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Educational Trips and Exchanges

Volume 837: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the importance of educational trips and exchanges from England to other countries, and the measures needed to facilitate them.

My Lords, I declare my interest in languages as set out in the register. My first point, however, is that this is not just about languages; the importance of educational exchanges and trips abroad applies to many other areas of the curriculum, including geography, history, STEM subjects, art and sport. But I shall focus on languages in summarising why these trips are so important.

In fact, the DfE itself gave us one of the best and most thoughtful reasons why learning a language is so important in its document outlining the aims of the key stage 3 curriculum. It says:

“Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures”.

Yet the EBacc boost has stalled and barely a month goes by without yet another university announcing cuts in its modern language degree courses, which in turn weakens the supply chain of MFL teachers. This vicious circle is damaging to our economy and to individuals and their employability, with UK businesses saying that our school leavers and graduates do not have the language skills that they need. On top of all that, there is a stark correlation between the lowest take-up of languages at GCSE and the regions with the highest unemployment and skills shortages. Levelling up would benefit enormously from a boost to language learning.

How do trips and exchanges help? The Association for Language Learning has reported a positive impact on educational outcomes. Trips and exchanges raise motivation as well as achievement, encourage development of life skills, and help students see wider perspectives and develop and international mindset. University students who have spent a year abroad are more likely to gain a first or 2.1 degree and are 23% less likely to be unemployed six months after graduation, compared to people who have not spent a year abroad as part of their course, whether they are linguists or not.

Against this background, the APPG on Modern Languages, which I co-chair, heard detailed evidence from stakeholders on the problems that they are up against. The decline is worsening fast: data show that 50% of schools are now cutting trips and exchanges, rising to 68% in deprived areas—a massive increase from last year, when it was only 21%, though that was bad enough. Much of the educational benefit is being eroded, as a result of schools moving to what we might call cultural leisure tourism, with stays in hotels rather than exchanges in schools and families. I do not suppose that your average 14 year-old staying in a hotel with 30 classmates spends much time immersed in a language or practising their spoken French or Spanish.

The reasons for this decline, as presented to the APPG by teachers are fourfold: post-Brexit paperwork for travel and border checks; the increased burden of DBS checks; the lack of, or conflicting, official guidance; and, lastly, access to opportunity and funding. The impact of all this is unsustainable pressure on staff time and increased costs for schools and families; inequity, with some families having to pay more for the same trip; and the risk of a stressful journey, with delays caused by border checks.

Based on all this evidence, the APPG submitted a six-point plan of action to the DfE. I know that the Minister has seen this plan, as well as the reply that we received from Damian Hinds, the Schools Minister. However, we think the response rather weak, and I appeal to the Minister to work with the APPG to achieve more before another whole cohort of students loses out on what should be one of the most inspiring and stimulating parts of their education.

There are six practical steps to turn things around. First, it is not just a problem for the DfE to resolve. I see the Minister sighing with relief. The problems are rooted also in the Home Office and the FCDO. We need cross-departmental leadership and a designated Minister to co-ordinate this work. I believe the Minister would have exactly the right attitude and clout for this. What is more, she could rely absolutely on active help from stakeholders across the sector. The ALL, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Colleges, the British Council, the School Travel Forum, all the relevant embassies and cultural institutions and, of course, the APPG would pitch in to support her. I have also had supportive contact with ABTA, the school travel organiser, the Boarding Schools’ Association and the Sutton Trust. That is quite an alliance.

Secondly, the paperwork and costs must be reviewed. We should look at bringing back the list of travellers scheme, which allowed non-EU nationals to travel without a visa or ETIAS to EU member states. We should also explore bringing back a new group passport scheme. Where passports are necessary, we should reduce their cost; £53.50 is just too much for some families for an under-16 passport. The bilateral agreement with France on easing travel rules for educational group visits should be extended proactively by HMG to all EU countries. We should not wait to be approached, as suggested by one Home Office Minister; it is in our interests to make it happen and we should ensure that the arrangements are reciprocal. Last week, the Government—and, indeed, the Labour Party—gave very short shrift to the European Commission’s proposal for a UK-EU youth mobility scheme for 18 to 30 year-olds, saying that we now prefer to deal bilaterally. If we really are too squeamish now to deal with the EU, can we at least see some proactive bilateralism?

