HL Deb 04 July 1994 vol 556 cc1062-72

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Blatch rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 9th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move, that the draft Education (National Curriculum) (Foundation Subjects at Key Stage 4) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 9th May, be approved. This order has already been approved in Standing Committee in another place on 18th May.

The order currently before your Lordships for debate affects the curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds (that is, Key Stage 4). In England, it will remove history and geography as compulsory subjects for this age group; suspend technology for pupils entering Key Stage 4 in 1994 and 1995; and suspend modern foreign languages for pupils entering Key Stage 4 in 1995.

For pupils in Wales, the order will remove history, geography, technology and modern foreign languages from the statutory curriculum for this age group.

This order follows on from the Government's acceptance of the recommendations made by Sir Ron Dearing and the Curriculum Council for Wales in their final reports on the review of the national curriculum. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State accepted Sir Ron Dearing's advice that the mandatory curriculum for five to 14 year-olds should be significantly streamlined, especially outside the core subjects of English, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, it has been accepted that there should be greater flexibility in the options which schools can choose to offer to 14–16 year-olds.

The order which we are debating today takes the first steps towards addressing these points. This process will continue with the proposed revisions to the national curriculum upon which the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales (the successor body to the Curriculum Council) are currently consulting. Those proposals bearing on the curriculum for 14–16 year-olds are for implementation in 1996. But, to bring the benefits of these recommendations to schools as soon as possible, this order now before your Lordships for debate takes effect on 1st August this year.

The order itself was the subject of a consultation exercise. It puts into effect the Government's objective, already announced and well known to schools and others involved in education, to increase the flexibility available to schools for 14–16 year-olds. There will be greater scope for schools to respond to the particular skills and interests of their pupils through a wider range of academic or vocational courses. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications are advising the Government on the scope for a new Part One GNVQ qualification, designed specifically for Key Stage 4. We are looking carefully at their proposals with a view to piloting these courses in 1995 as announced in the "Competitiveness" White Paper.

We must be sure that any vocational qualifications offered at this stage in schools are high quality, accessible courses. They must open up pathways to progression for pupils, not close them off. They must be rigorously assessed, clearly structured and effectively supported. And they must be qualifications that are comparable in intellectual rigour with academic school subjects—not a refuge for lower achievers.

Vocational qualifications at Key Stage 4 have the potential to raise our nation's skills base and to motivate young people.

The order is a joint order between England and Wales. It removes history and geography from the list of mandatory subjects for 14–16 year-olds in both countries. Sir Ron Dearing, in his final report, observed that these are of course absorbing and valuable subjects. But there is no obvious reason why history and geography, as a matter of law, should be given priority for pupils nearing the end of their compulsory schooling over other subjects which pupils might find equally compelling—over, for example, classics, creative arts, business studies, other vocational options or even further languages.

When we consulted on this proposal a majority of respondents expressed support, as a way of increasing flexibility, reducing curriculum overload, and enabling schools to meet pupils' needs, including special needs. There was some concern that there would be a diminution of breadth and balance in the curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds. But that misses the point—this very reduction in the mandatory curriculum allows schools to respond to the particular abilities of individual pupils through differing combinations of subjects and studies. The Government expect that history and geography will continue to be among the subjects on offer to all 14–16 year-olds. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that pupils will have acquired a solid foundation of historical and geographical knowledge through earlier experience of the national curriculum, on which to build further study if they so wish.

In England, in the interregnum before the introduction of the revised overall curriculum for this age group in 1996, the order also suspends the requirement to study technology for those 14 year-olds entering Key Stage 4 in 1994 and 1995. Again, consultation showed broad support for this proposal, which is intended to give schools time to plan for the introduction of the revised curriculum in 1996. We know that there are schools which have made substantial advances in implementing the technology curriculum for this age group. We would not want to impede developments in these schools. They will still benefit from the development work which they have carried out. We hope that schools such as these will continue to offer technology to their 14 to 16 year-olds. All the signs are that they will continue to do so. To ensure that pupils do not suffer unnecessary disruption to courses already under way, we have provided in the order for 14 year-olds who started Key Stage 4 technology in 1993 not to be affected by these provisions. They will complete their studies.

In England the order suspends the introduction of the requirement for 14 to 16 year-olds to study a modern foreign language until 1996, when the revised modern foreign language curriculum will be introduced. Equipping our children for proficiency in foreign languages is a priority. But it would not have been sensible to force schools to teach different versions of a modern foreign language curriculum. That would have been the effect if schools had been obliged to introduce the existing national curriculum in modern foreign languages in 1995, and then the revised national curriculum in 1996. It is of course still open to schools to offer modern foreign languages for 14 to 16 year-olds before 1996 if they wish.

