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British Baccalaureate

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the main recommendation of The Times Education Commission, published on 15 June, which calls for the introduction of a British Baccalaureate.

My Lords, I thank the Times Education Commission and the Members of this House who have contributed to it for their insight and ideas. Over the last 10 years, the Government have transformed the quality of academic and technical qualifications, ensuring that they support all young people to achieve their full potential. That is why, with the further reforms currently in train, we have no plans to introduce a new British baccalaureate at age 18.

My Lords, have the Government noted the chorus of praise that greeted this report and, in particular, its recommendation for a British baccalaureate uniting academic and vocational study? Do the Government agree with the president of the Royal Society, who has said that:

“Given the breadth of support for the commission’s report, it is surely time for a cross-party approach to implementing a genuine reset of education”?

Will the Government now rise to this challenge, surely one of the most urgent of our time, which the current Schools Bill, to which my noble friend referred, seems to rather evade?

We think we have led, since 2010, a major reset of education in this country, with relentless focus on quality, clarity of purpose and good progression outcomes, and I commend to my noble friend the schools White Paper, which covers both our legislative and non-legislative actions.

My Lords, the Minister’s reply was extraordinarily complacent and very disappointing. I cannot understand how the Government can have such a closed mind to a sensible suggestion of the kind that the Times Education Commission has made. Is she not aware that no other OECD country has such a specialised curriculum for their able 16 to 18 year-olds? Surely it is now high time to look at this again and try to come up with a more sensible solution where young people have the opportunity to study a wider range of subjects, rather than being confined to just three as is the case with A-levels at the moment.

I thoroughly hope that I did not give the noble Baroness the sense that the Government are complacent. We are not complacent. She need only look at the measures we are taking in relation to technical education, I hope, to demonstrate that. Obviously, every country has a different education system. We have worked to build the best system for our children. We believe that it plays to our strengths and recognises the structure of the school system we have, rather than one that other countries have.

My Lords, will the Government accept the Times education commission’s recommendation that bursaries for trainee language teachers be restored to the same level as for science and maths, given the current shortfall of well in excess of 50% for the recruitment of language teachers?

The noble Baroness has highlighted the issue of the shortage of modern languages teachers. She will be aware that we have taken a number of actions in this regard, including putting them on the shortage occupation list.

Another great point in the education commission’s recommendations—forgive me if I read it out—is this:

“An ‘electives premium’ for all schools to be spent on activities including drama, music, dance and sport”,

which are so sadly missing in state schools these days,

“and a National Citizen Service experience for every pupil, with volunteering and outdoor pursuits expeditions to ensure that the co-curricular activities enjoyed by the most advantaged become available to all.”

What a brilliant idea. How will the Government take this forward?

The Government are already taking it forward. The department is investing around £115 million a year in cultural education over three years, on top of schools funding. We are also publishing a national plan for music education, thanks to the great leadership of my noble friend Lady Fleet, and will publish a cultural education plan in 2023. We are supporting the national youth guarantee in relation to citizenship opportunities.

My Lords, does my noble friend not accept those famous words that, without vision, the people perish? We have vision in this report from the Times. Will my noble friend at the very least —because many do think that the Government are complacent—talk to the Leader of the House about having a full day’s debate on that commission?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the main problem is that people have to specialise too early in this country? When many of us were doing O-levels, the standards were closer to today’s A-levels, so we have the problem that you cannot specialise when the quality of the teaching you are relying on is not high enough.

I can say to my noble friend that we have worked incredibly hard to reform both academic and, more recently, technical qualifications. I proudly wear my T-level badge, although it is slightly upside down. More importantly, there is a perception that one can do either academic or technical qualifications. In our response to the consultation on level 3 qualifications, published in July last year, we set out the groups of technical and academic qualifications that we will fund and how they can be combined.

My Lords, although the Times education commission’s report is an extremely good piece of work with very good recommendations, other bodies were looking at the shape of our education system, particularly assessment, at the same time. So, although I wholeheartedly endorse the notion of having a day to look at this commission, it would pay dividends if the Government met all the commissions that have reported on the shape of our curriculum and assessment, and we thereafter debated all of them. I hope that the Minister agrees.

The Government engage with all the key stakeholder groups in this sector. We value enormously the expertise that they hold. However, I remind the House that attempts were made to deliver a broader 14-to-19 diploma but were not successful.

My Lords, the commission’s report comments on the importance of bringing out the best in teaching. Teach First has transformed the quality of teaching in some areas by attracting top-quality graduates into our schools. Would the Government consider a programme of Teach Last, to use the skills of those who retire early or want to give back to their communities after another career?

My noble friend will be pleased to know that there is such a programme, Now Teach, and that the Government have been active in supporting it.

Last week, the Minister said at the Dispatch Box that it is not government policy to open further grammar schools, yet we read in the papers that new selective schools are on the cards as a way of soothing Tory Back-Benchers. Can the Minister confirm whether what she said last week was correct or whether the department is looking into new grammar schools?

I think the noble Baroness has seen from the Schools Bill and from the schools White Paper what our policy is in this matter.

I make a plea to all those also asking the Government to take the baccalaureate more seriously. I declare an interest in that my eldest son took the baccalaureate because he was really distressed by the narrowness of A-levels. One advantage which has not been mentioned is that it can be internationally reciprocally recognised, so that children who emigrate or whose parents move for a job will not have to retake extremely alien examinations. Does the Minister not think that this is an advantage worth having for our children?

On the international recognition of our qualifications, the noble Baroness is right. We want an outward-looking and confident group of young people who seize opportunities all around the world, but certainly A-levels are extremely well regarded internationally, and we believe that T-levels will follow.

My Lords, the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report drew heavily on the work of anthropologists and sociologists. One aspect of the IB is that there is a theory of knowledge course, which looks not just at individual subjects but at how they intersect and divide between each other, and the challenge of acquiring reliable knowledge in an information age—referring to the media literacy question that we had yesterday. Therefore, is this cross-sectional, cross-disciplinary, systems-thinking approach not something that we urgently need across our education system?

The noble Baroness makes an interesting point. We agree that there is very much of value in the panel’s report, but one of its points is that there is an artificial dichotomy between knowledge and skills. All the evidence supports this. A knowledge-based curriculum stimulates critical thinking and inquiry skills, and those can be taught only in the context of solid subject content.