Thirdly, we need clear and consistent guidance to help teachers plan trips. The FCDO travel entry information must cover school groups that include both UK and non-UK nationals, while accurate information on visas—including Schengen visas—and discrepancies between the advice to schools from local authorities and that coming from the FCDO must be ironed out.

Fourthly, I turn to the burden of DBS checks, where—happily—there seems to be some welcome progress. Checks already carried out by another organisation, such as the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, are now allowed without people having to go through the whole process again. Schools are also now free to decide whether an enhanced DBS is always needed for every adult in the household. However, these changes are not yet common knowledge in schools, so more needs to be done to communicate them.

Fifthly—I know that this is a big ask, given what the Minister has said on this topic previously—the Turing scheme should be reviewed. The new, more streamlined application process has been welcomed, but schools tell us that they also want multi-year funding cycles because a single-year cycle is impractical for many schools and colleges and their international partnerships. We know from experience that reciprocity helps the future MFL teacher supply chain, which badly needs boosting.

The easiest way of doing this, of course, would be to rejoin Erasmus+ as a non-EU associate country. I implore the Minister to respond positively to the invitation earlier this month from the European Economic and Social Committee for us to enter into negotiations to rejoin Erasmus+. The reason for leaving it given by the UK representative there was that the UK’s language skills are just too poor to justify the expense, which seems to me the very reason for being in it and which would pay off in the long term.

Sixthly, and finally, our plan of action proposed a number of initiatives to incentivise participation, for example, rejoining or creating a UK version of eTwinning; promoting more energetically the quality assurance schemes to support teachers and schools, such as those offered by the School Travel Forum; the LOtC Quality Badge; and the British Council’s International School Award. I salute the Minister for being here today to reply on these matters, many of which fall outside the remit of her department, but I very much hope that she will agree to initiate the cross-departmental action needed to improve the situation I have been describing. I look forward to her response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for raising this important debate.

It is increasingly apparent from reading the newspapers that our current generation of schoolchildren live in a challenging world. Most recent research from NHS England found that 20%

“of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023”.

Today’s front page of the Times warns us:

“England is worst in the world for under-age drinking”.

It is therefore essential that we do everything we can to help our schoolchildren understand that there is a big world out there that offers amazing learning opportunities away from their smartphones and peer group pressure.

I will offer some examples. Households in India spend roughly double the amount of time cooking at home versus the UK. Some 58% of households in America own listed company shares, versus around 20% in the UK. The Dutch and Germans spend approximately twice the amount of time that the UK does doing physical exercise per week. Food education, financial education and physical education should be three of the four pillars of a child’s learning, so giving our children exposure to how other nationalities operate is key. Learning a language also improves brain and memory functions; it boosts creativity and self-esteem and helps with future career opportunities. Probably most importantly for these trips, social interaction with new people in a fresh environment challenges us to step outside our comfort zones, which is a foundational life skill for the future.

I had the opportunity to visit an academy recently in one of the most deprived parts of the UK. It is achieving 15% Oxbridge entrance and 65% Russell group entrance. However, one focus area that the principal flagged and that I picked up on was that a lot of these pupils did not make eye contact when engaged in a conversation. Thrown into an overseas exchange, however, they would have no choice other than to do that. By giving our schoolchildren this opportunity, they can take away the positives of the experience and build on it incrementally. There will be less pressure on schoolroom disruption and a greater desire to learn, which will rub off on fellow pupils. In later life, with a better education under their belts, there will be less pressure on the NHS and the state.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government aim to ensure that we maintain the momentum of these overseas trips and exchanges, aside from responding to requests to continue collective passports and to win agreement to replicate the list of travellers scheme.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on enabling this short debate to take place and am pleased to take part. What a pleasure it is to follow the noble Earl, Lord Effingham.

