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Education: English Baccalaureate

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria they use in determining which subjects count towards the English Baccalaureate.

The English Baccalaureate reflects vital subjects—maths, English and science—where pupils should have the option to take exams leading to A-level, and history, geography and languages, which have been in decline. However, these are not the only valuable or rigorous subjects. We are also making detailed performance information available so that the public can look at schools’ results in any combination of subjects.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he not share my concern over a recent survey in which 60 per cent of the schools that responded said that they would no longer be teaching art and design at GCSE as a result of the introduction of the English baccalaureate as they have to concentrate on the subjects that it encompasses? The qualifications that count towards the current EBacc provide limited scope for the development of creative skills. Does the Minister not agree with me that, considering how important the creative industries are to the present and future prosperity of this country, that is really rather short-sighted?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend about the importance of the creative subjects in terms of the contribution they can make to the creative industries, as she says, and as a good in themselves. It is right and good for children to learn about these subjects for the benefit of education, not just for some gradgrindian economic benefit. I agree with her very strongly on that. The thinking behind the EBacc is not in any way to undermine or diminish the value of other subjects that are not in the EBacc. The starting point is that all of us in this House are keen to encourage social mobility. The fact is that children, particularly from poor backgrounds, have not been having the opportunity to study the kind of academic subjects that will enable them to progress to higher education in the numbers that one would like. We are all keen for children from poor backgrounds to become doctors in the way that those from more affluent backgrounds do, yet only 4 per cent of children on free school meals take physics or chemistry. Any further measure we take will not help those children become doctors. We hope the EBacc will give children who want it the opportunity to study academic subjects. Children, however, come in all shapes and sizes and vocational, arts and creative subjects are equally important.

My Lords, I do not think that anybody in this House would doubt the Minister’s personal belief in the value of the subjects to which the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred. Can he say how the Government will ensure that schools do not reduce the resources that they make available for the teaching of those subjects in order to boost their potential league table performance by concentrating only on baccalaureate subjects? Is it not the case that universities and employers look for young people who are not only good at passing exams in academic subjects, but are also well rounded human beings?

I agree with the underlying point. That is, of course, what employers are looking for. As the noble Baroness will know, one of the thrusts of our school reforms is to try to give head teachers greater discretion and autonomy to teach the subjects they think are appropriate for the pupils in their care. It is not for us to tell them what to do the whole time. If we can strip back the national curriculum, freeing up more unprescribed time to study some of these other subjects, I hope that will help. Ultimately, it is our view that it is for schools to decide and for pupils and parents to make their views known. The more information that we can publish so that parents and others can see what choices schools are offering, the more it will help to make sure that children are able to study the subjects that are right for them and are not driven by perverse incentives in league tables. This is where I agree with the noble Baroness. We have to be very careful that we do not end up with children studying subjects that are not suitable so that schools can do better in league tables.

My Lords, I preface my question by saying that for many years I was a parent governor of what was then the only comprehensive school in England doing the baccalaureate as an alternative to A-levels. Would the Minister agree that the baccalaureate has a big advantage in not pressing pupils into a science/arts split, in the way that A-levels tend to, and that it encourages a creative way of thinking and writing in depth at A-level standards?

My Lords, the international baccalaureate to which my noble friend refers, has many merits. I am not sure I would have benefited from it, because I was never very good at the science and maths bit, which it entails. I agree with him, however, that for many children it is suitable; it has many strong advocates. We are freeing up the system so that schools that want to offer the IB in the maintained sector are able to do so and that pupils can choose to study it.

My Lords, the Minister made great play of the fact that schools should not simply staff up to cover the English baccalaureate subjects, but there is already anecdotal evidence that that is happening. What is the department doing to monitor whether that is the case and what is happening on the ground now that the English baccalaureate league tables are being sought by so many schools? And what steps will the department take where that is identified as happening in schools to discourage them from doing it in the future?

My Lords, in some ways, if one of the consequences was that schools needed to employ more teachers to teach modern foreign languages or sciences, it would not be a development that I would deplore. I think that many of us in this House would welcome it. If more people were employed to teach those academic subjects, I would not see it as regrettable. The noble Baroness is right that we need to monitor what is happening to make sure that the provision of teachers in STEM subjects and other subjects is sufficient. We have had a long-term problem in ensuring that we have enough and we need to try to address that. We need to monitor that. The normal statistical returns which are produced each year and inform the department’s recruitment of teachers and trainee teachers will track that, enabling us to see what is going on.