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Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

2.30 pm

Amendment 95

Moved by Lord De Mauley

95: Clause 40, page 23, line 38, at end insert-

"( ) ensure that all sixth form provision offers, as a minimum, A level courses in English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history, geography, and at least two modern foreign languages"

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Lord De Mauley: Amendment 95 would ensure a bare minimum of standards of education in sixth forms. It would add a paragraph (f) to new Section 15ZA in Clause 40 to impose a duty on local education authorities to ensure that each sixth form must offer A-level courses at least in English, mathematics, the three sciences, history, geography and at least two modern languages. The amendment may appear somewhat prescriptive. Nevertheless, it encapsulates a real concern that many important academic subjects are becoming the exclusive preserve of the independent sector. We think that it is essential that this range of subjects should as a minimum remain open to all those who wish to study them. Surely it is wrong that there should be a disparity in opportunities for choice between the independent and state sectors.

My honourable friend in another place, Nick Gibb, quoted the figures from 2006 and it would be helpful to reiterate them. In 2006-07, 145 schools with a sixth form did not enter any students for A-level history; 96 did not enter any for A-level maths; 115 did not enter any for A-level biology; 187 did not offer A-level chemistry; 247 entered no one for A-level physics; and 264 entered no one for A-level geography. It simply is not feasible that no one living in the catchment areas for these schools wanted to study the subjects. Does the Minister not share our concern that there should not be subjects that are allowed to become dominated by the independent sector? Does she not agree that it should be a top priority to ensure that every student has the practical opportunity to study the A-level course that most suits their needs? Does she accept that this is not what is happening at the moment?

It should be noted that the subjects listed are not exceptional or unusual. The list is not highly specialised or arcane. These are basic subjects that we might reasonably expect would be provided in any sixth form. The Minister will doubtless tell me that partnerships and federations exist that allow a pupil to travel from one school to another in search of their next lesson, but I cannot accept-at least with regard to these subjects, which should be available to all students as a basic minimum-that this is a useful or productive way for them to spend their time. In another place, the Minister replied:

"I understand the calls for an A-level entitlement. That is something we have agreed to review in 2013".-[Official Report, Commons, Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, 17/3/09; col. 318.]

Another question might be: why wait? If the Government understand these calls, why wait until 2013 to conduct a review? I beg to move.

Baroness Walmsley: I am afraid that I cannot support the amendment. While I, too, deplore the discrepancy between the independent sector and state schools-any discrepancy of opportunity is of course to be deplored-I do not think that this amendment is the way to solve the problems that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has outlined. We must bear in mind the fact that sixth forms these days are about a great deal more than A-levels. Provision for the 16 to 18 age group is much more diverse than just sixth forms. If a young person wanted to study Latin, psychology or philosophy, for

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example, that would not be provided by the minimum entitlement laid down in the Conservative amendment. There are probably plenty of places where the young person could do that. Many young people of that age now do their spread of subjects in more than one setting. Although we have a problem with discrepancy of opportunity in some areas, this amendment is not the way to tackle the issue. That will be done by making sure that adequate resources are provided and that high-quality teaching is available to all young people, not by providing a minimum entitlement of this prescriptive nature.

Lord Lucas: I very much support the spirit of my noble friend's amendment, but not the wording. It is important that young people who want to study these basic subjects are given the opportunity to do so and it is not satisfactory that there are instances at the moment where that is not the case. However, I hope-perhaps the Minister will enlighten me-that the application of subsection (1) will cover this. If a local education authority,

and one such need is to study physics at A-level, I presume that we are now placing that duty on local education authorities. If that is the case, I would like to know-I did not get an answer last time I asked-how that duty is to be enforced.