In Wales the Curriculum Council for Wales made different recommendations on technology and modern foreign languages. In the light of the views expressed in consultation, it recommended the mandatory requirement for pupils aged 14 to 16 should be reduced to the subjects of English, mathematics, science, physical education and, of course, Welsh—the subject which is distinctive to Wales. It also supported further work in technology and modern foreign languages but recommended against making them mandatory. This will allow scope to include vocational qualifications as well as for pupil choice. The order therefore lifts permanently the requirement that all pupils in Wales must take technology and modern foreign languages.

Before concluding, I should like to add a short word on the other, equally important, aspect to the national curriculum —the assessment and testing of pupils. Alongside the slimming of the subject curricula, the Government have streamlined the assessment arrangements. Statutory assessment for seven and 14 year-olds has been restricted to the core subjects in 1994. The time taken to administer these arrangements has been reduced by roughly half since 1993. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has recently announced his proposals for further streamlining of the assessment arrangements for seven, 11 and 14 year-olds in 1995 and associated reductions in teacher workload.

To conclude, overall, the Government believe that, by freeing up the curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds in this way, we are giving schools greater scope to match the particular skills and interests of their pupils through academic and/or vocational courses. These proposals have been widely welcomed by those consulted. I therefore commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 9th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Blatch.)

Lord Judd

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt have studied the proceedings of the second Standing Committee in another place and will realise that we do not intend to oppose the order. Despite all its characteristics of, I suggest, improvisation, we are not opposing it because we recognise that it brings greater flexibility and that, in the curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds, it will give schools an opportunity to bring in more of what they see to be important. But in saying that we do not intend to oppose the order—to some extent we welcome it—we must qualify our welcome. We qualify it because of several anxieties.

First, just how much consultation was there before the order was compiled? For example, were the conclusions of the regional conferences for secondary head teachers run by the NCC, taken fully into account? If they were not, why not? After all the disruptive, impetuous, trial and error of recent years, would not it have perhaps been better to have had a full open debate on the future of Key Stage 4 in order to build a healthy, positive consensus? That would obviously have been particularly valuable, because of the Government's favoured "academic", "vocational" and "occupational" pathways at Key Stage 4, and the implications for secondary school organisation.

I must take the opportunity to say that I despair at the Government's failure to see that in education, of all the areas of our national life where success depends so much upon the goodwill of all involved, it should always be at a premium to build positive consensus in favour of what is being done. In the event, I am afraid that it seems that Sir Ron Dealing's final report is based on pretty limited consultation and observation. I find it a matter of some regret that it does not take the opportunity to give more rigorous justification for any of its proposals.

On technology, there appear to be differing reactions to the proposal. However, what is clear is that there is genuine, fairly widespread concern about the loss of momentum which may result from suspending the requirement to teach technology for those entering Key Stage 4 in 1994 and 1995. Schools have already made substantial changes to their timetabling, staffing, accommodation and resources in order to teach technology, and the removal of the requirement could involve significant changes to school planning and the potential loss of a broad and balanced curriculum for two years. Of course, the likelihood is that many schools will continue to teach technology, even without the statutory basis of a curriculum order, provided—this is an important proviso—that appropriate syllabuses are available. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Secretary of State uses the influence he has in his role of approving syllabuses to ensure that that happens.

On the proposal to suspend the introduction of the modern foreign languages curriculum, I am sure that the Minister will understand that there is again fairly widespread anxiety about any loss of continuity for schools and any apparent downgrading of the discipline as a result of its temporary suspension. That would indeed be a paradoxical effect when foreign language ability is crucially important to strengthening Britain's performance in the international economy—the stated objective of so many of the Government's reforms. However, having said that, on balance I recognise that the suspension is probably justifiable, given that a new MFL curriculum will be introduced by 1996.

For Wales—not for the first time—there is an intriguing contrast with England. The proposal there is to suspend indefinitely technology and modern foreign languages for Key Stage 4. But why is Wales different from England in that respect? Again, what exactly is the rationale? And on the MFL, if the teaching of Welsh and English, which we on these Benches see as imperative, is given as the reason for there being no MFL in future, that seems to me to be unconvincing, because Wales, like England, has to be able and ready to participate in the international economy. It seems to me that that is depriving the Welsh of something that will be available to the English.

