HC Deb 12 July 2004 vol 423 cc1230-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

9.48 pm
Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the examination of classics tonight and for the support of some 37 colleagues from all parties who have signed early-day motion 1434.

The subject may initially appear to be an administrative matter but it raises important questions about the accountability of examination boards, the survival of minority subjects other than Latin and Greek and the genuine meaning of choice in our education system.

Britain's biggest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance—AQA—has announced that it will no longer examine Latin and Greek at GCSE and A-level after 2006. In other words, those who start in September on GCSE or A-level Latin and Greek will be the last to be examined in two years' time. That deplorable decision was made without warning, without consultation with schools or university classics departments and even without consulting the board's subject advisory panel. My first question to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), whom I welcome, is whether he joins me in condemning that lack of consultation. It is not enough for the Department for Education and Skills simply to say, as the Under-Secretary's colleague said in another place, that the lack of consultation did not go unnoticed. Will he join me in condemning that lack of consultation?

The decision appears to have been made without any real opportunity for appeal or accountability. In that sense, the exam boards appear to be masters in their own house, and beyond the effective supervision of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which is answerable to Ministers. My second question is therefore: is the Under-Secretary satisfied that the QCA properly supervised and approved the decision? On what date were Ministers informed of it?

The accountability of exam boards matters because, unlike in the old days, when five, six or more existed, there are now effectively only two: the AQA and the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations board—the OCR. If one board drops a subject, it becomes de facto a monopoly of the other. There is therefore no more choice in the syllabus. That is especially important for minority subjects because they have no fixed place in the curriculum and they, unlike those that are specified in the curriculum, need syllabuses with greater, not less variety. If the AQA no longer offers Latin and Greek, we face the prospect of the OCR syllabus having to be adapted to offer what the former previously offered. Everybody loses out.

The problem does not affect only Latin and Greek. At the same time as the decision was announced, other subjects were chopped from the AQA list. They include: accounting, archaeology, Russian, home economics, social science and European studies. Some 11 subjects were chopped from the AQA list without warning or opportunity to appeal.

The point of the larger boards that have consolidated and taken over smaller boards is that they should be able to cross-subsidise some of the minority subjects. Of course, those subjects, by their nature, do not apply to hundreds of thousands of entrants every year. However, a big board—the AQA is the biggest board of all should be able to accept some cross-subsidy in examining subjects with smaller intakes. It should also be more careful about making decisions such as that that we are considering. Indeed, the AQA's justification for dropping Latin and Greek is worthy of examination. It said: Most centres entering for Greek also enter candidates for Latin, so to withdraw Greek only would have a significant effect on the entry for Latin. It believes that that justifies scrapping both. If it has not properly consulted, how does it know? Why scrap both until it is absolutely sure?

Unlike those in relation to the other minority subjects that I have mentioned—Russian, accounting, European studies and so on—this decision by the AQA will have one very serious consequence for our education system: the AQA syllabus for Latin and Greek is used predominantly by state schools. More than 80 per cent. of Greek entries and more than 50 per cent. of Latin entries are from state schools. That is because the AQA syllabus is better designed for those who may come to the classics later, after the age of 13, and who may lack a previous grounding in the vocabulary required.

To give the Minister a specific example, for candidates for GCSE Greek, the OCR board demands knowledge of some 625 Greek words, against 350 required by the AQA. The OCR sets some 360 lines of text to be examined, against the AQA's number of 250. The OCR board requires twice as much prose as the AQA board. Therefore, if the two syllabuses are to be merged, the OCR syllabus would have to be significantly weakened, which in turn would disadvantage those who study it for longer.

Let the Minister be in no doubt: this mean-minded decision by the AQA will drive classics out of the state schools altogether, and confine Latin and Greek to the fee-paying sector. Is he content to see that happen? That has occurred at a time when all parties in the House have been repeating the mantra of more choice in education. It is at a time when the Government want all secondary schools to be free to specialise, to give their own emphasis to different aspects of the curriculum, and to favour minority subjects, whether music, arts or sport, and so on. Denying the choice of those two minority subjects, Latin and Greek, which it is possible for students to begin later, is a crime against our state schools.

