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Education: English Baccalaureate

Volume 727: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they are making of the impact of the new English baccalaureate on the breadth of subjects offered by schools.

My Lords, anecdotal evidence suggests that the English baccalaureate is already having an effect in terms of opening up opportunities for pupils to take qualifications in key academic subjects. We will continue to monitor teaching, as we do at present, through the school workforce census, which will collect information annually on the subjects being taught by all teachers in maintained secondary schools. We will also be examining trends in GCSE entries.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he explain the process by which the core subjects in the English baccalaureate were put together at the expense, as some see it, of other equally merited academic subjects? Is he aware that schools are now putting pressure on pupils to focus on those English baccalaureate subjects regardless of their aptitude, so that the school will perform well in the new league tables? If he agrees that pupils should not be shoe-horned into those narrow curriculum choices, what is the department doing to ensure that they are given a broad range of curriculum options and can flourish and excel at subjects they enjoy?

I agree with the point that children should not be shoe-horned into choices that are not appropriate for them. I think that everyone would accept that children are different, that there is no right way for any particular children and that vocational options as well as academic options should be fully available. It would be wrong if schools were forcing children to do things that were not right for them or were forcing them to change subjects halfway through their course. The point of the English baccalaureate is to try to make sure that a number of key academic subjects are available to as many children as possible. If one starts at the point that what one wants to do is to get children from all backgrounds, particularly from poor backgrounds, to get to university, and to keep those options open to them, the subjects in the English baccalaureate are the kinds of subjects that will help those children to progress to A-level and from A-level to university. The correlation between the subjects that the Russell group has said that it would look for and the subjects in the English baccalaureate is very close.

Would the Minister agree that state school pupils should have equal opportunity with those in the private sector to achieve the English baccalaureate and that restoring modern languages for all pupils at key stage 4 would be a very important and enormous step towards giving them that opportunity?

As I hope I have already indicated, I would like as many pupils as possible to have a chance to study academic subjects, if that is appropriate for them. Modern foreign languages would be a good example of that. As the noble Baroness will know, the question about their place in the national curriculum stages is part of the curriculum review. I know of the case that she makes, and I hope and believe that one consequence of the English baccalaureate will be to encourage the take-up of modern foreign languages and reverse the sharp fall that there has been in recent years.

Does the Minister accept that broad-brush monitoring cannot look in detail at what is happening at school level, and that the Government cannot control individual school timetabling? Is he aware that schools are already staffing up for the subjects covered by the English bac at the expense of other subjects? How can he ensure that children are not limited as to the choices that they want to make for their own future ambitions by what the school is doing and the way it is timetabling and staffing up for the English bac?

My Lords, one problem has been that children have been limited in their choices and some of that limitation has applied to some of the key academic subjects. That is what we are keen to open up. We are trying to open up more choices.

I agree with my noble friend that the Government cannot monitor every school and should not seek to micromanage those schools. The English bac is part of what we are trying to do more broadly to encourage more information about school performance. I hope over time that with the provision of more information, whether it is on the vocational or academic qualifications being offered, schools and parents will work out for themselves what is the most appropriate mix of subjects for the children in those particular schools to study.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is concerned to ensure that those currently disengaged from schooling become re-engaged. Many of those young people are more engaged by learning by doing—by creative and vocational learning—than by the narrower academic styles of learning incentivised by the English baccalaureate. What advice would he give to head teachers? Should they focus on doing well in the English bac or in engaging the disengaged?

As is often the case, the issue is not either/or but both/and. I agree strongly with the noble Lord that one wants all schools to do what is right for their children. I take the point about engagement; that is why I am supportive of studio schools. Alongside things like the English bac, which is to try to get more of a focus on academic subjects, I want to encourage and promote things like the studio school movement precisely to give some of those disengaged children the chance to learn practical skills and then re-engage with school. There are also UTCs, as well as the review of the vocational qualifications. I hope that that is all part of the picture. I do not see this as a black-and-white choice or as saying that all children should go down one route rather than another.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the deep and widespread concern that, in narrowing the compulsory subjects in the English baccalaureate, there will likely be a reduction in religious studies and religious education learning—rigorous academic subject that it is—and a consequent reduction, which is already happening, in places for PGCE training of RE teachers? Underlying that, there is the likely erosion of religious literacy, particularly among more able and older teenagers, which is essential in our diverse society. Would he be prepared to consider adding religious education to the other excellent humanities subjects of geography, English and history?

My Lords, I am aware of and understand the views expressed particularly by church schools about RE. The choice of subjects currently in the English baccalaureate is not meant in any way to imply that subjects that are not in are less worthy or less academically rigorous. Fortunately, even though RE is a compulsory part of the curriculum, the number of children taking GCSE RE has been increasing—and I very much welcome that—whereas the proportion of children taking history and geography has been decreasing. In seeking to redress that balance, I understand the strength of the feeling that there is in church schools, which do a wonderful job in educating our children. It is always the case that the English baccalaureate is not fixed in stone, and these things need to be kept under review.