I begin by agreeing with all noble Lords who have not yet spoken, including the Minister, because the value to young people of educational trips abroad is incalculable. In my short contribution, I will emphasise the importance of musical exchanges between our country and our neighbours. There is a richness of immense value to musical exchanges, as music is a language that knows no geographical boundaries. When an orchestra goes to Italy and plays an Italian piece of music, there is no need for an interpreter.

I am more than happy to declare that my interest in this subject derives from the fact that, year after year, I spent the summers travelling in Europe with both my children, who were members of the Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra, conducted then by the redoubtable Adrian Brown. My daughter rose to become the leader of the orchestra and my son was the leader of the cellists, and we went to every country you could consider in Europe. For many, if not most—we are talking about schoolchildren—it was their first experience of being abroad, and certainly their first experience apart from their parents. The benefit of the exchange that took place was beyond measure.

We are now a third country and treated accordingly. The ease of freedom of movement has disappeared. The Independent Society of Musicians talks about

“the enormously damaging impact that Brexit … had on musicians’ ability to tour in Europe”

and has emphasised

“the need to resolve post-Brexit mobility issues for touring creatives”.

I have previously referred to the problems for youth orchestras. On the other hand, I am delighted to bring to your Lordships’ attention the fact that, eventually, some progress is being made. The Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra has now restarted its yearly summer tours. Last year, it went to Ravenna and this year it is planning to take 80 young musicians to the Czech Republic. Another youth orchestra, the Kimichi Symphony Orchestra, is planning to visit Kraków in October this year, which is a significant date.

However, I want to draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that some problems still make life difficult, such as the sheer time it can take to cross the border into France. Every single person has to get out of the bus and have their passport stamped, and the risk is that the coach drivers who operate and drive under rules and regulations cannot carry the young people to their destination in one go. I understand that last year the orchestra reached Ravenna and it was touch and go to get there in one go, as it were. From October, the situation will get worse. The new rules the EU has introduced mean that photographs and fingerprints will need to be taken; this has been raised in your Lordships’ House.

I appreciate that the Minister replying to the debate is from the Department for Education, which is not responsible for these types of practical difficulties. But when it comes to the solution, more broadly, I think and hope it will be possible to reach an agreement with the EU that benefits young people, as referred to by the noble Baroness. On 18 April the Commission said that it wanted to open negotiations with the UK. The Vice-President of the EU said:

“The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union has hit young people … Our aim is to rebuild human bridges between young Europeans on both sides of the Channel”.

The Government have made it clear that they do not intend to go ahead with this. My own party, sadly, does not appear minded to do so at the moment. But I very much hope that that is the way the future can develop so that young people can enjoy these wonderful exchanges.

My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her indefatigable support for modern languages and the international relations which are so enhanced by being able to talk to people in their own language instead of just speaking English loudly.

We are very concerned that modern languages have declined in state schools such that some universities, as the noble Baroness indicated, have closed their modern language departments. The independent sector understands the importance of being able to speak to others in their own language. Overseas trips and exchanges play a vital role in encouraging young people to continue their language studies.

This is where young people discover that foreigners can be really interesting people and the different habits of those in other countries can be life-enhancing. That includes the food, alluded to by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, and indeed the music, alluded to by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate. If we can foster international friendships among the young, we shall go a long way to improving international relations in later life.

We very much miss being part of Erasmus, the programme which gave our young people the opportunity to travel and work with people of other nations and those from other nations the opportunity to experience life here in the UK. The Conservative Government assured us that Brexit would not mean leaving Erasmus—one of the very many broken promises of the disaster that is Brexit. The Turing scheme is better than nothing—it is global rather than having the Erasmus focus on the EU—but with fewer opportunities than Erasmus and without the reciprocal arrangements which were such a powerful tool in increasing friendship between countries. Turing funding is secure only until the end of the spending review 2024-25. What efforts are being made for us to rejoin Erasmus+ and what are the future prospects for the Turing scheme? If we are left with no prospect of educational trips, the future for our international relations looks bleak indeed.