Baroness Deech: I support the amendment. In recent years, the details of our curriculum have been upside down. Very young children have too much laid down in detail about their education but, as you go further up the ladder, there is too little. It is now widely accepted that dropping the requirement to learn modern languages at the age of 14 or 15 was a mistake. Therefore, I support the amendment, in part because it mentions two modern foreign languages. It would bring back some credibility and rigour to what must be considered for teenagers towards the end of their full-time education.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Baroness Morgan of Drefelin): I am delighted to be able to respond and I hope to offer some reassurance, in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, over her concerns about languages. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that sixth forms are about a lot more than A-levels. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, puts forward the interesting idea of creating this requirement, but the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is right in his interpretation of the Bill. We consider that the duty of local authorities to provide suitable education would include access to this list of A-level subjects, which come in the top 10 favourite subjects that young people in this age group opt for.

We agree on the importance of the A-level subjects set out in Amendment 95 being on offer to all young people, but making sure that these subjects are on offer to all young people is not the same as making sure that they are on offer in every single institution,

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as the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, expected me to say. That has never been the case, even before the increases in collaborative delivery. The more specific nature of the study that takes place post-16 has always led to pupils choosing to move between institutions. There has to be a balance. He makes the good point about not wanting to see young people engaged in excessive travel and, of course, local authorities have to take that into account.

Amendment 95 would require all sixth forms to offer this selection of subjects. While this will be appropriate for many learners, we think that it is right that decisions about what courses are on offer in what institutions should be determined at a local level. The sixth forms that do not offer all these subjects may not be designated or designed to do so. They may play a different role, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed, in providing diversity of what is available locally and they may do it very well.

It is more important to look at whether young people are taking A-levels. The evidence from last summer shows that these subjects are doing very well. The five subjects that saw the biggest increase in entries included maths, English, history and biology. Between them, these four subjects saw increases of more than 11,000 entries-more than half the overall increase in A-level entries last year. Moreover, numbers taking these subjects in maintained schools and colleges continue to rise. I offer that as reassurance to noble Lords.

We are not complacent at all about this. We recognise that there is a great deal of work to do. We started recording the type of exam centre in 2005-a very recent event-so we now have the data that allow us to have this debate. Since then, of the subjects listed in the amendment, only geography has seen a very small reduction in entries from maintained schools and colleges, but I reassure noble Lords that it remains in the list of top 10 subjects studied at A-level.

Following the 2007 review by the late Lord Dearing, we put in place a range of measures to boost language learning in schools because we, like noble Lords, feel that it is an important area in which we need to do better. This included a £6 million communications campaign over three years to promote the importance of language learning to pupils, parents and the school workforce and reforming the secondary curriculum to make it more relevant and engaging for pupils. We expect that these measures will increase the likelihood that pupils will increase their take-up of GCSE languages, which will then lead, we hope, to a better take-up of language A-levels. We can take heart at this approach because it is the one that we have taken in science and mathematics, where we have seen an impact-increasing numbers of children and young people are opting, importantly, for mathematics. I hope that, with the reassurances that I have given, the noble Lord will consider withdrawing his amendment.

2.45 pm

Lord Eatwell: Before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether she could elucidate her comments on mathematics. It is my understanding that there is a

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severe deficiency in the provision of teaching in double-subject maths in our schools at the moment. Many talented young mathematicians are forced to take single-subject mathematics, which compromises their future university careers both in mathematics and in physics. Does her reference to improved access to and take-up in mathematics A-level cover double-subject maths or only single-subject maths?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: What I have here is the number of entries in subjects from maintained schools and FE colleges; the number of entries for 2008 in mathematics is 45,084. I am assuming-I am looking behind the noble Lord in the hope that I shall get some indication-that that figure includes all maths A-levels. Perhaps not. I am afraid that I will have to come back to the noble Lord on that figure.

On the wider point about attracting maths specialists into teaching, we are extremely aware of the importance of doing that and we have been investing through our STEM programme in improving the offer to maths graduates to come into teaching and in attracting maths graduates from other professions, such as the finance sector, to consider coming into maths teaching. Having expert teachers who are qualified in the subject is an important factor in exciting and encouraging young people to maintain an interest, particularly in mathematics.

