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Schools: Curriculum

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether free schools and faith schools will be required to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum which addresses the needs of all pupils.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in the name of my noble friend Lady Massey at her request. She has had an accident and sends her apologies today.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness could send a message to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that we wish her a speedy recovery.

All mainstream academies and free schools, whether they be faith schools or non-faith schools, must deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. That is a non-negotiable element of their funding agreements. Other state-funded schools, including faith schools, must also deliver the national curriculum and a broad and balanced education for their pupils, as specified in Section 78 of the Education Act 2002.

I thank the Minister for that reply and will pass on the good wishes that he has expressed in the House to my noble friend Lady Massey.

Is the Minister aware that, in the light of concerns over many months about the extent of new risks to young people from social media, the internet and grooming, Members across the House and in the other place, schools, children’s organisations and now even Nick Clegg and the Daily Telegraph are calling on the Government to update the guidance to schools on the sex and relationship education curriculum, which was first issued in 2000? Would that not be eminently sensible, and can the Minister tell the House why the Secretary of State has refused to do so?

My Lords, we looked at that recently during the PSHE review and concluded that the SOE curriculum provides a good foundation on which teachers can build. We trust teachers to deliver the education that pupils need and adjust it for the modern world. Technology is moving very fast, and we do not think that constant changes to the regulations and top-down diktats are the way to deal with this.

I wonder why Her Majesty's Government do not insist that those schools should teach the national curriculum, as all maintained schools have to; or, to put it the other way round, what parts of the national curriculum will the Government be happy to see ignored in schools that do not have to teach it?

Schools must teach English, maths, science and religious education. It is absolutely clear that in order to pass exams in this country, all pupils must have a core body of knowledge as assessed by GCSEs.

My noble friend is aware that the national curriculum is neither national nor has to be a curriculum for all schools. How do we ensure that those areas of child development and education, about which we have all expressed concern in this Chamber, which are essential to young people and children are taught in all schools—whether academies, faith schools, free schools or what were called county schools?

All good schools seek to develop their children’s character through a PSHE programme. We do not feel that the programme should be legislated for in its content. Circumstances of the different schools and pupils in them vary greatly, and we should leave it for teachers to decide exactly the approach that they take.

My Lords, given that the charity Mentor said, to cite the Home Affairs Select Committee report, Breaking the Cycle:

“We are spending the vast majority of the money we do spend on drug education on programmes that don’t work”,

and given that his department said it does not monitor the programmes or resources that schools use to support their teaching, is the Minister content with such a casual and laissez-faire approach on the part of the Government in an area where young people are so vulnerable?

The noble Lord implies that casual equals laissez-faire; we do not accept that. As I said, we accept that most schools should do what all good schools do, which is to have an active programme of promoting their children’s interest, including drugs education, which they must be taught about in science classes anyway. Often, the best way to engage those pupils with those difficult issues, such as forced marriages or gangs, is not for teachers to do that—they often will not open up to their teachers—but for outside agencies and charities with skilled people in those difficult areas to talk to them about that.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the overwhelming majority of free schools have been rated good or outstanding in Ofsted inspections? How does that compare with the performance of schools as a whole?

Under the recent new inspection framework for Ofsted, which is more rigorous, 64% of non-academies are rated good and outstanding as opposed to 75% of free schools. This is after only two years of them being open.

Does the Minister agree that the use of the phrase “faith schools” can be profoundly unhelpful in the context of this discussion? Schools of a religious character come in many forms. Is it not true that the nearly 4,700 Church of England schools sit very firmly within the mainstream of English education, and that even C of E free schools and academies are linked to diocesan boards to ensure that the education that they provide is broad and balanced, academically challenging, personally inspiring and serving the needs of the whole local community?

I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate. Faith schools are a long-established and highly valued part of our educational establishment, and church schools are, too. Church schools consistently outperform maintained schools; they are very popular and often highly oversubscribed. The applications procedures of many of them do not rely heavily on faith; they have a much wider intake.

My Lords, will the Minister return to the answer that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, who asked him an extremely apposite question about which bits of the national curriculum he would be content to see any school ignore? I did not hear him answer that question.

As I said, they must teach English, maths, science, and religious education, and they must follow a PSHE course. We will have a best eight assessment criteria, whereby schools will have to include other subjects. Then we have destinations, because we want our pupils to be work-ready and for them not to turn out as recently evaluated by the OECD—that is, that after 13 years of the Labour Government we have the most illiterate school leavers in Europe and, according to Alan Milburn, the most socially immobile society in Europe.