I will work closely with my hon. Friend, who will monitor the situation very closely himself.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the future position of the Europa School as an accredited European school beyond the provisions set out in the withdrawal agreement. I recognise that the wish of the Europa School is to continue to deliver the European curriculum and baccalaureate once the UK has left the European Union. The Government are not in a position to allow or not allow the school to offer the European baccalaureate to its students as an equivalent A-level after 2021; that is a matter solely for the board of the European Schools system.

Although the system also allows for accredited European schools operating in national education systems, the European schools regulation on accredited schools is clear: only schools in EU member states can be accredited as European schools. It does not provide for accreditation in non-EU countries. That is why it was important that we secured a transitional period for Europa through the withdrawal agreement. The school must therefore continue to prepare to transition to a new curriculum, and I am pleased that it is making good progress on that.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for this issue and appreciate the difficult position that the school finds itself in. I thank the pupils, staff and wider school community for supporting the school through these uncertain times. I am sure that the school will continue to be highly successful in offering a strong, quality education through the delivery of a broad curriculum with a focus on language teaching. Europa pupils will continue to be well placed to succeed in a global economy, and the Department for Education will continue to support the school to prepare for its future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.