I have some inspiration coming my way. Maths entries have increased from 35,000 to 45,000-I presume that that is pure maths-and entries to further maths have increased from 3,000 to nearly 6,000. That is between 2005 and 2008.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I just intervene to tell the Minister-it is maths and further maths about which I assume the noble Lord is concerned-that there has been a significant increase in the number taking further maths over the last couple of years, partly as a result of the Further Mathematics Network initiative. It puts young people at state schools that have not had the facility to teach further maths in touch with people who have that capability. It is partly online but it also provides young people with face-to-face tuition through extra classes, twilight classes and weekend tuition. It is an example that has been extremely effective and could well be copied in one or two other areas. There is a question as to why, given that we have seen this increase in mathematics at A-level, the Government are now consulting on changing the A-level maths curriculum in 2011. The general feeling-and I was talking only last night to somebody representing the Mathematical Association-is that the formula is now good. People are flocking back to maths after the disaster of Curriculum 2000. If it ain't broke-and it is working-why fix it?

Lord Lucas: My noble friend's amendment does not deal with the general, it deals with the particular. The defects occur when individual areas are not offering the full range of provision, and as I said in my brief comment, I thought that Clause 40(1) was what was going to deal with that. If the noble Baroness can

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suppose that a local authority determines that in a particular patch of its area there are, say, four students who wish to study further maths at A-level who are unable to do so because their local school does not offer it, what powers are we then giving the local authority? Is the local authority going to have the power to direct the school to start a course in further mathematics? Is the local authority going to have the power to subsidise the transport of these students to somewhere that does further mathematics? Is the local authority going to have the power to subsidise the school to run what, at four pupils, will be a loss-making course?

Once it knows that there is a required provision, a local authority is given an instruction that it must secure it. What powers is the local authority being given to enable it to secure the provision of, say, four places a year to study further mathematics for a particular group of students?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: We have had detailed discussions about commissioning in local authorities. We have the 16 to 19 partnerships, which will set out their strategic plans. We have the YPLA and local authorities as part of the sub-regional groups. I believe that there will be a system in place to ensure that where there is demand for certain subjects, the system will be capable of offering them. One of the most important levers is in the provision of funding and ensuring that there is capacity. It is extremely important that local authorities ensure that they can offer what young people are looking for.

Lord Lucas: I agree with that, but it still does not answer the question. What powers are we giving local authorities to do this? A school may well recognise that there is a demand for four places to study further maths, but it also realises that if it offers such a course, it may well make a loss on it because eight students is about the break-even number for an A-level group. A school might reasonably decide of its own volition that it was not capable of offering the further maths education that the local authority has identified as being needed. Under those circumstances, can the local authority compel the school to offer it? Can it subsidise the school by offering it twice the ordinary rate for students who study further maths? What powers are being given to the local authority to ensure that it is able to perform the duty being put on it in new Section 15ZA(1)?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I am struggling to convince the noble Lord. The way I see this is that the local authority has the power to come to an agreement with an institution to provide the capacity to deliver teaching in subjects it sees as important. I am not sure that I can see the problem, but I am happy to write a note for the noble Lord and copy it to other Members of the Committee if we are not being clear enough. It will explain exactly which powers in the Bill that would rely on. This is about coming to an agreement within a community, and about gathering from providers intelligence about which courses are likely to be needed. There has to be a dialogue and I see this as a process in

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which local authorities are in pole position. However, it also has to be about agreement between providers and the local authority.