There has been a distressing decline in overseas school trips in recent years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, indicated. The biggest decline has been among the most disadvantaged—those who could benefit most from the experiences. Previously, as has been indicated, if the pupils on a trip were all from the UK or the EU, no forms were needed, but now the complexity of visas and passports has increased markedly. Of course, many UK and foreign students do not have passports, nor do they want the expense of getting one. Surely the Government could agree some other form of identification or that a list of travellers on coaches could be adequate. Our young people need visas for 16 European countries at £70 for over-12s and £35 for six to 11 year-olds. For many disadvantaged young people who would benefit most from these visits, these costs will be more than their parents can afford. The processing time for passports has also increased greatly.

Visiting other countries can be a transformational experience, particularly for young people who have not had the chance of overseas holidays, nor of meeting foreign people. In these days of international uncertainties, the Government should do all in their power to encourage educational trips. Can the Minister say how the Government envisage improvements in international relations, and hopes for peace, without ensuring that the young meet and befriend those in other countries?

My Lords, last month I spoke at the launch of the European Economic and Social Committee’s opinion on youth engagement, and, as my noble friend Lady Coussins has already noted, educational exchange was a key theme. The opinion represents the views of young people across Europe, and there was universal and overwhelming support for UK reintegration into Erasmus+, with 86% of young people believing that educational exchange has been negatively impacted since we left. They spoke of its benefits in broadening horizons, connecting across cultures, enhancing career prospects, personal growth, and the learning of new languages. This lent a grim irony to the comments of the UK’s deputy head of mission to the EU, who, on the same platform, justified the UK decision to leave Erasmus+ on the basis of our

“inability to speak languages very well”.

The UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, a wonderful young man named Maurizio Cuttin, spoke of a less well-recognised casualty of the exit from Erasmus+: the British Youth Council. It relied on Erasmus+ for some 40% of its budget and is now closing after 75 years. Can the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to fill the gap left by the British Youth Council, which had such a key role in engaging young people in the process of democracy?

I sit on the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where there is a shared appetite across all its parts—MPs, Peers and MEPs—to address youth opportunities. At its last session, it formally recommended to the Partnership Council that the UK and the EU negotiate a comprehensive and reciprocal youth mobility initiative, which would allow young people to live, work and study across our shared continent. Your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee has recommended the same, so it was briefly thrilling to hear the EU open this conversation last week and devastating to hear it closed so peremptorily by the Government and, indeed, the Opposition. A mobility programme is not a return to free movement and there are precedents: the UK has such an arrangement with Australia. Does the Minister not agree that a mobility arrangement with a block of countries on our doorstep would be far more inclusive of all young people, not just those who can afford long-distance air fares?

Young people had the least voice in the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but they will feel its impact for the longest time. When the TCA review comes around in 2026, I hope that the Government of the day will listen to what future generations want and be willing to think again.

My Lords, I will make a couple of points about education in Europe for British students. The first is about maximising opportunities. My 19 year-old daughter is currently doing an MA in drama in France, outside any exchange system. I have to say, her French is improving in leaps and bounds, which is a good in itself. However, it is clear from our own experience that the costs and red tape involved are now prohibitive for disadvantaged students in a way that simply did not exist before Brexit. This is not just about Turing and Erasmus; Brexit itself has made studying in Europe so much harder for British students.