I come now to the proposals on history and geography. I realise that we cannot slim down the curriculum without in fact slimming it down, but we must consider very carefully the possible dangerous effects of what we are doing if we fail to see the pitfalls and do not take steps to avoid them. Perhaps I may quote what I see as one wise response which came from the London Borough of Harrow: The emphasis on basic skills training at Key Stage 4 and the proposal to offer a variety of routes through the 14–16 curriculum undermines the principles informing a broad and balanced learning experience. History and geography make a significant, possibly unique, contribution to the development of critical and analytical thinking. Both subjects are also central to supporting cross-curricular themes and dimensions, in particular, those of citizenship, environmental education and economic and industrial understanding. In any curriculum which is intended to equip young people to contribute to the society of the future, the omission of these aspects of learning represents a considerable flaw". Indeed, my wife teaches history, and we often reflect together upon the insecurity and instability of an age in which there is so little perspective—so little understanding of humanity on an evolutionary road, learning from the past, or, in Britain, of our total interdependence with the world as a whole, which is so central to the modern teaching of geography. Without such perspective, shared by the widest possible social cross-section of people in this country, what are the prospects for a healthy democracy? If, in those respects, our children leave school unprepared for the demands of the challenging decades ahead, we shall all have failed.

The argument in Sir Ron Dealing's report has a superficially seductive ring to it; namely, why should history and geography be more important than the creative arts, a second foreign language, home economics, the classics, and so forth? But those changes mean that we shall no longer have a prescribed, broad and balanced national curriculum for 14 to 16 year-olds, and we must face that. Any downgrading of the qualitative humanities as compared with the undeniably important quantitive subjects that are assumed to relate directly to future employment must inevitably have adverse implications for the health of our education system. There is a serious risk that all the pressures of league tables, as currently applied, could mean that history and geography will not be taught if they are not seen to be contributing equally with other subjects to a school's measured performance.

Obviously, the LEA will be able to encourage LEA-maintained schools through its curricular policies, as required by the 1986 Act, to ensure that young people in the 14–16 age group continue to enjoy a broad and balanced curriculum. It would be immensely reassuring if the Minister could tell noble Lords tonight that her department will emphasise that point in its publicity on the new national curriculum.

Before I conclude I must underline that with the removal of music and art in 1992, and the present proposal to remove history and geography, the original intention of a broad and balanced national curriculum could be jeopardised for Key Stage 4. Already, the national curriculum is under some attack for being too insular and national in its limitations and for failing totally to grasp the reality of international interdependence. We must therefore all combine our efforts to ensure that the dangers are avoided. If we do not, far from the classless society about which the Prime Minister likes to talk, we could be rapidly on a road to an educated and understanding elite and a functionally trained, subservient underclass, ill-equipped to understand the world by which they will be buffeted, and destined seldom to reason why, let alone play a positive part in democracy: an underclass prepared as functionaries rather than to be living, creative, analytical individuals in a healthy democracy. Education is about understanding. It is not just about instruction.

As Tony. Lloyd said in the other place, the structure that the Minister is bringing before the House— although we shall not oppose it tonight for the reasons I gave—on the back of these changes to the national curriculum is still not adequate for a modern society. We need to take a calmer and longer look and to consult more widely with interested parties in industry, commerce, the professions and education. We can then bring forward a proper 14 to 18 curriculum in order to establish a relevant education system for a modern society that will raise the standards of all our young people rather than fail the majority, as does still, I fear, the present system.

8 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, as the Education Reform Bill went through your Lordships' House I was one of a number of Members who was worried that the requirements were too rigid. They left too little flexibility and judgment for schools to decide what would be most appropriate to teach. I had a strong feeling that studying fewer subjects well was more educational than studying a larger number superficially. It is the experience of studying in depth and thoroughly which is most educative.

I started in history school. While I sympathise with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about the danger of reducing the number of subjects, I cannot combine that attitude with the attitude that I expressed when the Education Bill was going through this House. I believe that flexibility and ability to choose subjects are more suitable and can lead to better educational results than the requirement for everyone to study a range of subjects.

I understand the proposals to mean that, within a given school, it is possible for all the subjects to be taught but that individual pupils, under the guidance of their teachers, will choose which subjects to take. That appears to me to be defensible. It is better that some youngsters take an additional science subject and that others take an additional modern language. I was never happy that everyone should be pushed through the same grid, regardless of their interests and abilities. By the time that children reach the 14 to 16 level those interests and abilities should be obvious. Pupils should be encouraged to go down the path in which they are showing an interest and a potential for deeper study. Deeper study is the educational experience that youngsters need to have. It gives teachers the opportunity to help students to choose what they can do most effectively and to encourage them along that path.

