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Education: English Baccalaureate

Volume 740: debated on Monday 22 October 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they propose that all young people will be able to study for the new English baccalaureate certificate.

My Lords, we expect that everyone who now sits a GCSE should be able to sit the new English baccalaureate certificate. Although it will be more challenging than the current GCSEs, we believe that all children with a good education should be able to achieve it. We have also moved to strengthen vocational qualifications, increase the number of UTCs and studio schools and set an expectation that young people who are not secure in English or maths at the age of 16 will continue to study towards that qualification post-16.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he understand the concerns of many academics and parents that the new qualification will narrow the definition of educational success and excellence? Is it not inevitable that the teaching time for many other crucial subjects, such as art, music, religion, computing and technology, will be squeezed out by the emphasis on the core subjects in the EBacc? Does he recognise that the Government’s obsession with academic subjects offers little comfort to the forgotten 50% who will never go to university but who want an alternative, gold-standard vocational qualification, such as the technical baccalaureate proposed by the leader of the Opposition?

My Lords, I do not accept the basic premise that the Government are concerned only about academic qualifications to the exclusion of all else. I agree with the noble Baroness, and with the party opposite, on the importance of vocational and technical qualifications. One of the very first things that the Government did when coming into office was to commission the Wolf review into vocational qualifications. However, with regard to the EBC, the amount of time that is likely to be taken to teach those core subjects will still leave plenty of time for the important subjects that she mentions, such as art, music or design, which I agree one would want to continue to be taught. I do not think it is a narrowing of the definition of excellence to want to set a higher bar for more children from a whole range of backgrounds, particularly the most disadvantaged, to get good academic qualifications that will get them into further or higher education, apprenticeships or work.

Is the department considering including computer science in the EBacc certificate? I mean real computer science and not just how to use applications.

As my noble friend knows, we are looking at how to ensure that computer science is taught well. A consultation is out at the moment and the precise composition of the EBC is something that I am sure my right honourable friend will continue to reflect on. I will relay my noble friend’s point about the importance of computer science to the Secretary of State—I know it is a point that he shares.

Can the Minister assure us that religious education will be included in core subjects for the English baccalaureate certificate? Does he agree that the absence of religious education can lead to bigotry and prejudice?

I agree very much about the importance of religious education. I am particularly pleased that the number of young people taking religious education at GCSE went up by nearly 8% this year and by 10% last year, at a time when people are concerned about take-up because of the introduction of the English baccalaureate performance measure. We do not currently have plans to make it a compulsory part of the English baccalaureate system.

Is the Minister aware that when GCSEs were introduced there was much discussion of girls managing better, in terms of both learning and achievement, under a system of continuous assessment than with a cliff-edge examination at the end? Did the Government consider this when they changed the rules for 16 year-olds’ exams?

My Lords, the Government’s proposals for the English baccalaureate certificate are out for consultation. There will be a range of issues on which people will be able to express their views, including those raised by the noble Baroness. While I take the point about assessment and different people learning in different ways, it is the Government’s view that the balance has tilted too far, and that having a linear course with exams at the end will not only give a better indication of performance but free up more time in the classroom for teachers to teach not to the test but towards a broad and rich education.

Will the Minister enlighten us on the Government’s position on allowing unqualified teachers in classrooms?

The Government’s position is, and has been for some time, that teachers without QTS may work in free schools. That has been extended to apply to academies. The Government’s view is that that is a space for innovation that is very likely to be only at the margin of the system as a whole. We think that the freedom for people with particular expertise who have not been through the qualification process to come in and offer it, as they do in independent schools, should be extended to academies.

My Lords, in the light of the Minister’s reply to the noble Lord, Lord Singh, will he assure the House that religious education will not eventually disappear from the qualifications register and thus disappear from school timetables altogether?

I will give as much reassurance to the right reverend Prelate as I can—not least because RE is a compulsory subject and, as I said, the evidence is that the number of young people wanting to take a qualification in it is increasing, which is a good thing. It is also the case that the English baccalaureate certificate for six subjects represents only a core. Having that small number will provide space for a whole range of important subjects, including RE, to continue to be taught, offered and examined.

Will the Minister clarify that the EBacc will consist of seven subjects and will require a GCSE pass of grade A to C? What proportion of young people in the relevant age cohort do the Government think will pass linear exams at GCSE grade A to C in seven subjects?

My Lords, the EBC will consist of six subjects. It is our view that with the good teaching and support that I know is in our system, children currently studying GCSEs should be able to take on and tackle the EBC. We do not know the precise proportions and percentages because decisions will be taken by Ofqual on where the grade boundaries and so on will be set. As a general principle, it is our view that children who take GCSEs should be able to take the EBC.