Analysis by IFF Research, focusing on the first year of the Turing Scheme, found that inadequate funding and delivery problems have disproportionately impacted students with fewer resources. As the Association of Colleges points out, the lack of reciprocity means that institutions are forced to fall back on pre-existing connections, where they are able to. Erasmus is so much richer in its offer, including staff mobility. The Association of Colleges recommends that we rejoin Erasmus+ but retain Turing as a global and possibly Commonwealth scheme. Erasmus+ is expressly referred to in the EU Commission’s proposal on youth mobility. It is keen to have us back, and I hope that a future Government will act on that.

Secondly, we require more efficient Europe-wide solutions to these problems. For instance, it is clear that, for school visits, we need the reinstatement of a list-of-travellers visa scheme and collective passports, for the whole of Europe. I hope, too, that the EU Commission is not put off by the Government’s or Labour’s response to its proposal. A future Government may change their mind. Despite what the Government say, it is not free movement—more is the pity. With a single destination specified, it will not, for example, solve the problems even of young musicians touring, and Labour is right to see that as a separate issue.

The response to this scheme that intrigued me the most was that of Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, who, as reported in the Guardian on 19 April, said that the EU is

“scared that member states will do bilateral deals, which becomes more of a threat the better the Eurosceptic parties do in the elections”.

In this context, bilateral deals become synonymous with cherry picking. I cannot therefore get too worked up about the Government’s response to the Written Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, regarding school visits and whether the Government would establish arrangements with other countries similar to those with France. They said, on 12 December last year:

“We would consider negotiating with other countries should they approach us with an interest in making similar arrangements”.

On its own terms, this is terribly lazy foreign policy, considering that it is our schoolchildren who will be most affected and less so European schoolchildren, who will have many other easy options to choose from: 30 other European countries, including Ireland.

My Lords, this debate in the name of my noble friend Lady Coussins, who is a tireless worker in this field, about educational trips and exchanges could not be more timely. It comes one year after your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee, of which I was then a member, made some important recommendations to the Government on both these topics, and four years since Brexit dealt a hammer blow to both of them.

First, school visits: the biggest cause of the dramatic drop in visits, as assessed by the Tourism Alliance in 2023, is a requirement imposed by the Government for all students coming on such visits to have a passport and not, as in the past, for an identity card to suffice. Were schoolchildren so equipped a cause of illegal migration? Apparently not. Last March the Government rather belatedly agreed, at Prime Minister/President level, to waive the passport requirement with respect to France. At the time the agreement was reached, without any notable enthusiasm or initiative, the Government said that other EU member states could benefit from similar arrangements if they wanted to and asked for them.

Will the Minister update the Committee on the following points? What is the trend in UK-France school visits since last December, when the new arrangements rather belatedly came into force, nine months after the President and the Prime Minister agreed them? What proactive steps are the Government taking to encourage other member states to agree similar arrangements? How many and which ones have responded positively?

Then, university-level educational exchanges: the end of access to the Erasmus scheme for British students has never been properly explained, let alone justified, by the Government. They merely stated flatly that continued involvement

“did not represent value for money”.

That is not the view of a wide range of other European third countries which do participate in Erasmus. Will the Minister therefore kindly respond to the following points? Will she set out, rather than simply assert, the basis for not regarding the Erasmus scheme as value for money? Will she explain why the Welsh Government’s Taith scheme, which does contain reciprocal elements with Erasmus, is not worth considering?

Overall, this is a sorry story of self-inflicted damage and two clear disbenefits of Brexit, but it is not too late to remedy matters if action is not further delayed. In that context, the reported willingness by the EU to negotiate a youth mobility scheme—another idea put forward by your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee last year—is surely worthy of positive consideration. We really must not allow opportunities such as that to repair the damage done by Brexit to emerging generations of our citizens to slip away.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for this opportunity, but there is a tinge of sadness about it, because what I am about to say, I would probably have been able to say five, 10 or 15 years ago. That is in relation to foreign languages in general and, if I might be forgiven for focusing on one language, to German, my first language, in particular.

More than 50 years ago, Willy Brandt, the then German Chancellor, observed:

“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen”.