I should be the first to say that it would be a great pity for a pupil to have to drop history, and for all the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. However, one cannot at the same time say, "You must not drop everything and you must study some subjects more thoroughly". It is undesirable to have a rigid programme for every youngster in every school.

I wish to raise two further issues with the Minister. I welcome the idea that vocational subjects will be included together with traditional academic subjects. It will be possible for all pupils to mix their choice of subjects so that all do not fall into a vocational or academic stream, and that is a desirable objective. Students will have a choice of subjects from the academic and the vocational, which will be extremely good for them. It also means that the old divide, which most Members of your Lordships' House deplore, will be eliminated. There is no better way of getting rid of it than that the academic high flyers should choose some vocational subjects and vice versa.

However, while I welcome the inclusion of the vocational subjects, I wish to make the following point. I needed to look into the requirements of the syllabuses of the GNVQ subjects, which will be the. subjects included in the schools' curriculum. As I looked in detail at the requirements I was struck by the fact that they were strong on what should be done and how it should be done. However, they were very weak on why it should be done. That will not do. A subject may have a strong applied bias and there is nothing uneducational about that in itself. If one wants the study of them to rank with the study of the humanities and pure science, for example, it is of the greatest importance that students understand the "why" that lies behind what they are required to do and how they are required to do it.

Otherwise, there will be the acquisition of a mechanical skill and no real understanding of why that skill must be used.

I was not aware that I should have the opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister because I have only recently looked at the GNVQ requirements. I ask her to make a special point of ensuring that they are not passed and accepted unless they necessitate the underlying understanding of what is needed, not merely the application. Without that underlying understanding, the whole idea of trying to meld the two together will be missing. People will not accept those subjects as they now appear to be taught.

I realise that the second point that I wish to raise with the Minister is perhaps a King Charles's head of mine. I am concerned that few schools are providing for the international baccalaureate. Surely in the kind of world we are moving into more schools should be doing so. Will the Minister tell the House whether the greater flexibility that we are now being offered will make it easier for schools to move towards the international baccalaureate? I remember raising the question when the Education Bill was going through this House. The national curriculum was not drawn up with a movement towards the international baccalaureate in mind. The requirements of the national curriculum did not appropriately line up with the requirements of that qualification. Under the new arrangements, will schools which are alert to the advantages of the IBA be able easily to move in that direction? Many people would welcome that.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I wish to comment briefly on some of the proposals that we are discussing tonight. At Key Stage 4 the statutory curriculum will be reduced to some 60 per cent. of the timetable. There appears to be a consensus tonight that this is a good thing and that teachers should have a greater degree of flexibility in deciding what they teach and how they teach it. However, it means that, with the removal of music and art in 1992 and the present proposal to remove history and geography, the original intention of the broad-based national curriculum will no longer apply to Key Stage 4.

Obviously, the local education authorities will be able to encourage LEA-maintained schools to ensure that young people in this age group continue to be provided with a broad-based and balanced curriculum. The department should make that point in its publicity on the new national curriculum.

I agree with Sir Ron Dearing that one must be prescriptive about what is to come out of the national curriculum if one is to reduce its size. That is a difficult problem. However, I would like to make a special plea and express my regret about the reduction of compulsory technology for students commencing Key Stage 4 in 1994–95.

Today, science, technology and design are perhaps the key—and I use that word deliberately—subjects that will contribute towards our country's future economic success. It is not an exaggeration to say that in almost every office and workplace in the country people are learning new technological skills as they grapple with the new software packages that are coming onto the market almost every day. I say that as an office worker and technologist, although I am fearful to admit that in case my noble friend describes me as a member of the functionally trained underclass. It is true that in my experience, people who have some exposure to dealing with technology from an early age pick up the new technologies far quicker. To expose them in a systematic way to the new technologies and software can only do us good economically, and of course individuals will not be tearing their hair out as much as some of them are at present.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on some of the comments made this evening and that she will not regard this consultation exercise as merely fulfilling the requirements of the 1993 Act.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome that the order has received, albeit with the qualifications of the noble Lord, Lord Judd.

Perhaps I may respond to one or two of the points raised in this short but important debate. First, the removal of history and geography will not restrict the national curriculum. It will open up and give way to a very rich menu of options for young people. Therefore, I am not sure that I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He spoke so passionately about the removal of history and geography that I thought that he was going to oppose the order and suggest that they should be made compulsory. That would be restrictive.