Lord Lucas: I do not disagree with anything the noble Baroness has said, but I want to take the point a little further. Let us suppose that a school recognises that it ought to be providing four places to study further maths. The local authority and all the other bodies the noble Baroness mentioned recognise that, but if the school was to provide those four places, in terms of what it would have to pay the teacher and what it would bring in as a proportion of those students' funding, it would cost perhaps £15,000 to £20,000 a year to run the course. The school might not have that sum in its budget, so it says, "How can the local authority help?" What powers are being given to the local authority to, as it were, subsidise courses or assist pupils by providing transport to somewhere where it is economically viable to run the course? Is power being given to local authorities to enable them to do what everyone agrees they want to see being done?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: The noble Lord has answered his own question. The powers set out in new Section 15ZA are required in order that local authorities can come to agreements with a group of schools or colleges about how a particular demand might be met and to ensure the capacity is funded. I have a problem in understanding what I am not explaining properly.

Lord Lucas: I am sure we will have a chance to come back to this on later amendments.

Lord De Mauley: I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and I share her concern about foreign languages. My noble friend Lord Lucas said that he supports the spirit of the amendment, and for that at least I am grateful, as well as for his subsequent, more detailed probing. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, whose question was very important. I hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, and I am not entirely surprised though a little disappointed. I thank the Minister for her response, and we too are delighted to see her back on her feet. I repeat to her and to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that what we are really concerned about is the idea of bussing people around just to ensure they receive tuition in these basic subjects.

As I said when I moved the amendment, the Minister in another place replied that, unlike the noble Baroness, he understood the calls for an A-level entitlement, and that was why he agreed to a review in 2013, which is four years away. I have asked why it is necessary to wait until 2013 to conduct the review. Would the noble Baroness like to answer that question?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I shall have a go. A lot is happening with the rollout of diplomas as well as with the development of the secondary school curriculum and Ofqual. I think that it would be a mistake to bring forward a review of A-levels sooner than that, but

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nevertheless it is helpful to have a review and I do not have an issue with that at all. We have made a public commitment to conduct such a review. However, I think it would be helpful if we gave the diploma time to roll out before such a review takes place in order to see the interplay between the various different qualifications in an age group.

Lord De Mauley: I am grateful to the Minister and to all other noble Lords who have participated in the debate. For today, however, perhaps I may say that I shall give the matter further thought before we come to the Report stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 95 withdrawn.

Amendment 96

Moved by Lord Lucas

96: Clause 40, page 23, line 38, at end insert-

"( ) respect the independence of any further education or sixth form college;

( ) recognise that sixth form, specialist and further education colleges should seek to recruit students from outside the area of the local authority;

( ) promote the attendance of students at sixth form, specialist and further education colleges outside its area"

Lord Lucas: I think I understand why the Government want to bring sixth-form colleges and other colleges back under the wing of their local authorities: in order to integrate the provision for 16 to 19 year-olds, and even beyond for those with special needs. Everything should come under one optic and be dealt with an integrated and sensible way.

For the sake of this amendment, I shall take that as a given and say that what I am after is preserving some of the virtues that have been gained over the past decade and a half as a result of liberating sixth-form and further education colleges from local education authorities. Certainly the best of them have become national enterprises. Prisons in Kent are managed by Manchester City College, for instance, while many FE and sixth-form colleges have gained national reputations for what they do. The virtues of Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge are well known, as is Greenhead College in Huddersfield, which attracts students from the south of Manchester, Hull and right up from the far north of Yorkshire and Lancashire. People travel a long way and make great efforts to attend good sixth-form colleges, particularly where they have developed expertise in certain subjects. Where a subject is not particularly mainstream, it is very much to the advantage of students and the educational system that the expertise becomes concentrated. They can then afford to develop long-lasting links with industry, both to inform what they are teaching and to provide the routes by which their graduates go on to obtain employment.

The better of these courses now have 15 years' worth of graduates in the industries that they supply and an enormous reputation, as I say, in many cases countrywide. I do not want to see that destroyed or jeopardised as a side effect of the virtues that the

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Government are trying to achieve by bringing these colleges back under local authority control. It would be a great pity to lose what we have won merely in order to gain something else.

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