That was true then and it is still true today. However, foreign languages are about far more than just economics, although we should not underestimate that economics is essential. While English language speakers have an initial advantage, they are very often overlooked when it comes to deeper relationships, particularly in export markets: you do have to speak the language well, and there is a sense of sadness on my part that even the Foreign Office, when it recruits its diplomats, does not particularly value their language skills as part of the recruitment process.

I want to quote the German ambassador, Miguel Berger, who observed in January this year that just 2,210 students sat German A-level in 2023, a drop of 17% on the previous year and a fall of almost 48% since 2013. He called that

“a truly dramatic decline, which is deeply worrying especially as it is an ongoing trend”.

I have to say that in all my time of meeting a succession of German ambassadors, each of them starts off by saying that it is their mission to ensure that more students learn German—and by the end of their term, fewer of them do.

It is worth looking at teaching, particularly for a language such as German, which is perceived to be a difficult one. If I compare it with the way that English is taught in Germany, years 4 and 5 there would probably spend about five hours a week focusing on one language to gain confidence and the joy of it, whereas here we spend only about two hours—maybe sometimes three. I urge the Minister to focus on the amount of teaching hours that we have on one language.

The second thing worth looking at, when we compare the British Council’s latest statements on international engagement, is that there has been an increase in schools doing online digital links with schools outside the UK. In 2023, some 14% did that, so even if we cannot encourage the travel, there is that sense of curiosity and eagerness to learn. I urge the Minister to look at that and encourage digital engagement to create that curiosity and interest in learning languages.

I say a huge thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for securing this debate. The importance of educational trips and exchanges between England and other countries cannot be underestimated from an academic, educational, cultural or economic perspective. They are often life-changing for the pupil or student, who establishes bonds of friendship that can last a lifetime, and of course it develops our soft power.

Universities report that the amount of funding through the Turing Scheme is only a fraction of what the last combined Erasmus+ award was. As a consequence, the opportunity to undertake creative study and work abroad is limited to students on a course with a mandatory period of exchange or students who are able to fund their period abroad themselves. The former is already troubling, as we are aware of the importance of exchange, but the latter is especially detrimental to the Government’s commitment to equal opportunities. This funding shortfall is, unfortunately, not the only issue impeding equal opportunities.

In the first analysis of the Turing Scheme, fewer than half of university students felt that the funding covered half of their costs on placement. Additionally, many described worrying a lot before funding was confirmed, then struggling with day-to-day living costs while waiting for funding to come through. More students reported significant delays in response to their application to the scheme. This means that students who rely on funding to start their exchange will feel forced to drop out of it when delays in funding occur.

Although the Turing Scheme was promised to be a real game-changer for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is especially those students who will be negatively affected. I have no objections to the Turing Scheme but, in departing from the Erasmus+ funding, we ought to ensure that the Turing Scheme is equal, if not better—as of course was promised by the Government and Ministers.

The number of students coming to the UK on trips and exchanges is on course to decline for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic. We should all be concerned about this. A report by Universities UK emphasises the importance of international students to local economies throughout the UK. It states that the economic benefits associated with students coming to the UK on exchange programmes are currently being underestimated. Unlike the former Erasmus scheme, the Turing Scheme does not provide for this reciprocal funding. This cut in funding for inbound students raises concerns not just for them and local economies, but for how universities are to sustain relationships with other institutions, say, in research and other educational projects. Moreover, it begs the question whether this reflects the inclusive and welcoming image that we aim to portray as a nation.

Although the Government are clear that they do not intend to establish reciprocal arrangements, I urge them to re-evaluate that stance. Whether it is for languages, music, education, understanding or just plain old-fashioned friendship, a new Government need to work either to restore Erasmus or to develop, as was promised, a Rolls-Royce alternative.

My Lords, I begin by expressing my shock and disbelief at the events in Ysgol Dyffryn Aman yesterday. I cannot believe what happened. My thoughts are with the teachers and pupils, who now have to pick up after these terrible events, and with the emergency services that dealt with it so swiftly.