We have already been reminded of the original debate in 1988 when many of those points were made. In fact, I believe that many noble Lords opposite used the word "straitjacket". They said that flexibility in the curriculum was needed. Some flexibility has been introduced. It has already been mentioned that art and music have been removed from the curriculum. That has not meant at all the disappearance of art and music in schools. Indeed, many young people are doing art and music and the performing arts in our schools. Therefore, I do not believe that there are any grounds to believe that the disappearance of history and geography as compulsory subjects will lead to the deficit about which noble Lords opposite are concerned. Accordingly, it is my view that, far from limiting breadth and balance, a much better range of options will be open to young people.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, quite rightly reminded us of what she said in 1988. But she also posed what I believe was a rhetorical question as to whether all pupils would be free to mix subjects. Not only will they be free to do so, we want to see them do just that. I see the vocational subjects coming into the curriculum and the opening up of choices for young people rather as pure and applied learning. It may be better for young people going to university to read engineering to take practical science and vocational technology while for others it may be better for students to do pure science or pure academic subjects. There is no reason why they should not mix the two and as I have said, I hope that they will do just that.

It is right for the noble Baroness to emphasise the importance of the underlying understanding in the GNVQs. We regard that as crucial. More work must be done on the GNVQs. They are not so rigorous as they should be and the quality is not quite right. A great deal is said about parity of esteem; and that must be an aim. But esteem and parity of esteem do not come from government fiat. They will develop when the qualifications are recognised to be quality qualifications and when young people know that a real impact on their understanding, knowledge and skills will be achieved by working towards those qualifications.

The noble Baroness asked about the international baccalaureate. The answer is that the most recent changes will free up time for schools to regard that as an option, and some schools are already beginning to do so. Alongside the international baccalaureate the technological baccalaureate is also being undertaken by one or two schools. Schools are also linking with and talking to the higher education institutions, in particular admissions tutors, about making sure that they are open minded when considering young people for higher education.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, was concerned about how much consultation there had been. There has been an enormous amount of consultation. If Sir Ron Dearing is known for anything in the enormous amount of work that he has done in the past year, it is for going to great lengths to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to feed into the consultative process. The conferences referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, have been taken into account and Sir Ron has drawn up the advice to my right honourable friend on the basis of all that input from the professions, from the teaching associations and from anybody who has wanted to write to him, contact him or meet him through the conferences. Therefore, I can give an absolutely unequivocal assurance in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, proffered a definition of education. I believe that he perceived that to be my definition and he felt that that was rather limiting. My view and definition of education is that it is about liberating talents in all their guises. Those talents will be different for different young people. Some people will have strength in the vocational areas and some will have strength in academic areas. We hope that there will be a good intermixing of the two which will result in the development of the vocational and intellectual abilities and skills of young people. We need a system which responds to their aptitudes as well as to their intellectual abilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to Wales. Again following extensive consultation, the Curriculum Council for Wales recommended against the inclusion of a half course minimum in technology and modern foreign languages as part of the statutory core. It took the view—and we have accepted it—that to include any more compulsory subjects would significantly restrict pupil choice at that age and it would also make it more difficult to take full advantage of the opportunities to introduce the new vocational courses for that age group. That approach has won substantial support in responses to consultations on the draft order. Given the extra subject of Welsh, there is a difference between the number of compulsory subjects at Key Stage 4 in Wales.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is concerned about disruption that may occur as a result of technology being suspended for two years. First, that was done as a result of the anxieties expressed by teachers. There will be no disruption in those schools which wish to continue and courses will remain available in the schools which choose to provide them. But some schools need more time to adjust their resources and the skills of their teachers. They need more time to prepare. Other schools wish to study in accordance with the new revised order rather than the original order. Therefore, although the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, regrets the removal of technology, I believe that he will find that there is a great deal of support for that among teachers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, referred to the "why" in relation to GNVQs. I have alluded to that in part. I agree that general national vocational qualifications must be academically rigorous and should entail an underlying understanding of what is needed. My honourable friend Mr. Boswell, the junior Minister in another place, announced recently a six-point plan which should ensure that GNVQs are high quality relevant qualifications. They must be meaningful and must be a proper educational experience for young people studying for them. We shall be vigilant in making sure that those six points are taken very seriously.

If I have omitted to deal with any points raised, I shall deal with them in writing. The order will help to streamline the national curriculum and will give schools greater freedom to offer 14 to 16 year-olds a range of academic and vocational options. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until half past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended front 8.19 to 8.30 p.m.]