One only has to consider the success of courses such as the wonderful Minimus to see the expansion of interest in the classics, sustained by films such as "Troy" "Gladiator", "Boudicca" and now "Alexander the Great". One only has to note that some 17,000 students are now studying one aspect of classics or another at our universities to see the damage that this decision will do to the survival of classics in our state schools.

I do not need to re-emphasise the importance of Latin and Greek in this Chamber tonight, or to mount some spurious claim for relevance: we are not discussing the disappearance of Hebrew from the curriculum or the ending of rhetoric in the mediaeval trivium. As well as the intellectual discipline that lies behind the two subjects, Latin and Greek are keys as much to our present as they are to our past—to how we got here, our heritage, our common European culture and our literature and art. Without Latin and Greek, and particularly without them in our state schools, our understanding of of everything else, from Shakespeare to medieval painting, is limited and reduced.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I must declare an interest as someone who achieved a Latin A-level at a state school and went on to read for a classics degree. Does he agree that it is ironic that at the same time as we are seeing an explosion in popular interest in some of the classical stories through film and other media, and when Ofsted is saying that we should return to some of the traditional studies in history, teaching in traditional subjects such as Latin and Greek, which have enormous relevance to so many different areas, is to be constrained within the state system?

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

Mr. Fallon

I entirely agree. Indeed, my hon. Friend's example is all the more perturbing, given that he studied classics at a state school. This proposal means that a future generation will not be able to enjoy that particular privilege.

Without the foundation of Latin and Greek in most of our schools, we are in danger of raising the lexical bar, that most pervasive form of discrimination. It is just as serious, in a way, as racial or sexual discrimination. I refer to linguistic discrimination against those who cannot express themselves articulately or write correctly in their own language, and are thus denied, when applying for employment or other courses, the opportunities that they ought to be able to enjoy.

Unless reversed, this philistine decision will reduce choice in our schools. It will certainly eradicate all Latin and Greek from our state school system. Moreover, if it is accepted without protest, it will threaten any other minority subject—not just Russian, but the other harder languages—and it will, I believe, leave too much of the curriculum in the hands of a single examination board.

Monopoly in education is a very dangerous thing. I commend to the Minister the words of Symmachus, praefect of Rome: Uno itinere non potest pervenire ad tam grande secretum. That can be translated as "It is not possible to attain such a great secret by one route only". And that is the argument for avoiding monopoly in education.

It is the way in which the decision was made, and the consequences that it will have, that justify our description of it as an act of educational vandalism. But I believe that it is almost worse than that. It is, I think, an omen of a darkening cultural winter. The path of learning needs many lamps, and in two years another lamp will have been extinguished. That deeper understanding of our past and our present will be further confined to the privileged and paid-for few. I cannot believe that that is something that the present Government would welcome, or indeed that they would stand idly by without intervening.

I do not think it is enough simply to say, as the Minister's colleague Lady Ashton did in another place, that the lack of consultation has not gone unnoticed within the department."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June 2004; Vol, 663, c. 6.] That is not enough. We now look to the Minister to explain what he can do to help get this deplorable decision reviewed and reversed.

10.3 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) on securing this important debate. Let me begin by rising to his challenge. He asked whether I was content, and the Government were content, for classics to be driven out of the state sector. I want to put it on record that I certainly would not be content for that to happen.

I want to say something about Latin and Greek as subjects in the maintained school sector. It is widely accepted that it is important for schools to offer a broad and balanced education, providing appropriate opportunities for students to enjoy all aspects of the curriculum. For that reason, I am very glad that some state schools choose to offer classical subjects where the demand exists and where teaching staff have the necessary skills. I recall a visit last year to Archbishop Tenison's school, an inner-city school in the London borough of Lambeth with a predominantly black intake. The teenage boys there were taking Latin at lunchtime by choice. I took that as an excellent example of the keen response that will occur where such options are available.