I had a long teaching career and, at Hartridge High School in Newport, a challenging demographic of prior low attainment and poverty. Our engagements with partner schools in Bayeux in France and Castellammare di Stabia in southern Italy were crucial links in widening horizons and helping the creation of positive learning environments. The regular trips and exchanges developed among our pupils and theirs gave an understanding of culture, a mutual respect for each other’s languages and traditions, and value for all pupils irrespective of attainment group. Teacher-pupil relations were strengthened in and out of class, and communications between schools, teachers, pupils and parents were enhanced through regular fundraising and cultural events. I look back on those times as some of the most pleasurable in my career.

Sadly, the picture today is in serious decline. The School Travel Forum said that there were 2,922 fewer trips in 2023 than in 2019. The Sutton Trust report said that 50% of school leaders had made cuts to trips and outings; this has doubled since 2019, representing the highest percentage increase of any budget cut in the survey.

We know that, between EU countries, school trips can move freely without individual documentation. This acts like a group travel document, and includes pupils who are not EU citizens but resident in member states. Sadly, we no longer have access to this scheme in our post-Brexit world.

Other organisations, such as the Association for Language Learning, the School Travel Forum and Tourism Alliance, have indicated that post-Brexit issues have reduced trips both to and from the UK. I would be grateful if the Minister could give an update on any efforts that the Government may be making to pursue further bilateral youth mobility partnerships with our international partners.

School trips allow children to have experiences that they may not necessarily have in their lives currently. They can have a positive impact on well-being—seeing somewhere new and being with friends in a different context. Children are able to get to places that they may not otherwise experience. They also share experiences with many of their friends and not just a select few. We need a richer, broader curriculum for all students, and travel experiences both within and outside the UK have a significant role to play in this enrichment.

My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s reflections on the tragic events in Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. I will not try to attempt her expert Welsh pronunciation. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, on securing this debate and thank noble Lords for their contributions.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Coussins, Lady Stuart and Lady Garden, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, focused on the importance of modern foreign languages in our curriculum. Of course, the Government absolutely agree. Rather like the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I agree with everything that has been said and is about to be said. That is why we have made modern foreign languages part of the EBacc. The Committee is well aware of the recruitment challenges in that area, some of the reasons for which were explored in speeches this afternoon.

If I may, I will start with a bit of good news and reflect on some of the achievements of the Turing Scheme, which is backed by £110 million of funding for the next academic year. The scheme allows schools, colleges and universities to provide students from across the UK the chance to develop new skills, gain international experience and boost their employability by undertaking a study or work placement.

The Turing Scheme has funded tens of thousands of UK students to gain international experience. It is currently funding more than 41,000 participants—including nearly 7,000 school pupils—to undertake placements in more than 160 countries. Around 24,500, or 60%, of these opportunities are for students from disadvantaged backgrounds—something that was raised, rightly, by my noble friend Lord Effingham. An application assessment for the fourth year of the scheme, which will begin in September, is currently under way. The appetite for the scheme is clear, for the reasons that your Lordships set out, with an increasing number of applications every year that the scheme has been available; the number has risen from 412 applications across all sectors in the first year to 619 applications for the current academic year.

The Government recognise the difficulties that schools, colleges and universities have faced in recent years when it comes to organising international visits and exchanges. We are taking steps to address this. Although we are, sadly, not yet in a position to have a Minister directly responsible for this issue—I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for her kind words—we are working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office to make sure that we have a joined-up approach; that was, I know, the spirit of the APPG’s recommendation.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, said that some institutions have found the administration of the scheme particularly cumbersome. This is something that we are aware of and have heard from stakeholders about. We will take the administration of the scheme in-house—that is, back into the department—in the next year to make sure both that we have the most streamlined experience and that the new online application process is as user-friendly as possible.

