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Education: 11 to 16 Year-olds

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 8 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve the education system for 11 to 16 year-olds.

My Lords, we are raising standards and increasing the number of pupils in high-performing schools. Since 2010, we have reformed the curriculum and the organisational structure of our schools. For example, the international PIRL study of 2021 showed that our nine and 10 year-olds are the best readers in the western world, ranking fourth out of 43 comparable countries. However, we want to go further, not just for 11 to 16 year-olds but from early years through to 18 and beyond.

Do the Government agree that the report of your Lordships’ Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee requires careful study by all political parties in an election year, showing as it does how an overloaded curriculum and an unduly heavy exam burden can be reduced and how declining opportunities for technical and creative subjects can be reversed? Are not such reforms essential for the future of our country?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend that the committee’s report requires careful study and the Government will shortly respond formally. I cannot agree with him, however, about an overloaded curriculum or exam burden. Exams remain the fairest way that we know of assessing a student’s knowledge. The curriculum is critical for ensuring social justice in this country and making sure that disadvantaged children get the same opportunities as advantaged ones. Our reforms to T-levels underline our commitment to technical education.

Does not the continuing existence of EBacc and its constraining effects on the secondary curriculum for 11 to 16 year-olds, squeezing out creative subjects, as the noble Lord said, mean that the Government are not succeeding in the DfE’s stated second priority of

“ensuring that young people receive the preparation they need to secure a good job and a fulfilling career, and have the resilience and moral character to overcome challenges and succeed”?

That is not done through the EBacc.

I just cannot agree with the noble Baroness. I am not sure which subjects in the EBacc she would suggest dropping. In 2010, 8% of children from disadvantaged homes were doing the range of subjects in the EBacc, compared with 25% from advantaged homes. That is now 27% for disadvantaged children and 43% for children from advantaged homes. The uplift in children from disadvantaged homes doing double science has been from 61% in 2010 to 95% today. We are very proud of that.

My Lords, our committee proved that the curriculum is vastly overloaded with knowledge-based things, does not include enough digital or computing, and in a lot of schools the arts are completely neglected. Nor does it include life skills, so our young people are coming out without the skills they need for the future. So what urgent action will the Government take so that our children have a more enjoyable and much more useful school experience than they are currently having?

I appreciate how alluring it is to talk about some of the wider subjects the noble Baroness mentioned. As she knows, we are developing a cultural education plan that will be launched later this year, and I accept that things such as the IT curriculum maybe do not age as well as some other elements of the curriculum. But, in terms of the way in which we all learn, and children learn, the importance of putting down in our long-term memory a really rich knowledge base from which to apply those skills is critical, and we lose that at our peril.

My Lords, this is National Apprenticeship Week, during which I have met a considerable number of young apprentices at parliamentary events. Not one of them claimed to have found out about their apprenticeship through their school. This surely reinforces the finding of the Education Committee that the balance of 11 to 16 education is unduly skewed towards academic subjects, rather than technical and practical ones. So what steps have the Government taken to ensure that schools make all 11 to 16-year olds more aware of the range of education pathways available to them, including those leading to apprenticeships?

The Government are very proud of their track record on apprenticeships. I hear the noble Lord’s reflections in terms of technical apprenticeships, but actually 70% of our economy is now reflected in the apprenticeship options, including our service sector as well as more traditional areas of apprenticeships. Thanks to amendments put down in your Lordships’ House, we are expanding the amount of careers education in schools to six days across a child’s secondary career.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Select Committee of this House on 11 to 16 education has come up with very radical proposals, basically replacing the curriculum that she is defending with much more practical training and skills? This is welcomed by British industry; it wants school leavers at 18 to have practical skills, employability skills and data skills, and these are not effectively covered by the present curriculum. Does the Minister not realise that we need curriculum change, otherwise there will be no economic growth?

I respect my noble friend enormously, but I think that the evidence overall does not support that. We need to make sure that children have a really strong grounding in mathematics, sciences, English language and English literature, particularly if we want them to follow vocational courses. We have seen in other countries—for example, in Scotland—what has happened with a very well-intentioned policy. I have no doubt about the motivation of those who introduced the Curriculum for Excellence, which looks very like some of the elements that your Lordships are raising—but look at what has happened to our schools in Scotland.

Some 80% of secondary schools are not required to follow the national curriculum, which has led schools to prioritise early teaching of GCSE courses over the variety of subjects intended for key stage 3. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will support Labour’s call to reform the curriculum to deliver a better foundation in core subjects, which will ensure that children do not miss out on creative and practical ones too?

There is plenty of room in the curriculum; I refer the House to the 2011 review of these matters by the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, which made it clear that the curriculum has space within it for all the subjects which the Government value and which the noble Baroness refers to.

My Lords, what is not being mentioned is the massive decline in the teaching of foreign languages, at the very point when we are trying to engage worldwide with new trade deals—and, indeed, with our position in the world. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to address this, and can they also look at some of the very creative language clubs and so on that can be added on after school? These are often ways of exploring languages without loading the main curriculum even further.

The Government’s view would be “both/and”. I think it is critical, for the reasons that the right reverend Prelate sets out, that modern languages form part of our curriculum. We are developing a new language hubs programme and offering significant training bursaries for language teachers and scholarships for French, German and Spanish trainees. We share the right reverend Prelate’s focus on this issue.

Is the Minister not especially concerned—maybe even embarrassed—that in 2023, some 35.2% pupils in state schools left without a grade 4 or above in English and maths? Has not the time come, as the Select Committee suggests—and what an excellent report that is—to look to again at whether those subjects as currently defined are the route to ensuring that children leave school with functional literacy and numeracy?

The Government absolutely share the noble Lord’s concern, and one of the things we announced alongside the introduction of the advanced British standard is a review of how we can improve outcomes, particularly in mathematics but also in English, for those children who currently do not achieve the grades. The noble Lord makes an important point.