Following some of the key stage 3 online pilots that the Department funded, Granada Learning developed the Cambridge Latin course e-learning resource, which was launched in May. It is an innovative resource that is designed to help both specialist and non-specialist teachers to teach Latin to key stage 3 pupils. It can also be used independently, with the help of an e-tutor service provided by the Cambridge school classics project. The resources contain media-rich content to engage the learner and feature a lesson planning system that allows teachers to select learning activities in sequence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the "Minimus Mouse" cartoon teaching book, which is aimed at 10 to 13-year-olds. Indications are that it has seriously revived interest in Latin among some younger pupils. The first book sold about 50,000 copies world wide and a sequel was published in March this year. It is of course important not only that pupils have the opportunity to learn these subjects, but that their learning be recognised through the examination system. That should include the minority subjects in the various forms that they take.

The examinations regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has taken steps to maintain provision in small-entry subjects. For example, it has encouraged the awarding bodies to share small-entry modern foreign languages such as Arabic, Gujarati and Polish between them. Despite this, a number of "live" mother tongue languages that are spoken in this country, or which are being studied in schools or through further education, are not accredited through GCSE examinations. Examples include Kurdish, Somali, Swedish, Hungarian and Slovak. Through the national languages strategy, we are trying to encourage primary schools to teach a wide range of modern foreign languages.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the AQA—Assessment and Qualifications Alliance—recently decided to withdraw Latin and Greek at GCSE and A level. I want to put it on the record this evening that I am very disappointed by the AQA's decision. I absolutely share his concern about the failure to consult fully and in particular about the failure to consult the subject associations in the field of classics. I was also concerned to hear that the subject committee became aware of the decision only through media coverage. The situation could have been handled much better, and I am sure that the AQA noted the widespread criticism that it received as a result. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is little that I can do directly to intervene. Nevertheless, I share the concerns expressed by him and others, particularly with regard to the possible differential effect in the state sector. I urge the AQA to reconsider its decision in respect of classics, a point to which I shall return at the end of my speech.

My understanding is that the AQA has a minority of candidates taking Latin and Greek, and that that is certainly true of Latin in the state sector: OCR—Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations—has some 59 per cent. of candidates studying Latin GCSE in the maintained sector. Nevertheless, there is an issue of choice, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out very well in his speech. The AQA's argument is that the small number of entries not only raised questions of financial viability, but made it more difficult to set and maintain standards over time. Of course, if the AQA had been the only body offering classical subjects, the QCA would have acted to ensure that they continued to be available, as it would with other minority subjects. The hon. Gentleman made the point powerfully that many state schools prefer the AQA specification because of the differences in emphasis that he described. The advice of the QCA is that there is no reason why that difference should make one specification more demanding than the other, but it is taking the issue seriously.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether changes could be made to the OCR specification. The QCA is in discussions with various relevant bodies, including the classics professional associations, which it will meet shortly. Additionally, OCR has said that it already offers support and guidance to schools and colleges that may wish to change to its specification.

I emphasise again that I have no direct powers to intervene. The hon. Gentleman and the House would agree that the system that we have makes sense, with regulated but independent awarding bodies taking responsibility for examinations. Nevertheless, I appreciate his concerns and for that reason, on the basis of the case that he and others have made, I am urging the AQA to reconsider its actions. There are good grounds for arguing that there may be a future increase in the number of candidates wanting to study Latin, in particular at GCSE, given the take-up, for example, of the key stage 3 resources to which both he and I referred.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in view of that and the other arguments that he has adduced, I shall write to the AQA to urge it to reconsider its decision, particularly in the light of its failure to consult widely before reaching it. I want to make it very clear that as we pursue more broadly the secondary agenda—and 14 to 19 in particular—as far as I and the Government are concerned, there will still be a very important place for minority subjects, including classics, in the secondary school curriculum.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I hope that it will not only contribute to the public debate but perhaps bring about a reconsideration by the AQA of its decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Ten o'clock.