I move on to where I shall, perhaps, disappoint your Lordships. The DfE is not currently exploring the possibility of adding a reciprocal element to the Turing Scheme. We believe that it is right to use taxpayer money to prioritise international opportunities for students, learners and pupils at UK education providers over placements in the UK for students from other countries. Of course, it has always been the case that other countries and their students make their own arrangements to support study and work in the UK. We have seen a strong appetite across the globe for placements, which indicates that the Turing Scheme’s focus on outward mobility funding has not inhibited its success.

I turn now to some of specific issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s recommendations. We are grateful to the APPG on Modern Languages for its work. The noble Baroness referred to the paperwork and costs for both outgoing groups and groups coming into the UK. For incoming students, the standard visa route allows individuals to come to the UK and take part in either educational exchanges or visits with a state-funded school, be it an academy, a maintained school or an independent school. All of that is permitted activity under the Immigration Rules.

Regarding group travel paperwork, since October 2021, the EU, the EEA and Swiss nationals have required a passport to travel to the UK. We provided almost a year’s notice for this change, allowing people to plan ahead and obtain a passport if they needed to do so. On the same date, we ended the use of the list of travellers, which was in the EU scheme.

Similarly—to respond to some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—the European Commission ceased to accept the list of travellers from the UK from January 2021, although some EU countries have since decided to allow visa-free travel for visa national children on their trips to the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about trends in trips from France, particularly following the agreement between the Prime Minister and President Macron. We do not have detailed data on that yet but, if that emerges, I will be very happy to update the noble Lord.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said that schools needed clear and consistent guidance. Of course, this is not something that the FCDO provides, as the noble Baroness knows, but schools should contact the Department for Education or their partner school’s travel forum to get specific information and guidance when taking school groups overseas.

I thank the noble Baroness for acknowledging the flexibilities around the use of DBS checks from other organisations. The example she gave of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme is absolutely appropriate.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty—almost all noble Lords, in fact—mentioned issues about Erasmus+. The Government do not intend to negotiate resuming participation in any aspect of Erasmus+ with the EU, as a programme country; that includes e-twinning. We just do not believe that it is necessary to do that to facilitate education exchanges between the UK and the EU.

We are working beyond the Turing Scheme. We have opportunities such as our Mandarin Excellence Programme trip to China this summer, when 1,300 pupils are expected to visit the country—most, I imagine, for the very first time. We also continue to work with the British Council on the annual language trends survey, to make sure that we incorporate further school trip data and promote the work of the British Council, particularly its international school award, to all schools.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, asked about an EU-wide youth mobility scheme. We are not planning to introduce such a scheme. Free movement within the EU has ended. We have successful schemes with 13 countries, and we remain open to agreeing them with more.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, asked about proactive bilateralism. We understand the arguments for that, and, as I said, we are open to negotiating similar agreements with other countries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, discussed the importance of the fact that disadvantaged children might be prevented from making long-distance trips. In the company of so many foreign language aficionados and advocates, I hesitate to say this, but the evidence suggests that, for some children from disadvantaged communities, going to a country where English is spoken is a help in seeing the wider world. It is not just about languages; it is also, as noble Lords said, about taking children out of their comfort zone and seeing the way that other communities live.

I thank the noble Baroness again for securing this debate. I will write to noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on musical exchanges. The Government absolutely recognise the importance of educational trips and will continue to work to promote them.

As we are slightly under time, can the Minister say something about the closure of the British Youth Council, particularly the resulting loss of international exchange and the young voice in the democratic process? The British Youth Council was responsible for the UK Youth Parliament.

As the noble Baroness is aware, the responsibility for the British Youth Council relationship sits with DCMS. I met and worked with the British Youth Council many times when I was a Minister in that department. I am not aware of whether there are plans to address the gap—I do not think that the noble Baroness used the word “replace”—left by its closure. From the perspective of the DfE, I can say that having a youth voice at the centre of our policy and its development is absolutely critical.

Sitting suspended.